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Title: Beltane the Smith
Author: Farnol, Jeffery, 1878-1952
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Beltane the Smith" ***

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BELTANE THE SMITH


BY


JEFFERY FARNOL


AUTHOR OF "THE BROAD HIGHWAY," "THE AMATEUR GENTLEMAN," ETC.

WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARTHUR E. BECHER



TO

FREDERICK HUGHSON HAWLEY

TO WHOM BELTANE IS NO STRANGER I DEDICATE THIS ROMANCE

Jeffery Farnol

London, August, 1915.



CONTENTS

      I HOW BELTANE LIVED WITHIN THE GREENWOOD

     II HOW BELTANE HAD WORD WITH THE DUKE, BLACK IVO

    III HOW LOVE CAME TO BELTANE IN THE GREENWOOD

     IV OF THE LOVE AND THE GRIEF OF HELEN THE PROUD

      V WHICH TELLS OF THE STORY OF AMBROSE THE HERMIT

     VI HOW BELTANE FARED FORTH OF THE GREEN

    VII HOW BELTANE TALKED WITH ONE HIGHT GILES BRABBLECOMBE, WHO WAS
      A NOTABLE AND LEARNED ARCHER

   VIII HOW BELTANE HELD DISCOURSE WITH A BLACK FRIAR

     IX WHEREIN IS SOME ACCOUNT OF THE PHILOSOPHY OF FOLLY AND THE
      WISDOM OF A FOOL

      X HOW BELTANE MADE COMRADE ONE BLACK ROGER THAT WAS A HANGMAN

     XI WHICH TELLS HOW THREE MIGHTY MEN SWARE FEALTY TO BELTANE: AND
      HOW GOOD FRIAR MARTIN DIGGED A GRAVE IN THE WILD

    XII WHICH TELLS HOW DUKE IVO'S GREAT GALLOWS CEASED TO BE

   XIII HOW THEY BRAKE OPE THE DUNGEON OF BELSAYE

    XIV HOW BELTANE CAME NIGH TO DEATH

     XV HOW BELTANE HAD WORD WITH PERTOLEPE THE RED, AND HOW THEY
      LEFT HIM IN THE FOREST

    XVI OF THE RUEFUL KNIGHT OF THE BURNING HEART

   XVII OF THE AMBUSHMENT NEAR THORNABY MILL

  XVIII HOW BELTANE MET SIR GILLES OF BRANDONMERE

    XIX CONCERNING THE EYES OF A NUN

     XX HOW BELTANE PLIGHTED HIS TROTH IN THE GREEN

    XXI OF THE TALE OF GODRIC THE HUNTSMAN

   XXII CONCERNING THE WILES OF WINFRIDA THE FAIR

  XXIII OF THE HUMILITY OF HELEN THE PROUD

   XXIV OF WHAT BEFELL AT BLAEN

    XXV HOW BELTANE BECAME CAPTIVE TO SIR PERTOLEPE

   XXVI OF THE HORRORS OF GARTHLAXTON KEEP, AND HOW A DEVIL ENTERED
      INTO BELTANE

  XXVII HOW BELTANE TOOK TO THE WILD-WOOD

 XXVIII OF THE PLACE OF REFUGE WITHIN THE GREEN

   XXIX HOW BELTANE SLEW TOSTIG AND SPAKE WITH THE WILD MEN

    XXX HOW THEY SMOTE GARTHLAXTON

   XXXI HOW GILES MADE A MERRY SONG

  XXXII HOW BELTANE MET WITH A YOUTHFUL KNIGHT

 XXXIII HOW BELTANE HAD NEWS OF ONE THAT WAS A NOTABLE PARDONER

  XXXIV HOW THEY CAME TO BELSAYE

   XXXV HOW GUI OF ALLERDALE CEASED FROM EVIL

  XXXVI HOW THE FOLK OF BELSAYE TOWN MADE THEM AN END OF TYRANNY

 XXXVII HOW THEY LEFT BELSAYE

 XXXVIII OF BELTANE'S BLACK AND EVIL MOOD, AND HOW HE FELL IN WITH THE
     WITCH OF HANGSTONE WASTE

   XXXIX HOW BELTANE FOUGHT FOR ONE MELLENT THAT WAS A WITCH

      XL FURTHER CONCERNING THE MAID MELLENT; AND OF THE HUE AND CRY

     XLI HOW THEY RODE INTO THE WILDERNESS

    XLII HOW BELTANE DREAMED IN THE WILD-WOOD

   XLIII HOW BELTANE KNEW GREAT HUMILITY

    XLIV HOW A MADNESS CAME UPON BELTANE IN THE WILD-WOOD

     XLV HOW BLACK ROGER TAUGHT BELTANE GREAT WISDOM

    XLVI HOW BLACK ROGER PRAYED IN THE DAWN: AND HOW HIS PRAYERS WERE
      ANSWERED

   XLVII HOW BELTANE SWARE AN OATH

  XLVIII HOW BELTANE SET OUT FOR HANGSTONE WASTE

    XLIX HOW BELTANE FOUND PEACE AND A GREAT SORROW

       L TELLETH HOW BELTANE WENT FORTH TO HIS DUTY

      LI HOW BLACK ROGER WON TO FULLER MANHOOD

     LII HOW THEY HAD NEWS OF WALKYN

    LIII OF JOLETTE, THAT WAS A WITCH

     LIV HOW BELTANE FOUGHT WITH A DOUGHTY STRANGER

      LV HOW THEY MARCHED FOR WINISFARNE

     LVI WHAT THEY FOUND AT WINISFARNE

    LVII TELLETH OF THE ONFALL AT BRAND

   LVIII HOW BELTANE HAD SPEECH WITH THE ABBESS

     LIX TELLETH HOW SIR BENEDICT WENT A-FISHING

      LX TELLETH HOW THEY MARCHED FROM THE VALLEY OF BRAND

     LXI HOW THE FOREST FOUGHT FOR THEM

    LXII HOW THEY CAME TO BELSAYE FOR THE THIRD TIME

   LXIII TELLETH SOMEWHAT OF THE WOES OF GILES O' THE BOW

    LXIV HOW GILES CURSED BELSAYE OUR OF HER FEAR

     LXV TELLETH OF ROSES

    LXVI CONCERNING A BLUE CAMLET CLOAK

   LXVII TELLETH WHAT BEFELL IN THE REEVE'S GARDEN

  LXVIII FRIAR MARTIN'S DYING PROPHECY

    LXIX HOW AT LAST THEY CAME TO PENTAVALON CITY

     LXX WHICH SPEAKETH FOR ITSELF



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS

Thus Helen the Proud, the Beautiful, yielded her lips to his

Now did she look on him 'neath drooping lash, sweet-eyed and languorous

Beltane stood up armed in shining mail from head to foot

So came Winfrida, and falling on her knee gave the goblet into her
lady's hand

She stared and stared beyond Sir Gui, to behold one clad as a dusty
miller

Her eyes swept him with look calm and most dispassionate



BELTANE THE SMITH



CHAPTER I

HOW BELTANE LIVED WITHIN THE GREENWOOD


In a glade of the forest, yet not so far but that one might hear the
chime of bells stealing across the valley from the great minster of
Mortain on a still evening, dwelt Beltane the Smith.

Alone he lived in the shadow of the great trees, happy when the piping
of the birds was in his ears, and joying to listen to the plash and
murmur of the brook that ran merrily beside his hut; or pausing 'twixt
the strokes of his ponderous hammer to catch its never failing music.

A mighty man was Beltane the Smith, despite his youth already great of
stature and comely of feature. Much knew he of woodcraft, of the growth
of herb and tree and flower, of beast and bird, and how to tell each by
its cry or song or flight; he knew the ways of fish in the streams, and
could tell the course of the stars in the heavens; versed was he
likewise in the ancient wisdoms and philosophies, both Latin and Greek,
having learned all these things from him whom men called Ambrose the
Hermit. But of men and cities he knew little, and of women and the
ways of women, less than nothing, for of these matters Ambrose spake
not.

Thus, being grown from youth to manhood, for that a man must needs
live, Beltane builded him a hut beside the brook, and set up an anvil
thereby whereon he beat out bill-hooks and axe-heads and such
implements as the charcoal-burners and they that lived within the green
had need of.

Oft-times, of an evening, he would seek out the hermit Ambrose, and
they would talk together of many things, but seldom of men and cities,
and never of women and the ways of women. Once, therefore, wondering,
Beltane had said:

"My father, amongst all these matters you speak never of women and the
ways of women, though history is full of their doings, and all poets
sing praise of their wondrous beauty, as this Helena of Troy, whom men
called 'Desire of the World.'"

But Ambrose sighed and shook his head, saying:

"Art thou indeed a man, so soon, my Beltane?" and so sat watching him
awhile. Anon he rose and striding to and fro spake sudden and
passionate on this wise: "Beltane, I tell thee the beauty of women is
an evil thing, a lure to wreck the souls of men. By woman came sin
into the world, by her beauty she blinds the eyes of men to truth and
honour, leading them into all manner of wantonness whereby their very
manhood is destroyed. This Helen of Troy, of whom ye speak, was nought
but a vile adulteress, with a heart false and foul, by whose sin many
died and Troy town was utterly destroyed."

"Alas!" sighed Beltane, "that one so fair should be a thing so evil!"

Thereafter he went his way, very sad and thoughtful, and that night,
lying upon his bed, he heard the voices of the trees sighing and
murmuring one to another like souls that sorrowed for sin's sake, and
broken dreams and ideals.

"Alas! that one so fair should be a thing so evil!" But, above the
whispers of the trees, loud and insistent rose the merry chatter of the
brook speaking to him of many things; of life, and the lust of life;
the pomp and stir of cities; the sound of song and laughter; of women
and the beauty of women, and of the sweet, mad wonder of love. Of all
these things the brook sang in the darkness, and Beltane sighed, and
sighing, fell asleep.

Thus lived my Beltane in the woodland, ranging the forest with eye
quick to see the beauty of earth and sky, and ear open to the thousand
voices around him; or, busied at his anvil, hearkening to the wondrous
tales of travel and strange adventure told by wandering knight and
man-at-arms the while, with skilful hand, he mended broken mail or dented
casque; and thereafter, upon the mossy sward, would make trial of their
strength and valour, whereby he both took and gave right lusty knocks;
or again, when work failed, he would lie upon the grass, chin on fist,
poring over some ancient legend, or sit with brush and colours,
illuminating on vellum, wherein right cunning was he. Now it chanced
that as he sat thus, brush in hand, upon a certain fair afternoon, he
suddenly espied one who stood watching him from the shade of a tree,
near by. A very tall man he was, long and lean and grim of aspect, with
a mouth wry-twisted by reason of an ancient sword-cut, and yet, withal,
he had a jovial eye. But now, seeing himself observed, he shook his
grizzled head and sighed. Whereat said Beltane, busied with his brush
again:

"Good sir, pray what's amiss?"

"The world, youth, the world--'tis all amiss. Yet mark me! here sit you
a-dabbing colour with a little brush!"

Answered Beltane: "An so ye seek to do your duty as regardfully as I
now daub this colour, messire, in so much shall the world be bettered."

"My duty, youth," quoth the stranger, rasping a hand across his
grizzled chin, "my duty? Ha, 'tis well said, so needs must I now fight
with thee."

"Fight with me!" says Beltane, his keen gaze upon the speaker.

"Aye, verily!" nodded the stranger, and, forthwith, laying by his long
cloak, he showed two swords whose broad blades glittered, red and evil,
in the sunset.

"But," says Beltane, shaking his head, "I have no quarrel with thee,
good fellow."

"Quarrel?" exclaimed the stranger, "no quarrel, quotha? What matter for
that? Surely you would not forego a good bout for so small a matter?
Doth a man eat only when famishing, or drink but to quench his thirst?
Out upon thee, messire smith!"

"But sir," said Beltane, bending to his brush again, "an I should fight
with thee, where would be the reason?"

"Nowhere, youth, since fighting is ever at odds with reason; yet for
such unreasonable reasons do reasoning men fight."

"None the less, I will not fight thee," answered Beltane, deftly
touching in the wing of an archangel, "so let there be an end on't."

"End forsooth, we have not yet begun! An you must have a quarrel, right
fully will I provoke thee, since fight with thee I must, it being so my
duty--"

"How thy duty?"

"I am so commanded."

"By whom?"

"By one who, being dead, yet liveth. Nay, ask no names, yet mark me
this--the world's amiss, boy. Pentavalon groans beneath a black
usurper's heel, all the sins of hell are loose, murder and riot, lust
and rapine. March you eastward but a day through the forest yonder and
you shall see the trees bear strange fruit in our country. The world's
amiss, messire, yet here sit you wasting your days, a foolish brush
stuck in thy fist. So am I come, nor will I go hence until I have tried
thy mettle."

Quoth Beltane, shaking his head, intent upon his work:

"You speak me riddles, sir."

"Yet can I speak thee to the point and so it be thy wish, as thus--now
mark me, boy! Thou art a fool, a dog, a fatuous ass, a slave, a
nincompoop, a cowardly boy, and as such--mark me again!--now do I spit
at thee!"

Hereupon Beltane, having finished the archangel's wing, laid by his
brush and, with thoughtful mien, arose, and being upon his feet, turned
him, swift and sudden, and caught the stranger in a fierce and cunning
wrestling grip, and forthwith threw him upon his back. Whereat this
strange man, sitting cross-legged upon the sward, smiled his wry and
twisted smile and looked upon Beltane with bright, approving eye.

"A pretty spirit!" he nodded. "'Tis a sweet and gentle youth all good
beef and bone; a little green as yet, perchance, but 'tis no matter. A
mighty arm, a noble thigh, and shoulders--body o' me! But 'tis in the
breed. Young sir, by these same signs and portents my soul is uplifted
and hope singeth a new song within me!" So saying, the stranger sprang
nimbly to his feet and catching up one of the swords took it by the
blade and gave its massy hilt to Beltane's hand. Said he:

"Look well upon this blade, young sir; in duchy, kingdom or county you
shall not find its match, nor the like of the terrible hand that bore
it. Time was when this good steel--mark how it glitters yet!--struck
deep for liberty and justice and all fair things, before whose might
oppression quailed and hung its head, and in whose shadow peace and
mercy rested. 'Twas long ago, but this good steel is bright and
undimmed as ever. Ha! mark it, boy--those eyes o' thine shall ne'er
behold its equal!"

So Beltane took hold upon the great sword, felt the spring and balance
of the blade and viewed it up from glittering point to plain and simple
cross-guard. And thus, graven deep within the broad steel he read this
word:

RESURGAM.

"Ha!" cried the stranger, "see you the legend, good youth? Speak me now
what it doth signify."

And Beltane answered:

"'I shall arise!'"

"'Arise' good boy, aye, verily, mark me that. 'Tis a fair thought, look
you, and the motto of a great and noble house, and, by the Rood, I
think, likewise a prophecy!" Thus speaking the stranger stooped, and
taking up the other sword faced Beltane therewith, saying in soft and
wheedling tones: "Come now, let us fight together thou and I, and deny
me not, lest,--mark me this well, youth,--lest I spit at thee again."

Then he raised his sword, and smote Beltane with the flat of it, and
the blow stung, wherefore Beltane instinctively swung his weapon and
thrilled with sudden unknown joy at the clash of steel on steel; and
so they engaged.

And there, within the leafy solitude, Beltane and the stranger fought
together. The long blades whirled and flashed and rang upon the
stillness; and ever, as they fought, the stranger smiled his wry smile,
mocking and gibing at him, whereat Beltane's mouth grew the grimmer and
his blows the heavier, yet wherever he struck, there already was the
stranger's blade to meet him, whereat the stranger laughed fierce and
loud, taunting him on this wise:

"How now, thou dauber of colours, betake thee to thy little brush,
belike it shall serve thee better! Aye me, betake thee to thy little
brush, 'twere better fitted to thee than a noble sword, thou daubing
boy!"

Now did my Beltane wax wroth indeed and smote amain until his breath
grew short and thick, but ever steel rang on steel, and ever the
stranger laughed and gibed until Beltane's strokes grew slower:--then,
with a sudden fierce shout, did the stranger beset my Beltane with
strokes so swift and strong, now to right of him, now to left, that the
very air seemed full of flaming, whirling steel, and, in that moment,
as Beltane gave back, the stranger smote thrice in as many moments with
the flat of his blade, once upon the crown, once upon the shoulder, and
once upon the thigh. Fierce eyed and scant of breath, Beltane
redoubled his blows, striving to beat his mocker to the earth, whereat
he but laughed again, saying:

"Look to thy long legs, dullard!" and forthwith smote Beltane upon the
leg. "Now thine arm, slothful boy--thy left arm!" and he smote Beltane
upon the arm. "Now thy sconce, boy, thy mazzard, thy sleepy, golden
head!" and straightway he smote him on the head, and, thereafter, with
sudden, cunning stroke, beat the great sword from Beltane's grip, and
so, laughing yet, paused and stood leaning upon his own long weapon.

But Beltane stood with bent head, hurt in his pride, angry and beyond
all thought amazed; yet, being humbled most of all he kept his gaze
bent earthwards and spake no word.

Now hereupon the stranger grew solemn likewise and looked at Beltane
with kindly, approving eyes.

"Nay, indeed," quoth he, "be not abashed, good youth; take it not amiss
that I have worsted thee. 'Tis true, had I been so minded I might have
cut thee into gobbets no larger than thy little brush, but then, body
o' me! I have lived by stroke of sword from my youth up and have fought
in divers wars and countries, so take it not to heart, good youth!"
With the word he nodded and, stooping, took up the sword, and,
thereafter, cast his cloak about him, whereat Beltane lifted his head
and spake:

"Art going, sir? Wilt not try me once again? Methinks I might do a
little better this time, an so God wills."

"Aye, so thou shalt, sweet youth," cried the stranger, clapping him
upon the shoulder, "yet not now, for I must begone, yet shall I
return."

"Then I pray you leave with me the sword till you be come again."

"The sword--ha! doth thy soul cleave unto it so soon, my good, sweet
boy? Leave the sword, quotha? Aye, truly--some day. But for the nonce--
no, no, thy hand is not fitted to bear it yet, nor worthy such a blade,
but some day, belike--who knows? Fare thee well, sweet youth, I come
again to-morrow."

And so the tall, grim stranger turned him about, smiling his wry smile,
and strode away through the green. Then Beltane went back, minded to
finish his painting, but the colours had lost their charm for him,
moreover, the light was failing. Wherefore he put brushes and colours
aside, and, stripping, plunged into the cool, sweet waters of a certain
quiet pool, and so, much heartened and refreshed thereby, went betimes
to bed. But now he thought no more of women and the ways of women, but
rather of this stranger man, of his wry smile and of his wondrous
sword-play; and bethinking him of the great sword, he yearned after
it, as only youth may yearn, and so, sighing, fell asleep. And in his
dreams all night was the rushing thunder of many fierce feet and the
roaring din of bitter fight and conflict.

       *       *       *       *       *

Up to an elbow sprang Beltane to find the sun new risen, filling his
humble chamber with its golden glory, and, in this radiance, upon the
open threshold, the tall, grim figure of the stranger.

"Messire," quoth Beltane, rubbing sleepy eyes, "you wake betimes,
meseemeth."

"Aye, sluggard boy; there is work to do betwixt us." "How so, sir?"

"My time in the greenwood groweth short; within the week I must away,
for there are wars and rumours of wars upon the borders."

Quoth Beltane, wondering:

"War and conflict have been within my dreams all night!"

"Dreams, boy! I tell thee the time groweth ripe for action--and, mark
me this! wherein, perchance, thou too shalt share, yet much have I to
teach thee first, so rise, slug-a-bed, rise!"

Now when Beltane was risen and clad he folded his arms across his broad
chest and stared upon the stranger with grave, deep-searching eyes.

"Who art thou?" he questioned, "and what would you here again?"

"As to thy first question, sir smith, 'tis no matter for that, but as
for thy second, to-day am I come to teach thee the use and manage of
horse and lance, it being so my duty."

"And wherefore thy duty?"

"For that I am so commanded."

"By whom?"

"By one who yet liveth, being dead."

Now Beltane frowned at this, and shook his head, saying:

"More riddles, messire? Yet now will I speak thee plain, as thus: I am
a smith, and have no lust to strife or knightly deeds, nor will I e'er
attempt them, for strife begetteth bitter strife and war is an evil
thing. 'They that trust to the sword shall perish by the sword,' 'tis
so written, and is, meseemeth, a faithful saying. This sorry world hath
known over much of war and hate, of strife and bloodshed, so shall
these my hands go innocent of more."

Then indeed did the stranger stare with jaws agape for wonder at my
Beltane's saying, and, so staring, turned him to the door and back
again, and fain would speak, yet could not for a while. Then:

"Besotted boy!" he cried. "O craven youth! O babe! O suckling! Was it
for this thou wert begot? Hast thou no bowels, no blood, no manhood?
Forsooth, and must I spit on thee indeed?"

"And so it be thy will, messire," said Beltane, steady-eyed.

But as they stood thus, Beltane with arms yet crossed, his lips
up-curving at the other's fierce amaze, the stranger grim-faced and
frowning, came a shadow athwart the level glory of the sun, and,
turning, Beltane beheld the hermit Ambrose, tall and spare beneath his
tattered gown, bareheaded and bare of foot, whose eyes were bright and
quick, despite the snow of hair and beard, and in whose gentle face and
humble mien was yet a high and noble look at odds with his lowly guise
and tattered vesture; at sight of whom the grim-faced stranger, of a
sudden, bowed his grizzled head and sank upon his knee.

"Lord!" he said, and kissed the hermit's long, coarse robe. Whereon the
hermit bent and touched him with a gentle hand.

"_Benedicite_, my son!" said he. "Go you, and leave us together a
while."

Forthwith the stranger rose from his knee and went out into the glory
of the morning. Then the hermit came to Beltane and set his two hands
upon his mighty shoulders and spake to him very gently, on this wise:

"Thou knowest, my Beltane, how all thy days I have taught thee to love
all fair, and sweet, and noble things, for they are of God. 'Twere a
fair thought, now, to live out thy life here, within these calm, leafy
solitudes--but better death by the sword for some high, unselfish
purpose, than to live out a life of ease, safe and cloistered all thy
days. To live for thine own ends--'tis human; to die for some great
cause, for liberty, or for another's good--that, my son, were God-like.
And there was a Man of Sorrows Whose word was this, that He came
'not to bring peace on this earth, but a sword.' For good cannot
outface evil but strife must needs follow. Behold now here another
sword, my Beltane; keep it henceforth so long as thou keep honour." So
saying, Ambrose the Hermit took from beneath his habit that for which
Beltane had yearned, that same great blade whereon whose steel was
graven the legend:

RESURGAM.

So Ambrose put the sword in Beltane's hand, saying:

"Be terrible, my son, that evil may flee before thee, learn to be
strong that thou may'st be merciful." Then the hermit stretched forth
his hands and blessed my Beltane, and turned about, and so was gone.

But Beltane stood awhile to swing the great blade lightly to and fro
and to stare upon it with shining eyes. Then, having hid it within his
bed, he went forth into the glade. And here he presently beheld a great
grey horse tethered to a tree hard by, a mettled steed that tossed its
noble head and snuffed the fragrant air of morning, pawing at the earth
with impatient hoof. Now, as he stood gazing, came the stranger and
touched him on the arm.

"Messire," said he, "try an thou canst back the steed yonder."

Beltane smiled, for he had loved horses all his days, and loosing the
horse, led it out into the open and would have mounted, but the
spirited beast, knowing him not, reared and plunged and strove to break
the grip upon the bridle, but the grip was strong and compelling; then
Beltane soothed him with gentle voice and hand, and, of a sudden,
vaulted lightly into the saddle, and being there, felt the great beast
rear under him, and, laughing joyously, struck him with open palm and
set off at a thunderous gallop. Away, away they sped up the sunny
glade, past oak and beech and elm, through light and shadow, until
before them showed a tree of vast girth and mighty spread of branches.
Now would Beltane have reined aside, but the great horse, ears flat and
eyes rolling, held blindly on. Then Beltane frowned and leaning
forward, seized the bridle close beside the bit, and gripping it so,
put forth his strength. Slowly, slowly the great, fierce head was drawn
low and lower, the foam-flecked jaws gaped wide, but Beltane's grip
grew ever the fiercer until, snorting, panting, wild-eyed, the great
grey horse faltered in his stride, checked his pace, slipped, stumbled,
and so stood quivering in the shade of the tree. Thereafter Beltane
turned him and, galloping back, drew rein where the stranger sat,
cross-legged, watching him with his wry smile.

"Aye," he nodded, "we shall make of thee a horseman yet. But as to
lance now, and armour--"

Quoth Beltane, smiling:

"Good sir, I am a smith, and in my time have mended many a suit of
mail, aye, and made them too, though 'twas but to try my hand. As for a
lance, I have oft tilted at the ring astride a forest pony, and
betimes, have run a course with wandering men-at-arms."

"Say you so, boy?" said the stranger, and rising, took from behind a
tree a long and heavy lance and thrust it into Beltane's grip; then,
drawing his sword, he set it upright in the sward, and upon the hilt he
put his cap, saying:

"Ride back up the glade, and try an thou canst pick up my cap on thy
point, at a gallop." So Beltane rode up the glade and wheeling at a
distance, came galloping down with levelled lance, and thundered by
with the cap fluttering from his lance point.

"Art less of a dullard than I thought thee," said the stranger, taking
back his cap, "though, mark me boy, 'tis another matter to ride against
a man fully armed and equipped, lance to lance and shield to shield,
than to charge a harmless, ancient leathern cap. Still, art less of a
dullard than I thought thee. But there is the sword, now--with the
sword thou art indeed but a sorry fool! Go fetch the sword and I will
e'en belabor thee again."

So Beltane, lighting down from the horse that reared and plunged no
more, went and fetched the great sword; and when they had laid their
jerkins by (for the sun was hot) they faced each other, foot to foot
and eye to eye. Then once again the long blades whirled and flew and
rang together, and once again the stranger laughed and gibed and struck
my Beltane how and where he would, nor gave him stay or respite till
Beltane's mighty arm grew aweary and his shoulder ached and burned;
then, when he recked not of it, the stranger, with the same cunning
stroke, beat the sword from Beltane's hand, and laughed aloud and
wagged his head, saying:

"Art faint, boy, and scant o' breath already? Methinks we ne'er shall
make of thee a lusty sworder!" But beholding Beltane's flushing cheek
and drooping eye, reached out and clapped him on the shoulder.

"Go to!" cried he, "art young and all unlearned as yet--heed not my
gibes and quirks, 'tis ever so my custom when steel is ringing, and
mark me, I do think it a good custom, as apt to put a man off his ward
and flurry him in his stroke. Never despair, youth, for I tell thee,
north and south, and east and west my name is known, nor shall you find
in any duchy, kingdom or county, a sworder such as I. For, mark me now!
your knight and man-at-arms, trusting to his armour, doth use his sword
but to thrust and smite. But--and mark me again, boy! a man cannot go
ever in his armour, nor yet be sure when foes are nigh, and, at all
times, 'tis well to make thy weapon both sword and shield; 'tis a
goodly art, indeed I think a pretty one. Come now, take up thy sword
and I will teach thee all my strokes and show thee how 'tis done."

Thus then, this stranger dwelt the week with Beltane in the greenwood,
teaching him, day by day, tricks of sword and much martial lore beside.
And, day by day, a friendship waxed and grew betwixt them so that upon
the seventh morning, as they broke their fast together, Beltane's heart
was heavy and his look downcast; whereat the stranger spake him thus:

"Whence thy dole, good youth?"

"For that to-day needs must I part with thee."

"And thy friends are few, belike?"

"None, messire," answered Beltane, sighing.

"Aye me! And yet 'tis well enough, for--mark me, youth!--friends be
ofttimes a mixed blessing. As for me, 'tis true I am thy friend and so
shall ever be, so long as you shall bear yon goodly blade."

"And wherefore?" questioned Beltane.

"Moreover thou art my scholar, and like, perchance, to prove thyself,
some day, a notable sworder and a sweet and doughty fighter, belike."

"Yet hast never spoken me thy name, messire."

"Why, hast questioned me but once, and then thou wert something of a
blockhead dreamer, methought. But now, messire Beltane, since thou
would'st know--Benedict of Bourne am I called."

Now hereupon Beltane rose and stood upon his feet, staring wide-eyed at
this grim-faced stranger who, with milk-bowl at lip, paused to smile
his wry smile. "Aha!" said he, "hast heard such a name ere now, even
here in the greenwood?"

"Sir," answered Beltane, "betimes I have talked with soldiers and
men-at-arms, so do I know thee for that same great knight who, of all the
nobles of Pentavalon, doth yet withstand the great Duke Ivo--"

"Call you that black usurper 'great,' youth? Body o' me! I knew a
greater, once, methinks!"

"Aye," nodded Beltane, "there was him men called 'Beltane the Strong.'"

"Ha!" quoth Sir Benedict, setting down his milk-bowl, "what know you
of Duke Beltane?"

"Nought but that he was a great and lusty fighter who yet loved peace
and mercy, but truth and justice most of all."

"And to-day," sighed Sir Benedict, "to-day we have Black Ivo! Aye me!
these be sorry days for Pentavalon. 'Tis said he woos the young Duchess
yonder. Hast ever seen Helen of Mortain, sir smith?"

"Nay, but I've heard tell that she is wondrous fair."

"Hum!" quoth Sir Benedict, "I love not your red-haired spit-fires.
Methinks, an Ivo win her, she'll lead him how she will, or be broke in
the adventure--a malison upon him, be it how it may!"

So, having presently made an end of eating, Sir Benedict arose and
forthwith donned quilted gambeson, and thereafter his hauberk of bright
mail and plain surcoat, and buckling his sword about him, strode into
the glade where stood the great grey horse. Now, being mounted, Sir
Benedict stayed awhile to look down at Beltane, whiles Beltane looked
up at him.

"Messire Beltane," said he, pointing to his scarred cheek, "you look
upon my scar, I think?"

Quoth Beltane, flushing hot:

"Nay, sir; in truth, not I."

"Why look now, sweet youth, 'tis a scar that likes me well, though
'twas in no battle I took it, yet none the less, I would not be without
it. By this I may be known among a thousand. 'Benedict o' the Mark,'
some call me, and 'tis, methinks, as fair a name as any. But look now,
and mark me this well, Beltane,--should any come to thee within the
green, by day or night, and say to thee, 'Benedict o' the Mark bids
thee arise and follow,'--then follow, messire, and so, peradventure,
thou shalt arise indeed. Dost mark me well, youth?"

"Aye, Sir Benedict."

"Heigho!" sighed Sir Benedict, "thou'rt a fair sized babe to bear
within a cloak, and thou hast been baptized in blood ere now--and there
be more riddles for thee, boy, and so, until we meet, fare thee well,
messire Beltane!"

So saying, Sir Benedict of Bourne smiled his twisted smile and,
wheeling his horse, rode away down the glade, his mail glistening in
the early light and his lance point winking and twinkling amid the
green.



CHAPTER II

HOW BELTANE HAD WORD WITH THE DUKE, BLACK IVO


Now it fell out upon a day, that as Beltane strode the forest ways,
there met him a fine cavalcade, gay with the stir of broidered
petticoat and ermined mantle; and, pausing beneath a tree, he stood to
hearken to the soft, sweet voices of the ladies and to gaze enraptured
upon their varied beauty. Foremost of all rode a man richly habited, a
man of great strength and breadth of shoulder, and of a bearing high
and arrogant. His face, framed in long black hair that curled to meet
his shoulder, was of a dark and swarthy hue, fierce looking and
masterful by reason of prominent chin and high-arched nose, and of his
thin-lipped, relentless mouth. Black were his eyes and bold; now
staring bright and wide, now glittering 'twixt heavy, narrowed lids;
yet when he smiled they glittered brightest, and his lips showed
moistly red. Beside him rode a lady of a wondrous dark beauty, sleepy
eyed and languid; yet her glance was quick to meet the Duke's bold
look, and, 'neath her mantle, her fingers met, once in a while, and
clung with his, what time his red lips would smile; but, for the most
part, his brow was gloomy and he fingered his chin as one in thought.

As he paced along upon his richly caparisoned steed, pinching at his
long, blue-shaven chin with supple fingers, his heavy brows drawn low,
of a sudden his narrowed lids widened and his eyes gleamed bright and
black as they beheld my Beltane standing in the shade of the tree.

"Aha!" said he, drawing rein, "what insolent, long-legged rogue art
thou, to stand gaping at thy betters?"

And Beltane answered:

"No rogue, messire, but an honest man, I pray God, whom folk call
Beltane the Smith."

The staring eyes grew suddenly narrow, the scarlet mouth curled in a
slow smile, and the tall man spake, yet with his gaze bent ever upon
Beltane:

"Fair lords," he said, "and you, most sweet and gentle ladies, our
sport hath been but poor, hitherto--methinks I can show you a better,
'tis a game we play full oft in my country. Would that our gracious
lady of Mortain were here, nor had balked us of her wilful company. Ho!
Gefroi!" he called, "come you and break me the back of this 'honest'
rogue." And straightway came one from the rear, where rode the servants
and men-at-arms, a great, bronzed fellow, bearded to the eyes of him,
loosing his sword-belt as he came; who, having tossed aside cap and
pourpoint, strode toward Beltane, his eyes quick and bright, his teeth
agleam through the hair of his beard.

"Come, thou forest rogue," said he, "my lord Duke loveth not to wait
for man or maid, so--have at thee!"

Great he looked and tall as Beltane's self, a hairy man of mighty girth
with muscles that swelled on arm and breast and rippled upon his back.
Thus, as he stood and laughed, grimly confident and determined, not a
few were they who sighed for Beltane for his youth's sake, and because
of his golden curls and gentle eyes, for this Gefroi was accounted a
very strong man, and a matchless wrestler withal.

"'Tis a fair match, how think you, Sir Jocelyn?" said the Duke, and
turned him to one who rode at his elbow; a youthful, slender figure
with long curled hair and sleepy eyes, "a fair match, Sir Jocelyn?"

"In very sooth, sweet my lord, gramercy and by your gracious leave--not
so," sighed Sir Jocelyn. "This Gefroi o' thine is a rare breaker of
necks and hath o'er-thrown all the wrestlers in the three duchies; a
man is he, set in his strength and experienced, but this forester, tall
though he be, is but a beardless youth."

The Duke smiled his slow smile, his curving nostrils quivered and were
still, and he glanced toward Sir Jocelyn through veiling lids. Quoth
he:

"Art, rather, for a game of ball, messire, or a song upon a lute?" So
saying he turned and signed to Gefroi with his finger; as for Sir
Jocelyn, he only curled a lock of his long hair, and hummed beneath his
breath.

Now Beltane, misliking the matter, would fain have gone upon his way,
but wheresoever he turned, there Gefroi was also, barring his path,
wherefore Beltane's eye kindled and he raised his staff threateningly.

"Fellow," quoth he, "stand from my way, lest I mischief thee."

But Gefroi only laughed and looked to his lord, who, beckoning an
archer, bid him lay an arrow to his string.

"Shoot me the cowardly rogue so soon as he turn his back," said he,
whereat Gefroi laughed again, wagging his head.

"Come, forest knave," quoth he, "I know a trick to snap thy neck so
sweetly shalt never know, I warrant thee. Come, 'twill take but a
moment, and my lord begins to lack of patience."

So Beltane laid by his staff, and tightening his girdle, faced the
hairy Gefroi; and there befell that, the which, though you shall find
no mention of it in any chronicle, came much to be talked of
thereafter; so that a ballade was writ of it the which beginneth thus:

  'Beltane wrestled in the green
   With a mighty man,
   A goodlier bout was never seen
   Since the world began,'

While Beltane was tightening his girdle, swift and sudden Gefroi
closed, pinning his arms in a cunning hold, and thrice he swung my
Beltane from his feet so that many clapped their hands the while the
squires and men-at-arms shouted lustily. Only Sir Jocelyn curled the
lock of hair upon his finger and was silent.

To him quoth my lord Duke, smiling:

"Messire, an you be in a mind to wager now, I will lay you this my roan
stallion 'gainst that suit of triple mail you won at Dunismere joust,
that Gefroi breaks thy forester's back within two falls--how say you?"

"Sweet my lord, it liketh me beyond telling, thy roan is a peerless
beast!" sighed Sir Jocelyn, and so fell once more to humming his song
beneath his breath.

Now Beltane had wrestled oft with strangers in the greenwood and had
learned many cunning and desperate holds; moreover, he had learned to
bide his time; thus, though Gefroi's iron muscles yet pinned his arms,
he waited, calm-eyed but with every nerve a-quiver, for that moment
when Gefroi's vicious grip should slacken.

To and fro the wrestlers swayed, knee to knee and breast to breast,
fierce and silent and grim. As hath been said, this Gefroi was a very
cunning fellow, and once and twice, he put forth all his strength
seeking to use a certain cruel trick whereby many a goodly man had died
ere now; but once, and twice, the hold was foiled, yet feebly and as
though by chance, and Gefroi wondered; a third time he essayed it
therefore, but, in that moment, sudden and fierce and strong, Beltane
twisted in his loosened grasp, found at last the deadly hold he sought,
and Gefroi wondered no more, for about him was a painful grip that grew
ever tighter and more relentless. Now Gefroi's breath grew short and
laboured, the muscles stood out on his writhing body in knotted cords,
but ever that cruel grip grew more deadly, crushing his spirit and
robbing him of his wonted strength. And those about them watched that
mighty struggle, hushed for wonder of it; even Sir Jocelyn had forgot
his lock of hair, and hummed no more.

For, desperately though he fought and struggled, they saw Gefroi's
great body was bending slowly backward; his eyes stared up, wild and
bloodshot, into the fierce, set face above him; swaying now, he saw the
wide ring of faces, the quiver of leaves and the blue beyond, all a-swim
through the mist of Beltane's yellow hair, and then, writhing in
his anguish, he turned and buried his teeth in Beltane's naked arm, and
with a cunning twist, broke from that deadly grip and staggered free.

Straightway the air was full of shouts and cries, some praising, some
condemning, while Gefroi stood with hanging arms and panted. But
Beltane looking upon his hurt, laughed, short and fierce, and as Gefroi
came upon him, stooped and caught him below the loins. Then Beltane the
strong, the mighty, put forth his strength and, whirling Gefroi aloft,
hurled him backwards over his shoulder. So Gefroi the wrestler fell,
and lay with hairy arms wide-tossed as one that is dead, and for a
space no man spake for the wonder of it.

"By all the Saints, but 'twas a mighty throw!" sighed Sir Jocelyn,
"though alack! sweet my lord, 'twould almost seem my forester hath
something spoiled thy wrestler!"

"And is the roan stallion thine" frowned the Duke, "and to none would I
lose him with a fairer grace, for 'twas a good bout as I foretold: yet,
by the head of St. Martin! meseemeth yon carrion might have done me
better!" So saying, my lord Duke gave his horse the spur and, as he
passed the prostrate form of Gefroi, leaned him down and smote the
wrestler thrice with the whip he held and so rode on, bidding his
followers let him lie.

But Sir Jocelyn paused to look down at Beltane, who was setting his
dress in order.

"Sir forester, thou hast a mighty arm," quoth he, "and thy face liketh
me well. Here's for thee," and tossing a purse to Beltane's feet, he
rode upon his way.

So the gay cavalcade passed 'neath the leafy arches, with the jingle of
bridle and stirrup and the sound of jest and laughter, and was
presently lost amid the green; only Gefroi the wrestler lay there upon
his back and groaned. Then came Beltane and knelt and took his heavy
head upon his knee, whereat Gefroi opened his eyes and groaned again.

"Good fellow," said Beltane, "I had not meant to throw thee so heavily--"

"Nay, forester, would it had been a little harder, for a ruined man am
I this day."

"How so--have you not life?"

"I would 'twere death. And I bit you--in the arm, I mind me?"

"Aye, 'twas in the arm."

"For that am I heartily sorry, forester. But when a man seeth fame and
fortune slipping from him--aye, and his honour, I had nigh forgot that--
fame and fortune and honour, so small a thing as a bite may be
forgiven?"

"I forgive thee--full and freely."

"Spoke like an honest forester," said Gefroi, and groaned again. "The
favour of a lord is a slippery thing--much like an eel--quick to
wriggle away. An hour agone my lord Duke held me in much esteem, while
now? And he struck me! On the face, here!" Slowly Gefroi got him upon
his feet, and having donned cap and pourpoint, shook his head and
sighed; quoth he:

"Alack! 'tis a ruined man am I this day! Would I had broken thy neck,
or thou, mine--and so, God den to ye, forester!" Then Gefroi the
wrestler turned and plodded on his way, walking slow and with drooping
head as one who knoweth not whither he goes, or careth. Now, as he
watched, Beltane bethought him of the purse and taking it up, ran after
Gefroi and thrust it into his hand.

"'Twill help thee to find a new service, mayhap." So saying my Beltane
turned upon his heel and strode away, while Gefroi stood staring wide-eyed
long after Beltane was vanished amid the trees.

So thus it was that Beltane looked his first upon Duke Ivo of
Pentavalon, and thus did he overthrow Gefroi the famous wrestler. And
because of this, many were they, knights and nobles and esquires, who
sought out Beltane's lonely hut beside the brook, with offers of
service, or to try a fall with him. But at their offers Beltane laughed
and shook his head, and all who came to wrestle he threw upon their
backs. And thus my Beltane dwelt within the greenwood, waxing mightier
day by day.



CHAPTER III

HOW LOVE CAME TO BELTANE IN THE GREENWOOD


Upon a day Beltane stood at his forge fashioning an axe-head. And,
having tempered it thereafter in the brook, he laid it by, and
straightening his back, strode forth into the glade all ignorant of the
eyes that watched him curiously through the leaves. And presently as he
stood, his broad back set to the bole of a tree, his blue eyes lifted
heavenwards brimful of dreams, he brake forth into a song he had made,
lying sleepless upon his bed to do it.

Tall and stately were the trees, towering aloft, nodding slumberously
in the gentle wind; fair were the flowers lifting glad faces to their
sun-father and filling the air with their languorous perfume; yet
naught was there so comely to look upon as Beltane the Smith, standing
bare-armed in his might, his golden hair crisp-curled and his lifted
eyes a-dream. Merrily the brook laughed and sang among the willows,
leaping in rainbow-hues over its pebbly bed; sweet piped the birds in
brake and thicket, yet of all their music none was there so good to
hear as the rich tones of Beltane the Smith.

So thought the Duchess Helen of Mortain where she sat upon her white
palfrey screened by the thick-budded foliage, seeing nought but this
golden-locked singer whose voice thrilled strangely in her ears. And
who so good a judge as Helen the Beautiful, whose lovers were beyond
count, knights and nobles and princelings, ever kneeling at her haughty
feet, ever sighing forth vows of service and adoration, in whose honour
many a stout lance had shivered, and many a knightly act been wrought?
Wherefore I say, who so good a judge as the Duchess Helen of Mortain?
Thus Beltane the maker of verses, all ignorant that any heard save the
birds in the brake, sang of the glories of the forest-lands. Sang how
the flowers, feeling the first sweet promise of spring stirring within
them, awoke; and lo! the frost was gone, the warm sun they had dreamed
of through the long winter was come back, the time of their waiting
passed away. So, timidly, slowly, they stole forth from the dark,
unveiling their beauties to their lord the sun and filling the world
with the fragrance of their worship.

Somewhat of all this sang Beltane, whiles the Duchess Helen gazed upon
him wide-eyed and wondering.

Could this be Beltane the Smith, this tall, gentle-eyed youth, this
soft-voiced singer of dreams? Could this indeed be the mighty wrestler
of whom she had heard so many tales of late, how that he lived an
anchorite, deep hidden in the green, hating the pomp and turmoil of
cities, and contemning women and all their ways?

Now, bethinking her of all this, the Duchess frowned for that he was
such a goodly man and so comely to look on, and frowning, mused, white
chin on white fist. Then she smiled, as one that hath a bright thought,
and straightway loosed the golden fillet that bound her glowing
tresses so that they fell about her in all their glory, rippling far
down her broidered habit. Then, the song being ended, forth from her
cover rode the lady of Mortain, and coming close where Beltane leaned
him in the shade of the tree, paused of a sudden, and started as one
that is surprised, and Beltane turning, found her beside him, yet spake
not nor moved.

Breathless and as one entranced he gazed upon her; saw how her long
hair glowed a wondrous red 'neath the kisses of the dying sun; saw how
her purpled gown, belted at the slender waist, clung about the beauties
of her shapely body; saw how the little shoe peeped forth from the
perfumed mystery of its folds, and so stood speechless, bound by the
spell of her beauty. Wherefore, at length, she spake to him, low and
sweet and humble, on this wise:

"Art thou he whom men call Beltane the Smith?"

He answered, gazing at her lowered lashes:

"I am Beltane the Smith."

For a space she sat grave and silent, then looked at him with eyes that
laughed 'neath level brows to see the wonder in his gaze. But anon she
falls a-sighing, and braided a tress of hair 'twixt white fingers ere
she spoke:

"'Tis said of thee that thou art a hermit and live alone within these
solitudes. And yet--meseemeth--thine eyes are not a hermit's eyes,
messire!"

Quoth Beltane, with flushing cheek and eyes abased:

"Yet do I live alone, lady."

"Nor are thy ways and speech the ways of common smith, messire."

"Yet smith am I in sooth, lady, and therewithal content."

Now did she look on him 'neath drooping lash, sweet-eyed and
languorous, and shook her head, and sighed.

"Alas, messire, methinks then perchance it may be true that thou, for
all thy youth, and despite thine eyes, art a mocker of love, a despiser
of women? And yet--nay--sure 'tis not so?"

Then did Beltane the strong come nigh to fear, by reason of her fair
womanhood, and looked from her to earth, from earth to sky, and, when
he would have answered, fell a-stammering, abashed by her wondrous
beauty.

"Nay lady, indeed--indeed I know of women nought--nought of myself, but
I have heard tell that they be--light-minded, using their beauty but to
lure the souls of men from high and noble things--making of love a
jest--a sport and pastime--" But now the Duchess laughed, very soft
and sweeter, far, to Beltane's thinking than the rippling music of any
brook, soever.

"Aye me, messire anchorite," said she smiling yet, "whence had you this
poor folly?"

Quoth Beltane gravely:

"Lady, 'twas from one beyond all thought wise and learned. A most holy
hermit--"

"A hermit!" says she, merry-eyed, "then, an he told thee this, needs
must he be old, and cold, and withered, and beyond the age of love,
knowing nought of women save what memory doth haunt his evil past. But
young art thou and strong, and should love come to thee--as come,
methinks, it may, hearken to no voice but the pleading of thine own
true heart. Messire," she sighed, "art very blind, methinks, for you
sing the wonders of these forest-lands, yet in thy song is never a word
of love! O blind! O blind! for I tell thee nought exists in this great
world but by love. Behold now, these sighing trees love their lord the
sun, and, through the drear winter, wait his coming with wide-stretched,
yearning arms, crying aloud to him in every shuddering blast the tale
of their great longing. And, after some while, he comes, and at his advent
they clothe themselves anew in all their beauty, and with his warm breath
thrilling through each fibre, put forth their buds, singing through
all their myriad leaves the song of their rejoicing. Something the like
of this, messire, is the love a woman beareth to a man, the which, until
he hath felt it trembling in his heart, he hath not known the joy of
living."

But Beltane answered, smiling a little as one that gloried in his
freedom:

"No woman hath ever touched my heart, yet have I lived nor found it
lonely, hitherto."

But hereupon, resting her white fingers on his arm, she leaned nearer
to him so that he felt her breath warm upon his cheek, and there stole
to him the faint, sweet perfume of her hair.

"Beware, O scorner of women! for I tell thee that ere much time hath
passed thou shalt know love--aye, in such fashion as few men know--
wherefore I say--beware, Beltane!"

But Beltane the strong, the mighty, shook his head and smiled.

"Nay," quoth he, "a man's heart may be set on other things, flowers may
seem to him fairer than the fairest women, and the wind in trees
sweeter to him than their voices."

Now as she hearkened, the Duchess Helen grew angry, yet straightway,
she dissembled, looking upon him 'neath drooping lashes. Soft and
tender-eyed and sighing, she answered:

"Ah, Beltane! how unworthy are such things of a man's love! For if he
pluck them, that he may lay these flowers upon his heart, lo! they fade
and wither, and their beauty and fragrance is but a memory. Ah,
Beltane, when next ye sing, choose you a worthier theme."

"Of what shall I sing?" said Beltane.

Very soft she answered, and with eyes abased:

"Think on what I have told thee, and sing--of love."

And so she sighed, and looked on him once, then wheeled her palfrey,
and was gone up the glade; but Beltane, as he watched her go, was
seized of a sudden impulse and over-took her, running.

"Beseech thee," cried he, barring her path, "tell me thy name!"

Then Helen the Beautiful, the wilful, laughed and swerved her palfrey,
minded to leave him so; but Beltane sprang and caught the bridle.

"Tell me thy name," said he again.

"Let me go!"

"Thy name, tell me thy name."

But the Duchess laughed again, and thinking to escape him, smote her
horse so that it started and reared; once it plunged, and twice, and so
stood trembling with Beltane's hand upon the bridle; wherefore a sudden
anger came upon her, and, bending her black brows, she raised her
jewelled riding-rod threateningly. But Beltane only smiled and shook
his head, saying:

"Unless I know thy name thou shalt not fare forth of the greenwood."

So the proud lady of Mortain looked down upon Beltane in amaze, for
there was none in all the Duchy, knight, noble or princeling, who dared
gainsay her lightest word; wherefore, I say, she stared upon this bold
forest knave with his golden hair and gentle eyes, his curved lips and
square chin; and in eyes and mouth and chin was a look of
masterfulness, challenging, commanding. And, meeting that look, her
heart leapt most strangely with sudden, sweet thrill, so that she
lowered her gaze lest he should see, and when she spake her voice was
low and very sweet:

"Tell me I pray, why seek you my name, and wherefore?"

Quoth Beltane, soft and slow as one that dreams:

"I have seen thine eyes look at me from the flowers, ere now, have
heard thy laughter in the brook, and found thy beauty in all fair
things: methinks thy name should be a most sweet name."

Now was it upon her lips to tell him what he asked, but, being a woman,
she held her peace for very contrariness, and blushing beneath his
gaze, looked down and cried aloud, and pointed to a grub that crawled
upon her habit. So Beltane loosed the bridle, and in that moment, she
laughed for very triumph and was off, galloping 'neath the trees. Yet,
as she went, she turned and called to him, and the word she called
was:--

"Helen!"



CHAPTER IV

OF THE LOVE AND THE GRIEF OF HELEN THE PROUD


Long stood Beltane where she had left him, the soft shadows of night
deepening about him, dreaming ever of her beauty, of her wondrous hair,
and of the little foot that had peeped forth at him 'neath her habit,
and, full of these thoughts, for once he was deaf to the soft voices of
the trees nor heard the merry chatter of the brook. But later, upon his
bed he lay awake full long and must needs remember yet another Helen,
with the same wondrous hair and eyes of mystery, for whose sake men had
died and a noble city burned; and, hereupon, his heart grew strangely
heavy and cold with an unknown dread.

Days came and went, and labouring at the forge or lying out in the
sunshine gazing wistfully beyond the swaying tree-tops, Beltane would
oft start and turn his head, fancying the rustle of her garments in
his ears, or her voice calling to him from some flowery thicket; and
the wind in the trees whispered "Helen!" and the brook sang of Helen,
and Helen was in his thoughts continually.

Thus my Beltane forgot his loves the flowers, and sang no more the
wonders of the forest-lands.

And oft-times the Duchess, seated in state within her great hall of
Mortain looking down upon her knights and nobles, would sigh, for none
was there so noble of form nor so comely as Beltane the Smith. Hereupon
her white brow would grow troubled and, turning from them all, she
would gaze with deep, unfathomable eyes, away across the valley to
where, amid the mystery of the trees, Beltane had his lonely dwelling.

Wherefore it was, that, looking up one evening from where he sat busied
with brush and colours upon a border of wondrous design, Beltane beheld
her of whom he was dreaming; and she, standing tall and fair before
him, saw that in his look the which set her heart a-fluttering at her
white breast most strangely; yet, fearing she should betray aught of
it, she laughed gaily and mocked him, as is the way of women, saying:

"Well, thou despiser of Love, I hearkened vainly for thy new song as I
rode hither through the green."

Red grew my Beltane's cheek and he looked not to her as he answered:

"Lady, I have no new song."

"Why then, is thy lesson yet unlearned?" said she. "Have ye no love but
for birds and flowers?" and her red lip curled scornfully.

Quoth Beltane:

"Is there aught more worthy?"

"O Beltane!" she sighed, "art then so simple that such will aye content
thee; doth not thy heart hunger and cry within thee for aught beside?"

Then Beltane bowed his head, and fumbled with his brush and dropped it,
and ere he could reach it she had set her foot upon it; thus it chanced
that his hand came upon her foot, and feeling it beneath his fingers,
he started and drew away, whereat she laughed low and sweet, saying:

"Alack, and doth my foot affright thee? And yet 'tis none so fierce and
none so large that thou shouldst fear it thus, messire--thou who art so
tall and strong, and a mighty wrestler withal!"

Now, looking up, he saw her lips curved and scarlet, and her eyes
brimful of laughter, and fain would he have taken up the brush yet
dared not. Therefore, very humbly, she stooped and lifting the brush
put it in his hand. Then, trembling 'neath the touch of her soft
fingers, Beltane rose up, and that which he had hidden deep within his
heart brake from him.

"Helen!" he whispered, "O Helen, thou art so wondrous fair and belike
of high estate, but as for me, I am but what I am. Behold me" he cried,
stretching wide his arms, "I am but Beltane the Smith; who is there to
love such as I? See, my hands be hard and rough, and would but bruise
where they should caress, these arms be unfitted for soft
embracements. O lady, who is there to love Beltane the Smith?"

Now the Duchess Helen laughed within herself for very triumph, yet her
bosom thrilled and hurried with her breathing, her cheek grew red and
her eyes bright and tender, wherefore she stooped low to cull a flower
ere she answered.

"Beltane," she sighed, "Beltane, women are not as thy flowers, that
embraces, even such as thine, would crush them."

But Beltane stooped his head that he might not behold the lure and
beauty of her, and clenched his hands hard and fierce and thereafter
spake:

"Thou art so wondrous fair," said he again, "and belike of noble
birth, but--as for me, I am a smith!"

Awhile she stood, turning the flower in gentle fingers yet looking upon
him in his might and goodly youth, beholding his averted face with its
strong, sweet mouth and masterful chin, its curved nostrils and the
dreaming passion of his eyes, and when she spake her voice was soft
and very sweet.

"Above all, thou art--a man, messire!"

Then did my Beltane lift his head and saw how the colour was deepened
in her cheek and how her tender eyes drooped before his.

"Tell me," he said, "is there ever a woman to love such a man? Is there
ever a woman who would leave the hum and glitter of cities to walk with
such as I in the shadow of these forest-lands? Speak, Oh speak I do
beseech thee!" Thus said he and stopped, waiting her answer.

"Nay, Beltane," she whispered, "let thine own heart speak me this."

All blithe and glorious grew the world about him as he stooped and
caught her in his arms, lifting her high against his heart. And, in
this moment, he forgot the teaching of Ambrose the Hermit, forgot all
things under heaven, save the glory of her beauty, the drooping languor
of her eyes and the sweet, moist tremor of her mouth. And so he kissed
her, murmuring 'twixt his kisses:

"Fairer art thou than all the flowers, O my love, and sweeter thy
breath than the breath of flowers!"

Thus Helen the Proud, the Beautiful, yielded her lips to his, and in
all the world for her was nought save the deep, soft voice of Beltane,
and his eyes, and the new, sweet ecstasy that thrilled within her.
Surely nowhere in all the world was there such another man as this, so
strong and gentle, so meet for love and yet so virginal. Surely life
might be very fair here in the green solitudes, aye, surely, surely--

Soft with distance came the peal of bells, stealing across the valley
from the great minster in Mortain, and, with the sound, memory waked,
and she bethought her of all those knights and nobles who lived but to
do her will and pleasure, of Mortain and the glory of it; and so she
sighed and stirred, and, looking at Beltane, sighed again. Quoth she:

"Is this great love I foretold come upon thee, Beltane?"

And Beltane answered:

"Truly a man hath not lived until he hath felt a woman's kisses upon
his lips!"

"And thou wilt flout poor Love no more?"

"Nay," he answered, smiling, "'tis part of me, and must be so
henceforth--forever!"

But now she sighed again, and trembled in his arms and clasped him
close, as one beset by sudden fear, while ever soft with distance came
the silvery voices of the bells, low yet insistent, sweet yet
commanding; wherefore she, sighing, put him from her.

"Why then," said she, with drooping head, "fare thee well, messire.
Nay, see you not? Methinks my task is done. And it hath been a--
pleasing task, this--of teaching thee to love--O, would you had not
learned so soon! Fare thee well. Beltane!"

But Beltane looked upon her as one in deep amaze, his arms fell from
her and he stepped back and so stood very still and, as he gazed, a
growing horror dawned within his eyes.

"What art thou?" he whispered.

"Nay, Beltane," she murmured, "ah--look not so!"

"Who art thou--and what?" he said.

"Nay, did I not tell thee at the first? I am Helen--hast thou not
known? I am Helen--Helen of Mortain."

"Thou--thou art the Duchess Helen?" said Beltane with stiffening lips,
"thou the Duchess and I--a smith!" and he laughed, short and fierce,
and would have turned from her but she stayed him with quivering hands.

"And--did'st not know?" she questioned hurriedly, "methought it was no
secret--I would have told thee ere this had I known. Nay--look not so,
Beltane--thou dost love me yet--nay, I do know it!" and she strove to
smile, but with lips that quivered strangely.

"Aye, I love thee, Helen of Mortain--though there be many fair lords to
do that! But, as for me--I am only a smith, and as a smith greatly
would I despise thee. Yet may this not be, for as my body is great, so
is my love. Go, therefore, thy work here is done, go--get thee to thy
knightly lovers, wed this Duke who seeks thee--do aught you will but
go, leave me to my hammers and these green solitudes."

So spake he, and turning, strode away, looking not back to where she
stood leaning one white hand against a tree. Once she called to him but
he heeded not, walking ever with bowed head and hearing only the tumult
within him and the throbbing of his wounded heart. And now, in his pain
needs must he think of yet another Helen and of the blood and agony of
blazing Troy town, and lifting up his hands to heaven he cried aloud:

"Alas! that one so fair should be a thing so evil!"

All in haste Beltane came to his lonely hut and taking thence his cloak
and great sword, he seized upon his mightiest hammer and beat down the
roof of the hut and drave in the walls of it; thereafter he hove the
hammer into the pool, together with his anvil and rack of tools and so,
setting the sword in his girdle and the cloak about him, turned away
and plunged into the deeper shadows of the forest.

But, ever soft and faint with distance, the silvery voices of the bells
stole upon the warm, stilly air, speaking of pomp and state, of pride
and circumstance, but now these seemed but empty things, and the
Duchess Helen stood long with bent head and hands that strove to shut
the sounds away. But in the end she turned, slow-footed amid the
gathering shadows and followed whither they called.

       *       *       *       *       *

But that night, sitting in state within her great hall of Mortain, the
Duchess Helen sighed deep and oft, scarce heeding the courtesies
addressed to her and little the whispered homage of her guest Duke Ivo,
he, the proudest and most potent of all her many wooers; yet to-night
her cheek burned beneath his close regard and her woman's flesh
rebelled at his contact as had never been aforetime. Thus, of a sudden,
though the meal was scarce begun, she arose and stepped down from the
dais, and when her wondering ladies would have followed forbade them
with a gesture. And so, walking proud and tall, she passed out before
them, whereat Duke Ivo's black brow grew the blacker, and he stared
before him with narrowed eyes, beholding which, the faces of my lady's
counsellors waxed anxious and long; only Winfrida, chiefest of the
ladies, watched the Duke 'neath drooping lids and with a smile upon her
full, red lips.

Now the Duchess, being come to her chamber, lifted her hands and tore
the ducal circlet from her brow and cast it from her, and, thereafter,
laid by her rings and jewels, and coming to the open casement fell
there upon her knees and reached forth her pale hands to where, across
the valley, the dark forest stretched away, ghostly and unreal, 'neath
the moon.

"My beloved!" she whispered, "O my beloved!" And the gentle night-wind
bore her secret in its embrace away across the valley to the dim
solitudes of the woods. "Beltane!" she sighed, "love hath come into
mine heart even as it came to thee, when I recked not of it. My
beloved--O my beloved!" Anon she rose and stood awhile with head bowed
as one that dreams, and of a sudden her cheek glowed warmly red, her
breath caught and she gazed upon the moon with eyes of yearning
tenderness; thereafter she laughed, soft and happily and, snatching up
a cloak, set it about her and fled from the chamber. So, swift and
light of foot, she sped by hidden ways until she came where old Godric,
her chief huntsman, busied himself trimming the shaft of a boar-spear,
who, beholding his lady, rose up in amaze.

"Godric," said she, white hands upon his arm, "thou didst love me or
ever I could walk?"

"Aye, verily thou hast said, dear my lady."

"Love you me yet?"

"Truly thou knowest that I love thee."

"Thou hast heard, Godric, how that my counsellors have long desired me
to wed with Duke Ivo, and do yet await my answer to his suit--nay
hearken! So to-night shall my mind be known in the matter once and for
all! Come, my Godric, arm you and saddle two horses--come!"

"Nay, sweet my lady, what would ye?"

"Fly hence with thee, my Godric! Come--the horses!"

"Fly from Mortain, and thou the Duchess? Nay, dear lady, 'tis madness,
bethink thee! O dear my Mistress--O little Helen that I have cherished
all thy days, bethink thee--do not this thing--"

"Godric, did not the Duke, my father, strictly charge thee to follow
ever my call?"

"Aye, my lady."

"Then follow now!" And so she turned and beckoned, and Godric perforce
followed after.

Hand in hand they went a-down the winding stair, down, to the great,
dim courtyard that whispered to their tread. And, thereafter, mounting
in haste, the Duchess galloped from Mortain, unheeding stern old Godric
by her side and with never a look behind, dreaming ever of Beltane with
cheeks that crimsoned 'neath her hood.

Fast and faster she rode 'neath the pale moon, her eyes ever gazing
towards the gloom of the forest, her heart throbbing quick as the
hoof-beats of her horse. So at last, being come to that glade whereby
Beltane had his dwelling, she lighted down, and bidding Godric wait,
stole forward alone.

Autumn was at hand, and here and there the fallen leaves rustled sadly
under foot while the trees sighed and mourned together for that the
flowers so soon must wither and die. But in the heart of the Duchess
Helen, Spring was come, and all things spake to her of coming joys
undreamed till now as she hasted on, flitting through the pallid
moonbeams that, falling athwart rugged hole and far-flung branch,
splashed the gloom with radiant light. Once she paused to listen, but
heard nought save the murmur of the brook and the faint stirring of
leaves. And now, clear and strong the tender radiance fell athwart the
lonely habitation and her heart leapt at the sight, her eyes grew moist
and tender and she hurried forward with flying steps, then--beholding
the ruin of thatch and wall, she stopped and stood aghast, gazing
wide-eyed and with her heart numb in her bosom. Then she shivered, her
proud head drooped and a great sob brake from her, for that she knew she
was come too late, her dreams of wandering with Beltane through sunny
glades were nought but dreams after all. Beltane the Smith was gone!

Then a great loneliness and desolation came upon her and, sinking down
at the foot of that tree whereby he had been wont to lean so often, her
yearning arms crept about its rugged hole and she lay there in the
passion of her grief weeping long and bitterly.

But the gentle trees ceased mourning over their own coming sorrow in
wonder at the sight, and bending their heads together, seemed to
whisper one to the other saying:

"He is gone, Beltane the Smith is gone!"



CHAPTER V

WHICH TELLS OF THE STORY OF AMBROSE THE HERMIT


Deep, deep within the green twilight of the woods Ambrose the Hermit
had builded him a hut; had built and framed it of rude stones and
thatched it with grass and mosses. And from the door of the hut he had
formed likewise a path strewn thick with jagged stones and sharp
flints, a cruel track, the which, winding away through the green, led
to where upon a gentle eminence stood a wooden cross most artfully
wrought and carven by the hermit's skilled and loving fingers.

Morning and evening, winter and summer it was his custom ever to tread
this painful way, wetting the stones with the blood of his atonement.

Now upon a certain rosy dawn, ere yet the sun was up, Beltane standing
amid the leaves, saw the hermit issue forth of the hut and, with bowed
head and folded hands, set out upon his appointed way. The cruel stones
grew red beneath his feet yet he faltered not nor stayed until, being
come to the cross, he kneeled there and, with gaunt arms upraised,
prayed long and fervently so that the tears of his passion streamed
down his furrowed cheeks and wetted the snow of his beard.

In a while, having made an end, he arose and being come to his hut once
more, he of a sudden espied Beltane standing amid the leaves; and
because he was so fair and goodly to look upon in his youth and might,
the pale cheek of the hermit flushed and a glow leapt within his sunken
eyes, and lifting up his hand, he blessed him.

"Welcome to this my solitude, my son," quoth he, "and wherefore hast
thou tarried in thy coming? I have watched for thee these many days.
Come, sit you here beside me in this blessed sun and tell me of thy
latter doings."

But the eyes of Beltane were sad and his tongue unready, so that he
stammered in his speech, looking ever upon the ground; then, suddenly
up-starting to his feet, he strode before the hut, while Ambrose the
wise looked, and saw, yet spake not. So, presently, Beltane paused, and
looking him within the eyes spake hurriedly on this wise:

"Most holy father, thou knowest how I have lived within the greenwood
all my days nor found it lonely, for I did love it so, that I had
thought to die here likewise when my time should come. Yet now do I
know that this shall never be--to-day I go hence."

"Wherefore, my son?"

"There is come a strange restlessness upon me, a riot and fever of the
blood whereby I am filled with dreams and strange desires. I would go
forth into the great world of men and cities, to take my rightful place
therein, for until a man hath loved and joyed and sorrowed with his
fellows, he knoweth nought of life."

"Perchance, my son, this is but the tide of youthful blood that tingles
in thy veins? Or is it that thou hast looked of late within a woman's
eyes?"

Then Beltane kneeled him at the feet of Ambrose and hid his face
betwixt his knees, as he had been wont to do whiles yet a little child.

"Father," he murmured, "thou hast said." Now looking down upon this
golden head, Ambrose sighed and drew the long curls through his fingers
with a wondrous gentleness.

"Tell me of thy love, Beltane," said he.

Forthwith, starting to his feet, Beltane answered:

"'Tis many long and weary months, my father, and yet doth seem but
yesterday. She came to me riding upon a milk-white steed. At first
methought her of the fairy kind thither drawn by my poor singing, yet,
when I looked on her again, I knew her to be woman. And she was fair--
O very fair, my father. I may not tell her beauty for 'twas compounded
of all beauteous things, of the snow of lilies, the breath of flowers,
the gleam of stars on moving waters, the music of streams, the
murmur of wind in trees--I cannot tell thee more but that there is a
flame doth hide within her hair, and for her eyes--O methinks 'tis for
her eyes I do love her most--love her? Aye, my body doth burn and
thrill with love--alas, poor fool, alas it should be so! But, for that
she is proud and of an high estate, for that I am I, a poor worker of
iron whom men call Beltane the Smith, fit but to sigh and sigh and
forever sigh, to dream of her and nothing more--so must I go hence,
leaving the sweet silence of the woods for the strife and noise of
cities, learning to share the burdens of my fellows. See you not, my
father, see you not the way of it?" So spake Beltane, hot and
passionate, striding to and fro upon the sward, while Ambrose sat with
bitterness in his heart but with eyes ineffably gentle.

"And is this love of thine so hopeless, my Beltane?"

"Beyond all thought; she is the Duchess Helen of Mortain!"

Now for a while the hermit spake not, sitting chin in hand as one who
halts betwixt two courses.

"'Tis strange," he said at length, "and passing strange! Yet, since
'tis she, and she so much above thee, wherefore would ye leave the
tender twilight of these forests?"

Quoth Beltane, sighing:

"My father, I tell thee these woods be full of love and her. She
looketh at me from the flowers and stealeth to me in their fragrance;
the very brooks do babble of her beauty; each leaf doth find a little
voice to whisper of her, and everywhere is love and love and love--so
needs must I away."

"And think you so to escape this love, my Beltane, and the pain of it?"

"Nay my father, that were thing impossible for it doth fill the
universe, so must I needs remember it with every breath I draw, but in
the griefs and sorrows of others I may, perchance, learn to bear mine
own, silent and patiently, as a man should."

Then Ambrose sighed, and beckoning Beltane to his knee, laid his hands
upon his shoulders and looked deep within his eyes.

"Beltane my son," said he, "I have known thee from thy youth up and
well do I know thou canst not lie, for thy heart is pure as yet and
uncorrupt. But now is the thing I feared come upon thee--ah, Beltane,
hast thou forgot all I have told thee of women and the ways of women,
how that their white bodies are filled with all manner of wantonness,
their hands strong in lures and enticements? A woman in her beauty is
a fair thing to the eyes of a man, yet I tell thee Beltane, they be
snares of the devil, setting father 'gainst son and--brother 'gainst
brother, whereby come unnatural murders and bloody wars."

"And yet, needs must I love her still, my father!"

"Aye, 'tis so," sighed Ambrose, "'tis ever so, and as for thee, well do
I know the blood within thee for a hot, wild blood--and thou art young,
and so it is I fear for thee."

But, looking up, Beltane shook his head and answered:

"Holy father, thou art wise and wondrous learned in the reading of
books and in the ancient wisdoms and philosophies, yet methinks this
love is a thing no book can teach thee, a truth a man must needs find
out for himself." "And think you I know nought of love, Beltane, the
pain and joy of it--and the shame? Thou seest me a poor old man and
feeble, bent with years and suffering, one who but waiteth for the time
when my grievous sin shall be atoned for and God, in His sweet
clemency, shall ease me of this burden of life. Yet do I tell thee
there was a time when this frail body was strong and tall, well-nigh,
as thine own, when this white hair was thick and black, and these dim
eyes bold and fearless even as thine."

"Ah, Beltane, well do I know women and the ways of women! Come, sit you
beside me and, because thou art fain to go into the world and play thy
man's part, so now will I tell thee that the which I had thought to
bear with me to the grave."

Then Ambrose the Hermit, leaning his head upon his hand, began to speak
on this wise:

"Upon a time were two brothers, nobles of a great house and following,
each alike lovers of peace yet each terrible in war; the name of the
one was Johan and of the other Beltane. Now Beltane, being elder, was
Duke of that country, and the country maintained peace within its
borders and the people thereof waxed rich and happy. And because these
twain loved each other passing well the way of the one was ever the way
of the other so that they dwelt together in a wondrous amity, and as
their hearts were pure and strong so waxed they in body so that there
was none could cope with them at hand-strokes nor bear up against the
might of their lances, and O, methinks in all this fair world nought
was there fairer than the love of these two brethren!

"Now it befell, upon a day, that they set out with a goodly company to
attend a tourney in a certain town whither, likewise, were come many
knights of renown, nobles and princes beyond count eager to prove their
prowess, thither drawn by the fame of that fair lady who was to be
Queen of Beauty. All lips spake of her and the wonder of her charms,
how that a man could not look within her eyes but must needs fall into
a passion of love for her. But the brethren smiled and paid small heed
and so, together, journeyed to the city. The day of the joust being
come, forth they rode into the lists, side by side, each in his triple
mail and ponderous helm, alike at all points save for the golden
circlet upon Duke Beltane's shining casque. And there befell, that day,
a mighty shivering of lances and many a knightly deed was wrought. But,
for these brethren there was none of all these knights and nobles who
might abide their onset; all day long they together maintained the
lists till there none remained to cope with them, wherefore the marshal
would have had them run a course together for proof which was the
mightier. But Beltane smiled and shook his head saying, 'Nay, it is not
meet that brother strive with brother!' And Johan said: 'Since the day
doth rest with us, we will share the glory together.' So, amid the
acclaim of voice and trumpet, side by side they came to make obeisance
to the Queen of Beauty, and gazing upon her, they saw that she was
indeed of a wondrous beauty. Now in her hand she held the crown that
should reward the victor, yet because they were two, she knew not whom
to choose, wherefore she laughed, and brake the crown asunder and gave
to each a half with many fair words and gentle sayings. But, alas, my
son! from that hour her beauty came betwixt these brethren, veiling
their hearts one from the other. So they tarried awhile in that fair
city, yet companied together no more, for each was fain to walk apart,
dreaming of this woman and the beauty of her, and each by stealth wooed
her to wife. At last, upon an evening, came Johan to his brother and
taking from his bosom the half of the crown he had won, kissed it and
gave it to Beltane, saying: 'The half of a crown availeth no man, take
therefore my half and join it with thine, for well do I know thy heart,
my brother--and thou art the elder, and Duke; go therefore and woo
this lady to wife, and God speed thee, my lord.' But Beltane said:
'Shame were it in me to take advantage of my years thus; doth age or
rank make a man's love more worthy? So, get thee to thy wooing, my
brother, and heaven's blessing on thee.' Then grew Johan full of joy,
saying: 'So be it, dear my brother, but am I come not to thee within
three days at sunset, then shalt know that my wooing hath not
prospered.' Upon the third day, therefore, Beltane the Duke girded on
his armour and made ready to ride unto his own demesne, yet tarried
until sunset, according to his word. But his brother Johan came not.
Therefore he, in turn, rode upon his wooing and came unto the lady's
presence in hauberk of mail, and thus ungently clad wooed her as one in
haste to be gone, telling her that this world was no place for a man to
sigh out his days at a woman's feet, and bidding her answer him' Yea'
or 'Nay' and let him be gone to his duty. And she, whom so many had
wooed on bended knee, spake him' Yea'--for that a woman's ways be
beyond all knowledge--and therewith gave her beauty to his keeping. So,
forthwith were they wed, with much pomp and circumstance, and so he
brought her to his Duchy with great joy and acclaim. Then would Johan
have departed over seas, but Beltane ever dissuaded him, and fain these
brethren would have loved each other as they had done aforetime, yet
was the beauty of this woman ever betwixt them. Now, within that year,
came news of fire and sword upon the border, of cruel rape and murder,
so Beltane sent forth his brother Johan with an army to drive back the
invaders, and himself abode in his great castle, happy in the love of
his fair, young wife. But the war went ill, tidings came that Johan his
brother was beaten back with much loss and he himself sore wounded.
Therefore the Duke made ready to set forth at the head of a veteran
company, but ere he rode a son was born to him, so needs must he come
to his wife in his armour, and beholding the child, kissed him.
Thereafter Duke Beltane rode to the war with a glad heart, and fell
upon his enemies and scattered them, and pursued them far and smote
them even to their own gates. But in the hour of his triumph he fell,
by treachery, into the hands of his cruelest enemy, how it mattereth
not, and for a space was lost to sight and memory. But as for Johan,
the Duke's brother, he lay long sick of his wounds, so came the Duchess
and ministered to him; and she was fair, and passing fair, and he was
young. And when his strength was come again, each day was Johan minded
to ride forth and seek the Duke his brother--but he was young, and she
passing fair, wherefore he tarried still, bound by the lure of her
beauty. And, upon a soft and stilly eve as they walked together in the
garden, she wooed Johan with tender look and word, and wreathed her
white arms about him and gave to his her mouth. And, in that moment
came one, fierce and wild of aspect, in dinted casque and rusty mail
who stood and watched--ah God!"

Here, for a while, the hermit Ambrose stayed his tale, and Beltane saw
his brow was moist and that his thin hands clenched and wrung each
other.

"So thus, my son, came Duke Beltane home again, he and his esquire Sir
Benedict of Bourne alone of all his company, each alike worn with
hardship and spent with wounds. But now was the Duke stricken of a
greater pain and leaned him upon the shoulder of his esquire, faint and
sick of soul, and knew an anguish deeper than any flesh may know. Then,
of a sudden, madness came upon him and, breaking from the mailed arms
that held him, he came hot-foot to the courtyard and to the hall
beyond, hurling aside all such as sought to stay him and so reached at
last my lady's bower, his mailed feet ringing upon the Atones. And,
looking up, the Duchess saw and cried aloud and stood, thereafter, pale
and speechless and wide of eye, while Johan's cheek grew red and in his
look was shame. Then the Duke put up his vizor and, when he spake, his
voice was harsh and strange: 'Greeting, good brother!' said he, 'go
now, I pray you, get you horse and armour and wait me in the courtyard,
yet first must I greet this my lady wife.' So Johan turned, with
hanging head, and went slow-footed from the chamber. Then said the
Duke, laughing in his madness, 'Behold, lady, the power of a woman's
beauty, for I loved a noble brother once, a spotless knight whose
honour reached high as heaven, but thou hast made of him a something
foul and base, traitor to me and to his own sweet name, and 'tis for
this I will requite thee!' But the Duchess spake not, nor blenched even
when the dagger gleamed to strike--O sweet God of mercy, to strike!
But, in that moment, came Benedict of Bourne and leapt betwixt and took
the blow upon his cheek, and, stanching the blood within his tattered
war-cloak, cried: 'Lord Duke, because I love thee, ne'er shalt thou do
this thing until thou first slay me!' A while the Duke stood in amaze,
then turned and strode away down the great stair, and coming to the
courtyard, beheld his brother Johan armed at all points and mounted,
and with another horse equipped near by. So the Duke laughed and closed
his vizor and his laughter boomed hollow within his rusty casque, and,
leaping to the saddle, rode to the end of the great tilt-yard, and,
wheeling, couched his lance. So these brethren, who had loved each
other so well, spurred upon each other with levelled lances but, or
ever the shock came--O my son, my son!--Johan rose high in his stirrups
and cried aloud the battle-cry of his house 'Arise! Arise! I shall
arise!' and with the cry, tossed aside his lance lest he might harm the
Duke his brother--O sweet clemency of Christ!--and crashed to earth--
and lay there--very still and silent. Then the Duke dismounted and,
watched by pale-faced esquires and men-at-arms, came and knelt beside
his brother, and laid aside his brother's riven helm and, beholding his
comely features torn and marred and his golden hair all hatefully
bedabbled, felt his heart burst in sunder, and he groaned, and rising
to stumbling feet came to his horse and mounted and rode away 'neath
grim portcullis and over echoing drawbridge, yet, whithersoever he
looked, he saw only his brother's dead face, pale and bloody. And fain
he would have prayed but could not, and so he came into the forest. All
day long he rode beneath the trees careless of his going, conscious
only that Benedict of Bourne rode behind with his bloody war-cloak
wrapped about him. But on rode the Duke with hanging head and listless
hands for before his haggard eyes was ever the pale, dead face of Johan
his brother. Now, as the moon rose, they came to a brook that whispered
soft-voiced amid the shadows and here his war-horse stayed to drink.
Then came Sir Benedict of Bourne beside him, 'Lord Duke,' said he,
'what hast thou in thy mind to do?' 'I know not,' said the Duke,
'though methinks 'twere sweet to die.' 'Then what of the babe, lord
Duke?' and, speaking, Sir Benedict drew aside his cloak and showed the
babe asleep beneath. But, looking upon its innocence, the Duke cried
out and hid his face, for the babe's golden curls were dabbled with the
blood from Sir Benedict's wound and looked even as had the face of the
dead Johan. Yet, in a while, the Duke reached out and took the child
and setting it against his breast, turned his horse. Said Sir Benedict:
'Whither do we ride, lord Duke?' Then spake the Duke on this wise: 'Sir
Benedict, Duke Beltane is no more, the stroke that slew my brother
Johan killed Duke Beltane also. But as for you, get you to Pentavalon
and say the Duke is dead, in proof whereof take you this my ring and
so, farewell.' Then, my Beltane, God guiding me, I brought thee to
these solitudes, for I am he that was the Duke Beltane, and thou art my
son indeed."



CHAPTER VI

HOW BELTANE FARED FORTH OF THE GREEN


Thus spake the hermit Ambrose and, having made an end, sat thereafter
with his head bowed upon his hands, while Beltane stood wide-eyed yet
seeing not, and with lips apart yet dumb by reason of the wonder of it;
therefore, in a while, the hermit spake again:

"Thus did we live together, thou and I, dear son, and I loved thee
well, my Beltane: with each succeeding day I loved thee better, for as
thine understanding grew, so grew my love for thee. Therefore, so soon
as thou wert of an age, set in thy strength and able to thine own
support, I tore myself from thy sweet fellowship and lived alone lest,
having thee, I might come nigh to happiness."

Then Beltane sank upon his knees and caught the hermit's wasted hands
and kissed them oft, saying:

"Much hast thou suffered, O my father, but now am I come to thee again
and, knowing all things, here will I bide and leave thee nevermore."
Now in the hermit's pale cheek came a faint and sudden glow, and in his
eyes a light not of the sun.

"Bethink thee, boy," said he, "the blood within thy veins is noble.
For, since thou art my son, so, an thou dost leave me and seek thy
destiny thou shalt, perchance, be Duke of Pentavalon--an God will it
so."

But Beltane shook his head. Quoth he:

"My father, I am a smith, and smith am I content to be since thou, lord
Duke, art my father. So now will I abide with thee and love and honour
thee, and be thy son indeed."

Then rose the hermit Ambrose to his feet and spake with eyes uplifted:

"Now glory be to God, Who, in His mercy, hath made of thee a man, my
Beltane, clean of soul and innocent, yet strong of arm to lift and
succour the distressed, and therefore it is that you to-day must leave
me, my well-beloved, for there be those whose need of thee is greater
even than mine."

"Nay, dear my father, how may this be?"

Now hereupon Ambrose the Hermit stood awhile with bent head, and spake
not, only he sighed full oft and wrung his hands.

"I thought but of myself!" he groaned, "great sorrow is oft-times
greatly selfish. Alas, my son--twenty weary years have I lived here
suing God's forgiveness, and for twenty bitter years Pentavalon hath
groaned 'neath shameful wrong--and death in many hateful shapes. O God
have mercy on a sinner who thought but on himself! List, my son, O
list! On a day, as I kneeled before yon cross, came one in knightly
armour and upon his face, 'neath the links of his camail, I saw a great
scar--the scar this hand had wrought. And, even as I knew Sir Benedict,
in that same moment he knew me, and gave a joyous cry and came and fell
upon his knee and kissed my hand, as of old. Thereafter we talked, and
he told me many a woeful tale of Pentavalon and of its misery. How,
when I was gone, rose bitter fight and faction, barons and knights
striving together which should be Duke. In the midst of the which
disorders came one, from beyond seas, whom men called Ivo, who by might
of sword and cunning tongue made himself Duke in my place. Sir Benedict
told of a fierce and iron rule, of the pillage and ravishment of town
and city, of outrage and injustice, of rack and flame and gibbet--of a
people groaning 'neath a thousand cruel wrongs. Then, indeed, did I see
that my one great sin a thousand other sins had bred, and was I full of
bitter sorrow and anguish. And, in my anguish, I thought on thee, and
sent to thee Sir Benedict, and watched thee wrestle, and at stroke of
sword, and praised God for thy goodly might and strength. For O, dear
my son, meseemeth that God hath raised thee up to succour these
afflicted, to shield the weak and helpless--hath made thee great and
mightier than most to smite Evil that it may flee before thee. So in
thee shall my youth be renewed, and my sins, peradventure, purged
away."

"Father!" said Beltane rising, his blue eyes wide, his strong hands
a-tremble, "O my father!" Then Ambrose clasped those quivering hands and
kissed those wide and troubled eyes and spake thereafter, slow and
soft:

"Now shall I live henceforth in thee, my son, glorying in thy deeds
hereafter. And if thou must needs--bleed, then shall my heart bleed
with thee, or if thou meet with death, my Beltane, then shall this
heart of mine die with thee."

Thus speaking, the hermit drew the sword from Beltane's girdle and
held the great blade towards heaven.

"Behold, my son," said he, "the motto of our house, 'I will arise!' So
now shalt thou arise indeed that thy destiny may be fulfilled. Take
hold upon thy manhood, my well-beloved, get thee to woeful Pentavalon
and, beholding its sorrows, seek how they may be assuaged. Now my
Beltane, all is said--when wilt thou leave thy father?"

Quoth Beltane, gathering his cloak about him:

"An so it be thy wish, my father, then will I go this hour."

Then Ambrose brought Beltane into his humble dwelling where was a
coffer wrought by his own skilful fingers; and from this coffer he drew
forth a suit of triple mail, wondrously fashioned, beholding the
which, Beltane's eyes glistened because of the excellence of its
craftsmanship.

"Behold!" quoth the hermit, "'tis an armour worthy of a king, light is
it, yet marvellous strong, and hath been well tried in many a desperate
affray. 'Tis twenty years since these limbs bore it, yet see--I have
kept it bright from rust lest, peradventure, Pentavalon should need
thee to raise again the battle cry of thy house and lead her men to
war. And, alas dear son, that day is now! Pentavalon calls to thee from
out the gloom of dungeon, from the anguish of flame, and rack, and
gibbet--from blood-soaked hearth and shameful grave she calls thee--
so, my Beltane, come and let me arm thee."

And there, within his little hut, the hermit Ambrose, Duke of
Pentavalon that was, girt the armour upon Beltane the mighty, Duke of
Pentavalon to be, if so God willed; first the gambeson of stuffed and
quilted leather, and, thereafter, coifed hauberk and chausses, with
wide sword-belt clamped with broad plates of silver and studs of gold,
until my Beltane stood up armed in shining mail from head to foot. Then
brought Ambrose a wallet, wherein were six gold pieces, and put it in
his hand, saying:

"These have I kept against this day, my Beltane. Take them to aid thee
on thy journey, for the county of Bourne lieth far to the south."

"Do I then journey to Bourne, my father?"

"Aye, to Sir Benedict, who yet doth hold the great keep of
Thrasfordham. Many sieges hath he withstood, and daily men flee to him
--stricken men, runaway serfs, and outlaws from the green, all such
masterless men as lie in fear of their lives."

Said Beltane, slow and thoughtful:

"There be many outlaws within the green, wild men and sturdy fighters
as I've heard. Hath Sir Benedict many men, my father?"

"Alas! a pitiful few, and Black Ivo can muster bows and lances by the
ten thousand--"

"Yet doth Sir Benedict withstand them all, my father!"

"Yet must he keep ever within Bourne, Beltane. All Pentavalon, save
Bourne, lieth 'neath Ivo's iron foot, ruled by his fierce nobles, and
they be strong and many, 'gainst whom Sir Benedict is helpless in the
field. 'Tis but five years agone since Ivo gave up fair Belsaye town to
ravishment and pillage, and thereafter, builded him a mighty gallows
over against it and hanged many men thereon."

Now hereupon, of a sudden, Beltane clenched his hands and fell upon his
knees.

"Father," said he, "Pentavalon indeed doth cry, so must I now arise and
go unto her. Give me thy blessing that I may go."

Then the hermit laid his hands upon Beltane's golden head and blessed
him, and whispered awhile in passionate prayer. Thereafter Beltane
arose and, together, they came out into the sunshine.

"South and by west must you march, dear son, and God, methinks, shall
go beside thee, for thy feet shall tread a path where Death shall lie
in wait for thee. Let thine eyes be watchful therefore, and thine ears
quick to hear. Hearken you to all men, yet speak you few words and
soft. But, when you act, let your deeds shout unto heaven, that all
Pentavalon may know a man is come to lead them who fears only God. And
so, my Beltane, fare-thee-well! Come, kiss me, boy; our next kiss,
perchance--shall be in heaven."

And thus they kissed, and looked within each other's eyes; then Beltane
turned him, swift and sudden, and strode upon his way. But, in a
little, looking back, he saw his father, kneeling before the cross,
with long, gaunt arms upraised to heaven.



CHAPTER VII

HOW BELTANE TALKED WITH ONE HIGHT GILES BRABBLECOMBE, WHO WAS A
NOTABLE AND LEARNED ARCHER


The morning was yet young when my Beltane fared forth into the world, a
joyous, golden morning trilling with the glad song of birds and rich
with a thousand dewy scents; a fair, sweet, joyous world it was indeed,
whose glories, stealing in at eye and ear, filled him with their
gladness. On strode my Beltane by rippling brook and sleepy pool, with
step swift and light and eyes wide and shining, threading an unerring
course as only a forester might; now crossing some broad and sunny
glade where dawn yet lingered in rosy mist, anon plunging into the
green twilight of dell and dingle, through tangled brush and scented
bracken gemmed yet with dewy fire, by marsh and swamp and lichened
rock, until he came out upon the forest road, that great road laid by
the iron men of Rome, but now little better than a grassy track, yet
here and there, with mossy stone set up to the glory of proud emperor
and hardy centurion long since dust and ashes; a rutted track, indeed,
but leading ever on, 'neath mighty trees, over hill and dale towards
the blue mystery beyond.

Now, in a while, being come to the brow of a hill, needs must my
Beltane pause to look back upon the woodlands he had loved so well and,
sighing, he stretched his arms thitherward; and lo! out of the soft
twilight of the green, stole a gentle wind full of the scent of root
and herb and the fresh, sweet smell of earth, a cool, soft wind that
stirred the golden hair at his temples, like a caress, and so--was
gone. For a while he stood thus, gazing towards where he knew his
father yet knelt in prayer for him, then turned he slowly, and went his
appointed way.

Thus did Beltane bid farewell to the greenwood and to woodland things,
and thus did the green spirit of the woods send forth a gentle wind to
kiss him on the brow ere he went out into the world of men and cities.

Now, after some while, as he walked, Beltane was aware of the silvery
tinkle of bells and, therewith, a full, sweet voice upraised in song,
and the song was right merry and the words likewise:

  "O ne'er shall my lust for the bowl decline,
   Nor my love for my good long bow;
   For as bow to the shaft and as bowl to the wine,
   Is a maid to a man, I trow."

Looking about, Beltane saw the singer, a comely fellow whose long legs
bestrode a plump ass; a lusty man he was, clad in shirt of mail and
with a feather of green brooched to his escalloped hood; a long-bow
hung at his back together with a quiver of arrows, while at his thigh
swung a heavy, broad-bladed sword. Now he, espying Beltane amid the
leaves, brought the ass to a sudden halt and clapped hand to the pommel
of his sword.

"How now, Goliath!" cried he. "_Pax vobiscum,_ and likewise
_benedicite_! Come ye in peace, forsooth, or is it to be _bellum
internecinum?_ Though, by St. Giles, which is my patron saint, I care
not how it be, for mark ye, _vacuus cantat coram latrone viator,_ Sir
Goliath, the which in the vulgar tongue signifieth that he who travels
with an empty purse laughs before the footpad--moreover, I have a
sword!"

But Beltane laughed, saying:

"I have no lust to thy purse, most learned bowman, or indeed to aught
of thine unless it be thy company."

"My company?" quoth the bowman, looking Beltane up and down with merry
blue eyes, "why now do I know thee for a fellow of rare good judgment,
for my company is of the best, in that I have a tongue which loveth to
wag in jape or song. Heard ye how the birds and I were a-carolling? A
right blithesome morn, methinks, what with my song, and the birds'
song, and this poor ass's bells--aye, and the flowers a-peep from the
bank yonder. God give ye joy of it, tall brother, as he doth me and
this goodly ass betwixt my knees, patient beast."

Now leaning on his quarter-staff Beltane smiled and said:

"How came ye by that same ass, master bowman?"

"Well--I met a monk!" quoth the fellow with a gleam of white teeth. "O!
a ponderous monk, brother, of most mighty girth of belly! Now, as ye
see, though this ass be sleek and fat as an abbot, she is something
small. 'And shall so small a thing needs bear so great a mountain o'
flesh?' says I (much moved at the sight, brother). 'No, by the blessed
bones of St. Giles (which is my patron saint, brother), so thereafter
(by dint of a little persuasion, brother) my mountainous monk, to ease
the poor beast's back, presently got him down and I, forthwith, got up--
as being more in proportion to her weight, sweet beast! O! surely
ne'er saw I fairer morn than this, and never, in so fair a morn, saw I
fairer man than thou, Sir Forester, nor taller, and I have seen many
men in my day. Wherefore an so ye will, let us company together what
time we may; 'tis a solitary road, and the tongue is a rare shortener
of distance."

So Beltane strode on beside this garrulous bowman, hearkening to his
merry talk, yet himself speaking short and to the point as was ever his
custom; as thus:

BOWMAN. "How do men call thee, tall brother?"

BELTANE. "Beltane."

BOWMAN. "Ha! 'Tis a good name, forsooth I've heard worse--and yet,
forsooth, I've heard better. Yet 'tis a fairish name--'twill serve. As
for me, Giles Brabblecombe o' the Hills men call me, for 'twas in the
hill country I was born thirty odd years agone. Since then twelve
sieges have I seen with skirmishes and onfalls thrice as many. Death
have I beheld in many and divers shapes and in experience of wounds and
dangers am rich, though, by St. Giles (my patron saint), in little
else. Yet do I love life the better, therefore, and I have read that
'to despise gold is to be rich.'"

BELTANE. "Do all bowmen read, then?"

BOWMAN. "Why look ye, brother, I am not what I was aforetime--_non sum
quails eram _--I was bred a shaveling, a mumbler, a be-gowned
do-nothing--brother, I was a monk, but the flesh and the devil made of me
a bowman, heigho--so wags the world! Though methinks I am a better
bowman than ever I was a monk, having got me some repute with this my
bow."

BELTANE (shaking his head). "Methinks thy choice was but a sorry one
for--"

BOWMAN (laughing). "Choice quotha! 'Twas no choice, 'twas forced upon
me, _vi et armis._ I should be chanting prime or matins at this very
hour but for this tongue o' mine, God bless it! For, when it should
have been droning psalms, it was forever lilting forth some blithesome
melody, some merry song of eyes and lips and stolen kisses. In such
sort that the good brethren were wont to gather round and, listening,--
sigh! Whereof it chanced I was, one night, by order of the holy Prior,
drubbed forth of the sacred precincts. So brother Anselm became Giles
o' the Bow--the kind Saints be praised, in especial holy Saint Giles
(which is my patron saint!). For, heed me--better the blue sky and the
sweet, strong wind than the gloom and silence of a cloister. I had
rather hide this sconce of mine in a hood of mail than in the mitre of
a lord bishop--_nolo episcopare,_ good brother! Thus am I a fighter,
and a good fighter, and a wise fighter, having learned 'tis better to
live to fight than to fight to live."

BELTANE. "And for whom do ye fight?"

BOWMAN. "For him that pays most, _pecuniae obediunt omnia,_ brother."

BELTANE (frowning). "Money? And nought beside?"

BOWMAN (staring). "As what, brother?"

BELTANE. "The justice of the cause wherefore ye fight."

BOWMAN. "Justice quotha--cause! O innocent brother, what have such
matters to do with such as I? See you now, such lieth the case. You,
let us say, being a baron (and therefore noble!) have a mind to a
certain other baron's castle, or wife, or both--(the which is more
usual) wherefore ye come to me, who am but a plain bowman knowing
nought of the case, and you chaffer with me for the use of this my body
for so much money, and thereafter I shoot my best on thy behalf as in
mine honour bound. Thus have I fought both for and against Black Ivo
throughout the length and breadth of his Duchy of Pentavalon. If ye be
minded to sell that long sword o' thine, to none better market could ye
come, for there be ever work for such about Black Ivo."

BELTANE. "Aye, 'tis so I hear."

BOWMAN. "Nor shall ye anywhere find a doughtier fighter than Duke Ivo,
nor a leader quicker to spy out the vantage of position and attack."

BELTANE. "Is he so lusty a man-at-arms?"

BOWMAN. "With lance, axe, or sword he hath no match. I have seen him
lead a charge. I have watched him fight afoot. I have stormed behind
him through a breach, and I know of none dare cope with him--unless it
be Sir Pertolepe the Red."

BELTANE. "Hast ne'er heard tell, then, of Benedict of Bourne?"

BOWMAN (clapping hand to thigh). "Now by the blood and bones of St.
Giles 'tis so! Out o' the mouth of a babe and suckling am I corrected!
Verily if there be one to front Black Ivo 'tis Benedict o' the Mark. To
behold these two at handstrokes--with axes--ha, there would be a sweet
affray indeed--a sight for the eyes of holy archangels! Dost know aught
of Sir Benedict, O Innocence?"

BELTANE. "I have seen him."

BOWMAN. "Then, my soft and gentle dove-like youth, get thee to thy
marrow-bones and pray that kind heaven shall make thee more his like,
for in his shoes doth stand a man--a knight--a very paladin!"

BELTANE. "Who fighteth not for--hire. Sir Bowman!"

BOWMAN. "Yet who hireth to fight, Sir Dove-eyed Giant, for I have
fought for him, ere now, within his great keep of Thrasfordham within
Bourne. But, an ye seek employ, his is but a poor service, where a man
shall come by harder knocks than good broad pieces."

BELTANE. "And yet, 'spite thy cunning and all thy warring, thy purse
goeth empty!"

BOWMAN. "My purse, Sir Dove? Aye, I told thee so for that I am by
nature cautious--_sicut mos est nobis_! But thy dove's eyes are honest
eyes, so now shall you know that hid within the lining of this my left
boot be eighty and nine gold pieces, and in my right a ring with stones
of price, and, moreover, here behold a goodly chain."

So saying, the bowman drew from his bosom a gold chain, thick and long
and heavy, and held it up in the sunlight.

"I got this, Sir Dove, together with the ring and divers other toys, at
the storming of Belsaye, five years agone. Aha! a right good town is
Belsaye, and growing rich and fat against another plucking."

"And how came Belsaye to be stormed?" Quoth Giles the Bowman, eying
his golden chain:

"My lord Duke Ivo had a mind to a certain lady, who was yet but a
merchant's daughter, look ye. But she was young and wondrous fair, for
Duke Ivo hath a quick eye and rare judgment in such pretty matters. But
she (and she but a merchant's daughter!) took it ill, and when Duke
Ivo's messengers came to bear her to his presence, she whined and
struggled, as is ever woman's way, and thereafter in the open street
snatched a dagger and thereupon, before her father's very eye did slay
herself (and she but a merchant's daughter!), whereat some hot-head
plucked out sword and other citizens likewise, and of my lord Duke's
messengers there none escaped save one and he sore wounded. So Belsaye
city shut its gates 'gainst my lord Duke and set out fighting-hoards
upon its walls. Yet my lord Duke battered and breached it, for few can
match him in a siege, and stormed it within three days. And, by Saint
Giles, though he lost the merchant's daughter methinks he lacked not
at all, for the women of Belsaye are wondrous fair."

The rising sun made a glory all about them, pouring his beams 'twixt
mighty trees whose knotted, far-flung branches dappled the way here and
there with shadow; but now Beltane saw nought of it by reason that he
walked with head a-droop and eyes that stared earthward; moreover his
hands were clenched and his lips close and grim-set. As for Giles o'
the Bow, he chirrupped merrily to the ass, and whistled full
melodiously, mocking a blackbird that piped amid the green. Yet in a
while he turned to stare at Beltane rubbing at his square, shaven chin
with strong, brown fingers.

"Forsooth," quoth he, nodding, "thou'rt a lusty fellow, Sir
Gentleness, by the teeth of St. Giles, which is my patron saint, ne'er
saw I a goodlier spread of shoulder nor such a proper length of arm to
twirl an axe withal, and thy legs like me well--hast the makings of a
right lusty man-at-arms in thee, despite thy soft and peaceful look!"

"Yet a lover of peace am I!" said Beltane, his head yet drooping.

"Peace, quotha--peace? Ha? by all the holy saints--peace! A soft word!
A woman's word! A word smacking of babes and milk! Out upon thee, what
hath a man with such an arm--aye, and legs--to do with peace? An you
would now, I could bring ye to good service 'neath Duke Ivo's banner.
'Tis said he hath sworn, this year, to burn Thrasfordham keep, to hang
Benedict o' the Mark and lay waste to Bourne. Aha! you shall see good
fighting 'neath Ivo's banner, Sir Dove!"

Then Beltane raised his head and spake, swift and sudden, on this wise:

"An I must fight, the which God forbid, yet once this my sword is drawn
ne'er shall it rest till I lie dead or Black Ivo is no more."

Then did the archer stare upon my Beltane in amaze with eyes full wide
and mouth agape, nor spake he for awhile, then:

"Black Ivo--thou!" he cried, and laughed amain. "Go to, my tender
youth," said he, "methinks a lute were better fitted to thy hand than
that great sword o' thine." Now beholding Beltane's gloomy face, he
smiled within his hand, yet eyed him thoughtfully thereafter, and so
they went with never a word betwixt them. But, in a while, the archer
fell to snuffing the air, and clapped Beltane upon the shoulder.

"Aha!" quoth he, "methinks we reach the fair Duchy of Pentavalon; smell
ye aught, brother?" And now, indeed, Beltane became aware of a cold
wind, foul and noisome, a deadly, clammy air breathing of things
corrupt, chilling the flesh with swift unthinking dread; and, halting
in disgust, he looked about him left and right.

"Above--above!" cried Giles o' the Bow, "this is Sir Pertolepe's
country--look you heavenward, Sir Innocence!"

Then, lifting his eyes to the shivering leaves overhead, Beltane of a
sudden espied a naked foot--a down-curving, claw-like thing,
shrivelled and hideous, and, glancing higher yet, beheld a sight to
blast the sun from heaven: now staring up at the contorted horror of
this shrivelled thing that once had lived and laughed, Beltane let fall
his staff and, being suddenly sick and faint, sank upon his knees and,
covering his eyes, crouched there in the grass the while that grisly,
silent thing swayed to and fro above him in the gentle wind of morning
and the cord whereby it hung creaked faintly.

"How now--how now!" cried Giles; "do ye blench before this churlish
carrion? Aha! ye shall see the trees bear many such hereabouts. Get up,
my qualmish, maid-like youth; he ne'er shall injure thee nor any man
again--save by the nose--faugh! Rise, rise and let us be gone."

So, presently Beltane, shivering, got him to his feet and looking up,
pale-faced, beheld upon the ragged breast a parchment with this legend
in fair, good writing:

HE KILLED A DEER

Then spake Beltane 'twixt pallid lips:

"And do they hang men for killing deer in this country?"

"Aye, forsooth, and very properly, for, heed me, your ragged rogues be
a plenty, but a stag is a noble creature and something scarcer--
moreover they be the Duke's."

"By whose order was this done?"

"Why, the parchment beareth the badge of Sir Pertolepe, called the Red.
But look you, Sir Innocent, no man may kill a deer unless he be of
gentle blood."

"And wherefore?"

"'Tis so the law!"

"And who made the law?"

"Why--as to that," quoth Giles, rubbing his chin, "as to that--what
matters it to you or me? Pah! come away lest I stifle!"

But now, even as they stood thus, out of the green came a cry, hoarse
at first but rising ever higher until it seemed to fill the world about
and set the very leaves a-quiver. Once it came, and twice, and so--was
gone. Then Beltane trembling, stooped and caught up his long quarter-staff,
and seized the bowman in a shaking hand that yet was strong, and
dragging him from the ass all in a moment, plunged into the underbrush
whence the cry had come. And, in a while, they beheld a cottage upon
whose threshold a child lay--not asleep, yet very still; and beyond the
cottage, his back to a tree, a great hairy fellow, quarter-staff in
hand, made play against five others whose steel caps and ringed
hauberks glittered in the sun. Close and ever closer they beset the
hairy man who, bleeding at the shoulder, yet swung his heavy staff; but
ever the glittering pike-heads thrust more close. Beside the man a
woman crouched, young and of comely seeming, despite wild hair and
garments torn and wrenched, who of a sudden, with another loud cry,
leapt before the hairy man covering him with her clinging body and, in
that moment, her scream died to a choking gasp and she sank huddled
'neath a pike-thrust. Then Beltane leapt, the great sword flashing in
his grasp, and smote the smiter and set his feet upon the writhing body
and smote amain with terrible arm, and his laughter rang out fierce and
wild. So for a space, sword clashed with pike, but ever Beltane,
laughing loud, drave them before him till but two remained and they
writhing upon the sward. Then Beltane turned to see Giles o' the Bow,
who leaned against a tree near by, wide-eyed and pale.

"Look!" he cried, pointing with quivering finger, "one dead and one
sore hurt--Saint Giles save us, what have ye done? These be Sir
Pertolepe's foresters--behold his badge!"

But Beltane laughed, fierce-eyed.

"How, bowman, dost blench before a badge, then? I was too meek and
gentle for thee ere this, but now, if thou'rt afraid--get you gone!"

"Art surely mad!" quoth Giles. "The saints be my witness here was no
act of mine!" So saying he turned away and hasted swift-footed through
the green. Now when the bowman was gone, Beltane turned him to the
hairy man who yet kneeled beside the body of the woman. Said he:

"Good fellow, is there aught I may do for thee?"

"Wife and child--and dead!" the man muttered, "child and wife--and
dead! A week ago, my brother--and now, the child, and then the wife!
Child and wife and brother--and dead!" Then Beltane came, minded to aid
him with the woman, but the hairy man sprang before her, swinging his
great staff and muttering in his beard; therefore Beltane, sick at
heart, turned him away. And, in a while, being come to the road once
more, he became aware that he yet grasped his sword and beheld its
bright steel dimmed here and there with blood, and, as he gazed, his
brow grew dark and troubled.

"'Tis thus have I made beginning," he sighed, "so now, God aiding me,
ne'er will I rest 'till peace be come again and tyranny made an end
of!"

Then, very solemnly, did my Beltane kneel him beside the way and
lifting the cross hilt of his sword to heaven kissed it, and thereafter
rose. And so, having cleansed the steel within the earth, he sheathed
the long blade and went, slowfooted, upon his way.



CHAPTER VIII

HOW BELTANE HELD DISCOURSE WITH A BLACK FRIAR

The sun was high, and by his shadow Beltane judged it the noon hour;
very hot and very still it was, for the wind had died and leaf and twig
hung motionless as though asleep. And presently as he went, a sound
stole upon the stillness, a sound soft and beyond all things pleasant
to hear, the murmurous ripple of running water near by. Going aside
into the green therefore, Beltane came unto a brook, and here, screened
from the sun 'neath shady willows, he laid him down to drink, and to
bathe face and hands in the cool water.

Now as he lay thus, staring sad-eyed into the hurrying waters of the
brook, there came to him the clicking of sandalled feet, and glancing
up, he beheld one clad as a black friar. A fat man he was, jolly of
figure and mightily round; his nose was bulbous and he had a drooping
lip.

"Peace be unto thee, my son!" quoth he, breathing short and loud, "an
evil day for a fat man who hath been most basely bereft of a goodly ass
--holy Saint Dunstan, how I gasp!" and putting back the cowl from his
tonsured crown, he puffed out his cheeks and mopped his face. "Hearkee
now, good youth, hath there passed thee by ever a ribald in an
escalloped hood--an unhallowed, long-legged, scurvy archer knave
astride a fair white ass, my son?"

"Truly," nodded Beltane, "we parted company scarce an hour since."

The friar sat him down in the shade of the willows and sighing, mopped
his face again; quoth he:

"Now may the curse of Saint Augustine, Saint Benedict, Saint Cuthbert
and Saint Dominic light upon him for a lewd fellow, a clapper-claw, a
thieving dog who hath no regard for Holy Church--forsooth a most
vicious rogue, _monstrum nulla virtute redemptum a vitiis_!"

"Good friar, thy tongue is something harsh, methinks. Here be four
saints with as many curses, and all for one small ass!"

The friar puffed out his cheeks and sighed:

"'Twas a goodly ass, my son, a fair and gentle beast and of an easy
gait, and I am one that loveth not to trip it in the dust. Moreover
'twas the property of Holy Church! To take from thy fellow is evil, to
steal from thy lord is worse, but to ravish from Holy Church--_per de_
'tis sacrilege, 'tis foul blasphemy thrice--aye thirty times damned and
beyond all hope of redemption! So now do I consign yon archer-knave to
the lowest pit of Acheron--_damnatus est_, amen! Yet, my son, here--by
the mercy of heaven is a treasure the rogue hath overlooked, a pasty
most rarely seasoned that I had this day from my lord's own table. 'Tis
something small for two, alack and yet--stay--who comes?"

Now, lifting his head, Beltane beheld a man, bent and ragged who crept
towards them on a stick; his face, low-stooped, was hid 'neath long
and matted hair, but his tatters plainly showed the hideous nakedness
of limbs pinched and shrunken by famine, while about his neck was a
heavy iron collar such as all serfs must needs wear. Being come near he
paused, leaning upon his staff, and cried out in a strange, cracked
voice:

"O ye that are strong and may see the blessed sun, show pity on one
that is feeble and walketh ever in the dark!" And now, beneath the
tangled hair, Beltane beheld a livid face in whose pale oval, the
eyeless sockets glowed fierce and red; moreover he saw that the man's
right arm was but a mutilated stump, whereat Beltane shivered and,
bowing his head upon his hands, closed his eyes.

"Oho!" cried the friar, "and is it thou, Simon? Trouble ye the world
yet, child of Satan?"

Hereupon the blind man fell upon his knees. "Holy father," he groaned,
clasping his withered arms upon his gaunt breast, "good Friar Gui I die
of hunger; aid me lest I perish. 'Tis true I am outlaw and no man may
minister unto me, yet be merciful, give me to eat--O gentle Christ, aid
me--"

"How!" cried the friar, "dare ye speak that name, ye that are breaker
of laws human and divine, ye that are murderer, dare ye lift those
bloody hands to heaven?"

"Holy sir," quoth Beltane, "he hath but one; I pray you now give him to
eat."

"Feed an outlaw! Art mad, young sir? Feed a murderer, a rogue banned by
Holy Church, a serf that hath raised hand 'gainst his lord? He should
have hanged when the witch his daughter burned, but that Sir Pertolepe,
with most rare mercy, gave to the rogue his life."

"But," sighed Beltane, "left him to starve--'tis a death full as sure
yet slower, methinks. Come, let us feed him."

"I tell thee, fond youth, he is excommunicate. Wouldst have me
contravene the order of Holy Church? Go to!"

Then my Beltane put his hand within his pouch and taking thence a gold
piece held it out upon his palm; said he:

"Friar, I will buy the half of thy pasty of thee!" Hereupon Friar Gui
stared from the gold to the pasty, and back again.

"So much!" quoth he, round-eyed. "Forsooth 'tis a noble pasty and yet--
nay, nay, tempt me not--_retro Sathanas!_" and closing his eyes he
crossed himself. Then Beltane took out other two gold pieces and set
them in the blind man's bony hand, saying:

"Take these three gold pieces and buy you food, and thereafter--"

"Gold!" cried the blind man, "gold! Now the Saints keep and bless thee,
young sir, sweet Jesu love thee ever!" and fain would he have knelt to
kiss my Beltane's feet. But Beltane raised him up with gentle hand,
speaking him kindly, as thus:

"Tell now, I pray you, how came ye to slay?"

"Stay! stay!" cried Friar Gui, "bethink thee, good youth--so much gold,
'tis a very fortune! With so much, masses might be sung for his
wretched soul; give it therefore to Holy Church, so shall he,
peradventure, attain Paradise."

"Not so," answered Beltane, "I had rather he, of a surety, attain a
full belly, Sir Friar." Then, turning his back upon the friar, Beltane
questioned the blind man again, as thus:

"Tell me, an ye will, how ye came to shed blood?" and the outlaw,
kneeling at Beltane's feet answered with bowed head:

"Noble sir, I had a daughter and she was young and fair, therefore came
my lord Pertolepe's chief verderer to bear her to my lord. But she
cried to me and I, forgetting my duty to my lord, took my quarter-staff
and, serf though I was, smote the chief verderer that he died
thereafter, but, ere he died, he named my daughter witch. And, when
they had burned her, they put out mine eyes, and cut off my hand, and
made of me an outlaw. So is my sin very heavy upon me."

Now when the man had made an end, Beltane stood silent awhile, then,
reaching down, he aided the blind man to his feet.

"Go you to Mortain," said he, "seek out the hermit Ambrose that liveth
in Holy Cross Thicket; with him shall you find refuge, and he,
methinks, will surely win thy soul to heaven."

So the blind man blessed my Beltane and turning, crept upon his
solitary way.

"Youth," said the friar, frowning up into Beltane's gentle eyes, "thou
hast this day put thy soul in jeopardy--the Church doth frown upon this
thy deed!"

"And yet, most reverend sir, God's sun doth shine upon this my body!"

FRIAR. "He who aideth an evil-doer is enemy to the good!"

BELTANE. "Yet he who seeketh to do good to evil that good may follow,
doeth no evil to good."

FRIAR. "Ha! thou art a menace to the state--"

BELTANE. "So shall I be, I pray God, the whiles this state continue!"

FRIAR. "Thou art either rogue or fool!"

BELTANE. "Well, thou hast thy choice."

FRIAR. "Alack! this sorry world is full of rogues and fools and--"

BELTANE. "And friars!"

FRIAR. "Who seek the salvation of this wretched world."

BELTANE. "As how?"

FRIAR. "Forsooth we meditate and pray--"

BELTANE. "And eat!"

FRIAR. "Aye verily, we do a little in that way as the custom is, for
your reverent eater begetteth a devout pray-er. The which mindeth me I
grow an hungered, yet will I forego appetite and yield thee this fair
pasty for but two of thy gold pieces. And, look ye, 'tis a noble pasty
I had this day from my lord Pertolepe's own table."

BELTANE. "That same lord that showed mercy on yonder poor maimed
wretch? Know you him?"

FRIAR. "In very sooth, and 'tis a potent lord that holdeth me in some
esteem, a most Christian knight--"

BELTANE. "That ravisheth the defenceless! Whose hands be foul with the
blood of innocence--"

FRIAR. "How--how? 'Tis a godly lord who giveth bounteously to Holy
Church--"

BELTANE. "Who stealeth from the poor--"

FRIAR. "Stealeth! Holy Saint Dunstan, dare ye speak thus of so great a
lord--a son of the Church, a companion of our noble Duke? Steal,
forsooth! The poor have nought to steal!"

BELTANE. "They have their lives."

FRIAR. "Not so, they and their lives are their lord's, 'tis so the law
and--"

BELTANE. "Whence came this law?"

FRIAR. "It came, youth--it came--aye, of God!"

BELTANE. "Say rather of the devil!"

FRIAR. "Holy Saint Michael--'tis a blasphemous youth! Never heard ears
the like o' this--"

BELTANE. "Whence cometh poverty and famine?"

FRIAR. "'Tis a necessary evil! Doth it not say in Holy Writ, 'the poor
ye have always with you'?"

BELTANE. "Aye, so shall ye ever--until the laws be amended. So needs
must men starve and starve--"

FRIAR. "There be worse things! And these serfs be born to starve, bred
up to it, and 'tis better to starve here than to perish hereafter,
better to purge the soul by lack of meat than to make of it a fetter of
the soul!"

"Excellently said, holy sir!" quoth Beltane, stooping of a sudden. "But
for this pasty now, 'tis a somewhat solid fetter, meseemeth, so now do
I free thee of it--thus!" So saying, my Beltane dropped the pasty into
the deeper waters of the brook and, thereafter, took up his staff. "Sir
Friar," said he, "behold to-day is thy soul purged of a pasty against
the day of judgment!"

Then Beltane went on beside the rippling waters of the brook, but above
its plash and murmur rose the deeptoned maledictions of Friar Gui.



CHAPTER IX

WHEREIN IS SOME ACCOUNT OF THE PHILOSOPHY OF FOLLY AND THE WISDOM OF A
FOOL


As the day advanced the sun grew ever hotter; birds chirped drowsily
from hedge and thicket, and the warm, still air was full of the
slumberous drone of a myriad unseen wings. Therefore Beltane sought the
deeper shade of the woods and, risking the chance of roving thief or
lurking foot-pad, followed a devious course by reason of the
underbrush.

Now as he walked him thus, within the cool, green twilight, watchful of
eye and with heavy quarter-staff poised upon his shoulder, he presently
heard the music of a pipe now very mournful and sweet, anon breaking
into a merry lilt full of rippling trills and soft, bubbling notes most
pleasant to be heard. Wherefore he went aside and thus, led by the
music, beheld a jester in his motley lying a-sprawl beneath a tree. A
long-legged knave was he, pinched and something doleful of visage yet
with quick bright eyes that laughed 'neath sombre brows, and a wide,
up-curving mouth; upon his escalloped cape and flaunting cock's-comb
were many little bells that rang a silvery chime as, up-starting to his
elbow, he greeted my Beltane thus:

"Hail, noble, youthful Sir, and of thy sweet and gracious courtesy I
pray you mark me this--the sun is hot, my belly lacketh, and thou art a
fool!"

"And wherefore?" questioned Beltane, leaning him upon his quarter-staff.

"For three rarely reasonable reasons, sweet sir, as thus:--item, for
that the sun burneth, item, my belly is empty, and item, thou, lured by
this my foolish pipe art hither come to folly. So I, a fool, do greet
thee, fool, and welcome thee to this my palace of ease and pleasaunce
where, an ye be minded to list to the folly of a rarely foolish fool, I
will, with foolish jape and quip, befool thy mind to mirth and jollity,
for thou art a sad fool, methinks, and something melancholic!"

Quoth Beltane, sighing:

"'Tis a sad world and very sorrowful!"

"Nay--'tis a sweet world and very joyful--for such as have eyes to see
withal!"

"To see?" quoth Beltane, frowning, "this day have I seen a dead man
a-swing on a tree, a babe dead beside its cradle, and a woman die upon
a spear! All day have I breathed an air befouled by nameless evil;
whithersoever I go needs must I walk 'twixt Murder and Shame!"

"Then look ever before thee, so shalt see neither."

"Yet will they be there!"

"Yet doth the sun shine in high heaven, so must these things be till
God and the saints shall mend them. But if thou must needs be doleful,
go make thee troubles of thine own but leave the woes of this wide
world to God!"

"Nay," said Beltane, shaking his head, "how if God leave these things
to thee and me?"

"Why then methinks the world must wag as it will. Yet must we repine
therefore? Out upon thee for a sober, long-legged, doleful wight. Now
harkee! Here sit I--less fool! A fool who hath, this day, been driven
forth of my lord's presence with blows and cruel stripes! And
wherefore? 'Twas for setting a bird free of its cage, a small matter
methinks--though there be birds--and birds, but mum for that! Yet do I
grieve and sigh therefore, O doleful long-shanks? Not so--fie on't! I
blow away my sorrows through the music of this my little pipe and,
lying here, set my wits a-dancing and lo! I am a duke, a king, a very
god! I create me a world wherein is neither hunger nor stripes, a world
of joy and laughter, for, blessed within his dreams, even a fool may
walk with gods and juggle with the stars!"

"Aye," nodded Beltane, "but how when he awake?"

"Why then, messire," laughed the fellow, leaping nimbly to his feet,
"why then doth he ask alms of thee, as thus: Prithee most noble
messire, of thy bounty show kindness to a fool that lacks everything
but wit. So give, messire, give and spare not, so may thy lady prove
kind, thy wooing prosper and love strengthen thee."

Now when the jester spake of love, my Beltane must needs sigh amain and
shake a doleful head.

"Alas!" said he, "within my life shall be no place for love, methinks."

"Heigho!" sighed the jester, "thy very look doth proclaim thee lover,
and 'tis well, for love maketh the fool wise and the wise fool, it
changeth saints into rogues and rogues into saints, it teacheth the
strong man gentleness and maketh the gentle strong. 'Tis sweeter than
honey yet bitter as gall--Love! ah, love can drag a man to hell or lift
him high as heaven!"

"Aye verily," sighed Beltane, "I once did dream of such a love, but now
am I awake, nor will I dream of love again, nor rest whiles Lust and
Cruelty rule this sorrowful Duchy--"

"Ha, what would ye then, fond youth?"

"I am come to smite them hence," said Beltane, clenching mighty fists.

"How?" cried the jester, wide of eye. "Alone?"

"Nay, methinks God goeth with me. Moreover, I have this sword!" and
speaking, Beltane touched the hilt of the great blade at his side.

"What--a sword!" scoffed the jester, "think ye to mend the woes of thy
fellows with a sword? Go to, thou grave-visaged, youthful fool! I tell
thee, 'tis only humour and good fellowship can mend this wretched
world, and there is nought so lacking in humour as a sword--unless it
be your prating priest or mumbling monk. A pope in cap and bells, now--
aha, there would be a world indeed, a world of joy and laughter! No
more gloom, no more bans and damnings of Holy Church, no more groaning
and snivelling in damp cloister and mildewed chapel, no more burnings
and hangings and rackings--"

"Yet," said Beltane, shaking his head, "yet would kings and dukes
remain, Christian knights and godly lords to burn and hang and rack the
defenceless."

"Aye, Sir Gravity," nodded the jester, "but the Church is paramount
ever; set the pope a-blowing of tunes upon a reed and kings would lay
by their sceptres and pipe too and, finding no time or lust for
warring, so strife would end, swords rust and wit grow keen. And wit,
look you, biteth sharper than sword, laughter is more enduring than
blows, and he who smiteth, smiteth only for lack of wit. So, an you
would have a happy world, lay by that great sword and betake thee to a
little pipe, teach men to laugh and so forget their woes. Learn wisdom
of a fool, as thus: 'Tis better to live and laugh and beget thy kind
than to perish by the sword or to dangle from a tree. Here now is
advice, and in this advice thy life, thus in giving thee advice so do I
give thee thy life. And I am hungry. And in thy purse is money
wherewith even a fool might come by food. And youth is generous! And
thou art very young! Come, sweet youthful messire, how much for thy
life--and a fool's advice?"

Then Beltane smiled, and taking out one of his three remaining gold
pieces, put it in the jester's hand.

"Fare thee well, good fool," said he, "I leave thee to thy dreams; God
send they be ever fair--"

"Gold!" cried the jester, spinning the coin upon his thumb, "ha, now do
I dream indeed; may thy waking be ever as joyous. Farewell to thee,
thou kind, sweet, youthful fool, and if thou must hang some day on a
tree, may every leaf voice small prayers for thy gentle soul!"

So saying, the jester nodded, waved aloft his bauble, and skipped away
among the trees. But as Beltane went, pondering the jester's saying,
the drowsy stillness was shivered by a sudden, loud cry, followed
thereafter by a clamour of fierce shouting; therefore Beltane paused
and turning, beheld the jester himself who ran very fleetly, yet with
three lusty fellows in close pursuit.

"Messire," panted the jester, wild of eye and with a trickle of blood
upon his pallid face, "O sweet sir--let them not slay me!"

Now while he spake, and being yet some way off, he tripped and fell,
and, as he lay thus the foremost of his pursuers, a powerful, red-faced
man, leapt towards him, whirling up his quarter-staff to smite; but, in
that moment, Beltane leapt also and took the blow upon his staff and
swung it aloft, yet stayed the blow, and, bestriding the prostrate
jester, spake soft and gentle, on this wise:

"Greeting to thee, forest fellow! Thy red face liketh me well, let us
talk together."

But, hereupon, as the red-faced man fell back, staring in amaze, there
came his two companions, albeit panting and short of breath.

"What, Roger," cried one, "doth this fellow withstand thee?"

But Roger only growled, whiles Beltane smiled upon the three, gentle-eyed,
but with heavy quarter-staff poised lightly in practised hand; quoth he:

"How now, would ye harm the fool? 'Tis a goodly fool forsooth, yet with
legs scarce so nimble as his wit, and a tongue--ha, a golden tongue to
win all men to humour and good fellowship--"

"Enough!" growled red-faced Roger, "Sir Pertolepe's foresters we be,
give us yon scurvy fool then, that we may hang him out of hand."

"Nay," answered Beltane, "first let us reason together, let us hark to
the wisdom of Folly and grow wise--"

"Ha, Roger!" cried one of the men, "tap me this tall rogue on his
golden mazzard!"

"Or," said Beltane, "the fool shall charm thy souls to kindliness with
his pipe--"

"Ho, Roger!" cried the second forester, "split me this tall talker's
yellow sconce, now!"

"Come," growled Roger, threatening of mien, "yield us the fool, 'tis an
arrant knave hath angered his lord!"

"What matter for that," said Beltane, "so he hath not angered his God?
Come now, ye be hearty fellows and have faces that might be honest,
tell me, how long will ye serve the devil?"

"Devil? Ha, what talk be this? We serve no devil!"

"Aye," nodded Beltane, "though they call him Pertolepe the Red,
hereabouts."

"Devil!" cried Black Roger aghast. And, falling back a step he gaped in
amaze from Beltane to his gaping fellows. "Devil, forsooth!" he gasped,
"aha, I've seen many a man hang for less than this--"

"True," sighed Beltane, "men hang for small matters here in Pentavalon,
and to hang is an evil death, methinks!"

"So, so!" nodded Black Roger, grim-smiling, "I've watched them kick a
fair good while, betimes!"

"Ah!" cried Beltane, his eyes widening, "those hands of thine, belike,
have hanged a man ere this?"

"Aye, many a score. Oho! folk know Black Roger's name hereabouts. I
carry ever a noose at my girdle here--behold it!" and he showed a coil
of rope that swung at his belt.

Now looking from the man's grim features to this murderous cord,
Beltane blenched and shivered, whereat Black Roger laughed aloud, and
pointed a scornful finger.

"Look'ee, 'tis fair, good rope this, and well-tried, and shall bear
even thy great carcase sweetly--aye, sweetly--"

"How--would'st hang me also?" said Beltane faintly, and the heavy
quarter-staff sagged in his loosened grip.

"Hang thee--aye. Thou didst withstand us with this fool, thou hast
dared miscall our lord--we be all witnesses to it. So now will we--"

But swift as lightning-flash, Beltane's long quarter-staff whirled and
fell, and, for all his hood of mail, Black Roger threw wide his arms
and, staggering, fell upon his face and so lay; then, fierce and grim,
he had leapt upon the other two, and the air was full of the rattle and
thud of vicious blows. But these foresters were right lusty fellows and
they, together, beset my Beltane so furiously, right and left, that he
perforce gave back 'neath their swift and grievous blows and, being
overmatched, turned and betook him to his heels, whereat they,
incontinent, pursued with loud gibes and fierce laughter. But on ran
Beltane up the glade very fleetly yet watchful of eye, until, seeing
one had outstripped his fellow, he checked his going somewhat,
stumbling as one that is spent, whereat the forester shouted the louder
and came on amain. Then did my cunning Beltane leap aside and, leaping,
turned and smote the fellow clean and true upon the crown, and,
laughing to see him fall, ran in upon the other forester with whirling
quarter-staff. Now this fellow seeing himself stand alone, stayed not
to abide the onset, but turning about, made off into the green. Then
Beltane leaned him, panting, upon his staff, what time the fallen man
got him unsteadily to his legs and limped after his comrade; as for the
jester, he was gone long since; only Black Roger lay upon his face and
groaned faintly, ever and anon. Wherefore came Beltane and stood above
him as one in thought and, seeing him begin to stir, took from him his
sword and coil of rope and loosing off his swordbelt, therewith bound
his hands fast together and so, dragged him 'neath a tree that stood
hard by. Thus when at last Black Roger opened his eyes, he beheld
Beltane standing above him and in his hand the deadly rope. Now,
looking from this to the desolation about him, Black Roger shivered,
and gazing up into' the stern face above, his florid cheek grew pale.

"Master," said he hoarsely, "what would ye?"

"I would do to thee as thou hast done to others."

"Hang me?"

"Aye!" quoth Beltane, and setting the noose about his neck, cast the
rope across a branch.

"Master, how shall my death profit thee?"

"The world shall be the better, and thy soul know less of sin, mayhap."

"Master," said Black Roger, stooping to wipe sweat from his face with
fettered hands, "I have store of money set by--"

But Beltane laughed with pallid lips, and, pulling upon the rope,
dragged Black Roger, choking, to his feet.

"Master," he gasped, "show a little mercy--"

"Hast ever shown mercy to any man--speak me true!"

"Alack!--no, master! And yet--"

"How then shall ye expect mercy? Thou hast burnt and hanged and
ravished the defenceless, so now shall be an end of it for thee, yet--O
mark me this, thy name shall live on accursed in memory long after
thou'rt but poor dust."

"Aye, there be many alive to curse Black Roger living, and many dead to
curse me when I'm dead; poor Roger's soul shall find small mercy
hereafter, methinks--ha, I never thought on this!"

"Thou had'st a mother--"

"Aye, but they burned her for a witch when I was but a lad. As for me,
'tis true I've hanged men, yet I was my lord's chief verderer and did
but as my lord commanded."

"A man hath choice of good or evil."

"Aye. So now, an I must die--I must, but O master, say a prayer for me--
my sins lie very heavy--"

But Beltane, trembling, pulled upon the rope and swung Black Roger
writhing in mid-air; then, of a sudden, loosing the rope, the forester
fell and, while he lay gasping, Beltane stooped and loosed the rope
from his neck.

"What now?" groaned the forester, wild-eyed, "Sweet Jesu--ah, torture
me not!"

"Take back thy life," said Beltane, "and I pray God that henceforth
thou shalt make of it better use, and live to aid thy fellows, so shall
they, mayhap, some day come to bless thy memory."

Then Black Roger, coming feebly to his knees, looked about him as one
that wakes upon a new world, and lifted wide eyes from green earth to
cloudless sky.

"To live!" quoth he, "to live!" And so, with sudden gesture, stooped
his head to hide his face 'neath twitching fingers.

Hereupon Beltane smiled, gentle-eyed, yet spake not, and, turning,
caught up his staff and went softly upon his way, leaving Black Roger
the forester yet upon his knees.



CHAPTER X

HOW BELTANE MADE COMRADE ONE BLACK ROGER THAT WAS A HANGMAN


The sun was low what time Beltane came to a shrine that stood beside
the way, where was a grot built by some pious soul for the rest and
refreshment of wearied travellers; and here also was a crystal spring
the which, bubbling up, fell with a musical plash into the basin
hollowed within the rock by those same kindly hands. Here Beltane
stayed and, when he had drunk his fill, laid him down in the grateful
shade and setting his cloak beneath his head, despite his hunger,
presently fell asleep. When he awoke the sun was down and the world was
become a place of mystery and glooming shadow; a bird called
plaintively afar off in the dusk, the spring bubbled softly near by,
but save for this a deep silence brooded over all things; above the
gloom of the trees the sky was clear, where bats wheeled and hovered,
and beyond the purple upland an orbed moon was rising.

Now as Beltane breathed the cool, sweet air of evening and looked about
him drowsily, he suddenly espied a shadow within the shadows, a dim
figure--yet formidable and full of menace, and he started up, weapon in
fist, whereupon the threatening figure stirred and spake:

"Master--'tis I!" said a voice. Then Beltane came forth of the grot and
stared upon Black Roger, grave-eyed.

"O Hangman," said he, "where is thy noose?"

But Roger quailed and hung his head, and spake with eyes abased:

"Master, I burned it, together with my badge of service."

"And what would ye here?"

"Sir, I am a masterless man henceforth, for an I hang not men for Sir
Pertolepe, so will Sir Pertolepe assuredly hang me."

"And fear ye death?"

"Messire, I--have hanged many men and--there were women also! I have
cut me a tally here on my belt, see--there be many notches--and every
notch a life. So now for every life these hands have taken do I vow to
save a life an it may be so, and for every life saved would I cut away
a notch until my belt be smooth again and my soul the lighter."

"Why come ye to me, Black Roger?"

"For that this day, at dire peril, I saw thee save a fool, Master. So
now am I come to thee to be thy man henceforth, to follow and serve
thee while life remain."

"Why look now," quoth Beltane, "mine shall be a hard service and a
dangerous, for I have mighty wrongs to set aright."

"Ha! belike thou art under some vow also, master?"

"Aye, verily, nor will I rest until it be accomplished or I am slain.
For mark this, lonely am I, with enemies a many and strong, yet because
of my vow needs must I smite them hence or perish in the adventure.
Thus, he that companies me must go ever by desperate ways, and 'tis
like enough Death shall meet him in the road."

"Master," quoth Black Roger, "this day have ye shown me death yet given
me new life, so beseech thee let me serve thee henceforth and aid thee
in this thy vow."

Now hereupon Beltane smiled and reached forth his hand; then Black
Roger falling upon his knee, touched the hand to lip, and forehead and
heart, taking him for his lord henceforth, and spake the oath of
fealty: but when he would have risen, Beltane stayed him:

"What, Black Roger, thou hast sworn fealty and obedience to me--now
swear me this to God:--to hold ever, and abide by, thy word: to shew
mercy to the distressed and to shield the helpless at all times!"

And when he had sworn, Black Roger rose bright-eyed and eager.

"Lord," said he, "whither do we go?"

"Now," quoth Beltane, "shew me where I may eat, for I have a mighty
hunger."

"Forsooth," quoth Roger, scratching his chin, "Shallowford village
lieth but a bowshot through the brush yonder--yet, forsooth, a man
shall eat little there, methinks, these days."

"Why so?"

"For that 'twas burned down, scarce a week agone--"

"Burned!--and wherefore?"

"Lord Pertolepe fell out with his neighbour Sir Gilles of Brandonmere--
upon the matter of some wench, methinks it was--wherefore came Sir
Gilles' men by night and burned down Shallowford with twenty hunting
dogs of Sir Pertolepe's that chanced to be there: whereupon my lord
waxed mighty wroth and, gathering his company, came into the demesne of
Sir Gilles and burned down divers manors and hung certain rogues and
destroyed two villages--in quittance."

"Ah--and what of the village folk?"

"My lord, they were but serfs for the most part, but--for Sir
Pertolepe's dogs--twenty and two--and roasted alive, poor beasts!"

But here Black Roger checked both speech and stride, all at once, and
stood with quarter-staff poised as from the depth of the wood came the
sound of voices and fierce laughter.

"Come away, master," he whispered, "these should be Sir Pertolepe's
men, methinks."

But Beltane shook his head:

"I'm fain to see why they laugh," said he, and speaking, stole forward
soft-footed amid the shadows; and so presently parting the leaves,
looked down into an open dell or dingle full of the light of the rising
moon; light that glinted upon the steel caps and hauberks of some score
men, who leaned upon pike or gisarm about one who sat upon a fallen
tree--and Beltane saw that this was Giles the Bowman. But the arms of
Giles were bound behind his back, about his neck hung a noose, and his
face showed white and pallid 'neath the moon, as, lifting up his head,
he began to sing:

  "O ne'er shall my lust for the bowl decline,
   Nor my love for my good long bow;
   For as bow to the shaft and as bowl to the wine,
   Is a--"

The rich voice was strangled to a gasping sob as the rope was tightened
suddenly about the singer's brawny throat and he was swung, kicking,
into the air amid the hoarse gibes and laughter of the men-at-arms.
But, grim and silent, Beltane leaped down among them, his long blade
glittering in the moonlight, and before the mighty sweep of it they
fell back, crowding upon each other and confused; then Beltane,
turning, cut asunder the cord and Giles Brabblecombe fell and lay
'neath the shade of the tree, wheezing and whimpering in the grass.

And now with a clamour of cries and fierce rallying shouts, the
men-at-arms, seeing Beltane stand alone, set themselves in array and
began to close in upon him. But Beltane, facing them in the tender
moonlight, set the point of his sword to earth and reached out his
mailed hand in salutation.

"Greeting, brothers!" said he, "why seek ye the death of this our
brother? Come now, suffer him to go his ways in peace, and God's
blessing on ye, one and all."

Now at this some laughed and some growled, and one stood forth before
his fellows staring upon Beltane 'neath close-drawn, grizzled brows:

"'Tis a rogue, and shall dance for us upon a string!" laughed he.

"And this tall fellow with him!" said another.

"Aye, aye, let us hang 'em together," cried others.

"Stay!" said Beltane, "behold here money; so now will I ransom this
man's life of ye. Here be two pieces of gold, 'tis my all--yet take
them and yield me his life!"

Hereupon the men fell to muttering together doubtfully, but in this
moment the grizzled man of a sudden raised a knotted fist and shook it
in the air.

"Ha!" cried he, pointing to Beltane, "look ye, Cuthbert, Rollo--see ye
not 'tis him we seek? Mark ye the size of him, his long sword and belt
of silver--'tis he that came upon us in the green this day and slew our
comrade Michael. Come now, let us hang him forthwith and share his
money betwixt us after."

Then my Beltane sighed amain, and sighing, unsheathed his dagger.

"Alas!" said he, "and must we shed each other's blood forsooth? Come
then, let us slay each other, and may Christ have pity on our souls!"

Thus saying, he glanced up at the pale splendour of the moon, and round
him on the encircling shadows of the woods dense and black beneath the
myriad leaves, and so, quick-eyed and poised for action, waited for the
rush.

And, even as they came upon him, he sprang aside where the gloom lay
blackest, and they being many and the clearing small, they hampered
each other and fell into confusion; and, in that moment, Beltane leapt
among them and smote, and smote again, now in the moonlight, now in
shadow; leaping quick-footed from the thrust of sword and pike,
crouching 'neath the heavy swing of axe and gisarm; and ever his
terrible blade darted with deadly point or fell with deep-biting edge.
Hands gripped at him from the gloom, arms strove to clasp him, but his
dagger-hand was swift and strong. Pike heads leapt at him and were
smitten away, axe and gisarm struck, yet found him not, and ever, as he
leapt, he smote. And now in his ears were cries and groans and other
hateful sounds, and to his nostrils came a reek of sweating flesh and
the scent of trampled grass; while the moon's tender light showed faces
wild and fierce, that came and went, now here--now there; it glinted on
head-piece and ringed mail, and flashed back from whirling steel--a
round, placid moon that seemed, all at once, to burst asunder and
vanish, smitten into nothingness. He was down--beaten to his knee,
deafened and half blind, but struggling to his feet he staggered out
from the friendly shadow of the trees, out into the open. A sword,
hard-driven, bent and snapped short upon his triple mail, the blow of a
gisarm half stunned him, a goring pike-thrust drove him reeling back,
yet, ringed in by death, he thrust and smote with failing arm. Axe and
pike, sword and gisarm hedged him in nearer and nearer, his sword grew
suddenly heavy and beyond his strength to wield, but stumbling,
slipping, dazed and with eyes a-swim, he raised the great blade aloft,
and lifting drooping head, cried aloud the battle-cry of his house--
high and clear it rang above the din:

"Arise! Arise! I will arise!"

And even in that moment came one in answer to the cry, one that leapt
to his right hand, a wild man and hairy who plied a gleaming axe and,
'twixt each stroke, seemed, from hairy throat, to echo back the cry:

"Arise! Arise!"

And now upon his left was Black Roger, fierce-eyed behind his buckler.
Thereafter a voice hailed them as from far away, a sweet, deep voice,
cheery and familiar as one heard aforetime in a dream, and betwixt
every sentence came the twang of swift-drawn bow-string.

"O tall brother, fall back! O gentle paladin, O fair flower of lusty
fighters, fall back and leave the rest to our comrades, to me and my
good bow, here!"

So, dazed and breathless, came Beltane on stumbling feet and leaned him
gasping in the shadow of a great tree whereby stood Giles o' the Bow
with arrows planted upright in the sod before him, the which he
snatched and loosed so fast 'twas a wonder to behold. Of a sudden he
uttered a shout and, setting by his bow, drew sword, and leaping from
the shadow, was gone.

But, as for Beltane, he leaned a while against the tree as one who is
very faint; yet soon, lifting heavy head, wondered at the hush of all
things, and looking toward the clearing saw it empty and himself alone;
therefore turned he thitherwards. Now as he went he stumbled and his
foot struck a something soft and yielding that rolled before him in the
shadow out--out into the full brilliance of the moon, and looking down,
he beheld a mangled head that stared up at him wide-eyed and with mouth
agape. Then Beltane let fall his reeking sword and staggering out into
the light, saw his bright mail befouled with clotted blood, and of a
sudden the world went black about him and he fell and lay with his face
among the trampled grass.

In a while he groaned and opened his eyes to find Black Roger bathing
his face what time Giles o' the Bow held wine to his lips, while at his
feet, a wild figure grim and ragged, stood a tall, hairy man leaning
upon a blood-stained axe.

"Aha!" cried the bowman. "Come now, my lovely fighter, my gentle giant,
sup this--'tis life, and here behold a venison steak fit for Duke Ivo's
self, come--"

"Nay, first," says Beltane, sitting up, "are there many hurt?"

"Aye, never fear for that, my blood-thirsty dove, they be all most
completely dead save one, and he sore wounded, _laus Deo, amen!_"

"Dead!" cried Beltane, shivering, "dead, say you?"

"Aye, Sir Paladin, all sweetly asleep in Abraham's bosom. We three here
accounted for some few betwixt us, the rest fell 'neath that great
blade o' thine. O sweet Saint Giles! ne'er saw I such sword-work--point
and edge, sa-ha! And I called thee--dove!--aye 'dove' it was, I mind
me. O blind and worse than blind! But _experientia docet_, tall
brother!"

Now hereupon Beltane bowed his head and clasping his hands, wrung them.

"Sweet Jesu forgive me!" he cried, "I had not meant to slay so many!"

Then he arose and went apart and, kneeling among the shadows, prayed
long and fervently.



CHAPTER XI

WHICH TELLS HOW THREE MIGHTY MEN SWARE FEALTY TO BELTANE: AND HOW GOOD
FRIAR MARTIN DIGGED A GRAVE IN THE WILD


Now when Beltane's mighty hunger was assuaged he sat--his aching head
yet ringing with the blow--and stared up at the moon, sad and wistful-eyed
as one full of heaviness the while Black Roger standing beside him
gazed askance at the archer who sat near by whistling softly and busied
with certain arrows, cleaning and trimming them ere he set them back in
his quiver. And presently Black Roger spake softly, low-stooping to
Beltane's ear:

"Lord, we have saved the life of yon prating archer-fellow, and behold
my belt lacketh for one notch, which is well. So come, let us go our
ways, thou and I, for I love not your talkers, and this fellow hath
overmuch to say."

But now, ere Beltane could make reply, came the hairy man--but behold
his rags had given place to fair garments of tanned leather (albeit
something small) together with steel cap and shirt of ringed mail, and,
about his middle, a broad belt where swung a heavy sword; being come to
Beltane he paused leaning upon his axe, and gazed upon him fierce-eyed:

"Messire," said he, "who ye are I know not, what ye are I care not, for
art quick of foot and mighty of arm, and when ye fight, cry a point of
war, a battle-shout I knew aforetime ere they enslaved and made of me a
serf--and thus it is I would follow thee."

Quoth Beltane, his aching head upon his hand:

"Whither?"

"To death if needs be, for a man must die soon or late, yet die but
once whether it be by the steel, or flame, or rope. So what matter the
way of it, if I may stand with this my axe face to face with Gilles of
Brandonmere, or Red Pertolepe of Garthlaxton Keep: 'twas for this I
followed his foresters."

"Who and whence are you?"

"Walkyn o' the Dene they call me hereabouts--though I had another name
once--but 'twas long ago, when I marched, a lad, 'neath the banner of
Beltane the Strong!"

"What talk be this?" grunted Black Roger, threatening of mien, "my lord
and I be under a vow and must begone, and want no runaway serf crawling
at our heels!"

"Ha!" quoth Walkyn, "spake I to thee, hangman? Forsooth, well do I know
thee, Roger the Black: come ye into the glade yonder, so will I split
thy black poll for thee--thou surly dog!"

Forth leapt Black Roger's sword, back swung Walkyn's glittering axe,
but Beltane was between, and, as they stood thus came Giles o' the Bow:

"Oho!" he laughed, "must ye be at it yet? Have we not together slain of
Sir Pertolepe's foresters a round score?--"

"'Twas but nineteen!" growled Roger, frowning at Walkyn.

"So will I make of this hangman the twentieth!" said Walkyn, frowning
at Roger.

"'Tis a sweet thought," laughed the archer, "to it, lads, and slay each
other as soon as ye may, and my blessings on ye. As for us, Sir
Paladin, let us away--'tis true we together might give check to an
army, yet, minding Sir Pertolepe's nineteen foresters, 'twere wiser to
hie us from Sir Pertolepe's country for the nonce: so march, tall
brother--march!"

"Ha!" snarled Walkyn, "fear ye Red Pertolepe yet, bowman? Well, we want
ye not, my lord and I, he hath a sword and I an axe--they shall suffice
us, mayhap, an Pertolepe come. So hie thee hence with the hangman and
save thy rogue's skin."

"And may ye dangle in a noose yet for a prating do-nothing!" growled
Roger.

"Oho!" laughed Giles, with a flash of white teeth, "a hangman and a
serf--must I slay both?" But, ere he could draw sword, came a voice
from the shadows near by--a deep voice, clear and very sweet:

"Oh, children," said the voice, "oh, children of God, put up your
steel and pray for one whose white soul doth mount e'en now to heaven!"
and forth into the light came one clad as a white friar--a tall man and
slender, and upon his shoulder he bare a mattock that gleamed beneath
the moon. His coarse, white robe, frayed and worn, was stained with
earth and the green of grass, and was splashed, here and there, with a
darker stain; pale was he, and hollow-cheeked, but with eyes that
gleamed 'neath black brows and with chin long and purposeful. Now at
sight of him, fierce-eyed Walkyn cried aloud and flung aside his axe
and, falling on his knees, caught the friar's threadbare robe and
kissed it.

"Good brother!" he groaned, "O, gentle brother Martin, pity me!"

"What, Walkyn?" quoth the friar. "What do ye thus equipped and so far
from home?"

"Home have I none, henceforth, O my father."

"Ah! What then of thy wife, Truda--of thy little son?"

"Dead, my father. Red Pertolepe's men slew them this day within the
green. So, when I had buried them, I took my axe and left them with
God: yet shall my soul go lonely, methinks, until my time be come."

Then Friar Martin reached out his hand and laid it upon Walkyn's bowed
head: and, though the hand was hard and toil-worn, the touch of it was
ineffably gentle, and he spake with eyes upraised to heaven:

"O Christ of Pity, look down upon this stricken soul, be Thou his stay
and comfort. Teach him, in his grief and sorrow, to pity the woes of
others, that, in comforting his fellows, he may himself find comfort."

Now when the prayer was ended he turned and looked upon the others,
and, beholding Beltane in his might and glittering mail, he spake,
saluting him as one of rank.

"Sir Knight," said he, "do these men follow thee?"

"Aye, verily," cried the archer, "that do I in sooth--_Verbum sat
sapienti_--good friar."

"Not so," growled Roger, "'tis but a pestilent archer that seeketh but
base hire. I only am my lord's man, sworn to aid him in his vow." "I
also," quoth Walkyn, "an so my lord wills?"

"So shall it be," sighed Beltane, his hand upon his throbbing brow.

"And what have ye in mind to do?"

"Forsooth," cried Giles, "to fight, good friar, _manibus pedibusque_."

"To obey my lord," said Roger, "and speak good Saxon English."

"To adventure my body in battle with joyful heart," quoth Walkyn.

"To make an end of tyranny!" sighed Beltane.

"Alas!" said the friar, "within this doleful Duchy be tyrants a many,
and ye are but four, meseemeth; yet if within your hearts be room for
pity--follow me, and I will show you a sight, mayhap shall nerve you
strong as giants. Come!"

So Beltane followed the white friar with the three upon his heels who
wrangled now no more; and in a while the friar paused beside a new-digged
grave.

"Behold," said he, "the bed where we, each one, must sleep some day,
and yet 'tis cold and hard, methinks, for one so young and tender!" So
saying he sighed, and turning, brought them to a hut near by, an humble
dwelling of mud and wattles, dim-lighted by a glimmering rush. But,
being come within the hut Beltane stayed of a sudden and held his
breath, staring wide-eyed at that which lay so still: then, baring his
head, sank upon his knees.

She lay outstretched upon a bed of fern, and looked as one that sleeps
save for the deathly pallor of her cheek and still and pulseless bosom:
and she was young, and of a wondrous, gentle beauty.

"Behold," said the friar, "but one short hour agone this was alive--a
child of God, pure of heart and undefiled. These gentle hands lie
stilled forever: this sweet, white body (O shame of men!) blasted by
brutality, maimed and torn--is nought but piteous clay to moulder in
the year. Yet doth her radiant soul lie on the breast of God forever,
since she, for honour, died the death--Behold!" So saying, the friar
with sudden hand laid bare the still and marble bosom; and, beholding
the red horror wrought there by cruel steel, Beltane rose up, and
taking off his cloak, therewith reverently covered the pale, dead
beauty of her, and so stood awhile with eyes close shut and spake,
soft-voiced and slow, 'twixt pallid lips:

"How--came this--thing?"

"She was captive to Sir Pertolepe, by him taken in a raid, and he would
have had her to his will: yet, by aid of my lord's jester, she escaped
and fled hither. But Sir Pertolepe's foresters pursued and took her
and--so is she dead: may God requite them!"

"Amen!" quoth Giles o' the Bow, hoarse-voiced, "so do they all lie dead
within the green!"

"Save one!" said Roger.

"But he sore wounded!" quoth Walkyn.

"How!" cried the friar aghast, "have ye indeed slain Sir Pertolepe's
foresters?"

"Nineteen!" nodded Roger, grimly.

"Alas!" cried the friar, "may God save the poor folk hereabouts, for
now will Sir Pertolepe wreak vengeance dire upon them."

"Then," said Beltane, "then must I have word with Sir Pertolepe."

Now when he said this, Black Roger stared agape and even the archer's
tongue failed him for once; but Walkyn smiled and gripped his axe.

"Art mad, tall brother!" cried Giles at length, "Sir Pertolepe would
hang thee out of hand, or throw thee to his dogs!"

"Lord," said Roger, "Sir Pertolepe hath ten score men-at-arms in
Garthlaxton, beside bowmen and foresters."

"There should be good work for mine axe!" smiled Walkyn.

"None the less must I speak with him," said Beltane, and turned him to
the door.

"Then will I die with thee, lord," growled Roger.

"So will I come and watch thee die--hangman, and loose a shaft or two
on mine own account!"

But now, of a sudden, Walkyn raised a warning hand.

"Hark!" said he: and, in a while, as they listened, upon the stillness
came a rustle of leaves and thereafter a creeping step drawing slowly
nearer: then swift and soft-treading, Walkyn stole out into the
shadows.

Very soon he returned, leading a woman, pale and haggard, who clasped
a babe within her threadbare cloak; her eyes were red and sore with
much weeping and upon the threshold she paused as one in sudden fear,
but espying the friar, she uttered a cry:

"O Father Martin--good father--pray, pray for the soul of him who is
father to my child, but who at dawn must die with many others upon my
lord Duke's great gallows!"

"Alas!" cried the friar, wringing his hands, "what news is this?"

"O good friar," sobbed the woman, "my lord's hand hath been so heavy
upon us of late--so heavy: and there came messengers from Thrasfordham
in Bourne bidding us thither with fair promises:--and my father, being
head of our village, hearkened to them and we made ready to cross into
Bourne. But my lord came upon us and burned our village of Shallowford
and lashed my father with whips and thereafter hanged him, and took my
man and many others and cast them into the great dungeon at Belsaye--
and with the dawn they must hang upon the Duke's great gallows."

So she ended and stood weeping as one that is hopeless and weary. But
of a sudden she screamed and pointed at Black Roger with her finger:

"'Tis Roger!" she cried, "'tis Black Roger, that slew my father!"

Then Roger the Black groaned and hid his face within his arm and shrank
before the woman's outstretched finger and, groaning, cowered to his
knees; whereupon the archer turned his back and spat upon the floor
while Walkyn glared and fingered his great axe: but in this moment my
Beltane came beside him and laid his hand on Roger's stooping shoulder.

"Nay," said he, "this is my friend henceforth, a man among men, who
liveth to do great things as thus: To-night he will give back to thee
the father of thy child, and break open the dungeon of Belsaye!"

Thus spake my Beltane while all stared at his saying and held their
peace because of their amaze: only Black Roger turned of a sudden and
caught his hand and kissed it savagely.

"Sir," said the woman, peering up in Beltane's face, "Lord--ah, would
ye mock the weak and helpless--"

"Nay," said Beltane gently, "as God seeth me, to-night the prisoners
shall go free, or this man and I die with them. So now be comforted--go
you to Bourne, to Sir Benedict within Thrasfordham Keep, and say you
come from Beltane, Duke of Pentavalon, who swore thee, by the honour of
the Duke Beltane his father, that never again shall a man hang from the
great gallows of Black Ivo the usurper--from this night it shall cease
to be!"

Now would the woman have knelt and kissed his hand, but Beltane smiled
and brought her to the door. Then, wondering and amazed, she made her
obeisance to Beltane and with her babe clasped to her bosom went forth
into the night. Thereafter Beltane turned and looked grave-eyed upon
the three.

"My masters," quoth he, "ye have heard my words, how this night I go to
take down Black Ivo's great gallows. Come ye with me? Aye or no?"

"Aye, lord!" cried the three in one acclaim.

"Do ye then stand with me henceforth 'gainst Black Ivo and all his
might? Aye or no?"

"Aye, lord!" cried they again.

Then Beltane smiled and drew his sword and came to them, the great
blade gleaming in his hand.

"'Tis well!" said he, "but first come now and lay your hands here upon
my sword and swear me this, each one,--To follow ever where I shall
lead, to abide henceforth in brotherhood together, to smite evil within
you and without, to be pitiful to the weak, and to honour God at all
times."

Then did the three, being upon their knees, lay their hands upon the
sword and swear the oath as Beltane commanded; now came the white friar
and stared upon the sword and beholding the motto graven in the steel,
lifted up his hand to heaven and cried aloud:--

"Now greeting and fair greeting to thee, lord Duke, may thy body be
strong for war and thy head wise in the council, for Pentavalon hath
dire need of thee, Beltane, son of Duke Beltane the Strong. Moreover I
was sent to thee by Sir Benedict of Bourne who bids thee 'Arise and
follow' for that the time is at hand."

"How," cried Beltane, "art thou indeed from Sir Benedict?"

"Even so, lord. In Thrasfordham be seven hundred chosen men-at-arms,
and within Bourne, mayhap a thousand more. It is become a haven for
those that flee from tyranny and bitter wrong. As for me, I journey
where I will within the Duchy, serving the poor and ministering to the
broken-hearted, and everywhere is black sin and suffering and death. So
now in the name of these oppressed do I give thee welcome to this thy
sorrowful Duchy, and may God make of thee Duke indeed!"

Quoth Beltane:

"Duke am I in blood and Duke will I yet be in very sooth an God so will
it." Then turning to the three, who stood hearkening open-mouthed and
wide of eye, he smiled and reached to them his hand.

"Good friends," said he, "knowing nought of me yet were ye willing to
follow my fortunes. For this do I thank ye one and all, and so shall my
fortune, high or low, be thine, henceforth. To-day is Ivo Duke, and I
thy companion-in-arms, no more, no less--this, I pray you all,
remember."

So saying, Beltane sheathed his sword and beholding Friar Martin on his
knees beside that muffled figure, he knelt also, and the three with
him. Thereafter at a sign from the friar, Beltane stooped and raised
this slender, shrouded figure in his arms and reverently bore it out
into the shadows.

And there, all in the tender radiance of the moon, they buried her
whose name they never knew, and stood a while in silence. Then,
pointing to the new-turned earth, Friar Martin spake soft-voiced:

"Lo, here--in but a little time, wild flowers shall bloom above her--
yet none purer or sweeter than she! In a little shall the grass be
green again, and she sleep here forgot by all--save God! And God, my
brothers, is a gentle God and very pitiful--so now do we leave her in
God's abiding care."

And presently they turned, soft-footed, and went upon their way leaving
the place to solitude.

But from the vault of heaven the stars looked down upon that lonely
grave like the watching eyes of holy angels.



CHAPTER XII

WHICH TELLS HOW DUKE IVO'S GREAT GALLOWS CEASED TO BE


Scarce a mile without the walls of the fair city of Belsaye my lord
Duke had builded him a great gallows, had set it high upon a hill for
all the world to see; from whose lofty cross-beams five score rogues
had hanged ere now, had writhed and kicked their lives away and rotted
there in company, that all the world might know how potent was the
anger of my lord Duke Ivo.

Day in, day out, from rosy morn till dewy eve, it frowned upon Belsaye,
a thing of doom whose grim sight should warn rebellious townsfolk to
dutiful submission; by night it loomed, a dim-seen, brooding horror,
whose loathsome reek should mind them how all rogues must end that
dared lift hand or voice against my lord Duke, or those proud barons,
lords, and knights who, by his pleasure, held their fiefs with rights
of justice, the high, the middle and the low.

Day in, day out, the men of Belsaye eyed it askance 'neath scowling
brows and, by night, many a clenched hand was shaken and many a
whispered malediction sped, toward that thing of doom that menaced them
from the dark.

To-night the moon was full, and thus, following Friar Martin's bony
outstretched finger, Beltane of a sudden espied afar the Duke's great
gallows, rising grisly and stark against the moon's round splendour. So
for a space, standing yet within the shade of the woods, Beltane stared
fierce-eyed, the while Giles, with Roger at his elbow, pointed out
divers shapes that dangled high in air, at sight of which the friar
knelt with bowed head and lips that moved in prayer: and Walkyn,
scowling, muttered in his beard.

"Messire," said the archer, "my lord Duke's gallows is great and very
strong, and we but five all told!"

"I have mine axe!" quoth Walkyn.

"Had we fifty axes we scarce should bring it down ere dawn: moreover,
the night is very still and sounds carry far--"

"Nathless," quoth Roger, "to-night we surely shall destroy it--my lord
hath said so."

"Aye--but how?" questioned Giles. "In Belsaye is that pale fox Sir Gui
of Allerdale with many trusty men-at-arms to hold the town for Black
Ivo and teach Belsaye its duty: how may we destroy my lord Duke's
gallows 'neath the very beards of my lord Duke's garrison, wilt tell me
that, my good, Black Rogerkin?"

"Aye," nodded Roger, "that will I--when I have asked my lord." So
saying, he came and touched Beltane and humbly put the question.

Then, with his gaze yet upon the gallows, Beltane sighed and answered:

"There hath been no rain for weeks, look you: the underbrush is dry,
methinks, and should burn well!"

"Aye, for sure," said Roger, "we shall burn Black Ivo's gallows to
ashes, bowman, and a good end 'twill be."

"By fire!" cried the archer, aghast, "but lord, so soon as they shall
see the flames, Sir Gui and his men will sally out upon us!"

"Nay," said Beltane, "for we shall sally in."

"Into Belsaye, mean you, lord?"

"Certes," answered Beltane, "how else may we break open the dungeon?
The night is young yet, but we have much to do--follow!" So saying,
Beltane turned and keeping ever within the shadow of the trees, set off
towards that distant hill where stood the gallows, black against the
moon.

Swiftly they went and for the most part in silence, for Beltane's mind
was busied upon many matters.

So betimes they climbed the hill and stood at last beneath the gallows,
and, glancing up, Beltane beheld noisome shapes, black and shrivelled,
that once had lived and laughed. Forthwith he drew his sword and fell
to cutting down the brush, whereat friar Martin, girding up his frock,
took Walkyn's sword and fell to likewise.

Now, as Beltane laboured thus, he was suddenly aware of a wild and
ragged figure, the which started up before him as if from the very
ground. An old man he was, bent with years, yet with eyes that burned
fierce and undimmed 'neath hoary brows, and shrivelled hands that
gripped upon a rusty sword.

"Who are ye," he cried, harsh-voiced, "who are ye that disturb this
woeful place? 'Tis here that men are dragged to die--and, being dead,
do hang i' the air to rot and rot--and thereby hangs a tale of wolves
that howl and birds that shriek, aha!--carrion crows and hook-billed
kites--they be well gorged since Ivo came. 'Caw!' they cry, 'caw!'--
soft child's flesh and the flesh of tender maids--aha!--I know--I've
watched--I've seen! Ah! since my lord Duke Beltane died, what sights
these eyes have seen!"

"Old man," quoth Beltane, bending near, "who art thou?"

"I am the ghost that haunts this place, but, ages since, I was Sir
Robert Bellesme of Garthlaxton Keep. But my wife they slew, my daughter
ravished from me--and my son--Ah! Christ--my son! They hanged him here
--yonder he hung, and I, his father, watched him die. But, by night,
when all was still, I crept hither and found a hole to shelter me. And
here I stayed to watch over him--my son who hung so quiet and so still.
And the rough wind buffeted him, the cruel rain lashed him, and the hot
sun scorched him, but still he hung there, so high!--so high! Yet I
waited, for the strongest rope will break in time. And upon a moony
night, he fell, and I gathered him in my arms, close here against my
heart, and buried him--where none can know--save God. Many others have
I buried also, for the strongest cords must break in time! And folk do
say the devil bears them hence, since none are ever found--but I know
where they lie--six hundred and seventy and nine--I know--these hands
have buried them and I have kept a tally. Ah!--but you, gentle youth,
what would ye here?"

"Burn down the gallows," said Beltane, "'tis an accursed thing, so
shall it shame earth and heaven no longer."

"How!--how!" cried the ancient man, letting fall his rusty sword,
"Destroy Black Ivo's gibbet? Dare ye--dare ye such a thing indeed? Are
there men with souls unconquered yet? Methought all such were old, or
dead, or fled away--dare ye this, youth?"

"Aye," nodded Beltane. "Watch now!" and hereupon he, together with the
others, fell to hewing down the dry brush with might and main, and
piling it about the gibbet's massy beams, while the ancient man,
perched upon a rock hard by, watched them 'neath his shaggy brows and
laughed soft and shrill.

"Aha!" he cried, "the fire ye kindle here shall set the Duchy in a
flame mayhap, to burn Black Ivo with Gui of Allerdale and Red
Pertolepe--mayhap! For them, fire on earth and flame in hell--aha! To
burn the gibbet! 'tis well bethought: so shall carrion kite and jay go
light-bellied hereabouts, mayhap, oho! 'Caw,' they shall cry, 'Caw--
give us to eat--fair white flesh!' Yet how may they eat when the
gallows is no more?"

Thus spake he with shrill laughter while Beltane laboured until the
sweat ran from him, while Walkyn's great axe flashed and fell near by
and steel glittered among the underbrush that clothed the slopes of the
hill.

Very soon they had stacked great piles of kindling about the gallows'
weather-beaten timbers--twigs below, faggots above--cunningly ordered
and higher than Beltane's head. Now as Beltane leaned upon his sword to
wipe the sweat from his eyes, came Roger and Walkyn yet panting from
their labour.

"Master," said Roger, "they should burn well, I trow, and yet--"

"And yet," quoth Walkyn, "these beams be thick: methinks, when the
others go, one man should stay to tend the fires until the flame gets
fair hold--"

"And that man I!" said Roger.

"No, no," frowned Walkyn, "an one of us must die, it shall be me--"

But now came the ancient man, leaning upon his ancient weapon.

"No, children," said he, "'tis for age to die--death is sweet to the
old and weary: so will I tend the fire. Yet, beseech thee, grant me
this: that these my hands shall fire the gallows whereon they hanged my
son, long ago: young was he, and tall--scarce yet a man--they hanged
him yonder, so high--so high--so far beyond my care: and the carrion
birds--kites, see you, and crows--and the wind and rain and dark--Ah,
God! my son! I am but an old man and feeble, yet, beseech thee, let
this be the hand to fire Black Ivo's gibbet!"

Then Beltane took from his pouch flint and steel and tinder and gave
them to the old man's trembling fingers as Giles o' the Bow came
running with the stalwart friar behind him.

So, while the five stood hushed and wide of eye, the old man knelt
before them in his rags and struck flint to steel. Once he struck, and
twice--and behold a spark that leapt to a small flame that died to a
glow; but now, flat upon his belly lay Giles and, pursing his lips,
puffed and blew until the glow brightened, spread, and burst into a
crackling flame that leapt from twig to twig. And when the fire waxed
hot, Beltane took thence a glowing brand, and, coming to the other
great pile, fired it therewith. Up rose the flames high and higher
until they began to lick, pale-tongued, about the gibbet's two great
supporting timbers, and ever as they rose, Walkyn and Roger, Giles and
the friar, laboured amain, stacking logs near by wherewith to feed the
fires.

"Enough," said Beltane at last, "it shall suffice, methinks."

"Suffice?" cried the old man, his eyes bright in the ruddy glow, "aye,
it shall suffice, sweet boy. See--see, the timbers catch e'en now. Ha!
burn, good fire--eat, hungry flame! O, happy sight--would my dear son
were here--they hanged his fair young body, but his soul--Ha, his
soul! O souls of hanged men--O spirits of the dead, come about me, ye
ghosts of murdered youth, come and behold the gibbet burn whereon ye
died. What--are ye there, amid the smoke, so soon? Come then, let us
dance together and trip it lightly to and fro--merrily, merrily! Hey
boy, so ho then--so ho, and away we go!" Hereupon, tossing up gaunt
arms, the old man fell to dancing and capering amid the sparks and
rolling smoke, filling the air with wild talk and gabbling high-pitched
laughter that rose above the roar of the fires. And so in a while
Beltane, sighing, turned and led the way down the hill towards the
glooming shadow of the woods; but ever as they went the flames waxed
fiercer behind them and the madman's laughter shrilled upon the air.

Swift-footed they plunged into the underbrush and thus hidden began to
close in upon Belsaye town. And of a sudden they heard a cry, and
thereafter the shattering blare of a trumpet upon the walls. And now
from within the waking city rose a confused sound, a hum that grew
louder and ever more loud, pierced by shout and trumpet-blast while
high above this growing clamour the tocsin pealed alarm.

Thus, in a while the trembling citizens of Belsaye, starting from their
slumber, stared in pallid amaze beholding afar a great and fiery gibbet
whose flames, leaping heavenward, seemed to quench the moon.



CHAPTER XIII

HOW THEY BRAKE OPE THE DUNGEON OF BELSAYE


Being yet in the shade of the woods, Beltane paused, hearkening to the
distant uproar of Belsaye town and watching the torches that hovered
upon its walls and the cressets that glowed on tower and bartizan.

"Messire Beltane," quoth the friar, setting his rumpled frock in order,
"are ye minded still to adventure breaking ope the dungeon of Belsaye?"

"Aye, verily!" nodded Beltane. "Know you the city, good friar?"

"That do I, my brother: every lane and street, every hole and corner of
it--'twas there I first drew breath. A fair, rich city, freed by
charter long ago--but now, alas, its freedom snatched away, its ancient
charter gone, it bleeds 'neath a pale-cheeked tyrant's sway--a pallid
man who laughs soft-voiced to see men die, and smiles upon their
anguish. O Belsaye, grievous are thy wrongs since Ivo came five years
agone and gave thee up to pillage and to ravishment. O hateful day! O
day of shame! What sights I saw--what sounds I heard--man-groans and
screams of women to rend high heaven and shake the throne of God,
methinks. I see--I hear them yet, and must forever. Jesu, pity!" and
leaning against a tree near by, the stalwart friar shivered violently
and hid his eyes.

"Why, good brother Martin," said Beltane, setting an arm about him,
"doth memory pain thee so, indeed? good Brother Martin, be comforted--"

"Nay, nay--'tis past, but--O my son, I--had a sister!" said the good
friar, and groaned. Yet in a while he raised his head and spake again:
"And when Duke Ivo had wrought his will upon the city, he builded the
great gibbet yonder and hanged it full with men cheek by jowl, and left
Sir Gui the cruel with ten score chosen men for garrison. But the men
of Belsaye have stubborn memories; Sir Gui and his butchers slumber in
a false security, for stern men are they and strong, and wait but God's
appointed time. Pray God that time be soon!"

"Amen!" said Beltane. Now, even as he spake came the sound of a distant
tucket, the great gates of Belsaye swung wide, and forth rode a company
of men-at-arms, their bascinets agleam 'neath the moon.

"Now!" spake the friar, "and you are for Belsaye, my brother, follow
me; I know a way--albeit a moist way and something evil--but an you
will follow,--come!" So saying Friar Martin set off among the trees,
and Beltane, beckoning to the others, followed close. Fast strode the
friar, his white robe fluttering on before, through moonlight and
shadow, until they reached a brook or freshet that ran bubbling betwixt
flowery banks; beside this strode the tall friar, following its winding
course, until before them, amid the shadow--yet darker than the shadow
--loomed high an embattled flanking tower of the walls of Belsaye town;
but ever before them flitted the friar's white gown, on and on until
the freshet became a slow-moving river, barring their advance--a broad
river that whispered among the reeds on the one side and lapped against
rugged wall on the other.

Here the friar stayed to glance from gloomy wall and turret to fast
waning moon on their left, then, girding up his gown, he stepped down
into the reeds, and a moment later they saw him--to their amaze--
fording the river that flowed scarce knee deep.

So, needfully, Beltane followed, and, stepping into the water found his
feet upon a narrow causeway cunningly devised. Thus, slowly and
carefully, because of the flowing of the water, they came betimes to
where the friar waited in the shadow of the massy wall; yet, even as
they came near, the friar waved his arm, stooped--and was gone; whereon
my Beltane stared amazed and the three muttered uneasily behind him.
But, coming nearer, Beltane espied above the hurrying waters the curve
of an arch or tunnel, and pointing it to the others, took a great
breath and, stooping beneath the water, stumbled on and on until it
shallowed, and he was free to breathe again.

On he went, through water now breast-high, with slimy walls above him
and around, seeing naught by reason of the pitchy blackness, and
hearing only the smothered splash of those behind, and gasping breaths
that boomed hollow in the dark. Yet presently he saw a gleam before him
that broadened with each step, and, of a sudden, was out beneath the
sky--a narrow strip wherein stars twinkled, and so beheld again friar
Martin's white frock flitting on, ghost-like, before. In a while he
brought them to a slimy stair, and climbing this, with ever growing
caution, they found themselves at last beneath the frowning shadow of
the citadel within the walls of Belsaye town. Now, looking north,
Beltane beheld afar a fiery gallows that flamed to heaven, and from the
town thitherward came a confused hum of the multitude who watched; but
hereabouts the town seemed all deserted.

"The dungeons lie beneath our feet," whispered Friar Martin. "Come!"

So, keeping ever in the shadow of the great square keep, they went on,
soft-treading and alert of eye till, being come to the angle of the
wall, the friar stayed of a sudden and raised a warning hand. Then came
Beltane with Walkyn close behind, and peering over the friar's broad
shoulders, they beheld a sentinel who stood with his back to them,
leaning on his spear, to watch the burning gallows, his chain-mail
agleam and his head-piece glittering as he stirred lazily in time to
the merry lilt he sang softly.

Then, or ever Beltane could stay him, Walkyn o' the Dene laid by his
axe, and, his soaked shoes soundless upon the stones, began to steal
upon the unconscious singer, who yet lolled upon his spear some thirty
paces away. With great body bowed forward and hairy fingers crooked,
Walkyn stole upon him; six paces he went, ten--twenty--twenty-five--
the soldier ceased his humming, stood erect and turned about; and
Walkyn leapt--bore him backward down into the shadow--a shadow wherein
their bodies writhed and twisted silently awhile. When Walkyn rose out
of the shadow and beckoned them on.

So, following ever the friar's lead, they came to a narrow doorway
that gave upon a small guard-room lighted by a smoking torch socketed
to the wall. The place was empty, save for a medley of arms stacked in
corners, wherefore, treading cautiously, the friar led them a-down a
narrow passage and so to a second and larger chamber where burned a
fire of logs. Upon the walls hung shining head-pieces; cloaks and
mantles lay where they had been flung on bench and floor, but none was
there to give them let or hindrance. Then Friar Martin took a torch
that smoked near by, and, crossing to the hearth, reached down a massy
key from the wall, and with this in his hand, came to a door half
hidden in a corner, beyond which were steps that wound downwards into
the dark, a darkness close and dank, and heavy with corruption.

But on went the friar--his torch lighting the way--down and ever down
until they trod a narrow way 'twixt reeking walls, where breathed an
air so close and foul the very torch languished. At length the friar
stopped before a mighty door, thick-banded with iron bars and with
massy bolts, and while Beltane held the torch, he fitted key to lock
and thereafter the great door swung on screaming hinge and showed a
dungeon beyond--a place foul and noisome, where divers pale-faced
wretches lay or crouched, blinking in the torch's glare.

"What?" cried one, coming to his feet, a squat broad-shouldered man--
"be this the dawn so soon? Well, we be ready, better to hang i' the
clean air than rot in a dungeon, say I. So we be ready, eh, my
brothers?"

But now, some groaned and wept and others laughed, while yet others got
them to their knees, bowed of head and silent. Then went in the friar
to them and laid his hands upon the squat man's shoulder and spake him
gently.

"And is it Osric," said he. "Day is not yet, my son, nor with the day
shalt thou die nor any here, an ye be silent all and follow where we
lead, soft-footed, so will we bring you to God's good world again.
Rise, then, each one, speak nothing, but follow!"

So then did these men, snatched of a sudden from the horror of death to
the hope of new life, follow on stumbling feet, out from the noisome
gloom of the dungeon, out from the clammy air breathing of death, up
the narrow winding stair; and with each step came strength and manhood.
Thus as they strode forth of the frowning keep, each man bore sword or
gisarm. So, with breath in cheek, but hearts high-beating, they came
one and all, to where the slimy stair led down into the gloom. Yet here
Friar Martin paused, sighing, to look behind, whence rose the distant
hum of those thronging townsfolk who yet crowded wall and street and
market square to watch the gallows burn.

"Now sweet Christ shield ye, good people of Belsaye!" he sighed.

"What mean ye, my brother?" questioned Beltane.

"Alas! my son," groaned the friar, "I needs must think upon the coming
day and of the vengeance of Sir Gui for this our work!"

"His vengeance, friar?"

"There will be torture and death busy hereabouts tomorrow, my son,
for, the prisoners being gone, so will Sir Gui vent his anger on the
townsfolk--'tis ever his custom--"

"Ha!" quoth my Beltane, knitting his brows, "I had not thought on
this!"--and with the word, he turned him back, drawing on his hood of
mail.

"Come, lord," whispered Black Roger in his ear, "let us be going while
yet we may."

"Aye, come, my son," spake the friar, low-voiced. "Tarry not, Belsaye
is in the hand of God! Nay, what would you?"

"I must go back," said Beltane, loosening sword in scabbard, "for needs
must I this night have word with Gui of Allerdale."

"Nay," whispered the friar, with pleading hand on Beltane's arm, "'tis
thing impossible--"

"Yet must I try, good brother--"

"Ah, dear my son, 'twill be thy death--"

"Why look you, gentle friar, I am in Belsaye, and Belsaye 'is in the
hand of God!' So fear not for me, but go you all and wait for me beyond
the river. And, if I come not within the hour, then press on with speed
for Thrasfordham within Bourne, and say to Sir Benedict that, while
_he_ liveth to draw sword, so is there hope for Pentavalon. But now--
quick!--where lodgeth Sir Gui?"

"Within the keep--there is a stair doth mount within the thickness of
the wall--nay, I will be thy guide if go indeed thou must--"

"Not so, good friar, be it thy duty to lead these prisoners to freedom
and to safety within Bourne."

"Then will I come," whispered Roger hoarse and eager, as the friar
turned slow-footed to follow the others adown the slippery stair,
"beseech thee, lord, thy man am I, twice sworn to thee till death, so
suffer me beside thee."

"Nay," said Beltane, "Pentavalon's need of thee is greater e'en than
mine, therefore will I adventure this thing alone. Go you with the
friar, my Roger, and so farewell to each."

"God keep thee, noble son!" whispered the friar, his hand upraised in
blessing: but Roger stood, chin on breast and spake no word.

Then Beltane turned him and sped away, soft-treading in the shadow of
the great keep.

The waning moon cast shadows black and long, and in these shadows
Beltane crept and so, betimes, came within the outer guard-room and to
the room beyond; and here beheld a low-arched doorway whence steps led
upward,--a narrow stair, gloomy and winding, whose velvet blackness
was stabbed here and there by moonlight, flooding through some deep-set
arrow-slit. Up he went, and up, pausing once with breath in check,
fancying he heard the stealthy sound of one who climbed behind him in
the black void below; thus stayed he a moment, with eyes that strove to
pierce the gloom, and with naked dagger clenched to smite, yet heard
nought, save the faint whisper of his own mail, and the soft tap of his
long scabbard against the wall; wherefore he presently sped on again,
climbing swiftly up the narrow stair. Thus, in a while, he beheld a
door above: a small door, yet stout and strong, a door that stood ajar,
whence came a beam of yellow light.

So, with sure and steady hand, Beltane set wide the door, that creaked
faintly in the stillness, and beheld a small, square chamber where was
a narrow window, and, in this window, a mail-clad man lolled, his
unhelmed head thrust far without, to watch the glow that leapt against
the northern sky.

Then Beltane sheathed his dagger and, in three long strides was close
behind, and, stooping above the man, sought and found his hairy throat,
and swung him, mighty-armed, that his head struck the wall; then
Beltane, sighing, laid him upon the floor and turned toward a certain
arras-hung arch: but, or ever his hand came upon this curtain, from
beyond a voice hailed--a voice soft and musical.

"Hugo--O Hugo, spawn of hell, hither to me!"

Then Beltane, lifting the curtain, opened the door and, striding into
the chamber beyond, closed and barred the door behind him, and so
stood, tall and menacing, looking on one who sat at a table busied with
pen and ink-horn. A slender man this, and richly habited: a sleepy-eyed
man, pale of cheek, with long, down-curving nose, and mouth thin-lipped
and masterful, who, presently lifting his head, stared up in amaze,
sleepy-eyed no longer: for now, beholding Beltane the mighty, sheathed
in mail from head to foot, the pen dropped from his fingers and his
long pale hands slowly clenched themselves.

So, for a space, they fronted each other, speaking not, while eye met
eye unswerving--the menacing blue and the challenging black, and,
through the open casement near by came a ruddy glow that flickered on
arras-hung wall and rugged roof-beam. Now raising his hand, Beltane
pointed toward this glowing window.

"Sir Gui," quoth he, "Lord Seneschal of Belsaye town, thou hast good
eyes--look now, and tell me what ye see."

"I see," said Sir Gui, stirring not, "I see a presumptuous knave--a dog
who shall be flung headlong from the turret. Ha! Hugo!" he called, his
black eyes yet unswerving, "O Hugo, son of the fiend, hither to me!"

"Trouble not, my lord," quoth Beltane gently, "behold, the door is
barred: moreover, Hugo lieth without--pray God I have not killed him.
But, as for thee--look yonder, use thine eyes and speak me what thou
dost see."

But Sir Gui sat on, his thin lips upcurling to a smile, his black eyes
unswerving: wherefore came Beltane and seized him in fierce hands and
plucked him to his feet and so brought him to the window.

"Ha!" he cried, "look now and tell me what ye see. Speak! speak--for,
God help me! now am I minded to kill thee here and now, unarmed though
ye be, and cast thy carrion to the dogs--speak!"

Now, beholding the mail-clad face above him, the blue eyes aflame, the
pale lips tight-drawn, Sir Gui, Seneschal of Belsaye, spake soft-voiced
on this wise:

"I see my lord Duke's gallows go up in flame--wherefore men shall die!"

"Aye," sighed Beltane, "said I not thine eyes were good, Lord
Seneschal? Now, use thine ears--hearken! 'Twas I and five others, men
from beyond the marches, fired this night Black Ivo's gibbet, moreover,
to-night also have we broke the dungeon that lieth beneath this thy
keep, and set thy prisoners free--I and these five, all men from the
north, mark me this well! This have we done for a sign and portent--ha!
look!" and Beltane pointed of a sudden to where the great gallows,
outlined against the night in seething flame, swayed to and fro,
crumbled, and crashed to earth 'mid whirling sparks and flame, while,
from the town below rose a murmur that swelled and swelled to a shout,
and so was gone.

"Behold, lord Seneschal, Black Ivo's gallows to-night hath ceased to
be: here is a sign, let those heed it that will. But for thee--this!
To-night have I burned this gallows, to-night have I freed thy
prisoners. Upon me therefore, and only me, be the penalty; for--mark me
this, Seneschal!--spill but one drop of blood of these innocents of
Belsaye, and, as God seeth me, so will I hunt thee down, and take thee
and tear out thine eyes, and cut off thine hands, and drive thee forth
to starve! And this do I swear by the honour of my father, Beltane the
Strong, Duke of Pentavalon!"

But now, even as Sir Gui shrank back before the death in Beltane's
look, amazed beyond all thought by his words, came a sudden shout, and
thereafter a clash and ring of steel upon the stair without. And now,
above the sudden din, hoarse and loud a battle-cry arose, at the sound
of which Sir Gui's jaws hung agape, and he stood as one that doubts his
ears; for 'twas a cry he had heard aforetime, long ago.

"Arise! Arise! I will arise!"

Then Beltane cast up the bar, and, plucking wide the door, beheld the
broad, mail-clad back of one who held the narrow stair where flashed
pike and gisarm.

"Roger!" he called, "Black Roger!"

"Aye, lord, 'tis I," cried Roger, parrying a pike-thrust, "make sure of
thy work, master, I can hold these in check yet a while."

"My work is done, Roger. To me--to me, I say!"

So Roger, leaping back from the stair-head, turned about and ran to
Beltane, stumbling and spattering blood as he came, whereupon Beltane
clapped-to the door and barred it in the face of the pursuit. A while
leaned Roger, panting, against the wall, then, beholding Sir Gui:

"How!" he cried, "lives the pale fox yet? Methought thy work was done,
master!" So saying, he swung aloft his bloody sword, but, even as the
Seneschal waited the blow, smiling of lip, Beltane caught Black Roger's
wrist.

"Stay!" cried he, above the thunder of blows that shook the door,
"would'st slay a man unarmed?"

"Aye, master, as he hath slain many a man ere now!" quoth Roger,
striving to free his arm. "The door is giving, and there be many
without: and, since to-night we must die, so let us slay the white fox
first."

"Not so," said Beltane, "get you through the window--the river runs
below: through the window--out, I say!" and, with the word, he stooped
and bore Black Roger to the window.

"But, lord--"

"Jump!" cried Beltane, "jump, ere the door fall."

"But you, master--"

"Jump, I say: I will follow thee." So, groaning, Black Roger hurled his
sword far out from the window, and leaping from the sill, was gone.

Then Beltane turned and looked upon Gui of Allerdale. "Seneschal," said
he, "I who speak am he, who, an God so wills, shall be Duke of
Pentavalon ere long: howbeit, I will keep my promise to thee, so aid me
God!"

Thus saying, he mounted the window in his turn, and, even as the door
splintered behind him, forced himself through, and, leaping wide,
whirled over and over, down and down, and the sluggish river closed
over him with a mighty splash; thereafter the placid waters went upon
their way, bubbling here and there, and dimpling 'neath the waning
moon.



CHAPTER XIV

HOW BELTANE CAME NIGH TO DEATH


Down went my Beltane, weighted in his heavy mail--down and ever down
through a world of green that grew dark and ever more dark, until,
within the pitchy gloom beneath him was a quaking slime that sucked
viciously at foot and ankle. Desperately he fought and strove to rise,
but ever the mud clung, and, lusty swimmer though he was, his triple
mail bore him down.

And now his mighty muscles failed, lights flamed before his eyes, in
his ears was a drone that grew to a rushing roar, his lungs seemed
bursting, and the quaking ooze yearning to engulf him. Then my Beltane
knew the bitter agony of coming death, and strove no more; but in that
place of darkness and horror, a clammy something crawled upon his face,
slipped down upon his helpless body, seized hold upon his belt and
dragged at him fierce and strong; slowly, slowly the darkness thinned,
grew lighter, and then--Ah, kind mercy of God! his staring eyes beheld
the orbed moon, his famished lungs drank deep the sweet, cool air of
night. And so he gasped, and gasping, strove feebly with arm and leg
while ever the strong hand grasped at his girdle. And now he heard,
faint and afar, a sound of voices, hands reached down and drew him up--
up to good, firm earth, and there, face down among the grass, he lay
awhile, content only to live and breathe. Gradually he became aware of
another sound hard by, a sharp sound yet musical, and in a little, knew
it for the "twang" of a swift-drawn bow-string. Now, glancing up,
Beltane beheld an ancient tree near by, a tree warped and stunted
wherein divers arrows stood, and behind the tree, Giles o' the Bow,
who, as he watched, drew and loosed a shaft, which, flashing upward,
was answered by a cry; whereon Giles laughed aloud.

"Six!" he cried, "six in seven shots: 'tis sweet archery methinks, and
quicker than a noose, my Rogerkin, and more deadly than thy axe, my
surly Walkyn. Let the rogues yonder but show themselves, and give me
arrows enow, so will I slay all Gui's garrison ere the moon fail me
quite."

But hereupon Beltane got him to his knees and made shift to stand, and,
coming to the tree, leaned there, being faint and much spent.

"Aha, sweet lord," cried the archer, "a man after my very heart art
thou. What wonders have we achieved this night--paladins in sooth we
be, all four! By the blessed bones of St. Giles, all Pentavalon shall
ring with our doings anon."

Said Beltane, faintly:

"Where is my good Roger?"

"Here, lord," a voice answered from the shade of a bush hard by: "'twas
my comrade Walkyn dragged me up from death--even as he did thee."

"We thought you gone for good, master."

"Aye!" cried the archer, "so would ye all be dead, methinks, but for me
and this my bow."

"Friends," said Beltane, "'tis by doings such as this that men do learn
each other's worth: so shall the bonds betwixt us strengthen day by
day, and join us in accord and brotherhood that shall outlast this puny
life. So now let us begone and join the others."

So they turned their backs upon Belsaye town, and keeping to the brush,
came at length to where upon the borders of the forest the white friar
waited them, with the nine who yet remained of the prisoners; these,
beholding Beltane, came hurrying to meet him, and falling upon their
knees about him, strove with each other to kiss his hands and feet.

"Good fellows," said Beltane, "God hath this night brought ye out of
death into life--how will ye use your lives hereafter? List now:--even
as ye have suffered, others are suffering: as ye have endured the gloom
of dungeon and fear of death, so, at this hour, others do the like by
reason of misrule and tyranny. Now here stand I, together with Sir
Benedict of Bourne who holdeth Thrasfordham Keep, pledged to live
henceforth, sword in hand, until these evils are no more--since 'tis
only by bitter strife and conflict that evil may be driven from our
borders. Thus, Pentavalon needeth men, strong-armed and resolute: if
such ye be, march ye this hour to Thrasfordham within Bourne, and say
to Sir Benedict that God having given you new life, so now will ye give
your lives to Pentavalon, that tyranny may cease and the Duchy be
cleansed of evil. Who now among ye will draw sword for freedom and
Pentavalon?"

Then sprang the squat man Osric to his feet, with clenched fist
upraised and eyes ablaze 'neath his matted hair.

"That will I!" he cried. "And I! And I! And I!" cried the rest, grim-faced
and eager. "Aye--give us but swords, and one to lead, and we will
follow!"

Quoth Beltane:

"Go you then to Sir Benedict within Bourne and say to all men that
Beltane the Duke hath this night burned down Black Ivo's shameful
gibbet, for a sign that he is come at last and is at work, nor will he
stay until he die, or Pentavalon be free!"



CHAPTER XV

HOW BELTANE HAD WORD WITH PERTOLEPE THE RED, AND HOW THEY LEFT HIM IN
THE FOREST


  "Since all men breathing 'neath the sky
   Good or evil, soon must die,
   Ho! bring me wine, and what care I
   For dying!"

It was Giles Brabblecombe singing to himself as he knelt beside a fire
of twigs, and Beltane, opening sleepy eyes, looked round upon a world
all green and gold and dew-bespangled; a fair world and fragrant,
whose balmy air breathed of hidden flowers and blooming thickets,
whence came the joyous carolling of new-waked birds; and beholding all
this and the glory of it, my Beltane must needs praise God he was
alive.

"Hail and good morrow to thee, brother!" cried the bowman, seeing him
astir. "The sun shineth, look you, I sit upon my hams and sing for that
this roasting venison smelleth sweet, while yonder i' the leaves be a
mavis and a merle a-mocking of me, pretty rogues: for each and ever of
which, _Laus Deo, Amen!_"

"Why truly, God hath made a fair world, Giles, a good world to live in,
and to live is to act--yet here have I lain most basely sleeping--"

"Like any paunched friar, brother. But a few days since, I met thee in
the green, a very gentle, dove-like youth that yet became a very lion
of fight and demi-god of battle! Heroes were we all, last night--nay,
very Titans--four 'gainst an army!--whiles now, within this
balmy-breathing morn you shall see Walkyn o' the Bloody Axe with grim
Black Rogerkin, down at the brook yonder, a-sprawl upon their bellies
busily a-tickling trout for breakfast, while I, whose good yew bow
carrieth death in every twang, toasting deer-flesh on a twig, am mocked of
wanton warblers i' the green: and thou, who art an Achilles, a Hector,
an Ajax--a very Mars--do sleep and slumber, soft and sweet as full-fed
friar--Heigho! Yet even a demi-god must nod betimes, and Titans eat,
look ye."

Now looking from sun to earth and beholding the shortening of the
shadows, Beltane leapt up. Quoth he:

"Sluggard that I am, 'tis late! And Roger was wounded last night, I
mind--"

"Content you, brother, 'twas nought," said Giles bending above his
cooking, "the kiss of a pike-head i' the thick o' the arm--no more."

"Yet it must be looked to--"

"I did it, brother, as I shoot--that is to say I did it most excellent
well: 'twill be healed within the week."

"How then--art leech as well as bowman?"

"Quite as well, brother. When I was a monk I learned two good things,
_videlicit_: never to argue with those in authority over me, and to
heal the hurts of those that did. So, by my skill in herbs and
leechcraft, Roger, having a hole in his arm, recks not of it--behold
here he cometh, and Walkyn too, and _Laus Deo!_ with a trout! Now shall
we feast like any pampered prelate."

So when Beltane had stripped and bathed him in the brook, they
presently sat down, all four together, and ate and talked and laughed
right merrily, the while lark and thrush and blackbird carolled lustily
far and near.

"Now eat, brothers," cried the bowman, full-mouthed, "eat and spare
not, as I do, for to-day I smell the battle from afar: Ho! Ho! the
noise of captains and the shouting! Yesterday were we heroes, to-day
must we be gods--yet cautious gods, for, mark me, I have but twelve
shafts remaining, and with twelve shafts can but promise ye a poor
twelve lives."

But now came Roger wistful-eyed, and with belt a-swing in his hand.

"Master," quoth he, "last night did we four rescue twelve. Now I'm fain
to know if for these twelve I may cut twelve notches from my belt, or
must we share their lives betwixt us and I count but three?"

"Three?" laughed Giles, "Oho--out upon thee, Rogerkin! Our lord here
claimeth six, since he the rescue planned, next, I claim three, since
but for my goodly shooting ye all had died, then hath Walkyn two, since
he saved thee from the fishes, which leaveth thee--one. _Quod erat
demonstrandum!_"

But now, seeing Roger's downcast look, Giles snatched the belt and gave
it unto Beltane, who forthwith cut there-from twelve notches. And, in a
while, having made an end of eating, Beltane rose and looked round upon
the three.

"Good comrades all," quoth he, "well do I know ye to be staunch and
trusty; yet to-day am I minded to speak with him men call Pertolepe the
Red, lest he shed innocent blood for that we slew his foresters--"

"Twenty lusty fellows!" nodded Giles, with a morsel of venison on his
dagger point.

"Nay, there one escaped!" quoth Roger.

"Yet he sore wounded!" said Walkyn.

"Ha! Sir Pertolepe is a terrible lord!" quoth Giles, eyeing the morsel
of venison somewhat askance. "'Twill be a desperate adventure,
methinks--and we but four."

"Yet each and all--gods!" quoth Walkyn, reaching for his axe.

"Aye," nodded Giles, frowning at the piece of venison, "yet are we but
four gods."

"Not so," answered Beltane, "for in this thing shall we be but one. Go
you three to Bourne, for I am minded to try this adventure alone."

"Alone, master!" cried Black Roger, starting to his feet.

"Alone!" growled Walkyn, clutching his axe.

"An death must come, better one should die than four," said Beltane,
"howbeit I am minded to seek out Pertolepe this day."

"Then do I come also, master, since thy man am I."

"I, too," nodded Walkyn, "come death and welcome, so I but stand face
to face with Pertolepe."

"Alack!" sighed Giles, "so needs must I come also, since I have twelve
shafts yet unsped," and he swallowed the morsel of venison with mighty
relish and gusto.

Then laughed Beltane for very gladness, and he looked on each with
kindling eye.

"Good friends," quoth he, "as ye say, so let it be, and may God's hand
be over us this day."

Now, as he spake with eyes uplift to heaven, he espied a faint, blue
mist far away above the soft-stirring tree tops--a distant haze, that
rose lazily into the balmy air, thickening ever as he watched.

"Ah!" he exclaimed, fierce-eyed of a sudden and pointing with rigid
finger, "whence cometh that smoke, think ye?"

"Why," quoth Roger, frowning, "Wendonmere village lieth yonder!"

"Nay, 'tis nearer than Wendonmere," said Walkyn, shouldering his axe.

"See, the smoke thickens!" cried Beltane. "Now, God forgive me! the
while I tarry here Red Pertolepe is busy, meseemeth!" So saying, he
caught up his sword, and incontinent set off at speed toward where the
soft blue haze stole upon the air of morning, growing denser and ever
denser.

Fast and furious Beltane sped on, crashing through underbrush and
crackling thicket, o'erleaping bush and brook and fallen tree, heedful
of eye, and choosing his course with a forester's unerring instinct,
praying fiercely beneath his breath, and with the three ever close
behind.

"Would I had eaten less!" panted Giles.

"Would our legs were longer!" growled Walkyn.

"Would my belt bore fewer notches!" quoth Roger.

And so they ran together, sure-footed and swift, and ever as they ran
the smoke grew denser, and ever Beltane's prayers more fervent. Now in
a while they heard a sound, faint and confused: a hum, that presently
grew to a murmur--to a drone--to a low wailing of voices, pierced of a
sudden by a shrill cry no man's lips could utter, that swelled high
upon the air and died, lost amid the growing clamour.

"They've fired the ricks first!" panted Roger; "'tis ever Pertolepe's
way!"

"They be torturing the women!" hissed Walkyn; "'tis ever so Red
Pertolepe's pleasure!"

"And I have but twelve arrows left me!" groaned Giles.

But Beltane ran in silence, looking neither right nor left, until,
above the hum of voices he heard one upraised in passionate
supplication, followed by another--a loud voice and jovial--and
thereafter, a burst of roaring laughter.

Soon Beltane beheld a stream that flowed athwart their way and, beyond
the stream, a line of willows thick growing upon the marge; and again,
beyond these clustering willows the straggling village lay. Then
Beltane, motioning the others to caution, forded the stream and coming
in the shade of the osiers, drew on his hood of mail, and so,
unsheathing his long sword, peered through the leaves. And this is what
he saw:

A wide road flanked by rows of scattered cottages, rude of wall and
thatch; a dusty road, that led away east and west into the cool depths
of the forest, and a cringing huddle of wretched village folk whose
pallid faces were all set one way, where some score of men-at-arms
lolled in their saddles watching a tall young maid who struggled
fiercely in the grasp of two lusty fellows, her garments rent, her
white flesh agleam in the sunlight. A comely maid, supple and strong,
who ever as she strove 'gainst the clutching hands that held her, kept
her blazing eyes turned upon one in knightly mail who sat upon a great
war-horse hard by, watching her, big chin in big mailed fist, and with
wide lips up-curling in a smile: a strong man this, heavy and broad of
chest; his casque hung at his saddle-bow, and his mail-coif, thrown
back upon his wide shoulders, showed his thick, red hair that fell a-down,
framing his square-set, rugged face.

"Ha, Cuthbert," quoth he, turning to one who rode at his elbow--a
slender youth who stared with evil eyes and sucked upon his finger,
"Aha, by the fiend, 'tis a sweet armful, Sir Squire?"

"Aye, my lord Pertolepe, 'tis rarely shaped and delicately fleshed!"
answered the esquire, and so fell to sucking his finger again.

"What, silly wench, will ye defy me still?" cried Sir Pertolepe, jovial
of voice, "must ye to the whip in sooth? Ho, Ralph--Otho, strip me this
stubborn jade--so!--Ha! verily Cuthbert, hast shrewd eyes, 'tis a
dainty rogue. Come," said he smiling down into the girl's wide, fierce
eyes, "save that fair body o' thine from the lash, now, and speak me
where is thy father and brother that I may do justice on them, along
with these other dogs, for the foul murder of my foresters yest're'en;
their end shall be swift, look ye, and as for thyself--shalt find those
to comfort thee anon--speak, wench!"

But now came a woman pale and worn, who threw herself on trembling
knees at Sir Pertolepe's stirrup, and, bowed thus before him in the
dust, raised a passionate outcry, supplicating his mercy with bitter
tears and clasped hands lifted heavenwards.

"O good my lord Pertolepe," she wailed, "'twas not my husband, nor son,
nor any man of our village wrought this thing; innocent are we, my
lord--"

"O witch!" quoth he, "who bade thee speak?" So saying he drew mail-clad
foot from stirrup and kicked her back into the dust. "Ho, whips!" he
called, "lay on, and thereafter will we hang these vermin to their own
roof-trees and fire their hovels for a warning."

But now, even as the struggling maid was dragged forward--even as
Pertolepe, smiling, settled chin on fist to watch the lithe play of her
writhing limbs, the willows behind him swayed and parted to a sudden
panther-like leap, and a mail-clad arm was about Sir Pertolepe--a
mighty arm that bore him from the saddle and hurled him headlong; and
thereafter Sir Pertolepe, half stunned and staring up from the dust,
beheld a great blade whose point pricked his naked throat, and, beyond
this blade, a mail-clad face, pallid, fierce, grim-lipped, from whose
blazing eyes death glared down at him.

"Dog!" panted Beltane.

"Ha! Cuthbert!" roared Red Pertolepe, writhing 'neath Beltane's
grinding heel, "to me, Cuthbert--to me!"

But, as the esquire wheeled upon Beltane with sword uplifted, out from
the green an arrow whistled, and Cuthbert, shrill-screaming, swayed in
his saddle and thudded to earth, while his great war-horse, rearing
affrighted, plunged among the men-at-arms, and all was shouting and
confusion; while from amid the willows arrows whizzed and flew, 'neath
whose cruel barbs horses snorted, stumbling and kicking, or crashed
into the dust; and ever the confusion grew.

But now Sir Pertolepe, wriggling beneath Beltane's iron foot had
unsheathed his dagger, yet, ere he could stab, down upon his red pate
crashed the heavy pommel of Beltane's sword and Sir Pertolepe, sinking
backward, lay out-stretched in the dust very silent and very still.
Then Beltane sheathed his sword and, stooping, caught Sir Pertolepe by
the belt and dragged him into the shade of the willows, and being come
to the stream, threw his captive down thereby and fell to splashing his
bruised face with the cool water. And now, above the shouts and the
trampling of hoofs upon the road, came the clash of steel on steel and
the harsh roar of Walkyn and Black Roger as they plied axe and sword--
"Arise! Ha, arise!" Then, as Beltane glanced up, the leaves near by
were dashed aside and Giles came bounding through, his gay feather
shorn away, his escalloped cape wrenched and torn, his broadsword a-swing
in his hand.

"Ho, tall brother--a sweet affray!" he panted, "the fools give back
already: they cry that Pertolepe is slain and the woods full of
outlaws; they be falling back from the village--had I but a few shafts
in my quiver, now--" but here, beholding the face of Beltane's captive,
Giles let fall his sword, staring round-eyed.

"Holy St. Giles!" he gasped, "'tis the Red Pertolepe!" and so stood
agape, what time a trumpet brayed a fitful blast from the road and was
answered afar. Thereafter came Roger, stooping as he ran, and shouting:

"Archers! Archers!--run, lord!"

But Beltane stirred not, only he dashed the water in Sir Pertolepe's
twitching face, wherefore came Roger and caught him by the arm,
pleading:

"Master, O master!" he panted, "the forest is a-throng with lances, and
there be archers also--let us make the woods ere we are beset!"

But Beltane, seeing the captive stir, shook off Black Roger's grasp;
but now, one laughed, and Walkyn towered above him, white teeth agleam,
who, staring down at Sir Pertolepe, whirled up his bloody axe to smite.

"Fool!" cried Beltane, and threw up his hand to stay the blow, and in
that moment Sir Pertolepe oped his eyes.

"'Tis Pertolepe!" panted Walkyn, "'tis he that slew wife and child: so
now will I slay him, since we, in this hour, must die!"

"Not so," quoth Beltane, "stand back--obey me--back, I say!" So,
muttering, Walkyn lowered his axe, while Beltane, drawing his dagger,
stooped above Sir Pertolepe and spake, swift and low in his ear, and
with dagger at his throat. And, in a while, Beltane rose and Sir
Pertolepe also, and side by side they stepped forth of the leaves out
into the road, where, on the outskirts of the village, pikemen and
men-at-arms, archer and knight, were halted in a surging throng, while
above the jostling confusion rose the hoarse babel of their voices. But
of a sudden the clamour died to silence, and thereafter from a hundred
throats a shout went up:

"A Pertolepe! 'Tis Sir Pertolepe!"

Now in this moment Beltane laid his dagger-hand about Sir Pertolepe's
broad shoulders, and set the point of his dagger 'neath Sir Pertolepe's
right ear.

"Speak!" quoth Beltane softly, and his dagger-point bit deeper, "speak
now as I commanded thee!"

A while Sir Pertolepe bit savagely at his knuckle-bones, then, lifting
his head, spake that all might hear:

"Ho, sirs!" he cried, "I am fain to bide awhile and hold talk with one
Beltane, who styleth himself--Duke of Pentavalon. Hie ye back,
therefore, one and all, and wait me in Garthlaxton; yet, an I come not
by sunset, ride forth and seek me within the forest. Go!"

Hereupon from the disordered ranks a sound arose, a hoarse murmur that
voiced their stark amaze, and, for a while, all eyes stared upon those
two grim figures that yet stood so close and brotherly. But Sir
Pertolepe quelled them with a gesture:

"Go!" he commanded.

So their disarray fell into rank and order, and wheeling about, they
marched away along the forest road with helm agleam and pennons a-dance,
the while Sir Pertolepe stared after them, wild of eye and with
mailed hands clenched; once he made as if to call them back: but
Beltane's hand was heavy on his shoulder, and the dagger pricked his
throat. And thus stood they, side by side, until the tramp of feet was
died away, until the last trembling villager had slunk from sight and
the broad road was deserted, all save for Cuthbert the esquire, and
divers horses that lay stiffly in the dust, silent and very still.

Then Beltane sighed and sheathed his dagger, and Sir Pertolepe faced
him scrowling, fierce-eyed and arrogant.

"Ha, outlaw!" quoth he, "give back my sword and I will cope with thee--
wolf's head though thou art--aye, and any two other rogues beside."

"Nay," answered Beltane, "I fight with such as thee but when I needs
must. What--Roger!" he called, "go fetch hither a rope!"

"Dog--would ye murder me?"

"Not so," sighed Beltane, shaking his head, "have I not promised to
leave thee alive within the greenwood? Yet I would see thee walk in
bonds first."

"Ha, dare ye bind me, then? He that toucheth me, toucheth Duke Ivo--
dare ye so do, rogue?"

"Aye, messire," nodded Beltane, "I dare so. Bring hither the rope,
Roger." But when Roger was come nigh, Sir Pertolepe turned and stared
upon him.

"What!" cried he, jovial of voice yet deadly-eyed, "is it my runaway
hangman in very sooth. Did I not pay thee enough, thou black-avised
knave? Did I not love thee for thy skill with the noose, thou
traitorous rogue? Now, mark me, Roger: one day will I feed thee to my
hounds and watch them tear thee, as they have certain other rogues--
aha!--you mind them, belike?"

Pale of cheek and with trembling hands, Roger bound the arms of him
that had been his over-lord, while Walkyn and Giles, silent and
wide-eyed, watched it done.

"Whither would ye take me?" quoth Red Pertolepe, arrogant.

"That shalt thou know anon, messire."

"How an I defy thee?"

"Then must we carry thee, messire," answered Beltane, "yet thine own
legs were better methinks--come, let us begone."

Thus, presently, having forded the brook, they struck into the forest;
first went Walkyn, axe on shoulder, teeth agleam; next strode Sir
Pertolepe, head high, 'twixt pale-faced Roger and silent Beltane, while
the bowman followed after, calling upon St. Giles beneath his breath
and crossing himself: and ever and anon Walkyn would turn to look upon
their scowling captive with eyes that glared 'neath shaggy brows.

Now after they had gone some while, Sir Pertolepe brake silence and
spake my Beltane, proud and fierce.

"Fellow," quoth he, "if 'tis for ransom ye hold me, summon hither thy
rogues' company, and I will covenant for my release."

"I seek no ransom of thee, messire," answered Beltane, "and for my
company--'tis here."

"Here? I see but three sorry knaves!"

"Yet with these same three did I o'ercome thy foresters, Sir
Pertolepe."

"Rogue, thou liest--'tis thing impossible!"

"Moreover, with these three did I, last night, burn down Black Ivo's
mighty gallows that stood without Belsaye town, and, thereafter set
wide the dungeon of Belsaye and delivered thence certain woeful
prisoners, and sent them abroad with word that I--Beltane, son of
Beltane the Strong, Duke of Pentavalon, am come at last, bearing the
sword of my father, that was wont to strike deep for liberty and
justice: nor, having life, will I lay it by until oppression is no
more."

Now indeed did Sir Pertolepe stare upon my Beltane in amaze and spake
no word for wonder; then, of a sudden he laughed, scornful and loud.

"Ho! thou burner of gibbets!" quoth he, "take heed lest thy windy
boasting bring thy lordly neck within a noose! Art lusty of arm, yet
lustier of tongue--and as to thy father, whoe'er he be--"

"Messire?" Beltane's voice was soft, yet, meeting the calm serenity of
his gaze, Sir Pertolepe checked the jeer upon his lip and stared upon
Beltane as one new-waked; beheld in turn his high and noble look, the
costly excellence of his armour, his great sword and belt of silver--
and strode on thereafter with never a word, yet viewing Beltane aslance
'neath brows close-knit in dark perplexity. So, at last, they came into
a little clearing deep-hid among the denser green.

Beltane paused here, and lifting mailed hand, pointed to a certain
tree. But hereupon, Sir Pertolepe, staring round about him and down
upon his galling bonds, spake:

"Sir knight," said he, "who thou art I know not, yet, if indeed thou
art of gentle blood, then know that I am Sir Pertolepe, Baron of
Trenda, Seneschal of Garthlaxton, lord warden of the marches: moreover,
friend and brother-in-arms am I to Duke Ivo--"

"Nay," said Beltane, "all this I know, for much of thee have I heard,
messire: of thy dark doings, of the agony of men, the shame of women,
and how that there be many desolate hearths and nameless graves of thy
making, lord Pertolepe. Thou wert indeed of an high estate and strong,
and these but lowly folk and weak--yet mercy on them had ye none. I
have this day heard thee doom the innocent to death and bitter shame,
and, lord, as God seeth us, it is enough!"

Sir Pertolepe's ruddy cheek showed pale, but his blue eyes stared upon
Beltane wide and fearless.

"Have ye then dragged me hither to die, messire?"

"Lord Pertolepe, all men must die, aye, e'en great lords such as thou,
when they have sinned sufficiently: and thy sins, methinks, do reach
high heaven. So have I brought thee hither into the wilderness that
God's will may be wrought upon thee."

"How--wilt forswear thyself?" cried Sir Pertolepe, writhing in his
bonds.

Quoth Beltane:

"Come Roger--Walkyn--bring me him to the tree, yonder."

"Ha! rogue--rogue," panted Sir Pertolepe, "would'st leave me to die in
a noose, unshriven and unannealed, my soul dragged hell-wards weighted
with my sins?"

Now, even as he spake, swift and sudden he leapt aside and would have
fled; but Walkyn's fierce fingers dragged at his throat, and Roger's
iron arms were close about him. Desperately he fought and struggled,
but mighty though he was, his captors were mighty also, moreover his
bonds galled him; wherefore, fighting yet, they dragged him to the
tree, and to the tree Beltane fast bound him, whiles the forest rang
and echoed with his panting cries until his great voice cracked and
broke, and he hung 'gainst the tree, spent and breathless.

Then spake Beltane, grim-lipped yet soft of voice:

"Lord Pertolepe, fain would I hang thee as thou hast hanged many a man
ere now--but this, methinks, is a better way: for here, unless some
wanderer chance to find thee, must thou perish, an so God will it. Thus
do we leave thee in the hands of God to grant thee life or death: and
may he have mercy on thy guilty soul!"

Thus said Beltane, sombre of brow and pale of cheek; and so, beckoning
to the others, turned away, despite Sir Pertolepe's passionate threats
and prayers, and plunging into the dense underbrush, strode swift-footed
from the place, with the captive's wild cries ringing in his ears.

Haphazard went Beltane, yet straining his ears to catch those mournful
sounds that grew faint and fainter with distance till they were lost in
the rustle of the leaves. But, of a sudden, he stayed his going and
stood with his head aslant hearkening to a sound that seemed to have
reached him from the solitudes behind; and presently it came again, a
cry from afar--a scream of agony, hoarse and long drawn out, a hateful
sound that checked the breath of him and brought the sweat out cold
upon his brow; and now, turning about, he saw that his following was
but two, for Walkyn had vanished quite. Now Giles, meeting Beltane's
wide stare, must needs cough and fumble with his bow, whiles Roger
stood with bowed head and fingers tight-clenched upon his quarter-staff:
whereat, fierce-frowning, Beltane spake.

"Wait!" he commanded, "wait you here!" and forthwith turned and ran,
and so running, came again at last to that obscure glade whence now
came a sound of groans, mocked, thereafter, by fierce laughter. Now,
bursting from the green, Beltane beheld Sir Pertolepe writhing in his
bonds with Walkyn's fierce fingers twined in his red hair, and Walkyn's
busy dagger at his upturned brow, where was a great, gory wound, a
hideous cruciform blotch whence pulsed the blood that covered his
writhen face like a scarlet vizard.

"Ah!" cried Beltane, "what hast thou done?"

Back fell Walkyn, fierce-eyed and grim yet with teeth agleam through
the hair of his beard.

"Lord," quoth he, "this man hath slain wife, and child and brother, so
do I know him thrice a murderer. Therefore have I set this mark of
Cain upon him, that all men henceforth may see and know. But now, an it
be so thy will, take this my dagger and slay me here and now--yet shall
Red Pertolepe bear my mark upon him when I am dead."

Awhile stood Beltane in frowning thought, then pointed to the green.

"Go," said he, "the others wait thee!"

So Walkyn, obeying, turned and plunged into the green, while Beltane
followed after, slow and heavy-footed. But now, even as he went, slow
and ever slower, he lifted heavy head and turned about, for above the
leafy stirrings rose the mournful lilting of a pipe, clear and very
sweet, that drew nearer and louder until it was, of a sudden, drowned
in a cry hoarse and woeful. Then Beltane, hasting back soft-treading,
stood to peer through the leaves, and presently, his cock's-comb
flaunting, his silver bells a-jingle, there stepped a mountebank into
the clearing--that same jester with whom Beltane had talked aforetime.

"Beda!" cried Sir Pertolepe faintly, his bloody face uplifted, "and is
it forsooth, thou, Beda? Come, free me of my bonds. Ha! why stay ye, I
am Pertolepe--thy lord--know you me not, Beda?"

"Aye, full well I know thee, lord Pertolepe, thou art he who had me
driven forth with blows and bitter stripes--thou art he who slew my
father for an ill-timed jest--oho! well do I know thee, my lord
Pertolepe." So saying, Beda the Jester set his pipe within his girdle,
and, drawing his dagger, began to creep upon Sir Pertolepe, who shook
the dripping blood from his eyes to watch him as he came. Quote he:

"Art a good fool, Beda, aye, a good fool. And for thy father, 'twas the
wine, Beda--the wine, not I--come, free me of these my bonds--I loved
thy father, e'en as I loved thee."

"Yet is my father dead, lord--and I am outcast!" said Beda, smiling and
fingering his dagger.

"So then, will ye slay me, Beda--wilt murder thy lord? Why then,
strike, fool, strike--here, i' the throat, and let thy steel be
hard-driven. Come!"

Then Sir Pertolepe feebly raised his bloody head, proffering his throat
to the steel and so stood faint in his bonds, yet watching the jester
calm-eyed. Slowly, slowly the dagger was lifted for the stroke while
Sir Pertolepe watched the glittering steel patient and unflinching;
then, swift and sudden the dagger flashed and fell, and Sir Pertolepe
staggered free, and so stood swaying. Then, looking down upon his
severed bonds, he laughed hoarsely.

"How, 'twas but a jest, then, my Beda?" he whispered. "A jest--ha! and
methinks, forsooth, the best wilt ever make!"

So saying, Sir Pertolepe stumbled forward a pace, groping before him
like a blind man, then, groaning, fell, and lay a'swoon, his bloody
face hidden in the grass.

And turning away, Beltane left him lying there with Beda the Jester
kneeling above him.



CHAPTER XVI

OF THE RUEFUL KNIGHT OF THE BURNING HEART


Southward marched Beltane hour after hour, tireless of stride, until
the sun began to decline; on and on, thoughtful of brow and speaking
not at all, wherefore the three were gloomy and silent also--even Giles
had no mind to break in upon his solemn meditations. But at last came
Roger and touched him on the shoulder.

"Master," said he, "the day groweth to a close, and we famish."

"Why, then--eat," said Beltane.

Now while they set about building a fire, Beltane went aside and
wandering slow and thoughtful, presently came to a broad glade or ride,
and stretching himself out 'neath a tree, lay there staring up at the
leafy canopy, pondering upon Sir Pertolepe his sins, and the marvellous
ways of God. Lying thus, he was aware of the slow, plodding hoof-strokes
of a horse drawing near, of the twang of a lute, with a voice
sweet and melodious intoning a chant; and the tune was plaintive and
the words likewise, being these:--

  "Alack and woe
   That love is so
   Akin to pain!
   That to my heart
   The bitter smart
   Returns again,
   Alack and woe!"

Glancing up therefore, Beltane presently espied a knight who bestrode a
great and goodly war-horse; a youthful knight and debonair, slender and
shapely in his bright mail and surcoat of flame-coloured samite. His
broad shield hung behind his shoulder, balanced by a long lance whose
gay banderol fluttered wanton to the soft-breathing air; above his
mail-coif he wore a small bright-polished bascinet, while, at his
high-peaked saddle-bow his ponderous war-helm swung, together with
broad-bladed battle-axe. Now as he paced along in this right gallant
estate, his roving glance, by hap, lighted on Beltane, whereupon,
checking his powerful horse, he plucked daintily at the strings of his
lute, delicate-fingered, and brake into song anew:--

  "Ah, woe is me
   That I should be
   A lonely wight!
   That in mankind
   No joy I find
   By day or night,
   Ah, woe is me!"

Thereafter he sighed amain and smote his bosom, and smiling upon
Beltane sad-eyed, spake:

"Most excellent, tall, and sweet young sir, I, who Love's lorn pilgrim
am, do give thee woeful greeting and entreat now the courtesy of thy
pity."

"And wherefore pity, sir?" quoth Beltane, sitting up.

"For reason of a lady's silver laughter. A notable reason this; for,
mark me, ye lovers, an thy lady flout thee one hour, grieve not--she
shall be kind the next; an she scorn thee to-day, despair nothing--she
shall love thee to-morrow; but, an she laugh and laugh--ah, then poor
lover, Venus pity thee! Then languish hope, and tender heart be rent,
for love and laughter can ne'er be kin. Wherefore a woeful wight am I,
foredone and all distraught for love. Behold here, the blazon on my
shield--lo! a riven heart proper (direfully aflame) upon a field vert.
The heart, methinks, is aptly wrought and popped, and the flame in
sooth flame-like! Here beneath, behold my motto, 'Ardeo' which
signifieth 'I burn.' Other device have I laid by for the nonce, what
time my pilgrimage shall be accompt."

But Beltane looked not so much upon the shield as on the face of him
that bore it, and beholding its high and fearless look, the clear,
bright eyes and humorous mouth (albeit schooled to melancholy) he
smiled, and got him to his feet.

"Now, well met, Sir Knight of the Burning Heart!" quoth he. "What would
ye here, alone, within these solitudes?"

"Sigh, messire. I sing and sigh, and sigh and sing."

"'Tis a something empty life, methinks."

"Not so, messire," sighed the rueful knight, "for when I chance to meet
a gentle youth, young and well beseen--as thou, bedight in goodly mail
--as thou, with knightly sword on thigh, why then, messire, 'tis ever my
wont to declare unto him that she I honour is fairer, nobler, and
altogether more worthy and virtuous than any other she soever, and to
maintain that same against him, on horse or afoot, with lance, battle-axe
or sword. Thus, see you messire, even a love-lorn lover hath
betimes his compensations, and the sward is soft underfoot, and level."
Saying which, the knight cocked a delicate eyebrow in questioning
fashion, and laid a slender finger to the pommel of his long sword.

"How," cried Beltane, "would'st fight with me?"

"Right gladly would I, messire--to break the monotony."

"I had rather hear thy song again."

"Ha, liked you it in sooth? 'Tis small thing of mine own."

"And 'tis brief!" nodded Beltane.

"Brief!" quoth the knight, "brief! not so, most notable youthful sir,
for even as love is long enduring so is my song, it being of an hundred
and seventy and eight cantos in all, dealing somewhat of the woes and
ills of a heart sore smitten (which heart is mine own also). Within my
song is much matter of hearts (in truth) and darts, of flames and
shames, of yearnings and burnings, the which this poor heart must needs
endure since it doth constant bleed and burn."

"Indeed, messire, I marvel that you be yet alive," said Beltane
gravely, whereat the young knight did pause to view him, dubious-eyed.
Quoth he:

"In sooth, most youthful and excellent sir, I have myself marvelled
thereat betimes, but, since alive am I, now do I declare unto you that
she for whom I sigh is the fairest, gentlest, noblest, most glorious
and most womanly of all women in the world alive--"

"Save one!" said Beltane.

"Save none, messire!" said the young knight, eager-eyed.

"One!" said Beltane.

"None!" quoth the knight, as, casting aside ponderous lance he vaulted
lightly from his saddle and drew his sword; but, seeing that Beltane
bore no shield, paused to lay his own tenderly aside, and so faced him
serene of brow and smiling of lip. "Sweet sir," said he gaily, "here
methinks is fair cause for argument; let us then discuss the matter
together for the comfort of our souls and to the glory of our ladies.
As to my name--" "'Tis Jocelyn," quoth Beltane.

"Ha!" exclaimed the knight, staring.

"That won a suit of triple mail at Dunismere joust, and wagered it
'gainst Black Ivo's roan stallion within Deepwold forest upon a time."

"Now, by Venus!" cried the knight, starting back, "here be manifest
sorcery! Ha! by the sweet blind boy, 'tis black magic!" and he crossed
himself devoutly. But Beltane, laughing, put back his hood of mail,
that his long, fair hair fell a-down rippling to his shoulders.

"Know you me not, messire?" quoth he.

"Why," said Sir Jocelyn, knitting delicate brows, "surely thou art the
forester that o'ercame Duke Ivo's wrestler; aye, by the silver feet of
lovely Thetis, thou'rt Beltane the Smith!"

"Verily, messire," nodded Beltane, "and 'tis not meet that knight cross
blade with lowly smith."

"Ha!" quoth Sir Jocelyn, rubbing at his smooth white chin, "yet art a
goodly man withal--and lover to boot--methinks?"

"Aye," sighed Beltane, "ever and always."

"Why then, all's well," quoth Sir Jocelyn with eyes a-dance, "for since
true love knoweth nought of distinctions, therefore being lovers are
we peers, and, being peers, so may we fight together. So come, Sir
Smith, here stand I sword in hand to maintain 'gainst thee and all men
the fame and honour of her I worship, of all women alive, maid or wife
or widow, the fairest, noblest, truest, and most love-worthy is--"

"Helen of Mortain!" quoth Beltane, sighing.

"Helen?--Helen?--thou too!" exclaimed Sir Jocelyn, and forthwith
dropped his sword, staring in stark amaze. "How--dost thou love her
also?"

"Aye," sighed Beltane, "to my sorrow!"

Then stooped Sir Jocelyn and, taking up his sword, slowly sheathed it.
Quoth he, sad-eyed:

"Life, methinks, is full of disappointments; farewell to thee, Sir
Smith," and sighing, he turned away; yet ere he had taken lance and
shield, Beltane spake:

"Whither away, Sir Jocelyn?"

"To sigh, and sing, and seek adventure. 'Twas for this I left my goodly
castle of Alain and journeyed, a lorn pilgrim, hither to Pentavalon,
since when strange stories have I heard that whisper in the air,
speeding from lip to lip, of a certain doughty knight-at-arms, valiant
beyond thought, that beareth a sword whose mighty sweep none may abide,
who, alone and unaided slew an hundred and twenty and four within the
greenwood, and thereafter, did, 'neath the walls of Belsaye town burn
down Duke Ivo's gibbet, who hath sworn to cut Duke Ivo into gobbets,
look you, and feed him to the dogs; which is well, for I love not Duke
Ivo. All this have I heard and much beside, idle tales mayhap, yet
would I seek out this errant Mars and prove him, for mine own behoof,
with stroke of sword."

"And how an he prove worthy?" questioned Beltane.

"Then will I ride with him, to share his deeds and glory mayhap, Sir
Smith--I and all the ten-score lusty fellows that muster to my pennon,
since in the air is whispered talk of war, and Sir Benedict lieth ready
in Thrasfordham Keep."

"Two hundred men," quoth Beltane, his blue eyes agleam, "two hundred,
say you?" and, speaking, he stepped forward, unsheathing his sword.

"How now," quoth Sir Jocelyn, "what would ye, sweet smith?"

"I would have thee prove me for thy behoof, Sir Jocelyn; for I am he
that with aid of five good men burned down the gibbet without Belsaye."

"Thou!" cried Sir Jocelyn, "and thou art a smith! And yet needs must I
credit thee, for thine eyes be truthful eyes. And did'st indeed slay so
many in the green, forsooth?"

"Nay," answered Beltane, "there were but twenty; moreover I--"

"Enough!" cried Sir Jocelyn, gaily, "be thou smith or be thou demi-god,
now will I make proof of thy might and valiance." And he drew sword.

So did these two youths face each other, smiling above their gleaming
steel, and so the long blades rang together, and, thereafter, the air
was full of a clashing din, in so much that Roger came running sword in
hand, with Walkyn and Giles at his heels; but, seeing how matters
stood, they sat them down on the sward, watching round-eyed and eager.

And now Sir Jocelyn (happy-eyed), his doleful heart forgot, did show
himself a doughty knight, skipping lightly to and fro despite his heavy
armour, and laying on right lustily while the three a-sprawl upon the
grass shouted gleefully at each shrewd stroke or skilful parry; but,
once Sir Jocelyn's blade clashed upon Beltane's mailed thigh, and
straightway they fell silent; and once his point touched the links on
Beltane's wide breast, and straightway their brows grew anxious and
gloomy--yet none so gloomy as Roger. But now, on a sudden, was the
flash and ring of hard smitten steel, and behold, Sir Jocelyn's sword
sprang from his grasp and thudded to earth a good three yards away;
whereupon the three roared amain--yet none so loud as Roger.

"Now by sweet Cupid his tender bow!" panted Sir Jocelyn--"by the
cestus of lovely Venus--aye, by the ox-eyed Juno, I swear 'twas featly
done, Sir Smith!"

Quoth Beltane, taking up the fallen sword:

"'Tis a trick I learned of that great and glorious knight, Sir Benedict
of Bourne."

"Messire," said Sir Jocelyn, his cheek flushing, "an earl am I of
thirty and two quarterings and divers goodly manors: yet thou art the
better man, meseemeth, and as such do I salute thee, and swear myself
thy brother-in-arms henceforth--an ye will."

Now hereupon Beltane turned, and looking upon the mighty three with
kindling eye, beckoned them near.

"Lord Jocelyn," said he, "behold here my trusty comrades, valiant men
all:--this, my faithful Roger, surnamed the Black: This, Giles
Brabblecombe, who shooteth as ne'er did archer yet: and here, Walkyn--
who hath known overmuch of sorrow and bitter wrong. Fain would we take
thee for our comrade, Lord Jocelyn, for God knoweth Pentavalon hath
need of true men these days, yet first, know this--that I, and these my
three good comrades do stand pledged to the cause of the weak and
woefully oppressed within this sorrowful Duchy; to smite evil, nor
stay till we be dead, or Black Ivo driven hence."

"Ivo?--Ivo?" stammered Sir Jocelyn, in blank amaze, "'tis madness!"

"Thus," said Beltane, "is our cause, perchance, a little desperate, and
he who companies with us must company with Death betimes." "To defy
Black Ivo--ha, here is madness so mad as pleaseth me right well! A
rebellion, forsooth! How many do ye muster?"

Answered Beltane:

"Thou seest--we be four--"

"Four!" cried Sir Jocelyn, "Four!"

"But Sir Benedict lieth within Thrasfordham Keep, and God is in heaven,
messire."

"Aye, but heaven is far, methinks, and Duke Ivo is near, and hath an
arm long and merciless. Art so weary of life, Sir Smith?"

"Nay," answered Beltane, "but to what end hath man life, save to spend
it for the good of his fellows?"

"Art mad!" sighed Sir Jocelyn, "art surely mad! Heigho!--some day,
mayhap, it shall be written how one Jocelyn Alain, a gentle, love-lorn
knight, singing his woes within the greenwood, did meet four lovely
madmen and straight fell mad likewise. So here, upon my sword, do I
swear to take thee for my brother-in-arms, and these thy comrades for
my comrades, and to spend my life, henceforth, to the good of my
fellows!"

So saying, Sir Jocelyn smiled his quick bright smile and reached out
his hand to my Beltane, and there, leaning upon their swords, their
mailed fingers clasped and wrung each other. Thereafter he turned upon
the three, but even as he did so, Walkyn uttered a fierce cry, and
whirling about with axe aloft, sprang into the green, whence of a
sudden rose a babel of voices, and the sound of fierce blows and,
thereafter, the noise of pursuit. A flicker of steel amid the green--a
score of fierce faces all about him, and Beltane was seized from
behind, borne struggling to his knees, to his face, battered by unseen
weapons, dragged at by unseen hands, choked, half-stunned, his arms
twisted and bound by galling thongs. Now, as he lay thus, helpless, a
mailed foot spurned him fiercely and looking up, half-swooning, he
beheld Sir Pertolepe smiling down at him.

"Ha--thou fool!" he laughed jovially, "did'st think to escape me, then
--thou fool, I have followed on thy tracks all day. By the eyes of God,
I would have followed thee to hell! I want thee in Garthlaxton--there
be gibbets for thee above the keep--also, there are my hounds--aye, I
want thee, Messire Beltane who art Duke of Pentavalon! Ho! Arnulf--a
halter for his ducal throat!" So, when they had cast a noose about his
neck, they dragged Beltane, choking, to his feet, and led him away
gasping and staggering through the green; and having eyes, he saw not,
and having ears, he heard not, being very spent and sick.

Now, as they went, evening began to fall.



CHAPTER XVII

OF THE AMBUSHMENT NEAR THORNABY MILL


Little by little, as he stumbled along, Beltane's brain began to clear;
he became aware of the ring and clash of arms about him, and the
trampling of horses. Gradually, the mist lifting, he saw long files of
men-at-arms riding along very orderly, with archers and pike-men.
Little by little, amid all these hostile forms, he seemed to recognise
a certain pair of legs that went on just before: sturdy legs, that yet
faltered now and then in their stride, and, looking higher, he saw a
broad belt whose edges were notched and saw-like, and a wide, mail-clad
back that yet bent weakly forward with every shambling step. Once this
figure sank to its knees, but stumbled up again 'neath the vicious
prick of a pike-head that left blood upon the bronzed skin, whereat
Beltane uttered a hoarse cry.

"O Black Roger!" he groaned, "I grieve to have brought thee to this!"

"Nay, lord," quoth Roger, lifting high his drooping head, "'tis but my
wound that bleeds afresh. But, bond or free, thy man am I, and able yet
to strike a blow on thy behalf an heaven so please."

"Now God shield thee, brave Roger!" sighed Beltane.

"O sweet St. Giles--and what of me, brother?" spake a voice in his
ear, and turning, Beltane beheld the archer smiling upon him with
swollen, bloody lips.

"Thou here too, good Giles?"

"Even so, tall brother, in adversity lo! I am with thee--since I
found no chance to run other-where, for that divers rogues constrained
me to abide--notably yon knave with the scar, whose mailed fist I had
perforce to kiss, brother, in whose dog's carcase I will yet feather me
a shaft, sweet St. Giles aiding me--which is my patron saint, you'll
mind. _Nil desperandum_, brother: bruised and beaten, bleeding and in
bonds, yet I breathe, nothing desponding, for mark me, _a priori_,
brother, Walkyn and the young knight won free, which is well; Walkyn
hath long legs, which is better; Walkyn hath many friends i' the
greenwood, which is best of all. So do I keep a merry heart--_dum spiro
spero_--trusting to the good St. Giles, which, as methinks you know is
my--"

The archer grew suddenly dumb, his comely face blanched, and glancing
round, Beltane beheld Sir Pertolepe beside him, who leaned down from
his great white horse to smile wry-mouthed, and smiling thus, put back
the mail-coif from his pallid face and laid a finger to the linen clout
that swathed his head above the brows.

"Messire," said he soft-voiced, "for this I might hang thee to a tree,
or drag thee at a horse's tail, or hew thee in sunder with this great
sword o' thine which shall be mine henceforth--but these be deaths
unworthy of such as thou--my lord Duke! Now within Garthlaxton be
divers ways and means, quaint fashions and devices strange and rare,
messire. And when I'm done, Black Roger shall hang what's left of thee,
ere he go to feed my hounds. That big body o' thine shall rot above my
gate, and for that golden head--ha! I'll send it to Duke Ivo in
quittance for his gallows! Yet first--O, first shalt thou sigh that
death must needs be so long a-coming!"

But now, from where the van-ward marched, came galloping a tall
esquire, who, reining in beside Sir Pertolepe, pointed down the hill.

"Lord Pertolepe," he cried joyously, "yonder, scarce a mile, flies the
banner of Gilles of Brandonmere, his company few, his men scattered
and heavy with plunder."

"Gilles!" quoth Sir Pertolepe. "Ha, is it forsooth Gilles of
Brandonmere?"

"Himself, lord, and none other. I marked plain his banner with the
three stooping falcons."

"And he hath booty, say you?"

"In truth, my lord--and there be women also, three horse litters--"

"Ah--women! Verily, good Fulk, hast ever a quick eye for the flutter of
a kirtle. Now, mark me Fulk, Thornaby Mill lieth in our front, and
beyond, the road windeth steep 'twixt high banks. Let archers line
these banks east and west: let the pikemen be ambushed to the south,
until we from the north have charged them with the horse--see 'tis
done, Fulk, and silently--so peradventure, Sir Gilles shall trouble me
no more. Pass the word--away!"

Off rode Sir Fulk, and straightway the pounding hoofs were still, the
jingle of bridle and stirrup hushed, and in its place a vague stir of
bustle and excitement; of pikemen wheeling right and left to vanish
southwards into the green, and of archers stringing bows and unbuckling
quiver-caps ere they too wheeled and vanished; yet now Sir Pertolepe
stayed four lusty fellows, and beckoning them near, pointed to the
prisoners.

"Good fellows," quoth he, nodding jovially upon the archers, "here be
my three rogues, see you--who must with me to Garthlaxton: one to die
by slow fire, one to be torn by my hounds, and one--this tall
golden-haired youth--mark him well!--to die in slow and subtle fashion.
Now these three do I put in charge of ye trusty four; guard them well,
good fellows, for, an one escape, so shall ye all four die in his stead
and in such fashion as he should have died. Ha! d'ye mark me well, my merry
men?"

"Aye, lord!" nodded the four, scowling of brow yet pale-cheeked.

"Look to it I find them secure, therefore, and entreat them tenderly.
March you at the rear and see they take no harm; choose ye some secure
corner where they may lie safe from chance of stray shafts, for I would
have them come hale and sound to Garthlaxton, since to die well, a man
must be strong and hearty, look you. D'ye mark me well, good fellows?"

"Aye, lord!" growled the four.

Then Sir Pertolepe, fondling his great chin, smiled upon Beltane and
lifted Beltane's glittering sword on high, "Advance my banner!" he
cried, and rode forward among his men-at-arms. On went the company,
grimly silent now save for the snort of a horse, the champing of
curbing bits and the thud of slow trampling hoofs upon the tender
grass, as the west flamed to sunset. Thus in a while they came to a
place where the road, narrowing, ran 'twixt high banks clothed in gorse
and underbrush; a shadowy road, the which, winding downwards, was lost
in a sharp curve. Here the array was halted, and abode very still and
silent, with helm and lance-point winking in the last red rays of
sunset.

"O brother," whispered Giles, "ne'er saw I place sweeter or more apt
for ambushment. Here shall be bloody doings anon, and we--helpless as
babes! O me, the pity on't!" But now with blows and gibes the four
archers dragged them unto a tall tree that stood beside the way, a tree
of mighty girth whose far-flung branches cast a deep gloom. Within this
gloom lay my Beltane, stirring not and speaking no word, being faint
and sick with his hurts. But Giles the archer, sitting beside him,
vented by turns bitter curses upon Sir Pertolepe and humble prayers to
his patron saint, so fluent and so fast that prayers and curses became
strangely blent and mingled, on this wise:

"May Red Pertolepe be thrice damned with a candle to the blessed Saint
Giles that is my comfort and intercessor. May his bones rot within him
with my gold chain to sweet Saint Giles. May his tongue wither at the
roots--ah, good Saint Giles, save me from the fire. May he be cursed in
life and may the flesh shrivel on his bones and his soul be eternally
damned with another candle and fifty gold pieces to the altar of holy
Saint Giles--"

But now hearing Roger groan, the archer paused to admonish him thus:

"Croak not, Roger, croak not," quoth he, "think not upon thy vile body
--pray, man, pray--pray thyself speechless. Call reverently upon the
blessed saints as I do, promise them candles, Roger, promise hard and
pray harder lest we perish--I by fire and thou by Pertolepe's hounds.
Ill deaths, look you, aye, 'tis a cruel death to be burnt alive,
Roger!"

"To be torn by hounds is worse!" growled Roger.

"Nay, my Rogerkin, the fire is slower, methinks--I have watched good
flesh sear and shrivel ere now--ha! by Saint Giles, 'tis an evil
subject; let us rather think upon two others."

"As what, archer?"

"The long legs of our comrade Walkyn. Hist! hark ye to that bruit! Here
cometh Gilles of Brandonmere, meseemeth!" And now from the road in
front rose the sound of an approaching company, the tramp of weary
horses climbing the ascent with the sound of cheery voices upraised in
song; and ever the sinking sun glinted redly on helm and lance-point
where sat Sir Pertolepe's mailed riders, grim and silent, while the
cheery voices swelled near and more near, till, all at once, the song
died to a hum of amaze that rose to a warning shout that was drowned in
the blare of a piercing trumpet blast. Whereat down swept glittering
lance-point, forward leaned shining bascinet, and the first rank of Sir
Pertolepe's riders, striking spurs, thundered upon them down the hill;
came thereafter the shock of meeting ranks, with shouts and cries that
grew to a muffled roar. Up rose the dust, an eddying cloud wherein
steel flickered and dim forms strove, horse to horse and man to man,
while Sir Pertolepe, sitting his great white charger, nursed his big
chin and, smiling, waited his chance. Presently, from the eddying
cloud staggered the broken remnant of Sir Gilles' van-ward, whereon,
laughing fierce and loud, Sir Pertolepe rose in his stirrups with
Beltane's long sword lifted high, his trumpets brayed the charge, and
down the hill thundered Sir Pertolepe and all his array; and the road
near by was deserted, save for the prisoners and the four archers who
stood together, their faces set down-hill, where the dust rose denser
and denser, and the roar of the conflict fierce and loud.

But now, above the din and tumult of the fight below, shrill and high
rose the notes of a horn winded from the woods in the east, that was
answered--like an echo, out of the woods in the west; and, down the
banks to right and left, behold Sir Pertolepe's archers came leaping
and tumbling, pursued by a hissing arrow shower. Whereat up sprang
Giles, despite his bonds, shouting amain:

"O, Walkyn o' the Long Legs--a rescue! To us! Arise, I will arise!" Now
while he shouted thus, came one of the four archers, and Giles was
smitten to his knees; but, as the archer whirled up his quarter-staff
to strike again, an arrow took him full in the throat, and pitching
upon his face, he lay awhile, coughing, in the dust.

Now as his comrades yet stared upon this man so suddenly dead, down
from the bank above leapt one who bore a glittering axe, with divers
wild and ragged fellows at his heels; came a sound of shouting and
blows hard smitten, a rush of feet and, thereafter, silence, save for
the din of battle afar. But, upon the silence, loud and sudden rose a
high-pitched quavering laugh, and Giles spake, his voice yet shrill and
unsteady.

"'Twas Walkyn--ha, Saint Giles bless Walkyn's long legs! 'Twas Walkyn I
saw--Walkyn hath brought down the outlaws--the woods be full of them.
Oho! Sir Pertolepe's slow fire shall not roast me yet awhile, nor his
dogs mumble the carcase, my Rogerkin!"

"Aye," quoth Roger feebly, "but what of my lord, see how still he
lieth!"

"Forsooth," exclaimed the archer, writhing in his bonds to stare upon
Beltane, "forsooth, Roger, he took a dour ding upon his yellow pate,
look ye; but for his mail-coif he were a dead man this hour--"

"He lieth very still," groaned Roger.

"Yet is he a mighty man and strong, my Rogerkin-never despond, man,
for I tell thee--ha!--heard ye that outcry? The outlaws be at work at
last, they have Sir Pertolepe out-flanked d'ye see--now might ye behold
what well-sped shafts can do upon a close array--pretty work-sweet
work! Would I knew where Walkyn lay!"

"Here, comrade!" said a voice from the shade of the great tree.

"How--what do ye there?" cried the archer.

"Wait for Red Pertolepe."

"Why then, sweet Walkyn, good Walkyn--come loose us of our bonds that
we may wait with thee--"

"Nay," growled Walkyn, "ye are the bait. When the outlaws have slain
enough of them, Pertolepe's men must flee this way: so will Red
Pertolepe stay to take up his prisoners, and so shall I slay him in
that moment with this mine axe. Ha!--said I not so? Hark I they break
already! Peace now--wait and watch." So saying, Walkyn crouched behind
the tree, axe poised, what time the dust and roar of battle rolled
toward them up the hill. And presently, from out the rolling cloud,
riderless horses burst and thundered past, and after them--a staggering
rout, mounted and afoot, spurring and trampling each other 'neath the
merciless arrow-shower that smote them from the banks above. Horse and
foot they thundered by until at last, amid a ring of cowering men-at-arms,
Sir Pertolepe galloped, his white horse bespattered with blood
and foam, his battered helm a-swing upon its thongs; grim-lipped and
pale he rode, while his eyes, aflame 'neath scowling brows, swept the
road this way and that until, espying Beltane 'neath the tree, he
swerved aside in his career and strove to check his followers' headlong
flight.

"Stay," cried he striking right and left. "Halt, dogs, and take up the
prisoners. Ha! will ye defy me-rogues, caitiffs! Fulk! Raoul! Denis!
Ho, there!"

But no man might stay that maddened rush, wherefore, swearing a great
oath, Sir Pertolepe spurred upon Beltane with Beltane's sword lifted
for the blow. But, from the shade of the tree a mighty form uprose, and
Sir Pertolepe was aware of a hoarse, glad cry, saw the whirling flash
of a broad axe and wrenched hard at his bridle; round staggered the
white horse, down came the heavy axe, and the great horse, death-smitten,
reared up and up, back and back, and crashing over, was lost 'neath
the dust of swift-trampling hoofs.

Now presently, Beltane was aware that his bonds cramped him no longer,
found Roger's arm about him, and at his parched lips Roger's steel
head-piece brimming with cool, sweet water; and gulping thirstily, soon
felt the numbness lifted from his brain and the mist from his eyes; in
so much that he sat up, and gazing about, beheld himself alone with
Roger.

Quoth he, looking down at his swollen wrists:

"Do we go free then, Roger?"

"Aye, master--though ye had a woundy knock upon the head."

"And what of Giles?"

"He is away to get him arrows to fill his quiver, and to fill his purse
with what he may, for the dead lie thick in the road yonder, and there
is much plunder."

"And Walkyn?"

"Walkyn, master, having slain Sir Pertolepe's horse yonder, followeth
Pertolepe, minded straight to slay him also."

"Yet dost thou remain, Roger."

"Aye, lord; and here is that which thou wilt need again, methinks; I
found it hard by Sir Pertolepe's dead horse." So saying, Roger put
Beltane's great sword into his hand. Then Beltane took hold upon the
sword, and rising to his feet stretched wide his arms, and felt his
strength renewed within him. Therefore he sheathed the sword and set
his hand on Roger's broad, mail-clad shoulder.

"Roger," said he, "thou faithful Roger, God hath delivered us from
shameful death, wherefore, I hold, He hath yet need of these our
bodies."

"As how, master?"

"As I went, nigh swooning in my bonds, methought I heard tell that Sir
Gilles of Brandonmere had captive certain women; so now must we deliver
them, thou and I, an it may be so."

"Lord," quoth Roger, "Sir Gilles marcheth with the remnant of his
company, and we are but two. Let us therefore get with us divers of
these outlaws."

"I have heard tell that to be a woman and captive to Sir Gilles or
Pertolepe the Red is to be brought to swift and dire shame. So now let
us deliver these women from shame, thou and I. Wilt go with me, Roger?"

"Aye lord, that will I: yet first pray thee aid me to bind a clout upon
my arm, for my wound irketh me somewhat."

And in a while, when Beltane had laved and bound up Roger's wound, they
went on down the darkening road together.



CHAPTER XVIII

HOW BELTANE MET SIR GILLES OF BRANDONMERE


It was a night of wind with a flying cloud-wrack overhead whence peeped
the pallid moon betimes; a night of gloom and mystery. The woods about
them were full of sounds and stealthy rustlings as they strode along
the forest road, and so came to that dark defile where the fight had
raged. Of what they saw and heard within that place of slaughter it
bodeth not to tell, nor of those figures, wild and fierce, that
crouched to strip the jumbled slain, or snarled and quarrelled over the
work.

"Here is good plunder of weapons and armour," quoth Roger, "'tis seldom
the outlaws come by such. Hark to that cry! There died some wounded
wight under his plunderer's knife!"

"God rest his soul, Amen!" sighed Beltane. "Come, let us hence!" And
forthwith he began to run. So in a little while they passed through
that place of horror unseen, and so came out again upon the forest
road. Ever and anon the moon sent down a feeble ray 'neath which the
road lay a-glimmer 'twixt the gloom of the woods, whence came groans
and wailings with every wind-gust, whereat Roger quailed, and fumbling
at his sword-hilt, pressed closer upon Beltane.

"Master," he whispered, "'tis an evil night--methinks the souls of the
dead be abroad--hark to those sounds! Master, I like it not!--"

"'Tis but the wind, Roger."

"'Tis like the cries of women wailing o'er their dead, I have heard
such sounds ere now; I would my belt bore fewer notches, master!"

"They shall be fewer ere dawn, Roger, I pray God!"

"Master--an I am slain this night, think ye I must burn in hell-fire--
remembering these same notches?"

"Nay, for surely God is a very merciful God, Roger. Hark!" quoth
Beltane, and stopped of a sudden, and thus above the wailing of the
wind they presently heard a feeble groaning hard by, and following the
sound, beheld a blotch upon the glimmering road. Now as they drew near
the moon peeped out, and showed a man huddled 'neath a bush beside the
way, whose face gleamed pale amid the shadows.

"Ha!" cried Roger, stooping, "thou'rt of Brandonmere?"

"Aye--give me water--I was squire to Sir Gilles--God's love--give me--
water!"

Then Beltane knelt, and saw this was but a youth, and bidding Roger
bring water from a brook near by, took the heavy head upon his knee.

"Messire," said he, "I have heard that Sir Gilles beareth women
captive."

"There is--but one, and she--a nun. But nuns are--holy women--so I
withstood my lord in his--desire. And my lord--stabbed me--so must I
die--of a nun, see you!--Ah--give me--water!"

"Where doth he ride this night, messire?"

"His men--few--very weary--Sir Pertolepe's--men-at-arms--caught us i'
the sunken road--Sir Gilles--to Thornaby Mill--beside the ford--O God
--water!"

"'Tis here!" quoth Roger, kneeling beside him; then Beltane set the
water to the squire's eager lips, but, striving to drink he choked,
and choking, fell back--dead.

So in a while they arose from their knees and went their way, while the
dead youth lay with wide eyes that seemed to out-stare the pallid moon.

Now as they went on very silently together, of a sudden Black Roger
caught Beltane by the arm and pointed into the gloom, where, far before
them, small lights winked redly through the murk.

"Yon should be Sir Gilles' watch-fires!" he whispered.

"Aye," nodded Beltane, "so I think."

"Master--what would ye now?"

"Pray, Roger--I pray God Sir Gilles' men be few, and that they be sound
sleepers. Howbeit we will go right warily none the less." So saying,
Beltane turned aside from the road and led on through underbrush and
thicket, through a gloom of leaves where a boisterous wind rioted;
where great branches, dim seen, swayed groaning in every fierce gust,
and all was piping stir and tumult. Twigs whipped them viciously,
thorns dragged at them, while the wind went by them, moaning, in the
dark. But, ever and anon as they stumbled forward, guiding themselves
by instinct, the moon sent forth a pale beam from the whirling cloud-wrack
--a phantom light that stole upon them, sudden and ghost-like,
and, like a ghost, was gone again; what time Black Roger, following
hard on Beltane's heel, crossed himself and muttered fragments of
forgotten prayers. Thus at last they came to the river, that flowed
before them vague in the half-light, whose sullen waters gurgled evilly
among the willows that drooped upon the marge.

"Master," said Roger, wiping sweat from his face, "there's evil
hereabouts--I've had a warning--a dead man touched me as we came
through the brush yonder."

"Nay Roger, 'twas but some branch--"

"Lord, when knew ye a branch with--fingers--slimy and cold--upon my
cheek here. 'Twas a warning, master--he dead hand! One of us twain
goeth to his death this night!"

"Let not thine heart fail therefor, good Roger: man, being dead, liveth
forever--"

"Nay, but--the dead hand, master--on my cheek, here--Ah!--" Crying
thus, Black Roger sprang and caught Beltane's arm, gripping it fast,
for on the air, borne upon the wind, yet louder than the wind, a shrill
sound rang and echoed, the which, passing, seemed to have stricken the
night to silence. Then Beltane brake from Roger's clasp, and ran on
beside the river, until, beyond the sullen waters the watch-fires
flared before him, in whose red light the mill loomed up rugged and
grim, its massy walls scarred and cracked, its great wheel fallen to
ruin.

Now above the wheel was a gap in the masonry, an opening roughly square
that had been a window, mayhap, whence shone a warm, mellow light.

"Master," panted Roger, "a God's name--what was it?"

"A woman screamed!" quoth Beltane, staring upon the lighted window. As
he spake a man laughed sleepily beside the nearest watch-fire, scarce a
bow-shot away.

"Look'ee, master," whispered Roger, "we may not cross by the ford
because of the watch-fires--'tis a fair light to shoot by, and the
river is very deep hereabouts."

"Yet must we swim it, Roger."

"Lord, the water is in flood, and our armour heavy!"

"Then must we leave our armour behind," quoth Beltane, and throwing
back his hood of mail, he began to unbuckle his broad belt, but of a
sudden, stayed to point with outstretched finger. Then, looking whither
he pointed, Roger saw a tree whose hole leaned far out across the
stream, so that one far-flung branch well nigh scraped the broken roof
of the mill.

"Yon lieth our way, Roger--come!" said he.

Being come to that side of the tree afar from the watch-fires, Beltane
swung himself lightly and began to climb, but hearing a groan, paused.

"Roger," he whispered, "what ails thee, Roger?"

"Alas!" groaned Roger, "'tis my wound irketh me; O master, I cannot
follow thee this way!"

"Nay, let me aid thee," whispered Beltane, reaching down to him. But,
despite Beltane's strong hand, desperately though he tried, Black Roger
fell back, groaning.

"Master," he pleaded, "O master, adventure not alone lest ill befall
thee." "Aye, but I must, Roger."

Then Roger leaned his head upon his sound arm, and wept full bitterly.

"O master,--O sweet lord," quoth he, "bethink thee now of the warning--
the dead hand--"

"Yet must I go, my Roger."

"Then--an they kill thee, lord, so shall they kill me also; thy man am
I, to live or die with thee--"

"Nay, Roger, sworn art thou to redeem Pentavalon: so now, in her name
do I charge thee, haste to Sir Jocelyn, an he yet live--seek Giles and
Walkyn and whoso else ye may, and bring them hither at speed. If ye
find me not here, then hie ye all to Thrasfordham, for by to-morrow Sir
Pertolepe and Gui of Allerdale will have raised the country against us.
Go now, do even as I command, and may God keep thee, my faithful
Roger." Then Beltane began to climb, but being come where the great
branch forked, looked down to see Roger's upturned face, pale amid the
gloom below.

"The holy angels have thee in their keeping, lord and master!" he
sighed, and so turned with head a-droop and was gone. And now Beltane
began to clamber out across the swirl of dark waters, while the tough
bough swung and swayed beneath him in every gust of wind, wherefore his
going was difficult and slow, and he took heed only to his hands and
feet.

But, all at once, he heard a bitter, broken cry, and glancing up, it
chanced that from his lofty perch he could look within the lighted
window, and thus beheld a nun, whose slender, black-robed body writhed
and twisted in the clasp of two leathern-clad arms; vicious arms, that
bent her back and back across the rough table, until into Beltane's
vision came the leathern-clad form of him that held her: a black-haired,
shapely man, whose glowing eyes and eager mouth stooped ever nearer
above the nun's white loveliness.

And thus it was that my Beltane first looked upon Sir Gilles of
Brandonmere. He had laid sword and armour by, but as the nun yet
struggled in his arms, her white hand came upon and drew the dagger at
his girdle, yet, ere she could strike, Sir Gilles had seen and leapt
back out of reach.

Then Beltane clambered on at speed, and with every yard their voices
grew more loud--hers proud and disdainful, his low and soft, pierced,
now and then, by an evil, lazy laugh.

Now ever as Beltane went, the branch swayed more dizzily, bending more
and more beneath his weight, and ever as he drew nearer, between the
wind-gusts came snatches of their talk.

"Be thou nun, or duchess, or strolling light-o'-love, art woman--by
Venus! fair and passing fair!--captive art thou--aye, mine, I tell
thee--yield thee--hast struggled long enough to save thy modesty--yield
thee now, else will I throw thee to my lusty rogues without--make them
sport--"

"O--beast--I fear thee not! For thy men--how shall they harm me, seeing
I shall be dead!"

Down swayed the branch, low and lower, until Beltane's mailed foot,
a-swing in mid air, found something beneath--slipped away--found it
again, and thereupon, loosing the branch, down he came upon the ruined
mill-wheel. Then, standing upon the wheel, his groping fingers found
divers cracks in the worn masonry--moreover the ivy was thick; so,
clinging with fingers and toes, up he went, higher and higher until his
steel-mittened hands gripped the sill: thus, slowly and cautiously he
drew himself up until his golden head rose above the sill and he could
peer into the room.

Sir Gilles half stood, half sat upon the table, while the nun faced
him, cold and proud and disdainful, the gleaming dagger clutched to her
quick-heaving bosom; and Sir Gilles, assured and confident, laughed
softly as he leaned so lazily, yet ever he watched that gleaming steel,
waiting his chance to spring. Now as they stood fronting each other
thus, the nun stirred beneath his close regard, turned her head, and on
the instant Beltane knew that she had seen him; knew by the sudden
tremor of her lips, the widening of her dark eyes, wherein he seemed to
read wonder, joy, and a passionate entreaty; then, even as he thrilled
to meet that look, down swept languorous lid and curling lash, and,
sighing, she laid the dagger on the table. For a moment Sir Gilles
stared in blank amaze, then laughed his lazy laugh.

"Ah, proud beauty! 'Tis surrender then?" said he, and speaking, reached
for the dagger; but even as he did so, the nun seized the heavy table
and thrust with sudden strength, so that Sir Gilles, taken unawares,
staggered back and back--to the window. Then Beltane reached up into
the room and, from behind, caught Sir Gilles by the throat and gripped
him with iron fingers, strangling all outcry, and so, drawing himself
over the sill and into the room, dragged Sir Gilles to the floor and
choked him there until his eyes rolled upward and he lay like one dead.
Then swiftly Beltane took off the belt of Sir Gilles and buckled it
tight about the wrists and arms of Sir Gilles, and, rending strips from
Sir Gilles' mantle that lay near, therewith fast gagged and bound him.
Now it chanced that as he knelt thus, he espied the dagger where it
lay, and taking it up, glanced from it to Sir Gilles lying motionless
in his bonds. But as he hesitated, there came a sudden knocking on the
door and a voice spake without:

"My lord! my lord--'tis I--'tis Lupo. My lord, our men be few and
wearied, as ye know. Must I set a guard beyond the ford, think you, or
will the four watch-fires suffice?"

Now, glancing up, scarce breathing, Beltane beheld the nun who crouched
down against the wall, her staring eyes turned towards the door, her
cheeks ashen, her lips a-quiver with deadly fear. Yet, even so, she
spake. But that 'twas she indeed who uttered the words he scarce could
credit, so soft and sweetly slumberous was her voice:

"My lord is a-weary and sleepeth. Hush you, and come again with the
dawn." Now was a moment's breathless silence and thereafter an evil
chuckle, and, so chuckling, the man Lupo went down the rickety stair
without.

And when his step was died away, Beltane drew a deep breath, and
together they arose, and so, speaking no word, they looked upon each
other across the prostrate body of Sir Gilles of Brandonmere.



CHAPTER XIX

CONCERNING THE EYES OF A NUN


Eyes long, thick-lashed and darkly blue that looked up awhile into his
and anon were hid 'neath languorous-drooping lids; a nose tenderly
aquiline; lips, red and full, that parted but to meet again in sweet
and luscious curves; a chin white, and round, and dimpled.

This Beltane saw 'twixt hood and wimple, by aid of the torch that
flickered against the wall; and she, conscious of his look, stood with
white hands demurely crossed upon her rounded bosom, with eyes abased
and scarlet lips apart, as one who waits--expectant. Now hereupon my
Beltane felt himself vaguely at loss, and finding he yet held the
dagger, set it upon the table and spake, low-voiced.

"Reverend Mother--" he began, and stopped--for at the word her dark
lashes lifted and she stared upon him curiously, while slowly her red
lips quivered to a smile. And surely, surely this nun so sweet and
saintly in veiling hood and wimple was yet a very woman, young and
passing fair; and the eyes of her--how deep and tender and yet how
passionate! Now beholding her eyes, memory stirred within him and he
sighed, whereat she sighed also and meekly bowed her head, speaking him
with all humility.

"Sweet son, speak on--thy reverend mother heareth."

Now did Beltane, my Innocent, rub his innocent chin and stand mumchance
awhile, finding nought to say--then:

"Lady," he stammered, "lady--since I have found thee--let us go while
yet we may."

"Messire," says she, with eyes still a-droop, "came you in sooth--in
quest of me?"

"Yea, verily. I heard Sir Gilles had made captive of a nun, so came I
to deliver her--an so it might be."

"E'en though she were old, and wrinkled, and toothless, messire?"

"Lady," says my Innocent, staring and rubbing his chin a little harder,
"surely all nuns, young and old, be holy women, worthy a man's
reverence and humble service. So would I now bear thee from this
unhallowed place--we must be far hence ere dawn--come!"

"Aye, but whither?" she sighed, "death is all about us, messire--how
may we escape it? And I fear death no whit--now, messire!"

"Aye, but I do so, lady, since I have other and greater works yet to
achieve."

"How, messire, is it so small a thing to have saved a nun--even though
she be neither old, nor wrinkled, nor toothless?" And behold, the nun's
meek head was high and proud, her humility forgotten quite.

Then she frowned, and 'neath her sombre draperies her foot fell
a-tapping; a small foot, dainty and slender in its gaily broidered shoe,
so much at variance with her dolorous habit. But Beltane recked nought
of this, for, espying a narrow window in the opposite wall, he came
thither and thrusting his head without, looked down upon the sleeping
camp. And thus he saw that Sir Gilles' men were few indeed, scarce
three-score all told he counted as they lay huddled about the
smouldering watch-fires, deep-slumbering as only men greatly wearied
might. Even the sentinels nodded at their posts, and all was still save
for the rush of a sudden wind-gust, or the snort and trampling of the
horses. And leaning thus, Beltane marked well where the sentinels
lolled upon their pikes, or marched drowsily to and fro betwixt the
watch-fires, and long he gazed where the horses were tethered, two
swaying, trampling lines dim-seen amid the further shadows. Now being
busied measuring with his eye the distances 'twixt sentinel and
sentinel, and noting where the shadows lay darkest, he was suddenly
aware of the nun close beside him, of the feel of her, soft and warm
against him, and starting at the contact, turned to find her hand,
small and white, upon his mailed arm.

"Sweet son," said she soft-voiced, from the shadow of her sombre hood,
"thy reverend mother now would chide thee, for that having but short
while to live, thou dost stand thus mumchance, staring upon vacancy--
for, with the dawn, we die."

Quoth Beltane, deeply conscious of the slender hand:

"To die, nay--nay--thou'rt too young and fair to die--"

Sighed she, with rueful smile:

"Thou too art neither old nor cold, nor bent with years, fair son. Come
then, till death let us speak together and comfort each other. Lay by
thy melancholy as I now lay by this hood and wimple, for the night is
hot and close, methinks."

"Nay, lady, indeed 'tis cool, for there is much wind abroad," says
Beltane, my Innocent. "Moreover, while standing here, methinks I have
seen a way whereby we may win free--"

Now hereupon she turned and looked on him, quick-breathing and with
eyes brim-full of fear.

"Messire!" she panted, "O messire, bethink thee. For death am I
prepared--to live each moment fully till the dawn, then when they came
to drag me down to--to shame, then should thy dagger free me quite--
such death I'd smile to meet. But ah! should we strive to flee, and
thou in the attempt be slain--and I alive--the sport of that vile
rabblement below--O, Christ,--not that!" and cowering, she hid her
face.

"Noble lady," said Beltane, looking on her gentle-eyed, "indeed I too
had thought on that!" and, coming to the table, he took thence the
dagger of Sir Gilles and would have put it in her hand, but lo! she
shrank away.

"Not that, messire, not that," she sighed, "thy dagger let it be, since
true knight art thou and honourable, I pray you give me thine. It is
thy reverend mother asks," and smiling pale and wan, she reached out a
white, imperious hand. So Beltane drew his dagger and gave it to her
keeping; then, having set the other in his girdle, he crossed to the
door and stood awhile to hearken.

"Lady," said he, "there is no way for us but this stair, and meseemeth
'tis a dangerous way, yet must we tread it together. Reach me now thy
hand and set it here in my girdle, and, whatsoe'er befall, loose not
thy hold." So saying, Beltane drew his sword and set wide the door.
"Look to thy feet," he whispered, "and tread soft!" Then, with her
trailing habit caught up in her left hand and with her right upon his
belt, the nun followed Beltane out upon the narrow stair. Step by step
they stole downwards into the dark, pausing with breath in check each
time the timbers creaked, and hearkening with straining ears. Down they
went amid the gloom until they spied an open door below, beyond which a
dim light shone, and whence rose the snoring of wearied sleepers. Ever
and anon a wind-gust smote the ancient mill and a broken shutter
rattled near by, what time they crept a pace down the creaking stair
until at last they stood upon the threshold of a square chamber upon
whose broken hearth a waning fire burned, by whose uncertain light they
espied divers vague forms that stirred now and then and groaned in
their sleep as they sprawled upon the floor: and Beltane counted three
who lay 'twixt him and the open doorway, for door was there none.
Awhile stood Beltane, viewing the sleepers 'neath frowning brows, then,
sheathing his sword, he turned and reached out his arms to the nun in
the darkness and, in the dark, she gave herself, warm and yielding,
into his embrace, her arms clung soft about him, and he felt her breath
upon his cheek, as clasping his left arm about her, he lifted her high
against his breast. And now, even as she trembled against him, so
trembled Beltane also yet knew not why; therefore of a sudden he turned
and stepped into the chamber. A man started up beside the hearth,
muttering evilly; and Beltane, standing rigid, gripped his dagger to
smite, but even then the muttering ceased, and falling back, the man
rolled over and fell a-snoring again. So, lightly, swiftly, Beltane
strode over the sprawling sleepers--out through the open doorway--out
into the sweet, cool night beyond--out into the merry riot of the
wind. Swift and sure of foot he sped, going ever where the shadows lay
deepest, skirting beyond reach of the paling watch-fires, until he was
come nigh where the horses stamped and snorted. Here he set the nun
upon her feet, and bidding her stir not, crept towards the horses,
quick-eyed and watchful. And thus he presently espied a man who leaned
him upon a long pike, his face set toward the nearest watch-fire: and
the man's eyes were closed, and he snored gently. Then Beltane shifted
his dagger to his left hand, and being come within reach, drew back his
mailed fist and smote the sleeper betwixt his closed eyes, and catching
him as he fell, laid him gently on the grass.

Now swift and silent came Beltane to where the horses champed, and
having made choice of a certain powerful beast, slipped off his chain
mittens and rolled back sleeve of mail and, low-stooping in the shadow,
sought and found the ropes whereto the halters were made fast, and
straightway cut them in sunder. Then, having looked to girth and
bridle, he vaulted to the saddle, and drawing sword, shouted his
battle-cry fierce and loud: "Arise! Arise!" and, so shouting, smote the
frighted horses to right and left with the flat of the long blade, so
that they reared up whinnying, and set off a-galloping in all
directions, filling the air with the thunder of their rushing hoofs.

And now came shouts and cries with a prodigious confusion and running
to and fro about the dying watch-fires. Trumpets blared shrill, hoarse
voices roared commands that passed unheeded in the growing din and
tumult that swelled to a wild clamour of frenzied shouting:

"Fly! fly! Pertolepe is upon us! 'tis the Red Pertolepe!"

But Beltane, riding warily amid the gloom, came to that place where he
had left the nun, yet found her not, and immediately was seized of a
great dread. But as he stared wildly about him, he presently heard a
muffled cry, and spurring thitherwards, beheld two dim figures that
swayed to and fro in a fierce grapple. Riding close, Beltane saw the
glint of mail, raised his sword for the blow, felt a shock--a searing
smart, and knew himself wounded; but now she was at his stirrup, and
stooping, he swung her up to the withers of his horse, and wheeling
short about, spurred to a gallop; yet, as he rode, above the rush of
wind and thud of hoofs, he heard a cry, hoarse and dolorous. On
galloped Beltane all unheeding, until he came 'neath the leafy arches
of the friendly woods, within whose gloom needs must he ride at a
hand's pace. Thus, as they went, they could hear the uproar behind--a
confused din that waxed and waned upon the wind.

But Beltane, riding slow and cautious within the green, heeded this not
at all, nor the throb of his wounded arm, nor aught under heaven save
the pressure of this slender body that lay so still, so warm and soft
within his arm; and as he went, he began to wish for the moon that he
might see her face.

Blue eyes, long and heavy-lashed! Surely blue eyes were fairest in a
woman? And then the voice of her, liquid and soft like the call of
merle or mavis. And she was a nun! How white and slim her hands, yet
strong and resolute, as when she grasped the dagger 'gainst Sir Gilles;
aye--resolute hands, like the spirit within her soft and shapely body.
And then again--her lips; red and full, up-curving to sweet, slow
smile, yet withal tinged with subtle mockery. With such eyes and such
lips she might--aye, but she was a nun--a nun, forsooth!

"Messire!" Beltane started from his reverie. "Art cold, messire?"

"Cold!" stammered Beltane, "cold? Indeed no, lady."

"Yet dost thou tremble!"

"Nathless, I am not cold, lady."

"Then wherefore tremble?"

"Nay, I--I know not. In sooth, do I so, lady?"

"Verily, sir, and therewith sigh, frequent and O, most dolorous to
hear!"

Now at this, my Beltane finding naught to say, straightway sighed
again; and thus they rode awhile, speaking nothing.

"Think you we are safe, messire?" she questioned him at last.

"Tis so I pray, lady."

"Thou hast done right valiantly to-night on my behalf," says she. "How
came you in at the window?"

"By means of a tree, lady."

"Art very strong, messire, and valiant beyond thought. Thou hast this
night, with thy strong hand, lifted me up from shameful death: so, by
right, should my life be thine henceforth." Herewith she sighed,
leaning closer upon his breast, and Beltane's desire to see her face
grew amain.

"Messire," said she, "methinks art cold indeed, or is it that I weary
thee?"

"Nay, thou'rt wondrous easy to bear thus, lady."

"And whither do ye bear me, sir--north or south? And yet it mattereth
nothing," says she, soft-voiced, "since we are safe--together!" Now
hereafter, as Beltane rode, he turned his eyes full oft to heaven--
yearning for the moon.

"What woods be these, messire?" she questioned.

"'Tis the wilderness that lieth betwixt Pentavalon and Mortain, lady."

"Know ye Mortain, sir?"

"Yea, verily," he answered, and sighed full deep. And as he sighed, lo,
in that moment the moon peeped forth of a cloud-rift and he beheld the
nun looking up at him with eyes deep and wistful, and, as she gazed,
her lips curved in slow and tender smile ere her lashes drooped, and
sighing, she hid her face against him in the folds of her mantle, while
Beltane must needs bethink him of other eyes so very like, and yet so
false, and straightway--sighed.

"Messire," she murmured, "pray now, wherefore do ye sigh so oft?"

"For that thine eyes do waken memory, lady."

"Of a woman?"

"Aye--of a woman."

"And thou dost--love her, messire?"

"Unto my dole, lady."

"Ah, can it be she doth not love thee, messire?"

"Indeed, 'tis most certain!"

"Hath she then told thee so--of herself?"

"Nay," sighed Beltane, "not in so many words, lady, and yet--"

"And yet," quoth the nun, suddenly erect, "thou must needs run away and
leave her--poor sweet wretch--to mourn for thee, belike, and grieve--
aye, and scorn thee too for a faint-heart!"

"Nay, lady, verily I--"

"O, indeed me thinks she must contemn thee in her heart, poor, gentle
soul--aye, scorn and despise thee woefully for running away; indeed,
'tis beyond all doubt, messire!"

"Lady," quoth Beltane, flushing in the dark, "you know naught of the
matter--"

"Why then shalt thou tell me of it, messire--lo, I am listening." So
saying, she settled herself more aptly within his encircling arm.

"First, then," said Beltane, when they had ridden awhile in silence,
"she is a duchess, and very proud."

"Yet is she a woman, messire, and thou a man whose arms be very
strong!"

"Of what avail strong arms, lady, 'gainst such as she?"

"Why, to carry her withal, messire."

"To--to carry her!" quoth Beltane in amaze.

"In very truth, messire. To lift her up and bear her away with thee--"

"Nay--nay, to--bear her away? O, 'twere thing impossible!"

"Is this duchess so heavy, messire?" sighed the nun, "is she a burden
beyond even thy strength, sir knight?"

"Lady, she is the proud Helen, Duchess of Mortain!" quoth Beltane,
frowning at the encompassing shadows. Now was the nun hushed awhile,
and when at last she spake her voice was low and wondrous gentle.

"And is it indeed the wilful Helen that ye love, messire?"

"Even she, unto my sorrow."

"Thy sorrow? Why then, messire--forget her."

"Ah!" sighed Beltane, "would I might indeed, yet needs must I love her
ever."

"Alack, and is it so forsooth," quoth the nun, sighing likewise. "Ah
me, my poor, fond son, now doth thy reverend mother pity thee indeed,
for thou'rt in direful case to be her lover, methinks."

Now did my Beltane frown the blacker by reason of bitter memory and the
pain of his wound. "Her lover, aye!" quoth he, bitterly, "and she hath
a many lovers--"

"Lovers!" sighed the nun, "that hath she, the sad, sweet soul! Lovers!
--O forsooth, she is sick of a very surfeit of lovers,--so hath she fled
from them all!"

"Fled from them?" cried Beltane, his wound forgot, "fled from them--
from Mortain? Nay, how mean you--how--fled?"

"She hath walked, see you, run--ridden--is riding--away from Mortain,
from her lords, her counsellors, her varlets, her lovers and what not--
in a word, messire, she is--gone!"

"Gone!" quoth Beltane, breathless and aghast, "gone--aye--but whither?"

"What matter for that so long as her grave counsellors be sufficiently
vexed, and her lovers left a-sighing? O me, her counsellors! Bald-pates,
see you, and grey-beards, who for their own ends would have her
wed Duke Ivo--meek, unfortunate maid!"

"Know you then the Duchess, lady?"

"Aye, forsooth, and my heart doth grieve for her, poor, sweet wretch,
for O, 'tis a sad thing to be a duchess with a multitude of suitors
a-wooing in season and out, vaunting graces she hath not, and blind to
the virtues she doth possess. Ah, messire, I give thee joy that,
whatsoever ills may be thine, thou can ne'er be--a duchess!"

"And think you she will not wed with Ivo, lady--think you so in truth?"

"Never, while she is Helen."

"And--loveth--none of her lovers?"

"Why--indeed, messire--I think she doth--"

"Art sure? How know you this?"

"I was her bedfellow betimes, and oft within the night have heard her
speak a name unto her pillow, as love-sick maids will."

Now once again was Beltane aware of the throb and sting of his wounded
arm, yet 'twas not because of this he sighed so deep and oft.

"Spake she this name--often?" he questioned.

"Very oft, messire. Aye me, how chill the wind blows!"

"Some lord's name, belike?"

"Nay, 'twas no lord's name, messire. 'Tis very dark amid these trees!"

"Some knight, mayhap--or lowly squire?"

"Neither, messire. Heigho! methinks I now could sleep awhile." So she
sighed deep yet happily, and nestled closer within his shielding arm.

But Beltane, my Innocent, rode stiff in the saddle, staring sad-eyed
into the gloom, nor felt, nor heeded the yielding tenderness of the
shapely young body he held, but plodded on through the dark, frowning
blacker than the night. Now as he rode thus, little by little the pain
of his wound grew less, a drowsiness crept upon him, and therewith, a
growing faintness. Little by little his head drooped low and lower, and
once the arm about the nun slipped its hold, whereat she sighed and
stirred sleepily upon his breast. But on he rode, striving grimly
against the growing faintness, his feet thrust far within the stirrups,
his mailed hand tight clenched upon the reins. So, as dawn broke, he
heard the pleasant sound of running water near by, and as the light
grew, saw they were come to a grassy glade where ran a small brook--a
goodly place, well-hidden and remote. So turned he thitherward, and
lifting up heavy eyes, beheld the stars paling to the dawn, for the
clouds were all passed away and the wind was gone long since. And, in a
while, being come within the boskage of this green dell, feebly and as
one a-dream, he checked the great horse that snuffed eagerly toward the
murmuring brook, and as one a-dream saw that she who had slumbered on
his breast was awake--fresh and sweet as the dawn.

"Lady," he stammered, "I--I fear--I can ride--no farther!"

And now, as one a-dream, he beheld her start and look at him with eyes
wide and darkly blue--within whose depths was that which stirred within
him a memory of other days--in so much he would have spoken, yet found
the words unready and hard to come by.

"Lady,--thine eyes, methinks--are not--nun's eyes!"

But now behold of a sudden she cried out, soft and pitiful, for blood
was upon him, upon his brow, upon his golden hair. And still as one
a-dream he felt her slip from his failing clasp, felt her arms close
about him, aiding him to earth.

"Thou'rt hurt!" she cried. "O, thou'rt wounded! And I never guessed!"

"'Tis but my arm--in sooth--and--"

But she hushed him with soft mother-cries and tender-spoke commands,
and aiding him to the brook, laid him thereby to lave his hurt within
the cool, sweet water; and, waking with the smart, Beltane sighed and
turned to look up at her. Now did she, meeting his eyes, put up one
white hand, setting back sombre hood and snowy wimple, and stooping
tenderly above him, behold, in that moment down came the shining glory
of her lustrous hair to fall about the glowing beauty of her face,
touching his brow like a caress.

Then, at last, memory awoke within him, and lifting himself upon a
feeble elbow, he stared upon her glowing loveliness with wide, glad
eyes.

"Helen!" he sighed, "O--Helen!" And, so sighing, fell back, and lay
there pale and wan within the dawn, but with a smile upon his pallid
lips.



CHAPTER XX

HOW BELTANE PLIGHTED HIS TROTH IN THE GREEN


Beltane yawned prodigiously, stretched mightily, and opening sleepy
eyes looked about him. He lay 'neath shady willows within a leafy
bower; before him a brook ran leaping to the sunshine and filling the
warm, stilly air with its merry chatter and soft, laughing noises,
while beyond the rippling water the bank sloped steeply upward to the
green silence of the woods.

Now as Beltane lay thus 'twixt sleeping and waking, it seemed to him
that in the night he had dreamed a wondrous dream, and fain he would
have slept again. But now from an adjacent thicket a horse whinnied and
Beltane, starting at the sound, felt his wound throb with sudden pain,
and looking down, beheld his arm most aptly swathed in bandages of
fair, soft linen. Now would he have sat up, but marvelled to find it so
great a matter, and propping himself instead upon a weak elbow glanced
about him expectantly. And lo, in that moment, one spake near by in
voice rich and soft like the call of merle or mavis:

"Beltane," said the voice, "Beltane the Smith!"

With heart quick-beating, Beltane turned and beheld the Duchess Helen
standing beside him, her glorious hair wrought into two long braids
wherein flowers were cunningly entwined. Straightway he would have
risen, but she forbade him with a gesture and, coming closer, sank
beside him on her knees, and being there blushed and sighed, yet
touched him not.

"Thou'rt hurt," said she, "so must we bide here awhile, thou to win thy
strength again, and I to--minister unto thee."

Mutely awhile my Beltane gazed upon her shy, sweet loveliness, what
time her bosom rose and fell tempestuous, and she bowed her head full
low.

"Helen!" he whispered at last, "O, art thou indeed the Duchess Helen?"

"Not so," she murmured, "Helen was duchess whiles she was in Mortain,
but I that speak with thee am a lonely maid--indeed a very lonely maid
--who hath sighed for thee, and wept for thee, and for thee hath left
her duchy of Mortain, Beltane."

"For me?" quoth Beltane, leaning near, "was it for me--ah, was it so in
very sooth?"

"Beltane," said she, looking not toward him, "last night did'st thou
bear a nun within thine arms, and, looking on her with love aflame
within thine eyes, did yet vow to her you loved this duchess. Tell me,
who am but a lonely maid, is this so?"

"Thou knowest I love her ever and always," he answered.

"And yet," quoth she, shaking her head and looking up with eyes of
witchery, "thou did'st love this nun also? Though 'tis true thou did'st
name her 'reverend mother'! O, wert very blind, Beltane! And yet thou
did'st love her also, methinks?"

"Needs must I--ever and always!" he answered.

"Ah, Beltane, but I would have thee love this lonely maid dearest of
all henceforth an it may be so, for that she is so very lonely and hath
sought thee so long--"

"Sought me?" he murmured, gazing on her wide-eyed, "nay, how may this
be, for with my kisses warm upon thy lips thou did'st bid me farewell
long time since at Mortain, within the green."

"And thou," she sighed, "and thou did'st leave me, Beltane! O, would
thou had kissed me once again and held me in thine arms, so might we
have known less of sorrow. Indeed methinks 'twas cruel to leave me so.
Beltane."

"Cruel!" says my Beltane, and thereafter fell silent from sheer amaze
the while she sighed again, and bowed her shapely head and plucked a
daisy from the grass to turn it about and about in gentle fingers.

"So, Beltane," quoth she at last, "being young and cruel thou did'st
leave the Duchess a lonely maid. Yet that same night did she, this
tender maid, seek out thy lowly dwelling 'mid the green to yield
herself joyfully unto thee thenceforth. But ah, Beltane! she found the
place a ruin and thou wert gone, and O, methinks her heart came nigh to
breaking. Then did she vow that no man might ever have her to his love
--save only--thou. So, an thou love her not, Beltane, needs must she--
die a maid!"

Now Beltane forgot his weakness and rose to his knees and lifted her
bowed head until he might look deep within the yearning tenderness of
her eyes. A while she met his look, then blushing, trembling, all in a
moment she swayed toward him, hiding her face against him; and,
trembling also, Beltane caught her close within his arms and held her
to his heart.

"Dost thou love me so, indeed, my lady? Art thou mine own henceforth,
Helen the Beautiful?"

"Ah, love," she murmured, "in all my days ne'er have I loved other man
than thou, my Beltane. So now do I give myself to thee; in life and
death, in joy and sorrow, thine will I be, beloved!"

Quoth Beltane:

"As thou art mine, so am I thine, henceforth and forever."

And thus, kneeling together within the wilderness did they plight their
troth, low-voiced and tremulous, with arms that clasped and clung and
eager lips that parted but to meet again.

"Beltane," she sighed, "ah, Beltane, hold me close! I've wearied for
thee so long--so long; hold me close, beloved. See now, as thou dost
hate the pomp and stir of cities, so, for thy sake have I fled hither
to the wilderness, to live with thee amid these solitudes, to be thy
love, thy stay and comfort. Here will we live for each other, and, hid
within the green, forget the world and all things else--save only our
great love!"

But now it chanced that, raising his head, Beltane beheld his long
sword leaning against a tree hard by, and beholding it thus, he
bethought him straightway of the Duke his father, of Pentavalon and of
her grievous wrongs; and his clasping hands grew lax and fell away and,
groaning, he bowed his head; whereat she started anxious-eyed, and
questioned him, soft and piteous:

"Is it thy wound? I had forgot--ah, love, forgive me! See here a pillow
for thy dear head--" But now again he caught her to him close and
fierce, and kissed her oft; and holding her thus, spake:

"Thou knowest I do love thee, my Helen? Yet because I love thee
greatly, love, alas, must wait awhile--"

"Wait?" she cried, "ah, no--am I not thine own?"

"'Tis so I would be worthy of thee, beloved," he sighed, "for know that
I am pledged to rest not nor stay until my task be accomplished or I
slain--"

"Slain! Thou?"

"O, Helen, 'tis a mighty task and desperate, and many perchance must
die ere this my vow be accomplished--"

"Thy vow? But thou art a smith, my Beltane,--what hath humble smith to
do with vows? Thou art my love--my Beltane the Smith!"

"Indeed," sighed Beltane, "smith was I aforetime, and therewithal
content: yet am I also son of my father, and he--"

"Hark!" she whispered, white hand upon his lips, "some one comes--
through the leaves yonder!" So saying she sprang lightly to her feet
and stood above him straight and tall: and though she trembled, yet he
saw her eyes were fearless and his dagger gleamed steady in her hands.

"Beltane, my love!" she said, "thou'rt so weak, yet am I strong to
defend thee against them all."

But Beltane rose also and, swaying on unsteady feet, kissed her once
and so took his sword, marvelling to find it so heavy, and drew it from
the scabbard. And ever upon the stilly air the rustle of leaves grew
louder.

"Beltane!" she sighed, "they be very near! Hearken! Beltane--thine am
I, in life, in death. An this be death--what matter, since we die
together?"

But, leaning on his sword, Beltane watched her with eyes of love yet
spake no word, hearkening to the growing stir amid the leaves, until,
of a sudden, upon the bank above, the underbrush was parted and a man
stood looking down at them; a tall man, whose linked mail glinted
evilly and whose face was hid 'neath a vizored casque. Now of a sudden
he put up his vizor and stepped toward them down the sloping bank.

Then the Duchess let fall the dagger and reached out her hands.

"Godric!" she sighed, "O Godric!"



CHAPTER XXI

OF THE TALE OF GODRIC THE HUNTSMAN


Thus came white-haired old Godric the huntsman, lusty despite his
years, bright-eyed and garrulous with joy, to fall upon his knees
before his lady and to kiss those outstretched hands.

"Godric!" she cried, "'tis my good Godric!" and laughed, though with
lips a-tremble.

"O sweet mistress," quoth he, "now glory be to the kind Saint Martin
that I do see thee again hale and well. These many days have I followed
hard upon thy track, grieving for thee--"

"Yet here am I in sooth, my Godric, and joyful, see you!"

"Ah, dear my lady, thy wilfulness hath e'en now brought thee into dire
perils and dangers. O rueful day!"

"Nay, Godric, my wilfulness hath brought me unto my heart's desire. O
most joyful day!"

"Lady, I do tell thee here is an evil place for thee: they do say the
devil is abroad and goeth up and down and to and fro begirt in mail,
lady, doing such deeds as no man ever did. Pentavalon is rife with war
and rumours of war, everywhere is whispered talk of war--death shall be
busy within this evil Duchy ere long--aye, and even in Mortain,
perchance--nay, hearken! Scarce was thy flight discovered when there
came messengers hot-foot to thy guest, Duke Ivo, having word from Sir
Gui of Allerdale that one hath arisen calling himself son of Beltane
the Strong that once was Duke of Pentavalon, as ye know. And this is a
mighty man, who hath, within the week, broke ope my lord Duke Ivo's
dungeon of Belsaye, slain divers of my lord Duke's good and loyal
subjects, and burnt down the great gallows of my lord Duke."

"Ah!" sighed the Duchess, her brows knit thoughtfully, "and what said
Duke Ivo to this, Godric?"

"Smiled, lady, and begged instant speech with thee; and, when thou wert
not to be found, then Duke Ivo smiled upon thy trembling counsellors.
'My lords,' said he, 'I ride south to hang certain rogues and fools.
But, when I have seen them dead, I shall come hither again to woo and
wed the Duchess Helen. See to it that ye find her, therefore, else will
I myself seek her through the length and breadth of Mortain until I
find her--aye, with lighted torches, if need be!"

"And dare he threaten us?" cried the Duchess, white hands clenched.

"Aye, doth he, lady," nodded Godric, garrulous and grim. "Thereafter
away he rode, he and all his company, and after them, I grieving and
alone, to seek thee, dear my lady. And behold, I have found thee, the
good Saint Martin be praised!"

"Verily thou hast found me, Godric!" sighed the Duchess, looking upon
Beltane very wistfully.

"So now will I guide thee back to thine own fair duchy, gentle
mistress, for I do tell thee here in Pentavalon shall be woeful days
anon. Even as I came, with these two eyes did I behold the black ruin
of Duke Ivo's goodly gallows--a woeful sight! And divers tales have I
heard of this gallows-burner, how that he did, unaided and alone, seize
and bear off upon his shoulders one Sir Pertolepe--called the 'Red'--
Lord Warden of the Marches. So hath Duke Ivo put a price upon his head
and decreed that he shall forthright be hunted down, and thereto hath
sent runners far and near with his exact description, the which have I
heard and can most faithfully repeat an you so desire?"

"Aye me!" sighed the Duchess, a little wearily.

"As thus, lady. Item: calleth himself Beltane, son of Beltane, Duke of
Pentavalon that was: Item--"

"Beltane!" said the Duchess, and started.

"Item: he is very tall and marvellous strong. Item: hath yellow hair--"

"Yellow hair!" said the Duchess, and turned to look upon Beltane.

"Item: goeth in chain-mail, and about his middle a broad belt of gold
and silver. Item: beareth a great sword whereon is graven the legend--
lady, dost thou attend?--Ha! Saint Martin aid us!" cried Godric, for
now, following the Duchess's glance, he beheld Beltane leaning upon his
long sword. Then, while Godric stared open-mouthed, the Duchess looked
on Beltane, a new light in her eyes and with hands tight clasped, while
Beltane looking upon her sighed amain.

"Helen!" he cried, "O Helen, 'tis true that I who am Beltane the Smith,
am likewise son of Beltane, Duke of Pentavalon. Behold, the sword I
bear is the sword of the Duke my father, nor must I lay it by until
wrong is vanquished and oppression driven hence. Thus, see you, I may
not stay to love, within my life it must not be--yet-a-while," and
speaking, Beltane groaned and bowed his head. So came she to him and
looked on him with eyes of yearning, yet touched him not.

"Dear my lord," said she, tender-voiced, "thou should'st make a noble
duke, methinks: and yet alas! needs must I love my gentle Beltane the
Smith. And I did love him so! Thou art a mighty man-at-arms, my lord,
and terrible in war, meseemeth, O--methinks thou wilt make a goodly
duke indeed!"

"Mayhap," he answered heavily, "mayhap, an God spare me long enough.
But now must I leave thee--"

"Aye, but wherefore?"

"Thou hast heard--I am a hunted man with a price upon my head, by my
side goeth death--"

"So will I go also," she murmured, "ever and always beside thee."

"Thou? Ah, not so, beloved. I must tread me this path alone. As for
thee--haste, haste and get thee to Mortain and safety, and there wait
for me--pray for me, O my love!"

"Beltane--Beltane," she sighed, "dost love me indeed--and yet would
send me from thee?"

"Aye," he groaned, "needs must it be so."

"Beltane," she murmured, "Beltane, thou shalt be Duke within the week,
despite Black Ivo."

"Duke--I? Of Pentavalon?"

"Of Mortain!" she whispered, "an thou wilt wed me, my lord."

"Nay," stammered Beltane, "nay, outcast am I, my friends very few--to
wed thee thus, therefore, were shame--"

"To wed me thus," said she, "should be my joy, and thy joy, and
Pentavalon's salvation, mayhap. O, see you not, Beltane? Thou should'st
be henceforth my lord, my knight-at-arms to lead my powers 'gainst Duke
Ivo, teaching Mortain to cringe no more to a usurper--to free
Pentavalon from her sorrows--ah, see you not, Beltane?"

"Helen!" he murmured, "O Helen, poor am I--a beggar--"

"Beltane," she whispered, "an thou wed this lonely maid within the
forest, then will I be beggar with thee; but, an thou take to wife the
Duchess, then shalt thou be my Duke, lord of me and of Mortain, with
her ten thousand lances in thy train."

"Thou would'st give me so much," he sighed at last, "so much, my
Helen?"

"Nay," said she, with red lips curved and tender, "for this wide world
to me is naught without thee, Beltane. And I do need thy mighty arm--to
shelter me, Beltane, since Ivo hath defied me, threatening Mortain with
fire and sword. So when he cometh, instead of a woman he shall find a
man to withstand him, whose sword is swift and strong to smite and who
doeth such deeds as no man ever did; so shalt thou be my love, my lord,
my champion. Wilt not refuse me the shelter of thy strength, Beltane?"

Now of a sudden Beltane lifted his head and seized her in his arms and
held her close.

Quoth he:

"So be it, my Helen. To wife will I take thee so soon as may be, to
hold thee ever in love and reverence, to serve thee ever, to live for
thee and for thee to die an needs be."

But now strode Godric forward, with hands outstretched in eager
protest.

"Lady," he cried, "O dear lady bethink thee, now, bethink thee, thy
choice is a perilous choice--"

"Yet is it my choice, Godric."

"But, O, dear my mistress--"

"O my faithful Godric, look now upon lord Beltane, my well-beloved who
shall be Duke of Mortain ere the moon change. Salute thy lord, Godric!"

So, perforce, came old Godric to fall upon his knee before Beltane, to
take his hand and swear the oath of fealty.

"Lord Beltane," said he, "son art thou of a mighty Duke; God send
Mortain find in thee such another!"

"Amen!" said Beltane.

Thereafter Godric rose and pointed up to the zenith.

"Behold, my lady," said he, "it groweth to noon and there is danger
hereabouts--more danger e'en than I had dreamed. Let us therefore haste
over into Mortain--to thy Manor of Blaen."

"But Godric, see you not my lord is faint of his wound, and Blaen is
far, methinks."

"Not so, lady, 'tis scarce six hours' journey to the north, nay, I do
know of lonely bridle-paths that shall bring us sooner."

"To Blaen?" mused the Duchess. "Winfrida is there--and yet--and yet--
aye, let us to Blaen, there will I nurse thee to thy strength again, my
Beltane, and there shalt thou--wed with me--an it be so thy pleasure
in sooth, my lord."

So, in a while, they set off through the forest, first Godric to guide
them, then Beltane astride the great war-horse with the Duchess before
him, she very anxious for his wound, yet speaking oft of the future
with flushing cheek and eyes a-dream.

Thus, as the sun declined, they came forth of the forest-lands and
beheld that broad sweep of hill and dale that was Mortain.

"O loved Mortain!" she sighed, "O dear Mortain! 'Tis here there lived a
smith, my Beltane, who sang of and loved but birds and trees and
flowers. 'Tis here there lived a Duchess, proud and most disdainful,
who yearned for love yet knew naught of it until--upon a day, these
twain looked within each other's eyes--O day most blissful! Ah, sweet
Mortain!"

By pleasant ways they went, past smiling fields and sleepy villages
bowered 'mid the green. They rode ever by sequestered paths, skirting
shady wood and coppice where birds sang soft a drowsy lullaby, wooing
the world to forgetfulness and rest; fording prattling brook and
whispering stream whose placid waters flamed to the glory of sunset.
And thus they came at last to Blaen, a cloistered hamlet beyond which
rose the grey walls of the ancient manor itself.

Now as they drew near, being yet sheltered 'mid the green, old Godric
halted in his stride and pointed to the highway that ran in the vale
below.

"Lady," quoth he, "mine eyes be old, and yet methinks I should know yon
horseman that rideth unhelmed so close beside the lady Winfrida--that
breadth of shoulder! that length of limb! Lady, how think ye?"

"'Tis Duke Ivo!" she whispered.

"Aye," nodded Godric, "armed, see you, yet with but two esquires--"

"And with Winfrida!" said the Duchess, frowning. "Can it indeed be as I
have thought, betimes? And Blaen is a very solitary place!"

"See!" whispered Godric, "the Duke leaveth her. Behold him kiss her
hand! Ha, he summoneth his esquires. Hey now, see how they ride--sharp
spur and loose bridle, 'tis ever Ivo's way!"

Now when the Duke and his esquires were vanished in the dusk and the
sound of their galloping died away, the Duchess sprang lightly to the
sward and bidding them wait until she summoned them, hasted on before.

Thus, in a while, as Winfrida the Fair paced slowly along upon her
ambling palfrey, her blue eyes a-dream, she was suddenly aware of a
rustling near by and, glancing swiftly up, beheld the Duchess Helen
standing before her, tall and proud, her black brows wrinkled faintly,
her eyes stern and challenging.

"Lady--dear my lady!" stammered Winfrida--"is it thou indeed--"

"Since when," quoth the Duchess, soft-voiced yet menacing, "since when
doth Winfrida hold sly meeting with one that is enemy to me and to
Mortain?"

"Enemy?--nay, whom mean you--indeed I--O Helen, in sooth 'twas but by
chance--"

"Is this treason, my lady Winfrida, or only foolish amourette?"

"Sweet lady--'twas but chance--an you mean Duke Ivo--he came--I saw--"

"My lady Winfrida, I pray you go before, we will speak of this anon.
Come, Godric!" she called.

Then the lady Winfrida, her beauteous head a-droop, rode on before,
sighing deep and oft yet nothing speaking, with the Duchess proud and
stern beside her while Beltane and Godric followed after.

And so it was they came to the Manor of Blaen.



CHAPTER XXII

CONCERNING THE WILES OF WINFRIDA THE FAIR


Now in these days did my Beltane know more of joy and come more nigh to
happiness than ever in his life before. All day, from morn till eve,
the Duchess was beside him; each hour her changing moods won him to
deeper love, each day her glowing beauty enthralled him the more, so
that as his strength grew so grew his love for her.

Oft would they sit together in her garden amid the flowers, and she,
busied with her broidering needle, would question him of his doings,
and betimes her breast would heave and her dexterous hand tremble and
falter to hear of dangers past; or, talking of the future, her gracious
head would droop with cheeks that flushed most maidenly, until Beltane,
kneeling to her loveliness, would clasp her in his arms, while she,
soft-voiced, would bid him beware her needle.

To him all tender sweetness, yet to all others within the manor was she
the Duchess, proud and stately; moreover, when she met the lady
Winfrida in hall or bower, her slender brows would wrinkle faintly and
her voice sound cold and distant, whereat the fair Winfrida would bow
her meek head, and sighing, wring her shapely fingers.

Now it befell upon a drowsy afternoon, that, waking from slumber within
the garden, Beltane found himself alone. So he arose and walked amid
the flowers thinking of many things, but of the Duchess Helen most of
all. As he wandered slowly thus, his head bent and eyes a-dream, he
came unto a certain shady arbour where fragrant herb and climbing
blooms wrought a tender twilight apt to blissful musing. Now standing
within this perfumed shade he heard of a sudden a light step behind
him, and turning swift about, his eager arms closed upon a soft and
yielding form, and behold--it was Winfrida! Then Beltane would have
loosed his clasp, but her white hands reached up and clung upon his
broad shoulders, yet when she spake her voice was low and humble.

"My lord Beltane," she sighed, "happy art thou to have won the love of
our noble lady--aye, happy art thou! But as for me, alas! messire,
meseemeth her heart is turned 'gainst me these days; I, who was her
loved companion and childish play-fellow! So now am I very desolate,
wherefore I pray you speak with her on my behalf and win her to
forgiveness. Ah, messire, when thou shalt be Duke indeed, think kindly
on the poor Winfrida, for as I most truly love the Duchess--" here
needs must she sigh amain and turn aside her shapely head, and
thereafter spake, clear and loud: "so will I love thee also!" Then,
while he yet stood abashed by the touch of her and the look in her
eyes, she caught his hand to her lips and fled away out of the arbour.

But now as he stood staring after her beyond all thought amazed, a
white hand parted the leafy screen and the Duchess stood before him.
And behold! her slender brows were wrinkled faintly, and when she spake
her voice was cold and distant.

"Saw you the lady Winfrida, my lord?"

"Why truly," stammered Beltane, "truly I--she was here but now--"

"Here, my lord? Alone?"

"She besought me speak thee for her forgiveness; to remind thee of her
love aforetime, to--"

"Would'st plead for her, in sooth?"

"I would but have thee do her justice, Helen--"

"Think you I am so unjust, my lord?"

"Not so indeed. But she is so young--so fair--"

"Aye, she is very fair, my lord--there be--others think the same."

"Helen?" said he, "O Helen!"

"And thou dost plead for her--and to me, my lord! And with her kisses
yet burning thee!"

"She did but kiss my hand--"

"Thy hand, my lord! O aye, thy hand forsooth!"

"Aye, my hand, lady, and therewith named me 'Duke'!" quoth Beltane,
beginning to frown. Whereat needs must the Duchess laugh, very soft and
sweet yet with eyes aglow beneath her lashes.

"'Duke,' messire? She names thee so betimes, meseemeth. Thou art not
Duke yet, nor can'st thou ever be but of my favour!"

"And the time flieth apace," sighed Beltane, "and I have mighty things
to do. O, methinks I have tarried here overlong!"

"Ah--and would'st be going, messire?"

"'Tis so methinks my duty."

"Go you alone, messire--or goeth she with thee?"

"Ah, God! How dare ye so think?" cried Beltane, in anger so fierce and
sudden that though she fronted him yet smiling, she drew back a pace.
Whereat his anger fell from him and he reached out his hands.

"Helen!" said he, "O my Helen, what madness is this? Thou art she I
love--doth not thine heart tell thee so?" and fain would he have caught
her to him.

"Ah--touch me not!" she cried, and steel flickered in her hand.

"This--to me?" quoth he, and laughed short and bitter, and catching her
wrist, shook the dagger from her grasp and set his foot upon it.

"And hath it come to this--'twixt thee and me?" he sighed.

"O," she panted, "I have loved thee nor shamed to show thee my love.
Yet because my love is so great, so, methinks, an need be I might hate
thee more than any man!" Then, quick-breathing, flushed and trembling,
she turned and sped away, leaving Beltane heavy-hearted, and with the
dagger gleaming beneath his foot.



CHAPTER XXIII

OF THE HUMILITY OF HELEN THE PROUD


Beltane, leaning forth of his lattice, stared upon the moon with
doleful eyes, heavy with sense of wrong and big with self-pity.

"I have dreamed a wondrous fair dream," said he within himself, "but
all dreams must end, so is my dream vanished quite and I awake, and
being awake, now will I arise and go upon my duty!" Then turned he to
his bed that stood beside the window and forthwith began to arm
himself; but with every lace he drew, with every strap he buckled, he
sighed amain and his self-pity waxed the mightier. He bethought him of
his father's sayings anent the love of women, and in his mind condemned
them all as fickle and light-minded. And in a while, being armed from
head to foot, in glistening coif and hauberk and with sword girt about
his middle, he came back to the lattice and leaned him there to stare
again upon the moon, to wait until the manor should be wrapped in sleep
and to grieve for himself with every breath he drew.

Being thus so profoundly occupied and, moreover, his head being thrust
without the window, he heard nought of the tap upon his chamber door
nor of the whispered sound of his name. Thus he started to feel a touch
upon his arm, and turning, beheld the Duchess.

She wore a simple robe that fell about her body's round loveliness in
sweetly revealing folds; her hair, all unbraided, was caught up 'neath
a jewelled fillet in careless fashion, but--O surely, surely, never had
she looked so fair, so sweet and tender, so soft and desirable as now,
the tear-drops yet agleam upon her drooping lashes and her bosom yet
heaving with recent grief.

"And--thou art armed, my lord?"

"I ride for Thrasfordham-within-Bourne this night, my lady."

"But I am come to thee--humbly--craving thy forgiveness, Beltane."

"Nought have I to forgive thee, lady--save that thou art woman!"

"Thou would'st not have me--a man, messire?"

"'Twould be less hard to leave thee."

"Thou art--leaving me then, Beltane?"

"Yea, indeed, my lady. The woes of Pentavalon call to me with a
thousand tongues: I must away--pray God I have not tarried too long!"

"But art yet weak of thy wound, Beltane. I pray thee tarry--a little
longer. Ah, my lord, let not two lives go empty because of the arts of
a false friend, for well do I know that Winfrida, seeing me coming to
thee in the garden, kissed thee of set purpose, that, beholding, I
might grieve."

"Is this indeed so, my lady?"

"She did confess it but now."

"Said she so indeed?"

"Aye, my lord, after I had--pulled her hair--a little. But O, my
Beltane, even when I thought thee base, I loved thee! Ah, go not from
me, stay but until to-morrow, and then shalt thou wed me for thine own!
Leave me not, Beltane, for indeed--I cannot live--without thee!"

So saying, she sank down upon his couch, hiding her face in the pillow.

Now came Beltane and leaned above her.

"Helen!" he whispered; and falling upon his knees, he set his arms
about her. Then lifted she her tearful face and looked upon him in the
moonlight; and lying thus, of a sudden reached out white arms to him:
and in her eyes was love, and on her quivering lips and in all the
yearning beauty of her, love called to him.

Close, close he caught her in his embrace, kissing her hard and fierce,
and her long hair came down to veil them in its glory. Then, trembling,
he lifted her in his arms and bore her forth of his chamber out into
the hall beyond, where lights flickered against arras-hung wall. There,
falling upon his knees before her, he hid his face within the folds of
her habit.

"O Helen!" he groaned, "thou art--so beautiful--so beautiful that I
grow afraid of thee! Wed me this night or in mercy let me begone!"

And now did the Duchess look down upon him with eyes of wonder changing
to a great and tender joy, and stooping, put back his mail coif with
reverent hand and laid her cheek upon that bowed and golden head.

"Beltane," she whispered, "O Beltane of mine, now do I know thee indeed
for a true man and noble knight! Such love as thine honoureth us both,
so beloved, this night--within the hour, shalt thou wed with me, and I
joy to hear thee call me--Wife!"

Therewith she turned and left him there upon his knees.



CHAPTER XXIV

OF WHAT BEFELL AT BLAEN


Late though the hour, full soon the manor was astir; lights glimmered
in the great hall where were gathered all the household of the Duchess,
her ladies, her tire-women, the porters and serving men, even to the
scullions--all were there, staring in wonderment upon the Duchess, who
stood before them upon the dais in a rich habit of blue and silver and
with her golden fillet on her brow.

"Good friends," said she, looking round upon them happy-eyed, "hither
have I summoned ye, for that this night, here before you all, 'tis my
intent to wed this noble knight Beltane, son of Beltane Duke of
Pentavalon aforetime, who shall henceforth be lord of me and of
Mortain."

Now did Winfrida the Fair start and therewith clench pink palms and
look quick-eyed upon my Beltane, noting in turn his golden hair, his
belt of silver and the great sword he bore: and, biting her red lip,
she stooped her beauteous head, frowning as one in sudden perplexity.

"So now," spake on the Duchess, "let us to the chapel where good Father
Angelo shall give us heaven's blessing upon this our union."

"Lady," said Godric, "Friar Angelo was summoned to the village this
night, nor is he come again yet."

"Then go fetch him," sighed the Duchess, "and O, Godric, hasten!"

Thereafter turned she to the assemblage, gentle-eyed.

"Friends," said she, "since I am greatly happy this night, so would I
have ye happy likewise. Therefore I decree that such as are serfs among
ye shall go free henceforth, and to such as are free will I give
grants of land that ye may come to bless this night and remember it
ever."

But now, even as they fell on their knees, 'mid cries of gratitude and
joyful acclaim, she, smiling and gracious, passed out of the hall: yet,
as she went, beckoned the lady Winfrida to follow.

Being come into her chamber, all three, the Duchess sank down beside
the open lattice and looked out upon the garden all bathed in the
tender radiance of the moon. Anon she sighed and spake:

"My lady Winfrida, on this my wedding night a new life dawns for
Mortain and for me, wherein old harms shall be forgiven and forgot, so
come--kiss me, Winfrida."

Then swiftly came the beauteous Winfrida to kneel at her lady's feet,
to clasp her lady's slender hand, to kiss it oft and bathe it in her
tears.

"O sweet my lady, am I indeed forgiven?"

"Aye, most truly."

"Am I again thy loved companion and thy friend?"

"So shall it be, Winfrida."

"Then, O dear Helen, as sign all is forgot and we lovers again, let us
pledge each other, here and now--to thy future happiness and glory."

"Aye, be it so," sighed the Duchess, "bring wine, for I am athirst."

Then turned she to the lattice again and Winfrida went lightly on her
errand. Now, yet gazing upon the moon, the Duchess reached out and drew
Beltane beside her.

"Dear my love," she whispered, "in but a little hour I shall be thine:
art happy in the thought? Nay," she sighed, white hands against his
mailed breast, "beloved, wait--kiss me not again until the hour be
passed. Lean here thy golden head and look with me upon the splendour
of the night. See the pale moon, how placid and serene, how fair and
stately she doth ride--"

"So may thy life be in coming years!" said Beltane.

"And wilt love me ever, Beltane, no matter what betide?"

"Ever and always, so long as thou art Helen. Nay, why dost tremble?"

"O my lord--see yonder--that cloud, how black--see how it doth furtive
creep upon the gentle moon--"

"'Tis a long way hence, my Helen!"

"Yet will it come. Ah, think you 'tis a portent? O would the gentle
Angelo were here--and yet, an he were come--methinks I might wish him
hence--for that, loving thee so, yet am I a maid, and foolish--ah, who
is here--not Angelo so soon? What, 'tis thou, Winfrida? Welcome--bring
hither the goblet."

So came Winfrida, and falling on her knee gave the goblet into her
lady's hand, who, rising, turned to Beltane looking on him soft-eyed
across the brimming chalice.

"Lord and husband," she breathed--"now do I drink to thy glory in arms,
to our future, and to our abiding love!" So the Duchess raised the
goblet to her lips. But lo! even as she drank, the thick, black cloud
began to engulf the moon, quenching her radiant light in its murky
gloom. So the Duchess drank, and handed the goblet to Beltane.

"To thee, my Helen, whom only shall I love until death and beyond!"

Then Beltane drank also, and gave the cup to Winfrida: but, even as he
did so, the Duchess uttered a cry and pointed with hand a-tremble:

"O Beltane, the moon--the moon that was so bright and glorious--'tis
gone, the cloud hath blotted it out! Ah, Beltane, what doth this
portend? Why do I tremble thus because the moon is gone?"

"Nay, my beloved," quoth Beltane, kissing those slender fingers that
trembled upon his lip and were so cold--so deadly cold, "dear Helen,
it will shine forth again bright and radiant as ever."

"Yet why is my heart so cold, Beltane, and wherefore do I tremble?"

"The night grows chill, mayhap."

"Nay, this cold is from within. O, I would the moon would shine!"

"Nay, let us speak of our future, my Helen--"

"The future?" she sighed, "what doth it hold? Strife and bitter war for
thee and a weary waiting for me, and should'st thou be slain--Ah,
Beltane, forgive these fears and vain imaginings. Indeed, 'tis most
unlike me to fear and tremble thus. I was ever accounted brave until
now--is't love, think you, doth make me coward? 'Tis not death I fear--
save for thy dear sake. Death? Nay, what have we to do with such, thou
and I--this is our wedding night, and yet--I feel as if this night--I
were leading thee--to thy--death--. O, am I mad, forsooth? Hold me
close, beloved, comfort me, Beltane, I--I am afraid." Then Beltane
lifted her in his arms and brought her to the hearth, and, setting her
in the fireglow, kneeled there, seeking to comfort her.

And now he saw her very pale, sighing deep and oft and with eyes
dilated and heavy.

"Beltane," said she slowly, "I grow a-weary, 'tis--the fire,
methinks." And smiling faintly she closed her eyes, yet sighed and
gazed upon him as one new waked. "Did I sleep?" she questioned
drowsily, "Beltane," she sighed, speaking low and thick--"I charge
thee, whatsoe'er the future doth bring--yet love me alway--or I,
methinks--shall--die!"

Awhile she lay against him breathing deep and slow, then started of a
sudden, looking upon him vague-eyed.

"Beltane," she murmured, "art there, beloved? 'Tis dark, and my eyes--
heavy. Methinks I--must sleep awhile. Take me--to my women. I must
sleep--yet will I come to thee soon--soon, beloved." So Beltane brought
her to the door, but as he came thither the broidered curtain was
lifted and he beheld Winfrida, who ran to her mistress, kissing her oft
and sighing over her.

"Winfrida," sighed the Duchess, slumberous of voice, "I grow a-weary--I
must sleep awhile--"

"Aye, thou'rt overwrought, dear lady. Come, rest you until the holy
Angelo be come, so shalt be thine own sweet self anon."

And when the Duchess was gone, Beltane sat and stared upon the fire and
felt himself vaguely troubled, yet even so, as he watched the leaping
flame, his head nodded and he slept, yet sleeping, dreamed he heard the
Duchess calling him, and opening his eyes, found the fair Winfrida
beside him:

"My lord Beltane," said she softly, "thy Duchess biddeth thee wait her
in the chapel--follow me, messire!" Now being yet heavy with sleep,
Beltane arose and followed her through an opening in the arras near by,
and down a narrow stair, stumbling often as he went and walking as one
in a dream. So by devious ways Winfrida brought him into a little
chapel, where, upon the altar, was a crucifix with candles dim-burning
in the gloom.

"Wait here, my lord," said Winfrida, "so will I go prepare my lady,
Friar Angelo doth stay to do his holy office." So speaking, Winfrida
turned and was gone. Then Beltane came unto the altar and, kneeling
there, leaned his heavy head upon the fair white altar cloth, and
kneeling thus, fell asleep--The altar beneath him seemed of a sudden
riven and split asunder and, while he gazed, behold the fair white
altar cloth grew fouled and stained with blood--new blood, that
splashed down red upon the white even as he watched. Then did Beltane
seek to rise up from his knees, but a heavy weight bore him ever down,
and hands huge and hairy gripped him fierce and strong. But beholding
these merciless hands, a sudden mighty rage came upon Beltane, and
struggling up, he stood upon his feet and drew sword; but the fierce
hands had crept up to his naked throat, cutting off his breath, the
sword was dashed from his loosening grasp, the weight about him grew
too much for his strength, it bore him down and down into a pitchy
gloom where all was very still. A wind, sweet and cool, breathed upon
his cheek, grass was below and trees above him, shadowy trees beyond
which a pallid moon rose high, very placid and serene. Now as Beltane
stared heavenward the moon was blotted out, a huge and hairy face
looked down in his, and hairy hands lifted him with mighty strength.
Then Beltane thought to see the Duchess Helen standing by in her gown
of blue and silver--

"Helen!" he whispered.

But she paid no heed, busied in fastening about her the nun's long
cloak that veiled her down from head to foot. So the mighty arms that
held Beltane bore him to a horse near by and across this horse he was
flung; thereafter the monster mounted also, and they moved off amid the
trees. Thus was Beltane borne from Blaen upon his wedding night--dazed,
bleeding and helpless in his bonds. Yet even so, ever as they went he
watched her who rode near by, now in moonlight, now in shadow, so
youthful and shapely, but with hood drawn low as she had worn it when
he bore her through the forest in his arms.

And ever as they went he watched the pale gleam of her hand upon the
bridle, or her little foot in its embroidered shoe, or the fold of her
blue gown with its silver needle-work. And ever the trouble in his
dazed brain grew the deeper; once, as they crossed a broad glade she
rode up close beside him, and beneath her hood he saw a strand of her
glorious hair, bright under the moon.

Then did he writhe and struggle in his bonds.

"Helen!" he cried, "O Helen!" ...

But a great hand, coarse and hairy, came upon his mouth, stopping the
cry and choking him to silence.

So they bore my Beltane southwards through the misty woods, on and ever
on, till with the dawn they were come to a castle great and very
strong, where battlement and tower frowned upon the paling stars.

But with the dawn, 'mid the gloom of the little chapel of Blaen, came
one who stood, haggard and pallid as the dawn, to stare wild-eyed upon
a great sword and upon a torn and blood-stained altar-cloth; and so
gazing, she shrank away back and back, crouching down amid the gloom.
When at last the sun arose, it glittered on a long broad blade, across
which, upon the rough pavement, lay one very silent and very still,
amid the tumbled glory of her hair.



CHAPTER XXV

HOW BELTANE BECAME CAPTIVE TO SIR PERTOLEPE


A horn, lustily winded, waked my Beltane from his swoon, waked him to a
glimmering world vague and unreal, where lights flared and voices
sounded, hoarse and faint, in question and answer. Thereafter, down
rattled drawbridge and up creaked portcullis, and so, riding 'neath a
deep and gloomy arch they came out into a courtyard, where were many
vague forms that flitted to and fro--and many more lights that glinted
on steel bascinet and hauberk of mail.

Now as Beltane lay helpless in his bonds he felt a hand among his hair,
a strong hand that lifted his heavy, drooping head and turned up his
face to the glare of the torches.

"How now, Fool!" cried a gruff voice, "here's not thy meat--ha, what
would ye--what would ye, Fool?"

"Look upon another fool, for fool, forsooth, is he methinks that cometh
so into Garthlaxton Keep." Now hereupon, opening unwilling eyes,
Beltane looked up into the face of Beda the Jester that bent above him
with a ring of steel-begirt faces beyond.

"Aha!" quoth the jester, clapping Beltane's pale and bloody cheek,
"here is a fool indeed--forsooth, a very foolish fool, hither come
through folly, for being great of body and small of wit, look you, his
folly hath hither brought him in shape of a hairy, ape-like fool--"

"Ape!" growled a voice, and the jester was seized in a hairy hand and
shaken till his bells jingled; and now Beltane beheld his captor, a
dwarf-like, gnarled and crooked creature, yet huge of head and with the
mighty arms and shoulders of a giant; a fierce, hairy monster, whose
hideousness was set off by the richness of his vesture. "Ape, quotha!"
he growled. "Dare ye name Ulf the Strong ape, forsooth? Ha! so will I
shake the flesh from thy bones!" But now, she who sat her horse near by
so proud and stately, reached forth a white hand, touching Ulf the
Strong upon the arm, and lo! in that moment, he loosed the breathless
jester and spake with bowed head: "Dear my lady, I forgot!" Then
turning to the grinning soldiery he scowled upon them. "Dogs," quoth
he, "go to your master and say Helen, Duchess of Mortain bringeth a
wedding gift to Ivo, called the Black. Behold here he that slew twenty
within the green, that burned down Black Ivo's goodly gallows, that
broke the dungeons of Belsaye and bore Red Pertolepe into the green,
behold him ye seek--Beltane, son of Beltane the Strong, heretofore
Duke of Pentavalon!"

Now hereupon arose a mighty turmoil and excitement, all men striving to
behold Beltane, to touch him and look upon his drooping face, but Ulf's
mighty hand held them back, one and all. And presently came hasting
divers esquires and knights, who, beholding Beltane, his costly mail,
his silver belt and golden hair, seized upon him right joyfully and
bore him into an inner ward, and threw him down upon the floor,
marvelling and rejoicing over him, while Beltane lay there fast bound
and helpless, staring up with frowning brow as one that strives to
think, yet cannot. Now suddenly the noise about him ceased, all voices
were hushed, and he was aware of one who stood near by, a doleful
figure swathed in bandages, who leaned upon the arm of a tall esquire.
And looking upon this figure, he saw it was Sir Pertolepe the Red.

"Ha, by the eyes of God!" quoth Sir Pertolepe, "'tis he himself--O
sweet sight--see, I grow better already! Who brought him, say you?"

"Lord, 'twas the Duchess Helen!" said one. "Helen!" cried Sir
Pertolepe, "Helen of Mortain?" "Aye, lord, as her wedding gift to our
lord Duke Ivo." Now hereupon Beltane's staring eyes closed, the great
muscles of his body twitched and writhed and stood out gnarled and
rigid awhile, then he sighed, a slow, hissing breath, and lay there
staring up wide-eyed at the vaulted roof again.

"Came she herself, Raoul?"

"Aye, good my lord."

"Why, then--admit her. God's love, messires, would ye keep the glorious
Helen without?"

"Lord, she is gone--she and her ape-man both."

"Gone? Gone, forsooth? 'Tis strange, and yet 'tis like the wilful
Helen. Yet hath she left her wedding gift in my keeping. O a rare gift,
a worthy gift and most acceptable. Strip me off his armour--yet no, as
he came, so shall he bide until my lord Duke be come. Bring now
shackles, strong and heavy, bring fetters and rivets, so will I sit
here and see him trussed."

And presently came two armourers with hammers and rivets, and shackled
Beltane with heavy chains, the while Sir Pertolepe, sitting near,
laughed and spake him right jovially.

But Beltane suffered it all, uttering no word and staring ever straight
before him with wide, vague eyes, knitting his brow ever and anon in
troubled amaze like a child that suffers unjustly; wherefore Sir
Pertolepe, fondling his big chin, frowned.

"Ha!" quoth he, "let our Duke that hath no duchy be lodged secure--to
the dungeons, aye, he shall sleep with rats until my lord Duke Ivo come
to see him die--yet stay! The dungeons be apt to sap a man's strength
and spirit, and to a weak man death cometh over soon and easy. Let him
lie soft, feed full and sleep sound--let him have air and light, so
shall he wax fat and lusty against my lord Duke's coming. See to it,
Tristan!"

So they led Beltane away jangling in his fetters, across divers
courtyards and up a narrow, winding stair and thrust him within a
chamber where was a bed and above it a loop-hole that looked out across
a stretch of rolling, wooded country. Now being come to the bed,
Beltane sank down thereon, and setting elbow to knee, rested his heavy
head upon his hand as one that fain would think.

"Helen!" he whispered, and so whispering, his strong fingers writhed
and clenched themselves within his yellow hair. And thus sat he all
that day, bowed forward upon his hand, his fingers tight-clenched
within his hair, staring ever at the square flagstone beneath his foot,
heedless alike of the coming and going of his gaoler or of the food set
out upon the bench hard by. Day grew to evening and evening to night,
yet still he sat there, mighty shoulders bowed forward, iron fingers
clenched within his hair, like one that is dead; in so much that his
gaoler, setting down food beside the other untasted dishes, looked upon
him in amaze and touched him.

"Oho!" said he, "wake up. Here be food, look ye, and, by Saint Crispin,
rich and dainty. And drink--good wine, wake and eat!"

Then Beltane's clutching fingers relaxed and he raised his head,
blinking in the rays of the lanthorn; and looking upon his rumpled
hair, the gaoler stared and peered more close.

Quoth he:

"Methought thou wert a golden man, yet art silver also, meseemeth."

"Fellow," said Beltane harsh-voiced and slow, "Troy town was burned,
and here was great pity, methinks, for 'twas a fair city. Yet to weep
o'er it these days were a fond madness. Come, let us eat!"

But as Beltane uprose in his jangling fetters, the gaoler, beholding
his face, backed to the door, and slamming it shut, barred and fast
bolted it, yet cast full many a glance behind as he hasted down the
winding stair.

Then Beltane ate and drank, and thereafter threw himself upon his
narrow couch, but his fetters jangled often in the dark. Thus as he
lay, staring upwards into the gloom, he was aware of the opening of the
iron-clamped door, and beheld his gaoler bearing a lanthorn and behind
him Sir Pertolepe leaning on the arm of his favourite esquire, who,
coming near, looked upon Beltane nodding right jovially.

"Messire Beltane," quoth he, "thou did'st dare set up thyself against
Ivo our lord the Duke--O fool! 'Tis said thou hast sworn to drive him
forth of Pentavalon--seeking her to wife, O fool of fools! Did'st
think, presumptuous rogue, that she--the glorious Helen--that Helen
the Beautiful, whom all men desire, would stoop to thee, an outcast--
wolf's head and outlaw that thou art? Did'st dare think so, forsooth?
To-morrow, belike, my lord Duke shall come, and mayhap shall bring the
Duchess Helen in his train--to look upon the manner of thy dying--"

Now hereupon up started Beltane that his fetters clashed, and laughed
so sudden, so fierce and harsh, that Raoul the esquire clapped hand to
dagger and even Red Pertolepe started.

"Sweet lord," quoth Beltane, "noble messire Pertolepe, of thy boundless
mercy--of thy tender ruth grant unto me this boon. When ye shall have
done me to death--cut off this head of mine and send it to Helen--to
Helen the beautiful, the wilful--in memory of what befell at Blaen."



CHAPTER XXVI

OF THE HORRORS OF GARTHLAXTON KEEP, AND HOW A DEVIL ENTERED INTO
BELTANE


Six days came and went, and during all this time Beltane spake word to
no man. Every evening came Sir Pertolepe leaning on the arm of Raoul
the esquire, to view his prisoner with greedy eyes and ply him with
jovial talk whiles Beltane would lie frowning up at the mighty roof-beams,
or sit, elbows on knee, his fingers clenched upon that lock of
hair that gleamed so strangely white amid the yellow.

Now upon the seventh evening as he sat thus, came Sir Pertolepe
according to his wont, but to-night he leaned upon the shoulder of Beda
the Jester, whose motley flared 'gainst rugged wall and dingy flagstone
and whose bells rang loud and merry by contrast with the gloom.

Quoth Sir Pertolepe, seated upon the bench and smiling upon Beltane's
grim figure:

"He groweth fat to the killing, seest thou, my Beda, a young man and
hearty, very hale and strong--and therefore meet for death. So strong a
man should be long time a-dying--an death be coaxed and managed well.
And Tristan is more cunning and hath more love for his craft than ever
had Black Roger. With care, Beda--I say with care, messire Beltane
should die from dawn to sundown."

"Alack!" sighed the jester, "death shall take him over soon, as thou
dost say--and there's the pity on't!"

"Soon, Fool--soon? Now out upon thee for a fool ingrain--"

"Forsooth, sweet lord, fool am I--mark these bells! Yet thou art a
greater!"

"How, sirrah?"

"In that thou art a greater man, fair, sweet lord; greater in might,
greater in body, and greater in folly."

"Ha, would'st mock me, knave?"

"For perceive me, fair and gentle lord, as this base body of ours being
altogether thing material is also thing corruptible, so is it also a
thing finite, and as it is a thing finite so are its sensations, be
they of pleasure or pain, finite also--therefore soon must end. Now
upon the other hand--"

"How now? What babbling folly is here?"

"As I say, most potent lord, upon the other hand--as the mind, being
altogether thing transcendental, is also thing incorruptible, so is it
also a thing infinite, and being a thing infinite so are its sensations
infinite also--therefore everlasting."

"Ha, there's reason in thy folly, methinks. What more?"

"Bethink thee, lord, there be divers rogues who, having provoked thy
potent anger, do lie even now awaiting thy lordly pleasure. E'en now
irons be heating for them, moreover they are, by thy will, to suffer
the grievous torment of the pulleys and the wheel, and these, as I do
know, be sharp punishments and apt to cause prodigious outcry. Now, to
hear one cry out beneath the torture is an evil thing for youthful
ears--and one not soon forgot."

"Aye, aye, forsooth, I begin to see thy meaning, good Fool--yet say
on."

"Let this thy prisoner be set within the cell above the torture
chamber, so, lying within the dark he must needs hear them cry below,
and in his mind shall he suffer as they suffer, every pang of racking
wheel and searing iron. And, because the mind is thing infinite--"

"Enough--enough! O most excellent Beda, 'tis well bethought. O, rare
Fool, so shall it be."

Forthwith Sir Pertolepe summoned certain of his guard, and,
incontinent, Beltane was dragged a-down the winding stair and
thereafter fast shut within a place of gloom, a narrow cell breathing
an air close and heavy, and void of all light. Therefore Beltane sat
him down on the floor, his back to the wall, staring upon the dark,
chin on fist. Long he sat thus, stirring not, and in his heart a black
void, deeper and more awful than the fetid gloom of any dungeon--a void
wherein a new Beltane came into being.

Now presently, as he sat thus, upon the silence stole a sound, low and
murmurous, that rose and fell yet never quite died away. And Beltane,
knowing what sound this was, clenched his hands and bowed his face upon
his knees. As he listened, this drone grew to a sudden squealing cry
that rang and echoed from wall to wall, whiles Beltane, crouched in
that place of horror, felt the sweat start out upon him, yet shivered
as with deadly cold, and ever the cries thrilled within the dark or
sank to whimpering moans and stifled supplications. And ever Beltane
hearkened to these fell sounds, staring blindly into the gloom, and
ever the new Beltane grew the stronger within him.

Hour after hour he crouched thus, so very silent, so very quiet, so
very still, but long after the groans and wailings had died to silence,
Beltane stared grim-eyed into the gloom and gnawed upon his fingers. Of
a sudden he espied a glowing spark in the angle of the wall to the
right--very small, yet very bright.

Now as he watched, behold the spark changed to a line of golden light,
so that his eyes ached and he was fain to shade them in his shackled
arm; and thus he beheld a flagstone that seemed to lift itself with
infinite caution, and, thereafter, a voice breathed his name.

"Messire--messire Beltane!" And now through the hole in the floor
behold a hand bearing a lanthorn--an arm--a shoulder--a shrouded head;
thus slowly a tall, cloaked figure rose up through the floor, and,
setting down the lanthorn, leaned toward Beltane, putting back the hood
of his mantle, and Beltane beheld Beda the Jester.

"Art awake, messire Beltane?"

"Aye!" quoth Beltane, lifting his head. "And I have used mine ears! The
wheel and the pulley are rare begetters of groans, as thou did'st
foretell, Fool! 'Twas a good thought to drag me hither--it needed but
this. Now am I steel, without and--within. O, 'tis a foul world!"

"Nay, messire--'tis a fair world wherein be foul things: they call them
'men.' As to me, I am but a fool--mark this motley--yet hither I
caused thee to be dragged that I might save those limbs o' thine from
wheel and pulley, from flame and gibbet, and set thee free within a
world which I do hold a fair world. Yet first--those fetters--behold
hammer and chisel! Oswin, thy gaoler, sleepeth as sweet as a babe, and
wherefore? For that I decocted Lethe in his cup. Likewise the guard
below. My father, that lived here before me (and died of a jest out of
season), was skilled in herbs--and I am his son! My father (that bled
out his life 'neath my lord's supper table) knew divers secret ways
within the thickness of these walls--so do I know more of Pertolepe's
castle than doth Pertolepe himself. Come, reach hither thy shackles and
I will cut them off, a chisel is swifter than a file--"

"And why would'st give me life, Fool?"

"For that 'tis a useful thing, messire, and perchance as sweet to thee
this night within thy dungeon as to me upon a certain day within the
green that you may wot of?" So speaking, Beda the Jester cut asunder
the chain that bound the fetters, and Beltane arose and stretched
himself and the manacles gleamed on each wide-sundered wrist.

Quoth he:

"What now?"

Whereat the jester, sitting cross-legged upon the floor, looked up at
him and spake on this wise:

"Two days agone as I walked me in the green, dreaming such foolish
dreams as a fool may, there came, very suddenly, a sorry wight--a wild
man, very ragged--who set me his ragged arm about my neck and a sharp
dagger to my throat; and thus, looking him within the eyes, I knew him
for that same Roger from whose hand thou did'st save me aforetime.
'Beda,' says he, 'I am he that hanged and tortured men at my lord's
bidding: I am Roger, and my sins be many.' 'Then prithee,' says I,
'prithee, Roger, add not another to thy sins by cutting the throat of a
fool.' 'Needs must I,' says he, dolorous of voice, 'unless thou dost
answer me two questions.' 'Nay, I will answer thee two hundred an thou
leave my throat unslit,' says I. 'But two,' says Roger, sighing.
'First, doth Pertolepe hold him I seek?' 'Him?' says I. 'Him they call
Beltane?' says Roger, 'doth he lie prisoned within Garthlaxton?' 'He
doth,' quoth I. Now for thine other question. ''Tis this,' says Roger,
'Wilt aid us to win him free?' 'Why look ye, Roger,' says I, ''Tis only
a fool that seeketh aid of a fool--and fool am I.' 'Aye,' says Roger,
'but thou art a live fool; promise, therefore, or wilt be naught but a
dead fool.' 'Roger,' says I, 'thou did'st once try to slay me in the
green ere now.' 'Aye,' says Roger, 'and my lord Beltane saved thy
carcass and my soul.' 'Aye,' quoth I, 'and e'en a fool can repay. So
was I but now dreaming here within this boskage how I might perchance
win this same Beltane to life without thy scurvy aid, Black Roger.
Moreover, methinks I know a way--and thou spare me life to do it.'
'Aye, forsooth,' says Roger, putting away his dagger, 'thou wert ever a
fool of thy word, Beda--so now do I spare thy life, and sparing it, I
save it, and thus do I cut another accursed notch from my belt.' 'Why,
then,' says I, 'to-morrow night be at the riven oak by Brankton Thicket
an hour before dawn.' 'So be it, Beda,' says he, and so I left him
cutting at his belt. And lo, am I here, and within an hour it should be
dawn. Follow, messire!" So saying, Beda rose, and taking the lanthorn,
began to descend through the floor, having first shown how the
flagstone must be lowered in place. Thereafter, Beltane followed the
jester down a narrow stair built in the thickness of the wall, and
along a passage that ended abruptly, nor could Beltane see any sign of
door in the solid masonry that barred their way. Here Beda paused,
finger on lip, and extinguished the lanthorn. Then, in the dark a hinge
creaked faintly, a quivering hand seized Beltane's manacled wrist,
drawing him on and through a narrow opening that yawned suddenly before
them. Thereafter the hinge creaked again and they stood side by side
within a small chamber where was a doorway hung across with heavy
curtains beyond which a light burned. Now even as Beltane looked
thitherward, he heard the rattle of dice and a sleepy voice that cursed
drowsily, and shaking off the clutching, desperate fingers that strove
to stay him, he came, soft-treading, and peered through the curtains.
Thus he beheld two men that faced each other across a table whereon was
wine, with dice and store of money, and as they played, these men
yawned, leaning heavily upon the table. Back swept the curtains and
striding into the room Beltane stared upon these men, who, yet leaning
upon the table, stared back at him open-mouthed. But, beholding the
look in his blue eyes and the smile that curled his mouth, they
stumbled to their feet and sought to draw weapon--then Beltane sprang
and caught them each about the neck, and, swinging them wide-armed,
smote their heads together; and together these men sank in his grasp
and lay in a twisted huddle across the table among the spilled wine. A
coin rang upon the stone floor, rolled into a distant corner and came
to rest, the jester gasped in the shadow of the curtains; and so came
silence, broke only by the soft drip, drip of the spilled wine.

"O, mercy of God!" whispered the jester hoarsely at last, "what need
was there for this--they would have slept--"

"Aye," smiled Beltane, "but not so soundly as now, methinks. Come, let
us go."

Silently the jester went on before, by narrow passage-ways that
writhed and twisted in the thickness of the walls, up sudden flights of
steps until at length they came out upon a parapet whose grim
battlements scowled high in air. But as they hasted on, flitting
soft-footed 'neath pallid moon, the jester of a sudden stopped, and
turning, dragged Beltane into the shadows, for upon the silence came the
sound of mailed feet pacing near. Now once again Beltane brake from the
jester's clutching fingers and striding forward, came face to face with
one that bare a pike on mailed shoulder, and who, beholding Beltane,
halted to peer at him with head out-thrust; quoth he:

"Ha! stand! Stand, I say and speak me who thou art?"

Then Beltane laughed softly; said he:

"O fool, not to know--I am death!" and with the word, he leapt. Came a
cry, muffled in a mighty hand, a grappling, fierce yet silent, and
Beda, cowering back, beheld Beltane swing a writhing body high in air
and hurl it far out over the battlements. Thereafter, above the soft
rustle of the night-wind, a sound far below--a faint splash, and Beda
the Jester, shivering in the soft-stirring night wind, shrank deeper
into the gloom and made a swift motion as though, for all his folly, he
had crossed himself.

Then came Beltane, the smile still twisting his mouth; quoth he:

"Forsooth, my strength is come back again; be there any more that I may
deal withal, good Fool?"

"Lord," whispered the shivering jester, "methinks I smell the dawn--
Come!"

So Beltane followed him from the battlements, down winding stairs,
through halls that whispered in the dark; down more stairs, down and
ever down 'twixt walls slimy to the touch, through a gloom heavy with
mildew and decay. On sped the jester, staying not to light the
lanthorn, nor once touching, nor once turning with helping hand to
guide Beltane stumbling after in the dark. Then at last, deep in the
clammy earth they reached a door, a small door whose rusted iron was
handed with mighty clamps of rusted iron. Here the jester paused to fit
key to lock, to strain and pant awhile ere bolts shrieked and turned,
and the door yawned open. Then, stooping, he struck flint and steel and
in a while had lit the lanthorn, and, looking upon Beltane with eyes
that stared in the pallor of his face, he pointed toward the yawning
tunnel.

"Messire," said he, "yonder lieth thy way to life and the world. As
thou did'st give me life so do I give thee thine. Thou wert, as I
remember thee, a very gentle, tender youth--to-night are three dead
without reason--"

"Reason, good Fool," said Beltane, "thou did'st see me borne in a
prisoner to Garthlaxton; now, tell me I pray, who was she that rode
with us?"

"'Twas the Duchess Helen of Mortain, messire; I saw her hair, moreover--"

But lo, even as the jester spake, Beltane turned, and striding down the
tunnel, was swallowed in the dark.



CHAPTER XXVII

HOW BELTANE TOOK TO THE WILD-WOOD


A faint glimmer growing ever brighter, a jagged patch of pale sky, a
cleft in the rock o'er-grown with bush and creeping vines; this Beltane
saw ere he stepped out into the cool, sweet air of dawn. A while he
stood to stare up at the sky where yet a few stars showed paling to the
day, and to drink in mighty breaths of the fragrant air. And thus,
plain to his ears, stole the ripple of running water hard by, and going
thitherward he stripped, and naked came down to the stream where was a
misty pool and plunged him therein. Now as he bathed him thus, gasping
somewhat because of the cold, yet glorying in the rush and tingle of
his blood, behold, the leaves parted near by, and uprising in his naked
might, Beltane beheld the face of one that watched him intently.

"Master!" cried a voice harsh but very joyful, "O dear, my lord!" And
Roger sprang down the bank and heedless of the water, plunged in to
catch Beltane's hands and kiss them. "Master!" he cried. And thus it
was these two met again. And presently, having donned clothes and
harness, Beltane sat down him beside the brook, head upon hand, staring
at the swift-running water, whiles Roger, sitting near, watched him in
a silent ecstasy.

"Whence come ye, Roger?"

"From Thrasfordham-within-Bourne, lord. Ho, a mighty place, great and
strong as Sir Benedict himself. And within Thrasfordham be many lusty
fighting men who wait thy coming,--for, master, Bourne, aye and all the
Duchy, doth ring with tales of thy deeds."

"Hath Sir Benedict many men?"

"Aye--within Thrasfordham five hundred and more."

"So few, Roger?"

"And mayhap as many again in Bourne. But, for Sir Benedict--a right
lusty knight in sooth, master! and he doth hunger for sight of thee. He
hath had me, with Walkyn and the archer, speak full oft of how we fired
the gibbet and roars mighty laughs to hear how thou didst bear off Sir
Pertolepe in the green--aye, Sir Benedict doth love to hear tell of
that."

"Aye; and what of Duke Ivo--where is he now, Roger?"

"He hath reinforced Belsaye garrison and all the coast towns and
castles of the Marches, and lieth at Pentavalon, gathering his powers
to attack Thrasfordham, so men say, and hath sworn to burn it within
the year, and all therein save only Sir Benedict--him will he hang;
'tis so proclaimed far and wide."

"And do men yet come in to Sir Benedict?"

"Not so, master. Since Duke Ivo came they are afraid."

"Ha! And what of the outlaws--there be many wild men within the
forests."

"The outlaws--hey, that doth mind me. I, with Giles and Walkyn and the
young knight Sir Jocelyn brought down the outlaws upon Thornaby Mill.
But when we found thee not, we burned it, and thereafter the outlaws
vanished all within the wild-wood; Sir Jocelyn rode away a-singing
mighty doleful, and we three came to Thrasfordham according to thy
word. But when ye came not, master, by will of Sir Benedict we set
out, all three, to find thee, and came to a cave of refuge Walkyn wots
of: there do we sleep by night and by day search for thee. And behold,
I have found thee, and so is my tale ended. But now, in an hour will be
day, master, and with the day will be the hue and cry after thee. Come,
let us haste over into Bourne, there shall we be safe so long as
Thrasfordham stands."

"True," nodded Beltane and rose to his feet. "Go you to Thrasfordham,
Roger, Sir Benedict shall need such lusty men as thou, meseemeth."

"Aye--but what of thee, master?"

"I? O, I'm for the wild-wood, to a wild life and wilder doings, being
myself a wild man, henceforth, lawful food for flame or gibbet, kin to
every clapper-claw rogue and rascal 'twixt here and Mortain."

"Nay master, within Thrasfordham ye shall laugh at Black Ivo and all
his powers--let us then to Thrasfordham, beseech thee!"

"Nay, I'm for the woods in faith, to seek me desperate rogues, wild men
whose lives being forfeit, are void of all hope and fear. So, get thee
to Sir Benedict and speak him this from me, to wit: that while he
holdeth Ivo in check before Thrasfordham, I will arise indeed and bring
with me flame and steel from out the wild-wood. When he shall see the
night sky aflame, then shall he know I am at work, and when by day he
heareth of death sudden and swift, then shall he know I am not idle.
Bid him rede me this riddle: That bringing from chaos order, so from
order will I bring chaos, that order peradventure shall remain. Haste
you into Bourne, Roger, and so--fare thee well!"

Now as he spake, Beltane turned on his heel and strode along beside the
brook, but even as he went, so went Roger, whereon Beltane turned
frowning.

Quoth he:

"Roger--Thrasfordham lieth behind thee!"

"Aye, master, but death lieth before thee!"

"Why then, death will I face alone, Roger."

"Nay, master--not while Roger live. Thy man am I--"

"Ha--wilt withstand me, Black Roger?"

"Thy man am I, to follow thee in life and go down with thee in death--"

Now hereupon Beltane came close, and in the dim light Black Roger
beheld the new Beltane glaring down at him fierce-eyed and with great
mailed fist clenched to smite; but even so Black Roger gave not back,
only he drew dagger and strove to set it in Beltane's iron fingers.

"Take this," quoth he, "for, an ye would be free of Roger, first must
ye slay him, master." So Beltane took the dagger and fumbled with it
awhile then gave it back to Roger's hand.

"Roger!" muttered he, his hand upon his brow, "my faithful Roger! So,
men can be faithful--" saying which he sighed--a long, hissing breath,
and hid his face within his mittened hand, and turning, strode swiftly
upon his way. Now in a while, they being come into the forest, Roger
touched him on the arm.

"Master," said he, "whither do ye go?"

"Nay, it mattereth not so long as I can lie hid a while, for I must
sleep, Roger."

"Then can I bring thee to a place where none shall ever find thee--
Come, master!" So saying, Roger turned aside into the denser wood,
bursting a way through a tangle of brush, plunging ever deeper into the
wild until they came to a place where great rocks and boulders jutted
up amid the green and the trees grew scant. Day was breaking, and
before them in the pale light rose a steep cliff, whose jagged outline
clothed here and there with brush and vines loomed up before them,
barring their advance.

But at the foot of this cliff grew a tree, gnarled and stunted, the
which, as Beltane watched, Black Roger began to climb, until, being
some ten feet from the ground, he, reaching out and seizing a thick
vine that grew upon the rock, stepped from the tree and vanished into
the face of the cliff. But in a moment the leaves were parted and Roger
looked forth, beckoning Beltane to follow. So, having climbed the tree,
Beltane in turn seized hold upon the vine, and stumbling amid the
leaves, found himself on his knees within a small cave, where Roger's
hand met his. Thereafter Roger led him to the end of the cavern where
was a winding passage very rough and narrow, that brought them to a
second and larger cave, as Beltane judged, for in the dark his hands
could feel nought but space. Here Roger halted and whistled three
times, a melodious call that woke many a slumbering echo. And in a
while, behold a glow that grew ever brighter, until, of a sudden, a man
appeared bearing a flaming pine-torch, that showed a wide cave whose
rugged roof and walls glistened here and there, and whose rocky floor
ended abruptly in a yawning gulf from whose black depths came soft
murmurs and ripplings of water far below. Now, halting on the opposite
side of this chasm, the man lifted his flaming torch and lo! it was
Walkyn, who, beholding Beltane in his mail, uttered a hoarse shout of
welcome, and stooping, thrust a plank across the gulf. So Beltane
crossed the plank and gave his hand to Walkyn's iron grip and
thereafter followed him along winding, low-roofed passage-ways hollowed
within the rock, until they came to a cavern where a fire blazed, whose
red light danced upon battered bascinets and polished blades that hung
against the wall, while in one corner, upon a bed of fern, Giles o' the
Bow lay snoring right blissfully.

To him went Roger to shake him into groaning wakefulness and to point
with eager finger to Beltane. Whereat up sprang Giles and came running
with hands outstretched in welcome, yet of a sudden, paused and stood
staring upon Beltane, as did the others also, for the place was very
bright and moreover Beltane's mail-coif was fallen back. So they looked
on him all three, yet spake no word. Therefore Beltane sat him down
beside the fire and rested his head upon his hands as one that is
weary. Sitting thus, he told them briefly what had chanced, but of the
Duchess he said nothing. And in a while, lifting his head he saw them
watching him all three, and all three incontinent glanced otherwhere.

Quoth Beltane:

"Wherefore do ye stare upon me?"

"Why, as to that, good brother," said the archer, "'tis but that--that
we do think thee something--changed of aspect."

"Changed!" said Beltane, and laughed short and bitter, "aye, 'tis like
I am."

"Lord," quoth Walkyn, clenching mighty fists, "have they tormented
thee--was it the torture, lord?"

"Aye," nodded Beltane, "'twas the torture. So now good comrades, here
will I sleep awhile. But first--go forth with the sun and question all
ye may of Ivo and his doings--where he doth lie, and where his forces
muster--hear all ye can and bring me word, for methinks we shall be
busy again anon!" Then, throwing himself upon the bed of fern that
Roger had re-made, Beltane presently fell asleep. And while he slept
came the three, very silent and treading very soft, to look down upon
his sleeping face and the manacles that gleamed upon his wrists; and
behold, even as he slept, he groaned and writhed, his tender lips grown
fierce, a relentless, down-curving line--his jaws grim set, and between
his frowning brows a lock of silky hair that gleamed snow-white among
the yellow.

"The torture!" growled Roger, and so, soft as they came, the three
turned and left him to his slumber. But oft he moaned and once he spake
a word, sudden and fierce 'twixt clenched teeth.

And the word was:

"Helen!"



CHAPTER XXVIII

OF THE PLACE OF REFUGE WITHIN THE GREEN


It was toward evening that Beltane awoke, and sitting up, looked about
him. He was in a chamber roughly square, a hollow within the rock part
natural and part hewn by hand, a commodious chamber lighted by a jagged
hole in the rock above, a fissure all o'er-grown with vines and
creeping plants whose luxuriant foliage tempered the sun's rays to a
tender green twilight very grateful and pleasant.

Now pendant from the opening was a ladder of cords, and upon this
ladder, just beneath the cleft, Beltane beheld a pair of lusty,
well-shaped legs in boots of untanned leather laced up with leathern
thongs; as for their owner, he was hidden quite by reason of the leafy
screen as he leaned forth of the fissure. Looking upon these legs,
Beltane knew them by their very attitude for the legs of one who watched
intently, but while he looked, they stirred, shifted, and growing lax,
became the legs of one who lounged; then, slow and lazily, they began
to descend lower and lower until the brown, comely face of Giles
Brabblecombe o' the Hills smiled down upon Beltane with a gleam of
white teeth. Cried he:

"Hail, noble brother, and likewise the good God bless thee! Hast slept
well, it lacketh scarce an hour to sundown, and therefore should'st
eat well. How say ye now to a toothsome haunch o' cold venison, in
faith, cunningly cooked and sufficiently salted and seasoned--ha? And
mark me! with a mouthful of malmsey, ripely rare? Oho, rich wine that I
filched from a fatuous friar jig-jogging within the green! Forsooth,
tall brother, 'tis a wondrous place, the greenwood, wherein a man shall
come by all he doth need--an he seek far enough! Thus, an my purse be
empty, your beefy burgher shall, by dint of gentle coaxing, haste to
fill me it with good, broad pieces. But, an my emptiness be of the
belly, then sweet Saint Giles send me some ambulating abbot or
pensive-pacing prior; for your churchmen do ever ride with saddle-bags
well lined, as I do know, having been bred a monk, and therefore with
a rare lust to creature comforts."

Now while he spake thus, the archer was busily setting forth the viands
upon a rough table that stood hard by, what time Beltane looked about
him.

"'Tis a wondrous hiding-place, this, Giles!" quoth he.

"Aye, verily, brother--a sweet place for hunted men such as we. Here be
caves and caverns enow to hide an army, and rocky passage-ways, narrow
and winding i' the dark, where we four might hold all Black Ivo's
powers at bay from now till Gabriel's trump--an we had food enow!"

Quoth Beltane:

"'Tis a fair thought that, and I've heard there be many outlaws in the
woods hereabouts?"

"Yea, forsooth. And each and every a clapper-claw, a rogue in faith. O
very lewd, bloody-minded knaves see ye now, that would have slain me
three days agone but for my comrade Walkyn. Scurvy dogs, fit for the
halter they be, in faith!"

"Ha!" quoth Beltane, thoughtful of brow. "They be wild men, meseemeth?"

"Desperate knaves, one and all; and look ye, they would have slain--"

"Aye?" nodded Beltane.

"All the off-scourings of town and village--and look ye, they would--"

"Aye," said Beltane.

"Thieves, rogues and murderers, branded felons, runaway serfs and
villeins--"

"'Tis well," said Beltane, "so shall they be my comrades henceforth."

"Thy comrades!" stammered the archer, staring in amaze--"thy comrades!
These base knaves that would have hanged me--me, that am free-born like
my father before me--"

"So, peradventure, Giles, will we make them free men also. Howbeit this
day I seek them out--"

"Seek them--'tis death!"

"Death let it be, 'tis none so fearful!"

"They will slay thee out of hand--a wild rabblement, lawless and
disordered!"

"So would I bring order among them, Giles. And thou shalt aid me."

"I--aid thee? How--would'st have me company with such vile carrion? Not
I, forsooth. I am a soldier, free-born, and no serf like Walkyn or
villein like Roger. But sure you do but jest, brother, so will I laugh
with thee--"

But now, very suddenly, Beltane reached out his long arm and seizing
Giles in mighty hand, dragged him to his knees; and Giles, staring up
in amaze, looked into the face of the new Beltane whose blue eyes
glared 'neath frowning brows and whose lips curled back from gleaming
teeth.

"Giles," said he softly, rocking the archer in his grasp, "O Giles
Brabblecombe o' the Hills, did I not save thy roguish life for thee?
Did not Walkyn and Roger preserve it to thee? So doth thy life belong
to Walkyn and to Roger and to me. Four men are we together, four
brothers in arms, vowed to each other in the fulfilment of a purpose--
is it not so?"

"Yea, verily, lord. Good men and true are we all, but see you not,
lord, these outlaws be lewd fellows--base-born--"

"See you not, Giles, these outlaws be men, even as we, who, like us,
can laugh and weep, can bleed and die--who can use their lives to
purpose good or evil, even as we. Therefore, since they are men, I will
make of them our comrades also, an it may be."

Thus saying, Beltane loosed Giles and turning to the table, fell to
eating again while the archer sat upon the floor nursing his bruised
arm and staring open-mouthed.

Quoth Beltane at last:

"We will seek out and talk with these outlaws to-night, Giles!"

"Talk with a pack of--yea, forsooth!" nodded Giles, rubbing his arm.

"I am minded to strike such a blow as shall hearten Sir Benedict for
the siege and shake Black Ivo's confidence."

"Aha!" cried Giles, springing up so that his link-mail jingled, "aha! a
sweet thought, tall brother! Could we fire another gibbet now--"

"Know you where the outlaws lie hid, Giles?"

"Nay, lord, none save themselves and Walkyn know that. Walkyn methinks,
was great among them once."

"And where is Walkyn?"

"So soon as ye slept, lord, he and Roger went forth according to thy
word. As for me, I stayed here to watch. From the spy-hole yonder you
may command the road a-wind in the valley, and unseen, see you, may
see. But come, an thy hunger be allayed, reach me thy hand that I may
file off those iron bracelets."

"Nay, let be, Giles. I will wear them henceforth until my vow be
accomplished."

Hereupon Beltane arose, and, climbing the ladder, looked forth through
a screen of leaves and underbrush and saw that from the fissure the
ground sloped steeply down, a boulder-strewn hill thick with gorse and
bramble, at whose base the road led away north and south until it was
lost in the green of the forest. Now as Beltane stood thus, gazing down
at the winding road whose white dust was already mellowing to evening,
he beheld one who ran wondrous fleetly despite the ragged cloak that
flapped about his long legs, and whose rough-shod feet spurned the dust
beneath them so fast 'twas a marvel to behold; moreover as he ran, he
bounded hither and thither, and with every bound an arrow sped by him
from where, some distance behind, ran divers foresters bedight in a
green livery Beltane thought he recognized; but even as Beltane grasped
the branches that screened him, minded to swing himself up to the
fellow's aid, the fugitive turned aside from the road and came leaping
up the slope, but, of a sudden, uttered a loud cry and throwing up his
hands fell face down upon the ling and so lay, what time came up one of
the pursuers that had outstripped his fellows, but as he paused, his
sword shortened for the thrust, up sprang the fugitive, a great axe
flashed and whirled and fell, nor need was there for further stroke.
Then, while the rest of the pursuers were yet a great way off, Walkyn
came leaping up the hill. Back from the ladder Beltane leapt and down
through the fissure came Walkyn to fall cat-like upon his feet, to
shake free the ladder after him, and thereafter to sit panting upon a
stool, his bloody axe betwixt his knees.

"Pertolepe's wolves!" he panted, "two of them have I--slain--within the
last mile," and grinning, he patted the haft of his axe.

"What news, Walkyn?"

"Death!" panted Walkyn, "there be five dead men a-swing from the
bartizan tower above Garthlaxton Keep, and one that dieth under the
torture e'en now, for I heard grievous outcry, and all by reason of thy
escape, lord."

"Come you then from Garthlaxton?" quoth Beltane, frowning.

"Aye, lord. For, see you, 'twas market day, so went I to one I know
that is a swineherd, a trusty fellow that bringeth hogs each week unto
Garthlaxton. So did we change habits and went to Garthlaxton together,
driving the hogs before us. Thereafter, while he was away chaffering, I
sat me down in the outer bailey tending my beasts, yet with eyes and
ears wide and with my hand upon mine axe 'neath my cloak lest haply I
might chance within striking distance of Red Pertolepe. And, sitting
thus, I heard tell that he had marched out with all his array to join
Black Ivo's banner. Whereupon was I mightily cast down. But it chanced
the wind lifted my cloak, and one of the warders, spying mine axe, must
think to recognise me and gave the hue and cry; whereat I, incontinent,
fled ere they could drop the portcullis--and divers rogues after me.
Aha! then did I lead them a right merry dance by moor and moss, by
briar and bog, and contrived to slay of them five in all. But as to
Pertolepe, a malison on him! he is not yet to die, meseemeth. But, some
day--aye, some day!" So saying he kissed the great axe and setting it
by came to the table and fell to eating mightily while Giles sat hard
by busied with certain arrows, yet betwixt whiles watching Beltane who,
crossing to the bed of fern, laid him down thereon and closed his eyes.
But of a sudden he raised his head, hearkening to a whistle, soft and
melodious, near at hand.

"Aha!" exclaimed Giles, setting aside his arrows, "yonder should be
Roger--a hungry Roger and therefore surly, and a surly Roger is rare
sport to lighten a dull hour. Heaven send our Roger be surly!" So
saying, the archer went forth and presently came hasting back with
Roger at his heels scowling and in woeful plight. Torn and stained and
besprent with mud, his rawhide knee-boots sodden and oozing water, he
stood glowering at Giles beneath the bloody clout that swathed his
head, his brawny fist upon his dagger.

"No food left, say ye, Giles, no food, and I a-famishing? You and
Walkyn drunk up all the wine betwixt ye, and I a-perish--ha--so now
will I let it out again--" and out flashed his dagger.

"Nay, 'tis but the archer's folly," quoth Walkyn--"sit, man, eat,
drink, and speak us thy news."

"News," growled Roger, seating himself at table, "the woods be thick
with Pertolepe's rogues seeking my master, rogues known to me each one,
that ran to do my bidding aforetime--in especial one Ralpho--that was
my assistant in the dungeons once. Thrice did they beset me close, and
once did I escape by running, once by standing up to my neck in a pool,
and once lay I hid in a tree whiles they, below, ate and drank like
ravening swine--and I a-famishing. A murrain on 'em, one and all, say
I--in especial Ralpho that was my comrade once--may he rot henceforth--"

"Content you, Roger, he doth so!" laughed grim Walkyn and pointed to
his axe.

"Forsooth, and is it so?" growled Roger, his scowl relaxing--"now will
I eat full and blithely, for Ralpho was an arrant knave."

Now when his hunger was somewhat assuaged, Roger turned and looked
where Beltane lay.

"My master sleepeth?" said he, his voice grown gentle.

"Nay, Roger, I lie and wait thy news," spake Beltane, his eyes yet
closed.

"Why then, 'tis war, master--battle and siege. The country is up as far
as Winisfarne. Black Ivo lieth at Barham Broom with a great company--I
have seen their tents and pavilions like a town, and yet they come, for
Ivo hath summoned all his powers to march against Thrasfordham. 'Twixt
here and Pentavalon city, folk do say the roads be a-throng with bows
and lances--lords and barons, knights and esquires, their pennons
flutter everywhere."

"'Tis well!" sighed Beltane.

"Well, master--nay, how mean you?"

"That being at Barham Broom, they cannot be otherwhere, Roger. Saw you
Pertolepe's banner among all these?"

"Aye, master; they have set up his pavilion beside the Duke's."

"Tell me now," said Beltane, coming to his elbow, "how many men should
be left within Garthlaxton for garrison, think you?"

"An hundred, belike!" said Walkyn.

"Less," quoth Roger; "Garthlaxton is so strong a score of men have held
it ere now. 'Tis accounted the strongest castle in all the Duchy, save
only Thrasfordham."

"Truly 'tis very strong!" said Beltane thoughtfully, and lying down
again he closed his eyes and spake slow and drowsily--"Aye, 'tis so
strong, its garrison, being secure, should sleep sound o' nights. So
'twould be no great matter to surprise and burn it ere the dawn,
methinks!"

"Burn Garthlaxton!" cried the archer, and sprang up, scattering the
arrows right and left.

"Master!" stammered Roger, "master--"

As for Walkyn, he, having his mouth full and striving to speak, choked
instead.

"Lord--lord!" he gasped at last, "to see Garthlaxton go up in flame--O
blessed sight! Its blood-soaked walls crumble to ruin--ah, sweet, rare
sight! But alas! 'tis a mighty place and strong, and we but four--"

"There be outlaws in the wild-wood!" quoth Beltane.

"Ha!--the outlaws!" cried Giles, and clapped hand to thigh.

"Aye," nodded Beltane, "bring me to the outlaws."

"But bethink thee, tall brother--of what avail a thousand such poor,
ragged, ill-armed rogues 'gainst the walls of Garthlaxton? They shall
not tear you the stones with their finger-nails nor rend them with
their teeth, see'st thou!"

"To burn Garthlaxton!" growled Walkyn, biting at his fingers. "Ha, to
give it to the fire! But the walls be mighty and strong and the outlaws
scattered. 'Twould take a week to muster enough to attempt a storm, nor
have they engines for battery--"

"Enough!" said Beltane rising, his brows close drawn, "now hearken, and
mark me well; the hole whereby one man came out may let a thousand in.
Give me but an hundred men at my back and Garthlaxton shall be aflame
ere dawn. So, come now, Walkyn--bring me to the outlaws."

"But lord, these be very wild men, obedient to no law save their own,
and will follow none but their own; lawless men forsooth, governed only
by the sword and made desperate by wrong and fear of the rope--"

"Then 'tis time one learned them other ways, Walkyn. So now I command
thee, bring me to them--'tis said thou wert great among them once."

Hereupon Walkyn rose and taking up his mighty axe twirled it lightly in
his hand. "Behold, lord," said he, "by virtue of this good axe am I
free of the wild-wood; for, long since, when certain lords of Black Ivo
burned our manor, and our mother and sister and father therein, my twin
brother and I had fashioned two axes such as few men might wield--this
and another--and thus armed, took to the green where other wronged men
joined us till we counted many a score tall fellows, lusty fighters
all. And many of Ivo's rogues we slew until of those knights and
men-at-arms that burned our home there none remained save Red Pertolepe
and Gui of Allerdale. But in the green--love came--even to me--so I laid
by mine axe and vengeance likewise and came to know happiness until--upon
a day--they hanged my brother, and thereafter they slew--her--my wife
and child--e'en as ye saw. Then would I have joined the outlaws again.
But in my place they had set up one Tostig, a sturdy rogue and foul,
who ruleth by might of arm and liveth but for plunder--and worse. Him I
would have fought, but upon that night I fell in with thee. Thus, see
you, though I am free of the wild, power with these outlaws have I
none. So, an I should bring thee into their secret lurking-place,
Tostig would assuredly give thee to swift death, nor could I save thee--"

"Yet must I go," said Beltane, "since, while I live, vowed am I to free
Pentavalon. And what, think you, is Pentavalon? 'Tis not her hills and
valleys, her towns and cities, but the folk that dwell therein; they,
each one, man and woman and child, the rich and poor, the high and low,
the evil and the good, aye, all those that live in outlawry--these are
Pentavalon. So now will I go unto these wild men, and once they follow
my call, ne'er will I rest until they be free men every one. Each blow
they strike, the wounds they suffer, shall win them back to honourable
life, to hearth and home--and thus shall they be free indeed. So,
Walkyn, bring me to the outlaws!"

Then stood Walkyn and looked upon Beltane 'neath heavy brows, nothing
speaking, and turned him of a sudden and, striding forth of the cave,
came back bearing another great axe.

"Lord," said he, "thy long sword is missing, methinks. Take now this
axe in place of it--'twas my brother's once. See, I have kept it
bright, for I loved him. He was a man. Yet man art thou also, worthy,
methinks, and able to wield it. Take it therefore, lord Duke that art
my brother-in-arms; mayhap it shall aid thee to bring order in the
wild-wood and win Pentavalon to freedom. Howbeit, wheresoe'er thou dost
go, e'en though it be to shame and failure, I am with thee!"

"And I!" cried Giles, reaching for his bow.

"And I also!" quoth Roger.



CHAPTER XXIX

HOW BELTANE SLEW TOSTIG AND SPAKE WITH THE WILD MEN


The sun was down what time they left the hill country and came out upon
a wide heath void of trees and desolate, where was a wind cold and
clammy to chill the flesh, where rank-growing rush and reed stirred
fitfully, filling the dark with stealthy rustlings.

"Master," quoth Roger, shivering and glancing about him, "here is
Hangstone Waste, and yonder the swamps of Hundleby Fen--you can smell
them from here! And 'tis an evil place, this, for 'tis said the souls
of murdered folk do meet here betimes, and hold high revel when the
moon be full. Here, on wild nights witches and warlocks ride shrieking
upon the wind, with goblins damned--"

"Ha, say ye so, good Roger?" quoth the archer, "now the sweet Saint
Giles go with us--amen!" and he crossed himself devoutly.

So went they in silence awhile until they were come where the sedge
grew thick and high above whispering ooze, and where trees, stunted and
misshapen, lifted knotted arms in the gloom.

"Lord," spake Walkyn, his voice low and awe-struck, "here is the marsh,
a place of death for them that know it not, where, an a man tread awry,
is a quaking slime to suck him under. Full many a man lieth 'neath the
reeds yonder, for there is but one path, very narrow and winding--
follow close then, and step where I shall step."

"Aye, master," whispered Roger, "and look ye touch no tree as ye go;
'tis said they do grow from the bones of perished men, so touch them
not lest some foul goblin blast thee."

So went they, following a narrow track that wound betwixt slow-stirring
sedge, past trees huddled and distorted that seemed to writhe and
shiver in the clammy air until, beyond the swamp, they came to a place
of rocks where ragged crags loomed high and vague before them. Now, all
at once, Walkyn raised a warning hand, as from the shadow of those
rocks, a hoarse voice challenged:

"Stand!" cried the voice, "who goes?"

"What, and is it thou, rogue Perkyn?" cried Walkyn, "art blind not to
know me?"

"Aye," growled the voice, "but blind or no, I see others with thee."

"Good friends all!" quoth Walkyn.

"Stand forth that I may see these friends o' thine!" Drawing near,
Beltane beheld a man in filthy rags who held a long bow in his hand
with an arrow on the string, at sight of whom Roger muttered and Giles
held his nose and spat.

"Aha," growled the man Perkyn, peering under his matted hair, "I like
not the looks o' these friends o' thine--"

"Nor we thine, foul fellow," quoth Giles, and spat again whole-heartedly.

"How!" cried Walkyn fiercely, "d'ye dare bid Walkyn stand, thou dog's
meat? Must I flesh mine axe on thy vile carcase?"

"Not till I feather a shaft in thee," growled Perkyn, "what would ye?"

"Speak with Eric o' the Noose."

"Aha, and what would ye with half-hung Eric, forsooth? Tostig's our
chief, and Tostig's man am I. As for Eric--"

"Aye--aye, and what of Eric?" spake a third voice--a soft voice and
liquid, and a man stepped forth of the rocks with two other men at his
heels.

"Now well met, Eric o' the Noose," quoth Walkyn. "I bring promise of
more booty, and mark this, Eric--I bring also him that you wot of."

Now hereupon the man Eric drew near, a broad-set man clad in skins and
rusty mail who looked upon Beltane with head strangely askew, and
touched a furtive hand to his battered head-piece.

"Ye come at an evil hour," said he, speaking low-voiced. "Tostig
holdeth high feast and revel, for to-day we took a rich booty at the
ford beyond Bassingthorp--merchants out of Winisfarne, with pack-horses
well laden--and there were women also--in especial, one very fair. Her,
Tostig bore hither. But a while since, when he bade them bring her to
him, behold she had stabbed herself with her bodkin. So is she dead and
Tostig raging. Thus I say, ye come in an evil hour."

"Not so," answered Beltane. "Methinks we come in good hour. I am fain
to speak with Tostig--come!" and he stepped forward, but Eric caught
him by the arm:

"Messire," said he soft-voiced, "yonder be over five score lusty
fellows, fierce and doughty fighters all, that live but to do the will
of Tostig and do proclaim him chief since he hath proved himself full
oft mightiest of all--"

"Ah," nodded Beltane, "a strong man!"

"Beyond equal. A fierce man that knoweth not mercy, swift to anger and
joyful to slay at all times--"

"Why, look you," sighed Beltane, "neither am I a lamb. Come, fain am I
to speak with this Tostig."

A while stood Eric, head aslant, peering at Beltane, then, at a
muttered word from Walkyn, he shook his head and beckoning the man
Perkyn aside, led the way through a cleft in the rocks and up a
precipitous path beyond; and as he went, Beltane saw him loosen sword
in scabbard.

Ever as they clomb, the path grew more difficult, until at last they
were come to a parapet or outwork with mantelets of osiers beyond,
cunningly wrought, above which a pike-head glimmered and from beyond
which a voice challenged them; but at a word from Eric the sentinel
stood aside and behold, a narrow opening in the parapet through which
they passed and so up another path defended by yet another parapet of
osiers. Now of a sudden, having climbed the ascent, Beltane paused and
stood leaning upon his axe, for, from where he now stood, he looked
down into a great hollow, green and rock-begirt, whose steep sides were
shaded by trees and dense-growing bushes. In the midst of this hollow a
fire burned whose blaze showed many wild figures that sprawled round
about in garments of leather and garments of skins; its ruddy light
showed faces fierce and hairy; it glinted on rusty mail and flashed
back from many a dinted head-piece and broad spear-head; and upon the
air was the sound of noisy talk and boisterous laughter. Through the
midst of this great green hollow a stream wound that broadened out in
one place into a still and sleepy pool upon whose placid surface stars
seemed to float, a deep pool whereby was a tall tree. Now beneath this
tree, far removed from the fire, sat a great swarthy fellow, chin on
fist, scowling down at that which lay at his feet, and of a sudden he
spurned this still and silent shape with savage foot.

"Oswin!" he cried, "Walcher! Throw me this useless carrion into the
pool!" Hereupon came two sturdy rogues who, lifting the dead betwixt
them, bore her to the edge of the silent pool. Once they swung and
twice, and lo, the floating stars shivered to a sullen splash, and
subsiding, rippled softly to the reedy banks.

Slowly the swarthy giant rose and stood upon his legs, and Beltane knew
him for the tallest man he had ever seen.

"Oswin," quoth he, and beckoned with his finger, "Oswin, did I not bid
thee keep watch upon yon dainty light o' love?" Now meeting the
speaker's baleful eye, the man Oswin sprang back, striving to draw
sword, but even so an iron hand was about his throat, he was lifted by
a mighty arm that held him a while choking and kicking above the silent
pool until he had gasped and kicked his life out 'midst shouts and
gibes and hoarse laughter; thereafter again the sullen waters quivered,
were still, and Tostig stood, empty-handed, frowning down at those
floating stars.

Then Beltane leapt down into the hollow and strode swift-footed, nor
stayed until he stood face to face with Tostig beside the sullen pool.
But swift as he had come, Roger had followed, and now stood to his
back, hand on sword.

"Aha!" quoth Tostig in staring amaze, and stood a while eying Beltane
with hungry gaze. "By Thor!" said he, "but 'tis a good armour and
should fit me well. Off with it--off, I am Tostig!" So saying, he drew
a slow pace nearer, his teeth agleam, his great hands opening and
shutting, whereat out leapt Roger's blade; but now the outlaws came
running to throng about them, shouting and jostling one another, and
brandishing their weapons yet striking no blow, waiting gleefully for
what might befall; and ever Beltane looked upon Tostig, and Tostig,
assured and confident, smiled grimly upon Beltane until the ragged
throng about them, watching eager-eyed, grew hushed and still. Then
Beltane spake:

"Put up thy sword, Roger," said he, "in very truth this Tostig is a
foul thing and should not die by thy good steel--so put up thy sword,
Roger."

And now, no man spake or moved, but all stood rigid and scarce
breathing, waiting for the end. For Tostig, smiling no more, stood
agape as one that doubts his senses, then laughed he loud and long, and
turned as if to reach his sword that leaned against the tree and, in
that instant, sprang straight for Beltane's throat, his griping hands
outstretched; but swift as he, Beltane, letting fall his axe, slipped
aside and smote with mailed fist, and as Tostig reeled from the blow,
closed with and caught him in a deadly wrestling hold, for all men
might see Beltane had locked one arm 'neath Tostig's bearded chin and
that Tostig's shaggy head was bending slowly backwards. Then the
outlaws surged closer, a dark, menacing ring where steel flickered; but
lo! to Roger's right hand sprang Walkyn, gripping his axe, and upon his
left came Giles, his long-bow poised, a shaft upon the string; so stood
the three alert and watchful, eager for fight, what time the struggle
waxed ever more fierce and deadly. To and fro the wrestlers swayed,
locked in vicious grapple, grimly silent save for the dull trampling of
their feet upon the moss and the gasp and hiss of panting breaths;
writhing and twisting, stumbling and slipping, or suddenly still with
feet that gripped the sod, with bulging muscles, swelled and rigid,
that cracked beneath the strain, while eye glared death to eye. But
Beltane's iron fingers were fast locked, and little by little, slow but
sure, Tostig's swart head was tilting up and back, further and further,
until his forked beard pointed upwards--until, of a sudden, there brake
from his writhen lips a cry, loud and shrill that sank to groan and
ended in a sound--a faint sound, soft and sudden. But now, behold,
Tostig's head swayed loosely backwards behind his shoulders, his knees
sagged, his great arms loosed their hold: then, or he could fall,
Beltane stooped beneath and putting forth all his strength, raised him
high above his head, and panting, groaning with the strain, turned and
hurled dead Tostig down into the pool whose sullen waters leapt to a
mighty splash, and presently subsiding, whispered softly in the reeds;
and for a while no man stirred or spoke, only Beltane stood upon the
marge and panted.

Then turned he to the outlaws, and catching up his axe therewith
pointed downwards to that stilly pool whose placid waters seemed to
hold nought but a glory of floating stars.

"Behold," he panted, "here was an evil man--a menace to well-being,
wherefore is he dead. But as for ye, come tell me--how long will ye be
slaves?"

Hereupon rose a hoarse murmur that grew and grew--Then stood the man
Perkyn forward, and scowling, pointed at Beltane with his spear.

"Comrades!" he cried, "he hath slain Tostig! He hath murdered our
leader--come now, let us slay him!" and speaking, he leapt at Beltane
with levelled spear, but quick as he leapt, so leapt Walkyn, his long
arms rose and fell, and thereafter, setting his foot upon Perkyn's
body, he shook his bloody axe in the scowling faces of the outlaws.

"Back, fools!" he cried, "have ye no eyes? See ye not 'tis he of whom I
spake--he that burned Belsaye gallows and brake ope the dungeon of
Belsaye--that is friend to all distressed folk and broken men; know ye
not Beltane the Duke? Hear him, ye fools, hear him!"

Hereupon the outlaws stared upon Beltane and upon each other, and
fumbled with their weapons as men that knew not their own minds, while
Beltane, wiping sweat from him, leaned upon his axe and panted, with
the three at his elbow alert and watchful, eager for fight; but Perkyn
lay where he had fallen, very still and with his face hidden in the
grass.

Of a sudden, Beltane laid by his axe and reached out his hands.

"Brothers," said he, "how long will ye be slaves?"

"Slaves, forsooth?" cried one, "slaves are we to no man--here within
the green none dare gainsay us--we be free men, one and all. Is't not
so, comrades?"

"Aye! Aye!" roared a hundred voices.

"Free?" quoth Beltane, "free? Aye, free to wander hither and thither,
hiding forever within the wilderness, living ever in awe and dread lest
ye die in a noose. Free to go in rags, to live like beasts, to die
unpitied and be thrown into a hole, or left to rot i' the sun--call ye
this freedom, forsooth? Hath none among ye desire for hearth and home,
for wife and child--are ye become so akin to beasts indeed?"

Now hereupon, divers muttered in their beards and others looked askance
on one another. Then spake the man Eric, of the wry neck.

"Messire," quoth he, "all that you say is sooth, but what remedy can ye
bring to such as we. Say now?"

Then spake Beltane on this wise:

"All ye that have suffered wrong, all ye that be broken men--hearken!
Life is short and quick to escape a man, yet do all men cherish it, and
to what end? What seek ye of life--is it arms, is it riches? Go with
me and I will teach ye how they shall be come by. Are ye heavy-hearted
by reason of your wrongs--of bitter shame wrought upon the weak and
innocent? Seek ye vengeance?--would ye see tyrants die?--seek ye their
blood, forsooth? Then follow me!"

Now at this the outlaws began to murmur among themselves, wagging their
heads one to another and voicing their grievances thus:

"They cut off mine ears for resisting my lord's taxes, and for this I
would have justice!"

"They burned me in the hand for striking my lord's hunting dog!"

"I had a wife once, and she was young and fair; so my lord's son took
her and thereafter gave her for sport among his huntsmen, whereof she
died--and for this would I have vengeance!"

"They burned my home, and therein wife and child--and for this would I
have vengeance!"

"They cut off my brother's hands!"

"They put out my father's eyes!"

Quoth Eric:

"And me they sought to hang to mine own roof-tree!--behold this crooked
neck o' mine--so am I Eric o' the Noose. Each one of us hath suffered
wrong, great or little, so live we outlaws in the green, lawless men in
lawless times, seeking ever vengeance for our wrongs. Who then shall
bring us to our desire, how shall our grievous wrongs be righted? An we
follow, whither would'st thou lead us?"

"By dangerous ways," answered Beltane, "through fire and battle. But by
fire men are purged, and by battle wrongs may be done away. An ye
follow, 'tis like some of us shall die, but by such death our brethren
shall win to honour, and home, and happiness, for happiness is all
men's birthright. Ye are but a wild, unordered rabble, yet are ye men!
'Tis true ye are ill-armed and ragged, yet is your cause a just one. Ye
bear weapons and have arms to smite--why then lurk ye here within the
wild-wood? Will not fire burn? Will not steel cut? He that is not
coward, let him follow me!"

"Aye," cried a score of harsh voices, "but whither--whither?"

Quoth Beltane:

"Be there many among ye that know Sir Pertolepe the Red?"

Now went there up a roar, deep-lunged and ominous; brawny fists were
shaken and weapons flashed and glittered.

"Ah--we know him--the Red Wolf--we know him--ah!"

"Then tell me," said Beltane, "will not steel cut? Will not fire burn?
Arise, I say, rise up and follow me. So will we smite Tyranny this
night and ere the dawn Garthlaxton shall be ablaze!"

"Garthlaxton!" cried Eric, "Garthlaxton!" and thereafter all men stared
on Beltane as one that is mad.

"Look now," said Beltane, "Sir Pertolepe hath ridden forth with all his
company to join Black Ivo's banner. Thus, within Garthlaxton his men be
few; moreover I know a secret way beneath the wall. Well, is't enough?
Who among ye will follow, and smite for freedom and Pentavalon?"

"That will I!" cried Eric, falling upon his knee.

"And I! And I!" cried others, and so came they to crowd eagerly about
Beltane, to touch his hand or the links of his bright mail.

"Lead us!" they cried, "come--lead us!"

"Nay first--hearken! From henceforth outlaws are ye none. Come now, one
and all, draw, and swear me on your swords:--To make your strength a
shelter to the weak; to smite henceforth but in honourable cause for
freedom, for justice and Pentavalon--swear me upon your swords to abide
by this oath, and to him that breaks it--Death. Swear!"

So there upon their knees with gleaming swords uplifted, these wild men
swore the oath. Then up sprang Walkyn, pointing to Beltane with his
axe.

"Brothers!" he cried, "behold a man that doeth such deeds as no man
ever did--that burned the gallows--burst ope the dungeon of Belsaye
and slew Tostig the mighty with naked hands! Behold Beltane the Duke!
Is he not worthy to be our leader--shall we not follow him?" Then came
a roar of voices:

"Aye--let us follow--let us follow!"

"On, then!" cried Walkyn, his glittering axe aloft. "To Garthlaxton!"

Then from an hundred brawny throats a roar went up to heaven, a cry
that hissed through clenched teeth and rang from eager lips, wilder,
fiercer than before. And the cry was:--

"Garthlaxton!"



CHAPTER XXX

HOW THEY SMOTE GARTHLAXTON


It was in the cold, still hour 'twixt night and dawn that Beltane
halted his wild company upon the edge of the forest where ran a
water-brook gurgling softly in the dark; here did he set divers eager
fellows to fell a tree and thereafter to lop away branch and twig, and
so, bidding them wait, stole forward alone. Soon before him rose
Garthlaxton, frowning blacker than the night, a gloom of tower and
turret, of massy wall and battlement, its mighty keep rising stark and
grim against a faint light of stars. Now as he stood to scan with
purposeful eye donjon and bartizan, merlon and arrow-slit for gleam of
light, for glint of mail or pike-head, he grew aware of a sound hard
by, yet very faint and sweet, that came and went--a small and silvery
chime he could by no means account for. So crept he near and nearer,
quick-eyed and with ears on the stretch till he was stayed by the
broad, sluggish waters of the moat; and thus, he presently espied
something that moved in the gloom high above the great gateway,
something that stirred, pendulous, in the cold-breathing air of coming
dawn.

Now as he peered upward through the gloom, came the wind, colder,
stronger than before--a chill and ghostly wind that flapped the heavy
folds of his mantle, that sighed forlornly in the woods afar, and
softly smote the misty, jingling thing above--swayed it--swung it out
from the denser shadows of scowling battlement so that Beltane could
see at last, and seeing--started back faint and sick, his flesh a-creep,
his breath in check 'twixt pale and rigid lips. And beholding what
manner of thing this was, he fell upon his knees with head bowed low
yet spake no prayer, only his hands gripped fiercely upon his axe;
while to and fro in the dark above, that awful shape turned and swung--
its flaunting cock's-comb dreadfully awry, its motley stained and rent
--a wretched thing, twisted and torn, a thing of blasting horror.

And ever as it swung upon the air, it rang a chime upon its little,
silver bells; a merry chime and mocking, that seemed to gibe at coming
day.

Now in a while, looking upon that awful, dim-seen shape, Beltane spake
low-voiced.

"O Beda!" he whispered, "O manly heart hid 'neath a Fool's disguise! O
Fool, that now art wiser than the wisest! Thy pains and sorrows have
lifted thee to heaven, methinks, and freed now of thy foolish clay thou
dost walk with angels and look within the face of God! But, by thine
agonies endured, now do I swear this night to raise to thy poor Fool's
body a pyre fit for the flesh of kings!"

Then Beltane arose and lifting high his axe, shook it against
Garthlaxton's frowning might, where was neither glint of armour nor
gleam of pike-head, and turning, hasted back to that dark and silent
company which, at his word, rose up from brake and fern and thicket,
and followed whither he led, a long line, soundless and phantom-like
within a phantom world, where a grey mist swirled and drifted in the
death-cold air of dawn. Swift and silent they followed him, these wild
men, with fierce eyes and scowling faces all set toward that mighty
keep that loomed high against the glimmering stars. Axe and bow, sword
and pike and gisarm, in rusty mail, in rags of leather and skins, they
crept from bush to bush, from tree to tree, till they were come to that
little pool wherein Beltane had bathed him aforetime in the dawn. Here
they halted what time Beltane sought to and fro along the bank of the
stream, until at last, within a screen of leaves and vines he found the
narrow opening he sought. Then turned he and beckoned those ghostly,
silent shapes about him, and speaking quick and low, counselled them
thus:

"Look now, this secret burrow leadeth under the foundations of the
keep; thus, so soon as we be in, let Walkyn and Giles with fifty men
haste to smite all within the gate-house, then up with portcullis and
down with drawbridge and over into the barbican there to lie in ambush,
what time Roger and I, with Eric here and the fifty and five, shall
fire the keep and, hid within the dark, raise a mighty outcry, that
those within the keep and they that garrison the castle, roused by the
fire and our shout, shall issue out amazed. So will we fall upon them
and they, taken by surprise, shall seek to escape us by the gate. Then,
Walkyn, sally ye out of the barbican and smite them at the drawbridge,
so shall we have them front and rear. How think you? Is it agreed?"

"Agreed! agreed!" came the gruff and whispered chorus.

"Then last--and mark this well each one--till that I give the word, let
no man speak! Let death be swift, but let it be silent."

Then, having drawn his mail-hood about his face and laced it close,
Beltane caught up his axe and stepped into the tunnel. There he kindled
a torch of pine and stooping 'neath the low roof, went on before. One
by one the others followed, Roger and Giles, Walkyn and Eric bearing
the heavy log upon their shoulders, and behind them axe and bow, sword
and pike and gisarm, a wild company in garments of leather and garments
of skins, soft-treading and silent as ghosts--yet purposeful ghosts
withal.

Soon came they to the iron door and Beltane stood aside, whereon the
mighty four, bending brawny shoulders, swung the log crashing against
the iron; thrice and four times smote they, might and main, ere rusted
bolt and rivet gave beneath the battery and the door swung wide. Down
went the log, and ready steel flashed as Beltane strode on, his torch
aflare, 'twixt oozing walls, up steps of stone that yet were slimy to
the tread, on and up by winding passage and steep-climbing stairway,
until they came where was a parting of the ways--the first still
ascending, the second leading off at a sharp angle. Here Beltane paused
in doubt, and bidding the others halt, followed the second passage
until he was come to a narrow flight of steps that rose to the stone
roof above. But here, in the wall beside the steps, he beheld a rusty
iron lever, and reaching up, he bore upon the lever and lo! the
flagstone above the steps reared itself on end and showed a square of
gloom beyond.

Then went Beltane and signalled to the others; so, one by one, they
followed him up through the opening into that same gloomy chamber where
he had lain in bonds and hearkened to wails of torment; but now the
place was bare and empty and the door stood ajar. So came Beltane
thither, bearing the torch, and stepped softly into the room beyond, a
wide room, arras-hung and richly furnished, and looking around upon the
voluptuous luxury of gilded couch and wide, soft bed, Beltane frowned
suddenly upon a woman's dainty, broidered shoe.

"Roger," he whispered, "what place is this?"

"'Tis Red Pertolepe's bed-chamber, master."

"Ah!" sighed Beltane, "'tis rank of him, methinks--lead on, Roger, go
you and Walkyn before them in the dark, and wait for me in the bailey."

One by one, the wild company went by Beltane, fierce-eyed and stealthy,
until there none remained save Giles, who, leaning upon his bow, looked
with yearning eyes upon the costly splendour.

"Aha," he whispered, "a pretty nest, tall brother. I'll warrant ye full
many a fair white dove hath beat her tender pinions--"

"Come!" said Beltane, and speaking, reached out his torch to bed-alcove
and tapestried wall; and immediately silk and arras went up in a puff
of flame--a leaping fire, yellow-tongued, that licked at gilded roof-beam
and carven screen and panel.

"Brother!" whispered Giles, "O brother, 'tis a sin, methinks, to lose
so much good booty. That coffer, now--Ha!" With the cry the archer
leapt out through the tapestried doorway. Came the ring of steel, a
heavy fall, and thereafter a shriek that rang and echoed far and near
ere it sank to a silence wherein a voice whispered:

"Quick, brother--the besotted fools stir at last--away!"

Then, o'erleaping that which sprawled behind the curtain, Beltane sped
along a passage and down a winding stair, yet pausing, ever and anon,
with flaring torch: and ever small fires waxed behind him. So came he
at last to the sally-port and hurling the blazing torch behind him,
closed the heavy door. And now, standing upon the platform, he looked
down into the inner bailey. Dawn was at hand, a glimmering mist wherein
vague forms moved, what time Walkyn, looming ghostly and gigantic in
the mist, mustered his silent, ghostly company ere, lifting his axe, he
turned and vanished, his fifty phantoms at his heels.

Now glancing upward at the rugged face of the keep, Beltane beheld thin
wisps of smoke that curled from every arrow-slit, slow-wreathing
spirals growing ever denser ere they vanished in the clammy mists of
dawn, while from within a muffled clamour rose--low and inarticulate
yet full of terror. Then Beltane strode down the zig-zag stair and came
forthright upon Roger, pale and anxious, who yet greeted him in joyous
whisper:

"Master, I began to fear for thee. What now?"

"To the arch of the parapet yonder. Let each man crouch there in the
gloom, nor stir until I give word."

Now as they crouched thus, with weapons tight-gripped and eyes that
glared upon the coming day, a sudden trumpet brayed alarm upon the
battlements--shouts were heard far and near, and a running of mailed
feet; steel clashed, the great castle, waking at last, was all astir
about them and full of sudden bustle and tumult. And ever the clamour
of voices waxed upon the misty air from hurrying groups dim-seen that
flitted by, arming as they ran, and ever the fifty and five, crouching
in the dark, impatient for the sign, watched Beltane--his firm-set lip,
his frowning brow; and ever from belching arrow-slit the curling
smoke-wreaths waxed blacker and more dense. Of a sudden, out from the
narrow sally-port burst a huddle of choking men, whose gasping cries
pierced high above the clamour:

"Fire! Fire! Sir Fulk is slain! Sir Fulk lieth death-smitten! Fire!"

From near and far men came running--men affrighted and dazed with
sleep, a pushing, jostling, unordered throng, and the air hummed with
the babel of their voices.

And now at last--up sprang Beltane, his mittened hand aloft.

"Arise!" he cried, "Arise and smite for Pentavalon!" And from the gloom
behind him a hoarse roar went up: "Arise! Arise--Pentavalon!" Then,
while yet the war-cry thundered in the air, they swept down on that
disordered press, and the bailey rang and echoed with the fell sounds
of a close-locked, reeling battle; a hateful din of hoarse shouting, of
shrieks and cries and clashing steel.

Axe and spear, sword and pike and gisarm smote and thrust and swayed;
stumbling feet spurned and trampled yielding forms that writhed,
groaning, beneath the press; faces glared at faces haggard with the
dawn, while to and fro, through swirling mist and acrid smoke, the
battle rocked and swayed. But now the press thinned out, broke and
yielded before Beltane's whirling axe, and turning, he found Roger
beside him all a-sweat and direfully besplashed, his mailed breast
heaving as he leaned gasping upon a broadsword red from point to hilt.

"Ha, master!" he panted,--"'tis done already--see, they break and fly!"

"On!" cried Beltane, "on--pursue! pursue! after them to the gate!"

With axe and spear, with sword and pike and gisarm they smote the
fugitives across the wide space of the outer bailey, under the narrow
arch of the gate-house and out upon the drawbridge beyond. But here, of
a sudden, the fugitives checked their flight as out from the barbican
Walkyn leapt, brandishing his axe, and with the fifty at his back. So
there, upon the bridge, the fight raged fiercer than before; men smote
and died, until of Sir Pertolepe's garrison there none remained save
they that littered that narrow causeway.

"Now by the good Saint Giles--my patron saint," gasped Giles, wiping
the sweat from him, "here was a good and sweet affray, tall brother--a
very proper fight, _pugnus et calcibus_--while it lasted--"

"Aye," growled Walkyn, spurning a smitten wretch down into the moat,
"'twas ended too soon! Be these all in faith, lord?"

But now upon the air rose shrill cries and piercing screams that seemed
to split the dawn.

"O--women!" cried Giles, and forthwith cleansed and sheathed his sword
and fell to twirling his beard.

"Aha, the women!" cried a ragged fellow, turning about, "'tis their
turn--let us to the women--" But a strong hand caught and set him aside
and Beltane strode on before them all, treading swift and light until
he was come to the chapel that stood beside the banqueting hall. And
here he beheld many women, young and fair for the most part, huddled
about the high altar or struggling in the ragged arms that grasped
them. Now did they (these poor souls) looking up, behold one in
knightly mail stained and foul with battle, yet very young and comely
of face, who leaned him upon a mighty, blood-stained axe and scowled
'neath frowning brows. Yet his frown was not for them, nor did his blue
eyes pause at any one of them, whereat hope grew within them and with
white hands outstretched they implored his pity.

"Men of Pentavalon," said he, "as men this night have ye fought in
goodly cause. Will ye now forget your manhood and new-found honour, ye
that did swear to me upon your swords? Come, loose me these women!"

"Not so," cried one, a great, red-headed rogue, "we have fought to
pleasure thee--now is our turn--"

"Loose me these women!" cried Beltane, his blue eyes fierce.

"Nay, these be our booty, and no man shall gainsay us. How think ye,
comrades?"

Now Beltane smiled upon this red-haired knave and, smiling, drew a slow
pace nearer, the great axe a-swing in his mailed hand.

"Fellow," quoth he, kind-voiced, "get thee out now, lest I slay thee!"
Awhile the fellow glared upon Beltane, beheld his smiling look and
deadly eye, and slowly loosing his trembling captive, turned and strode
out, muttering as he went. Then spake Beltane to the shrinking women,
yet even so his blue eyes looked upon none of them. Quoth he:

"Ye are free to go whither ye will. Take what ye will, none shall
gainsay you, but get you gone within this hour, for in the hour
Garthlaxton shall be no more."

Then beckoning Walkyn he bade him choose six men, and turning to the
women--

"These honourable men shall bring you safe upon your way--haste you to
be gone. And should any ask how Garthlaxton fell, say, 'twas by the
hand of God, as a sure and certain sign that Pentavalon shall yet arise
to smite evil from her borders. Say also that he that spake you this
was one Beltane, son of Beltane the Strong, heretofore Duke of
Pentavalon." Thus said Beltane unto these women, his brows knit, and
with eyes that looked aside from each and every, and so went forth of
the chapel.



CHAPTER XXXI

HOW GILES MADE A MERRY SONG


Morning, young and fragrant, bedecked and brave with gems of dewy fire;
a blithe morning, wherein trees stirred whispering and new-waked birds
piped joyous welcome to the sun, whose level, far-flung beams filled
the world with glory save where, far to the south, a pillar of smoke
rose upon the stilly air, huge, awful, and black as sin--a writhing
column shot with flame that went up high as heaven.

  "O merry, aye merry, right merry I'll be,
   To live and to love 'neath the merry green tree,
   Nor the rain, nor the sleet,
   Nor the cold, nor the heat,
   I'll mind, if my love will come thither to me."

Sang Giles, a sprig of wild flowers a-dance in his new-gotten,
gleaming bascinet, his long-bow upon his mailed shoulder, and, strapped
to his wide back, a misshapen bundle that clinked melodiously with
every swinging stride; and, while he sang, the ragged rogues about him
ceased their noise and ribaldry to hearken in delight, and when he
paused, cried out amain for more. Whereupon Giles, nothing loth, brake
forth afresh:

  "O when is the time a maid to kiss,
   Tell me this, ah, tell me this?
   'Tis when the day is new begun,
   'Tis to the setting of the sun,
   Is time for kissing ever done?
   Tell me this, ah, tell me this?"

Thus blithely sang Giles the Archer, above the tramp and jingle of the
many pack-horses, until, being come to the top of a hill, he stood
aside to let the ragged files swing by and stayed to look back at
Garthlaxton Keep.

Now as he stood thus, beholding that mighty flame, Walkyn and Roger
paused beside him, and stood to scowl upon the fire with never a word
betwixt them.

"How now," cried Giles, "art in the doleful dumps forsooth on so blithe
a morn, with two-score pack-horses heavy with booty--and Garthlaxton
aflame yonder? Aha, 'tis a rare blaze yon, a fire shall warm the heart
of many a sorry wretch, methinks."

"Truly," nodded Roger, "I have seen yon flaming keep hung round with
hanged men ere now--and in the dungeons beneath--I have seen--God
forgive me, what I have seen! Ha! Burn, accursed walls, burn! Full many
shall rejoice in thy ruin, as I do--lorn women and fatherless
children--fair women ravished of life and honour!"

"Aye," cried Giles, "and lovely ladies brought to shame! So,
Garthlaxton--smoke!"

"And," quoth frowning Walkyn, "I would that Pertolepe's rank carcass
smoked with thee!"

"Content you, my gentle Walkyn," nodded the archer, "hell-fire shall
have him yet, and groweth ever hotter against the day--content you. So
away with melancholy, be blithe and merry as I am and the sweet-voiced
throstles yonder--the wanton rogues! Ha! by Saint Giles! See where our
youthful, god-like brother rideth, his brow as gloomy as his hair is
bright--"

"Ah," muttered Roger, "he grieveth yet for Beda the Jester--and he but
a Fool!"

"Yet a man-like fool, methinks!" quoth the archer. "But for our tall
brother now, he is changed these latter days: he groweth harsh,
methinks, and something ungentle at times." And Giles thoughtfully
touched his arm with tentative fingers.

"Why, the torment is apt to change a man," said Walkyn, grim-smiling.
"I have tried it and I know."

Now hereupon Giles fell to whistling, Walkyn to silence and Roger to
scowling; oft looking back, jealous-eyed, to where Beltane rode a black
war-horse, his mail-coif thrown back, his chin upon his breast, his
eyes gloomy and wistful; and as often as he looked, Roger sighed amain.
Whereat at last the archer cried:

"Good lack, Roger, and wherefore puff ye so? Why glower ye, man, and
snort?"

"Snort thyself!" growled Roger.

"Nay, I had rather talk."

"I had rather be silent."

"Excellent, Roger; so will I talk for thee and me. First will I show
three excellent reasons for happiness--_videlicit:_ the birds sing, I
talk, and Garthlaxton burns.--"

"I would thou did'st burn with it," growled Roger. "But here is a deed
shall live when thou and I are dust, archer!"

"Verily, good Roger, for here and now will I make a song on't for souls
unborn to sing--a good song with a lilt to trip it lightly on the
tongue, as thus:

  "How Beltane burned Garthlaxton low
   With lusty Giles, whose good yew bow
   Sped many a caitiff rogue, I trow,
      _Dixit_!"

"How!" exclaimed Roger, "here be two whole lines to thy knavish self
and but one to our master?"

"Aye," grumbled Walkyn, "and what of Roger?--what of me?--we were
there also, methinks?"

"Nay, show patience," said Giles, "we will amend that in the next
triplet, thus:

  "There Roger fought, and Walkyn too,
   And Giles that bare the bow of yew;
   O swift and strong his arrows flew,
      _Dixit_!"

"How think ye of that, now?"

"I think, here is too much Giles," said Roger.

"Forsooth, and say ye so indeed? Let us then to another verse:

  "Walkyn a mighty axe did sway,
   Black Roger's sword some few did slay,
   Yet Giles slew many more than they,
      _Dixit_!"

"Here now, we have each one his line apiece, which is fair--and the
lines trip it commendingly, how think ye?"

"I think it a lie!" growled Roger.

"Aye me!" sighed the archer, "thou'rt fasting, Rogerkin, and an empty
belly ever giveth thee an ill tongue. Yet for thy behoof my song shall
be ended, thus:

  "They gave Garthlaxton to the flame,
   Be glory to Duke Beltane's name,
   And unto lusty Giles the same,
      _Dixit_!"

"_Par Dex!_" he broke off, "here is a right good song for thee, trolled
forth upon this balmy-breathing morn sweet as any merle; a song for
thee and me to sing to our children one day, mayhap--so come, rejoice,
my rueful Rogerkin--smile, for to-day I sing and Garthlaxton is
ablaze."

"And my master grieveth for a Fool!" growled sulky Roger, "and twenty
and two good men slain."

"Why, see you, Roger, here is good cause for rejoicing also, for, our
youthful Ajax grieving for a dead Fool, it standeth to reason he shall
better love a live one--and thou wert ever a fool, Roger--so born and
so bred. As for our comrades slain, take ye comfort in this, we shall
divide their share of plunder, and in this thought is a world of
solace. Remembering the which, I gathered unto myself divers pretty
toys--you shall hear them sweetly a-jingle in my fardel here. As, item:
a silver crucifix, very artificially wrought and set with divers gems--
a pretty piece! Item: a golden girdle from the East--very sweet and
rare. Item: four silver candlesticks--heavy, Roger! Item: a gold hilted
dagger--a notable trinket. Item--"

A sudden shout from the vanward, a crashing in the underbrush beside
the way, a shrill cry, and three or four of Eric's ragged rogues
appeared dragging a woman betwixt them, at sight of whom the air was
filled with fierce shouts and cries.

"The witch! Ha! 'Tis the witch of Hangstone Waste! To the water with
the hag! Nay, burn her! Burn her!"

"Aye," cried Roger, pushing forward, "there's nought like the fire for
your devils or demons!"

Quoth the archer:

"_In nomen Dominum_--Holy Saint Giles, 'tis a comely maid!"

"Foul daughter of an accursed dam!" quoth Roger, spitting and drawing a
cross in the dust with his bow-stave.

"With the eyes of an angel!" said Giles, pushing nearer where stood a
maid young and shapely, trembling in the close grasp of one Gurth, a
ragged, red-haired giant, whose glowing eyes stared lustfully upon her
ripe young beauty.

"'Tis Mellent!" cried the fellow. "'Tis the witch's daughter that hath
escaped me thrice by deviltry and witchcraft--"

"Nay--nay," panted the maid 'twixt pallid lips, "nought am I but a poor
maid gathering herbs and simples for my mother. Ah, show pity--"

"Witch!" roared a score of voices, "Witch!"

"Not so, in sooth--in very sooth," she gasped 'twixt sobs of terror,
"nought but a poor maid am I--and the man thrice sought me out and
would have shamed me but that I escaped, for that I am very swift of
foot--"

"She lured me into the bog with devil-fires!" cried Gurth.

"And would thou had'st rotted there!" quoth Giles o' the Bow, edging
nearer. Now hereupon the maid turned and looked at Giles through the
silken curtain of her black and glossy hair, and beholding the entreaty
of that look, the virginal purity of those wide blue eyes, the archer
stood awed and silent, his comely face grew red, grew pale--then, out
flashed his dagger and he crouched to spring on Gurth; but, of a
sudden, Beltane rode in between, at whose coming a shout went up and
thereafter a silence fell. But now at sight of Beltane, the witch-maid
uttered a strange cry, and shrinking beneath his look, crouched upon
her knees and spake in strange, hushed accents.

"Messire," she whispered, "mine eyes do tell me thou art the lord
Beltane!"

"Aye, 'tis so."

"Ah!" she cried, "now glory be and thanks to God that I do see thee
hale and well!" So saying, she shivered and covered her face. Now while
Beltane yet stared, amazed by her saying, the bushes parted near by and
a hooded figure stepped forth silent and soft of foot, at sight of whom
all men gave back a pace, and Roger, trembling, drew a second cross in
the dust with his bow-stave, what time a shout went up:

"Ha!--the Witch--'tis the witch of Hangstone Waste herself!"

Very still she stood, looking round upon them all with eyes that
glittered 'neath the shadow of her hood; and when at last she spake,
her voice was rich and sweet to hear.

"Liar!" she said, and pointed at Gurth a long, white finger, "unhand
her, liar, lest thou wither, flesh and bone, body and soul!" Now here,
once again, men gave back cowering 'neath her glance, while Roger
crossed himself devoutly.

"The evil eye!" he muttered 'twixt chattering teeth, "cross thy
fingers, Giles, lest she blast thee!" But Gurth shook his head and
laughed aloud.

"Fools!" he cried, "do ye forget? No witch hath power i' the sun! She
can work no evil i' the sunshine. Seize her!--'tis an accursed hag--
seize her! Bring her to the water and see an she can swim with a stone
at her hag's neck. All witches are powerless by day. See, thus I spit
upon and defy her!"

Now hereupon a roar of anger went up and, for that they had feared her
before, so now grew they more fierce; a score of eager hands dragged at
her, hands that rent her cloak, that grasped with cruel fingers at her
long grey hair, bending her this way and that; but she uttered no groan
nor complaint, only the maid cried aloud most pitiful to hear, whereat
Giles, dagger in hand, pushed and strove to come at Gurth. Then Beltane
alighted from his horse and parting the throng with mailed hands, stood
within the circle and looking round upon them laughed, and his laugh
was harsh and bitter.

"Forsooth, and must ye war with helpless women, O men of Pentavalon?"
quoth he, and laughed again right scornfully; whereat those that held
the witch relaxed their hold and fain would justify themselves.

"She is a witch--a cursed witch!" they cried.

"She is a woman," says Beltane.

"Aye--a devil-woman--a notable witch--we know her of old!"

"Verily," cried one, "'tis but a sennight since she plagued me with
aching teeth--"

"And me with an ague!" cried another.

"She bewitched my shafts that they all flew wide o' the mark!" cried a
third.

"She cast on me a spell whereby I nigh did perish i' the fen--"

"She is a hag--she's demon-rid and shall to the fire!" they shouted
amain. "Ha!--witch!--witch!"

"That doeth no man harm by day," said Beltane, "so by day shall no man
harm her--"

"Aye, lord," quoth Roger, "but how by night? 'tis by night she may work
her spells and blast any that she will, or haunt them with goblins
damned that they do run mad, or--"

"Enough!" cried Beltane frowning, "on me let her bewitchments fall;
thus, see you, an I within this next week wither and languish 'neath
her spells, then let her burn an ye will: but until this flesh doth
shrivel on these my bones, no man shall do her hurt. So now let there
be an end--free these women, let your ranks be ordered, and march--"

"Comrades all!" cried red-haired Gurth, "will ye be slaves henceforth
to this girl-faced youth? We have arms now and rich booty. Let us back
to the merry greenwood, where all men are equal--come, let us be gone,
and take these witches with us to our sport--"

But in this moment Beltane turned.

"Girl-faced, quotha?" he cried; and beholding his look, Gurth of a
sudden loosed the swooning maid and, drawing sword, leapt and smote at
Beltane's golden head; but Beltane caught the blow in his mailed hand,
and snapped the blade in sunder, and, seizing Gurth about the loins,
whirled him high in air; then, while all men blenched and held their
breath waiting the thud of his broken body in the dust, Beltane stayed
and set him down upon his feet. And lo! Gurth's cheek was pale, his eye
wide and vacant, and his soul sat numbed within him. So Beltane took
him by the throat, and, laughing fierce, shook him to and fro.

"Beast!" said he, "unfit art thou to march with these my comrades. Now
therefore do I cast thee out. Take thy life and go, and let any follow
thee that will--Pentavalon needeth not thy kind. Get thee from among
us, empty-handed as I found thee--thy share of treasure shall go to
better men!"

Now even as Beltane spake, Gurth's red head sank until his face was
hidden within his hands; strong hands, that slowly clenched themselves
into anger-trembling fists. And ever as Beltane spake, the witch,
tossing back her long grey hair, looked and looked on him with bright
and eager eyes; a wondering look, quick to note his shape and goodly
size, his wide blue eyes, his long and golden hair and the proud, high
carriage of his head: and slowly, to her wonderment came awe and
growing joy. But Beltane spake on unheeding:

"Thou dost know me for a hunted man with a price upon my head, but thou
art thing so poor thy death can pleasure no man. So take thy life and
get thee hence, but come not again, for in that same hour will I hang
thee in a halter--go!" So, with drooping head, Gurth of the red hair
turned him about, and plunging into the green, was gone; then Beltane
looked awhile upon the others that stood shifting on their feet, and
with never a word betwixt them.

"Comrades," quoth he, "mighty deeds do lie before us--such works as
only true men may achieve. And what is a man? A man, methinks, is he,
that, when he speaketh, speaketh ever from his heart; that, being quick
to hate all evil actions, is quicker to forgive, and who, fearing
neither ghost nor devil, spells nor witchcraft, dreadeth only
dishonour, and thus, living without fear, he without fear may die. So
now God send we all be men, my brothers. To your files there--pikes to
the front and rear, bows to the flanks--forward!"

But now, as with a ring and clash and tramp of feet the ragged company
fell into rank and order, the witch-woman came swiftly beside Beltane
and, touching him not, spake softly in his ear.

"Beltane--Beltane, lord Duke of Pentavalon!" Now hereupon Beltane
started, and turning, looked upon her grave-eyed.

"What would ye, woman?" he questioned.

"Born wert thou of a mother chaste as fair, true wife unto the Duke thy
father--a woman sweet and holy who liveth but to the good of others:
yet was brother slain by brother, and thou baptised in blood ere now!"

"Woman," quoth he, his strong hands a-tremble, "who art thou--what
knowest thou of my--mother? Speak!"

"Not here, my lord--but, an thou would'st learn more, come unto
Hangstone Waste at the full o' the moon, stand you where the death-stone
stands, that some do call the White Morte-stone. There shalt thou
learn many things, perchance. Thou hast this day saved a witch from
cruel death and a lowly beggar-maid from shame. A witch! A beggar-maid!
The times be out a joint, methinks. Yet, witch and beggar, do we thank
thee, lord Duke. Fare thee well--until the full o' the moon!" So spake
she, and clasping the young maid within her arm they passed into the
brush and so were gone.

Now while Beltane stood yet pondering her words, came Roger to his
side, to touch him humbly on the arm.

"Lord," said he, "be not beguiled by yon foul witches' arts: go not to
Hangstone Waste lest she be-devil thee with goblins or transform thee
to a loathly toad. Thou wilt not go, master?"

"At the full o' the moon, Roger!"

"Why then," muttered Roger gulping, and clenching trembling hands, "we
must needs be plague-smitten, blasted and everlastingly damned, for
needs must I go with thee."

Very soon pike and bow and gisarm fell into array; the pack-horses
stumbled forward, the dust rose upon the warm, still air. Now as they
strode along with ring and clash and the sound of voice and laughter,
came Giles to walk at Beltane's stirrup; and oft he glanced back along
the way and oft he sighed, a thing most rare in him; at last he spake,
and dolefully:

"Witchcraft is forsooth a deadly sin, tall brother?"

"Verily, Giles, yet there be worse, methinks."

"Worse! Ha, 'tis true, 'tis very true!" nodded the archer. "And then,
forsooth, shall the mother's sin cleave unto the daughter--and she so
wondrous fair? The saints forbid." Now hereupon the archer's gloom was
lifted and he strode along singing softly 'neath his breath; yet, in a
while he frowned, sudden and fierce: "As for that foul knave Gurth--ha,
methinks I had been wiser to slit his roguish weasand, for 'tis in my
mind he may live to discover our hiding place to our foes, and
perchance bring down Red Pertolepe to Hundleby Fen."

"In truth," said Beltane, slow and thoughtful, "so do I think; 'twas
for this I spared his life."

Now here Giles the Archer turned and stared upon Beltane with jaws
agape, and fain he would have questioned further, but Beltane's gloomy
brow forbade; yet oft he looked askance at that golden head, and oft he
sighed and shook his own, what time they marched out of the golden
glare of morning into the dense green depths of the forest.



CHAPTER XXXII

HOW BELTANE MET WITH A YOUTHFUL KNIGHT


Now at this time the fame of Beltane's doing went throughout the Duchy,
insomuch that divers and many were they that sought him out within the
green; masterless men, serfs new-broke from thraldom, desperate fellows
beyond the law, thieves and rogues in dire jeopardy of life or limb:
off-scourings, these, of camp and town and village, hither come seeking
shelter with Beltane in the wild wood, and eager for his service.

In very truth, a turbulent company this, prone to swift quarrel and
deadly brawl; but, at these times, fiercer than any was Walkyn o' the
Axe, grimmer than any was Roger the Black, whereas Giles was quick as
his tongue and Eric calm and resolute: four mighty men were these, but
mightier than all was Beltane. Wherefore at this time Beltane set
himself to bring order from chaos and to teach these wild men the
virtues of obedience; but here indeed was a hard matter, for these were
lawless men and very fierce withal. But upon a morning, ere the sun had
chased the rosy mists into marsh and fen, Beltane strode forth from the
cave wherein he slept, and lifting the hunting horn he bare about his
neck, sounded it fierce and shrill. Whereon rose a sudden uproar, and
out from their caves, from sleeping-places hollowed within the rocks,
stumbled his ragged following--an unordered rabblement, half-naked,
unarmed, that ran hither and thither, shouting and rubbing sleep from
their eyes, or stared fearfully upon the dawn. Anon Beltane sounded
again, whereat they, beholding him, came thronging about him and
questioned him eagerly on all sides, as thus:

"Master, are we attacked forsooth?"

"Is the Red Pertolepe upon us?"

"Lord, what shall we do--?"

"Lead us, master--lead us!"

Then, looking upon their wild disorder, Beltane laughed for scorn:--

"Rats!" quoth he, "O rats--is it thus ye throng to the slaughter, then?
Were I in sooth Red Pertolepe with but a score at my back I had slain
ye all ere sun-up! Where be your out-posts--where be your sentinels?
Are ye so eager to kick within a hangman's noose?"

Now hereupon divers growled or muttered threateningly, while others,
yawning, would have turned them back to sleep; but striding among them,
Beltane stayed them with voice and hand--and voice was scornful and
hand was heavy: moreover, beside him stood Roger and Giles, with Walkyn
and Eric of the wry neck.

"Fools!" he cried, "for that Pentavalon doth need men, so now must I
teach ye other ways. Fall to your ranks there--ha! scowl and ye will
but use well your ears--mark me, now. But two nights ago we burned
down my lord Duke's great castle of Garthlaxton: think you my lord Duke
will not seek vengeance dire upon these our bodies therefore? Think ye
the Red Pertolepe will not be eager for our blood? But yest're'en, when
I might have slain yon knavish Gurth, I suffered him to go--and
wherefore? For that Gurth, being at heart a traitor and rogue ingrain,
might straightway his him to the Duke at Barham Broom with offers to
guide his powers hither. But when they be come, his chivalry and heavy
armed foot here within the green, then will we fire the woods about
them and from every point of vantage beset them with our arrows--"

"Ha! Bows--bows!" cried Giles, tossing up his bow-stave and catching
it featly--"Oho! tall brother--fair lord Duke, here is a sweet and
notable counsel. Ha, bows! Hey for bows and bills i' the merry
greenwood!"

"So, perceive me," quoth Beltane, "thus shall the hunters peradventure
become the hunted, for, an Duke Ivo come, 'tis like enough he ne'er
shall win free of our ring of fire." Now from these long and ragged
ranks a buzz arose that swelled and swelled to a fierce shout.

"The fire!" they cried. "Ha, to burn them i' the fire!"

"But so to do," quoth Beltane, "rats must become wolves. Valiant men ye
are I know, yet are ye but a poor unordered rabblement, mete for
slaughter. So now will I teach ye, how here within the wild-wood we may
withstand Black Ivo and all his powers. Giles, bring now the book of
clean parchment I took from Garthlaxton, together with pens and ink-horn,
and it shall be henceforth a record of us every one, our names, our
number, and the good or ill we each one do achieve."

So there and then, while the sun rose high and higher and the mists of
dawn thinned and vanished, phantom-like, the record was begun. Two
hundred and twenty and four they mustered, and the name of each and
every Giles duly wrote down within the book in right fair and clerkly
hand. Thereafter Beltane numbered them into four companies; over the
first company he set Walkyn, over the second Giles, over the third
Roger, and over the fourth Eric of the wry neck. Moreover he caused to
be brought all the armour they had won, and ordered that all men should
henceforth go armed from head to foot, yet many there were that needs
must go short awhile.

Now he ordained these four companies should keep watch and watch day
and night with sentinels and outposts in the green; and when they
murmured at this he stared them into silence.

"Fools!" said he, "an ye would lie secure, so must ye watch constantly
against surprise. And furthermore shall ye exercise daily now, at the
spoke command, to address your pikes 'gainst charge of horse or foot,
and to that company adjudged the best and stoutest will I, each week,
give store of money from my share of booty. So now, Walkyn, summon ye
your company and get to your ward."

Thus it was that slowly out of chaos came order, yet it came not
unopposed, for many and divers were they that growled against this new
order of things; but Beltane's hand was swift and heavy, moreover,
remembering how he had dealt with Tostig, they growled amain but hasted
to obey. So, in place of idleness was work, and instead of quarrel and
riot was peace among the wild men and a growing content. Insomuch that
upon a certain balmy eve, Giles the Archer, lolling beside the fire
looking upon Black Roger, who sat beside him furbishing his mail-shirt,
spake his mind on this wise:

"Mark ye these lamb-like wolves of ours, sweet Roger? There hath been
no blood-letting betwixt them these four days, and scarce a quarrel."

ROGER. "Aye, this comes of my lord. My master hath a wondrous tongue,
Giles."

GILES. "My brother-in-arms hath a wondrous strong fist, Rogerkin--"

ROGER. "Thy brother-in-arms, archer? Thine, forsooth! Ha!"

GILES. "Snort not, my gentle Roger, for I fell in company with him ere
he knew aught of thee--so thy snort availeth nothing, my Rogerkin.
Howbeit, our snarling wolves do live like tender lambs these days, the
which doth but go to prove how blessed a thing is a fist--a fist, mark
you, strong to strike, big to buffet, and swift to smite: a capable
fist, Roger, to strike, buffet and smite a man to the good of his
soul."

ROGER. "In sooth my master is a noble knight, ne'er shall we see his
equal. And yet, Giles, methinks he doth mope and grieve these days. He
groweth pale-cheeked and careworn, harsh of speech and swift to anger.
Behold him now!" and Roger pointed to where Beltane sat apart (as was
become his wont of late) his axe betwixt his knees, square chin propped
upon clenched fist, scowling into the fire that burned before his
sleeping-cave.

"Whence cometh the so great change in him, think you, Giles?"

"For that, while I am I and he is himself, thou art but what thou art,
my Rogerkin--well enough after thy fashion, mayhap, but after all
thou art only thyself."

"Ha!" growled Roger, "and what of thee, archer?"

"I am his brother-in-arms, Rogerkin, and so know him therefore as a
wondrous lord, a noble knight, a goodly youth and a sweet lad. Some
day, when I grow too old to bear arms, I will to pen and ink-horn and
will make of him a ballade that shall, mayhap, outlive our time. A
notable ballade, something on this wise:--

  "Of gentle Beltane I will tell,
   A knight who did all knights excel,
   Who loved of all men here below
   His faithful Giles that bare the bow;
   For Giles full strong and straight could shoot,
   A goodly man was Giles to boot.

   A lusty fighter sure was Giles
   In counsel sage and full of wiles.
   And Giles was handsome, Giles was young,
   And Giles he had a merry--"

"How now, Roger, man--wherefore interrupt me?"

"For that there be too many of Giles hereabouts, and one Giles talketh
enough for twenty. So will I to Walkyn that seldom talketh enough for
one."

So saying Roger arose, donned his shirt of mail and, buckling his sword
about him, strode incontinent away.

And in a while Beltane arose also, and climbing one of the many
precipitous paths, answered the challenge of sentinel and outpost and
went on slow-footed as one heavy in thought, yet with eyes quick to
heed how thick was the underbrush hereabouts with dead wood and bracken
apt to firing. Before him rose an upland crowned by a belt of mighty
forest trees and beyond, a road, or rather track, that dipped and wound
away into the haze of evening. Presently, as he walked beneath this
leafy twilight, he heard the luring sound of running water, and turning
thither, laid him down where was a small and placid pool, for he was
athirst. But as he stooped to drink, he started, and thereafter hung
above this pellucid mirror staring down at the face that stared up at
him with eyes agleam 'neath lowering brows, above whose close-knit
gloom a lock of hair gleamed snow-white amid the yellow. Long stayed he
thus, to mark the fierce curve of nostril, the square grimness of jaw
and chin, and the lips that met in a harsh line, down-trending and
relentless. And gazing thus upon his image, he spake beneath his
breath:

"O lady! O wilful Helen! thy soft white hand hath set its mark upon me;
the love-sick youth is grown a man, meseemeth. Well, so be it!" Thus
saying, he laughed harshly and stooping, drank his fill.

Now as he yet lay beside the brook hearkening to its pretty babel, he
was aware of another sound drawing nearer--the slow plodding of a
horse's hoofs upon the road below; and glancing whence it came he
beheld a solitary knight whose mail gleamed 'neath a rich surcoat and
whose shield flamed red with sunset. While Beltane yet watched this
solitary rider, behold two figures that crouched in the underbrush
growing beside the way; stealthy figures, that flitted from tree to
tree and bush to bush, keeping pace with the slow-riding horseman; and
as they came nearer, Beltane saw that these men who crouched and stole
so swift and purposeful were Walkyn and Black Roger. Near and nearer
they drew, the trackers and the tracked, till they were come to a place
where the underbrush fell away and cover there was none: and here,
very suddenly, forth leapt Roger with Walkyn at his heels; up reared
the startled horse, and thereafter the knight was dragged from his
saddle and Walkyn's terrible axe swung aloft for the blow, but Black
Roger turned and caught Walkyn's arm and so they strove together
furiously, what time the knight lay out-stretched upon the ling and
stirred not.

"Ha! Fool!" raged Walkyn, "loose my arm--what would ye?"

"Shalt not slay him," cried Roger, "'tis a notch--'tis a notch from my
accursed belt--shalt not slay him, I tell thee!"

"Now out upon thee for a mad knave!" quoth Walkyn.

"Knave thyself!" roared Black Roger, and so they wrestled fiercely
together; but, little by little, Walkyn's size and bull strength began
to tell, whereupon back sprang nimble Roger, and as Walkyn's axe
gleamed, so gleamed Roger's sword. But now as they circled warily about
each other, seeking an opening for blow or thrust, there came a rush of
feet, and Beltane leapt betwixt them, and bestriding the fallen knight,
fronted them in black and bitter anger.

"Ha, rogues!" he cried, "art become thieves and murderers so soon,
then? Would'st shed each other's blood for lust of booty like any other
lawless knaves, forsooth? Shame--O shame on ye both!"

So saying, he stooped, and lifting the unconscious knight, flung him
across his shoulder and strode off, leaving the twain to stare upon
each other shame-faced.

Scowling and fierce-eyed Beltane descended into the hollow, whereupon
up sprang Giles with divers others and would have looked upon and aided
with the captive; but beholding Beltane's frown they stayed their
questions and stood from his path. So came he to a certain cave
hollowed within the hill-side--one of many such--but the rough walls of
this cave Black Roger had adorned with a rich arras, and had prepared
also a bed of costly furs; here Beltane laid the captive, and sitting
within the mouth of the cave--beyond which a fire burned--fell to
scowling at the flame. And presently as he sat thus came Roger and
Walkyn, who fain would have made their peace, but Beltane fiercely bade
them to begone.

"Lord," quoth Walkyn, fumbling with his axe, "we found this knight hard
by, so, lest he should disclose the secret of this our haven--I would
have slain him--"

"Master," said Roger, "'tis true I had a mind to his horse and armour,
since we do such things lack, yet would I have saved him alive and cut
from my belt another accursed notch--"

"So art thou a fool, Roger," quoth Walkyn, "for an this knight live,
this our refuge is secret no longer."

"Ha!" sneered Beltane, "what matter for that an it shelter but
murderers and thieving knaves--"

"Dost name me murderer?" growled Walkyn.

"And me a thief, master?" sighed Roger, "I that am thy man, that would
but have borrowed--"

"Peace!" cried Beltane, "hence--begone, and leave me to my thoughts!"
Hereupon Walkyn turned and strode away, twirling his axe, but Roger
went slow-footed and with head a-droop what time Beltane frowned into
the fire, his scowl blacker than ever. But as he sat thus, from the
gloom of the cave behind him a voice spake--a soft voice and low, at
sound whereof he started and turned him about.

"Meseemeth thy thoughts are evil, messire."

"Of a verity, sir knight: for needs must I think of women and the ways
of women! To-night am I haunted of bitter memory."

Now of a sudden, the stranger knight beholding Beltane in the light of
the fire, started up to his elbow to stare and stare; then quailing,
shivering, shrank away, hiding his face within his mailed hands.
Whereat spake Beltane in amaze:

"How now, sir knight--art sick in faith? Dost ail of some wound--?"

"Not so--ah, God! not so. Those fetters--upon thy wrists, messire--?"

"Alack, sir knight," laughed Beltane, "and is it my looks afflict thee
so? 'Tis true we be wild rogues hereabout, evil company for gentle
knights. Amongst us ye shall find men new broke from the gallows-foot
and desperate knaves for whom the dungeon yawns. As for me, these gyves
upon my wrists were riveted there by folly, for fool is he that
trusteth to woman and the ways of woman. So will I wear them henceforth
until my work be done to mind me of my folly and of one I loved so much
I would that she had died ere that she slew my love for her."

Thus spake Beltane staring ever into the fire, joying bitterly to voice
his grief unto this strange knight who had risen softly and now stood
upon the other side of the fire. And looking upon him in a while.
Beltane saw that he was but a youth, slender and shapely in his rich
surcoat and costly mail, the which, laced close about cheek and chin,
showed little of his face below the gleaming bascinet, yet that little
smooth-skinned and pale.

"Sir knight," said Beltane, "free art thou to go hence, nor shall any
stay or spoil thee. Yet first, hear this: thou art perchance some
roving knight seeking adventure to the glory and honour of some fair
lady. O folly! choose you something more worthy--a horse is a noble
beast, and dogs, they say, are faithful. But see you, a woman's love is
a pitiful thing at best, while dogs and horses be a-plenty. Give not
thine heart into a woman's hand lest she tear it in her soft, white
fingers: set not thine honour beneath her shapely feet, lest she tread
it into the shameful mire. So fare thee well, sir knight. God go with
thee and keep thee ever from the love of woman!"

So saying Beltane rose, and lifting the bugle-horn he wore, sounded it;
whereon came all and sundry, running and with weapons brandished--but
Roger first of all.

To all of whom Beltane spake thus:

"Behold here this gentle knight our guest is for the nonce--entreat him
courteously therefore; give him all that he doth lack and thereafter
set him upon his way--"

But hereupon divers cast evil looks upon the knight, murmuring among
themselves--and loudest of all Walkyn.

"He knoweth the secret of our hiding-place!"

"'Tis said he knoweth the causeway through the fen!"

"He will betray us!"

"Dogs!" said Beltane, clenching his hands, "will ye defy me then? I say
this knight shall go hence and none withstand him. Make way, then--or
must I?" But now spake the youthful knight his gaze still bent upon
the flame, nor seemed he to heed the fierce faces and eager steel that
girt him round. "Nay, messire, for here methinks my quest is ended!"
"Thy quest, sir knight--how so?" Then the knight turned and looked
upon Beltane. Quoth he: "By thy size and knightly gear, by thy--thy
yellow hair, methinks thou art Beltane, son of Beltane the Strong?"
"Verily, 'tis so that I am called. What would you of me?" "This,
messire." Herewith the stranger knight loosed belt and surcoat and drew
forth a long sword whose broad blade glittered in the firelight, and
gave its massy hilt to Beltane's grasp. And, looking upon its shining
blade, Beltane beheld the graven legend "Resurgam." Now looking upon
this, Beltane drew a deep, slow breath and turned upon the youthful
knight with eyes grown suddenly fierce. Quoth he softly: "Whence had
you this, sir knight?" "From one that liveth but for thee." "Ah!"
said Beltane with scornful lip, "know ye such an one, in faith?" "Aye,
messire," spake the knight, low-voiced yet eager, "one that doth
languish for thee, that hath sent me in quest of thee bearing this thy
sword for a sign, and to bid thee to return since without thee life is
an emptiness, and there is none so poor, so heart-sick and woeful as
Helen of Mortain!" "Ah--liar!" cried Beltane, and reaching out fierce
hands crushed the speaker to his knees; but even so, the young knight
spake on, soft-voiced and calm of eye: "Greater than thine is her love
for thee, methinks, since 'tis changeless and abiding--Slay me an thou
wilt, but while I live I will declare her true to thee. Whatever hath
chanced, whate'er may chance, despite all doubts and enemies she doth
love--love--love thee through life till death and beyond. O my lord
Beltane--" "Liar!" spake Beltane again. But now was he seized of a
madness, a cold rage and a deadly. "Liar!" said he, "thou art methinks
one of her many wooers, so art thou greater fool. But Helen the
Beautiful hath lovers a-plenty, and being what she is shall nothing
miss thee: howbeit thou art surely liar, and surely will I slay thee!"
So saying he swung aloft the great blade, but even so the young knight
fronted the blow with eyes that quailed not: pale-lipped, yet smiling
and serene; and then, or ever the stroke could fall--an arm, bronzed
and hairy, came between, and Roger spake hoarse-voiced: "Master," he
cried, "for that thy man am I and love thee, shalt ne'er do this till
hast first slain me. 'Tis thus thou did'st teach me--to show mercy to
the weak and helpless, and this is a youth, unarmed. Bethink thee,
master--O bethink thee!" Slowly Beltane's arm sank, and looking upon
the bright blade he let it fall upon the ling and covered his face
within his two hands as if its glitter had blinded him. Thus did he
stand awhile, the fetters agleam upon his wrists, and thereafter fell
upon his knees and with his face yet hidden, spake: "Walkyn," said he,
"O Walkyn, but a little while since I named thee 'murderer'! Yet what,
in sooth, am I? So now do I humbly ask thy pardon. As for thee, sir
knight, grant thy pity to one that is abased. Had I tears, now might I
shed them, but tears are not for me. Go you therefore to--to her that
sent thee and say that Beltane died within the dungeons of Garthlaxton.
Say that I who speak am but a sword for the hand of God henceforth, to
smite and stay not until wrong shall be driven hence. Say that this was
told thee by a sorry wight who, yearning for death, must needs cherish
life until his vow be accomplished." But as Beltane spake thus upon
his knees, his head bowed humbly before them all, the young knight came
near with mailed hands outstretched, yet touched him not. "Messire,"
said he, "thou hast craved of me a boon the which I do most full and
freely grant. But now would I beg one of thee." "'Tis thine," quoth
Beltane, "who am I to gainsay thee?" "Messire, 'tis this; that thou
wilt take me to serve thee, to go beside thee, sharing thy woes and
perils henceforth." "So be it, sir knight," answered Beltane, "though
mine shall be a hazardous service, mayhap. So, when ye will thou shalt
be free of it." Thus saying he arose and went aside and sat him down
in the mouth of the cave. But in a while came Roger to him, his
sword-belt a-swing in his hand, and looked upon his gloomy face with eyes
full troubled. And presently he spake, yet halting in his speech and
timid: "Master," he said, "suffer me a question." "Verily," quoth
Beltane, looking up, "as many as thou wilt, my faithful Roger."
"Master," says Roger, twisting and turning the belt in hairy hands, "I
would but ask thee if--if I might cut another notch from this my
accursed belt--a notch, lord--I--the young knight--?" "You mean him
that I would have murdered, Roger? Reach me hither thy belt." So
Beltane took the belt and with his dagger cut thence two notches,
whereat quoth Roger, staring: "Lord, I did but save one life--the
young knight--" "Thou did'st save two," answered Beltane, "for had I
slain him, Roger--O, had I slain him, then on this night should'st have
hanged me for a murderer. Here be two notches for thee--so take back
thy belt and go, get thee to thy rest--and, Roger--pray for one that
tasteth death in life." So Roger took the belt, and turning softly,
left Beltane crouched above the fire as one that is deadly cold.



CHAPTER XXXIII

HOW BELTANE HAD NEWS OF ONE THAT WAS A NOTABLE PARDONER


Beltane awoke to the shrill notes of a horn and starting to sleepy
elbow, heard the call and challenge of sentinel and outpost from the
bank above. Thereafter presently appeared Giles (that chanced to be
captain of the watch) very joyously haling along a little man placid
and rotund. A plump little man whose sober habit, smacking of things
ecclesiastic, was at odds with his face that beamed forth jovial and
rubicund from the shade of his wide-eaved hat: a pilgrim-like hat,
adorned with many small pewter images of divers saints. About his waist
was a girdle where hung a goodly wallet, plump like himself and eke as
well filled. A right buxom wight was he, comfortable and round, who,
though hurried along in the archer's lusty grip, smiled placidly, and
spake him sweetly thus: "Hug me not so lovingly, good youth; abate--
abate thy hold upon my tender nape lest, sweet lad, the holy Saint
Amphibalus strike thee deaf, dumb, blind, and latterly, dead. Trot me
not so hastily, lest the good Saint Alban cast thy poor soul into a
hell seventy times heated, and 'twould be a sad--O me! a very sad thing
that thou should'st sniff brimstone on my account."

"Why, Giles," quoth Beltane, blinking in the dawn, "what dost bring
hither so early in the morning?"

"Lord, 'tis what they call a Pardoner, that dealeth in relics, mouldy
bones and the like, see you, whereby they do pretend to divers miracles
and wonders--"

"Verily, verily," nodded the little man placidly, "I have here in my
wallet a twig from Moses' burning bush, with the great toe of Thomas a'
Didymus, the thumb of the blessed Saint Alban--"

"Ha, rogue!" quoth Giles, "when I was a monk we had four thumbs of the
good Saint Alban--"

"Why then, content you, fond youth," smiled the Pardoner, "my thumb is
number one--"

"Oh, tall brother," quoth Giles, "'tis an irreverent knave, that maketh
the monk in me arise, my very toes do twitch for to kick his lewd and
sacrilegious carcase--and, lord, he would kick wondrous soft--"

"And therein, sweet and gentle lord," beamed the little buxom man,
"therein lieth a recommendation of itself. Divers noble lords have
kicked me very familiarly ere now, and finding me soft and tender have,
forthwith, kicked again. I mind my lord Duke Ivo, did with his own
Ducal foot kick me right heartily upon a time, and once did spit upon
my cloak--I can show you the very place--and these things do breed and
argue familiarity. Thus have I been familiar with divers noble lords--
and there were ladies also, ladies fair and proud--O me!"

"Now, by the Rood!" says Beltane, sitting up and staring, "whence had
you this, Giles?"

"My lord, 'twas found by the man Jenkyn snoring within the green,
together with a mule--a sorry beast! a capon partly devoured, a pasty--
well spiced! and a wine-skin--empty, alas! But for who it is, and
whence it cometh--"

"Sweet, courteous lord,--resplendent, youthful sir, I come from north
and south, from east and west, o'er land, o'er sea, from village green
and market-square, but lately from the holy shrine of the blessed Saint
Amphibalus. As to who I am and what--the universal want am I, for I do
stand for health, fleshly and spiritual. I can cure your diseases of
the soul, mind and body. In very sooth the Pardoner of Pardoners am I,
with pardons and indulgences but now hot from the holy fist of His
Holiness of Rome: moreover I have a rare charm and notable cure for the
worms, together with divers salves, electuaries, medicaments and
nostrums from the farthest Orient. I have also store of songs and
ballades, grave and gay. Are ye melancholic? Then I have a ditty merry
and mirthful. Would ye weep? Here's a lamentable lay of love and
languishment infinite sad to ease you of your tears. Are ye a sinner
vile and damnèd? Within my wallet lie pardons galore with powerful
indulgences whereby a man may enjoy all the cardinal sins yet shall his
soul be accounted innocent as a babe unborn and his flesh go without
penance. Here behold my special indulgence! The which, to him that
buyeth it, shall remit the following sins damned and deadly--to wit:
Lechery, perjury, adultery, wizardry. Murders, rapes, thievings and
slanders. Then follow the lesser sins, as--"

"Hold!" cried Beltane, "surely here be sins enough for any man."

"Not so, potent sir: for 'tis a right sinful world and breedeth new
sins every day, since man hath a rare invention that way. Here is a
grievous thing, alas! yet something natural: for, since men are human,
and human 'tis to sin, so must all men be sinners and, being sinners,
are they therefore inevitably damned!"

"Alas, for poor humanity!" sighed Beltane.

"Forsooth, alas indeed, messire, and likewise woe!" nodded the
Pardoner, "for thou, my lord, thou art but human, after all."

"Indeed at times, 'twould almost seem so!" nodded Beltane gravely.

"And therefore," quoth the Pardoner, "and therefore, most noble, gentle
lord, art thou most assuredly and inevitably--" The Pardoner sighed.

"Damned?" said Beltane.

"Damned!" sighed the Pardoner.

"Along with the rest of humanity!" nodded Beltane.

"All men be more prone to sin when youth doth riot in their veins,"
quoth the Pardoner, "and alas, thou art very young, messire, so do I
tremble for thee."

"Yet with each hour do I grow older!"

"And behold in this hour come I, declaring to thee there is no sin so
vile but that through me, Holy Church shall grant thee remission--at a
price!"

"A price, good Pardoner?"

"Why, there be sins great and sins little. But, youthful sir, for
thine own damnable doings, grieve not, mope not nor repine, since I,
Lubbo Fitz-Lubbin, Past Pardoner of the Holy See, will e'en now
unloose, assoil and remit them unto thee--"

"At a price!" nodded Beltane.

"Good my lord," spake Giles, viewing the Pardoner's plump person with a
yearning eye, "pray thee bid me kick him hence!"

"Not so, Giles, since from all things may we learn--with patience.
Here now is one that hath travelled and seen much and should be wise--"

"Forsooth, messire, I have been so accounted ere now," nodded the
Pardoner.

"Dost hear, Giles? Thus, from his wisdom I may perchance grow wiser
than I am. So get thee back to thy duty, Giles. Begone--thy presence
doth distract us."

"Aye, base archer, begone!" nodded the Pardoner, seating himself upon
the sward. "Thy visage dour accordeth not with deep-seated thought--
take it hence!"

"There spake wisdom, Giles, and he is a fool that disobeys. So, Giles
--begone!"

Hereupon Giles frowned upon the Pardoner, who lolling at his ease,
snapped his fingers at Giles, whereat Giles scowled amain and scowling,
strode away.

"Now, messire," quoth the Pardoner, opening his wallet, "now in the
matter of sinning, messire, an thou hast some pet and peculiar vice--
some little, pretty vanity, some secret, sweet transgression--"

"Nay, first," quoth Beltane, "'tis sure thou hast a tongue--"

"O infallibly, messire; a sweet tongue--a tongue attuned to cunning
phrases. God gave to women beauty, to flowers perfume, and to me--a
tongue!"

"Good Pardoner, a lonely wight am I, ignorant of the world and of its
ways and doings. So for thy tongue will I barter base coin--what can'st
tell me for this fair gold piece?"

"That fain would I have the spending on't, noble, generous sir."

"What more?"

"Anything ye will, messire: for since I am the want universal and gold
the universal need, needs must want need! And here is a rare-turned
phrase, methinks?"

"So thus do I wed need with want," nodded Beltane, tossing him the
coin. "Come now, discourse to me of worldly things--how men do trim
their beards these days, what sins be most i' the fashion, if Duke Ivo
sleepeth a-nights, whether Pentavalon city standeth yet?"

"Aha!" cried the Pardoner (coin safely pouched), "I can tell ye tales
a-plenty: sly, merry tales of lovely ladies fair and gay. I can paint
ye a tongue picture of one beyond all fair ladies fair--her soft,
white body panting-warm for kisses, the lure of her mouth, the
languorous passion of her eyes, the glorious mantle of her flame-like
hair. I'll tell of how she, full of witching, wanton wiles,
love-alluring, furtive fled fleet-footed from the day and--there amid
the soft and slumberous silence of the tender trees did yield her love
to one beyond all beings blest. Thus, sighing and a-swoon, did Helen
fair, a Duchess proud--"

"Ah!" cried Beltane, clenching sudden fist, "what base and lying babble
do ye speak? Helen, forsooth--dare ye name her, O Thing?"

Now before Beltane's swift and blazing anger the Pardoner's assurance
wilted on the instant, and he cowered behind a lifted elbow.

"Nay, nay, most potent lord," he stammered, "spit on me an ye will--
spit, I do implore thee, but strike me not. Beseech thee sir, in what
do I offend? The story runs that the proud and wilful lady is fled
away, none know wherefore, why, nor where. I do but read the riddle
thus: wherefore should she flee but for love, and if for love, then
with a man, and if with a man--"

"Enough of her!" quoth Beltane scowling, "woman and her wiles is of
none account to me!"

"How--how?" gasped the Pardoner, "of no account--! Woman--! But thou'rt
youthful--of no account--! Thou'rt a man very strong and lusty--! Of no
account, forsooth? O, Venus, hear him! Woman, forsooth! She is man's
aim, his beginning and oft-times his end. She is the everlasting cause.
She is man's sweetest curse and eke salvation, his slave, his very
tyrant. Without woman strife would cease, ambition languish, Venus pine
to skin and bone (sweet soul!) and I never sell another pardon and
starve for lack of custom; for while women are, so will be pardoners.
But this very week I did good trade in fair Belsaye with divers women--
three were but ordinary indulgences for certain small marital
transgressions; but one, a tender maid and youthful, being put to the
torment, had denounced her father and lover--"

"The torment?" quoth Beltane, starting. "The torment, say you?"

"Aye, messire! Belsaye setteth a rare new fashion in torments of late.
Howbeit, the father and lover being denounced before Sir Gui's
tribunal, they were forthwith hanged upon my lord Gui's new gibbets--"

"O--hanged?" quoth Beltane "hanged?"

"Aye, forsooth, by the neck as is the fashion. Now cometh this woeful
wench to me vowing she heard their voices i' the night, and, to quiet
these voices besought of me a pardon. But she had but two sorry silver
pieces and pardons be costly things, and when she could get no pardon,
she went home and that night killed herself--silly wench! Ha! my lord--
good messire--my arm--holy saints! 'twill break!"

"Killed herself--and for lack of thy pitiful, accursed pardon! Heard
you aught else in Belsaye--speak!" and Beltane's cruel grip tightened.

"Indeed--indeed that will I, good news, sweet news--O my lord, loose
my arm!"

"Thine arm, good Pardoner--thine arm? Aye, take it back, it availeth me
nothing--take it and cherish it. To part with a pardon for but two
silver pieces were a grave folly! So pray you forgive now my
ungentleness and speak my thy good, sweet tidings." But hereupon, the
Pardoner feeling his arm solicitously, held his peace and glowered
sullenly at Beltane, who had turned and was staring away into the
distance. So the Pardoner sulked awhile and spake not, until, seeing
Beltane's hand creep out towards him, he forthwith fell to volubility.

"'Tis told in Belsaye on right good authority that a certain vile
knave, a lewd, seditious rogue hight Beltane that was aforetime a
charcoal-burner and thereafter a burner of gibbets--as witness my lord
Duke's tall, great and goodly gallows--that was beside a prison breaker
and known traitor, hath been taken by the doughty Sir Pertolepe, lord
Warden of the Marches, and by him very properly roasted and burned to
death within his great Keep of Garthlaxton."

"Roasted, forsooth?" said Beltane, his gaze yet afar off; "and,
forsooth, burned to ashes; then forsooth is he surely dead?"

"Aye, that is he; and his ashes scattered on a dung-hill."

"A dung-hill--ha?"

"He was but a charcoal-burning knave, 'tis said--a rogue base-born and
a traitor. Now hereupon my lord, the good lord Sir Gui, my lord Duke's
lord Seneschal of Belsaye--"

"Forsooth," sighed Beltane, "here be lords a-plenty in Pentavalon!"

"Hereupon the noble Sir Gui set a close watch upon the townsfolk
whereby he apprehended divers suspected rogues, and putting them to the
torture, found thereby proofs of their vile sedition, insomuch that
though the women held their peace for the most part, certain men
enduring not, did confess knowledge of a subterraneous passage 'neath
the wall. Then did Sir Gui cause this passage to be stopped, and four
gibbets to be set up within the market-place, and thereon at sunset
every day did hang four men, whereto the towns folk were summoned by
sound of tucket and drum: until upon a certain evening some six days
since (myself standing by) came a white friar hight Friar Martin--well
known in Belsaye, and bursting through the throng he did loud-voiced
proclaim himself the traitor that had oped and shown the secret way
into the dungeons unto that charcoal-rogue for whose misdeeds so many
folk had suffered. So they took this rascal friar and scourged him and
set him in the water-dungeons where rats do frolic, and to-night at
sunset he dieth by slow fire as a warning to--Ah! sweet, noble, good my
lord, what--what would ye--" for Beltane had risen and was looking down
at the crouching Pardoner, suddenly haggard, pallid-lipped, and with
eyes a-glare with awful menace; but now the Pardoner saw that those
eyes looked through him and beyond--living eyes in a face of death.

"Messire--messire!" quavered the Pardoner on trembling knees; but
Beltane, as one that is deaf and blind, strode forward and over him,
and as he went set his bugle to his lips and sounded a rallying note.
Forthwith came men that ran towards him at speed, but now was there no
outcry or confusion and their mail gleamed in the early sun as they
fell into their appointed rank and company.

Then Beltane set his hands unto his eyes and thereafter stared up to
the heavens and round about upon the fair earth as one that wakes from
a dream evil and hateful, and spake, sudden and harsh-voiced:

"Now hither to me Walkyn, Giles and Roger. Ye do remember how upon a
time we met a white friar in the green that was a son of God--they call
him Brother Martin? Ye do remember brave Friar Martin?"

"Aye, lord, we mind him!" quoth the three.

"Ye will remember how that we did, within the green, aid him to bury a
dead maid, young and fair and tender--yet done to shameful death?"

"Verily master--a noble lady!" growled Walkyn.

"And very young!" said Roger.

"And very comely, alas!" added Giles.

"So now do I tell thee that, as she died--snatched out of life by
brutal hands--so, at this hour, even as we stand idle here, other maids
do suffer and die within Belsaye town. To-day, as we stand here, good
Friar Martin lieth within the noisome water-dungeons where rats do
frolic--"

"Ha! the pale fox!" growled Walkyn. "Bloody Gui of Allerdale that I do
live but to slay one day with Pertolepe the Red--"

"Thou dost remember, Roger, how, within the Keep at Belsaye I sware an
oath unto Sir Gui? So now--this very hour--must we march on Belsaye
that this my oath may be kept." But here a murmur arose that hummed
from rank to rank; heads were shaken and gruff voices spake on this
wise:

"Belsaye? 'Tis a long day's march to Belsaye--"

"'Tis a very strong city--very strongly guarded--"

"And we muster scarce two hundred--"

"The walls be high and we have no ladders, or engines for battery and
storm--"

"Forsooth, and we have here much booty already--"

"Ha--booty!" cried Beltane, "there spake tall Orson, methinks!"

"Aye," cried another voice, loud and defiant, "and we be no soldiers,
master, to march 'gainst walled cities; look'ee. Foresters are we, to
live secure and free within the merry greenwood. Is't not so, good
fellows?"

"And there spake Jenkyn o' the Ford!" quoth Beltane. "Stand forth
Orson, and Jenkyn with thee--so. Now hearken again. Within Belsaye men
--aye, and women too! have endured the torment, Orson. To-day, at
sundown, a noble man doth burn, Jenkyn."

"Why, look'ee, master," spake Jenkyn, bold-voiced yet blenching from
Beltane's unswerving gaze, "look'ee, good master, here is no matter for
honest woodsmen, look'ee--"

"Aye," nodded tall Orson, "'tis no matter of ours, so wherefore should
us meddle?"

"And ye have swords, I see," quoth Beltane, "and thereto hands
wherewith to fight, yet do ye speak, forsooth, of booty, and fain would
lie hid secure within the green? So be it! Bring forth the record,
Giles, and strike me out the names of Orson and Jenkyn, the which,
being shaped like men, are yet no men. Give therefore unto each his
share of booty and let him go hence." So saying, Beltane turned and
looked upon the close-drawn ranks that murmured and muttered no more.
Quoth he:

"Now, and there be any here among us so faint-hearted--so unworthy as
this Orson and Jenkyn, that do hold treasure and safety above flesh and
blood--if there be any here, who, regarding his own base body, will
strike no blow for these distressed--why, let him now go forth of this
our company. O men! O men of Pentavalon, do ye not hear them, these
woeful ones--do ye not hear them crying to us from searing flame, from
dungeon and gibbet--do ye not hear? Is there one, that, remembering the
torments endured of groaning bodies, the dire wrongs of innocence
shamed and trampled in the mire--lives there a man that will not
adventure life and limb and all he doth possess that such things may be
smitten hence and made an end of for all time? But if such there be,
let him now stand forth with Orson here, and Jenkyn o' the Ford!"

Thus spake Beltane quick and passionate and thereafter paused, waiting
their answer; but no man spake or moved, only from their grim ranks a
growl went up ominous and deep, and eyes grown bright and fierce glared
upon tall Orson and Jenkyn o' the Ford, who shuffled with their feet
and fumbled with their hands and knew not where to look.

"'Tis well, 'tis well, good comrades all!" spake Beltane in a while,
"this night, mayhap, shall we, each one, achieve great things. Go now,
dig ye a pit and therein hide such treasure as ye will and thereafter
arm ye at points, for in the hour we march. Eric, see each doth bear
with him food, and Giles, look that their quivers be full."

So saying, Beltane turned and coming to his sleeping-place, forthwith
began to don his armour. And presently he was aware of Orson and Jenkyn
standing without the cave and each with look downcast; and eke they
fumbled with their hands and shuffled with their feet and fain were to
speak yet found no word. But at last spake Jenkyn humbly and on this
wise:

"Master, here come I, look'ee, with Orson that is my comrade, look'ee--"

"Nay, go get thee to thy 'booty'!" says Beltane, busied with his
armour.

"Nay, but look'ee master, we be--"

"No men!" quoth Beltane, "thus would I be free of ye both--so get you
hence."

"But good master," spake Orson, "we do ha' changed our minds--it do be
a direful thing to burn, and if they do ha' tormented maids--"

"'Tis no matter of thine," quoth Beltane. "So go thy ways and meddle
not."

"But master, look'ee now, we be stout men, and look'ee, we be full of
lust to fight--O master, let us go! Kneel, Orson, bend--bend thy long
shanks, look'ee--" and forthwith on their knees fell Jenkyn and tall
Orson with pleading eyes and eager hands outstretched.

"O master, look'ee, let us go!"

"Aye, we do ha' changed our minds, master!"

"Then be it so!" said Beltane, "and I pray ye be ever faithful to your
minds!" Then took they Beltane's hand to kiss and thereafter up they
sprang and went rejoicing to their company.

And, within the hour, mail and bascinet agleam, the two hundred and
twenty and four marched forth of the hollow with step blithe and free,
and swung away through the green till the sound of voice and laughter,
the ring and clash of their going was died away and none remained, save
where, cross-legged upon the sward, his open wallet on his knee, the
round and buxom Pardoner sat to cherish a bruised arm and to stare from
earth to heaven and from heaven to earth with eyes wider and rounder
even than was their wont and custom.



CHAPTER XXXIV

HOW THEY CAME TO BELSAYE


Through broad glades deep-hid within the wild; by shady alleyway and
leafy track they held their march south and by east, a close,
well-ordered company striding long and free and waking the solitudes to
a blithe babblement of laughing echoes. And who among them all so merry
as Giles o' the Bow at the head of his sturdy archers? Oft trolling
some merry stave or turning with some quip or jape upon his tongue, but
with eyes quick to mark the rhythmic swing of broad, mail-clad
shoulders, eyes critical, yet eyes of pride. Who so grimly eager as
mighty Walkyn, his heavy axe lightly a-swing, his long legs schooling
themselves to his comrade's slower time and pace? Who so utterly
content as Black Roger, oft glancing from Beltane's figure in the van
to the files of his pike-men, their slung shields agleam, their spears
well sloped? And who so gloomy and thoughtful as Beltane, unmindful of
the youthful knight who went beside him, and scarce heeding his
soft-spoke words until his gaze by chance lighted upon the young
knight's armour that gleamed in the sun 'neath rich surcoat; armour of
the newest fashion of link, reinforced by plates of steel, gorget and
breast, elbow and knee, and with cunningly jointed sollerets. Moreover,
his shield was small and light according with the new fashion, and bare
the blazon of two hands, tight clasped, and the legend: "Semper
Fidelis."

Now viewing all this with a smith's knowledgful eye, quick to note the
costly excellence of this equipment, Beltane forthwith brake silence:

"How do men name thee, sir knight?"

Hereupon, after some delay, the young knight made answer:

"Messire, the motto I bear upon my shield is a good motto methinks. So
shalt call me Fidelis an ye will, my lord."

"So be it, Sir Faithful," saying which Beltane fell to deep thought
again.

"I pray you, my lord," quoth Fidelis, "wherefore so sad, so full of
gloom and thought?"

"I seek how we may win through the gates of Belsaye, Sir Fidelis, for
they go strongly guarded night and day; yet this day, ere sunset, ope
to us they must. But how--how?"

"My lord," spake Sir Fidelis, "I have heard say that few may go where
many oft-times may not. Let first some two or three adventure it, hid
'neath some close disguise--"

"A disguise!" cried Beltane, "Ha--a disguise. 'Tis well bethought, good
Fidelis. Forsooth, a disguise! And 'twill be market day!" Thereafter
Beltane strode on, head bent in frowning thought, nor spake again for a
space. And ever the files swung along behind in time to a marching song
carolled blithe in the rich, sweet voice of Giles. At length Beltane
raised his head and beholding the sun well-risen, halted his company
beside a stream that flowed athwart their way, and sitting thereby,
summoned to him the four--namely, Walkyn and Roger, Giles and Eric of
the wry neck; and while they ate together, they held counsel on this
wise:

BELTANE. "How think ye of this our adventure, comrades all?"

GILES. "Forsooth, as a man do I think well of it. Ho! for the twang of
bowstrings! the whirr and whistle of well-sped shafts loosed from the
ear! Ha! as an archer and a man 'tis an adventure that jumpeth with my
desire. But--as a soldier, and one of much and varied experience, as
one that hath stormed Belsaye ere now--with divers other towns, cities,
keeps, and castles beyond number--as a soldier, I do think it but a
gloomy business and foredoomed to failure--"

BELTANE. "And wherefore?"

GILES. "Method, tall brother, method precise and soldier-like. War is a
very ancient profession--an honourable profession and therefore to be
treated with due reverence. Now, without method, war would become but a
scurvy, sorry, hole-and-corner business, unworthy your true soldier. So
I, a soldier, loving my profession, do stand for method in all things.
Thus, would I attack a city, I do it _modo et forma:_ first, I set up
my mantelets for my archers, and under cover of their swift shooting I
set me up my mangonels, my trebuchets and balistae: then, pushing me
up, assault the walls with cat, battering-ram and sap, and having made
me a breach, would forthwith take me the place by sudden storm."

ROGER. "Ha, bowman! here is overmuch of thee, methinks! And dost speak
like a very archer-like fool--and forsooth, a foolish archer to boot.
Sure, well ye know that engines for the battery have we none--"

GILES. "Verily! So shall we none of Belsaye, methinks. Lacking engines,
we lack for all--no method, no city! Remember that, dolt Rogerkin!"

ROGER. "Nay, I remember Garthlaxton aflame, the gallows aflare, and the
empty dungeon. So, an we go up 'gainst Belsaye again, shall we surely
take it. Remember these, long-winded Giles, and being a soldier, be ye
also--a man."

BELTANE. "What think you, Walkyn?"

WALKYN. (patting his axe) "Of Gui of Allerdale, master."

BELTANE. "And you, Eric?"

ERIC. "That where thou dost go, messire, we follow."

BELTANE. "'Tis well. Now here beside me sitteth Sir Fidelis, who though
methinks the most youthful of us all, hath a head in council wiser than
us all. For he hath spoke me that whereby though few in number and
lacking engines for battery, Giles--we yet may win through the walls of
Belsaye ere sun-down. Know you this country, Walkyn?"

WALKYN. "As my hand, lord."

BELTANE. "Is there a village hereabouts?"

WALKYN. "Aye, five miles west by south is Brand-le-Dene. But there is
a mill scarce a mile down stream, I wot."

BELTANE. "A mill? 'Twill serve--go ye thither. Here is money--buy
therewith four hats and smocks the like that millers wear, and likewise
four meal-sacks well stuffed with straw."

WALKYN. (rising) "Smocks, master? Straw and meal-sacks?"

BELTANE. "And haste, Walkyn. We must be far hence within the hour."

Forthwith up rose Walkyn and summoning divers of his company strode
away down stream, what time Giles, staring after him in wonderment,
thereafter shook his head at Roger. Quoth he:

"Tall brother and lord, now do I see that our Roger burneth for
knowledge, panteth for understanding, and fain would question thee but
that his mouth is full-crammed of meat. Yet do his bulging eyes
supplicate the wherefore of smocks, and his goodly large ears do twitch
for the why of sacks. O impatient Rogerkin, bolt thy food, man, gulp--
swallow, and ask and importune my lord thyself!"

"Not I--not I!" quoth Roger, "an my master lacketh for a smock or a
sack, for me is no question of wherefore or why, so long as he doth
get them!"

"But the straw, Roger," said Giles, glancing askew at Beltane, "an thou
should'st plague my lord with questions, how think ye then he shall
answer of this straw?"

"Thus, thou crafty Giles," answered Beltane. "Belsaye is strong, but
strength may be, perchance, beguiled. So may a miller's smock hide a
shirt of mail, and straw, I have heard, will burn." "Oho, a wile!"
cried Giles, "Aha! some notable wile! What more?"

"More shalt thou know, mayhap, in Belsaye market-place."

And when Beltane had handled the well-worn smocks, had viewed the
bulging meal-sacks that Walkyn and his fellows brought him, he arose.
At his word the company fell to their ranks and forthwith swung off
again south and by east, what time Giles carolled blithely, and divers
chorused lustily: while Roger whistled and even grim Walkyn (bethinking
him of Gui of Allerdale) rumbled hoarsely in his hairy throat.

So the miles passed unheeded until, as the sun declined, they left the
wild country behind; wherefore Beltane commanded all men to a strict
silence and thus came they betimes to the edge of the woods, and
halting within the green, beheld afar across the plain, the walls of
fair Belsaye town.

"We are well to time," quoth Beltane, glancing from sinking sun to
lengthening shadow, "we have yet an hour to sunset, but in this hour
much have we to do! Hark ye now!" and drawing the four about him, he
spake them thus: "Walkyn and Roger and Eric shall into the town with me
in miller's guise, each bearing his sack of flour, what time you,
Giles, with Sir Fidelis and all our power bide here well hid till such
time as ye shall see a smoke within Belsaye. And when ye see this
smoke, rise up and make you ready one and all, yet stir not from the
green till that ye hear my bugle-horn sound our rallying-note. Then
come ye on amain, and being within the city, charge ye where my horn
shall sound. How now, is't agreed?"

"Aye, lord!" nodded Giles, "'tis an excellent strategy in faith, and
yet 'twere wiser methinks to suffer me in Roger's place: for being
guileful in war, so should I be a very beguiling miller, whereas Roger,
an we plastered him with flour, would ne'er be other than Rogerkin the
Black."

"Nay Giles, thy post is here. Let your bows be strung and ready, but
set your pikes to the fore--and Giles, watch! Walkyn, bring now the
smocks."

So saying, Beltane tightened his belt, drew on his hood of mail and
laced it close, and turning, found Sir Fidelis close by to aid him with
the hooded smock; and Beltane wondered to see him so pale and his
slender hands a-tremble.

So the smocks were donned, with straw about their legs bound by withies
as was the custom, and taking the sacks upon their shoulders, they
turned aside into the green and were gone.



CHAPTER XXXV

HOW GUI OF ALLERDALE CEASED FROM EVIL


Sir Gui of Allerdale, lord Seneschal of Belsaye town, rode hawk on fist
at the head of divers noble knights and gentle esquires with verderers
and falconers attendant. The dusty highway, that led across the plain
to the frowning gates of Belsaye, was a-throng with country folk
trudging on foot or seated in heavy carts whose clumsy wheels creaked
and groaned city-wards; for though the sun was far declined, it was
market-day: moreover a man was to die by the fire, and though such
sights were a-plenty, yet 'twas seldom that any lord, seneschal,
warden, castellan or--in fine, any potent lord dowered with right of
pit and gallows--dared lay hand upon a son of the church, even of the
lesser and poorer orders; but Sir Gui was a bold man and greatly
daring. Wherefore it was that though the market-traffic was well nigh
done, the road was yet a-swarm with folk all eager to behold and watch
how a white friar could face death by the flame. So, on horse and
afoot, in creaking cart and wain, they thronged toward the goodly city
of Belsaye.

Sir Gui rode at a hand-pace, and as he rode the folk drew hastily aside
to give him way, and bent the knee full humbly or stood with bowed
heads uncovered to watch him pass; but 'neath bristling brows, full
many an eye glared fiercely on his richly-habited, slender figure,
marking his quick, dark glance, the down-curving, high-bridged nose of
him with the thin lips and the long, pointed chin below.

Thus rode he, assured in his might and confident, heedless alike of
the glory of day fast drawing into evening, of the green world whose
every blade and leaf spake of life abundant, and of these trampling
folk who bent so humbly at his passing, their cheeks aglow with health;
thus, heeding but himself and his own most dear desires, how should he
mark the four tall and dusty miller's men whose brawny backs were
stooped each beneath its burden? And how should he, confident in his
strength and might, hale and lusty in his body, come to think on death
sharp and swift? Thus Sir Gui of Allerdale, lord Seneschal of Belsaye
town, rode upon his way, with eyes that glowed with the love of life,
and tongue that curled 'twixt smiling lips as one that savoured its
sweetness or meditated coming joys. Perceiving the which, two youthful
esquires that rode near by nudged elbows, and set their heads together.

"I know yon look--aha! 'tis the goldsmith's fair young wife. There have
been lovers who loved love ere now--Pan, see you, and Jove himself they
say: but Pan was coy, and Jove--"

"Hist, he beckons us!"

So came these young esquires beside Sir Gui who, tapping the dust from
his habit with soft white hand, spake soft-voiced and sweet.

"Ride on, sirs, and bid our careful warden stay awhile the execution of
this traitorous friar. Let the square be lined with pikes as is our
custom: let the prisoner be chained unto his stake see you, but let all
things stay until I be come. There will be many folk in Belsaye,
meseemeth, well--let them wait, and stare, and whisper, and--wait, till
I be come!"

Forward spurred the young esquires to do as was commanded, joyful to
see the confusion that marked their swift career and making good play
of their whips on the heads and shoulders of such as chanced to be
within reach; in especial upon a mighty fellow in floured smock that
bare a sack on his shoulder and who, stung with the blow, cried a curse
on them in voice so harsh and bold that folk shrank from his
neighbourhood, yet marvelled at his daring. Being come anon within the
city Sir Gui dismounted beside the gate, and giving horse and falcon to
an esquire, beckoned to him a grizzled man-at-arms; now as he did so, a
tall miller passed him by, and stumbling wearily, set down his sack
against the wall and panted.

"Bare you the letter as I commanded, Rolf?"

"Aye, my lord."

"What said she?"

"Wept, my lord."

"Spake she nought?"

"Nought, my lord."

"Lieth the goldsmith deep?"

"Above the water-dungeons, my lord."

"And she wept, say you? Methinks the goldsmith shall go free to-morrow!"

So saying, Sir Gui went on into the city, and as he went, his smile was
back again, and his tongue curved red betwixt his lips. And presently
the tall miller hoisted his burden and went on into the city also;
turned aside down a narrow passage betwixt gloomy houses, and so at
last out into the square that hummed with a clamour hushed and
expectant. But my lord Seneschal, unheeding ever, came unto a certain
quiet corner of the square remote and shady, being far removed from the
stir and bustle of the place; here he paused at an open doorway and
turned to look back into the square, ruddy with sunset--a careless
glance that saw the blue of sky, the heavy-timbered houses bathed in
the warm sunset glow, the which, falling athwart the square, shone red
upon the smock of a miller, who stooping 'neath his burden, stumbled
across the uneven cobble-stones hard by. All this saw Sir Gui in that
one backward glance; then, unheeding as ever, went in at the doorway
and up the dark and narrow stair. But now it chanced that the miller,
coming also to this door, stood a while sack on shoulder, peering up
into the gloom within; thereafter, having set down his burden in
stealthy fashion, he also turned and glanced back with eyes that
glittered in the shadow of his hat: then, setting one hand within his
smock, he went in at the door and, soft-footed began to creep up that
dark and narrow stair. She sat in a great carven chair, her arms
outstretched across the table before her, her face bowed low between,
and the setting sun made a glory of her golden hair. Of a sudden she
started, and lifting her head looked upon Sir Gui; her tears,
slow-falling and bitter, staining the beauty of her face.

"My lord--ah, no!" she panted, and started to her feet.

"Dear and fair my lady--fear not. Strong am I, but very gentle--'tis
ever my way with beauty. I do but come for my answer." And he pointed
to a crumpled parchment that lay upon the table.

"O, good my lord," she whispered, "I cannot! If thou art gentle indeed
--then--"

"He lieth above the water-dungeons, lady!" sighed Sir Gui.

"Ah, the sweet Christ aid me!"

"To-morrow he goeth to death, or lieth in those round, white arms.
Lady, the choice is thine: and I pray you show pity to thy husband who
loveth thee well, 'tis said." Now hereupon she sobbed amain and fell
upon her knees with arms outstretched in passionate appeal--but lo! she
spake no word, her swimming eyes oped suddenly wide, and with arms yet
outstretched she stared and stared beyond Sir Gui in so much that he
turned and started back amazed--to behold one clad as a dusty miller, a
mighty man whose battered hat touched the lintel and whose great bulk
filled the doorway--a very silent man who looked and looked with neck
out-thrust, yet moved not and uttered no word. Hereupon Sir Gui spake
quick and passion-choked:

"Fool--fool! hence, thou blundering fool. For this shalt be flayed
alive. Ha!--hence, thou dusty rogue!" But now this grim figure stirred,
and lifting a great hand, spake hoarse and low:

"Peace, knight! Hold thy peace and look!" The wide-eaved hat was tossed
to the floor and Sir Gui, clenching his hands, would have spoken but
the harsh voice drowned his words: "How, knight, thou that art Bloody
Gui of Allerdale! Dost thou not know me, forsooth? I am Waldron, whose
father and mother and sister ye slew. Aye, Waldron of Brand am I,
though men do call me Walkyn o' the Dene these days. Brand was a fair
manor, knight--a fair manor, but long since dust and ashes--ha! a merry
blaze wherein father and mother and sister burned and screamed and
died--in faith, a roguish blaze! Ha! d'ye blench? Dost know me,
forsooth?"

Then Sir Gui stepped back, drawing his sword; but, even so, death leapt
at him. A woman, wailing, fled from the chamber, a chair crashed to the
floor; came a strange, quick tapping of feet upon the floor and
thereafter rose a cry that swelled louder to a scream--louder to a
bubbling shriek, and dying to a groaning hiss, was gone.

And, in a while, Walkyn, that had been Waldron of Brand, rose up from
his knees, and running forth of the chamber, hasted down the dark and
narrow stair.



CHAPTER XXXVI

HOW THE FOLK OF BELSAYE TOWN MADE THEM AN END OF TYRANNY


The market-place was full of the stir and hum of jostling crowds; here
were pale-faced townsfolk, men and women and children who, cowed by
suffering and bitter wrong, spake little, and that little below their
breath; here were country folk from village and farmstead near and far,
a motley company that talked amain, loud-voiced and eager, as they
pushed and strove to see where, in the midst of the square beyond the
serried ranks of pike-men, a post had been set up; a massy post, grim
and solitary, whose heavy chains and iron girdle gleamed ominous and
red in the last rays of sunset. Near by, upon a dais, they had set up a
chair fairly gilded, wherein Sir Gui was wont to sit and watch justice
done upon the writhing bodies of my lord Duke's enemies. Indeed, the
citizens of Belsaye had beheld sights many and dire of late, wherefore
now they blenched before this stark and grisly thing and looked
askance; but to these country folk such things were something newer,
wherefore they pushed and strove amid the press that they might view it
nearer--in especial two in miller's hooded smocks, tall and lusty
fellows these, who by dint of shoulder and elbow, won forward until
they were stayed by the file of Sir Gui's heavy-armed pikemen.
Thereupon spake one, close in his fellow's ear:--

"Where tarries Walkyn, think you?" said Beltane below his breath.

"Master, I know not--he vanished in the press but now--"

"And Eric?"

"He watcheth our meal-sacks. Shall I not go bid him strike flint and
steel? The time were fair, methinks?"

"Not so, wait you until Sir Gui be come and seated in his chair of
state: then haste you to bold Eric and, the sacks ablaze, shout 'fire;'
so will I here amid the press take up the cry, and in the rush join
with ye at the gate. Patience, Roger."

And now of a sudden the throng stirred, swayed and was still; but from
many a quivering lip a breath went up to heaven, a sigh--a whispered
groan, as, through the shrinking populace, the prisoner was brought. A
man of Belsaye he, a man strong and tender, whom many had loved full
well. Half borne, half dragged betwixt his gaolers, he came on
stumbling feet--a woeful shivering thing with languid head a-droop; a
thing of noisome rags that told of nights and days in dungeon black and
foul; a thing whose shrunken nakedness showed a multitude of small
wounds, slow-bleeding, that spoke of teeth little yet vicious, bold
with hunger in the dark; a miserable, tottering thing, haggard and
pinched, that shivered and shook and stared upon all things with eyes
vacant and wide.

And thus it was that Beltane beheld again Friar Martin, the white friar
that had been a man once, a strong man and a gentle. They brought him
to the great post, they clasped him fast within the iron band and so
left him, shivering in his chains with head a-droop. Came the sound of
muffled weeping from the crowd, while high above, in sky deepening to
evening, a star twinkled. Now in a while the white friar raised his
heavy head and looked round about, and lo! his eyes were vacant no
longer, and as folk strove to come more nigh, he spake, hoarse-voiced
and feeble.

"O children, grieve not for me, for though this body suffer a little,
my soul doth sit serene. What though I stand in bonds, yet doth my soul
go free. Though they burn my flesh to ashes yet doth my soul live on
forever. So grieve not your hearts for me, my children, and, for
yourselves, though ye be afflicted even as I--fear ye nothing--since I,
that ye all do know for a truthful man, do tell ye 'tis none so hard to
die if that our hearts be clean. What though ye suffer the grievous
horror of a prison? Within the dark ye shall find God. Thus I amid the
dreadful gloom of my deep dungeon did lie within the arms of God,
nothing fearing. So, when the fire shall sear me, though this my flesh
may groan, God shall reach down to me through smoke and flame and lift
my soul beyond. O be ye therefore comforted, my children: though each
must die, yet to the pure in heart death is none so hard--"

Thus spake Friar Martin, shivering in his bonds, what time the crowd
rocked and swayed, sobbing aloud and groaning; whereat Sir Gui's
pikemen made lusty play with their spear-shafts.

Then spake Beltane, whispering, to Roger, who, sweating with
impatience, groaned and stared and gnawed upon his fingers:

"Away, Roger!" And on the instant Roger had turned, and with brawny
shoulders stooped, drove through the swaying press and was gone.

Now with every moment the temper of the crowd grew more threatening;
voices shouted, fists were clenched, and the scowling pike-men, plying
vicious spear-butts, cursed, and questioned each other aloud: "Why
tarries Sir Gui?"

Hereupon a country fellow hard by took up the question:

"Sir Gui!" he shouted, "Why cometh not Sir Gui?"

"Aye!" cried others, "where tarries Sir Gui?" "Why doth he keep us?"
"Where tarries Sir Gui?"

"Here!" roared a voice deep and harsh, "Way--make way!" And suddenly
high above the swaying crowd rose the head and shoulders of a man, a
mighty man in the dusty habit of a miller, upon whose low-drawn hood
and be-floured smock were great gouts and stains evil and dark; and
now, beholding what manner of stains these were, all men fell silent
and blenched from his path. Thus amid a lane of pallid faces that
stared and shrank away, the tall miller came unto the wondering pike-men
--burst their ranks and leapt upon the dais where stood the gilded
chair.

"Ho! soldiers and men-at-arms--good people of Belsaye--call ye for Gui
in sooth? hunger ye for sight of Bloody Gui of Allerdale in faith? Why
then--behold!" and from under his be-dabbled smock he drew forth a
head, pale as to cheek and hair, whose wide eyes stared blindly as it
dangled in his hairy hand; and now, staring up at this awful, sightless
thing--that brow at whose frown a city had trembled, those pallid lips
that had smiled, and smiling, doomed men and women to torment and
death--a hush fell on Belsaye and no man spoke or stirred.

Then, while all folk stood thus, rigid and at gaze, a wild cry was
heard, shivering the stillness and smiting all hearts with sudden
dread:--

"Fire! Fire!"

"Aye, fire!" roared the miller, "see yonder!" and he pointed where a
column of thick smoke mounted slowly upon the windless air. But with
the cry came tumult--a hurry of feet, shouts and yells and hoarse
commands; armour clashed and pike-heads glittered, down-sweeping for
the charge. Then Walkyn laughed, and hurling the pale head down at the
nearest soldiery, drew from his smock his mighty axe and swung it, but
lo! 'twixt him and the pike-men was a surging, ravening mob that
closed, front and rear, upon knight and squire, upon pike-man and
man-at-arms, men who leapt to grip mailed throats in naked hands, women
who screamed and tore. And one by one, knight and squire, and man-at-arms,
smiting, shrieking, groaning, were dragged down with merciless hands,
to be wrenched at, torn, and trampled 'neath merciless feet, while high
and clear above this fierce and dreadful clamour rose the shrill
summons of a horn.

And lo! a shout--a roar--drowning the shrieks of dying men, the
screams of vengeful women, "Arise--arise--Pentavalon!" Came a rush of
feet, a shock, and thereafter a confused din that rose and fell and,
gradually ceasing, was lost in a sudden clamour of bells, fierce-pealing
in wild and joyous riot.

"Aha! 'tis done--'tis done!" panted Roger, stooping to cleanse his
blade, "spite of all our lack of method, Giles--'tis done! Hark ye to
those joy-bells! So doth fair Belsaye shout to all men she is free at
last and clean of Gui and all his roguish garrison--"

"Clean?" quoth Giles. "Clean, forsooth? Roger--O Roger man, I have
seen men die in many and diver ungentle ways ere now, but these men--
these men of Gui's, look--look yonder! O sweet heaven keep me ever from
the tearing hands of vengeful mothers and women wronged!" And turning
his back on the littered market square, Giles shivered and leaned him
upon his sword as one that is sick.

"Nay," said Black Roger, "Gui's black knaves being rent in pieces,
Giles, we shall be saved the hanging of them--ha! there sounds my
lord's horn, and 'tis the rallying-note--come away, Giles!"

Side by side they went, oft stepping across some shapeless horror,
until in their going they chanced on one that knelt above a child,
small and dead. And beholding the costly fashion of this man's armour,
Roger stooped, and wondering, touched his bowed shoulder:

"Sir Fidelis," said he, "good young messire, and art thou hurt,
forsooth?"

"Hurt?" sighed Sir Fidelis, staring up great-eyed, "hurt? Nay, behold
this sweet babe--ah, gentle Christ--so innocent--and slain! A tender
babe! And yonder--yonder, what dire sights lie yonder--" and sighing,
the youthful knight sank back across Black Roger's arm and so lay
speechless and a-swoon.

Quoth Roger, grim-smiling:

"What, Giles, here's one that loveth woman's finger-work no more than
thou!" Thus saying, he stooped and lifting the young knight in his
arms, bore him across the square, stumbling now and then on things
dim-seen in the dark, for night was at hand.

So thus it was that the folk of fair Belsaye town, men and women with
gnashing teeth and rending hands, made them an end of Tyranny, until
with the night, there nothing remained of proud Sir Gui and all his
lusty garrison, save shapeless blotches piled amid the gloom--and that
which lay, forgotten quite, a cold and pallid thing, befouled with red
and trampled mire; a thing of no account henceforth, that stared up
with glazed and sightless eyes, where, remote within the sombre
firmament of heaven, a great star glowed and trembled.



CHAPTER XXXVII

HOW THEY LEFT BELSAYE


Lanthorns gleamed and torches flared in the great square of Belsaye
where panting, shouting townsfolk thronged upon Beltane and his company
with tears of joy, with laughter loud and high-pitched, with shouts and
wild acclaim; many there were who knelt to kiss their sun-browned
hands, their feet, the very links of their armour. And presently came
Giles o' the Bow, debonair and smiling, a woman's scarf about his
brawny throat, a dozen ribands and favours tied about each mailed arm.

"Lord," quoth he, "tall brother, I have been fairly kissed by full a
score of buxom dames--the which is excellent good, for the women of
Belsaye are of beauty renowned. But to kiss is a rare and notable
science, and to kiss well a man should eat well, and forsooth, empty am
I as any drum! Therefore prithee let us eat, that I may uphold my
reputation, for, as the learned master Ovidius hath it, '_osculos_'--"

But from the townsfolk a shout arose:

"Comes the Reeve! 'Tis good master Cuthbert! Way for the Reeve!"

Hereupon the crowd parting, a tall man appeared, his goodly apparel
torn, his long white hair disordered, while in his hand he yet grasped
a naked sword. Stern his face was, and lined beyond his years, moreover
his broad shoulders were bowed with more than age; but his eye was
bright and quick, and when he spake, his voice was strong and full.

"Which, I pray, is chiefest among ye?"

"That am I," quoth Beltane.

"Messire," said the Reeve, "who and what men ye are I know not, but in
the name of these my fellow-citizens do I thank ye for our deliverance.
But words be poor things, now therefore, an it be treasure ye do seek
ye shall be satisfied. We have suffered much by extortion, but if gold
be your desire, then whatsoever gold doth lie in our treasury, the
half of it is freely thine."

"O most excellent Reeve!" cried Giles, "forsooth, a very proper spirit
of gratitude."

"Good master," spake Beltane, quelling the archer with a look, "these
my comrades hither came that a noble man should not perish, and that
Sir Gui of Allerdale should cease from evil, and behold, 'tis done! So
I pray you, give us food and shelter for the night, for with the dawn
we march hence."

"But--O tall brother!" gasped Giles, "O sweet lord, there was mention
made of treasure! A large-souled Reeve--a Reeve with bowels! 'Treasure'
quoth he, and likewise 'gold!' And these be matters to excogitate upon.
Moreover, _pecunioe obediunt omnia_, brother."

"Money, forsooth!" quoth Beltane bitterly; "now out upon thee, Giles--
how think ye money shall avail the like of us whose lives are forfeit
each and every, whose foes be many and strong, who must ever be on our
ward, quick to smite lest we be smitten--money, forsooth! So, good
master Reeve, keep thy useless treasure, and, in its stead, give to us
good steel--broadswords, sharp and well-tempered and stout link-mail--
give of these to such as lack."

"But--O brother," says Giles, "with gold may we gain all these."

"Verily, Giles, but gaining all without gold we lack not for gold, nor
have the added fear of losing it. He that would gain wealth must first
win freedom, for without freedom the richest is but a sorry slave. So
give us steel, good master Reeve."

Now from Giles' archers and divers others beside a growl went up,
spreading from rank to rank, what time Beltane clenched his hands,
frowning ever blacker. Then forth stepped Jenkyn o' the Ford with tall
Orson, which last spake with voice uplift:

"Master," quoth he, "us do love gold--but fighting men us do be, and if
'steel' says you--'steel' says we!"

"Aye," nodded Jenkyn, "so look'ee master, here stands I wi' Orson my
comrade look'ee, for witness that to-day we be better men than these
growlers."

But here, of a sudden, rose the shrill bray of a trumpet without the
walls, a long flourish, loud and imperious; and at the sound a silence
fell, wherein divers of the townsfolk eyed each other in fear swift-born,
and drew nearer to the white-haired Reeve who stood leaning heavily upon
his sword, his head stooped upon his broad chest. And in
the silence, Giles spake:

"Now, by the ever-blessed Saint Giles, there spake the summons of
Robert of Hurstmanswyke--I know his challenge of old--ha, bows and
bills!" So saying he bent and strung his bow.

"Aye," nodded Roger, loosening sword in sheath, "and Sir Robert is a
dour fighter I've heard."

"So soon!" groaned the Reeve, "so very soon! Now God pity Belsaye!"

"Amen!" quoth Giles, fidgeting uneasily with his bow, "forsooth, Sir
Robert is a very potent lord--God help us all, say I!"

"And Sir Robert likewise," quoth Roger, "for methinks an he come within
Belsaye he is like to stay in Belsaye--mind ye Sir Gui, and mark ye my
master's look!" And he pointed where Beltane stood near by, chin in
fist, his eye bright and purposeful, his mouth grim-smiling; even as
they watched he beckoned Walkyn and Eric to him and spake certain
commands what time the trumpet brayed again in summons fierce and
arrogant.

"Good master Reeve," quoth Beltane, as Walkyn and Eric, obedient to his
word, moved into the square to right and left, each with his company,
"there is one without that groweth impatient. Let us therefore parley
with him from the battlement above the gate."

"Ah, messire," sighed the Reeve, "to what end? 'Tis Sir Robert's
summons, and well I know he will demand speech with my lord Gui--alas
for us and for Belsaye town!"

"Nay," answered Beltane, "be comforted. Answer as I shall direct and
fear ye nothing. Come your ways."

Now when Roger turned and would have followed, Giles plucked him by the
arm:

"Roger," quoth he, "Sir Robert will demand speech of Gui of Allerdale,
mark ye that, my Rogerkin. Nor will he speak to any but Sir Gui--for a
great lord and proud is Robert of Hurstmanswyke. Ha, what think ye,
Roger?"

"I think perchance he must go dumb then--come, let us follow."

"Nay, but speak he must--since he may tell us much, aye, and speak he
shall. So come, my Rogerkin, hither with me!"

"With thee, Giles? And wherefore?"

"A wile, sweet Roger, a notable wile--a wile of wiles. Hush! speak not,
but come--for mark this:

  "In faith a cunning man is Giles
   In counsel sage and full of wiles!"

"So come, Rogerkin!" So saying, he gripped stout Roger's arm and
plunged into the crowd.

Being come out upon the battlement above the gate, Beltane, with the
Reeve beside him, peering down through the dark, beheld beyond the
moat, a knight supported by four esquires, and beyond these Beltane
counted thirty lances what time the Reeve, steadying his voice,
challenged them.

Hereupon the knight spake:

"Ha! do ye stir at last, dogs! Open in the Duke's name--'tis I, Robert,
lord of Hurstmanswyke, with message to the lord Seneschal, Sir Gui, and
captives from Bourne!"

Then, grim-smiling in the dusk, Beltane spake: "Now greeting and
fair greeting to thee, my lord, and to thy captives. Hath Thrasfordham
fallen so soon?"

"Thrasfordham, fool! 'tis not yet invested--these be divers of
Benedict's spies out of Bourne, to grace thy gibbets. Come, unbar--down
with the drawbridge; open I say--must I wait thy rogue's pleasure?"

"Not so, noble lord. Belsaye this night doth welcome thee with open
arms--and ye be in sooth Sir Robert of Hurstmanswyke."

"Ha, do ye doubt me, knave? Dare ye keep me without? Set wide the
gates, and instantly, or I will see thee in a noose hereafter. Open!
Open! God's death! will ye defy me? gate ho!"

So Beltane, smiling yet, descended from the battlement and bade them
set wide the gates. Down creaked drawbridge; bars fell, bolts groaned,
the massy gates swung wide--and Sir Robert and his esquires, with his
weary captives stumbling in their jangling chains, and his thirty
men-at-arms riding two by two, paced into Belsaye market square; the
drawbridge rose, creaking, while gates clashed and bar and chain
rattled ominously behind them. But Sir Robert, nothing heeding, secure
in his noble might, scowled about him 'neath lifted vizor, and summoned
the Reeve to his stirrup with imperious hand:

"How now, master Reeve," quoth he, "I am in haste to be gone: where
tarries Sir Gui? Have ye not warned him of my coming? Go, say I crave
instant speech with him on matters of state, moreover, say I bring
fifty and three for him to hang to-morrow--go!"

But now, while the Reeve yet stood, pale in the torchlight, finding
nought to say, came Beltane beside him.

"My lord," quoth he, "fifty and three is a goodly number; must they all
die to-morrow?"

"To-morrow? Aye--or whensoever Sir Gui wills."

"Ah, fair lord," says Beltane, "then, as I guess, these fifty and three
shall assuredly live on awhile, since Sir Gui of Allerdale will hang
men no more."

"Ha, dare ye mock me, knave?" cried Sir Robert, and clenching iron hand
he spurred upon Beltane, but checked as suddenly, and pointed where,
midst the shrinking populace, strode one in knightly armour, whose
embroidered surcoat bore the arms, and whose vizored helm the crest of
Sir Gui of Allerdale. Now beholding this silent figure, a groan of fear
went up, divers men sank crouching on their knees, the Reeve uttered a
hoarse gasp and covered his face, while even Beltane, staring wide-eyed,
felt his flesh a-creep. But now Sir Robert rode forward:

"Greeting, lord Seneschal!" said he, "you come betimes, messire, though
not over hastily, methinks!"

"Forsooth," quoth the figure, his voice booming in his great war-helm,
"forsooth and verily there be three things no man should leave in
haste: _videlicit_ and to wit: his prayers, his dinner and his lady.
None the less came I hither to give thee greeting, good my lord."

"My lord Seneschal, what manner of men be these of thine?"

"O fair sir, they be ordinary men, rogues, see you, and fools--save
one, a comely man this, an archer unequalled, hight Giles o' the Bow, a
man of wit, very full of strategies and wiles."

"Aye, but what of yon tall knave, now," said Sir Robert, pointing at
Beltane, "who is he?"

"Forsooth, a knave, my lord, an arrant knave with long legs."

"He will look well on a gibbet, methinks, Sir Gui."

"Indeed, my lord he might grace the gallows as well as you or I."

"The rogue telleth me that you will hang men no more."

"Ha, said he so forsooth? dared he so asperse mine honour? Ha, here is
matter for red-hot irons, the pincers and the rack, anon. But come, Sir
Robert--thou dost bear news, belike; come your ways and drink a goblet
of wine."

"Nay, my lord, I thank thee, but I must hence this night to Barham
Broom. But for my news, 'tis this: the out-law men call Beltane, hath,
by devilish arts, sacked and burned Garthlaxton Keep."

"Why, this I knew; there is a lewd song already made thereon, as thus:

  "They gave Garthlaxton to the flame,
   Be glory to Duke Beltane's name,
   And unto lusty Giles the same,
      _Dixit_!"

"Forsooth, a naughty song, a very gallows' song, in faith. Pray you,
what more?"

"There hath come unto the Duke one hight Gurth--a hang-dog rogue that
doth profess to know the lurking-place of this vile outlaw, and
to-morrow at sunset, Sir Pertolepe and I with goodly force march into
the green. So now must I hence, leaving with thee these captives from
Bourne that you shall hang above the walls for a warning to all such
outlaws and traitors. Lastly, my lord Seneschal, drink not so deep
a-nights, and so, fare thee well."

Now as he yet spake rose the shrill notes of a horn, and turning about,
Sir Robert beheld men whose mail glistened in the torchlight and whose
long pikes hemmed him in close and closer what time a fierce shout went
up: "Kill!" "Kill!"

"Ho, treason!" he roared, and grasped at his sword hilt; but down came
Roger's heavy broadsword upon Sir Robert's helm, beating him to earth
where Walkyn's mighty foot crushed him down and his axe gleamed bright.
Then, while the air rang with shouts and cries and the clatter of
trampling hoofs, a white figure leapt and bestrode the fallen knight,
and Walkyn glared down into the pale face of Friar Martin.

"Forbear, Walkyn, forbear!" he cried, and speaking, staggered for very
weakness and would have fallen but Walkyn's long arm was about him. And
ever the uproar grew; the grim ranks of archers and pikemen drew closer
about Sir Robert's shrinking men-at-arms what time the townsfolk,
brandishing their weapons, shouted amain, "Kill! Kill!"

Now Roger's blow had been full lusty and Sir Robert yet lay a-swoon,
seeing which, divers of his company, casting down their arms, cried
aloud for quarter; whereat the townsfolk shouted but the fiercer: "Slay
them! Kill! Kill!" But now, high above this clamour, rose the shrill
note of Beltane's horn bidding all men to silence. Hereupon there came
to him the white friar, who, looking earnestly upon his mailed face,
uttered a sudden glad cry and caught his hand and kissed it; then
turned he to the surging concourse and spake loud and joyously:

"Stay, good people of Belsaye! O ye children of affliction, spill not
the blood of these thine enemies, but look, rather, upon this man! For
this is he of whom I told ye in the days of your tribulation, this is
he who burned the shameful gallows, who brake open the dungeon and hath
vowed his life to the cause of the oppressed and weak. Behold now the
son of Beltane the Strong and Just! Behold Beltane, our rightful Duke!"
Now went there up to heaven a great and wild acclaim; shouts of joy and
the thunderous battle-cry "Arise! Arise! Pentavalon!" Then, while all
eyes beheld and all ears hearkened, Beltane spake him, plain and to the
point, as was his custom:

"Behold now, men of Belsaye, these our enemies do cry us mercy, and
shall we not bestow it? Moreover one living hostage is better than two
foemen slain. Entreat them gently, therefore, but let me see them
lodged secure ere I march hence."

But hereupon came many of the townsfolk with divers counsellors and
chief men of the city who, kneeling, most earnestly prayed Beltane to
abide for their defence.

"Good my lord," quoth the Reeve, "bethink thee, when Duke Ivo shall
hear of our doings he will seek bitter vengeance. Ah, my lord, 'twas
but five years agone he stormed Belsaye and gave it up to pillage--and
on that day--my wife--was slain! And when he had set up his great
gallows and hanged it full with our men, he vowed that, should Belsaye
anger him again, he would burn the city and all within it and, O my
lord, my lord--I have yet a daughter--Ah, good my lord, leave us not
to ravishment and death!"

"Aye, go not from us, my lord!" cried the others. "Be thou our leader
henceforth!" and thereto they besought him with eager cries and with
hands outstretched.

But Beltane shook his head; quoth he:

"Look now, as men are born into the world but for the good of man, so
must I to my duty. And methinks, this is my duty: to do such deeds as
shall ring throughout this sorrowful Duchy like a trumpet-blast,
bidding all men arise and take hold upon their manhood. Garthlaxton is
no more, but there be many castles yet to burn whose flames, perchance,
shall light such a fire within the souls of men as shall ne'er be
quenched until Wrong and Tyranny be done away. So must I back to the
wild-wood to wild and desperate doings. But, as for ye--I have heard
tell that the men of Belsaye are brave and resolute. Let now the memory
of wrongs endured make ye trebly valiant to maintain your new-got
liberty. If Duke Ivo come, then let your walls be manned, for 'tis
better to die free men than trust again to his mercy."

"Verily, lord," said the Reeve, "but we do lack for leaders. Our
provost and all our captains Duke Ivo hanged upon his gallows. Beseech
thee, then, give to us a leader cunning in war."

"That will I," answered Beltane, "on this condition--that every able
man shall muster under arms each day within the market-square."

"It shall be done, my lord."

Then summoned he Eric of the wry neck, together with Giles who came
forthwith, being yet bedight in Sir Gui's harness.

"Eric, I have marked thee well; methinks thou art one long bred to arms
and learned in war?"

"My lord Beltane, in other days I was the Duke thy father's High
Constable of all the coast-wise towns."

"Ha--say'st thou so in sooth? Then now do I make thee lord Constable of
Belsaye. As to thee, Giles, thou guileful rogue, hast full oft vaunted
thyself a soldier of experience, so now am I minded to prove thee and
thy methods. How if I give thee charge over the bowmen of Belsaye?"

"Why first, sweet, tall brother, first will I teach them to draw a bow,
pluck a string, and speed a shaft as never townsman drew, plucked or
sped--in fine, I will teach them to shoot: and, thereafter, devoutly
pray the good Saint Giles (that is my patron saint) to send us Black
Ivo and his dogs to shoot at!"

"So be it. Choose ye now each ten men of your companies that shall
abide here with ye what time I am away--yet first mark this: In your
hands do I leave this fair city, to your care I give the lives and
well-being of all these men and women and children. Come now, lay here
your hands upon my sword and swear me to maintain Belsaye to the last
man 'gainst siege or storm, so long as life be in you!"

Now when they had sworn, Beltane turned him to the Reeve:

"Good sir," quoth he, "I pray you loose now the captives from their
chains. Let your prisoners be secured, and for the rest, let us now eat
and drink lest we famish."

Thus in a while, Sir Robert of Hurstmanswyke, dazed and bewildered, and
his four esquires, together with his thirty men-at-arms, stripped of
armour and weapons, were led away and lodged secure beneath the keep.

Now it chanced that as Beltane stood apart with head a-droop as one in
thought, there came to him Sir Fidelis and touched him with gentle
hand.

"My lord Beltane," said he softly, "of what think you?"

"Of Pentavalon, and how soonest her sorrows may be done away."

"Lovest thou Pentavalon indeed, messire?"

"Aye, truly, Fidelis."

"Then wherefore let her suffer longer?"

"Suffer? Aye, there it is--but how may I bring her woes to sudden end?
I am too weak, her oppressors many, and my men but few--"

"Few?" quoth Sir Fidelis, speaking with head low-stooped. "Few,
messire? Not so. Ten thousand lances might follow thee to-morrow an
thou but spake the word--"

"Nay," sighed Beltane, "mock me not, good Fidelis, thou dost know me a
lonely man and friendless--to whom should I speak?"

"To one that loveth thee now as ever, to one that yearneth for thee
with heart nigh to breaking--to Helen--"

"Ah!" quoth Beltane, slow and bitter, "speak word to Helen the
Beautiful--the Wilful--the Wanton? No, a thousand times! Rather would I
perish, I and all my hopes, than seek aid of such as she--"

"Lovest thou Pentavalon indeed, messire? Nay, methinks better far thou
dost love thy cold and cruel pride--so must Pentavalon endure her
grievous wrongs, and so do I pity her, but--most of all--I pity thee,
messire!"

Now would Beltane have answered but found no word, and therefore fell
to black and bitter anger, and, turning on his heel, incontinent strode
away into the council-hall where a banquet had been spread. Frowning,
he ate and drank in haste, scarce heeding the words addressed to him,
wherefore others grew silent also; and thereafter, his hunger assuaged,
strode he out into the square and summoned his company.

"Men of Pentavalon," spake he loud and quick, "howso poor and humble ye
be, henceforth ye shall go, each and every, equipped in knightly mail
from foot to head, your man's flesh as secure as flesh of any potent
lord or noble of them all. Henceforth each man of us must fight as
valiantly as ten. Now, if any there be who know the manage of horse and
lance, let him step forth." Hereupon divers stepped out of the ranks,
and Beltane counted of these fifty and two.

"Master Reeve," spake Beltane, "give now for guerdon instead of gold,
horses and equipment for these my comrades, stout lances and mail
complete with goodly bascinets."

"It shall be done, my lord."

"Roger, in thy command I set these fifty lances. See now to their
arming, let them be mounted and ready with speed, for in this hour we
ride."

"Aye, master," cried Roger, his eyes a-dance, "that will I, moreover--"

"Walkyn, to thee I give the pikes henceforth. As for our archers--
Giles, which now think you fittest to command?"

"Why truly, brother--my lord, if one there be can twang a lusty bow and
hath a cool and soldier-like head 'tis Jenkyn o' the Ford, and after
him Walcher, and after him--"

"Jenkyn, do you henceforth look to our archers. Are these matters heard
and known among ye?"

"Aye!" came the thunderous answer.

"'Tis well, for mark me, we go out to desperate doings, wherein
obedience must be instant, wherein all must love like brothers, and,
like brothers, fight shoulder to shoulder!"

Now came there certain of the citizens to Beltane, leading a great and
noble war-horse, richly caparisoned, meet for his acceptance. And thus,
ere the moon rose, equipped with lance and shield and ponderous,
vizored casque, Beltane, gloomy and silent, with Sir Fidelis mounted
beside him, rode forth at the head of his grim array, at whose tramp
and jingle the folk of Belsaye shouted joyful acclaim while the bells
rang out right joyously.



CHAPTER XXXVIII

OF BELTANE'S BLACK AND EVIL MOOD, AND HOW HE FELL IN WITH THE WITCH OF
HANGSTONE WASTE


It was very dark upon the forest road, where trees loomed gigantic
against the pitchy gloom wherein dim-seen branches creaked and swayed,
and leaves rustled faint and fitful in the stealthy night-wind; and
through the gloom at the head of his silent company Beltane rode in
frowning thought, his humour blacker than the night.

Now in a while, Sir Fidelis, riding ever at his elbow, ventured speech
with him:

"Art very silent, messire. Have I angered thee, forsooth? Is aught
amiss betwixt us?"

Quoth Beltane, shortly:

"Art over-young, sir knight, and therefore fond and foolish. Is a man a
lover of self because he hateth dishonour? Art a presumptuous youth--
and that's amiss!"

"Art thou so ancient, messire, and therefore so wise as to judge 'twixt
thy hates and loves and the abiding sorrows of Pentavalon?" questioned
Fidelis, low-voiced and gentle.

"Old enough am I to know that in all this world is no baser thing than
the treachery of a faithless woman, and that he who seeketh aid of
such, e'en though his cause be just, dishonoureth himself and eke his
cause. So God keep me from all women henceforth--and as for thee, speak
me no more the name of this light wanton."

"My lord," quoth Sir Fidelis, leaning near, "my lord--whom mean you?"

"Whom should I mean but Mortain Helen--Helen the Beautiful--"

Now cried Sir Fidelis as one that feels a blow, and, in the dark, he
seized Beltane in sudden griping fingers, and shook him fiercely.

"And dare ye name her 'wanton!'" he cried. "Ye shall not--I say ye
shall not!" But, laughing, Beltane smote away the young knight's hold
and laughed again.

"Is this light lady's fame so dear to thee, poor, youthful fool?" said
he. "Aye me! doubt not her falsity shall break thy heart some day and
teach thee wisdom--"

A shout among the woods upon their right, a twinkling light that came
and went amid the underbrush, and Walkyn appeared, bearing a lighted
brand.

"Lord," he growled, "here has been devil's work of late, for yonder a
cottage lieth a heap of glowing ashes, and upon a tree hard by a dead
man doth swing."

"Learned ye aught else, Walkyn?"

"Nothing, save that a large company passed here yesterday as I judge.
Horse and foot--going south, see you," and he held his torch to the
trampled road.

"Going south--aye, Walkyn, to Barham Broom, methinks. Here is another
debt shall yet be paid in full, mayhap," quoth Beltane grimly.
"Forward!"

The jingling column moved on again, yet had gone but a little way when
Sir Fidelis, uttering a cry, swerved his horse suddenly and sprang to
earth.

"What now?" questioned Beltane, staring into the murk.

"My lord--my lord, a woman lieth here, and--ah, messire--she is dead!"

"O, a woman?" quoth Beltane, "and dead, say you? Why then, the world
shall know less of evil and treachery, methinks. Come--mount, sir
knight, mount, I say, and let us on!"

But Sir Fidelis, on his knees beside that silent, dim-seen form, heeded
him not at all, and with reverent, folded hands, and soft and tender
voice, spake a prayer for the departed soul. Now hereupon Beltane knew
sudden shame and swift remorse, and bowed his head also, and would have
prayed--yet could not; wherefore his black mood deepened and his anger
grew more bitter.

"Mount, mount, sir knight!" cried he harshly. "Better to seek
vengeance dire than mumble on thy knees--mount, I say!"

Forthwith Sir Fidelis arose, nothing speaking, and being in the saddle,
reined back and suffered Beltane to ride alone. But in a while, Beltane
perceiving himself thus shunned, found therein a new grievance and
fiercely summoned Sir Fidelis beside him.

"Wherefore slink ye behind me?" he demanded.

Then spake Sir Fidelis in voice full low and troubled:

"My lord Beltane, 'twas said thou wert a noble knight--very strong and
very gentle--"

"Ha! dost think such report a lie, mayhap?"

"Alas!" sighed the young knight; and again "alas!" and therewith a
great sob brake from him.

Of a sudden, from the gloom beside the way rose a woman's scream, and
thereafter a great and fierce roar; and presently came Walkyn with his
torch and divers of his men, dragging a woman in their midst, and lo!
it was the witch of Hangstone Waste.

Now she, beholding Beltane's face beneath his lifted vizor, cried out
for very joy:

"Now heaven bless thee, Duke Beltane! Ah, my lord--hear me!"

"What would ye? What seek ye of such as I?"

But hereupon Black Roger spurred beside Beltane, his eyes wide and
fearful in the shadow of his helm, his strong, mailed hand a-tremble on
Beltane's arm.

"Beware, my lord, beware!" he cried, "'tis nigh the midnight hour and
she a noted witch--heed her not lest she blight thy fair body, lest
she--"

"Peace, Roger! Now speak, woman--what would ye?"

"A life, my lord!"

"Ah, the blessed saints forfend--I feared so!" gasped Roger.

But now the witch turned and looked on Roger, and he incontinent
crossed himself and fell thenceforth to mumbling prayers beneath his
breath.

"Lord Duke, for that I am but a woman poor and helpless, now would I
beseech thine aid for--"

"Nay, tell me first, whence come ye?"

"From Barham Broom, messire. Ah! spare aid for one that lieth in peril
of death--the maid Mellent--they do proclaim her witch--they will burn
her--"

"O--a woman!" quoth Beltane, wrinkling his brows; and beholding Sir
Fidelis watching him, straightway frowned the blacker.

"Nay, messire, hear me!" cried the witch, "ah, turn not away! This
maid, indeed, is not of common blood--a lady is she of birth and wide
demesnes--"

"Why then," said Beltane, heedful ever of the young knight's burning
glance, "why then is she more apt for treachery and evil."

"Not so, my lord; weak is she and beset by cruel enemies. I found her,
a stranger, wandering lonely in the green, and she, being sick of heart
and brain, spake wild words of a great wrong, vainly done and suffered,
and of an abiding remorse. And when I had nursed her into health she
told me a wondrous tale. So, lord Beltane, do I know that in her hands
thy happiness doth lie."

"Not so!" sighed Beltane. "Happiness and I are strangers henceforth--"

But here once again came a hoarse and angry roar with the sound of
desperate struggling amid the leaves hard by, whence came Jenkyn and
Orson with divers others, dragging a strange, hairy, dwarf-like
creature, great and shaggy of head and with the arms and shoulders of a
giant; smirched was he in blood from a great wound above the brow and
his rich habit was mired and torn. Now looking upon this monstrous
creature that writhed and struggled mightily with his captors, groaning
and roaring betimes, Beltane felt his flesh a-creep with swift and
pregnant memory, and straightway beset the witch with fierce question:

"Woman, what thing is this?"

"My lord, 'tis naught but poor Ulf, a natural, messire, very strong and
faithful, that hath fought mightily and is nigh slain in our defence--
see how he bleeds! Let them not harm him, my lord!"

"Yet have I seen him ere this, methinks."

"But for the maid Mellent--thou wilt not let her burn--and for thy
deeds?"

"Mine, forsooth! How mean you?"

"'Twas yester-eve we were beset hereabouts by a lewd company, and
brought unto their lord, Sir Grilles of Brandonmere--a man beyond all
other men base and vile--who, beholding her so young and fair would
have forced her to his will."

"Ha!--methinks Sir Gilles doth live too long!"

"So to save her from his violence, I discovered to him her name and
high estate, whereupon at first he would fain have her wed with him.
But, angered by her scorn, he bore her with him to Duke Ivo at Barham
Broom, and me also. And there I heard her denounced as witch, by whose
spells thou, lord Beltane, wert freed of thy duress and Garthlaxton
utterly destroyed. Thus, to-morrow she must burn, unless one can be
found to champion her cause and prove her innocent by trial of combat.
So, when they had let me go I came seeking thee, my lord, since 'tis
said thou art a very strong man and swift to aid the defenceless." Now
glancing aside upon Sir Fidelis, Beltane beheld him leaning forward
with his lips apart and slender hands tight-clasped; whereupon he
frowned and shook his head.

"A woman!" quoth he, "nay, I had rather fight in a dog's cause."

"Forsooth!" cried Roger, "for rogue is he and fool that would champion
a vile witch."

"Why, then, let us on, lord," growled Walkyn. "Why tarry we here?"

But now, as the witch sank upon the road with pleading hands uplifted,
Sir Fidelis rode beside her and, stooping, caught her outstretched
hands; quoth he:

"Of what avail to plead with such as these? So will I adventure me on
behalf of this poor maid."

"Enough!" cried Beltane. "Walkyn, march ye one and all for Hundleby
Fen--wait me there and let your watch be strict. But, an I come not
within two days from now, then hie you each and every to reinforce Eric
and Giles in Belsaye. As for Roger, he rideth with me to Barham Broom."

"Ha, lord!--wilt fight, then, in the witch's cause?" cried Walkyn.

"Aye, forsooth, though--forsooth I had rather fight in a dog's cause,
for a dog, see you, is a faithful beast."

"To Barham Broom?" quoth Roger, staring. "Thou and I, master, to Black
Ivo--alone?" And speaking, he loosened sword in scabbard.

"My lord Beltane," cried Sir Fidelis, beholding him with shining eyes,
"an thou wilt do this noble thing, suffer me beside thee!"

"Not so, messire," answered Beltane, shaking his head, "art over young
and tender, methinks--go, get thee back to her that sent thee--keep
thou thy fond and foolish dream, and may thy gentle heart go unbroken.
Come, Roger!"

So saying, Beltane wheeled about and rode away with Roger at his heels.



CHAPTER XXXIX

HOW BELTANE FOUGHT FOR ONE MELLENT THAT WAS A WITCH.


Barham Broom was gay with the stir of flags and streamers, where, above
broidered pavilion and silken tent, pennons and banderoles, penoncels
and gonfalons fluttered and flew, beyond which long lines of smaller
tents stretched away north and south, east and west, and made up the
camp of my lord Duke Ivo.

Beyond the confines of this great and goodly camp the lists had been
formed, and here from earliest dawn a great concourse had been
gathering; villein and vassal, serf and freedman from town and village:
noble lords and ladies fair from castle hall and perfumed bower, all
were here, for to-day a witch was to die--to-day, from her tortured
flesh the flame was to drive forth and exorcize, once and for all, the
demon who possessed her, by whose vile aid she wrought her charms and
spells. So country wenches pushed and strove amid the throng, and
dainty ladies leaned from canopied galleries to shudder with dread or
trill soft laughter; but each and every stared at one who stood alone,
'twixt armed guards, so young and fair and pale within her bonds, oft
turning piteous face to heaven or looking with quailing eye where stake
and chain and faggot menaced her with awful doom. And ever the kindly
sun rose high and higher, and ever the staring concourse grew.

Now, of a sudden the clarions rang out a point of war, and all voices
were hushed, as, forth into the lists, upon his richly-caparisoned
charger, my lord Duke Ivo rode, followed by his chiefest lords and
barons; and as he rode, he smiled to himself full oft as one that
meditates a hidden jest. Being come where the witch stood, her
disordered garments rent by vicious handling, striving to veil her
beauty in her long, dark hair, my lord Duke reined in his pawing steed
to sit a while and look down at her 'neath sleepy lids; and, ever as he
looked, his arching nostrils fluttered above curling lip, and ever he
fingered his long, blue-shaven chin.

"Alack!" cried he at last, "'tis a comely wench, and full young,
methinks, to die so soon! But witchcraft is a deadly sin, abhorred by
man and hateful unto God--"

"My lord--my lord," spake the witch swift and passionate yet trembling
'neath his sleepy gaze, "thou knowest I am no witch indeed--thou
knowest--"

"Nay, nay," quoth the Duke, shaking his head, and coming more near he
stooped and spake her, low-voiced, "nay, she thou would'st name was a
lady proud, soft and white, with hair bright and glorious as the sun--
in sooth a fair lady--yet something too ambitious. But thou, though of
her size and shape, art of a dark and swarthy hue and thy hair black,
meseemeth. Of a verity thou art only the witch Mellent, and so, by
reason of thy sun-browned skin and raven hair--aye, and for thy
witchcraft--thou, alack! must die--unless thou find thee a champion.
Verily I fear me no man will dare take up thy cause, for Sir Gilles is
a lusty man and famous at the joust. Moreover--my will is known in the
matter, so do I fear there none shall come to fight on thy behalf.
Alack! that one should die so young!"

"Ah, my lord--my lord Ivo," she whispered, eager and breathless, "show
me a little mercy. For that, to be thy Duchess, I denied thee thy
desire in the past, let me now be prisoned all my days, an it be thy
will--but give me not to the fire--ah, God--not the fire! Pity--pity
me for what I did for thee--be merciful--"

"Did, wench--did?" quoth the Duke, gently. "Now when spake I with witch
ere this? 'Tis true there was a lady--something of thy seeming--who, to
gain much, promised much, and--achieved me nothing. So now do I know
thee far one Mellent, a notable witch, that shall this day instead of
ducal crown, wear crown of flame. Alack!--and so, farewell!"

Thus speaking, my lord Duke rode on up the lists, where stood certain
noble lords to hold his stirrup and aid him to earth; so mounted he to
his place 'neath broidered canopy, and many a fair cheek blanched, and
many a stout knight faltered in his speech, beholding that slow-creeping,
stealthy smile and the twitch of those thin nostrils.

Now once again the trumpet blew, and a herald stepped forth:

"God save ye, lord Duke," he cried, "ye noble lords and ladies fair--
good people all, God save ye. Know that before you here assembled, hath
been brought one Mellent--that hath been denounced a notable witch and
sorceress, who, by her fiendish arts and by the aid of demons foul and
damned, doth seek the hurt of our lord the Duke, whom God and the
saints defend. Forasmuch as this witch, yclept Mellent, did, by her
unhallowed spells and magic, compass and bring about the escape from
close duress of one Beltane, a notable outlaw, malefactor and enemy to
our lord the Duke; and whereas she did also by aid of charms,
incantations and the like devilish practices, contrive the sack,
burning and total destruction of my lord Duke's good and fair castle of
Garthlaxton upon the March. Now therefore it is adjudged that she be
taken and her body burned to ashes here before you. All of which
charges have been set forth and sworn to by this right noble lord and
gallant knight Sir Gilles of Brandonmere--behold him here in person."

Hereupon, while the trumpets brayed a flourish and fanfare, forth rode
Sir Gilles upon a mighty charger, a grim and warlike figure in his
shining mail and blazoned surcoat, his ponderous, crested war-helm
closed, his long shield covering him from shoulder to stirrup, and his
lance-point twinkling on high.

Then spake again the herald loud and clear: "Good people all, behold
Sir Gilles of Brandonmere, who cometh here before you prepared to
maintain the truth and justice of the charges he hath made--unto the
death, 'gainst any man soever, on horse or on foot, with lance,
battle-axe or sword. Now if there be any here do know this witch Mellent
for innocent, if there be any here dare adventure his body for her
innocence and run the peril of mortal combat with Sir Gilles, let him
now stand forth."

And immediately the trumpets sounded a challenge. Thereafter the herald
paced slowly round the lists, and behind him rode Sir Gilles, his
blazon of the three stooping falcons plain for all men to see, on
gleaming shield and surcoat.

North and south, and east and west the challenge was repeated, and
after each the trumpet sounded a warlike flourish, yet no horseman
paced forth and no man leapt the barriers; and the witch Mellent
drooped pale and trembling betwixt her warders. But, of a sudden she
opened swooning eyes and lifted her heavy head; for, from the distant
woods, faint as yet and far, a horn brayed hoarsely--three notes,
thrice repeated, defiant and warlike. And now, among the swaying
crowds rose a hum that grew and grew, while ever and anon the horn rang
out, fiercely winded--and ever it sounded nearer: until, of a sudden,
out from the trees afar, two horsemen galloped, their harness bright
in the sunshine, helm and lance-point twinkling, who, spurring knee
and knee, thundered over the ling; while every tongue grew hushed, and
every eye turned to mark their swift career.

Tall were these men and lusty, bedight from head to foot in glistening
mail, alike at all points save that one bare neither shield nor lance,
and 'neath his open bascinet showed a face brown and comely, whereas
his companion rode, his long shield flashing in the sun, his head and
face hid by reason of his ponderous, close-shut casque. Swift they
rode, the throng parting before them; knee and knee together they leapt
the palisade, and reining in their horses, paced down the lists and
halted before the pale and trembling captive. Then spake the knight,
harsh-voiced behind his vizor:

"Sound, Roger!"

Forthwith the black-haired, ruddy man set a hunting horn to his lips,
and blew thereon a flourish so loud and shrill as made the very welkin
ring.

Now came pursuivants and the chief herald, which last made inquisition
thus:

"Sir Knight, crest hast thou none, nor on thy shield device, so do I
demand name and rank of thee, who thus in knightly guise doth give this
bold defiance, and wherefore ye ride armed at points. Pronounce,
messire!"

Then spake the tall knight loud and fierce, his voice deep-booming
within the hollow of his closed casque.

"Name and rank have I laid by for the nonce, until I shall have
achieved a certain vow, but of noble blood am I and kin unto the
greatest--this do I swear by Holy Rood. To-day am I hither come in arms
to do battle on behalf of yon innocent maid, and to maintain her
innocence so long as strength abide. And furthermore, here before ye
all and every, I do proclaim Sir Gilles of Brandonmere a shame and
reproach unto his order. To all the world I do proclaim him rogue and
thief and wilful liar, the which (God willing) I will here prove upon
his vile body. So now let there be an end of words. Sound, Roger!"

Hereupon he of the ruddy cheek clapped horn to lip and blew amain until
his cheek grew redder yet, what time the heralds and pursuivants and
marshals of the field debated together if it were lawful for a nameless
knight to couch lance 'gainst one of noble blood. But now came Sir
Gilles himself, choking with rage, and fuming in his harness.

"Ha, thou nameless dog!" cried he, brandishing his heavy lance, "be
thou serf or noble, art an errant liar--so will I slay thee out of
hand!" Thus saying, he reined round the great roan stallion he
bestrode, and galloped to one end of the lists. Now spake Black Roger
low-voiced, and his hand shook upon his bridle:

"Master, now do I fear for thee. Sir Gilles is a mighty jouster and
skilled withal, moreover he rideth his famous horse Mars--a noble beast
and fresh, while thine is something wearied. And then, master, direst
of all, she thou would'st champion is a witch--"

"That worketh no evil by day, Roger. So do I charge thee, whatsoe'er
betide, look to the maid, take her across thy saddle and strive to
bring her to safety. As for me, I will now with might and main seek to
make an end of Sir Gilles of Brandonmere."

So saying, Beltane rode to the opposite extremity of the lists.

And now, while the trumpets blared, the two knights took their ground,
Sir Gilles resplendent in lofty crest and emblazoned surcoat, the three
stooping falcons conspicuous on his shield, his mighty roan charger
pawing the ling with impatient hoof; his opponent, a gleaming figure
astride a tall black horse, his round-topped casque unadorned by plume
or crest. So awhile they remained, very still and silent, what time a
single trumpet spake, whereat--behold! the two long lances sank feutred
to the charge, the broad shields flashed, glittered and were still
again; and from that great concourse a sound went up--a hum, that
swelled, and so was gone.

The maid Mellent had sunk upon her knees and was praying desperate
prayers with face upturned to heaven; but none was there to mark her
now amid that silent gathering--all eyes were strained to watch those
grim and silent horsemen that fronted each other, the length of the
lists between; even Duke Ivo, leaning on lazy elbow, looked with
glowing eye and slow-flushing cheek, ere he let fall his truncheon.

And, on the instant, shrill and fierce the trumpets brayed, and on the
instant each knight struck spurs, the powerful horses reared, plunged,
and sprang away at speed. Fast and faster they galloped, their riders
low-stooped above the high-peaked saddles, shields addressed and lances
steady, with pounding hooves that sent the turves a-flying, with
gleaming helms and deadly lance-points a-twinkle; fast and ever faster
they thundered down upon each other, till, with a sudden direful crash,
they met in full career with a splintering of well-aimed lances, a
lashing of wild hooves, a rearing of powerful horses, staggering and
reeling beneath the shock. And now a thunderous cry went up, for the
tall black horse, plunging and snorting, went down rolling upon the
sward. But his rider had leapt clear and, stumbling to his feet, stood
swaying unsteadily, faint and dazed with the blow of Sir Gilles' lance
that had borne down the great black horse and torn the heavy casque
from his head. So stood Beltane, unhelmed, staring dazedly from heaving
earth to reeling heaven; yet, of a sudden, shook aloft the fragment of
his splintered lance and laughed fierce and loud, to behold, 'twixt
reeling earth and sky, a great roan stallion that foamed upon his bit
'neath sharp-drawn rein, as, swaying sideways from the lofty saddle,
Sir Gilles of Brandonmere crashed to earth, transfixed through shield
and hauberk, through breast and back, upon the shaft of a broken lance.
High over him leapt Beltane, to catch the roan's loose bridle, to swing
himself up, and so, with stirrups flying and amid a sudden clamour of
roaring voices, to thunder down the lists where Roger's heavy sword
flashed, as smiting right and left, he stooped and swung the maid
Mellent before him.

"Ride, Roger--ride! Spur--spur!" shouted Beltane above the gathering
din, and shouting, drew his sword, for now before them, steel glittered
and cries rang upon the air:

"'Tis Beltane the outlaw! Seize him--slay him! 'Tis the outlaw!"

But knee and knee, with loose rein and goading spur rode they, and
nought could avail and none were quick enough to stay that headlong
gallop; side by side they thundered over the ling, and knee and knee
they leapt the barrier, bursting through bewildered soldiery,
scattering frighted country-folk, and so away, over gorse and heather
and with arrows, drawn at a venture, whistling by them. Betimes they
reached the shelter of the woods, and turning, Beltane beheld a
confusion of armed men, a-horse and a-foot, what time borne upon the
air came a sound hoarse and menacing, a sound dreadful to hear--the
sound of the hue and cry.



CHAPTER XL

FURTHER CONCERNING THE MAID MELLENT; AND OF THE HUE AND CRY


Fast they galloped 'neath the trees, stooping ever and anon to avoid
some low-swung branch; through grassy rides and sunny glades, until all
sound of pursuit was died away. So, turning aside into the denser
green, Beltane stayed, and sprang down to tighten the great roan's
saddle-girths, strained in the encounter. Now as he was busied thus,
came the maid Mellent, very pale 'neath her long black hair, and spake
him low-voiced and humble:

"My lord Beltane, thou, at peril of thy body, hath saved to-day a
sorrowful maid from the fiery torment. So to prove my gratitude and
sorrow for past ill--now will I tell thee that in saving me, thou hast
saved one that for ambition's sake, once did thee grievous wrong."

"Thou!" saith Beltane, staring in amaze, "ne'er hast thou seen me until
this day!"

"Verily, messire--O messire, thou hast indeed seen me ere this and--to
my bitter sorrow--for I who speak am the lady Winfrida--"

"Nay--nay--" stammered Beltane, "here is thing impossible--thy
night-black hair--"

"'Tis but a wile that many women do know, messire, a device of the
witch Jolette (that is no witch, but a noble woman) a device whereby I
might lie hid awhile. O indeed, indeed I who speak to thee am the
wicked Winfrida--Winfrida the Sorrowful!" Now herewith she sank before
him on her knees and bowed her face within her hands, and Beltane saw
that she trembled greatly. "My lord," she whispered, "now must I
confess a thing beyond all words shameful, and though I fear death, I
fear thy anger more. If, therefore, when I have spoke thee all, thou
wilt slay me, then--O my lord--I pray thee--let death come swift--"

"Master!" cried Roger of a sudden, "I hear horses--they be after us
already! Mount--mount and let us ride--Hark! they come this way!"

"Aye!" nodded Beltane, drawing his sword, "yet here is but one
methinks--list, Roger--leave him to me!" So waited they all three, what
time the slow-pacing hoofs drew near and nearer, until, peering through
the leaves, they beheld a knight, who rode low-stooping in his saddle,
to mark their tracks plain upon the tender grass. Forth stepped
Beltane, fierce and threatening, his long sword agleam, and so paused
to scowl, for the knight raised his head of a sudden and lo! 'twas Sir
Fidelis.

"Now what seek ye here, sir knight?" saith Beltane, nothing gentle.

"Thee, my lord," quoth Fidelis, meek of aspect, "to share thy perils
according to thy word. Put up thy sword, messire, thou wilt not harm
thy companion in arms?"

Now Beltane, finding nought to say, scowled sulkily to earth, and thus
saw nothing of the eyes so deep and tender that watched him 'neath the
shadow of the young knight's bascinet, nor the smile so sad and wistful
that curled his ruddy lips, nor all the lithe and slender grace of him
as he swayed to the impatient movements of the powerful animal he
bestrode; but it chanced that Winfrida's eyes saw all this, and being a
woman's eyes, beheld that which gave her breathing sudden pause--turned
her red--turned her pale, until, with a gasp of fear she started, and
uttering a cry, low and inarticulate, sped fleet-footed across the
glade and was gone.

Quoth Beltane, staring:

"Now what aileth the maid, think ye? But 'tis no matter--we are well
quit of her, meseemeth." So saying, he turned to behold Roger flat upon
his belly and with his ear to the ground.

"Master," cried he, "master, there be horsemen i' the forest
hereabouts--a great company!"

"Why then, do you mount, Roger, and hie thee with Sir Fidelis hot-foot
to Walkyn at Hundleby Fen. Bid him set our bowmen in every place of
vantage, and let every man stand to arms. So mayhap, Roger, will we
this day make hunted men of them that hunt!" So saying, Beltane swung
to saddle.

"Aye--aye--but what o' thee, master?"

"Mark ye this horse, Roger. Thou hast said 'twas of good speed and
endurance, and methinks 'tis sooth. Howbeit, now shall he prove thy
word, for here I wait the hunters, and to-day will I, keeping ever out
of bow-shot, lead them through every quag, every bog and marsh 'twixt
here and Hundleby Fen, and of those that follow still, thou and Walkyn
and our merry men shall make an end, I pray God. So let all lie well
hid, and watch for my coming. And now--farewell to thee, Roger."

"But, master," quoth Roger, waxing rueful, "in this thou must run dire
perils and dangers, and I not with thee. So pray thee let Sir Fidelis--
hard!--Ha!--now God aid us--hark to that! Master, they've loosed the
dogs on us!"

Even as he spake, very faint and far as yet but plain to hear above the
leafy stirring, the deep baying of a hound came down the wind.

"Hunting-dogs, master! Ride--ride!" quoth Roger, wiping sweat from him,
"O sweet Christ forgive me, for I have hunted down poor rogues with
such ere now--"

"Forsooth, Roger, and now is their turn to hunt thee, mayhap. Howbeit,
ride you at speed, and you, sir knight also, get you gone, and
whatsoever betide, Roger, wait you at Hundleby Fen for me. Go--obey
me!" So, looking upon Beltane with eyes of yearning, Black Roger
perforce wheeled and rode out into the glade, and striking spurs to his
eager steed, galloped swiftly away. Now turned Beltane upon Sir
Fidelis:

"How, messire--are ye not gone?"

Then answered Sir Fidelis, his drooping head averted:

"Thou seest, my lord--I go beside thee according to thy word--"

"Presumptuous youth, I want thee not!"

"The day will yet come, perchance, my lord--and I can be patient--"

"Ha--dost defy me?"

"Not so, my lord--nor do I fear thee. For I do know thee better than
thyself, so do I pity thee--pity thee--thou that art so mighty and yet
so weak. Thou art a babe weeping in a place of shadows, so will I go
beside thee in the dark to soothe and comfort thee. Thou art a noble
man, thy better self lost awhile 'neath sickly fancies--God send they
soon may pass. Till then I can be very patient, my lord Beltane."

Now did Beltane stare with eyes of wonder upon Sir Fidelis who managed
his fretting charger with a gracious ease, yet held his face ever
averted. While, upon the stilly air, loud and more loud rose the fierce
baying of the hounds.

Said Beltane at last:

"Messire, thou dost hear the hounds?"

"In faith, my lord, I tremble to be gone, but an thou dost tarry, so
must I."

"Death shall follow hard after us this day, Sir Fidelis."

"Why then, an death o'ertake us--I must die, messire."

"Ha,--the hounds have winded us already, methinks! Hark!--Hark to
them!" And in truth the air was full of their raving clamour, with,
ever and anon, the shouts and cries of those that urged them on.

"Hast a noble horse, Sir Fidelis. Now God send he bear thee well this
day, for 'twill be hard and cruel going. Come--'tis time, methinks!"

Thus speaking, Beltane gave his horse the rein and forth they rode
together out into the broad and open glade, their armour glinting in
the sun; and immediately the dogs gave tongue, louder, fiercer than
before. Now looking back. Beltane beheld afar many mounted men who
shouted amain, flourishing lance and sword, while divers others let
slip the great dogs they held in leash; then, looking up the glade
ahead, and noting its smooth level and goodly length, Beltane smiled
grimly and drew sword. "Sir Fidelis," said he, "hast a mace at thy
saddle-bow: betake thee to it, 'tis a goodly weapon, and--smite hard.
'Twill be the dogs first. Now--spur!"

Forward bounded the two high-mettled steeds, gathering pace with every
stride, but the great hounds came on amain, while beyond, distant as
yet, the hunters rode--knight and squire, mounted bowman and man-at-arms
they spurred and shouted, filling the air with fierce halloo.
Slowly the hounds drew nearer--ten great beasts Beltane counted--that
galloped two and two, whining and whimpering as they came.

Now of a sudden Beltane checked in his career, swerved, swung the
plunging roan, and with long blade agleam, rode in upon the racing pack
to meet their rush with deadly point and deep-biting edge; a slavering
hound launched itself at his throat, its fangs clashing on the stout
links of his camail, but as the great beast hung thus, striving to drag
him from the saddle, down came the mace of Sir Fidelis and the snarling
beast fell to be crushed 'neath the trampling hoofs of the war-horse
Mars. And now did the mighty roan prove himself a very Mars indeed,
for, beset round about by fierce, lean shapes that crouched and leapt
with cruel, gleaming fangs, he stamped and reared and fought them off,
neighing loud defiance. Thus, with lashing hoof, with whirling mace and
darting sword fought they, until of the hounds there none remained save
three that limped painfully to cover, licking their hurts as they went.

But other foes were near, for as Beltane reined his snorting steed
about, he swayed in his stirrups 'neath the shock of a cross-bow bolt
that glanced, whirring, from his bascinet, and in that moment Sir
Fidelis cried aloud:

"My lord, my lord! alas, my poor horse is death-smitten!" Glancing
round. Beltane beheld Sir Fidelis slip to earth as his charger, rearing
high, crashed over, his throat transfixed by a cloth-yard shaft. Now
did their many pursuers shout amain, fierce and joyful, goading their
horses to swifter pace what time Beltane frowned from them to Sir
Fidelis, who stood, mailed hands tight-clasped, watching Beltane eager
and great-eyed.

"Ah!" cried Beltane, smiting hand to thigh in bitter anger, "now is my
hope of ambush and surprise like to be marred by reason of thee, sir
knight, for one horse may never carry us twain!"

"Why then, I can die here, my lord, an it be so thy will!" spake Sir
Fidelis, his pale lips a tremble, "yet is thy horse strong and--O in
sooth I did yearn--for life. But, an thou wilt give me death--"

"Come!" cried Beltane hoarsely. "Come, wherefore tarry ye?"

Now leapt Sir Fidelis to the saddle of his fallen steed and snatched
thence a wallet, whereat Beltane fell a-fuming, for bolts and arrows
began to whirr and hum thick and fast. "Come--mount, sir knight--mount
ye up behind me. Thy hand--quick! thy foot on my foot--so! Now set thy
two arms fast about me and see thou loose me not, for now must we ride
for the wild--brush and thicket, stock and stone, nought must let or
stay us--so loose me not, sir knight!"

"Ah--not while life remain, messire Beltane!" said the young knight
quick-breathing, and speaking, took Beltane within two mailed arms that
clasped and clung full close. Then, wheeling sharp about, Beltane
stooping low, struck sudden spurs and they plunged, crashing, into the
denser green.



CHAPTER XLI

HOW THEY RODE INTO THE WILDERNESS


Fast galloped the good horse, bursting through underbrush and thicket
with the roar of the pursuit following ever distant and more distant;
and ever Beltane spurred deeper into those trackless wilds where few
dare adventure them by reason of evil spirits that do haunt these
solitudes (as they do say) and, moreover, of ravening beasts.

Strongly and well the good horse bore them, what time the sun waxed
fierce and hot, filling the woods with a stifling heat, a close,
windless air dank and heavy with the scent of leaves and bracken. The
hue and cry had sunk long since, lost in distance, and nought broke the
brooding silence but the stir of their going, as, checking their
headlong pace, Beltane brought the powerful animal to slow and leisured
gait. And presently, a gentle wind arose, that came and went, to fan
brow and cheek and temper the sun's heat.

And now, as they rode through sunlight and shadow, Beltane felt his
black mood slowly lifted from him and knew a sense of rest, a content
unfelt this many a day; he looked, glad-eyed, upon the beauty of the
world about him, from green earth to an azure heaven peeping through a
fretted screen of branches; he marked the graceful, slender bracken
stirring to the soft-breathing air, the mighty boles of stately trees
that reached out sinuous boughs one to another, to touch and twine
together amid a mystery of murmuring leaves. All this he saw, yet
heeded not at all the round-mailed arms that clasped him in their soft
embrace, nor the slender hands that held upon his girdle.

So rode they through bosky dell and dingle, until the sun, having
climbed the meridian, sank slowly westwards; and Sir Fidelis spake
soft-voiced:

"Think you we are safe at last, my lord?"

"Fidelis," saith Beltane, "Yest're'en did'st thou name me selfish,
to-day, a babe, and, moreover, by thy disobedience hast made my schemes
of no avail--thus am I wroth with thee."

"Yet doth the sun shine, my lord," said Sir Fidelis, small of voice.

"Ha--think you my anger so light a thing, forsooth?"

"Messire, I think of it not at all."

"By thy evil conduct are we fugitives in the wilderness!"

"Yet is it a wondrous fair place, messire, and we unharmed--which is
well, and we are--together, which is--also well."

"And with but one beast to bear us twain!"

"Yet he beareth us strong and nobly, messire!"

"Fidelis, I would I ne'er had seen thee."

"Thou dost not see me--now, lord--content you, therefore," saith
Fidelis softly, whereat Beltane must needs twist in the saddle, yet saw
no more than a mailed arm and shoulder.

"Howbeit," quoth Beltane, "I would these arms o' thine clasped the
middle of any other man than I."

"Forsooth, my lord? And do they crush thee so? Or is it thou dost pine
for solitude?"

"Neither, youth: 'tis for thy youth's sake, for, though thou hast
angered me full oft, art but a very youth--"

"Gramercy for my so much youthfulness, my lord. Methinks I shall be
full long a-growing old--"

"Heed me, sir knight, 'tis a fell place this, where direful beasts do
raven--"

"Nathless, messire, my youthfulness is but where it would be--"

"Aye, forsooth, and there it is! Where thou would'st be--thou,
forsooth! Art indeed a wilful youth and very headstrong. And wherefore
here?"

"To cheer thee in thy loneliness, my lord."

"How so?"

"Thou shalt reproach me for my youth and quarrel with me when thou
wilt!"

"Am I of so ill humour, indeed?"

"Look within thyself, my lord."

Now here they rode a while in silence; but presently Beltane turned him
again in the saddle and saw again only arm and shoulder. Quoth he:

"Fidelis, art a strange youth and a valiant--and yet, thy voice--thy
voice hath betimes a--a something I love not--a note of softness that
mindeth me of bitter days."

"Then heed it not, my lord; 'tis but that I grow a-weary, belike."

Here silence again, what time Beltane fell to frowning and Sir Fidelis,
head a-slant, to watching him furtive-eyed, yet with lips that curved
to wistful smile.

"Came you in sooth from--the Duchess Helen, Fidelis?"

"In truth, my lord."

"Dost love her--also?"

"Aye, my lord--also!"

"Then alas for thee, poor youthful fool, 'twere better I had left thee
to thy death, methinks, for she--this wilful Helen--"

"My lord," cried Sir Fidelis, "nought will I hear to her defame!"

"Fidelis, art a gentle knight--but very young, art fond and foolish,
so, loving this light lady, art doubly fool!"

"Wherein," saith Fidelis, "wherein, my lord, thou art likewise fool,
meseemeth."

"Verily," nodded Beltane, "O verily fool am I, yet wise in this--that I
do know my folly. So I, a fool, would counsel thee in thy folly thus--
give not thy heart to Helen's faithless keeping--stoop not to her
wanton lure--ha! what now?" For, lithe and swift, Sir Fidelis had
sprung to earth and had seized the great roan's bridle, and checking
him in his stride, faced Beltane with cheeks suffused and flaming eyes.

"Shame, messire--O shame!" he cried. "How vile is he that would, with
lying tongue, smirch the spotless honour of any maid. And, as to Helen,
I do name thee liar!--liar!"

"Would'st quarrel with me in matter so unworthy?"

"Enough!" quoth Fidelis, "unworthy art thou to take her name within thy
lips--enough!" So saying Sir Fidelis stepped back a pace and drew his
sword.

Now Beltane, yet astride the mighty roan that snuffed the fragrant air
and stooped to crop the tender herbage, looked upon the youthful
paladin 'neath wrinkled brow, and pulled his lip as one in doubt. Anon
he sighed and therewith smiled and shook his head.

Quoth he:

"O Fidelis, now do I see that I must needs love thee some day. Fidelis,
art a fool, but a right sweet fool, so do I humbly sue thy foolish
pardon, and, as to Helen, may she prove worthy thy sweet faith and I
thy love and friendship. So, fair knight, put up thy sword--come, mount
and let us on. Sir Mars, methinks, doth snuff water afar, and I do
yearn me for the cool of it."

So in a while they rode on again, yet presently Sir Fidelis, meek-voiced,
preferred a sudden question, thus:

"Lord, fain would I know why thou dost contemn her so--"

"Nay," sighed Beltane, "here is a tale un-meet thy tender years. Speak
we of other things--as thus, wherefore didst keep our lives in jeopardy
to bring away the wallet that cumbereth thy hip?"

"For that within doth lie, first--our supper--"

"O foolish youth, these woods do teem with food!"

"A neat's tongue, delicately seasoned--"

"O!" said Beltane.

"'Twixt manchets of fair white bread--"

"Ah!" said Beltane.

"With a small skin of rare wine--"

"Enough!" quoth Beltane. "These be things forsooth worth a little
risk. Now do I thirst and famish, yet knew it not."

"An thou wilt eat, my lord?"

"Nay, first will we find some freshet where we may bathe awhile. Ha, to
plunge naked within some sweet pool--'tis a sweet thought, Fidelis?"

But hereupon the young knight made answer none and fell into a reverie
and Beltane also, what time they rode by murmuring rills, through
swampy hollows, past brake and briar, until, as evening began to fall,
they came unto a broad, slow-moving stream whose waters, aglow with
sunset glory, split asunder the greeny gloom of trees, most pleasant to
behold. Then, sighing for very gladness, Beltane checked his horse and
spake right gleefully:

"Light down, light down, good Fidelis; ne'er saw I fairer haven for
wearied travellers! We have ridden hard and far, so here will we tarry
the night!" and down to earth he sprang, to stride up and down and
stretch his cramped limbs, the while Sir Fidelis, loosing off the
great, high-peaked saddle, led the foam-flecked war-horse down to the
water.

Now because of the heat, Beltane laid by his bascinet, and, hearkening
to the soft, cool ripple of the water, he straightway unbuckled his
sword-belt and began to doff his heavy hauberk; perceiving the which,
cometh Sir Fidelis to him something hastily.

"What do you, messire?" he questioned.

"Do, Fidelis? Forsooth, I would bathe me in yon cool, sweet water--list
how it murmureth 'neath the bank yonder. Come then, strip as I do,
youth, strip and let us swim together--pray you aid me with this
lacing."

"My lord, I--indeed, I do think it unsafe--"

"Unsafe, boy?"

"An our foes should come upon us--"

"O content you," quoth Beltane, stooping to loose off his spurs, "our
foes were lost hours since, nor shall any find us here in the wild,
methinks--pray you, loose me this buckle. Come, list how the waters do
woo us with their pretty babble."

"But, messire," quoth Fidelis, faint-voiced, and fumbling awkwardly
with the buckle, "indeed I--I have no art in swimming."

"Then will I teach thee."

"Nay," spake the young knight hastily, his trouble growing, "I do dread
the water!"

"Well, there be shallows 'neath the alders yonder."

"Aye, but the shallows will be muddy, and I--"

"Muddy?" cried Beltane, pausing with his hauberk half on, half off, to
stare at Sir Fidelis in amaze, "muddy, forsooth! Art a dainty youth in
faith, and over-nice, methinks. What matter for a little honest mud,
prithee?"

"Why 'tis mud! And slimy under foot! And I love not mud! So will I none
of the shallows!"

"Then verily must I chide thee, Fidelis, for--"

"Then verily will I unto yon boskage, messire, to prepare us a fire
'gainst the 'beasts that raven,' and our bracken beds. Howbeit, bathe
me I--will--not, messire!"

"O luxurious youth, then will I, and shame thy nice luxuriousness!"
quoth Beltane; and off came hauberk and quilted gambeson and away
skipped Sir Fidelis into the green.

So, presently, Beltane plunged him into the stream, and swimming with
powerful strokes, felt his youth and strength redoubled thereby, and
rejoiced to be alive. Thereafter he leapt ashore, his blood aglow with
ardent life, and, as he clothed him, felt a great and mighty hunger.

But scarce had he donned chausses and gambeson than he heard an outcry
and sudden clamour within the green; whereupon, staying not for his
armour, he caught up his sword and, unsheathing it as he ran, plunged
in among the trees and there espied Sir Fidelis stoutly withstanding
three foul knaves unwashed and ragged. Then shouted Beltane, and fell
upon them right joyously and smote them gleefully and laughed to see
them reel and scatter before his sudden onset; whereon, beholding Sir
Fidelis pale and scant of breath, he stayed to clap him on the
shoulder.

"Blithely done, good Fidelis!" quoth he. "Rest thee awhile and catch
thy wind, for fain am I to try a bout with yon tall rogues!" So saying,
he advanced upon the scowling three, his eyes a-dance, his nimble feet
light-poised for swift action--for lusty rogues were these, who,
seeing him alone, forthwith met him point and edge, besetting him with
many swashing blows, that, whistling, did but cleave the empty air or
rang loud upon his swift-opposing blade. So hewed they, and smote amain
until their brows shone moist and their breaths waxed short; whereat
Beltane mocked them, saying:

"Ha--sweat ye, forsooth? Do ye puff so soon? This cometh of foul eating
and fouler life. Off--off! ye beefy do-nothings! An ye would be worthy
fighters, eat less and bathe ye more!" Then Beltane laid on with the
flat of his heavy sword and soundly belaboured these hard-breathing
knaves, insomuch that one, hard-smitten on the crown, stumbled and
fell, whereupon his comrades, to save their bones, leapt forthwith
a-down the steepy bank and, plunging into the stream, made across to the
farther side, splashing prodigiously, and cursing consumedly, for the
water they liked not at all.

Now as Beltane leaned him on his sword, watching their flounderings
joyful-eyed, the weapon was dashed from his loosened hold, he staggered
'neath the bite of vicious steel, and, starting round, beheld the third
rogue, his deadly sword swung high; but even as the blow fell, Sir
Fidelis sprang between and took it upon his own slender body, and,
staggering aside, fell, and lay with arms wide-tossed. Then, whiles the
robber yet stared upon his sword, shivered by the blow, Beltane leapt,
and ere he could flee, caught him about the loins, and whirling him
aloft, dashed him out into the stream. Then, kneeling by Sir Fidelis,
he took his heavy head upon his arm and beheld his cheeks pale and wan,
his eyes fast shut, and saw his shining bascinet scored and deep-dinted
by the blow.

"Fidelis!" he groaned, "O my brave Fidelis, and art thou slain--for my
sake?" But in a while, what time Beltane kneeled and mourned over him
full sore, the young knight stirred feebly, sighed, and spake.

"Beltane!" he whispered; and again, "Beltane!" Anon his white lids
quivered, and, opening swooning eyes he spake again with voice grown
stronger:

"My lord--my lord--what of thy wound?"

And lo! the voice was sweet to hear as note of merle or mavis; these
eyes were long and deeply blue beneath their heavy lashes; eyes that
looked up, brimful of tenderness, ere they closed slow and wearily;
eyes so much at odds with grim bascinet and close-laced camail that
Beltane must needs start and hold his breath and fall to sudden
trembling what time Sir Fidelis lay there, pale and motionless, as one
that is dead. Now great fear came upon Beltane, and he would have
uttered desperate prayers, but could not; trembling yet, full gently he
drew his arm from under that drooping head, and, stealing soft-footed
to the river's marge, stood there staring down at the rippling waters,
and his heart was rent with conflicting passions--amazement, fear,
anger, joy, and a black despair. And of a sudden Beltane fell upon his
knees and bowed him low and lower until his burning brow was hid in the
cool, sweet grass--for of these passions, fiercest, strongest, wildest,
was--despair.



CHAPTER XLII

HOW BELTANE DREAMED IN THE WILD-WOOD


Now in a while, he started to feel a hand among his hair, and the hand
was wondrous light and very gentle; wherefore, wondering, he raised his
head, but behold, the sun was gone and the shadows deepening to night.
Yet even so, he stared and thrilled 'twixt wonder and fear to see Sir
Fidelis bending over him.

"Fidelis!" he murmured, "and is it thee in truth,--or do I dream?"

"Dear my lord, 'tis I indeed. How long hast lain thus? I did but now
wake from my swoon. Is it thy hurt?--suffer me to look."

"Nay, 'tis of none account, but I did dream thee--dead--Fidelis!"

"Ah, messire, thy hurt bleedeth apace--the steel hath gone deep! Sit
you thus, thy back against the tree--so. Within my wallet I have a
salve--wait you here." So, whiles Beltane stared dreamily upon the
twilit river, Sir Fidelis hasted up the bank and was back again, the
wallet by his side, whence he took a phial and goblet and mixed therein
a draught which dreamy Beltane perforce must swallow, and thereafter
the dreamy languor fell from him, what time Sir Fidelis fell to bathing
and bandaging the ugly gash that showed beneath his knee. Now as he
watched these busy, skilful fingers he knew a sudden, uneasy qualm,
and forthwith spake his thought aloud:

"Thy hands are wondrous--small and slender, Sir Fidelis!"

"Belike, messire, they shall grow bigger some day."

"Yet are they wondrous fair--and soft--and white, Fidelis!"

"Mayhap, messire, they shall grow rough and brown and hairy anon--so
content you."

"Yet wherefore are they so soft, Fidelis, and so--maid-like? And
wherefore--"

"See you, my lord, thus must the bandage lie, fast-knotted--so. Nor
must it slacken, lest the bleeding start afresh." So saying, Sir
Fidelis arose, and taking the wallet in one hand and setting the other
'neath Beltane's arm, led him to where, deep-bowered under screening
willows, a fire burned cheerily, whereby were two beds of scented
bracken.

Dark and darker the shadows crept down, deepening to a night soft and
warm and very still, whose quietude was unbroken save for the drowsy
lap and murmur of the river and the sound the war-horse Mars made as he
cropped the grass near by. Full of a languorous content lay Beltane,
despite the smarting of his wound, what time Sir Fidelis came and went
about the fire; and there, within this great and silent wilderness,
they supped together, and, while they supped, Beltane looked oft upon
Sir Fidelis, heedful of every trick of mail-girt feature and gesture of
graceful hand as he ne'er had been ere now. Wherefore Sir Fidelis grew
red, grew pale, was by turns talkative and silent, and was fain to
withdraw into the shadows beyond the fire. And from there, seeing
Beltane silent and full of thought, grew bold to question him.

"Dost meditate our course to-morrow, my lord Beltane?"

"Nay--I do but think--a strange thought--that I have seen thy face ere
now, Fidelis. Yet art full young to bear arms a-field."

"Doth my youth plague thee still, messire? Believe me, I am--older than
I seem."

"Thou, at peril of thy life, Fidelis, didst leap 'twixt me and death,
so needs must I know thee for my friend, and yet--"

"And yet, messire?"

"Thou hast betimes the look and speech of one--of one beyond all
traitors vile!"

"Ah," murmured Sir Fidelis, a sudden tremor in his voice, "thou dost
mean--?"

"Helen of Mortain--poor Fidelis--whom thou dost love."

"Whom thou dost hate, Beltane! And O, I pray thee, wherefore is thy
hate so bitter?"

"Fidelis, there lived a fool, that, for her beauty, loved her with a
mighty love: that, for her seeming truth and purity, honoured her
beyond all things: that, in the end, did find her beyond all things
vile. Aye, there lived a fool--and I am he."

"Ah, beseech thee," cried Sir Fidelis, white hands outstretched, "how
know you her thus false to thee, Beltane?"

"Know then, Sir Fidelis, that--upon our wedding-eve I was--by her
command struck down--within the chapel--upon the very altar, and by
her borne in bonds unto Garthlaxton Keep--a present to mine enemy, Duke
Ivo--"

"O, 'tis a lie--O dear my lord--'tis lie most foul--!"

"In witness whereof behold upon my wrists the shameful irons from my
dungeon--"

"Alas! here was no work of Helen's--no thought, no will--Helen would
have died to save thee this--"

"So, Fidelis, do I scorn all women that do live upon this earth
henceforth--but, above all, Helen the Beautiful! the Wilful! who in her
white bosom doth bear a heart more foul than Trojan Helen, that was a
woman false and damned. So now, all's said."

Now fell Sir Fidelis upon his knees and spake quick and passionate:

"Nay, Beltane, hear me! For now do I swear that he who told thee 'twas
Helen wrought thee this vile wrong--who told thee this doth lie--O,
doth lie! Now do I swear that never by word or thought or deed, hath
she been false to thee--I do swear she loveth thee--ah, spurn me not--
O, believe--"

"Enough--enough, good Fidelis, perjure not thy sweet youth for one so
much unworthy, for with these eyes did I behold her as they bore me in
my bonds--and shall I not believe mine eyes?"

"Never--ah! never, when they do shew thee Helen false and cruel to
thee! Here was some vile magic--witchcraft--"

"Enough, Fidelis, 'tis past and done. Here was a woman false--well,
'tis none so singular--there have been others--there will be others.
So, God keep thee, sweet youth, from the ways of women. Nay, let us
speak of this no more, for in sooth I grow a-weary and we must ride
with the dawn to-morrow. So, betake thee to thy rest, nor grieve thee
for my sorrows past and done--mayhap they shall be things to smile upon
one day."

So saying, Beltane sighed, and laid him down among the bracken and
thereafter Fidelis did the like; the fire sank and waned, and oft Sir
Fidelis stirred restless in the shadows; the river murmured
slumberously among the sedge, but Beltane, hearkening with drowsy ears,
oft thought to hear another sound, very soft and repressed yet very
dolorous, ere, worn and spent, and something weakened by wound and loss
of blood, he sank at last to deep and gentle sleep.

But in his sleep he dreamed that one knelt above him in the dark,
keeping watch upon his slumbers in the attitude of one in prayer--one
whom he knew, yet knew not; it seemed to Beltane in his dream, that
this silent, slender shape, stooped of a sudden, low and lower, to kiss
the iron fetters that bound his wrists; then Beltane strove to wake yet
could not wake, but in his slumber sighed a name, soft-breathed and
gentle as the languorous murmur of the stream:

"Helen!"



CHAPTER XLIII

HOW BELTANE KNEW GREAT HUMILITY


The rising sun, darting an inquisitive beam 'twixt a leafy opening,
fell upon Beltane's wide, slow-heaving breast; crept upwards to his
chin, his cheek, and finally strove to peep beneath his slumberous,
close-shut lids; whereat Beltane stirred, yawned, threw wide and
stretched his mighty arms, and thereafter, blinking drowsily, sat up,
his golden hair be-tousled, and stared sleepily about him.

Birds piped joyously near and far; hid among the leaves near by, the
war-horse Mars stamped eager hoof and snuffed the fragrant air of
morning; but Sir Fidelis was nowhere to be seen. Thus in a while
Beltane arose to find his leg very stiff and sore, and his throat be
parched with feverish thirst; wherefore, limping painfully, he turned
where a little water-brook went singing o'er pebbly bed to join the
slow-moving river; but, putting aside the leaves, he paused of a
sudden, for there, beside the noisy streamlet he beheld Sir Fidelis,
his bascinet upon the grass beside him, his mail-coif thrown back
betwixt his shoulders, stooping to bathe his face in the sparkling
water.

Now would he have called a greeting, but the words died upon his lips,
his breath stayed, and he stared at something that had caught in the
links of the young knight's mail-coif, something that stirred light and
wanton, kissed by the breath of early morn--a lock of bright hair that
glowed a wondrous red-gold in the new-risen sun. So stood Beltane
awhile, and, beholding this, a trembling seized him and therewith
sudden anger, and he strode forth of the leaves. And lo! on the
instant, on went hood of mail and thereafter shining bascinet, and Sir
Fidelis arose. But, ere he could turn, Beltane was beside him, had
caught him within a powerful arm, and, setting a hand 'neath mailed
chin, lifted the young knight's head and scowled down into his face.

Eyes long, black-lashed and darkly blue that looked up awhile into his,
wide, yet fearless, and anon, were hid 'neath languorous-drooping lids;
a nose tenderly aquiline, lips red and full that met in ripe and
luscious curves. This Beltane saw, and straightway his anger grew.

"Ah!" cried he, hoarsely, "now, by the living God, who art thou, and--
what?"

"Thy--comrade-in-arms, lord Beltane."

"Why hast thou the seeming of one beyond all women false? Why dost thou
speak me betimes in her voice, look at me with her eyes, touch me with
her soft, white, traitor's hands--answer me!"

"My lord, we are akin, she and I--of the same house and blood--"

"Then is thy blood foul with treachery!"

"Yet did I save thy life, Beltane!"

"Yet thy soft voice, thy red mouth and false eyes--thy very blood--all
these do prove thee traitor--hence!" and Beltane threw him off.

"Nay my lord!" he cried, "prithee take care, Beltane,--see--thou hast
displaced the bandage, thy wound bleedeth amain--so will I bind it up
for thee--"

But Beltane, nothing heeding, turned and strode back into the green and
there fell to donning his armour as swiftly as he might--albeit
stealthily. Thereafter came he to the destrier Mars and, having saddled
and bridled him with the same swift stealth, set foot in stirrup and
would have mounted, yet found this a painful matter by reason of his
wound; thus it befell, that, ere he could reach the saddle, the leaves
parted close by and Sir Fidelis spake soft-voiced:

"My lord Beltane, why dost thou steal away thus? An it be thy will to
leave me to perish alone here in the wilderness, first break thy fast,
and suffer me to bind up thy hurt, so shalt thou ride hence in
comfort." Now stood Beltane motionless and silent, nor turned nor dared
he look upon Sir Fidelis, but bowed his head in bitter shame, and,
therewith, knew a great remorse.

"Ah, Fidelis," said he at last, "thy rebuke stingeth deep, for it is
just, since I indeed did purpose thee a most vile thing! How vile a
thing, then, am I--"

"Nay, Beltane--dear my lord, I would not have thee grieve, indeed 'twas
but--"

"Once ere this I would have slain thee, Fidelis--murdered thee before
my wild fellows--I--I, that did preach them mercy and gentleness! To-day
I would have left thee to perish alone within this ravening
wilderness--that do bear so honourable a name! O Beltane, my father!
Yet, believe me, I did love honour once, and was accounted gentle. I
did set forth to do great things, but now--now do I know myself unfit
and most unworthy. Therefore, Sir Fidelis, do thou take the horse and
what thou wilt beside and leave me here, for fain am I to end my days
within these solitudes with no eye to see me more--save only the eye of
God!" So saying, Beltane went aside, and sitting 'neath a tree beside
the river, bowed his head upon his hands and groaned; then came Sir
Fidelis full swift, and stooping, touched his bowed head with gentle
hand, whereat he but groaned again.

"God pity me!" quoth he, "I am in sooth so changed, meseemeth some vile
demon doth possess me betimes!" and, sighing deep, he gazed upon the
rippling waters wide-eyed and fearful. And, as he sat thus, abashed
and despairing, Sir Fidelis, speaking no word, bathed and bound up his
wound, and, thereafter brought and spread forth their remaining viands.

"Eat," said he gently, "come, let us break our fast, mayhap thy sorrows
shall grow less anon. Come, eat, I pray thee, Beltane, for none will I
eat alone and, O, I famish!"

So they ate together, whiles the war-horse Mars, pawing impatient
hoof, oft turned his great head to view them with round and wistful
eye.

"Fidelis," quoth Beltane suddenly, "thou didst name me selfish, and
verily, a selfish man am I--and to-day! O Fidelis, why dost not
reproach me for the evil I purposed thee to-day?"

"For that I do most truly love thee, Beltane my lord!"

"Yet wherefore did ye so yesterday, and for lesser fault?"

"For that I did love thee, so would I see thee a strong man--yet
gentle: a potent lord, yet humble: a noble man as--as thou wert said to
be!"

"Alas, my Fidelis, harsh have I been, proud and unforgiving--"

"Aye, my lord--thou art unforgiving--a little!"

"So now, Fidelis, would I crave forgiveness of all men." Then came the
young knight nearer yet, his face radiant with sudden joy, his white
hands clasped.

"Lord!" he whispered, "O Beltane, could'st indeed forgive all--all harm
done thee, howsoever great or small thy mind doth hold them--could'st
forgive all!"

"Aye, I could forgive them all, Fidelis--all save Helen--who hath
broke this heart of mine and made my soul a thing as black as she hath
whited this my hair."

Now of a sudden Beltane heard a sound--a small sound 'twixt a sob and a
moan, but when he raised his heavy head--lo! Sir Fidelis was gone.



CHAPTER XLIV

HOW A MADNESS CAME UPON BELTANE IN THE WILD-WOOD


The sun rose high, jet still Beltane sat there beside the stream,
staring down into the gurgling waters, grieving amain for his
unworthiness.

Thus presently comes Sir Fidelis, and standing afar, spake in voice
strange and bitter:

"What do ye there, my lord? Dost dream ever upon thy woes and ills?
Wilt dream thy life away here amid the wild, forsooth?"

Quoth Beltane, very humbly:

"And wherefore not, Sir Fidelis? Unfit am I for great achievements.
But, as to thee, take now the horse and ride you ever north and west--"

"Yea, but where is north, and where west--?"

"The trees shall tell you this. Hearken now--"

"Nay, my lord, no forester am I to find my way through trackless wild.
So, an thou stay, so, perforce, must I: and if thou stay then art thou
deeply forsworn."

"How mean you, good sir?"

"I mean Belsaye--I mean all those brave souls that do wait and watch,
pale-cheeked, 'gainst Ivo's threatened vengeance--"

"Ha--Belsaye!" quoth Beltane, lifting his head.

"Thou must save Belsaye from flame and ravishment, my lord!"

"Aye, forsooth," cried Beltane, clenching his hands, "though I be
unworthy to stand in my noble father's place, yet Belsaye must be saved
or I die in it. O Fidelis, friend art thou indeed and wise beyond thy
years!" But as Beltane arose, Sir Fidelis incontinent turned away, and
presently came back leading the great horse. So in a while they set out
northwards; but now were no arms to clasp and cling, since Sir Fidelis
found hold otherwhere. Thus, after some going, Beltane questioned him:

"Art easy, Fidelis?"

"Aye, lord!"

"Wilt not take hold upon my belt, as yesterday?"

"Methinks I am better thus."

"Nay then, shalt have stirrups and saddle, for I am fain to walk."

"And re-open thy wound, messire? Nay, let be--I ride easily thus."

"Art angered with me, Fidelis?"

"Nay, lord, I do but pity thee!"

"And wherefore?"

"For thy so great loneliness--in all thy world is none but Beltane, and
he is very woeful and dreameth ever of his wrongs--"

"Would'st call me selfish again, forsooth?"

"Nay, lord--a martyr. O, a very martyr that huggeth his chains and
kisseth his wounds and joyeth in the recollection of his pain."

"Have I not suffered, Fidelis?"

"Thou hast known the jangling gloom of a dungeon--'twas at Garthlaxton
Keep, methinks?"

"Fetters!" cried Beltane, "a dungeon! These be things to smile at--my
grief is of the mind--the deeper woe of high and noble ideals
shattered--a holy altar blackened and profaned--a woman worshipped as
divine, and proved baser than the basest!"

"And is this all, my lord?"

"All!" quoth Beltane amazed. "All!" saith he, turning to stare.

"So much of woe and tribulation for so little reason? Nay, hear me, for
now will I make thee a prophecy, as thus: There shall dawn a day, lord
Beltane, when thou shalt see at last and know Truth when she stands
before thee. And, in that day thou shalt behold all things with new
eyes: and in that day shalt thou sigh, and long, and yearn with all thy
soul for these woeful hours wherein Self looms for thee so large thou
art blind to aught else."

"Good Fidelis, thy prophecy is beyond my understanding."

"Aye, my lord, 'tis so I think, indeed!"

"Pray thee therefore rede and expound it unto me!"

"Nay, time mayhap shall teach it thee, and thou, methinks shalt
passionately desire again the solitude of this wilderness."

"Aye, but wherefore?"

"For that it shall be beyond thy reach--and mine!" and Fidelis sighed
in deep and troubled fashion and so fell to silence, what time Beltane,
cunning in wood-lore, glancing hither and thither at knotted branch and
writhen tree bole, viewing earth and heaven with a forester's quick
eye, rode on into the trackless wilds of the forest-lands.

Now here, thinketh the historian, it booteth not to tell of all those
minor haps and chances that befell them; how, despite all Beltane's
wood-craft, they went astray full oft by reason of fordless rivers and
quaking swamps: of how they snared game to their sustenance, or how,
for all the care and skill of Sir Fidelis, Beltane's wound healed not,
by reason of continual riding, for that each day he grew more restless
and eager for knowledge of Belsaye, so that, because of his wound he
knew small rest by day and a fevered sleep by night--yet, despite all,
his love for Fidelis daily waxed and grew, what time he pressed on
through the wild country, north-westerly.

Five weary days and nights wandered they, lost to sight and knowledge
within the wild; days of heat and nights of pain and travail, until
there came an evening when, racked with anguish and faint with thirst
and weariness, Beltane drew rein within a place of rocks whereby was a
shady pool deep-bowered in trees. Down sprang Fidelis to look anxiously
on Beltane's face, pale and haggard in the light of a great moon.

Says Beltane, looking round about with knitted brow:

"Fidelis--O Fidelis, methinks I know this place--these rocks--the pool
yonder--there should be a road hereabout, the great road that leadeth
to Mortain. Climb now the steep and tell me an you can see a road,
running north and south."

Forthwith Sir Fidelis climbed the rocky eminence, and, being there,
cried right joyously:

"Aye, lord--'tis the road--the road!" and so came hastily down,
glad-eyed. "'Tis the end of this wilderness at last, my lord!"

"Aye!" sighed Beltane, "at last!" and groaning, he swayed in the
saddle--for his pain was very sore--and would have fallen but for the
ready arms of Sir Fidelis. Thereafter, with much labour, Beltane got
him to earth, and Fidelis brought him where, beneath the steep, was a
shallow cave carpeted with soft moss, very excellent suited to their
need. Here Beltane laid him down, watching a little cataract that
rippled o'er the rocky bank near by, where ferns and lichens grew; what
time Sir Fidelis came and went, and, having set fire a-going whereby to
cook their supper, brought an armful of fragrant heather to set 'neath
Beltane's weary head. Then, having given him to drink of the cordial,
fell to work bathing and bandaging his wound, sighing often to see it
so swollen and angry.

"Fidelis," quoth Beltane, "methinks there is some magic in thy touch,
for now is my pain abated--hast a wondrous gentle hand--"

"'Tis the cordial giveth thee respite, lord--"

"Nay, 'tis thy hand, methinks. Sure no man e'er was blest with truer
friend than thou, my Fidelis; brave art thou, yet tender as any woman,
and rather would I have thy love than the love of any man or woman
soever, henceforth, dear my friend. Nay, wherefore hang thy head?
without thee I had died many times ere this; without thy voice to cheer
me in these solitudes, thy strength and skill to aid me, I had fallen
into madness and death. Wherefore I do love thee, Fidelis, and fain
would have thee go beside me ever--so great is become my need of thee."

"Ah, Beltane, thou dost know I will ne'er desert thee!"

"So henceforth am I content--and yet--"

"Well, my lord?"

"To-morrow, perchance, shall see the end of this our solitude and close
comradeship--to-morrow we should reach Hundleby Fen. So, Fidelis,
promise me, if thou, at any time hereafter should see me harsh, or
proud, or selfish--do thou mind me of these days of our love and
companionship. Wilt promise me?"

"Aye, lord!" spake Sir Fidelis, low-bending to his task; and thereafter
sighed, and bowed him lower yet.

"Wherefore dost thou sigh?"

"For that I feel as if--ah, Beltane!--as if this night should be the
end of our love and comradeship!"

"Nought but death shall do this, methinks."

"Why then," said Fidelis as he rose, "an it must be, fain would I have
death."

But when Beltane would have questioned him further he smiled sad and
wistful and went forth to the fire. Up rose the moon, a thing of glory
filling the warm, stilly night with a soft and radiant splendour--a
tender light, fraught with a subtle magic, whereby all things, rock and
tree and leaping brook, found a new and added beauty.

And in some while comes Sir Fidelis to set out their viands, neat and
orderly, as was ever his custom, and thereafter must needs chide
Beltane, soft-voiced, for his lack of hunger, and cut dainty morsels,
wooing him thereby to eat.

"Fidelis," says Beltane, "on so fair a night as this, methinks, the old
fables and romances might well be true that tell of elves that dance on
moony nights, and of shapely nymphs and lovely dryads that are the
spirits of the trees. Aye, in the magic of so fair a night as this
aught might happen--miracles and wonders."

"Save one thing, dear my lord."

"As what, my Fidelis?"

"That thou should'st dream Helen pure and faithful and worthy to thy
love--that, doubting thine own senses, thou should'st yearn and sigh to
hold her once again, heart on heart--"

"Ah, Fidelis," quoth Beltane, sighing deep, "why wilt thou awake a
sleeping sorrow? My love was dead long since, meseemeth, and buried in
mine heart. O Fidelis, mine eyes, mine ears, my every sense do tell me
she is false--so is an end of love for me henceforth."

"Dear my lord," spake Fidelis, and his voice thrilled strangely in
Beltane's ears--"O, Beltane, my lord, could'st thou but doubt thyself a
little--could'st thou, doubting thine own senses for love's sake,
believe her now true--true as thou would'st have her, then Love indeed
might work for thee a miracle this night and thou be loved as man of
god-like faith."

"Nay, sweet Fidelis, I am but a man, apt to evil betimes and betimes
seeking good. Howbeit, now am I a weary man that fain would sleep. Come
then, lay you down here beside me where I may touch thee an I awake i'
the night." And, lying down, Beltane beckoned Fidelis beside him.

So in a while the young knight came and did as Beltane bade, and side
by side they lay within the shelter of the little cave; and in the
dark, Beltane set his mighty arm about him and thereafter spake,
wondering:

"Art not cold, Fidelis?"

"Nay, lord."

"Then why dost tremble?"

"Indeed I know not--mayhap I grieved that--the age of miracles--is
passed away."

Now at this Beltane wondered the more and would fain have questioned
him, but in that moment sighed, and fell to slumber. But in his sleep
he dreamed that Fidelis was beset by foes and cried to him for aid,
whereon he would have hasted to his deliverance yet could not for that
unseen hands held him fast; then strove he amain against these griping
hands, and so awaked in sudden terror and lay there trembling in the
dark; and in the dark he reached out cautious hand further and further
and so found himself alone--for the young knight was gone.

Now being very sick with the fever of his wound, dread came upon him,
fear seized and shook him, and, trembling in the dark he called aloud
"Fidelis! Fidelis!" But no sound heard he save the ripple of the brook
near by. Groaning, he arose and, limping forth of the cave stood in the
glory of the moon, voiceless now by reason of his ever-growing terror;
conscious only of his passionate desire to find again the youth whose
gentle voice had cheered him often in the dark, whose high courage and
tender care had never failed. So, leaning upon his great sword, Beltane
limped through light and shadow, heedless of direction, until he was
stayed by the waters of the pool.

A faint splash, a rippling of the sleepy waters, and, out into the
moonlight came one that swam the pool with long, easy strokes; one that
presently leapt lightly ashore and stood there to shake down the
unwetted glory of her hair. At first he thought this some enchanted
pool and she the goddess of the place, but even then she turned, and
thus at last--he knew. And in that moment also, she beheld him amid the
leaves; tall and fair she stood, proud and maidenly, nor moved she,
nor spake: only she shook about her loveliness the shining mantle of
her hair. And beholding the reproachful sadness of those clear, virgin
eyes, Beltane, abashed by her very beauty, bowed his head, and turning,
stumbled away and thus presently finding himself within the cave, threw
himself down and clasped his head within fierce hands. Yet, even so,
needs must he behold the slim, white beauty of her, the rippling
splendour of her hair, and the deep, shy sadness of her eyes, and,
because of her beauty he trembled, and because of her falsity he
groaned aloud.

Now as he lay thus, after some while he heard a swift, light footfall,
the whisper of mail, and knew that she stood above him; yet he heeded
not, wherefore at last she spake, sweet-voiced and gentle.

"Beltane--dear my lord, now dost thou know who is Fidelis, and thou
didst--love Fidelis!" But Beltane stirred not, and finding him silent,
she spake on, yet faltering a little:

"When I waked from my swoon within the chapel at--at Blaen, and found
thee gone, I, distraught with woeful fear and a most strange sickness,
took thy sword and therewith horse and armour and in that same hour
fled from Blaen, none knowing. Many days I rode seeking thee, until
Love brought me to thee in the green. But, O Beltane, for those dire
chances of our--wedding night, by what spells and witchcraft our
happiness was changed to sorrow and dire amaze, I know no more than
thou. Ah, Beltane--dear my lord--speak--speak to me!" And falling on
her knees she would have lifted his head. But of a sudden he shrank
away, and rose to his feet.

"Touch me not, I am but a man and thou--art woman, and there is evil in
thee, so touch me not with thy false, alluring hands. O, thou hast
deceived me now as ever--As Fidelis did I love thee above all men, but
for what thou art, I do despise thee--"

But, with sudden gesture passionate and yearning, she reached out her
white hands, and, kneeling thus, looked up at him with eyes a-swoon
with love and supplication.

"Beltane!" she sighed, "Beltane! Is thy great love dead in very truth?
nay, indeed I know it liveth yet even as mine, and shall live on
forever. I know--I have seen it leap within thine eyes, heard it in thy
voice--and wherefore did'st thou love Fidelis? Look at me, Beltane! I
can be as brave, as faithful and tender as Fidelis! Look at me!"

But Beltane dared not look, and trembled because of her so great
beauty, and fain would speak yet could not.

Whereat she, yet upon her knees, drew nearer.

"Beltane," she murmured, "trust me. Despite thyself, O, trust me--so
shalt thou find happiness at last and Pentavalon an end to all her
sorrows. Be thou my lord, my master--my dear love and husband--ride
with me this night to my fair Mortain--"

"To Mortain?" cried Beltane wildly, "aye, to Blaen, belike--to silken
wantonings and to--death! Tempt me not, O witch--aye, witch that
weaveth spells of her beauty--tempt me not I say, lest I slay thee to
mine own defence, for I know thee beyond all women fair, yet would I
slay thee first--" But, groaning, Beltane cast aside his sword and
covered burning eyes with burning palms, yet shook as with an ague fit.

The pleading hands fell, to clasp and wring each other; her proud head
sank, and a great sob brake from her, what time Beltane watched her
with eyes bright with fever and swayed upon his feet. Stumbling, he
turned, and left her, yet presently came back leading the war-horse
Mars.

"To Mortain shalt thou ride to-night--I pray thee mount!" cried he,
"Come--mount, I say!"

Standing tall and proud before him she sighed and spake deep-sorrowing:

"Then will I leave thee--an it must be so. But, in days to come,
mayhap, thou shalt grieve for this hour, Beltane, nor shall all thy
sighs nor all thy tears avail to bring it back again. Thou hast shamed
me oft, yet for all thy bitter scorns I do forgive thee, aye, even the
anguish of my breaking heart, for that my love doth rise beyond my
pain; and so, dear my lord--fare thee well!"

So she mounted, whereat the mettled charger must needs rear, and
Beltane, staggering aside, catch at a tree and lean there.

"Art sick, Beltane?" she cried in sudden fear--"how may I leave thee
thus--art sick!"

"Aye, Helen, for thy beauty. The devil is here, and I am here, so here
is no place for thee--so get thee gone, spur--spur! for despising thee
in my heart yet would I have thee stay: yet, an thou stay needs must I
slay thee ere the dawn and myself thereafter!"

Thus spake he, his voice loud, his speech quick and fevered.

"Indeed, thou'rt sick, my lord--nor do I fear thee, thou noble son of
noble father!"

"My father! Forsooth he liveth in Holy Cross Thicket within Mortain; he
bade me beware of women and the ways of women. So do I know thee witch,
thou golden Helen. Ha! must Troy burn again--I loved thee once, but
love is dead long since and turned corrupt--so get thee hence, Helen
the Wilful!"

"O, God pity thee, my Beltane, for thou dost love me yet, even as I
love thee--thou lonely man-child! God pity thee, and me also!" and,
crying thus, forlorn and desolate, the Duchess Helen rode upon her
solitary way.

Then turned Beltane and stumbled on he knew not whither, and betimes he
laughed loud and high and betimes he was shaken by great and fierce
sobs, yet found he never a tear. Thus, limping painfully, and stumbling
anon as one smitten blind, he wandered awhile, and so at length found
himself beside the little cave; and throwing himself down within its
shadows, tore away the bandages her gentle hands had wrought.

And lying there, it seemed that Fidelis yet lay beneath his arm, the
Fidelis who was no Fidelis; and in the shadows he laughed amain--wild
laughter that died of a sudden, choked by awful sobs, what time he
clenched his hands upon his throbbing ears; yet still, above the sounds
of his own anguish, needs must he hear again that forlorn and desolate
cry:

"O, God pity thee, Beltane!"

And now followed long hours when demons vile racked him with anguish
and mocked him with bitter gibes; a haunted darkness where was fear and
doubt and terror of things unknown: yet, in the blackness, a light that
grew to a glory wherein no evil thing might be, and in this glory SHE
did stand, tall and fair and virginal. And from the depths of
blackness, he cried to her in agony of remorse, and from the light she
looked down on him with eyes brimful of yearning love and tenderness,
for that a gulf divided them. But, across this hateful void she called
to him--"O, God pity thee, my Beltane!"



CHAPTER XLV

HOW BLACK ROGER TAUGHT BELTANE GREAT WISDOM


A darkness, full of a great quietude, a grateful stillness, slumberous
and restful; yet, little by little, upon this all-pervading silence, a
sound crept, soft, but distressful to one who fain would sleep; a sound
that grew, a sharp noise and querulous. And now, in the blackness, a
glimmer, a furtive gleam, a faint glow that grew brighter and yet more
bright, hurtful to eyes long used to deeps of gloom; but, with the
noise, ever this light grew--from gleam to glow and from glow to
dazzling glare; and so, at last, Beltane opened unwilling eyes--eyes
that blinked and smarted as they beheld a leaping flame where a fire of
twigs crackled merrily against a purple void beyond; beholding all of
which, Beltane forthwith shut his eyes again. But those soft deeps
wherein he had found so sweet oblivion, that great and blessed quietude
were altogether vanished and beyond him to regain; wherefore Beltane
felt himself aggrieved and sorrowed within himself, and so, presently
oped his reluctant eyes and fell to watching the play of wanton spark
and flame. None the less he knew himself yet aggrieved, also he felt a
sudden loneliness, wherefore (as was become his custom of late) he
called on one ever heedful and swift to answer his call.

"Fidelis!" he called, "Fidelis!" Yet came there no one, and Beltane
wondered vaguely why his voice should sound so thin and far away. So,
troubling not to move, he called again:

"Fidelis--art sleeping, my Fidelis?"

Now of a sudden, one stirred amid the shadows beyond the fire, mail
gleamed, and Black Roger bent over him.

"Master!" he cried joyfully, his eyes very bright, "O, master, art
awake at last?--dost know Roger--thy man,--dost know thy Roger, lord?"

"Aye, forsooth, I know thee, Roger," says Beltane, yet aggrieved and
querulous, "but I called not thee. Send me Fidelis--where tarries
Fidelis?"

"Master, I know not. He came to me within the Hollow six nights agone
and gave to me his horse and bid me seek thee here. Thereafter went he
afoot by the forest road, and I rode hither and found thee, according
to his word."

Then would Beltane have risen, but could not, and stared at Black
Roger's pitiful face with eyes of wonder.

"Why, Roger!" quoth he, "Why, Roger--?"

"Thou hast been very nigh to death, master. A mad-man I found thee, in
sooth--foaming, master, and crying in direful voice of spells and
magic. Bewitched wert thou, master, in very sooth--and strove and
fought with me, and wept as no man should weep, and all by reason of a
vile enchantment which the sweet saints forfend. So here hast thou lain
on the borders of death and here have I ministered to thee as Sir
Fidelis did teach me; and, but for these medicaments, I had wept upon
thy grave, for wert direly sick, lord, and--"

"Nay, here is no matter--tell me, tell me, where is Fidelis?"

"Dear master I know not, forsooth!"

"Went he by the forest road?"

"Aye, master, the forest road."

"Afoot?"

"Afoot, lord."

"Said he aught to thee of--of me, Roger?"

"Aye, 'twas all of thee and thy wound, and how to ease thy pain I must
do this, forsooth, and that, forsooth, and to break the fever must mix
and give thee certain cordials, the which I have done."

"Said he aught beside--aught else, Roger?"

"Aye, master, he bid me pray for thee, the which I have also done,
though I had rather fight for thee; nathless the sweet saints have
answered even my poor prayers, for behold, thou art alive and shall be
well anon."

Now after this. Beltane lay with eyes fast shut and spake not; thus he
lay so long, that Roger, thinking he slept again, would have moved
away, but Beltane's feeble hand stayed him, and he spake, yet with eyes
still closed.

"By the forest road, Roger!"

"Aye, master."

"Alone, Roger!"

"Aye, lord, alone."

"And--afoot, Roger!"

"Aye, lord, he bade me take his horse that I might come to thee the
sooner."

"And--bid thee--pray for me--for me, Roger!"

"Verily, master. And pray I did, right lustily."

"So do I thank thee, Roger," said Beltane, speaking ever with closed
eyes. "Yet I would that God had let me die, Roger." And behold, from
these closed eyes, great tears, slow-oozing and painful, that rolled
a-down the pallid cheek, very bright in the fire-glow, and glistening
like the fairest gems.

"Master--O master!" cried Roger, "dost grieve thee for Sir Fidelis?"

"Forsooth, I must, Roger--he was a peerless friend, methinks!"

"Aye master, and--noble lady!"

"Roger--O Roger, how learned you this? Speak!"

"Lord, thou hast had visions and talked much within thy sickness. So do
I know that thou dost love the Duchess Helen that men do call 'the
Beautiful.' I do know that on thy marriage night thou wert snatched
away to shameful prison. I do know that she, because her heart was as
great as her love, did follow thee in knightly guise, and thou did most
ungently drive her from thee. All this, and much beside, thou didst
shout and whisper in thy fever."

Quoth Beltane, plucking at Roger with feeble hand:

"Roger--O Roger, since this thou knowest--tell me, tell me, can faith
and treachery lie thus within one woman's heart--and of all women--
her's?"

"Master, can white be black? Can day be night? Can heaven be hell--or
can truth lie? So, an Sir Fidelis be faithful (and faithful forsooth is
he) so is the Duchess Helen faithful--"

"Nay, an she be true--O Roger, an she be true indeed, how think you of
the treachery, of--"

"I think here was witchcraft, master, spells, see'st thou, and magic
black and damned. As thou wert true to her, so was she true to thee, as
true as--aye, as true as I am, and true am I, Saint Cuthbert knoweth
that, who hath heard my prayers full oft of late, master."

"Now God bless thee, Roger--O, God bless thee!" So crying, of a sudden
Beltane caught Black Roger's sun-burned hand and kissed it, and
thereafter turned him to the shadows. And, lying thus, Beltane wept,
very bitterly yet very silent, until, like a grieving child he had wept
himself to forgetfulness and sleep. So slept he, clasped within Roger's
mailed arm. But full oft Black Roger lifted his bronzed right hand--the
hand that had felt Beltane's sudden kiss--and needs must he view it
with eyes of wonder, as if it had been indeed some holy thing, what
time he kept his midnight vigil beside the fire.



CHAPTER XLVI

HOW BLACK ROGER PRAYED IN THE DAWN: AND HOW HIS PRAYERS WERE ANSWERED


"Holy Saint Cuthbert, art a very sweet and potent saint, and therefore
hast good eyes--which is well; so canst thou see him for thyself, how
weak he is and languid, that was a mighty man and lusty. Cherish him, I
pray thee! A goodly youth thou dost know him, thou didst see him burn a
gibbet, moreover I have told thee--and eke a knight of high degree. Yet
doth he lie here direly sick of body. Cherish him, I pray! Moreover,
sick is he of mind, for that he loveth one, a lady, methinks good and
worthy--so bring them together, these twain, not above, as saints in
heaven, but first as man and woman that shall beget such men as he,
such noble dames as she, and make the world a better place therefor.
See you to this matter, good Saint Cuthbert, and also the matter of his
Dukedom. But when he shall be Duke indeed, and blest with her that is
so fair a maid and apt to motherhood--I pray thee, Saint Cuthbert, let
him not forget me whose soul he saved long since within the green in
the matter of Beda that was a Jester--I pray thee let him have regard
to Black Roger that am his man henceforth to the end. Amen. Holy Saint
Cuthbert grant me this."

It was Black Roger, praying in the dawn, his broadsword set upright in
the ling, his hands devoutly crossed and his black head stooped full
low; thus he saw not Beltane's eyes upon him until his prayer was
ended.

Quoth Beltane then:

"May heaven grant thee thy prayer, Roger--'twas a good prayer and I the
better for it."

"Why, look now, master," says Roger, somewhat abashed, "I am a
something better prayer than I was, and I pray in good Saxon English;
thus do I call on Saint Cuthbert, that was a lusty Saxon ere that he
was a saint."

"But, Roger, what need to supplicate lest I forget thee? Think you I
should forget my faithful Roger?"

"Why, lord," says Roger, busily preparing wherewith to break their
fast, "when a man marrieth, see you, and thereafter proceedeth
forthwith to get him children, as the custom is--"

"Nay, dost talk folly, Roger!" quoth Beltane, his pale cheek flushing.

"Yet folly thou dost dream of, master, and she also--else wherefore
love--"

"Nay, Roger, doth Belsaye lie secure yet? What of Walkyn and our
comrades? Marched they to Belsaye as I did command?"

"Why, see you now, master, when our foes came not, and you came not, we
sent word to Belsaye that, within two days we would march thither,
according to thy word, and forthwith Giles sends word back that he was
very well and wanted no long-legged Walkyn or surly Roger to share
authority with him yet a while, and bid us twirl our thumbs within the
green until he commanded our presence--with divers other ribald japes
and wanton toys--whereon Walkyn and I waxed something wroth.
Therefore, when ye came not, our comrades fell to factions and riot,
whereat I, perforce, smote me one or two and Walkyn three or four and
so brought peace among them. But when we would have tarried yet for
thee, these rogue-fellows clamoured for Walkyn to lead them into the
wild, back to their ancient outlawry; so loud they clamoured and so
oft, that, in the end, Walkyn smiled--a strange thing in him, master--
but he agreed, whereon we came nigh to cutting each other's throats,
he and I. Howbeit, in the end he went, he and all the other rogues. So
bided I alone in the Hollow, day and night, waiting thee, master, and
at the last, cometh Sir Fidelis--and so all's said and behold thy
breakfast--a coney, see you, lord, that I snared but yest're'en."

"Our company gone--outlaws, spending their lives to no purpose--here is
evil news, Roger!"

"Here is tender meat, master, and delicate!"

"Back to outlawry! And Walkyn too!"

"Aye--but he smiled, master! Walkyn, methinks, is not a jovial soul,
lord, and when he smileth it behoveth others to frown and--beware. So
prithee eat hearty, lord, for, in a while the sun will stand above yon
whin-bush, and then 'twill be the eleventh hour, and at the eleventh
hour must I wash thy hurt and be-plaster it with this good ointment."

"What then?"

"Then shalt thou sleep, master, and I to the woods with my bow to get
us meat--sweet juicy venison, an the saints be kind!"

"And wherefore at the eleventh hour?"

"For that--She did so command me, master."

"She?" sighed Beltane.

"Aye, forsooth, master. She that the good Saint Cuthbert shall give to
thy close embracements one day."

"Think you so?" spake Beltane beneath his breath, and staring across
the sunny glade with eyes of yearning, "think you so indeed, Roger?"

"Of a surety, lord," nodded Roger, "seeing that I do plague the good
saint on the matter continually--for, master, when I pray, I do pray
right lustily."

So, in a while, the meal done and crock and pannikin washed and set
aside, Beltane's leg is bathed and dressed right skilfully with hands,
for all their strength and hardness, wondrous light and gentle.
Thereafter, stretched upon his bed of heather, Beltane watches Black
Roger gird on belt and quiver, and, bow in hand, stride blithely into
the green, and, ere he knows it, is asleep. And in his sleep, beholds
one who bends to kiss him, white hands outstretched and all heaven in
her eyes; and with her voice thrilling in his ears, wakes, to find the
sun already westering and Black Roger near by, who, squatting before a
rough table he has contrived set close beside the fire whereon a
cooking pot seethes and bubbles, is busied with certain brewings,
infusings and mixings in pipkin and pannikin, and all with brow of
frowning portent.

Whereat says Beltane, wondering:

"What do ye, good Roger?"

"Master, I mix thee thy decoction as She did instruct--She is a
learned youth, master--Sir Fidelis. In these dried herbs and simples,
look you, lieth thy health and strength and Pentavalon's freedom--aye,
a notable youth in faith, thy Duchess."

Hereupon Beltane, remembering his dream, must needs close his eyes that
he may dream again, and is upon the portal of sleep when Roger's hand
rouses him.

"What would'st, Roger?"

"Master--thy draught."

"Take it hence!"

"Nay, it must be swallowed, master."

"Then swallow it thyself!"

"Nay, lord, 'tis the hour for thy draught appointed by Sir Fidelis and
She must be obeyed--come, master!" Forthwith, yet remembering his
dream, Beltane opens unwilling eyes and more unwilling mouth and the
draught is swallowed; whereupon comes languor and sleep, and therewith,
more dreams.

Anon 'tis even-fall, and the stars, one by one, peep forth of the
darkening heaven, shadows steal and lengthen and lo! 'tis night; a
night wherein the placid moon, climbing apace, fills the silent world
with the splendour of her advent. And ever and always Beltane lies
deep-plunged in slumber; but in his sleep he groans full oft and oft
doth call upon a name--a cry faint-voiced and weak, yet full of a
passionate yearning; whereupon cometh sturdy Roger to behold him in the
light of the fire, to stoop and soothe him with gentle hand; thus needs
must he mark the glitter of a tear upon that pale and sunken cheek,
wherefore Black Roger's own eyes must needs fall a-smarting and he to
grieving amain. In so much that of a sudden he stealeth swiftly from
the cave, and, drawing sword setteth it up-right in the ling; then
kneeling with bowed head and reverent hands, forthwith fell to his
prayers, after this wise:--

"Sweet Cuthbert--gentle saint--behind me in the shadows lieth my
master--a-weeping in his slumber. So needs must I weep also, since I do
love him for that he is a man. Good Saint Cuthbert, I have wrought for
him my best as thou hast seen--tended his hurt thrice daily and
ministered the potion as I was commanded. I have worked for him--prayed
for him--yet doth he weep great tears within his sleep. So now do I
place him in thy care, good saint, for thou dost know me but poor rogue
Roger, a rough man and all unlearned, yet, even so, I do most truly
love him and, loving him, do fear--for meseemeth his hurt is deeper
than hurt of body, he doth pine him and grieve for lack of his heart's
desire--a young man, sweet saint, that doth yearn for a maid right fair
and noble, _pars amours,_ good saint, as is the custom. But alack, she
is far hence and he lieth here sick and like to perish and I am but
poor Roger--a very sinful man that knoweth not what to do. So do I call
on thee, sweet saint--achieve me a miracle on his behalf, bring him to
his heart's desire that he may wax hale and well and weep no more
within his sleep. And this do I ask for his sake and his lady's sake
and for the sake of Pentavalon Duchy--not forgetting poor Roger that
doth plague thee thus for love of him. Amen!"

Now behold! even as the prayer was ended came a faint stir and rustle
amid the leaves hard by, and, lifting startled head, Black Roger beheld
a radiant vision standing in the pale glory of the moon, whereat he
knew fear and a great awe.

"O, good Saint Cuthbert, and is it thou indeed?" he whispered, "Sweet
saint, I thought not to win thee down from heaven thus, though forsooth
I did pray right lustily. But, since thou art come--"

"Hush, good Roger!" spake a voice soft and wondrous sweet to hear; and,
so speaking, the shining figure raised the vizor of its helm. "O hush
thee, Roger, for he sleepeth. All day, unseen, have I watched over him,
nor can I leave him until his strength be come again. And sleep is life
to him, so wake him not. Come your ways, for I would speak thee many
things--follow!"

As one that dreams, Roger stared into the eyes beneath the vizor, and
as one that dreams he rose up from his knees, and, sheathing his sword,
followed whither the gleaming vision led; yet betimes he blinked upon
the moon, and once he shook his head and spake as to himself:

"Verily--aye, verily, a lusty pray-er, I!"



CHAPTER XLVII

HOW BELTANE SWARE AN OATH


Slowly the days sped, dewy dawn and tender eve, days of sun and shadow
and gentle rain; golden days wherein Beltane lay 'twixt sleep and
wake, and nights of silver wherein he slept full deep and dreamed
wondrously of gentle hands that soothed him with their touch, and warm
soft lips on cheek and brow that filled him with a great and deep
content.

And in these days, who so cheery as Black Roger, full of a new-found
gaiety, who laughed for small reason and ofttimes for none at all and
was forever humming snatches of strange song as he stooped above pipkin
and pannikin. Much given was he also to frequent comings and goings
within the green to no apparent end, while Beltane, within the little
cave, lay 'twixt sleep and waking; moreover, full oft as they ate their
evening meal together, he would start, and falling to sudden silence,
sit as one that hearkens to distant sounds. Yet withal was he ever
heedful of Beltane's many wants, who, as health came, grew more eager
to be gone, but finding himself too weak, straightway waxed moody and
rebellious, whereat smiling Roger waxed firm, so needs must frowning
Beltane be bathed and bandaged and swallow his draught--because of She
who had so commanded.

Now it befell upon a certain evening as Roger bent to peer into the pot
that seethed and bubbled upon the fire and to sniff its appetising
savour, he presently fell a-singing to himself in a voice gruff yet
musical withal; whereupon Beltane, turning languid head, fell to
watching this new Roger, and thereafter spake on this wise:

BELTANE. "What do ye so oft within the green?"

ROGER. "Hunt, that we may eat, master."

BELTANE. "I have seen thee go full oft of late and leave thy bow
behind, Roger."

ROGER. "Whereby I judge that though thine eyes be shut ye do not always
slumber, master, and methinks our supper is done--"

BELTANE. "Nay--what do ye in the green?"

ROGER. "Master, thy horse Mars hath a proud spirit and snorteth against
his bonds. So, lest he break thy slumber, have I made him a shelter of
wattles in the green."

BELTANE. "Truly, Roger, thou art greatly changed methinks."

ROGER (starting). "As how, master?"

BELTANE. "I have heard thee called Roger the grim, and Roger the surly,
ere now."

ROGER (shaking woeful head). "Ere now, lord, I hanged men, conceiving
it my duty."

BELTANE. "And to-day you sing--and wherefore?"

ROGER. "For joy in life, master."

BELTANE. "And thou dost laugh, surly Roger--oft-times for little
reason, meseemeth."

ROGER. "For that my heart is renewed within me, master. Happiness is my
bedfellow and companion--here is good reason for laughter, methinks."

BELTANE. "And wherefore art thou happy, Roger?"

ROGER. "Item first: thou dost mend apace, lord. Item second: this mess
of venison hath a savour most delectable. Item third: happiness is the
birthright of every man. Moreover I have learned that behind the
blackest cloud is a glory of sun, and beyond sorrow, joy. So do I
rejoice that all is like to be well with thee."

BELTANE (bitterly). "Well with me, say you? Is Pentavalon free, Roger?
Do I not lie here, weak and helpless--my company scattered? O, call you
this well, forsooth?"

ROGER. "'Tis true thou art weak as yet, master, but thou shalt rise
again stronger than aforetime--aye, thou shalt arise indeed, and all
Pentavalon with thee. So let thine heart rejoice and sing, as mine
doth."

BELTANE (fiercely). "O evil day, that ere I gave my heart to woman's
love, so do I lie here a useless thing--O day accursed!"

ROGER. "O day most blessed, since woman's love hath lifted thee from
death and shall be thy glory and Pentavalon's salvation, master!"

BELTANE (eagerly). "Roger--Roger, speak you of the Duchess Helen? What
mean you, man?"

ROGER. "There be signs and portents, master, the very air is full o'
them. Whiles we tarry here, others be up and doing--"

BELTANE. "Others, Roger?"

ROGER. "Notably Walkyn o' the Axe, master!"

BELTANE. "Ha! and what of Walkyn?"

ROGER. "He smiled, master, as I told thee ere this, and when Walkyn
smileth it behoveth others to be wary. So now do I tell thee that
Walkyn hath taken and burned Duke Ivo's great Castle of Brandonmere,
that Winisfarne city hath risen 'gainst the Duke and all the border
villages likewise--aha! master, there be scythe-blades and good brown
bills a-twinkle all along the marches eager to smite for freedom and
Pentavalon when time is ripe!"

BELTANE (rising upon his knees). "Forsooth, is this so? O Roger, is
this so in very truth?"

ROGER. "'Tis very truth, master. Upon my sword I swear it!"

BELTANE. "But whence had ye the wondrous news--how--when?"

ROGER. "Master, 'twas three nights agone, as I wrestled prodigiously in
prayer on thy behalf, one came to me and spake me many things
marvellous good to hear. Moreover, I have met divers folk within the
greenwood and upon the forest-road yonder, and with all do I hold
converse."

Then to Roger's amaze Beltane rose up, and standing square upon his
feet lifted hands and eyes to heaven. "Now glory be to the living God,"
quoth he, "that hath heard the prayers of such as I. So now do I swear,
come life, come death, to walk my appointed way sword in hand,
henceforth, nor will I turn aside for man or woman, heeding not the
lure of friendship or of love. I do swear never to look upon a woman to
love--"

ROGER (fearfully). "Master--master!"

BELTANE. "Nor to suffer woman's love to come 'twixt me and my duty--"

ROGER (despairingly). "O master, swear it not--swear it not--"

BELTANE. "Nor shall aught let or stay me until Pentavalon win to
freedom or my poor soul return whence it came. And this do I swear to
the ears of God!"

Now turned he to Roger, bright-eyed and with hands tight-clenched.

"Roger," said he, "thou art witness to this my oath, an I do fail or
falter henceforth, then in that same hour may sharp death be mine. So
now bring to me sword and armour, for this night must I hence."

Now was Roger sore troubled and fain was to speak, but beholding his
master's flashing eye, he presently did as he was commanded. So Beltane
took hold upon the sword and drew it, and looked glad-eyed upon its
broad and shining blade. But when he would have wielded it, behold! he
scarce could lift it; with teeth fierce-clenched he strove against his
weakness until his breath waxed short and the sweat ran from him, but
ever the great blade grew the heavier. Then he groaned to find himself
so feeble, and cried aloud an exceeding bitter cry, and cast the sword
from him, and, staggering, fell into Roger's waiting arms. Forthwith
Roger bare him to the cave and laid him down upon his bed.

"Master," quoth he, "O master, grieve not thyself, thou shalt be hale
and strong anon, but the time is not yet. Comfort ye, comfort ye, my
lord--ere long thou shalt be strong, aye, and mightier e'en than
aforetime. So grieve not nor repine, my master!"

But Beltane lay heeding not, nor would he eat despite all Roger's
wheedling arts; but being fevered and athirst, drank deep of the
sleeping draught, and thereafter, falling to his black humour, turned
his face to the shadows, and, lying thus, straightway fell to weeping,
very silently, because of his so great weakness, until, like a child,
he had wept himself to sleep.

Slowly the moon sank, the fire burned low and Roger snored blissfully
hard by, but Beltane, blessed within his slumbers, dreamed again of one
who stole, light of foot, to lie beside him watchful in the dark and
with warm, soft arms set close about him like the sheltering arms of
that mother he had never known.

Thus slept Beltane, like a weary child upon a mother's breast, and knew
great peace and solace and a deep and utter content.



CHAPTER XLVIII

HOW BELTANE SET OUT FOR HANGSTONE WASTE


Day by day Beltane waxed in health and strength, and daily, leaning
upon Roger's trusty arm he walked further afield. And day by day, with
growing strength, so grew his doubt, and therewith, by times, a black
despond; for needs must he think ever of Helen the Beautiful, and fain
was he to tear her from his heart yet could not; then fain he would
have hated her, but in his ears her cry rang still--"God pity thee, my
Beltane!"--wherefore he was wont to fall to sudden gloom and
melancholy.

But upon a certain blithe evening Black Roger stood leaning on his
bow-stave to watch where Beltane swam the pool with mighty strokes, who,
laughing for very joy of it, presently sprang ashore, panting with his
exertions, and fell to donning his garments.

"How think ye, Roger," he cried, "am I fit to adventure me the world
again?"

"Forsooth, master, art well of thy wound and fever, and in a week or so
mayhap thou shalt perchance be well enough--"

"A week, Roger! I tell thee, man, this very day will I hence!"

"But, master," says Roger, shaking cautious head, "thy world is a world
of battles, and for battle art scarce yet strong enough--"

"Say ye so, Roger? Then here and now shalt make trial of me. Art a tall
and lusty fellow--come, man, let us try a fall together. And mark this,
Roger, an thou canst put me on my back shalt have thy will in the
matter, but, an I down thee, then hey! for horse and armour and the
forest-road this very night. Come, is't agreed?"

Now hereupon the wily Roger, noting the pallor of Beltane's sunken
cheek and how his broad breast laboured yet, and moreover feeling
himself aglow with lusty life and vigour, smiled grimly, nothing
doubting the issue. Wherefore he nodded his head.

"So be it, master," said he, "only take thy wind first." So saying he
set aside bow and quiver, loosed off his sword, and tightening his
belt, stepped towards Beltane, his broad back stooped, his knotted arms
advanced and fingers crooked to grapple. Once and twice he circled,
seeking a hold, then leapt he swift and low; arms and fingers clenched
and locked, and Beltane was bent, swayed, and borne from his feet; but
even so, with a cunning twist he brake Black Roger's hold and staggered
free. Quoth he:

"Art a very strong man, Roger, stronger than methought. Come again!"

Once more they circled heedfully, for Beltane had grown more wary:
thrice he sought a certain hold and thrice Black Roger foiled him, ere,
sudden and grim, he leapt and closed; and breast to breast they strove
fiercely, mighty arms straining and tight-clenched, writhing, swaying,
reeling, in fast-locked, desperate grapple. Now to Roger's strength and
quickness Beltane opposed craft and cunning, but wily Roger met guile
with guile nor was to be allured to slack or change his gripe.
Therefore of a sudden Beltane put forth his strength, and wrestled
mightily, seeking to break or weaken Roger's deadly hold. But Roger's
iron arms gripped and held him fast, crushed him, checked him.

"Aha! master," panted Roger, "now I have thee!" and therewith heaved
right lustily, felt Beltane yield and stagger, slacked his grip for the
final hold, and, in that moment, his arms were burst asunder, he was
whirled up, kicking, 'twixt earth and heaven, laid gently upon the
sward and, sitting up, found Beltane lying breathless beside him.

"'Twas a trick, Roger!" he panted, "I beat thee--but by an artifice--"

"Yet beaten I am, master," quoth Roger, vastly rueful.

"And art mightier than I thought thee, Roger."

"Master, I have wrestled oft with Gefroi that was the Duke's wrestler."

"Then art a better man than he, meseemeth," quoth Beltane.

"Yet thou hast beaten me, master!"

"So within the hour we will begone to our duty, Roger!"

"Whither, lord?"

"First to Winisfarne, and thence south to Belsaye, with every lusty
fellow we can muster. How think you?"

"I think the time is not yet, master."

"Wherefore?"

"For that though things go well with thee and thy cause, yet shall they
go better anon."

"Nevertheless, Roger, within the hour we march. So come, first let us
eat, for I do famish."

So, when they had caught their breath again, together they arose and,
coming to the cave beneath the steep, they re-made the fire and set the
pot thereon; which done, Roger brought forth his lord's armour, bright
and newly polished, and in a while Beltane stood, a shining figure from
golden spur to gleaming bascinet. Thereafter, Roger armed him likewise,
and as two brothers-in-arms they sat together and ate their meal with
mighty appetite and gusto. Now presently, as they sat thus, Beltane
espied a thing that lay by Roger's knee, and, taking it up, behold!
'twas a wallet of fair-sewn leather, very artfully wrought, and, gazing
upon it he must needs fall to sudden thought, whereto he sighed full
deep and oft, till, finding Roger watching him, he forthwith checked
his sighs and frowned instead.

"Roger," quoth he, "whence had ye this thing?"

"My lord, from--Her, the sweet knight Sir Fidelis, thy lady--"

"Why wilt thou call her my lady, Roger?"

"For that 'tis she you love and sigh for, she that doth love thee and
shall bear thee right fair and lusty children yet, so do I pray, and my
prayers are potent these days, for the good Saint Cuthbert heedeth me
regardfully. So do I know that she shall yet lie within thine arms and
yield thee thine heart's desire, _pars_--"

"Art a fool, Roger--aye, a very fool, and talk arrant folly--"

"Yet, master, here is folly shall be thy joy and her joy and--"

"Enough, Roger! Hast forgot the oath I sware? And the ways of woman be
crooked ways. And woman's love a light matter. Talk we of women no
more."

"How!" quoth Roger, staring, "speak we no more of--Her?"

"No more!"

"Forsooth, so be it, master, then will we talk of Sir Fidelis his love--"

"Nor of Sir Fidelis."

"Ha!" growled Roger, scratching his head, "must we go mumchance then,
master?"

"There be other matters for talk."

"Aye--there's witchcraft, master. For mark me, when thou wert sick and
nigh to God and the holy saints, the evil spell could not come nigh
thee, and thou didst yearn and cry continually for nought but--Her. But
now--now that thou'rt hale and strong again--"

"I behold things with mind unclouded, Roger."

"Save by enchantments damned, master. Since that evil day we met yon
accursed witch of Hangstone, hast never been thyself."

"Now do ye mind me how this woman did speak me of marvels and wonders,
Roger--"

"Artifice, lord--devilish toys to lure thee to fouler bewitchments."

"Howbeit, I will seek her out."

"Nay, good master, here shall be perils dire and deadly. O bethink
thee, lest she change thee into a swine, or black dog, aye, or even a
small shrew-mouse--I've heard of such ere now--or blast thee with fire,
or loathly disease, or--"

"None the less will I go."

"Never say so, master!"

"At the full o' the moon."

"Lord, now do I beseech thee--"

"And the moon will be full--to-night, Roger. Go you and saddle now the
horse."

Forthwith went Roger, gloomy and nothing speaking, what time Beltane
sat there staring down at the wallet on his knee, bethinking him of
many things, and, for that he was alone, sighing deep and oft; and so,
very suddenly, hung the wallet to his girdle and thereafter arose.

In a while cometh gloomy Roger leading the destrier Mars, whereon
gloomy Beltane swung to saddle, and, looking round about him once and
twice, rode slowly towards where, beyond the shade of trees, the forest
road ran north and south.

But, as for Roger, needs must he pause upon the edge of the clearing to
look back at the little cave beneath the steep, whereby the small
water-brook flowed murmurously; a while he stood thus, to frown and
shake gloomy head; then lifted he his hand on high, much as he had bid
one sorrowful farewell, and, turning about, trudged away after his
lord.



CHAPTER XLIX

HOW BELTANE FOUND PEACE AND A GREAT SORROW


It had been an evening of cloud, but now the sky was clear and the moon
shone bright and round as they reached that desolate, wind-swept heath
that went by the name of Hangstone Waste, a solitary place at all
times but more especially wild and awful 'neath the ghostly moon;
wherefore Roger went wide-eyed and fearful, and kept fast hold of
Beltane's stirrup.

"Ha--master, master!" cried he 'twixt chattering teeth, "did'st not
hear it, master?"

"Nay," answered Beltane, checking his horse, "what was it? where away?"

"'Twas a cry, master--beyond the marsh yonder. 'Tis there again!"

"'Twas an owl, Roger."

"'Twas a soul, master, a poor damned soul and desolate! We shall see
dire and dreadful sights on Hangstone Waste this night, master--holy
Saint Cuthbert! What was yon?"

"Nought but a bat, Roger."

"A bat, lord? Never think so. Here was, belike, a noble knight or a
lusty fellow be-devilled into a bat. Good master, let us go no further
--if thou hast no thought for thyself, have a little heed for poor
Roger."

"Why look ye, good Roger, canst go where thou wilt, but, as for me, I
ride for the White Morte-stone."

"Nay then, an thou'rt blasted this night, master, needs must I be
blasted with thee--yonder lieth the Morte-stone, across the waste. And
now, may Saint Cuthbert and Saint Bede have us in their blessed care,
Amen!"

So they began to cross the rolling desolation of the heath and
presently espied a great boulder, huge and solitary, gleaming white and
ghostly 'neath the moon.

Being come very nigh, Beltane checked his horse and was about to
dismount, when Roger, uttering a sudden gasping cry, cowered to his
knees, for in the air about them was a sound very sweet to hear--the
whisper of lute-strings softly plucked by skilled and cunning fingers,
and thereafter a man's voice, rich and melodious, brake forth into
tender singing: and the words were these:--

  "O moon! O gentle moon, to-night
   Unveil thy softest, tend'rest light
   Where feet I love, so small and white,
      Do bear my love to me!"

"Stand up, Roger, here is nought to harm us, methinks," quoth Beltane
softly, "stand up, and hold my bridle."

"But see now, master, there be devil-goblins a many that do pipe like
very angels."

"Nathless here's one that I must speak with," said Beltane, slipping to
earth and looking about him with wondering eyes, for the voice had
seemed to come from the grass at his feet. And while he yet sought to
and fro in frowning perplexity the melodious voice brake forth anew:

  "O little feet, more white than snow,
   If through the thorny brake ye go,
   My loving heart I'll set below
      To take the hurt for thee."

Now as the voice sank and the lute-strings quivered to silence,
Beltane, coming behind the great rock, beheld a glow, very faint and
feeble, that shone through thick-clustering leaves; and, putting aside
a whin-bush that grew against the rock, perceived a low and narrow
alley or passage-way leading downwards into the earth, lighted by a
soft, mellow beam that brightened as he advanced and presently showed
him a fair-sized chamber cunningly hollowed within the rock and adorned
with rich furs and skins. And behold one who reclined upon a couch of
skins, a slender, youthful figure with one foot wondrously be-wrapped
and swathed, who, beholding Beltane's gleaming mail, sprang up very
nimbly and fronted him with naked sword advanced.

"Nay, hast forgot thy friend, Sir Jocelyn?"

Incontinent the sword was tossed aside, and with a joyous cry Sir
Jocelyn sprang and caught him in close embrace.

"Now by sweet Venus her downy dove--'tis Beltane!" he cried. "Now
welcome and thrice welcome, my lordly smith, thou mighty son of noble
father. Ah, lord Duke, I loved thee that day thou didst outmatch Gefroi
the wrestler in the green. Since then much have I learned of thee and
thy valiant doings, more especially of Barham Broom--how thou didst
slay the vile Sir Gilles 'neath the eyes of Ivo and all his powers and
thereby didst snatch from shame and cruel death one that is become the
very heart of me, so needs must I love and honour and cherish thee so
long as I be Jocelyn and thou thy noble self. Come, sit ye--sit ye
here, for fain am I to question thee--"

"But," said Beltane, wrinkling puzzled brow, "how came you hither--and
art wounded, Jocelyn?"

"Aye, my lord, to desperation--O direly, Beltane. I do languish night
and day, sleep doth bring me no surcease and music, alack, abatement
none. Food--base food repelleth me and wine no savour hath. Verily,
verily, wounded deep am I."

"Forsooth," said Beltane, "thy foot doth wear bandages a many, but--"

"Bandages?" cried Jocelyn, staring. "Foot? Nay, nay, my torment is not
here," and he flourished his beswathed foot in an airy, dancing step.
"Indeed, Beltane, herein do I confess me some small artifice, yet, mark
me, to a sweet and worthy end. For my hurt lieth here,--sore smit am I
within this heart o' mine."

"Thy heart again, Jocelyn?"

"Again?" said the young knight, wrinkling slender brows.

"Aye, thou did'st sing thy heart's woe to me not so long since--in an
hundred and seventy and eight cantos, and I mind thy motto: 'Ardeo'."

"Nay, Beltane, in faith--indeed, these were folly and youthful folly,
the tide hath ebbed full oft since then and I, being older, am wiser.
Love hath found me out at last--man's love. List now, I pray thee and
mark me, friend. Wounded was I at the ford you wot of beside the mill,
and, thereafter, lost within the forest, a woeful wight! Whereon my
charger, curst beast, did run off and leave me. So was I in unholy
plight, when, whereas I lay sighful and distressed, there dawned upon
my sight one beyond all beauty beautiful. Y-clad in ragged garb was
she, yet by her loveliness her very rags were glorified. To me, shy as
startled doe, came she and, with saintly pity sweet, did tend my hurt,
which done, with much ado she did hither bring me. Each day, at morn
and eve, came she with cates rare and delicate, and her gentle hands
did woo my wound to health, the which indeed so swift grew well that I
did feign divers pains betimes lest she should vanish from me quite--so
grew my love. At the first loved I her something basely, for the beauty
of her body fair, whereat she grieved and sorrowed and fled from my
regard, and for an eternity of days came not again until yestere'en.
And, Beltane, though base her birth, though friendless, poor and
lonely, yet did my heart know her far 'bove my base self for
worthiness. So did I, yestere'en, upon my knightly word, pledge her my
troth, so shall she be henceforth my lady of Alain and chatelaine of
divers goodly castles, manors, and demesnes. To-night she cometh to me
in her rags, and to-night we set forth, she and I, to Mortain, hand in
hand--nor shall my lips touch hers, Beltane, until Holy Church hath
made us one. How think ye of my doing, friend?"

"I do think thee true and worthy knight, Sir Jocelyn, and moreover--"

But of a sudden, Roger's voice reached them from without, hoarse with
terror.

"Master--O master, beware! 'Tis the witch, lord--O beware!"

And with the cry, lo! a hurry of feet running swift and light, a rustle
of flying garments, and there, flushed and panting, stood the witch--
the witch Mellent that was the lady Winfrida. Now, beholding Beltane,
her eyes grew wide with swift and sudden fear--she quailed, and sank to
her knees before him; and when Sir Jocelyn, smitten to mute wonder,
would have raised her, she brake forth into bitter weeping and crouched
away.

"Nay, touch me not my lord, lest thou repent hereafter--for now do I
see that happiness is not for me--now must I say such words as shall
slay thy love for me, so touch me not."

"Ha, never say so!" cried Sir Jocelyn, "not touch thee? art not mine
own beloved Mellent?"

"Nay, I am the lady Winfrida--"

"Thou--Winfrida the rich and proud--in these rags? Thou, Winfrida the
Fair?--thy raven hair--"

"O, my hair, my lord? 'twas gold, 'tis black and shall be gold again,
but I am that same Winfrida."

"But--but I have seen Winfrida betimes in Mortain ere now."

"Nay, then, didst but look at her, my lord, for thine eyes saw only the
noble Helen's beauty. Alas! that ever I was born, for that I am that
Winfrida who, for ambition's sake and wicked pride, did a most vile
thing--O my lord Beltane, as thou art strong, be pitiful--as thou art
deeply wronged, be greatly merciful."

"How--how--mean you?" said Beltane, slow-speaking and breathing deep.

"Lord--'twas I--O, how may I tell it? My lord Beltane, upon thy wedding
night did I, with traitorous hand, infuse a potent drug within the
loving-cup, whereby our lady Duchess fell into a swoon nigh unto death.
And--while she lay thus, I took from her the marriage-robe--the gown of
blue and silver. Thereafter came I, with my henchman Ulf the Strong
and--found thee sleeping in the chapel. So Ulf--at my command--smote
thee and--bound thee fast, and, ere the dawn, I brought thee--to
Garthlaxton--O my lord!"

"Thou--? It was--thou?"

"I do confess it, my lord Beltane--traitor to thee, and base traitor to
her--"

"Why, verily--here was treachery--" quoth Beltane speaking slow and
soft, "truly here--methinks--was treachery--and wherefore?"

"O my lord, must I--tell this?"

"I do ask thee."

Then did Winfrida shrink within herself, and crouched yet further from
Sir Jocelyn as though his eyes had hurt her.

"Lord," she whispered, "I was--jealous! Duke Ivo wooed me long ere he
loved the Duchess Helen, so was I jealous. Yet was I proud also, for I
would suffer not his love until he had made me wife. And, upon a day,
he, laughing, bade me bring him captive this mighty man that defied his
power--that burned gibbets and wrought such deeds as no other man
dared, swearing that, an I did so, he would wed with me forthright. And
I was young, and mad with jealousy and--in those days--I knew love not
at all. But O, upon a day, I found a new world wherein Love came to me
--a love so deep and high, so pure and noble, that fain would I have
died amid the flame than thus speak forth my shame, slaying this
wondrous love by my unworthiness. Yet have I told my shame, and love is
dead, methinks, since I am known for false friend and traitor vile--a
thing for scorn henceforth, that no honourable love may cleave to. So
is love dead, and fain would I die also!"

Now, of a sudden, while yet Beltane frowned down upon her, came Sir
Jocelyn, and kneeling beside Winfrida, spake with bent head:

"Messire Beltane, thou seest before thee two that are one, henceforth.
So do I beseech thee, forgive us our trespass against thee, an it may
be so. But, if thy wrongs are beyond forgiveness, then will we die
together."

"O Jocelyn!" cried Winfrida breathlessly, "O dear my lord--surely never
man loved like thee! Lord Beltane, forgive--for this noble knight's
sake--forgive the sinful Winfrida!"

"Forgive?" said Beltane, hoarsely, "forgive?--nay, rather would I
humbly thank thee on my knees, for thou hast given back the noblest
part of me. She that was lost is found again, the dead doth live. Helen
is her noble self, and only I am vile that could have doubted her. The
happiest man, the proudest, and the most woeful, I, in all the world,
methinks. O kneel not to me--and pray you--speak on this matter no
more. Rise, rise up and get ye to your joy. Lady, hast won a true and
leal knight, and thou, Sir Jocelyn, a noble lady, who hath spoken truth
at hazard of losing her love. And I do tell ye, love is a very blessed
thing, greater than power, or honour, or riches, or aught in the world
but love. Aye, surely Love is the greatest thing of all!" So saying,
Beltane turned very suddenly, and strode out, where, beside the great
horse Mars, stood Roger, very pale in the moonlight, and starting and
staring at every rustling leaf and patch of shadow.

"Roger," said he, "thou art afraid of bats and owls, yet, forsooth, art
a wiser man than I. Bring hither the horse."

In a while cometh Sir Jocelyn and the lady Winfrida, hand in hand,
aglow with happiness, yet with eyes moistly bright under the moon.

"Good comrade-in-arms," quoth Beltane, "Mortain lieth far hence; now
here is a goodly horse--"

"O!" cried Winfrida shrinking, "surely 'tis the horse that bore Sir
Gilles of Brandonmere in the lists at Barham Broom--"

"So now, my lady Winfrida, shall it bear thee and thy love to Mortain
and happiness--O loved Mortain! So mount, Jocelyn, mount! Haste to thy
happiness, man, and in thy joy, forget not Pentavalon, for her need is
great. And thou hast goodly men-at-arms! How think ye, messire?"

"Beltane," cried Sir Jocelyn gleefully, "Beltane, O dear my friend,
doubt me not--I do tell thee we shall ride together yet, when the
battle joins!" So saying, be sprang to saddle. Now turned Beltane to
aid the lady Winfrida to Sir Jocelyn's hold; but, even then, she fell
upon her knees, and catching his hand to her bosom, kissed it.

"Lord Beltane," said she, looking up 'neath glistening lashes--"as thou
hast dealt with me, so may heaven deal with thee. May thy sore heart
find solace until love find thee--and--dear my lord, I pray you where
is--he--the young knight that rode with thee--for where he is, there
also is--Helen--"

"And thou dost know, too?"

"I knew her that day in the forest when I fled away, for though I would
have confessed my sin to thee, yet her cold scorn I could not have
borne. Where is she now, my lord?"

"Safe within Mortain, I pray."

"Then come you to Mortain. Come with us this night--ah! come you to
Mortain and--Helen!"

Now hereupon Beltane turned to look with yearning eyes towards the
gloom of the forest beyond which lay the soft and peaceful valleys of
fair Mortain, and she that called herself Fidelis, who had indeed been
so faithful in all things, so patient and enduring; and, as his eyes
yearned, so yearned the great passionate soul of him, insomuch that he
must needs fall a-trembling, whereat Roger the watchful drew a soft
pace nearer. So stood Beltane awhile, hands clenched, head bent,
staring ever northwards, his blood aglow with eager love, his heart
a-throb with passionate remorse.

"Come, my lord," breathed Winfrida, "O come--in Mortain is rest and
solace--and love!"

"Rest?" said Beltane softly, "solace and love--O sweet thought! Yet I
may not go hence, for here is sorrow and shame and suffering--sword
and fire and battle. So must I bide here in Pentavalon--with my duty."
So saying, he lifted Winfrida to Sir Jocelyn's ready clasp and
thereafter spake with head downbent: "An thou chance to see--her--
within Mortain, I pray you say that the blind doth see at last and is
gone to his duty, that, peradventure, he may be, some day, more worthy
her great love. And now fare ye well, good friends, God have ye ever in
His tender care. Come, Roger!"

Then Beltane turned him suddenly away, and with broad back set towards
Mortain, strode off across the desolate moor.



CHAPTER L

TELLETH HOW BELTANE WENT FORTH TO HIS DUTY


Silent went Beltane, his lips firm-set, his wistful eyes staring ever
before him, nor paused he once, nor once glanced back towards that
happy Mortain which held for him all that was fair and sweet and noble;
that pure and faithful heart wherein no evil could exist; that radiant
body in whose soft, white loveliness lay all the joy, all the happiness
the wide world might ever yield him.

And now, because of her proved innocence, he was uplifted by a great
and mighty joy, and therewith his step was light and swift; anon,
because of his base doubt of her, he writhed 'neath the sharp-gnawing
tooth of bitter remorse, and therewith his step grew heavy and slow.
Now was he proud of her so great love for him, and again, he knew a
profound and deep humility because of his so great unworthiness. Thus
went he, nothing speaking, now with flying feet, now with steps that
dragged, insomuch that watchful Roger fell to solemn wonderment, to a
furtive unease, and so, at last, to speech.

"Lord," quoth he in a voice of awe, but Beltane strode on unheeding,
whereat Roger's eyes grew round and his ruddy cheek pale, and clenching
his fist, he raised aloft his first and little fingers so that they
formed two horns, and with the horns he touched Beltane lightly on the
shoulder. "Master!" said he.

Then Beltane started, and turning, looked at Roger, whereupon Roger
immediately crossed his fingers.

"Ha, Roger, I was deep in my thoughts, what would ye?"

"Master, hast ever a pricking in the hairs of thy head?"

"Not I."

"Dost ever feel a tingling in the soles of thy feet?"

"Not so, in truth."

"Why then a shivering, quaking o' the back-bone?"

"Roger, man, what troubles thee now?"

"I do fear thou'rt be-devilled and moon-struck, master!"

"Why so?"

"Betimes thou dost smile upon the moon--for no reason; scowl upon the
earth--for no reason; work with thy lips yet speak no word, and
therewith do bite thy fingers-ends, clench thy fists--and all for no
reason. Moreover, thou'rt quick and slow in thy gait, sighing gustily
off and on--so it is I do sweat for thee."

"And wherefore?"

"Master," quoth Roger, glancing furtively about, "in my youth I did see
a goodly man be-devilled by horrid spells by an ancient hag that was a
noted witch, and he acted thus--a poor wight that was thereafter
damnably be-devilled into a small, black rabbit, see you--"

"Saw you all this indeed, Roger?"

"All but the be-devilling, master, for being young and sore frighted I
ran away and hid myself. But afterwards saw I the old woman with the
black rabbit in a cage--wherefore the vile hag was stoned to death, and
the black rabbit, that was her familiar, also--and very properly. And,
lord, because I do love thee, rather would I see thee dead than a
rabbit or a toad or lewd cur--wherefore now I pray thee cross thy
fingers and repeat after me--"

"Nay, my faithful Roger, never fear, here is no witchcraft. 'Tis but
that within the hour the blind doth see, the fool hath got him some
little wisdom."

"Master, how mean you?"

"This night, Roger, I have learned this great truth: that white can
never be black, nor day night, nor truth lie--and here is great matter
for thought, wherefore as I walk, I think."

Now hereupon Black Roger halted and looked upon Beltane glad-eyed.

"Lord," he cried, "is it that ye do know the very truth at last--of Sir
Fidelis--that glorious lady, thy Duchess Helen?"

"Aye, the very truth at last, Roger."

"Ha!--'tis so I petitioned the good Saint Cuthbert this very night!"

"And lo! he hath answered thy prayer, Roger."

"Verily he regardeth poor Roger these days, master, e'en though my belt
doth yet bear many accursed notches."

"They shall be fewer anon, Roger; there be many poor souls for thee to
save in woeful Pentavalon."

Hereafter went they a while in silence, until of a sudden Roger halted
and clapped hand to thigh.

"Master, we go the wrong way, methinks."

"Not so, we be close upon the forest road, Roger."

"But thou dost know her faithful, master, pure and holy in mind and
body--at sure of this at last!"

"Aye," sighed Beltane, "at last!"

"Why then, lord, let us incontinent seek her out."

"She is in for Mortain, Roger, moreover--"

"Nay, master, forsooth she is--hum! aye, she's in Mortain, mayhap, but
'tis none so far to Mortain for such legs as thine and mine. And belike
we may--chance upon her by the way, or--or she with us, or both!"

"Even so, needs must I to my duty."

"Thy duty!--aye, master--thy duty is to woo her, wed her, take her to
thy arms and--"

"I tell thee, Roger, ne'er will I speak word of love to her until I
have proved myself in some sense fit and worthy. First will I free
Pentavalon as I did swear--"

"Nay, master, wed first thy Duchess, so shall she aid thee in thy vows,
and thereafter--"

"Enough!" cried Beltane, "think ye 'tis so easy to thus gainsay the
love that burns me? But shame were it that I, beggared in fortune, my
friends few, should wed her in my dire need, dragging thereby peaceful
Mortain to mine aid and the bloody arbitrament of battle. Moreover,
hast forgot the oath I sware--that nought henceforth should let or stay
me?"

"Master," sighed Roger, "there be times, methinks, thou dost swear
over-many oaths. Art man and woman full of youth and love, wherefore
not marry? Wherefore heed a vow here or there? Needs must I wrestle
with the good Saint Cuthbert in the matter."

But here Beltane fell again to meditation and Roger likewise. So came
they presently to the forest-road, and turning north towards Winisfarne
they strode on, side by side, in silence profound and deep. And of a
sudden upon this silence, rose a voice high-pitched and quavering:

"O ye that have eyes, have pity--show mercy on one that is maimed and
helpless, and creepeth ever in the dark."



CHAPTER LI

HOW BLACK ROGER WON TO FULLER MANHOOD


Forthwith Beltane paused, and presently beheld one that sat by the
wayside--a man who crouched 'neath a dusty cloak and kept his white
head down-bent and who now reached out a hand to grope and grope for
the staff that lay near; wherefore Beltane took hold upon this hand and
raised the white-haired traveller, and thereafter put the cudgel in his
grasp.

"Messire," said the blind man, "though I have no eyes I do know thee
young, for thy clasp is strong and quick with life, yet wondrous
gentle. God bless thee, youthful sir, for 'tis well to meet with
gentleness within a world so cruel. Tell me, I pray, doth this road
lead unto Belsaye town?"

"Verily," answered Beltane, "but 'tis a long day's march thither."

"Yet needs must I reach there, since I do bear a message. But, O young
messire, when cruel men put out mine eyes, the good God, in His sweet
clemency, made sharp mine ears. So do I know thy voice, methinks, for
voice of one who, long months since, did cherish me in my need and
hunger, and sent me unto the saintly Ambrose."

"Ha!" cried Beltane joyously, "and is it thou indeed? Tell me, how doth
my father?--is he well?--what said he?--how looked he? O, I do yearn
for word of him!"

"Thy father? How, young sir, is he indeed thy father? Then is thy name
Beltane, for I have heard him name thee oft--"

"Forsooth, and did he so? But how came you here, and wherefore?"

"To seek thee, lord Beltane, according to thy saintly father's word.
And the manner of it, thus: As we sat together of a certain fair noon
within Holy Cross Thicket, there came to us thither a woman, young,
methinks, and fair, for her speech was soft and wondrous sweet in mine
ears. And she did hail thy father 'Duke,' and thereafter spake thy name
full oft, and so they fell to many words, walking together up and down
before the hut. Anon, sudden and silent as she came, she was gone, and
thy father walked full long, praying oft as one that rejoiceth greatly,
and oft as one in deep perplexity. In a while cometh he to me and gave
me scrip and therewith food and money, and bade me seek thee in Belsaye
and speak thee thus: 'Tell Beltane, my well-beloved, that I, his
father, have heard of his great and knightly deeds and that I do glory
in them, praising God. Say that through him my youth and strength are
renewed and my great sin made easier to bear. Tell him that the woes of
Pentavalon draw to an end, and that ere long she shall arise above her
sorrows. Bid him be of good courage yet a little longer, for the lion
is waked at last, and the leopard also.' Behold now, messire, all's
said." And the blind man stood with down-bent head, one hand grasping
the staff, his other arm hid within his wide sleeve, what time Roger
watched him furtive and askance, and moreover, his bow-stave shook and
quivered in his grasp; as for Beltane, he stood as one lost in happy
thought, upon his lips a smile ineffably tender. Smiling yet, he turned
and touched the blind man's stooping shoulder. Quoth he:

"Greatly welcome is thy news and greatly would I thank thee. Pray you
now, how may I show my gratitude?"

"Messire, fain would I shelter me in Belsaye, for there is fire and
sword and battle on the marches. But the way is long, and on my road
hither two rogues took from me purse and scrip. Give me, therefore,
enough to bear me on my way."

"Aye, verily! Roger, thou dost bear the purse. Give him store of money
and some of our food--see that he lacketh for nothing, Roger." So
saying, Beltane turned him away and fell again to pondering his
father's words.

Now at sound of Roger's name the blind man started round and fixed
Roger with the horror of his eyeless sockets, and, therewith, flung up
an arm as though fearing a blow; and behold! this arm was but a
mutilated stump, for hand was there none.

"Roger!" he whispered, "not Roger the Black? No, no! There be a many
Rogers. But who art thou dost bear such a name, and wherefore cower and
gasp ye?"

Then stood the blind man with head out-thrust and awful arm upraised,
before which Black Roger shrank and shrank to cower in the deeper
shadow.

Of a sudden the blind man turned and coming beside Beltane, grasped him
by the mantle.

"Lord," he questioned, "who is he that trembleth before the maimed and
blind?--who is he that croucheth yonder?"

"Nay, fear ye nothing," said Beltane, "'tis none but my trusty Roger,
my good comrade in arms--comfort ye!" Then he beckoned Roger and took
the purse and gave to the blind man bounteously, saying:

"See now, when you shall come to Belsaye go you to Eric that hath
command of the town and to Giles that is captain of the archers, and
say that I, Beltane, will come to Belsaye within the week, and all our
company with me, God willing. Bid them be vigilant and watch for our
coming; let bows be strung and wall and turret manned night and day. So
now fare thee well, and God's hand guide thy sightless going."

Then the blind man blessed Beltane, and turning, forthwith set out upon
his way, and his staff tapped loud upon the forest-road. Right joyfully
Beltane strode on again, his mind ever busied with thought of his
father; but Roger's step was listless and heavy, so that Beltane must
needs turn to look on him, and straightway marvelled to see how he hung
his head, and that his ruddy cheek was grown wondrous pale and haggard.

"Roger?" quoth he, "art sick, Roger?"

"Sick, lord? nay--not sick, 'tis but that I--I--" But when he would
have said more his voice failed him, his lip fell a-quivering, and even
as Beltane stared in wonder, Black Roger groaned and flung himself upon
his knees, and hid his face within his hands.

"Why Roger! What ails thee, Roger, man?" said Beltane and laid a hand
upon his shoulder, whereat Roger groaned again and shrank away.

"Ah, lord, touch me not!" he cried, "unfit am I for hand of thine,
unfit and all unworthy--"

"Nay, good friend--"

"Master--master!" groaned Roger, and therewith a great cry brake from
him and he cast himself face downwards in the dust. "Unworthy am I to
be thy man, so must I leave thee this night--aye, leave thee! For O my
lord! yon poor blind man--'twas I--at the Red Pertolepe's command--
'twas I--did burn out his eyes and--cut off his hand--'twas I--I--Black
Roger! O Saint Cuthbert! O sweet Jesu! So all unworthy am I to be thy
man!"

And now great sobs shook him, fierce sobs and bitter, and he writhed
there in the dust, groaning in the agony of his remorse. Little by
little his passion spent itself, but still he lay there, yearning
mightily for sound of his master's voice or touch of his hand, yet
dared he not look up because of his abasement.

At last, whenas his sobs had ceased, he lifted his wretched head and
stared in wide-eyed wonder to see Beltane upon his knees, his mailed
hands clasped and his lips moving in silent prayer; when, his prayer
ended, he raised his head and straightway Roger's wonder grew, for
behold! the eyes of Beltane were wondrous gentle, his mouth sweet-curved
and tender, the old harsh lines of grim-curled lip and lowering
brow had vanished quite; and thus at last Black Roger saw again the
face of my Beltane that had smiled on him long since amid the green
across the prostrate form of poor Beda the Jester. So now, my Beltane
smiled, and smiling, reached forth his hand.

"Roger," said he, "by shame and agony some men do win to new life and
fuller manhood, and such a man, methinks, thou art. So hath God need of
thee, and from this the dust of thy abasement, mayhap, shall lift thee,
one day, high as heaven. Stand up, Roger, good my friend, stand up, O
man, for he only is unworthy that ne'er hath wept remorseful in the
dust for evil past and done."

Then Roger grasped that strong, uplifting hand, and stood upon his
feet, yet spake he no word; and presently they went on along the road
together.

And Roger's habit was stained with dust, and on his cheek the mark of
bitter tears--but his head was high and manfully uplifted.



CHAPTER LII

HOW THEY HAD NEWS OF WALKYN


Now went they in silence again for that Beltane dreamed of many things
while Roger marvelled within himself, oft turning to look on my
Beltane's radiant face, while ever his wonder grew; so oft did he turn
thus to gape and stare that Beltane, chancing to meet his look, smiled
and questioned him, thus:

"Why gape ye on me so, Roger man?"

"For wonder, master."

"Wherefore?"

"To see thee so suddenly thyself again--truly Saint Cuthbert is a
potent saint!"

"And thou a sturdy pray-er, good Roger."

"And most vile sinner, lord. Howbeit I have dared supplicate on thy
behalf and behold! thou art indeed thyself again--that same sweet and
gentle youth that smote me on my knavish mazzard with thy stout
quarter-staff in Shevening Thicket in the matter of Beda, Red
Pertolepe's fool--a dour ding, yon, master--forsooth, a woundy rap!"

Now fell they to thoughtful silence again, but oft Black Roger's stride
waxed uneven, and oft he stumbled in his going, wherefore Beltane
slackened his pace.

"What is it, Roger?"

"Naught but my legs, master. Heed 'em not."

"Thy legs?"

"They be shorter than thine, lord, and love not to wag so fast. An thou
could'st abate thy speed a little--a very little, master, they shall
thank thee dearly."

"Art so weary, Roger?"

"Master, I was afoot ere sunrise."

"Why truly, Roger. Yet do I, to mine own selfish ends, keep thee from
thy slumber thus. Verily a selfish man, I!"

"Not so, master, indeed--"

"So now will we halt, and thou shalt to thy rest."

"Why then, lord, let us to the Hollow--it lieth scarce a mile through
the brush yonder, and 'twas there I did appoint for Walkyn to meet with
thee again--so shall we sleep secure; moreover I have a feeling--as it
were one calling us thither, a wondrous strange feeling, master! Mayhap
we shall come by news of Walkyn there--"

"'Tis well bethought, Roger. Come thy ways."

Forthwith turned they from the forest-road, and forcing their way
through a leafy tangle, presently came out into a ride, or narrow
glade; but they had gone only a very little distance when they espied
the red glow of a fire within a thicket hard by, and therewith the
sound of voices reached them:

"Three great bags, I tell thee!" cried one voice, high and querulous,
"three great, fair and goodly bags full crammed of sweet gold pieces!
All my lord Duke's revenue of Winisfarne and the villages adjacent
thereunto! Taxes, see ye, my lord Duke's taxes--and all stolen, reft,
and ravished from me, Guido, Steward and Bailiff of the northern
Marches, by clapper-claws and raveners lewd and damned! Woe's me for my
lord's good money-bags!"

"O, content thee!" spake another voice, sleepy and full-fed, "for, an
these monies were the Duke's they were not thine, and if they were not
thine thou wert not robbed, and, since thou wert not robbed, wherefore
groan and glower ye on the moon? Moreover, thou hast yet certain monies
thou didst--collect--from yon blind fellow, the which remindeth me I
have not yet my share. So pray thee now disburse, good steward."

Hereupon, ere Beltane could stay him, Roger slipped, soft-treading,
into the undergrowth; upon whose vanishing the air grew very suddenly
full of shouts and cries, of scuffling sounds and woeful pleadings; and
striding forward, Beltane beheld two men that crouched on bended knees,
while Roger, fierce and threatening, stood betwixt, a hairy hand upon
the throat of each. Now beholding Beltane, they (these gasping rogues)
incontinent beset him with whimpering entreaties, beseeching of him
their lives. Ragged knaves they seemed, and in woeful plight--the one a
lank fellow and saturnine, with long, down-trending, hungry nose; the
other a little man, plump and buxom, whose round eyes blinked woefully
in his round and rosy face as he bent 'neath Roger's heavy hand. Yet
spake he to Beltane in soft and soothing accents, on this wise:

"Resplendent sir, behold this thy most officious wight who doth my
tender throat with hurtful hand encompass--doubtless to some wise and
gracious end an he doth squeeze me thus at thy command. Yet, noble sir,
humbly would I woo of thee the mercy of a little more air, lest this
right noble youth do choke me quite!"

But hereupon the lank fellow cried out, bold and querulous:

"Take ye heed, for whoso dareth lay hand on me, toucheth the person of
Duke Ivo's puissant self!"

"Ha--say ye so?" growled Roger, and forthwith squeezed him until he
gasped again.

"Loose me, knave!" he panted, "Duke Ivo's Steward, I--Bailiff of the
northern Marches with--towns and villages--adjacent thereunto--"

"Unhand them, Roger," said Beltane, "entreat them gently--in especial
my lord Duke's Steward and Bailiff of the Marches, if so he be in very
truth."

"Yea my lord, in very truth!" cried the Bailiff. "But two days since in
ermined robe and chain of office, a notable man, I, courted by many,
feared by more, right well be-seen by all, with goodly horse betwixt my
knees and lusty men-at-arms at my beck and call. To-night, alas and
woe! thou see'st me a ragged loon, a sorry wight the meanest rogue
would scorn to bow to, and the very children jeer at--and all by reason
of a lewd, black-avised clapper-claw that doth flourish him a mighty
axe--O, a vile, seditious fellow ripe for the gallows."

"Ah! with an axe say'st thou, sir Bailiff?"

"O most infallibly an axe, messire--a ponderous axe with haft the
length of this my leg. A vilely tall, base, and most unseemly dog that
hath spoiled me of my lord's sweet money-bags, wherefore I yearn to see
him wriggle in a noose. To the which end I journey in these my rags,
unto my lord Duke on Barham Broom, with tale of wrong and outrage most
abominable."

"And dared they rob thee indeed?" quoth Beltane, "and thou my lord
Duke's High Steward and Bailiff of the Marches! Come, sit ye down and
tell me of the matter--and Roger, methinks he shall talk the better an
thou keep thy fingers farther from his wind-pipe."

So down sat they together round the fire, and, what time the little
buxom man viewed Beltane 'twixt stealthy lids from golden spur to open
bascinet, the Bailiff fell to his tale, as followeth:

"Know then, good and noble sir knight, that I sat me, but two days
since, in right fair and goodly estate, my lackeys to hand, my men-at-arms
at my back (twenty tall fellows). I sat me thus, I say, within the
square at Winisfarne, whither, by sound of trumpet, I had summoned me
the knavish townsfolk to pay into my hand my lord Duke's rightful dues
and taxes, which folk it is my custom to call upon by name and one by
one. When lo! of a sudden, and all uncalled, comes me a great, tall
fellow, this same black-avised knave, and forthwith seized him one of
my lord's great money-bags, and when I would have denied him, set me
his axe beneath my very nose. Thereafter took he the bags all three and
scattered (O hateful--hateful sight!) my lord's good monies among the
base rabblement. And, when my lusty fellows sought to apprehend me this
rogue, he smote them dolefully and roared in hideous fashion 'Arise--
Pentavalon!' And straightway, at this lewd shout, forth of the crowd
leapt many other rogues bedight as gentle knights in noble mail,
cap-à-pie, and fell upon us and smote us dire, and stripped me of my
goodly apparel, and drave me forth of the town with stripes and blows
and laughter most ungentle. So here sit I, poor Guido, Steward and
Bailiff of the Marches, in most vile estate, very full of woe yet,
alack, empty of belly."

"But," says Beltane, shaking his head, "within thy pouch, methinks, a
blind man's money."

"How--a blind man?" gasped the Bailiff, "a blind man's monies, say'st
thou? Nay messire, in very truth."

"Search him, Roger."

Hereupon Roger, having straightway choked him to silence with the one
hand full soon had found the money with the other, and thereafter, he
loosed the Bailiff that he might get his breath again; the which he no
sooner had done than he fell to prayers and humble entreaties:

"Sir knight--right noble sir, sure thou wilt not take thus from a
woeful wight all that he hath."

"Nay," answered Beltane, "I take only from my lord Duke's Steward and
Bailiff of the Marches. And now," said he, turning upon the small,
round man, "thou hast marked me well, how say you, Pardoner?"

"First, most truly potent, wise, yet very youthful, noble sir, that for
all the world and all the glory thereof I would not anger thee."

"Hast good eyes, Pardoner, and art quick to heed."

"Nay, dull am I, sweet lord, aye, dull forsooth and slow beyond
belief."

"Would'st know me again? could'st bear my likeness in thy memory?"

"Never, lord. Never, O never! I swear it by the toe of the blessed
Didymus, by the arm of Saint Amphibalus thrice blessed, by--"

"Why then, Pardoner, behold here my belt of silver, my good,
long-bladed sword. And here--behold my yellow hair!" and off came bascinet,
and back fell mail-coif, whereat the Bailiff started and caught his
breath and stared on Beltane in sudden awe.

"Dost mark me well, Pardoner?"

"Aye, noble sir, verily and in truth do I. So, next time I think on
thee thou wilt be a squat man, middle-aged and black-haired. For, my
lord, a poor Pardoner I, but nought beside."

Then Beltane did on coif and bascinet and rose to his feet, whereat the
Bailiff cried out in sudden fear and knelt with hands upraised:

"Slay me not, my lord! O messire Beltane, spare my life nor think I
will betray thee, outlaw though thou art!"

"Fear not, sir Bailiff," answered Beltane, "thy life is safe from me.
But, when thou dost name me to thy lord, Duke Ivo, tell him that I
spake thee this: That, whiles I do lie within the green he shall not
sleep o' nights but I will be at work with fire and steel, nor rest nor
stay until he and the evil of him be purged from this my father's duchy
of Pentavalon--say I bid him remember this upon his pillow. Tell him
that whiles I do hold the woods my powers grow daily, and so will I
storm and burn his castles, one by one, as I did burn Garthlaxton. Say
I bid him to think upon these things what time he wooeth slumber in the
night. As to thee, thou wily Pardoner, when thou shalt come to betray
this our meeting, say that I told thee, that as Belsaye rose, and
Winisfarne, so shall town and village rise until Ivo and his like are
driven hence, or Beltane slain and made an end of. And so--fare ye
well! Come, Roger!" Then Beltane strode away with grim Roger at his
heels what time the Bailiff and the Pardoner stared in dumb amaze.

"Here," quoth the Pardoner at last, stroking his round chin, "here was
a man, methinks, wherefore are we yet alive!"

"Here," quoth the Bailiff, scratching his long nose, "here was a fool,
methinks, for that we are alive. A traitor, see ye, Pardoner, whose
yellow head is worth its weight in gold! Truly, truly, here was a very
fool!" So saying, he arose, albeit furtively, and slipping forthwith
into the shadow, crept furtively away until the fire-glow was lost and
hidden far behind him. Then, very suddenly, he betook him to his heels,
and coming to the forest-road, fled southwards towards Duke Ivo's great
camp that lay on Barham Broom.



CHAPTER LIII

OF JOLETTE, THAT WAS A WITCH


"Lord," said Roger, shaking his head, as they halted upon the edge of
the Hollow, "lord, 'twere better thou hadst let me strangle them; those
dogs will bay of thee to Black Ivo ere this time to-morrow!"

"'Tis so I hope, Roger."

"Hope?"

"Could I but lure Black Ivo into the wild, Roger, where swamp and
thicket should fight for us! Could I but draw him hither after me, of
what avail the might of his heavy chivalry upon this narrow forest-road,
his close-ranked foot-men a sure mark for the arrows of our war-wise
foresters? Thus, our pikes in front, a charge in flank, his line
once pierced needs must follow confusion and disorder. Then press we
where his banner flieth, and, hemmed in by our pikes and gisarms and
Giles's bowmen, he once our prisoner or slain, his great army would
crumble and melt away, since they do serve but for base hire, whiles
we, though few, do smite amain for home and children. O Roger man,
could I but lure him into the green!"

"Yet methinks there is a surer way, master."

"How--as how, Roger?"

"Wed thou thy Duchess, and so bring down on him all the powers of
Mortain!"

"Roger, dost well know my mind on this matter; prate ye no more!"

"Then will I pray, master--so I do warn thee! Forsooth, I will this
night fall to work upon the good saint and plague him right prayerfully
that thy Duchess may come and save thee and thy Duchy in despite of
thee, and having made thee Duke of Pentavalon with her lances,
thereafter make thee Duke of Mortain in her own sweet body, for as I do
know--"

But Beltane was already descending the steep path leading down into the
great green hollow that lay all silent and deserted 'neath the ghostly
moon, where nought stirred in the windless air, where bush and tree
cast shadows monstrous and distorted, and where no sound brake the
brooding quiet save the murmurous ripple of the brook that flowed to
lose itself in the gloomy waters of that deep and sullen pool.

Swift and sure-treading as only foresters might, they descended the
steep, and lured by some elfin fancy, Beltane must needs come to stand
beside the pool and to stare down into those silent waters, very dark
by reason of that great tree 'neath whose writhen branches Tostig the
outlaw had fought and died; so stood Beltane awhile lost in
contemplation, what time Roger, drawing ever nearer his master's elbow,
shivered and crossed himself full oft.

"Come away, master," said he at last, low-voiced, "I love not this pool
at any time, more especially at the full o' the moon. On such nights
ghosts do walk! Tostig was an ill man in life, but Tostig's ghost
should be a thing to fright the boldest--prithee, come away."

"Go get thee to thy rest, Roger. As for me, I would fain think."

"But wherefore here?"

"For that I am so minded."

"So be it, master. God send thy thoughts be fair." So saying, Roger
turned where, on the further side of the Hollow, lay those caves 'neath
the rocky bank wherein the outlaws had been wont to sleep. But, of a
sudden, Beltane heard a hoarse scream, a gasp of terror, and Roger was
back beside him, his naked broad-sword all a-shake in his trembling
hand, his eyes wide and rolling.

"Master--O master!" he whimpered, "ghosts! 'neath the tree--Tostig--
the Dead Hand!"

"Nay, what folly is here, Roger?"

"Lord, 'twas the Dead Hand--touched me--on the brow--in the shadow
yonder! Aye--on the brow--'neath the tree! O master, dead men are we,
'tis Tostig come to drag us back to hell with him!" And crouching on
his knees, Roger fell to desperate prayers.

Then Beltane turned whither Roger's shaking finger had pointed, and
strode beneath the great tree. And peering up through the dark, he
presently espied a shadowy thing that moved amid a gloom of leaves and
branches; and, beholding what it was, he drew sword and smote high
above his head.

Something thudded heavily upon the grass and lay there, mute and rigid,
while Beltane, leaning upon his sword, stared down at that fell shape,
and breathing the noxious reek of it, was seized of trembling horror;
nevertheless he stooped, and reaching out a hand of loathing in the
dimness, found the cord whereby it had swung and dragged the rigid,
weighty thing out into the radiance of the moon until he could see a
pallid face twisted and distorted by sharp and cruel death. Now in this
moment Roger sware a fierce, great oath, and forthwith kicked those
stiffened limbs.

"Ha!" cried he, "methought 'twas Tostig his ghost come for to drag us
down into yon accursed pool--and 'tis naught but the traitor-rogue
Gurth!"

"And dead, Roger!"

"Forsooth, he's dead enough, master--faugh!"

"And it availeth nothing to kick a dead man, Roger."

"Yet was he an arrant knave, master."

"And hath paid for his knavery, methinks!"

"A very rogue! a traitor! a rogue of rogues, master!"

"Then hath he the more need of our prayers, Roger."

"Prayers! How, lord, would'st pray for--this?"

"Nay, Roger, but thou shalt, since thou art potent in prayer these
days." So saying, Beltane knelt upon the sward and folded reverent
hands; whereupon Roger, somewhat abashed, having set his sword upright
in the ling as was his custom, presently knelt likewise, and clearing
his throat, spake aloud in this fashion:

"Holy Saint Cuthbert, thou see'st here all that is left of one that in
life was a filthy, lewd, and traitorous knave, insomuch that he hath,
methinks, died of roguery. Now, most blessed saint, do thy best for the
knavish soul of him, intercede on his behalf that he may suffer no more
than he should. And this is the prayer of me, Black Roger, that has
been a vile sinner as I have told thee, though traitor to no man, I
praise God. But, most blessed and right potent saint, while I am at the
ears of thee, fain would I crave thy aid on matter of vasty weight and
import. To wit, good saint: let now Sir Fidelis, who, as ye well know,
doth hide womanly beauties in ungentle steel--let now this brave and
noble lady muster forthwith all the powers within her Duchy of Mortain
--every lusty fellow, good saint--and hither march them to my master's
aid. Let her smite and utterly confound Black Ivo, who (as oft I've
told thee--moreover thine eyes are sharp), is but a rogue high-born,
fitter for gallows than ducal crown, even as this most unsavoury Gurth
was a rogue low-born. So when she hath saved my master despite himself,
sweet saint, then do thou join them heart and body, give them joy
abounding and happiness enduring, nor forget them in the matter of
comely children. So bring to woeful Pentavalon and to us all and every,
peace at last and prosperity--and to sorrowful Roger a belt wherein be
no accursed notches and a soul made clean. _In nomen Dominum, Amen!_"

"Master," quoth he, yet upon his knees and viewing Beltane somewhat
askance, "here is the best I can do for such as yon Gurth; will't
suffice, think ye?"

"Aye, 'twill serve, Roger. But, for the other matter--"

"Why see you, master, a man may freely speak his dear desires within
his prayers--more especially when his prayers are potent, as mine.
Moreover I warned thee--I warned thee I would pray for thee--and pray
for thee I have." Now hereupon Beltane rose somewhat hastily and turned
his back, what time Roger sheathed his sword.

Then spake Beltane, turning him to the pool again:

"We had store of tools and mattocks, I mind me. Go and look within the
caves if there be ever a one left, for now must we bury this poor
clay."

"Ha, must we pray for him--_and_ bury him, master?"

"And bury him, Roger."

Then Roger sighed and shook his head and so left Beltane, who fell
again to profound meditation; but of a sudden hearing a cry, he turned
to behold Roger running very fleetly, who, coming near, caught him by
the arm and sought to drag him away.

"Run!" he panted, "run, master--I ha' just seen a goblin--run, master!"

Now beholding the terror in Roger's eyes, Beltane unsheathed his sword.
"Show me, Roger," said he.

"Nay, lord--of what avail? Let's away, this place is rank o' deviltries
and witchcraft--"

"Show me, Roger--come!"

Perforce, Roger led the way, very heedful to avoid each patch of
shadow, until they were come opposite that cave where aforetime Beltane
had been customed to sleep. Here Roger paused.

"Master," he whispered, "there is a thing within that groaneth--
goblin-groans, master. A thing very like unto a goblin, for I ha' seen it
--a pale thing that creepeth--holy saints, 'tis here again--hark to it!"

And in very truth Beltane heard a sound the which, soft though it was,
checked his breath and chilled his flesh; and, as he peered into the
gloomy recesses of the cavern, there moved something vague amid the
shadows, something that rose up slow and painfully.

Roger was down gasping on his knees, Beltane's hand was tight-clenched
upon the hilt of his sword, as out into the moonlight crept one, very
bent and feeble, shrouded in a long grey cloak; a pitiful figure, that,
leaning a hand upon the rock, slowly raised a drooping head. Then
Beltane saw that this was the witch Jolette.

A while she stood thus, one hand supporting her against the rocky bank,
the other hid within the folds of her long mantle.

"O my lord!" said she, low-voiced, "all day long my heart hath been
calling--calling to thee; so art come at last--thanks be to God--O my
lord Beltane!"

Now as she spake, she reached out a hand to him so that the shrouding
mantle fell away; then, beholding what it had hid, Beltane let fall his
sword, and leaping forward, caught her within his arm.

"Ah!--thou'rt hurt!" he cried.

"My lord, I--strove to bind it up--I am cunning in herbs and simples--
but my hurt is too deep for any leechcraft. To-night--soon--I must die.
Lay me down, I pray thee. Thine arms are strong, lord Beltane, and--
very gentle. How, dost grieve for a witch, lord--for poor Jolette? Nay,
comfort ye--my life has been none so sweet I should dread to lose it."

"How cometh this?" he questioned gently, on his knees beside her.

"'Twas the Red Pertolepe's men--nay, messire, they have but killed me.
But O, my dear lord--heed me well. A week agone lord Pertolepe marched
hither seeking thee with a great company led by yon Gurth. And when he
found thee not he hanged Gurth, yet tarried here awhile. Then I,
knowing a secret path hither that none else do know, came and hearkened
to their councils. So do I know that he is marched for Winisfarne--"

"Ha, is this so!" cried Beltane, clenching his fist, "then will he hang
and burn!"

"Aye, 'tis like enough, messire. But--O heed me! He goeth for a deeper
purpose--list, Beltane--O list--he goeth to seize upon the noble and
saintly Abbess Veronica--to bear her captive unto Pentavalon city,
there to hold her hostage for--for thee, Beltane--for thee!"

"How mean you?"

"When he hath her safe, Duke Ivo, because he hath learned to fear thee
at last, will send envoys to thee demanding thou shalt yield up to him
the town of Belsaye and thy body to his mercy, or this fair and noble
lady Abbess shall be shamed and dishonoured, and know a death most
dire. And--ah! because thou art the man thou art, thou must needs yield
thyself to Ivo's cruel hands, and Belsaye to flame and ravishment."

"Not so," answered Beltane, frowning, "within Belsaye are many women
and children also, nor should these die that one might live, saintly
abbess though she be."

Now hereupon the witch Jolette raised herself, and set her two hands
passionately on Beltane's shoulders, and looked upon him great-eyed and
fearful.

"Ah, Beltane--Beltane, my lord!" she panted, "but that I am under a
vow, now could I tell thee a thing would fire thy soul to madness--but,
O believe, believe, and know ye this--when Duke Ivo's embassy shall
tell thee all, thou--shalt suffer them to take thee--thou shalt endure
bonds and shame and death itself. So now thou shalt swear to a dying
woman that thou wilt not rest nor stay until thou shalt free this lady
Abbess, for on her safety doth hang thy life and the freedom of
Pentavalon. Swear, O swear me this, my lord Beltane, so shall I die in
peace. Swear--O swear!"

Now, looking within her glowing eyes, feeling the tremble of her
passionate-pleading hands, Beltane bowed his head.

"I swear!" said he.

"So now may God hear--this thy oath, and I--die in peace--"

And saying this, Jolette sank in his arms and lay a while as one that
swoons; but presently her heavy eyes unclosed and on her lips there
dawned a smile right wondrous to behold, so marvellous tender was it.

"I pray thee, lord, unhelm--that I may see thee--once again--thy golden
hair--"

Wondering, but nothing speaking, Beltane laid by his bascinet, threw
back his mail-coif, and bent above her low and lower, until she might
reach up and touch those golden curls with failing hand.

"Lord Beltane!--boy!" she whispered, "stoop lower, mine eyes fail.
Hearken, O my heart! Even as thy strong arms do cradle me, so--have
these arms--held thee, O little Beltane, I--have borne thee oft upon my
heart--ere now. Oft have hushed thee to rosy sleep--upon this bosom.
'Twas from--these arms Sir Benedict caught thee on--that woeful day.
For I that die here--against thy heart, Beltane--am Jolette, thy
foster-mother--wilt thou--kiss me--once?"

So Beltane stooped and kissed her, and, when he laid her down, Jolette
the witch was dead.

Full long Beltane knelt, absorbed in prayer, and as he prayed, he wept.
So long knelt he thus, that at last cometh Roger, treading soft and
reverently, and touched him.

"Master!" he whispered.

Then Beltane arose as one that dreams and stood a while looking down
upon that pale and placid face, on whose silent lips the wondrous smile
still lingered. But of a sudden, Roger's fingers grasped his arm.

"Master!" he whispered again. Thereon Beltane turned and thus he saw
that Roger looked neither on him nor on the dead and that he pointed
with shaking finger. Now, glancing whither he pointed, Beltane beheld,
high on the bank above them, a mounted knight armed cap-à-pie, who
stared down at them through closed visor--a fierce and war-like figure
looming gigantic athwart the splendour of the sinking moon. And even as
they stared in wonder, a broad shield flashed, and knight and horse
were gone.



CHAPTER LIV

HOW BELTANE FOUGHT WITH A DOUGHTY STRANGER


"Lord!" quoth Roger, wiping sweat from him, "yonder certes was Hob-gob!
Forsooth ne'er saw I night the like o' this! How think ye of yon
devilish things? Here was it one moment, and lo! in the twinkle of an
eye it is not. How think ye, master?"

"I do think 'twas some roving knight."

"Nay but, lord--how shall honest flesh and blood go a-vanishing away
into thin air whiles a man but blinketh an eye?"

"The ground hath sudden slope thereabouts, belike."

"Nay, yonder was some arch-wizard, master--the Man o' the Oak, or
Hob-gob himself. Saint Cuthbert shield us, say I--yon was for sure a
spirit damned--"

"Hark! Do spirits go in steel, Roger?" said Beltane, stooping for his
sword; for indeed, plain and loud upon the prevailing quiet was the
ring and clash of heavy armour, what time from the bushes that clothed
the steep a tall figure strode, and the moon made a glory in polished
shield, it gleamed upon close-vizored helm, it flashed upon brassart,
vanbrace and plastron. Being come near, the grim and warlike figure
halted, and leaning gauntleted hand upon long shield, stood silent a
while seeming to stare on Beltane through the narrow slit of his great
casque. But even as he viewed Beltane, so stared Beltane on him, on the
fineness of his armour, chain and plate of the new fashion, on his
breadth of shoulder and length of limb--from shining casque to
gleaming shield, whereon was neither charge nor blazon; and so at last,
spake my Beltane, very gentle and courteous:

"Messire, an thou be come in peace, now shalt thou be right welcome--"

"Peace!" quoth the knight loud and fierce, and his laughter rang hoarse
within his helm. "Peace, forsooth! Thou art a tall and seemly youth, a
youth fair spoken, and yet--ha! A belt of silver! And golden hair! And
yet--so very youthful! Art thou in very truth this famous rogue whose
desperate deeds do live on every tongue, who hath waked Duke Ivo from
his long-time security, insomuch that he doth yearn him for that yellow
head o' thine--art thou Beltane the Outlaw and Rebel?"

"'Tis so men do call me, messire."

"Verily, youth, methinks dost lie, for I have heard this outlaw is
beyond all men wild and fierce and weaveth him demoniac spells and
enchantments most accurst, whereby he maketh gate and door and mighty
portcullis to ope and yield before his pointed finger, and bolt and bar
and massy wall to give him passage when he will, as witness the great
keep of Garthlaxton that he did burn with hellish fire. I have heard he
doth commonly burn gibbets to warm him, and beareth off great lords
beneath his arm as I might a small coney and slayeth him three or four
with his every stroke. 'Tis said that he doth wax daily mightier and
more fierce, since he doth drink hot blood and batteneth on flesh o'
tender babes beneath the orbèd moon--"

"Messire," said Beltane beginning to frown, "within thy wild and
foolish talk is this much truth, that I, with divers trusty comrades,
did indeed burn down the shameful gallows of Belsaye, and bore captive
a certain lordly knave. As for Garthlaxton, the thing was simple--"

"O boastful boy!" quoth the knight, tossing aside his shield, "O
beardless one, since thou dost proclaim thyself this desperate rogue,
here is reason just for some small debate betwixt us. Do on thy coif
forthwith, for now will I strive to make an end of thee," and speaking,
the knight unsheathed a long and ponderous sword.

"How an I fight thee not, sir knight?"

"Then must I needs belabour thee to the good of thy soul, sir outlaw.
So on with thy coif, I say!"

Incontinent ran Roger to fetch his bascinet the which Beltane slowly
fitted on above his hood of mail, and thereafter, albeit unwillingly,
fronted this doughty knight, foot to foot and point to point. Now
stepped they a moment about each other, light-treading for all their
weighty armour, and with long blades advanced; then, of a sudden they
closed, and immediately the air shivered to the ring and grind of
flashing, whirling steel. To and fro, and up and down they fought upon
the level sward what time Black Roger rubbed complacent hands,
grim-smiling and confident; and ever as they fought the stranger knight
laughed and gibed, harsh and loud, from behind his grimly casque.

"Ho!--fight, youth, fight!" cried he, "have done with love-taps! Sa-ha,
have at thee--fight, I say!" A panther-like side-leap, a whirl of
glimmering steel, and his long blade smote sparks from Beltane's
bascinet, whereat Roger's smile, incontinent, vanished, and his face
waxed suddenly anxious and long.

But fierce and fiercer the stranger knight beset my Beltane, the while
he lashed him with mocking tongue:

"Call ye this fighting, sir youthful outlaw? Doth thine arm fail thee
so soon? Tap not, I say, lest I grow angered and slay thee forthright!"

Then, blow for blow, did Beltane the mighty fall on right furiously,
but ever blade met blade whiles Roger danced on anxious feet, praying
for the end. Of a sudden, shouted he joyously, for, flashing high in
air, down came Beltane's long blade strong and true upon the knight's
helm--a fell, deep-dinting stroke that drave the stranger reeling back.
Fierce and swift leapt Beltane to smite again--came a shock of clashing
steel, a flurry of stroke and counter-stroke, and thereafter, a hoarse
shout of dismay from Roger: for Beltane stood as one dazed, staring
upon his empty right hand what time the knight boomed derisive laughter
through his vizor. Then sprang grim Roger, dagger aloft, but swifter
than he, the knight's sword swung; flat fell that long blade on Roger's
bascinet, wielded by an arm so strong that Roger, staggering aside,
rolled upon the ling, and thereafter, sat up, round-eyed and fearful:

"O master!" he panted, "here is none of--honest flesh and blood, 'tis--
Hob-gob himself, as I did warn thee. May Saint Cuthbert, Saint Bede,
Saint Edmund--"

"Go to--cease thy windy prattling, Roger Thick-pate!" spake the knight,
and letting fall his sword, he lifted his visor. And behold! a face
lean and hawk-like, with eyes quick and bright, and a smiling mouth
wry-twisted by reason of an ancient wound.

"Know ye me not, lord Beltane?" quoth he, with look right loving, "hast
forgot me indeed, most loved lad?" But swift came my Beltane, glad-eyed
and with arms out-flung in eager welcome.

"Sir Benedict!" he cried, "hast come at last? Now do I joy to see
thee!"

"My lord," says Benedict, wagging mailed finger. "Ha, Beltane, canst
burn gibbets, storm mighty castles and out-face desperate odds, yet is
old Benedict thy master at stroke of sword still--though, forsooth,
hast dinted me my helm, methinks! O sweet lad, come to my arms, I've
yearned for thee these many days." Herewith Sir Benedict caught Beltane
within his close embrace, and patted him with gauntleted hands, and
laughed for very gladness.

"O foolish youth--O youthful fool!" quoth he, "surely thou of all fools
art greatest, a youthful, god-like fool! O mighty son of mighty father,
how mighty hath thy folly been! O lovely lad that hath attempted deeds
impossible, pitting thyself 'gainst Ivo and all his might! Verily,
Beltane, thou'rt the loveliest fool that ever man did love--"

"Nay, but dear messire," says Beltane as Sir Benedict stayed for
breath, "pray thee, where is thy meaning?"

"Sweet lad, I do but strive to tell thee thou'rt a fool, yet so glad am
I of thy foolish company the words do stick somewhat, but my meaning
shall be manifest--now mark me! Didst not carry off the Red Pertolepe
'neath the lances of his men-at-arms?"

"Aye, my lord."

"Didst not have thy hand on the throat of that cold, smiling rogue Sir
Gui of Allerdale?"

"Verily, messire."

"And hold within thy grasp the life of that foul-living Gilles of
Brandonmere, whose father I slew twelve years agone, I thank God!"

"'Tis true, good Benedict."

"And didst not suffer these arch-knaves to live on and work their
pestilent wills, Beltane?"

"Sir, I did, but--"

"So art thrice a fool. When we see a foul and noxious worm, to tread it
under foot is a virtuous act. So when a man doth constant sin 'gainst
man and maid, to kill him--"

Quoth Beltane:

"Sir Gui and Gilles of Brandonmere have made an end of sinning,
methinks."

"Why 'tis so I've heard of late, Beltane, and herein is some small
comfort; but Red Pertolepe is yet to slay--"

"Truly!" cried Beltane, clenching his fists, "and he marcheth on
Winisfarne, to burn and hang--"

"Content you, my lord Beltane, Waldron of Brand lieth in Winisfarne,
and I am here--"

"So doth my heart rejoice for thee, Benedict, thou right trusty and
doughty friend. But how came ye hither, and wherefore? Methought thee
yet in Thrasfordham!"

"Aha, dear lad, so doth Ivo at this moment, I pray God. A week agone
and, ere the investment was complete, wondrous news reached me from
Waldron of Brand, whose sire bore my pennon in thy noble father's wars.
And because I knew Waldron's word is ever less than his deed, and,
belike, that I grow weary of sieges (seven have I withstood within
these latter years) I, at dead of night, by devious and secret ways,
stole forth of Thrasfordham--dight in this armour new-fashioned (the
which, mark me! is more cumbrous than fair link-mail) howbeit, I got me
clear, and my lord Beltane, here stand I to aid and abet thee in all
thy desperate affrays, henceforth. Aha! methinks shall be great doings
within the greenwood anon!"

"Aye, but what of Thrasfordham? An Duke Ivo besiege it--"

"He shall find five hundred and more right doughty fellows, with Sir
Richard of Wark and Sir Brian of Shand (that were armour-bearers to thy
knightly sire) to keep him in play."

"And what would ye here, Sir Benedict?"

"Fight, Beltane, fight! Methinks he shall lack nothing for hard smiting
that rideth with thee--hey, boy, I do yearn amain for the shock of a
charge!"

"My company is but small, alas!" sighed Beltane.

"'Tis so I've heard, my Beltane," quoth Sir Benedict, and smiling his
wry smile, he took a small hunting-horn that hung about his neck, "let
us therefore make it larger--"

"How so--how so, good Benedict?--Ha! mean you--"

"Watch now!"

So saying, Sir Benedict set the horn to his lip and winded it three
times loud and shrill, and thereafter stood with hand upraised. And lo!
upon the stillness a sound that grew and grew--a whisper, a rustling as
of strong wind in trees, and presently upon the high banks to north and
east and west a great company appeared, horse-men and footmen, whose
armour flashed 'neath the moon, while high o'er bascinet and helm rose
deadly pike and ponderous lance, rank upon rank, a very forest.

Quoth Sir Benedict loud-voiced, and pointing to the grim array:

"Behold, lord Duke, hither have I brought thee five hundred archers and
pike-men, with three hundred knights and men-at-arms, and each and
every a man well tried and chosen, all vowed to follow thee and smite
in Pentavalon's cause even as I, their lord, that do love thee for thy
noble father's sake and for thine own sweet and knightly worth!"

So saying, Sir Benedict fell upon his knee before that great assemblage
and caught Beltane's hand and kissed it; whereon, from those gleaming
ranks rose a deep and thunderous shout while lance and spear-head
flashed again.

Now looking from this right goodly array to the proud and war-like
figure that bent so humbly at his feet, Beltane's heart swelled amain
and all things grew blurred and misty in his sight.

"Sir Benedict," said he hoarse-voiced, "thou good and noble knight--O
Benedict, dear my friend, kneel not to me. For thy so great love, thy
faith and loyalty, fain would I thank thee--yet words be so poor, and
I--O, Benedict--"

"Lord," said Benedict, "our camp lieth scarce three miles westward,
come, I pray thee--"

"Nay, first come ye, friend, and look upon a dead witch that was indeed
a noble woman."

So Beltane brought Sir Benedict where lay the dead Jolette, smiling yet
as though into the eyes of God. Now beholding her, Sir Benedict
beckoned Roger and bid him stimmon certain of his company, forthwith;
and when Roger hasted back with divers awestruck fellows at his heels,
they stood staring, amazed to behold these two great knights humbly
kneeling side by side to pray for the soul of her who, all her days,
had been scorned of men as the witch Jolette.



CHAPTER LV

HOW THEY MARCHED FOR WINISFARNE


At peep of day the trumpets blew, and Beltane, starting up from
slumber, found the great camp all astir about him; the smoke of a
hundred watch-fires rose up into the stilly air of morning and made a
fragrant mist amid the trees beneath which armour glinted as guard
relieved guard and the new-waked companies mustered under arms. And
ever as the sun rose the bustle waxed and grew, with a coming and going
about the fires where the morning meal was preparing; here a mighty
furbishing of arms and armour, yonder a prodigious hissing and so-hoing
where chargers and pack-horses were picketed, line upon line--goodly
beasts that stamped and snorted and whinnied joyously--and everywhere
was noise and cheer of talk and laughter; yet everywhere was method and
a strict orderliness in all things, wherefore Beltane's very heart sang
within him.

Now as he stood thus, viewing all things keen-eyed and watchful, he was
presently aware of Sir Benedict and Black Roger who walked together
within a distant alley; and as they passed them to and fro Black Roger
talked amain, what time Sir Benedict seemed to hearken right solemn and
attentive, oft pausing to question him quick and eager, and oft to clap
hand to Roger's brawny back; and sometimes laughed he blithe and joyous
and sometimes hearkened with grizzled head a-droop, until a turn in the
glade hid them from sight.

Little by little, above the resinous fragrance of the fires rose other
scents more delectable to the nostrils of a hungry man, thus, waking
from his meditations Beltane turned him wistfully towards where, above
the nearest fire, a goodly cooking pot seethed and bubbled invitingly.
But even now a hand slipped within his arm and holding him thus, Sir
Benedict viewed him joyful-eyed and smiled on him his wry and twisted
smile.

"Beltane," said he, wagging his head, "O Beltane, thou wilt mind how
upon a time as I drank a bowl of milk with thee amid the green in
Mortain, I did warn thee that she had red hair and was like to prove a
spit-fire, therefore!"

Now hereupon my Beltane must needs catch his breath and flush to the
ears of him, and therewith strive to look at his ease, like the very
youth he was.

"How, messire, hath Roger babbled to thee?"

"Babbled?" quoth Sir Benedict, shaking his head, "nay, Roger is no
babbler of secret matters, for many do ken of thy love, Beltane--and I
am thy friend, so is thy happiness my happiness. Thus do I say God and
the sweet saints bless thee in thy love, dear lad, for a right noble
lady is Helen the Beautiful and meet to thine embracements. By her so
great love, by her proved faithfulness shalt thou yet win to
happiness--"

"Nay, dear my Benedict, first must Pentavalon win to peace."

"Aye, by Helen's noble love, for--"

"O Sir Benedict, I have sworn an oath!"

"Aye, sweet lad, but Roger hath prayed a prayer!"

"Hath he told thee so much, Benedict?"

"So much," quoth Sir Benedict, pressing his arm, "so much, O man, that
hereafter needs must I love thee and honour thee the more. Since man
art thou, my Beltane, for all thy so great youthfulness."

"Nay, Benedict, am none so youthful."

"Thy very speech doth prove thee so, yet, being boy, thou art forsooth
a man to-day."

"And wherefore?"

"For that to-day I do know more of thee. 'Tis suffering, 'tis sorrow
nobly borne doth make the man, Beltane."

"Suffering, messire?"

"Yon lock of hair showeth very white amid the gold, Beltane, but thou
art better man therefore, methinks. The fetters of thy dungeon yet
gleam upon thy wrists, Beltane. But truly I do think within thy prison
was forged the sword shall avenge our woes and free Pentavalon at
last."

"Think you indeed, thou wise Benedict, that we by grief and sorrow do
rise to find our nobler selves?"

"Aye verily! 'Tis but by sorrow and suffering our strength or weakness
groweth manifest, Beltane."

"Yet--O Benedict--I did doubt her--plied her with scornful tongue and--
drave her lonely from me!"

"And dost grieve amain, and sorrow therefore, O youth!"

"Yea, indeed, indeed--sleeping and waking!"

"And do yearn to woo her to forgiveness on thy knees, to crush her in
thine arms and kiss her breath away, O Lover?"

"Aye, dear Sir Benedict, in such sort and so greatly that my passion
oft doth fright me, so fiercely do I yearn and long--yet tremble and
grow faint at thought of it!"

"Yet art thou here, bedight in arms, O man--thy yearning body far
removed from all temptation till thou hast proved thee worthy her
embrace! And thus it is I know thee for a man, my Beltane!"

"And thou, Benedict, thou hast yearned and trembled with love ere now,
thou hast been a lover once, methinks?" But here Sir Benedict fell to
silence, walking with face averted and gaze bent towards the dewy
grass, and quickened his steps until they were come nigh unto the camp.
Then lifted he his head; quoth he:

"My lord Beltane, how think you of this thy new-found company?"

"Men--ha! men, good Benedict--soldiers born and bred!"

"Forsooth, and 'neath mine own eye, Beltane. There is not one but I
have watched him in the stress of battle. Body o' me, but I have chosen
needfully, there is none but hath proved his worthiness! See you the
little man yonder, in half-mail with sword as great as himself--he that
pipeth shrill-voiced as a boy? 'Tis Prat who alone stood off a score
what time I lay wounded and pinned beneath my charger. Mark ye yon
lusty fellow beside him? 'Tis Cnut that, single-handed, hewed him a
path through Ivo's battle and bare away his own banner, the which doth
grace my hall at Thrasfordham e'en now. And yonder is Dirk that was a
slave, yet fighteth like a paladin. And there again is Siward, that
with his brother maintained the sallyport 'gainst Ivo's van what time
they drave us from the outer bailey. And yonder Cedric--but so could I
name them each and every--ha! there sounds the welcome tucket! Come,
let us break our fast, and there be many knights and esquires and
gentles of degree do wait to pay thee homage."

So presently came they into the midst of the camp, where, seated on the
mossy ling, hungry and expectant, were many noble lords and gentle
knights and esquires of degree, who, beholding Sir Benedict with
Beltane, rose up with one accord. Young men were these for the most
part, yet were there many grizzled heads and wrinkled brows among them--
grim lords of the old Duke's following much versed in war, calm of
judgment and wise in council; but one and all did they stare upon my
Beltane in wonder at his youth because of his so famous deeds.

Now spake to them Sir Benedict, short and soldier-like:

"My lords, this is he of whom ye all have heard, Beltane hight, son of
Beltane our Duke, for whom we together have held Thrasfordham so long
and painfully. My lord Beltane, of all the knights and nobles of the
Duke thy father's days, here do stand, sire or son, all that have
withstood Black Ivo. Behold here Sir Bertrand, that was thy father's
seneschal of Pentavalon City. Here, Sir John of Griswold whose sire
bare thy father's banner, wherefore Griswold is ashes long since. Here
Hubert of Erdington, that was thy father's marshal-of-the-field. Here,
Hacon of Trant, that was wont to lead thy father's vanward, and here,
Sir Brian of Hartismere, brother to Eric, called the Wry-neck. So now,
all's said, my lord, wherefore I pray, let us eat."

Forthwith down they sat together on the grass, all and sundry, and ate
and drank and laughed and talked, insomuch that in brake and thicket
near and far the birds carolled and chattered in pretty mockery.

"Lord Beltane," quoth Sir Benedict when the meal was ended, "ere I met
thee, 'twas my intent this hour to march on Winisfarne, according to my
promise to Waldron of Brand, how say you?"

"Forsooth," nodded Beltane, "as soon as ye will."

Thus, within the hour, the trumpets brayed 'to horse' and all was
seeming hurry and confusion; yet a confusion, this, governed by
soldierly method, so that, ere long, horsemen were mounted and footmen
in array what time Beltane, bedight in goodly vizored casque, with
lance and shield borne behind him, came where stood Sir Benedict beside
a great and noble war-horse.

Forthwith Beltane mounted, and forthwith from these well-ordered ranks
a great shout arose:

"Beltane--the Duke--the Duke!"

Now, reining in his eager beast, Beltane looked upon that stern array,
and as he looked his eye kindled and his heart swelled within him.

"O men!" said he, "I that ye do acclaim am but a man even as ye are
men, to bear with ye the heat and labour of the day. What ye must
endure that will I endure with you. Here stand I, ready to spill my
blood that Wrong may cease. Even as ye, I am prepared to adventure me,
life and limb, that Lust and Murder may cease to be and Innocence and
Truth may walk again all unashamed. So shall I lead ye into battles and
affrays desperate and bloody, where foes shall be a-many and we, few.
But we do fight for hearth and home, and the thought of this, methinks,
shall nerve us strong as giants. Yet is our way a perilous way, and
some of us, belike, must die. But, by the blood of such, this our
country is hallowed unto those that shall come after us, so shall our
memories teach others how to die--and better--how to live that this our
country may stand, hereafter, for all things great and noble. He that
dieth for home and children shall, mayhap, from the floor of heaven,
look down upon a great and happy people whose freedom he--by weary
marches, by pain of wounds, by sharp and sudden death--he himself hath
helped to purchase, and, in their peace and happiness, find an added
joy.

"O men! who would not be a man to fight in such just cause? Who would
not cherish life that he might lose it to such noble purpose?

"Now therefore, all ye that do love Pentavalon--follow!"

Thus saying, my Beltane wheeled his horse; and with rhythmic ring and
clash, together, rank on rank, horsemen and footmen, they followed hard
behind, a silent, grim array, with eyes that gleamed 'neath helm and
bascinet, and purposeful hands that griped full strong on lance and
spear-shaft, as, coming to the forest-road, they swung away northwards
towards Winisfarne.



CHAPTER LVI

WHAT THEY FOUND AT WINISFARNE


Two and two they rode--for the way was oft-times narrow--their flanks
well covered by light-armed archers who marched within the green, with
mounted archers far in their van and others in their rear.

A glory of sun dappled their way with dancing shadows, flowers were
a-bloom in bank and hedgerow, and birds carolled blithe in the fragrant
air, what time Sir Benedict rode beside Beltane, his ponderous casque
a-swing at saddle-bow; and oft he turned his grizzled head to view my
thoughtful Beltane as one might look upon a son, new-found.

Now in a while Beltane turned and meeting his look reached out to him
his hand.

"Dear Benedict," said he, "how much--how very much I owe to thee. Thou
art methinks the greatest knight that e'er couched lance--"

"Save thy noble father!" quoth Sir Benedict with solemn nod.

"My father--you were his esquire and much-loved comrade, Benedict?"

"I was, Beltane."

"Knew you my mother well, also?"

"Thy mother? Why--aye, forsooth, I--knew thy mother--very well,
Beltane."

"What manner of woman was she, I pray?"

"The fairest and noblest these eyes have e'er beheld!"

"The--noblest?"

"And purest! Hark ye, Beltane, and mark me well--there ne'er lived wife
of so stainless honour as the noble woman that bare thee!"

"And yet," sighed Beltane, with wrinkled brow, "within the garden of
Pentavalon--my father--"

"Thy father was a sick man, faint with wounds and spent with hardship.
All that day, as we rode unto Pentavalon City, he and I, his mind oft
wandered and he held wild talk in his fever. But hale was I, mind and
body, and I do know the Duke thy father fell to strange and sudden
madness upon that dreadful day, whereby came woe to Pentavalon, and
bitter remorse to him. This do I swear, thy mother was noble wife and
saintly woman!"

"Loved she my father?"

"Aye, verily--she was his wife! Thy father was a noble knight and
peerless--and oft warring on the marches, but methinks--she was
something lonely--at times, Beltane."

"Alas!" sighed Beltane, and again "Alas!" So fell they incontinent to
deep thought and rode full long in silence. But ever and anon as they
paced along together thus, Sir Benedict must needs lift his head to
gaze upon my Beltane, and his grim lips curved to smile infinite
tender, and in his eyes was growing wonder.

Quoth he at last:

"Beltane, d'ye mark this our silent company, not a stave have they
carolled since we set forth! But how shall a man sing and jest whose
heart is set on great emprise? Verily thy words have fired e'en this
shrivelled heart o' mine till I, even as they, methinks, do burn to
fight Pentavalon's cause, to shield her from woeful shame and--ha!--
such vile sights as yon!"

Now looking where Sir Benedict pointed, Beltane beheld a thing,
crookedly contorted, a-dangle from a knotted branch that jutted athwart
the way, insomuch that the must needs stoop, cowering in his saddle,
lest he touch the twisted feet of it.

"Dead three days I judge!" mused Sir Benedict. "Much is possible to the
Red Pertolepe in three days. And he hath a great and powerful
following, 'tis said!"

Quoth Beltane, pale-cheeked and frowning a little:

"So would I have it, Benedict--they shall be the more for us to smite!"

"I've heard he musters full three thousand, Beltane."

"What then, good Benedict? Yon poor, dead thing we passed but now was
worth a score of men to us--and there will be others--Sir Pertolepe
loveth to see men hang! So perchance, ere we come to Winisfarne, the
strength of thousands shall lie within these arms of ours."

"'Tis a fair thought, lad--aye, 'tis a right fair thought! May all the
poor souls done thus to sudden, cruel death, march within our slender
ranks and smite with us, shoulder to shoulder, henceforth!"

And now as they went, came they on many and divers signs of the Red
Pertolepe's passing; here a smouldering heap of ruin whereby lay pale,
stiff shapes half hidden in the grass--yonder a little child
outstretched as though asleep, save for wide eyes that looked so
blindly on the sun: and there, beyond, upon the white dust of the road,
great gouts and pools that had trickled from something sprawled among
the underbrush.

And the soft wind crooned and whispered in the leaves--leaves that
parting, showed other shapes swung high in air, whose pallid faces
looked down on them, awful-eyed, from the tender green, faces drawn and
haggard, with teeth agleam or open mouths whence screams had come, but
very silent now until the Day of Judgment.

So rode they, with death above them and around, death in many hateful
shapes; and oft Sir Benedict bowed his head as one that prayed, the
while his strong hands knit themselves to iron fists; and oft from
those grim ranks behind a sound went up to heaven, a sound ominous and
low, that was like unto a moan.

Thus marched they, through heat and dust, through cool, green shadow,
splashing through noisy brook and shallow ford, until, as the sun
reached the zenith, they came to the brow of a hill and saw afar the
walls and roofs of the prosperous town of Winisfarne.

And ever as they drew nearer. Sir Benedict stared on it, his black
brows close-knit, and fingered his square chin as one puzzled.

"Beltane," quoth he at last, "'tis full ten years since I saw
Winisfarne, and yet--meseemeth--it looked not so! 'Tis as though I
missed somewhat, and yet--"

But now came Roger, a dusty figure, spurring from the rear:

"Master," he cried, pointing with eager finger, "O master, the keep--
where is the great keep that stood yonder?"

"Aye, verily--the keep!" nodded Sir Benedict, clapping mailed hand to
thigh, "and 'twas a great and mighty hold as I do mind me!"

Now looked they gloomily on each other and halted their array what time
Sir Benedict passed word for bows to be strung and every eye and every
ear to be strained right needfully; then moved they on again.

Betimes they reached the outskirts of the town, for defences it had
none, but no man moved therein and no sound reached them but the noise
of their own going. Thus, in a while, with hands tight-clenched and
lips firm-set they rode into the desolation of the market-place
befouled by signs of battle fierce and fell, while beyond, a mass of
charred ruin, lay all that was left of Winisfarne's once great and
famous keep.

Now above this ruin divers gibbets had been set up, and behold! these
gibbets each bore a heavy burden. Then Beltane lighted from his horse,
and going apart, laid by his casque and sat him down, his head bowed
betwixt his hands as one that is direly sick. In a while as he sat
thus, heedless of all things, cometh Roger.

"Master," said he, "saw ye the gibbets yonder?"

"I saw them, Roger."

"Upon those gibbets be divers of our good fellows, master. There is
Diccon and Peter of my company of pikes, and Gregory that was a fair
good bowman, and there be others also--and master, these be not hanged
men!"

"Not hanged--?"

"No, master! All these our men died in battle, as their wounds do
testify--they were dead men already when Pertolepe hanged them on his
gibbets. And Walkyn is not here, wherefore, methinks, he liveth yet.
And Pertolepe is not here, yet where Pertolepe is, there shall we
surely find Walkyn, for Walkyn hath sworn full oft--ha! master--
master, behold what cometh here--see, yonder!"

Then Beltane arose, and looking where Roger pointed, beheld a strange,
misshapen thing, half beast, half man, that ran wondrous fleetly
towards them, and, as it ran, flourished aloft a broken sword; now was
he lost to sight behind some bush or quick-set, now he bounded high
over stream or stone or fallen tree--nought was there could let or stay
him--until he came where stood Sir Benedict's outposts, to whose
conduct he yielded him forthwith and so was presently brought into the
market-square.

A wild figure this, great and hairy of head and with the arms and
shoulders of a very giant; bedight was he in good link-mail, yet foul
with dirt and mire and spattered with blood from heel to head, and in
one great hand he griped still the fragment of a reddened sword. All
a-sweat was he, and bleeding from the hair, while his mighty chest
heaved and laboured with his running.

So stood he betwixt his brawny captors what time he panted hoarse and
loud, and stared about him fierce-eyed 'neath beetling brows. Thus, of
a sudden he espied my Beltane standing bare-headed in his youthful
might, whereon this monstrous man forthwith dashed aside his stalwart
guards as they had been babes, and ran towards Beltane with hairy hands
outstretched, whereon sprang Roger to front him, dagger a-gleam; but
lo! Roger was caught up in those mighty arms and shaken helplessly.
"Fool!" cried this grim fellow, "think ye I would harm Beltane that is
my most loved lord henceforth? I am Ulf, called the Strong, and, as
this my hateful body is strong, so is my love--lie there!" So saying,
Ulf laid Roger upon his back, and coming to Beltane, fell upon his face
before him and caught his mailed feet and kissed them.

"Lord Beltane," he cried, harsh-voiced, "thou seest I do love thee--yet
'twas I did bear thee captive to thy foe by command of one I love
beyond all others. But thou, lord Beltane, thou at peril of thy life
did save her from shame and fiery death when Ulf could not--so do I
love thee, lord Beltane, and will be thy slave henceforth, to love and
serve thee till I die--an thou wilt take me. Misshapen and unlovely ye
behold me--a vile thing that men would jeer at but that they fear to
die, for God who hath denied me all else, hath given me strength beyond
all men. Yet do I hate myself and do hide me from the eyes of my
fellows: but, an thou canst bear with me, canst suffer me beside thee
and be not ashamed of my unloveliness, then will I front all eyes
right boldly. Now lord, an thou wilt take Ulf for thy man, reach down
to me thy hand."

Then Beltane reached down and took Ulf's hairy hand in his.

"Ulf," said he, "thou that God hath blessed with such noble strength,
methinks 'neath thy grim shape thy heart is noble also, and thy soul,
mayhap, straight and lovely. So will I make thee brother in arms to my
faithful Roger, that ye two shall ride ever near me when the battle
joins."

Now Ulf the strong stood up erect upon his feet, and on his swart
cheeks great tears rolled, glistening.

"Lord!" said he, "O Beltane, my lord and master--" and bowed grim head
with sudden sob, whereat Beltane questioned him full hastily, as thus:

"Art wounded, Ulf! And whence come ye in such guise?"

"Lord," says Ulf, wiping off his tears and choking upon a sob, "I came
through Bloody Pertolepe's array."

"Through?--nay, how mean you?" questioned Beltane, the while Sir
Benedict and many wondering knights and esquires pressed round them in
a ring.

"I mean through, lord, for Walkyn's need is dire. So burst I through
them--I had an axe but it brake in my hold, see you, even as this my
sword--alack, there is no weapon that I do not break! Howbeit here am
I, lord, hither come with word for one Sir Benedict of Bourne that did
covenant to meet with Walkyn here at Winisfarne!"

"Behold us here--speak on!" quoth Sir Benedict.

"Thus, then, saith Walkyn o' the Dene: That scarce had he stormed and
set fire to yonder prison-keep, than from the south cometh a great
company, the which he at the first did take for ye. But, in a while,
behold Sir Pertolepe's accursed Raven banner, the which giveth Walkyn
much to think. Now cometh to him one beyond all women noble and
gracious and holy (as I do know) the fair and stately Abbess Veronica,
who, years agone, did build and endow yon great and goodly abbey,
wherein all poor desolate souls should be cherished and comforted by
her and her saintly nuns, and where the stricken fugitive might find
sanctuary and peace and moreover be healed of his hurts. (All this know
I since I was fugitive, hurt and very woeful and found me solace
there.) So cometh this noble lady to Walkyn (and with her, I) and
speaketh him calm and sweetly, thus: 'Yonder rideth Sir Pertolepe that
is knight of noble birth, yet the rather would I trust myself and these
my good sisters in thy hands, O man! So do I pray thee when thou goest
hence, yield us the protection of thy strength, so shall heaven bless
thee!' Hereon Walkyn frowned and plucked his beard awhile, but
thereafter, came he to kneel and kiss her hand and swear to aid her the
while life him lasted. Then summoned he his company (lusty fellows all)
and called for thirty men that would remain to hold Red Pertolepe in
play what time he seeketh place of greater vantage well beknown to him.
Forthwith stood out one Tall Orson hight (a doughty fellow) and with
him nine and twenty other lusty fellows, right willing (and with them,
I) and thereafter Walkyn formeth his company (the nuns in the midst)
and marched in haste for Brand that is a lonely tower. Then did these
thirty (and with them I) shoot arrows amain on Pertolepe's vanguard
from every place of vantage hereabouts, and met them with right lusty
hand-strokes and stayed thus their advance until of the thirty there
none remained alive save seven (and of these, I). And, since we could
do no more, I (that do know this country from my misshapen youth)
brought these men by secret ways unto the Tower of Brand that is
desolate and a ruin, yet strong withal. And there lay Walkyn (that is a
notable fighter) keeping watch and ward within the tower what time he
waited thy succour. Now who so skilful and tender with our wounded as
this sweet and gracious lady Abbess! Next day, sure enough, cometh
Pertolepe with brave show of horse and foot (above three thousand,
lords) and straightway sendeth he a haughty fellow to demand
incontinent surrender--a loud-voiced knight whom Walkyn forthwith shot
and slew with his own hand. Whereat Sir Pertolepe waxed exceeding wroth
and came on amain and beset the tower on all sides, whereby they lost
others of their men, for Walkyn's fellows shot exceeding strong and
true (and with them, I). Then, O my lords, in all that fierce debate,
who so brave and calm, heartening wearied and wounded with gentle voice
and gentler hand, than this same noble lady Abbess! For two days lay we
besieged whereby our food and drink began to fail (for the well within
the tower is well-nigh dried up) yet none did eat or drink so sparingly
as this same holy Abbess. Now on this (the second day, lords) cometh
Pertolepe himself (under flag of truce, lords) and demands we yield to
him the body of this same lady Abbess (to our ransom) swearing on his
knightly word he then will march away forthwith, and seek our hurt no
more. And, to save our lives, fain would this brave lady have yielded
her to Pertolepe's hands. But Walkyn (mindful of his oath, lords),
leaning him from the battlement, spake Red Pertolepe defiantly, calling
him knave and liar, and therewith spat upon him, very fairly. Whereat
Pertolepe sware to hang us one and all and the battle joined again
fiercer than before. Therefore, on this the third day, seeing no hope
of succour, Walkyn made him ready to sally out (a right desperate
venture because of the women). Then spake I before them all, saying I
doubted not I might win through, and bring thee to their aid (an ye had
kept the tryst) would they but ply their shafts amain to cover me. The
which was so agreed. Then did this saintly lady Abbess set her white
hand on this my hateful head and prayed the sweet Christ to shield this
my monstrous body, and I thereafter being bedight in right good mail
(as thou seest) issued suddenly out of the tower whiles our foemen sat
at meat, and ran among them roaring dreadfully and smote amain full
many until my axe brake and I betook me to my sword and smote them as I
ran what time Walkyn's archers shot right furiously and well. Thus came
I through Bloody Pertolepe's array, and thus, lords, ye do behold a
something weary man and a mighty hungry one withal!"

Now came Sir Benedict to grasp Ulf's great hand.

"Forsooth, hast done a great and noble thing!" quoth he. "Thy twisted
body doth hide a great and manly soul, meseemeth, so ne'er shalt lack
for friend whiles Benedict doth live!"

And after Sir Benedict came many other knights and esquires of degree,
to bring him of their own viands and press upon him rich and goodly
wine. In so much that Ulf grew hot and awkward, and presently stole
away to eat with Roger in a quiet corner.

But now within the market-place was sound of song, of jest and
laughter, where bow-strings were looked to heedfully, sword-belts
buckled tighter, mail-coifs laced the closer, stirrup-chain and
saddle-girth carefully regarded, whiles ever and anon all eyes turned
where Beltane sat among the older knights, Sir Benedict beside him,
hearkening to their counsel. And presently he rose and lifted his hand,
whereat the trumpets blared and, thereafter, with ring of hoof and
tramp of foot, marched they forth of Winisfarne, the sun bright on helm
and shield, a right gallant array.

And at their head rode Ulf the Strong.



CHAPTER LVII

TELLETH OF THE ONFALL AT BRAND


By wild and lonely ways Ulf led them, through mazy thicket, o'er
murmurous rill, through fragrant bracken that, sweeping to their
saddle-girths, whispered as they passed; now rode they by darkling
wood, now crossed they open heath; all unerring rode Ulf the Strong,
now wheeling sharp and sudden to skirt treacherous marsh or swamp, now
plunging into the gloom of desolate woods, on and on past lonely pools
where doleful curlews piped, nor faltered he nor stayed until, as the
sun grew low, they climbed a sloping upland crowned by mighty trees and
thick with underbrush; here Ulf checked his horse and lifted long arm
in warning, whereon the company halted, hard-breathing, yet very
orderly and silent.

Forthwith down lighted Beltane with Sir Benedict and Ulf who pointed
before them with his finger.

"Lords," said he, "beyond yon trees is a valley and in the valley the
tower of Brand, the which you may see from the brush yonder--aha! and
hear also, methinks!"

And indeed the air was full of a strange droning sound that rose and
fell unceasing, a drowsy, ominous hum.

"Ah, Benedict," said Beltane, frowning a little, "I like not that
sound! Summon we our wisest heads, for here is matter for thought and
sudden action methinks!"

Hereupon Sir Benedict beckoned to his five chiefest knights and they
together followed Ulf's broad back up the slope until they were come
within the little wood; and ever as they advanced the strange hum grew
louder, hoarser--a distant roar, pierced, ever and anon, by sharper
sound, a confused din that was the voice of desperate conflict.
Presently Ulf brought them to the edge of the little wood and, parting
twig and leaf, they looked forth and down. And what they saw was this:

A little valley, wondrous green but very desolate-seeming, for here and
there stood ruined walls and charred timbers that once had been fair
dwellings; and in the midst of this small and ruined hamlet, a mighty
tower uprose, hoary and weather-beaten, yet stark and grim against the
sunset. All about this tower a great camp lay, set well out of bow-shot,
and 'twixt camp and tower were many men whose armour flashed,
rank on rank, and archers who, kneeling behind mantlets, shot amain at
battlement and loophole. Against the tower were two great ladders,
roughly fashioned and a-swarm with men; but ever as they strove to
reach the battlement a mighty axe whirled and swung and a long sword
flashed, and ever as they fell, so fell one of the besiegers.

"There stand Walkyn and Tall Orson!" quoth Ulf, biting his nails. "Ha!--
they be dour fighters--would I stood with them!"

"We come in due season, methinks!" said Sir Benedict, stroking his
square chin, "what is your counsel, my lords?"

Quoth young Sir John of Griswold:

"Let us to horse and sally out on them, the hill is with us and we
shall--"

"Slay and be slain!" quoth Sir Benedict.

"Verily!" nodded grim Sir Bertrand, "dost speak like a very youth,
John!"

"Here, methinks," said Sir Benedict, "is work for pike and bow-string.
First break we their charge, then down on them in flank with shock and
might of all our lances."

"Ha! 'tis well be-thought, Benedict!" growled old Hubert of Erdington,
"so let me march with the pikes."

"Art silent, lord Beltane," quoth Sir Hacon, "dost agree?"

"Aye, truly," answered Beltane, rising, "but let our pikes march in V
formation, our mightiest men at the point of the V, and with archers
behind. Then, ere the foe do engage, let the V become an L, so shall we
oppose them two faces. Now, when Sir Pertolepe's chivalry charge, let
Sir Benedict with two hundred knights and men-at-arms spur in upon
their flank, driving them confused upon their main battle, what time I,
yet hid within the green, will sound my rallying note that Walkyn
knoweth of old, whereat he shall sally out upon their further flank.
Then will I, with my hundred horse, charge down upon their rear, so
should we have them, methinks? How say you, my lords?"

"Truly," quoth Sir Bertrand, closing his vizor, "thy father liveth
again in thee, methinks!"

Forthwith, pikemen and archers fell into array with Cnut at their head,
while behind the spreading ranks of pikes Prat and his archers were
ranged, bows strung and quivers slung before; and presently, at
Beltane's word, they swung forth of the sheltering green, fierce-eyed,
grim-lipped, bascinet and pike-head a-twinkle. Away they swung down the
slope, a stalwart company swift-treading and light, and in their midst
old Hubert of Erdington in his heavy armour, whose long sword flashed
as he flourished his farewell.

With rhythmic step and swing of broad mailed shoulders they marched
until they were come down into the valley. And now, as they advanced
swift and steady, rose shouts from besieged and besiegers; Sir
Pertolepe's trumpets brayed defiance and alarm, and of a sudden, forth
of his camp mailed horsemen rode rank upon rank, pennons a-flutter and
armour flashing in the sunset glare. But, as they mustered to the
charge, as shields flashed and lances sank, Sir Benedict's pikemen
wheeled, their ranks swung wide, and lo! the V was become an L. Now
from this L bows twanged and arrows flew amain above the kneeling
pikemen, what time Sir Pertolepe's trumpets blared the charge, and down
upon those slender ranks his heavy-armed chivalry thundered; horses
reared and fell, screaming, beneath the whistling arrow-shower, but on
swept the charge; those thin ranks bent and swayed 'neath the shock as
lance crossed pike, but these pike-butts rested on firm ground and upon
their deadly points, horses, smitten low, reared transfixed, and above
these rocking pikes steel flashed and flickered where the stout archers
plied their heavy broadswords, while, loud above the din, Sir Hubert's
voice boomed hoarse encouragement what time he thrust and smote above
the kneeling pikemen.

Now out from the green Sir Benedict paced astride his great black
charger, and behind him his two hundred steel-girt knights and
men-at-arms, their vizors closed, their shields slung before, the
points of their long and ponderous lances agleam high in air. Then
turned Sir Benedict and looked on their grimly ranks, glad-eyed:

"O sirs," quoth he, "who would not be a man to fight in such just
cause!"

So saying, he smiled his wry and twisted smile and closed his vizor:
then, with shield addressed and feet thrust far within the stirrups he
lightly feutred his deadly lance; and behold! down swept every lance
behind him as, leaning low behind his shield, he shouted right
joyously:

"Come ye, messires--lay on this day for Pentavalon!"

Forward bounded the great horses a-down the slope--away, away,
gathering speed with every stride--away, away, across the level with
flying rein and busy spur; and now a loud shouting and dire amaze among
Sir Pertolepe's battle with desperate wheeling of ranks and spurring of
rearing horses, while Sir Benedict's riders swept down on them, grim
and voiceless, fast and faster. Came a roaring crash beneath whose dire
shock Sir Pertolepe's ranks were riven and rent asunder, and over and
through their red confusion Sir Benedict rode in thunderous, resistless
might, straight for where, above their mid-most, close-set ranks,
fluttered and flew Sir Pertolepe's Raven banner. Now, in hot haste, Sir
Pertolepe launched another charge to check that furious onset, what
time he reformed and strengthened his main battle; but, with speed
unchecked, Sir Benedict's mighty ranks met them in full career--broke
them, flung them reeling back on Sir Pertolepe's staggering van and all
was wild disorder, above which roaring tumult the Raven banner reeled
and swayed and the fray waxed ever fiercer.

Now ran Beltane where stood Roger to hold his horse, with Ulf who
leaned upon a goodly axe and young Sir John of Griswold, who clenched
and wrung his mailed hands and bit upon his boyish lip and stamped in
his impatience.

"My lord," he cried, "my lord, suffer us to charge--ah! see--our good
Sir Benedict will be surrounded--cut off--"

"Nay, methinks he is too wise in war, he fighteth ever with calm head,
Sir John."

"But, messire, do but see--his charge is checked--see--see, he
yieldeth ground--he giveth back!"

"Aye, verily!" quoth Beltane, springing to saddle, "but behold how he
orders his line! O lovely knight! O wise Benedict! See you not his
wisdom now, Sir John? In his retreat he draweth Sir Pertolepe's main
battle athwart our line of charge, their flank exposed and open--to
horse, Sir John, to horse! Yet stir not until I give the word."
Forthwith sprang Sir John to saddle and Roger and Ulf also, what time
Beltane sat, his gaze upon the conflict, his bugle-horn in his hand; of
a sudden he clapped it to lip and sounded the old fierce rallying note.
High and shrill and loud it rang above the roar of battle, and lo!
distant and far, like an answer to the call, from the grim and battered
tower of Brand a mighty shout went up--"Arise! Arise!--Pentavalon!"

"Oho!" cried Roger, sitting close on Beltane's left, "list ye to that,
now! And see--ha! there cometh our long-legged Walkyn, first of them
all! See how they order their pikes--O master, they be sweet and
doughty fellows! See how Jenkyn's archers shoot--each man to the ear!"

Awhile sat Beltane watching, wide-eyed, while Sir Benedict, fighting
sword in hand, fell back and back before the furious onset of Sir
Pertolepe's main battle until he had drawn the fight mid-way. Then,
quick-breathing, my Beltane closed his vizor.

"Now!" cried he, "now, good comrades all, God willing, we have them.
Let each man choose his foe and smite this day for Liberty and
Justice!"

So saying, he levelled his lance, and a hundred lances sank behind him.
Spurs struck deep, horses reared, plunged, and sped away. Before their
galloping line rode Sir John of Griswold with Roger and Ulf: and before
these, Beltane.

He felt the wind a-whistle through the eye-vents of his casque, heard
the muffled thunder of the galloping hoofs behind mingled with the
growing din of battle; heard a shout--a roar of anger and dismay, saw a
confusion of rearing horses as Sir Pertolepe swung about to meet this
new attack, steadied his aim, and with his hundred lances thundering
close behind, drove in upon those bristling ranks to meet them shield
to shield with desperate shock of onset--felt his tough lance go home
with jarring crash--saw horses that reared high and were gone, lost
beneath the trampling fray, and found his lance shivered to the very
grip. Out flashed his sword, for all about him was a staggering press
of horses that neighed and screamed, and men who smote, shouting, and
were smitten; unseen blows battered him while he thrust and hewed, and
wondered to see his long blade so dimmed and bloody. And ever as he
fought, through the narrow vent of his casque he caught small and
sudden visions of this close-locked, desperate fray; of Ulf standing in
his stirrups to ply his whirling axe whose mighty, crashing blows no
armour might withstand; of grim Roger, scowling and fierce, wielding
ponderous broad-sword; of young Sir John of Griswold, reeling in his
saddle, his helpless arms wide-flung.

So cut they bloody path through Pertolepe's deep array, on and forward
with darting point and deep-biting edge, unheeding wounds or shock of
blows, until Beltane beheld the press yield, thin out, and melt away,
thereupon shouted he hoarse and loud, rode down a knight who sought to
bar his way, unhorsed a second, and wheeling his snorting charger,
wondered at the seeming quiet; then lifting his vizor, looked about
him. And lo! wheresoever his glance fell were men that crawled
groaning, or lay very mute and still amid a huddle of fallen horses,
and, beyond these again, were other men, a-horse and a-foot, that
galloped and ran amain for the shelter of the green. Sir Pertolepe's
array was scattered up and down the valley--the battle was lost and
won.

Now while he yet sat thus, dazed by the shock of blows and breathing
deep of the sweet, cool air, he beheld one rise up from where the
battle-wrack lay thickest, an awful figure that limped towards him,
holding aloft the broken shaft of an axe.

"Aha, lord Beltane!" cried Ulf, wiping sweat and blood from him, "there
be no more--left to smite, see you. The which--is well, for weapon--
have I none. This axe was the third this day--broken, see you! Alas!
there is no weapon I may use. Saw you Roger, lord, that is my comrade?"

"Nay, good Ulf--ha, what of him?"

"His horse was slain, lord. So fought he afoot, since when I saw him
not."

"And where is Sir Benedict and Walkyn--O see you not Sir Benedict? mine
eyes are dazzled with the sun."

But now Ulf uttered a joyful cry and pointed with his axe-shaft.

"Yonder cometh Roger, lord, and with him the little archer, but whom
bring they?"

Very slowly they came, Roger and Prat the archer, up-bearing betwixt
them good Sir Hubert of Erdington, his harness hacked and broken, his
battered helm a-swing upon its thongs, his eyes a-swoon in the pallor
of his face.

Down sprang Beltane and ran to greet him and to catch his nerveless
hands:

"Lord Beltane," quoth he, faintly, "full oft have I shed my blood for--
Pentavalon--to-day I die, messire. But, as thou didst say--'tis well to
die--in cause so noble! My lord, farewell to thee!"

And with the word, even as he stood 'twixt Roger and the archer, the
stout old knight was dead. So they laid Hubert of Erdington very
reverently upon that trampled field he had maintained so well.

"A right noble knight, my lord," quoth Prat, shaking gloomy head, "but
for him, methinks our pikemen would have broke to their third onset!"

"There is no man of you hath not fought like ten men this day!" said
Beltane, leaning on his sword and with head a-droop. "Have we lost
many, know ye?"

"A fair good number, master, as was to be expected," quoth Roger,
cleansing his sword on a tuft of grass, "Sir John of Griswold fell
beside me deep-smitten through the helm."

"And what of Sir Benedict?"

"See yonder--yonder he rides, my lord!" cried Prat, "though methinks
you scarce shall know him." And he pointed where, on spent and weary
charger, one rode, a drooping, languid figure, his bright armour
bespattered and dim, his dinted casque smitten awry; slowly he rode
before his weary company until of a sudden espying Beltane, he uttered
a great and glad cry, his drooping shoulders straightened, and he rode
forward with mailed arms outstretched.

"Beltane!" he cried, "praise be to God! One told me thou wert down--art
well, sweet lad, and all unharmed? God is merciful!" And he patted
Beltane's mailed shoulder, what time blood oozed from his steel
gauntlet and his sobbing charger hung weary head and snorted purple
foam. "O lad," quoth he, smiling his wry smile, "here was an hour worth
living for--though Sir Bertrand is sore hurt and many do lie dead of my
company."

"And here," sighed Beltane, "brave Hubert of Erdington--behold!"

"A gallant knight, Beltane! May I so valiantly die when that my time be
come. Truly 'twas a sharp debate what time it lasted, there be many
that will ride with us no more."

"And thou, my lord?" cried Beltane suddenly, "thy cheek so pale--
thou'rt hurt, Benedict!"

"Nought to matter, lad, save that it is my sword-arm: nay indeed, my
Beltane, 'twas but an axe bit through my vanbrace, 'twill heal within
the week. But take now my horn and summon ye our scattered company, for
I do lack the wind."

Knight and man-at-arms, limping and afoot, on horses weary and blown,
they came at the summons--archer and pike-man they came, a blood
be-spattered company; many were they that staggered, faint with wounds,
and many that sank upon the trampled grass a-swoon with weariness, but
in the eyes of each and every was the look of men that triumph.

Cnut was there, his bascinet gone, his fiery hair betousled: Tall Orson
was there, leaning on a bent and battered pike, and there his comrade,
Jenkyn o' the Ford, with many others that Beltane well remembered and
others whose faces he knew not. So formed they their battle-scarred
array what time Beltane viewed them with glowing eye and heart swelling
within him.

"Master!" cried Tall Orson of a sudden, "O master, us do be clean men
and goodly fighters as us did promise thee time 'gone i' the Hollow,
master, ye'll mind us as did promise so to be--I and Jenkyn as be my
comrade?"

"Aye, master!" cried Jenkyn o' the Ford, "aye, look'ee, we ha' kept our
word to thee as we did promise, look'ee master! So now, speak word to
us master, look'ee!"

"Ye men!" quoth Beltane, hoarse-voiced, "O my good comrades all, your
deeds this day shall speak when we are dust, methinks! Your foes this
day did muster three thousand strong, and ye do number scarce a
thousand--yet have ye scattered them, for that your cause is just--'tis
thus ye shall lift Pentavalon from shame and give to her peace at
last!"

Then Tall Orson shook aloft his battered pike and shouted amain, and on
the instant, others took up the cry--a hoarse roar that rolled from
rank to rank; lance and sword, axe and pike were flourished high in
air, and from these men who had marched so grimly silent all the day a
great and mighty shout went up:

"Arise, Pentavalon! Ha! Beltane--Pentavalon!" Now even as they shouted,
upon this thunderous roar there stole another sound, high and clear and
very sweet, that rose and swelled upon the air like the voices of
quiring angels; and of a sudden the shouting was hushed, as, forth of
the tower's gloomy portal the lady Abbess came, tall and fair and
saintly in her white habit, her nuns behind her, two and two, their
hands clasped, their eyes upraised to heaven, chanting to God a hymn of
praise and thanksgiving. Slow paced they thus, the stately Abbess with
head low-bended and slim hands clasped upon her silver crucifix until,
the chant being ended, she raised her head and beheld straightway Sir
Benedict unhelmed and yet astride his great charger. The silver
crucifix fell, the slim hands clasped themselves upon her bosom and the
eyes of the tall, white Abbess grew suddenly wide and dark: and even as
she gazed on him, so gazed Sir Benedict on her.

"Yolande!" said he, hoarse-voiced and low.

"Benedict!" she murmured.

Slowly Sir Benedict bowed his head, and turning, laid his hand on
Beltane's mailed shoulder.

"Lady," said he, "behold here Beltane--that is son to Beltane
heretofore Duke and Lord of Pentavalon!"

"Ah!" she whispered, "Beltane!" and of a sudden stretched out her arms
in passionate yearning gesture, then, covering her face, sank upon her
knees, "God pity me!" she sighed, "God pity me!" Thereafter she rose to
her stately height and looked on Beltane, gentle and calm-eyed.

"My lord Beltane," said she, "I have heard tell thou art a noble
knight, strong yet gentle--so should thy father be greatly blessed in
thee--and thy--mother also. God have thee ever in His keeping--
Beltane!"

Now as she spake the name her soft voice brake, and turning, she stood
with head bowed upon her hands, and standing thus, spake again,
deep-voiced and soft:

"Sir Benedict, we are come to minister to the hurt, all is prepared
within the tower, let them be brought to us I pray, and--my lord,
forget not the sacred oath thou didst swear me--long years agone!"



CHAPTER LVIII

HOW BELTANE HAD SPEECH WITH THE ABBESS


They found rich booty in Pertolepe's camp, with store of arms and
armour and many goodly horses, and thither Sir Benedict's wearied
followers betook them as night fell and knew blessed rest and sleep.
But in the tower of Brand lights gleamed where the Abbess and her
gentle nuns went to and fro among the wounded, ministering to their
wants; and far beyond the camp, armour glinted ever and anon against
the blackness of the surrounding woods, where outpost and sentinel kept
vigilant watch and ward. Though late the hour Beltane sat wakeful, chin
on fist, beside a glimmering watch-fire, oft turning his glance towards
the massy, weather-beaten tower, bethinking him of the noble lady
Abbess, of her strange looks and words, and so fell to brooding
thought. High overhead the moon rode, obscured by flying clouds, a wild
wrack up-whirling from the south: at fitful intervals was a wind that
moaned drearily 'mid the gloom of distant woods, a desolate sound that
sobbed upon the air, and dying to a wail, was gone. Now becoming aware
of this, Beltane raised his head, and looked up at the ominous heavens
and round about him. And thus he espied a light that hovered hither and
thither above the distant battle-field, a small light whose red flame
flashed back from cloven casque and riven shield, where eyes glared
unseeing and mouths gaped mute and dumb from a dark confusion whence
mailed arms stiffly rose with hands tight-clenched that seemed to
menace heaven, and rigid feet whose spurred heels yet gored the flanks
of rigid, fallen chargers; to and fro and up and down this small flame
leaped merrily, dancing from dead face to dead face but staying never,
a fiendish fire that seemed to mock the horror of wounds and gibe at
solemn death.

Now as he watched this devilish light, Beltane arose and reaching for
his sword went soft-footed to meet it, then paused, for the light was
moving towards him. Near and nearer it came, until, into the glow of
the fire, his betousled head wild and bare, his link-mail yet befouled
with battle, Walkyn strode, and hurling his torch upon the grass,
crushed it out 'neath his heel. Then came he to the fire and stood
there, arms crossed, frowning down at the flame.

"Greeting to thee, Waldron of Brand!"

Swift turned Walkyn, his gloomy scowl relaxed at Beltane's voice, and
stooping, he took and kissed my Beltane's hand.

"Whence come ye, Walkyn?"

"From going to and fro among the dead, seeking Pertolepe, master. Ha!
they do lie thick yonder, five hundred and twenty and three I counted
of Bloody Pertolepe's following. And in the woods do lie certain
others, that I, with divers of our company, pursued and cut off."

"And what of their wounded?"

"I saw none, master--nor have I seen Pertolepe. I have viewed all the
slain, but Pertolepe is not there, yet have I smitten and slain three
Pertolepes this day--hawks, see you, in eagle's feathers! So is my
work yet to do, and I grieve still for Pertolepe's head."

"Sit ye down, Walkyn, here with me beside the fire." Forthwith Walkyn
obeyed and stretching himself on the grass fell to toying with the
haft of his axe and scowling at the fire again.

"This was, methinks, thy father's tower and demesne of Brand, Walkyn?"

"Aye, lord, here was I born--yon ruined walls did hear my father's
groans--the screams of my mother and sister amid the flame. And Red
Pertolepe was there, and Gui of Allerdale and Roger and young Gilles of
Brandonmere--all were there with six other noble knights; but these six
we slew long since, my brother and I. All these were here that day--and
Sir Pertolepe--laughed--full loud, 'twas told me. So 'twere just he
should have died here to-day, methinks? 'Twas for this I lured him
hither--and he liveth yet!"

"But God is a just God, Walkyn! Now therefore leave him to God
henceforth--!"

"To God!" cried Walkyn, his eyes wild, his hands tight-clenched, "to
God!--ha! master, ye left him to God on a time and because of thee, I--
I that had my dagger at his rogue's throat--I, yearning to slay him,
did but mark him i' the brow--aye, forsooth, we left him to God and lo!
to-day he burneth, he slayeth and hangeth as was ever his wont--"

"God's time is not ours, Walkyn, but for the evil wrought by Sir
Pertolepe, Sir Pertolepe needs must answer when God so wills. So leave
him to the vengeance of God--lest the fire of thy vengeance consume
thee quite. Thou art strong, and few may cope with thee in fight, yet
hath vengeance fettered and made thee bond-slave. Forego thy vengeance
then, and be free, good comrade."

"Nay master, an I so do, what is left me?"

"The love of thy fellows, Walkyn. Thou art, forsooth, a man, so do I
love thee, and perchance within a new Pentavalon thou may'st come to
new fortune and honour. Thou shalt hold again thy father's lands--"

"To what end, lord? As ye do know, my wife and child do lie in nameless
grave, done to cruel death by dogs of Pertolepe: my brother rotted in a
noose--set there by Pertolepe. So am I a lonely man henceforth; one
thing only seek I of life, master."

"And that, Walkyn?"

"The head of Bloody Pertolepe!" So saying, Walkyn rose, and stood
scowling down at the fire again, whose glow shone ominous and red upon
the broad blade of the mighty axe that lay on the grass at his feet.

Now of a sudden forth from the shadows, swift and silent on his long
legs came crooked Ulf, and stooping, would have lifted the weapon, but
in that moment Walkyn snarled, and set his foot upon it.

"Off!" he growled, "touch not mine axe, thou vile mannikin--lest I
tread on thee!"

But scarce were the words spoken, than, with great back low-crouched,
Ulf sprang, and whirling mighty Walkyn aloft, mailed feet on high, held
him writhing above the fire: then, swinging about, hurled him, rolling
over and over, upon the ling; so lay Walkyn awhile propped on an elbow,
staring on Ulf with wide eyes and mouth agape what time, strung for
sudden action, Beltane sat cross-legged upon the green, looking from
one to the other.

"Mannikin?" roared Ulf, great hands opening and shutting, "unworthy to
touch axe of thine, thou pestilent beast! Dare ye so say to one gently
born, base fellow? Now will I break thee thine accursed axe--and thee
thereafter, an ye will!"

So saying, Ulf the Mighty caught up the axe and wheeling it full-armed,
smote and buried it in a young tree close by--wrenched it free and
smote again. And lo! with prodigious crack and rending of fibres the
tall tree swayed, crashing to earth. Now while Ulf yet stood to stare
amazed upon this wondrous axe, upon its sharp-glittering, flawless
edge, Walkyn had risen, dagger in hand; but even as he crouched to
spring, a voice spake--a gentle voice but commanding; and in the
fire-glow stood the white Abbess, tall and gracious, the silver
crucifix agleam upon her bosom.

"Children!" she sighed; and looking from scowling Walkyn to frowning
Ulf she reached a slim hand to each. "O children," said she, "lay by
your steel and give to me your hands!"

Fumbling and awkward, Walkyn sheathed his dagger while Ulf laid the
mighty axe upon the grass very tenderly, as it had been a sleeping
child; so came they both, shame-faced, unto the lady Abbess and gave
her each a hand. Holding them thus she looked with sad, sweet eyes from
one grim face to the other, and drew them nearer the fire.

"Walkyn, son of God," said she, "behold here Ulf whose valiant heart
and mighty strength have been our salvation! Ulf, child of Heaven, whom
God hath made so mighty, behold here brave Walkyn who did protect the
weak and helpless and fighteth for the right! Come then, as ye are
children of God, go ye in brotherly love together henceforth, and may
heaven bless ye, valiant sons!"

Thus saying, she set their hands one in another, and these hands
gripped and held.

Quoth Ulf, sighing:

"Forsooth, I did but mean to try the balance of thine axe, Walkyn. And
truly it is a mighty weapon and a peerless--one that even my strength
cannot break!"

Quoth Walkyn, grim-smiling:

"There is in this world no axe like unto it save one that was my
brother's--and shall be thine henceforth, Ulf the Strong. Come now, and
I will give it unto thee." Then bent they reverently before the Abbess,
saluted Beltane and, side by side, strode away together.

"Would all feuds might so end, sweet son," sighed the Abbess, her
wistful eyes down-bent upon the fire.

"Would there were more sweet souls abroad to teach men reason!" quoth
Beltane.

"Why sit you here, my son, wakeful and alone and the hour so late?"

"For that sleep doth fly my wooing, holy mother."

"Then fain would I share thy vigil awhile."

Forthwith Beltane brought her a stool, rough and rudely fashioned, and
while she sat, he lay beside her in the firelight; and thus, despite
her hood and wimple, he saw her face was of a calm and noble beauty,
smooth and unwrinkled despite the silver hair that peeped forth of her
loosened hood. A while they sat thus, nothing speaking, he viewing her,
she gazing ever on the fire; at last:

"Thou'rt young, messire," she said wistfully, "yet in thy life hath
been much of strife, I've heard. Thou hast known much of hardship, my
son, and sorrow methinks?"

"So do I live for that fair day when Peace shall come again, noble
lady."

"Full oft have I heard tell of thee, my son, strange tales and
marvellous. Some do liken thee to a demon joying in slaughter, and
some to an archangel bearing the sword of God."

"And how think you, reverend mother?"

"I think of thee as a man, my son. I have heard thee named 'outlaw' and
'lawless ravener,' and some do call thee 'Beltane the Smith.' Now
wherefore smith?"

"For that smith was I bred, lady."

"But thou'rt of noble blood, lord Beltane."

"Yet knew I nought of it until I was man grown."

"Thy youth--they tell me--hath been very lonely, my son--and desolate."

"Not desolate, for in my loneliness was the hermit Ambrose who taught
me many things and most of all, how to love him. So lived I in the
greenwood, happy and content, until on a day this saintly Ambrose told
me a woeful tale--so did I know this humble hermit for the noble Duke,
my father."

"Thy father! The Duke! A hermit! Told he of--all his sorrows, my son?"

"All, reverend mother, and thereafter bade me beware the falsity of
women."

The pale cheek of the Abbess grew suddenly suffused, the slim hand
clenched rigid upon the crucifix at her bosom, but she stirred not nor
lifted her sad gaze from the fire.

"Liveth thy father yet, my son?"

"'Tis so I pray God, lady."

"And--thy mother?"

"'Tis so I've heard."

"Pray you not for--for her also?"

"I never knew my mother, lady."

"Alas! poor lonely mother! So doth she need thy prayers the more. Ah,
think you she hath not perchance yearned with breaking heart for her
babe? To have kissed him into rosy slumber! To have cherished his
boyish hurts and sorrows! To have gloried in his youthful might and
manhood! O sure there is no sorrow like the loneliness of desolate
motherhood. Would'st seek this unknown mother, lord Beltane?"

"Truly there be times when I do yearn to find her--and there be times
when I do fear--"

"Fear, my lord?"

"Holy mother, I learned of her first as one false to her vows,
light-minded and fickle from her youth--"

"O hath there been none to speak thee good of her--in all these years?"

"There was Jolette, that folk did call a witch, and there is Sir
Benedict that doth paint her pure and noble as I would have her. Yet
would I know for myself, fain would I be sure ere we do meet, if she is
but the woman who bore me, or the proud and noble mother I fain would
love."

"Could'st not love her first and judge her after, my son? Could not her
very motherhood plead her cause with thee? Must she be weighed in the
balance ere thou yield her a son's respect and love? So many weary
years--'tis something hard, methinks! Nay, heed me not, my lord--seek
out thy mother, unbeknown--prove for thyself her worthiness or falsity,
prove for thyself her honour or her shame--'tis but just, aye, 'tis but
just in very truth. But I, beholding things with woman's eyes, know
only that a mother's love shrinketh not for any sin, but reacheth down
through shame and evil with sheltering arms outstretched--a holy thing,
fearless of sin, more lasting than shame and stronger than death
itself."

So saying, the lady Abbess rose and turned to look up at the lights
that burned within the tower.

"'Tis late, my lord," she sighed, "get thee now to thy rest, for I must
begone to my duty till the dawn. There be many sick, and good Sir
Bertrand lieth very nigh to death--he ne'er will see another dawn,
methinks, so needs must I away. Good night, sweet son, and in thy
prayers forget not thy--thy most unhappy mother!"

Then she lifted her hand and blessed him, and, ere he rose up from his
knees she set that white hand upon his bowed head and touched his
yellow hair--a light touch, furtive and shy, but a touch that was like
to a caress.

Thereafter, Beltane, coming into his hut of woven wattle, rolled
himself in his weather-worn mantle and presently fell to slumber.



CHAPTER LIX

TELLETH HOW SIR BENEDICT WENT A-FISHING


Next day Sir Bertrand died of his hurts, so they buried him beside
young Sir John of Griswold and sturdy old Hubert of Erdington and a
hundred and twenty and five others of their company who had fallen in
that desperate affray; therefore tarried they a while what time their
sick and wounded grew towards health and strength by reason of the
skill and tender care of the lady Abbess and her nuns.

Now on the afternoon of this day. Sir Benedict being sick a-bed of his
wound, Beltane sat in council among the oldest and wisest of the
knights, and presently summoned Walkyn and Ulf, Roger and Jenkyn o'
the Ford, speaking them on this wise:

"Good comrades, list ye now! These noble knights and I have hither
summoned ye for that ye are of good and approved courage and moreover
foresters born and cunning in wood-lore. As ye do know, 'tis our intent
to march for Belsaye so soon as our wounded be fit. But first must we
be 'ware if our road be open or no. Therefore, Walkyn, do ye and Ulf
take ten men and haste to Winisfarne and the forest-road that runneth
north and south: be ye wary of surprise and heedful of all things. You,
Roger and Jenkyn, with other ten, shall seek the road that runneth east
and west; marching due south you shall come to the northern road where
ye shall wait two hours (but no longer) for Walkyn. Ye are woodsmen!
Heed ye the brush and lower branches of the trees if any be broken,
mark well the track in dusty places and seek ye the print of feet in
marshy places, learn all ye may from whomsoever ye may and haste ye
hot-foot back with tidings good or ill. Is it understood?"

"Aye, lord!" quoth the four.

"And look'ee master," said Jenkyn, "there be my comrade Orson the
Tall, look'ee. His hurt is nigh healed and to go wi' us shall be his
cure--now, look'ee lord, shall he go wi' us?"

"Nay, Roger shall answer thee this, Jenkyn. So now begone and God speed
ye, good comrades all!" Hereupon the mighty four made their obeisance
and hasted away, rejoicing.

Now Sir Benedict's hurt had proved an evil one and deep, wherefore the
Abbess, in accent soft and tender, had, incontinent, ordered him to
bed, and there, within the silken tent that had been Sir Pertolepe's,
Beltane oft sat by, the while she, with slim and dexterous fingers,
washed and anointed and bound the ugly wound: many times came she,
soft-treading, gentle and gracious ever; and at such times Beltane
noticed that full often he would find her deep, sad gaze bent upon him;
he noticed also that though her voice was low and gentle, yet she spake
ever as one 'customed to obedience. Thus it was, that Sir Benedict
being ordered to his couch, obeyed the soft-spoke command, but being
kept there all day, grumbled (albeit to Beltane): being kept there the
second day he fell to muttered oaths and cursing (albeit to Beltane):
but at sunset he became unruly, in so much that he ventured to
remonstrate with the lady Abbess (albeit humbly), whereon she smiled,
and bidding Beltane reach her cup and spoon, forthwith mixed a
decoction and dosed Sir Benedict that he fell asleep and slumbered
amain.

Thus, during this time, Beltane saw and talked much with the lady
Abbess: oft went he to watch her among the sick and to aid her when he
might; saw how fierce faces softened when she bent to touch fevered
brow or speak them cheerily with smiling lip despite the deep and
haunting sadness of her eyes; saw how eagerly rough hands were
stretched forth to furtive touch her white habit as she passed; heard
harsh voices grow sudden soft and all unfamiliar--voices that broke in
murmurous gratitude. All this saw and heard he and failed not, morn and
eve, to kneel him at her feet to hear her bless him and to feel that
soft, shy touch among his hair.

So passed two days, but neither Roger, nor Walkyn, nor Ulf, nor indeed
any of the twenty chosen men had yet returned or sent word or sign,
wherefore Beltane began to wax moody and anxious. Thus it was that upon
a sunny afternoon he wandered beside a little rivulet, bowered in
alder and willow: here, a merry brook that prattled over pebbly bed and
laughed among stones and mossy boulders, there a drowsy stream that,
widening to dreamy pool, stayed its haste to woo down-bending branches
with soft, kissing noises.

Now as Beltane walked beside the stream, head a-droop and very
thoughtful, he paused of a sudden to behold one richly dight in
gambeson of fair-wrought leather artificially quilted and pinked, who
sat ensconced within this greeny bower, his back to a tree, one
bandaged arm slung about his neck and in the other hand a long
hazel-branch trimmed with infinite care, whereunto a line was tied.

"Sir Benedict!" cried Beltane, "methought thee asleep: what do ye so
far from camp and bed?"

"I fish, lad, I fish--I ply a tentative angle. Nay--save thy breath, I
have caught me nothing yet, save thoughts. Thoughts do flock a many,
but as to fish--they do but sniff my bait and flirt it with their
wanton tails, plague take 'em! But what o' fish? 'Tis not for fish
alone that man fisheth, for fishing begetteth thought and thought,
dreams--and to dream is oft-times sweet!"

"But--Benedict, what of the Abbess?"

"The Abbess? Ha, the Abbess, Beltane! Sweet soul, she sleepeth. At noon
each day needs must she sleep since even she is mortal and mortals must
sleep now and then. The Abbess? Come sit ye, lad, what time I tickle
the noses of these pestilent fish. Sit ye here beside me and tell me,
how think ye of this noble and most sweet lady?"

"That, for thy truancy, she will incontinent mix thee another sleeping
draught, Benedict."

"Ha--then I'll never drink it!" quoth Sir Benedict, settling his
shoulder against Beltane and frowning at his line. "Am I a babe,
forsooth, to be dosed to slumber? Ha, by the foul fiend his black dam,
ne'er will I drink it, lad!"

"Then will she smile on thee, sad-eyed, and set it to thy lip, and woo
thee soft-voiced, so shalt thou swallow it every drop--"

"Not so--dear blood of all the saints! Must I be mewed up within an
accursed bed on such a day and all by reason of a small axe-stroke?
Malediction, no!"

"She is wondrous gentle with the sick, Benedict--"

"She is a very woman, Beltane, and therefore gentle, a noble lady sweet
of soul and body! To die for such were joyful privilege, methinks, aye,
verily!" and Sir Benedict, forgetful of his line, drooped his head and
sighed.

"And thou didst know her well--long years agone, Benedict?"

"Aye, long--years--agone!"

"Very well, Benedict?"

"Very well."

"She was 'Yolande' then, Benedict?"

"Aye," quoth Sir Benedict, lifting his head with a start and looking at
Beltane askance, "and to-day she is the lady Abbess Veronica!"

"That shall surely dose thee again and--"

"Ha! bones and body o' me, not so! For here sit I, and here angle I,
fish or no fish, thunder o' God, yes! Aye, verily, here will I sit till
I have caught me a fish, or weary and go o' my own free will--by
Beelzebub I vow, by Bel and the Dragon I swear it! And furthermore--"

Sir Benedict paused, tilted his head and glancing up, beheld the lady
Abbess within a yard of them. Gracious she stood in her long white
habit and shook her stately head in grave rebuke, but beholding his
abashed look and how the rod sagged in his loosened hold, her lips
parted of a sudden and her teeth gleamed in a smile wondrous young and
pleasant to see.

"O Benedict!" said she, "O child most disobedient! O sir knight! Is
this thy chivalry, noble lord--to steal away for that a poor soul
must needs sleep, being, alas! so very mortal?"

"Forsooth and indeed, dear my lady," quoth Sir Benedict, fumbling with
his angle, "the sun did woo me forth--and the wind, see you--the wind--"

"Nay, I see it not, my lord, but I did hear something of thy fearsome,
great oaths as I came hither."

"Oaths, lady?" said Sir Benedict, fingering his chin, "Forsooth and did
I so? Mayhap 'twas by reason that the fish, see you, the pestilent
fish--Ha! Saint Benedict! I have a bite!" Up sprang Sir Benedict,
quite forgetting his wounded arm, capering lightly to and fro, now in
the water, now out, with prodigious stir and splash and swearing oaths
galore, until, his pallid cheek flushed and bright eyes a-dance, he had
won the fish into the shallows and thence landed it right skilfully,
where it thrashed and leapt, flashing in the sun.

"Ha, Yolande!" he cried, "in the golden days thou wert ever fond of a
goodly trout fresh caught and broiled upon a fire of--"

"Benedict!" cried the Abbess, and, all forgetful of his hurt, caught
him by his wounded arm, "O Sir Benedict!" Now, man of iron though he
seemed, Sir Benedict must needs start and flinch beneath her hold and
grow livid by reason of the sharp pain of it; whereat she loosed him of
a sudden and fell away, white hands tight clasped together.

"Ah Benedict!--I have hurt thee--again!" she panted.

"Not so, 'twas when I landed the fish--my lady Abbess!" Now at this she
turned away and standing thus awhile very silent, presently raised her
hand, whereat came two of her gentle nuns.

"Dear my daughters," said she, "take now Sir Benedict unto the camp and
look to his hurt, anoint it as ye have seen me do. Go!"

Nothing speaking, Sir Benedict bowed him humbly to the stately Abbess
and went away between the two white-robed sisters and so was gone.

Slowly the Abbess turned to Beltane who had risen and was regarding her
with a new and strange intensity, and meeting that look, her own glance
wavered, sank, and she stood awhile gazing down into the murmurous
waters; and as she stood thus, aware of his deep-searching eyes, into
her pale cheek crept a flush that deepened and ever deepened.

"My lord," said she, very low and placid-seeming, "why dost thou look
on me so?"

And for all her stately calm, her hand, which had clenched itself upon
the silver crucifix, was woefully a-tremble. "What--is it--my lord
Beltane?"

"A thought, noble lady."

"What is thy thought?"

"Lady, 'tis this--that, an I might find a mother such as thee, then
would I pay her homage on my knees, and love her and honour her for
what I do know her, praying God to make me worthy--!" So saying, he
came a step towards her, faltered, stopped, and reached out appealing
hands to her.

From red to white and from white to red again the colour flushed in
cheek and brow while the Abbess hearkened to his words; then she
looked on him with proud head uplifted and in her eyes a great and
wondrous light, quick and passionate her slim hands came out to meet
his--

A sudden clamour in the air! A clash of arms! A running of swift feet
and Walkyn sprang betwixt them, his face grimed with dust and sweat,
his armour gone, his great axe all bloody in his hand: "Master!" he
cried, "in Winisfarne lieth Pertolepe with over a thousand of his
company, I judge--and in the woods 'twixt here and Winisfarne is Hollo
of Revelsthorne marching on us through the woods with full five
thousand of Ivo's picked levies, new come from Barham Broom!"



CHAPTER LX

TELLETH HOW THEY MARCHED FROM THE VALLEY OF BRAND


Within the camp was prodigious stir, a fanfare of trumpets and hoarse
commands, where archers and pikemen, knights and men-at-arms were
mustering; but nowhere was hurry or confusion, wherefore Beltane's
heart rejoiced and he smiled glad-eyed as he came where, before Sir
Benedict and the assembled council, stood Roger and Ulf with fifteen of
their twenty men.

"Walkyn," said Sir Benedict, what time his esquire strapped and buckled
him into his bright armour, "where-abouts do they hold their march?"

"Scarce twenty miles from here due west, lord."

"Ha, and they come through the forest, ye say?" questioned Sir Brian,
"so shall they move more slowly, methinks."

"Why see you, messire," said Walkyn, "they march by way of Felindre
that was once a fair town, and from Felindre is a road that leadeth
through the wild unto this valley of Brand."

"So have we, I judge, 'twixt six and seven hours," quoth Hacon of
Trant.

"Less, Hacon, less!" said Sir Benedict, beginning to stride up and down
in his clanking armour, "Sir Rollo ever rideth with busy spur, and he
will doubtless push on amain nor spare his men that he may take us
unprepared. Put it at five hours, Hacon, mayhap less!"

"'Tis so I pray!" said Beltane, glancing towards the glowing west, "and
in two hours it will be dark, my lords! Walkyn, thy company doth lack
for five, meseemeth?" "Aye, master--for five; two fell in Winisfarne
where I lay in bonds; other three were slain in the pursuit."

"Saw Sir Rollo aught of thee?"

"Nay, lord, we lay well hid."

"'Tis very well. Are they many?"

"Of horsemen I counted full three thousand, master."

"And I, lord," quoth Ulf, "did reckon over two thousand foot."

"'Tis a fairish company!" said Sir Brian.

"And I do lack my sword-arm!" sighed Sir Benedict, "but my left hath
served me well ere now."

"And Sir Pertolepe lieth yet in Winisfarne!" said Beltane thoughtfully.

"Aye," nodded Sir Benedict, "and shall march south to cut off our
retreat if haply any of us escape Sir Rollo's onfall."

"So should we strike camp and march forthright," said Sir Brian.

"March--aye, but whither?" questioned Sir Hacon. "We are threatened on
two fronts and for the rest, we have the trackless wilderness! Whither
would'st march, Brian?"

"South to Belsaye," answered Sir Benedict. "South through the wild
until we strike the western road by Thornaby. I with certain others
will form a rear-guard and hold Sir Rollo in play what time our main
body presses on at speed."

"Ha!" quoth Sir Hacon, "and what of Red Pertolepe? Truly our case is
desperate methinks, old comrade!"

"Why, 'tis not the first time we have out-faced desperate odds, Hacon!"

"Aye, verily, Benedict--thy cool head and cunning strategy have saved
us from dungeon and death a score of times, but then were we a chosen
company, swift at onfall or retreat, well mounted and equipped--
to-night we go hampered with our wounded and these lady nuns. So is our
case desperate, Benedict, and needeth desperate remedy--"

"And that, methinks, I've found, messire!" quoth Beltane, and rising
up he looked upon them all, his eye bright with sudden purpose. "Hark
ye, my lords! Great and valiant knights do I know ye, one and all--wise
in experience of battle and much versed in warlike stratagem beyond my
understanding; but this is the wild-wood where only wood-craft shall
advantage us. Within these wilds your tactics shall avail nothing nor
all your trampling chivalry--here must be foresters that may go silent
and unseen amid the leaves, 'neath whose trained feet no twig shall
snap, who smite unseen from brush and thicket and being wise in
wood-craft thus make the forest their ally. And, lords, I am a forester;
all my days the greenwood hath been my home, and in my loneliness I made
the trees my friends. So, I pray you, let me with three hundred chosen
foresters keep our rear to-night, and this night the forest shall fight
for us and Sir Rollo rue the hour he dared adventure him within the
green. Messires, how say you?"

"Why my lord, 'tis very well!" sighed Sir Benedict, glancing down at
his wounded arm, "I, for one, do agree right heartily."

"And I!" nodded Sir Brian.

"And I also!" quoth Sir Hacon, "though 'tis a far cry to Belsaye and I
love not to be pent within walls, and with Red Pertolepe threatening
our flank 'tis a very parlous case, methinks."

"And thou art ever at thy best where danger is, Hacon," said Sir
Benedict, "so will I give thee charge of our van-ward!" Now hereupon
Sir Hacon's gloom vanished and rising up, he smiled and forthwith did
on his great war-helm.

"Then it is agreed!" said Beltane and beckoned to Roger and Walkyn;
quoth he:

"Good friends, go now and choose three hundred trusty fellows, skilled
foresters all; look that each doth bear flint and steel for by yon
clouds I judge 'twill be a dark night. Let every fire within the camp
be quenched and the ground well cooled with water, that by the feel of
it none may know how long we have removed--see you to this, Ulf."

Now when the mighty three were gone about the business, their fifteen
lusty fellows at their heels, Beltane turned and pointed westward, and
lo! the sun was set.

"Messires," said he, "you were wise, methinks, to mount and away ere
the night fall. To-night, since the moon is hid, 'twill be very dark
amid the trees, therefore let Orson guide you--he is forest-bred and
well knoweth the way to Thornaby. Heaven prosper you, for in your
valiant keeping is the safety of--of our noble lady Abbess--and her
ladies. So mount, my lords, press on with what speed ye may, and God
aid us this night each and every--fare ye well!"

Presently the trumpets sounded and forthwith armour was buckled on,
horses saddled, while everywhere was stir and bustle of departure, what
time, within his osier hut, my Beltane was busily doing on his armour,
and, being in haste, making slow business of it; thrice he essayed to
buckle a certain strap and thrice it escaped him, when lo! came a slim
white hand to do it for him, and turning, he beheld the lady Abbess.
And in her eyes was yet that soft and radiant look, but nought said she
until Beltane stood armed from head to heel, until she had girt the
great sword about him; then she set her hands upon his shoulders:

"Beltane," said she soft-voiced, "thou didst yearn for thy mother, so
is she come to thee at last, dear son!" So saying, she drew him down
into her embrace. "O Beltane, son of mine, long, long have I waited--
aye, bitter, weary years, and oft-times in my sorrow I have dreamed of
this hour--the arms about thee are thy mother's arms!"

Now fell Beltane upon his knees and caught those white and gentle hands
and kissed them; quoth he:

"Mother--O dear my mother, ne'er did I know how deep had been my need
of thee until now. And yet, all unknowing, I have yearned for thee; in
my youth I did love all sweet and gentle things in thy stead--the
trees, the tender flowers, the murmurous brooks--these did I love in
place of thee for that mine heart did yearn and hunger for a mother's
tender love--" Here needs must she stoop, all soft whispers and tender
mother-cries, to kiss him oft, to lay her cheek upon his golden head
and murmur over him.

"And thou wilt love thy mother, Beltane--thou wilt love thy unknown
mother--now and always, for that she is thy mother?"

"I will love her and honour her now and always, for that my mother is a
sweet and noble woman!"

"And thou didst need me, Beltane, in thy lonely childhood thou didst
need me, and I--O God pity me--I was far from thee! But, dear my son,
because I could not cherish thee within these arms I strove to love and
cherish all motherless children for thy dear sake and to grieve for all
sorrowing mothers. So builded I the nunnery at Winisfarne and there
sought to bring solace and comfort to desolate hearts because my heart
was so desolate for thee, my babe, my Beltane. And I have prayed
unceasing unto God, and He, in His infinite mercy, hath given thee to
my arms again--"

A trumpet brayed harsh and loud near by, whereat those tender mother-arms
drew him closer yet within their sheltering embrace.

"Sweet son," she sighed, "methinks death is very near each one of us
to-night--but I have held thee to my heart, have felt thy kisses and
heard thy loving words--now if death come how shall it avail 'gainst
such love as ours? Sir Benedict telleth me thou hast chosen the post of
danger--'tis so I would have it, dear my son, and thy proud mother's
prayers go with thee--God keep thee--O God keep thee, my Beltane--ah,
there sounds again the clarion bidding me from thee! Kiss now thy
mother farewell, for alas! I must be gone!"

So presently Beltane brought the Abbess where stood Sir Benedict with
an easy-paced jennet for her use and his company formed up in column
beyond the camp. Then Beltane lifted the lady Abbess to the saddle and
with her hand yet clasped in his, reached the other to Sir Benedict.

"My lord of Bourne," said he, "dear my friend, to thy care I give this
lady Abbess, Duchess of Pentavalon--my well-beloved and noble mother.
O Benedict, no prouder son than I in all the world, methinks--nor one
so humble! God send we meet again anon, but now--fare ye well!" Saying
the which, Beltane caught his mother's hand to his lips, and turning
him suddenly about, hasted to Roger and Walkyn and the chosen three
hundred. And in a while, the nuns and wounded in their midst, Sir
Benedict's steel-clad column moved forward up the slope. First rode Sir
Hacon and his knights in the van and last Sir Benedict with his grim
men-at-arms to form a rear-ward, while archers and pikemen marched upon
their flanks. With ring of steel, with jingle of stirrup and
bridle-chain they swung away up the slope and plunging into the gloom of
the forest were gone; only Sir Benedict paused to turn in his saddle and
lift unwounded arm in salutation ere he too vanished into the shadows
of the wild-wood. Awhile stood Beltane before the three hundred, his
head bowed as one in meditation until the sound of voices, the ring
and clash of their companions' going was died away; then looked he at
the cloudy sky already deepening to evening, and round about upon the
encircling woods.

"The wind is from the south, methinks!" said he.

"Aye, master," nodded Walkyn.

"South-westerly!" quoth Roger.

Now came Beltane and looked upon his company, tall, lusty fellows they,
whose bold, sun-tanned faces proclaimed them free men of the
forest-lands; and beholding their hardy look Beltane's eye brightened.

"Comrades," quoth he, "we be foresters all, and the wild-wood our home
and playground. But yonder from the west do march full five thousand of
Duke Ivo's knights and soldiery-men, they, of courts, of town and city,
so now will we teach them 'tis an ill thing to adventure them 'gainst
trained foresters within the green. List now--and mark me well, for, an
our plan do fail, there shall few of us live to see to-morrow's sun."

Then Beltane spake them plain and to the point, insomuch that when all
was said, these hardy foresters stood mute awhile, desperate fellows
though they were; then laughed they fierce and loud, and flourished
sword and bow-stave and so fell to clamourous talk.

Now did Beltane divide the three hundred into five companies of sixty;
over the first company he set Walkyn, over the second, Roger, over the
third, Ulf, over the fourth Jenkyn o' the Ford. Then spake he on this
wise:

"Walkyn, take now these sixty good fellows and march you north-westerly
yonder across the valley; let your men lie well hid a bow-shot within
the forest, but do you stay upon the verge of the forest and watch for
the coming of our foes. And when they be come, 'tis sure they will
plant outposts and sentinels within the green, so be ye wary to smite
outpost and sentinel suddenly and that none may hear within the camp
nor take alarm; when 'tis done, cry you thrice like unto a curlew that
we may know. Are all things understood?"

"Aye, lord!" they cried, one and all.

"Why then, be ye cautious each and every, for, an our foes do take
alarm, so shall it be our death. March, Walkyn--away!"

Forthwith Walkyn lifted his axe and strode off up the slope until he
and his sixty men had vanished quite into the glooming woods to the
north-west.

"Jenkyn, didst hear my commands to Walkyn, so shalt thou do also--your
post doth lie to the east, yonder."

"Aye, master, and look'ee now--my signal shall be three owl-hoots,
master, look'ee!"

So saying, Jenkyn turned, his sixty at his heels, and swung away until
they were lost to sight in the woods to the east.

"Ulf the Strong, thy post doth lie south-westerly, and Roger's
south-easterly; thus I, lying south, shall have ye on my left and right:
go get ye to your places, watch ye, and wait in patience for the
signals, and when time for action cometh, be swift and sure."

Away marched Roger and Ulf with their companies, and presently were
gone, and there remained within the little valley only Beltane and his
sixty men. Awhile he stood to look to the north and east and west but
nought saw he save the dense gloom of forest growing dark and ever
darker with evening. Then of a sudden turned he, and summoning his
company, strode away into the forest to the south.

Thus, as night fell, the valley of Brand lay deserted quite, and no
sound brake the pervading quiet save the wind that moaned feebly
through those dark and solitary woods wherein Death lay hid, so very
silent--so very patient, but Death in grim and awful shape.



CHAPTER LXI

HOW THE FOREST FOUGHT FOR THEM


A hum upon the night-wind, lost, ever and anon, in wailing gust, yet a
hum that never ceased; a sound that grew and grew, loud and ever more
loud until it seemed to fill the very night, a dreadful sound, ominous
and threatening, a sound to shake the boldest heart--the ring and
tramp of an armed, oncoming multitude.

Now, lying amid the leaves and fern with Cnut and the small man Prat
beside him. Beltane presently espied certain figures moving in the
valley below, stealthy figures that were men of Sir Rollo's van-ward.
Soft-creeping they approached the deserted camp, soft-creeping they
entered it; and suddenly their trumpets brayed loud and long, and,
dying away, gave place to the ring and trampling thunder of the
advancing host.

On they came, knights and men-at-arms, rank upon rank, company by
company, until the valley seemed full of the dull gleam of their armour
and the air rang loud with clash and jingle and the trample of
countless hooves. Yet still they came, horsemen and foot-men, and ever
the sound of them waxed upon the air, a harsh, confused din--and ever,
from the glooming woods above, Death stared down on them.

And now the trumpets blew amain, lights flickered and flared, as one by
one, fires were lighted whose red glow flashed back from many a helm
and shield and breast-plate, from broad gisarm and twinkling
lance-point, what time, above the confused hum, above stamping hooves
and clashing armour, voices shouted hoarse commands.

So, little by little, from chaos order was wrought, pack-horse and
charger were led away to be watered and picketed and gleaming figures
sank wearily about the many camp-fires where food was already
preparing. In a while, from the stir of the camp, bright with its many
watch-fires, divers small groups of men were detached, and, pike and
gisarm on shoulder, began to mount toward the forest at varying
points.

Hereupon, Beltane reached out in the dark and touched the small man
Prat the Archer. Quoth he:

"Hither come their outposts, go now and bring up my company,--and bid
them come silently!"

Forthwith Prat sank down among the fern and was gone, while Beltane
watched, keen-eyed, where four men of Sir Hollo's outposts climbed the
slope hard by. And one was singing, and one was cursing, and two were
quarrelling, and all four, Beltane judged, were men aweary with long
marching. Thus, singing, cursing, quarrelling, came they to keep their
ward within these dark and silent woods, crashing through the
underbrush careless of their going and all unheeding the sombre,
stealthy forms that rose up so silently behind them and before from
brush and brake and thicket, creeping figures that moved only when the
night-wind moaned in the shivering leaves.

Beltane's dagger was out and he rose up from the fern, crouched and
strung for action--but from the gloom near by rose a sudden, strange
flurry amid the leaves, a whimpering sound evil to hear and swiftly
ended, a groan, a cry choked to strangling gasp and thereafter--
silence, save for the fitful wailing of the wind--a long, breathless
pause; then, high and clear rose the cry of an owl thrice repeated, and
presently small Prat was beside him in the fern again.

"Lord," said he softly, albeit panting a little, "these men were fools!
We do but wait our comrades' signals now." And he fell to cleansing his
dagger-blade carefully with a handful of bracken.

"Ha--list ye!" whispered Cnut, "there sounds Ulf's warning, methinks!"

And from the gloom on their left a frog croaked hoarsely.

A hundred watch-fires blazed in the valley below and around each fire
armour glittered; little by little the great camp grew to silence and
rest until nought was heard but the stamp and snorting of the many
horses and the cries of the sentinels below. But ever dagger in hand
Beltane strained eyes and ears northward across the valley, while big
Cnut bit his nails and wriggled beside him in the bracken, and small
Prat softly snapped his fingers; so waited they with ears on the
stretch and eyes that glared ever to the north.

At last, faint and far across the valley, rose the doleful cry of a
curlew thrice repeated, the which was answered from the east by the
hooting of an owl, which again was caught up like an echo, and repeated
thrice upon their right.

Then Beltane sheathed his dagger.

"Look," said he, "Cnut--Prat, look north and tell me what ye see!"

"Fire, my lord!" quoth Prat. "Ha! it burneth well--see, see how it
spreads!"

"And there again--in the east," said Cnut, "Oho! Jenkyn is busy--look,
master!"

"Aye, and Roger too!" said Beltane, grim-lipped, "our ring of fire is
well-nigh complete--it lacketh but for us and Ulf--to work, then!"

Came the sound of flint meeting steel--a sound that spread along the
ranks that lay unseen beyond Prat and Cnut. And behold--a spark! a
glow! a little flame that died down, leapt up, caught upon dry grass
and bracken, seized upon crackling twigs, flared up high and ever
fiercer--a devouring flame, hungry and yellow-tongued that licked along
the earth--a vengeful flame, pitiless and unrelenting--a host of fiery
demons that leapt and danced with crackling laughter changing little by
little to an angry roar that was the voice of awful doom.

Now of a sudden above the hiss of flame, from the valley of Brand a cry
went up--a shout--a roar of fear and amaze and thereafter rose a wild
clamour; a babel inarticulate, split, ever and anon, by frantic
trumpet-blast. But ever the dreadful hubbub waxed and grew, shrieks and
cries and the screaming of maddened horses with the awful, rolling
thunder of their fierce-galloping hooves!

Within that valley of doom Death was abroad already, Death in many dire
shapes. Proud knights, doughty archers and men-at-arms who had fronted
death unmoved on many a stricken field, wept aloud and crouched upon
their knees and screamed--but not so loud as those wild and maddened
horses, that, bursting all bonds asunder, reared and leapt with lashing
hooves, and, choked with rolling smoke-clouds, blinded by flame,
plunged headlong through and over the doomed camp, wave upon wave of
wild-flung heads and tossing manes. On they came, with nought to let or
stay them, their wild hooves trampling down hut of osier and silken
tent, spurning the trembling earth and filling the air with flying
clods; and wheresoever they galloped there was flame to meet them, so
swerved they, screaming their terror and fled round and round within
the valley. So raced they blindly to and fro and back and forth,
trampling down, maiming and mangling 'neath reddened, cruel hooves all
and every that chanced to lie athwart their wild career: on and ever on
they galloped until sobbing, panting, they fell, to be crushed 'neath
the thundering hooves behind.

Within the little valley of Brand Death was rife in many and awful
shapes that no eye might see, for the many watch-fires were scattered
and trampled out; but up from that pit of doom rose shrieks and cries
and many hateful sounds--sounds to pierce the brain and ring there
everlastingly.

Thus Beltane, marching swift to the south at the head of his three
hundred foresters, heard nought of their joyful acclaim, heeded not
their triumph, saw nought of watchful Roger's troubled glances, but
went with head bowed low, with pallid cheek and eyes wide-staring, for
he saw yet again the fierce leap of those merciless flames and in his
ears rang the screams and cries of Sir Rollo's proud chivalry.



CHAPTER LXII

HOW THEY CAME TO BELSAYE FOR THE THIRD TIME


The sun was high as they came to the western road that led to the ford
at Thornaby, but upon the edge of the forest Beltane stopped of a
sudden to stare up at an adjacent tree.

"What is't, master?" questioned Roger, halting beside him.

"An arrow--and new-shot by the look of it!" said Beltane, gloomily.

"Aye master, and it hath travelled far--see, it hath scarce pierced the
bark!"

"'Twas shot from the brush yonder, methinks," said Beltane, pointing to
the dense underwood that skirted the opposite side of the dusty
highway. "Reach me it down, Roger!" so saying Beltane stooped and hove
Roger aloft until he could grasp and draw the arrow from the tree.

"Here is no woodsman's shaft, master!" quoth Roger, turning the missile
over in his hand ere he gave it to Beltane, "no forester doth wing his
shafts so."

"True!" nodded Beltane, frowning at the arrow. "Walkyn, Ulf! here hath
been an ambushment, methinks--'tis a likely place for such. Let our
company scatter and search amid the fern hereabouts--"

But even as he spake came a cry, a clamour of voices, and Prat the
archer came frowning and snapping his restless fingers.

"My lord," said he, "yonder doth lie my good comrade Martin and three
other fellows of my archer-company that marched with Sir Benedict, and
all dead, lord, slain by arrows all four."

"Show me!" said Beltane.

And when he had viewed and touched those stark and pallid forms that
lay scattered here and there amid the bracken, his anxious frown
deepened. "These have been dead men full six hours!" quoth he.

"Aye, lord," says Prat, "and 'tis unmeet such good fellows should lie
here for beasts to tear; shall we bury them?"

"Not so!" answered Beltane, turning away. "Take their shafts and fall
to your ranks--we must march forthright!"

Thus soon the three hundred were striding fast behind Beltane, keeping
ever to the forest yet well within bow-shot of the road, and, though
they travelled at speed they went very silently, as only foresters
might.

In a while Beltane brought them to those high wooded banks betwixt
which the road ran winding down to Thornaby Ford--that self-same hilly
road where, upon a time, the Red Pertolepe had surprised the lawless
company of Gilles of Brandonmere; and, now as then, the dark defile was
littered with the wrack of fight, fallen charges that kicked and
snorted in their pain or lay mute and still, men in battered harness
that stared up from the dust, all unseeing, upon the new day. They lay
thick within the sunken road but thicker beside the ford, and they
dotted the white road beyond, grim signs of Sir Benedict's stubborn
retreat. Hereupon Beltane halted his hard-breathing foresters and
bidding them rest awhile and break their fast, hasted down into the
roadway with Walkyn and Cnut and Black Roger.

"Aha!" cried Walkyn, pointing to divers of the slain that hampered
their going, "these be Pertolepe's rogues--"

"Aye," quoth Roger, throwing back his mail-coif, "and yonder lie four,
five--six of Sir Benedict's good fellows! It hath been a dour fight
hereabouts--they have fought every yard of the way!"

"Forsooth," nodded Cnut, "Sir Benedict is ever most fierce when he
retreats, look you." A while stood Beltane in that dark defile, the
which, untouched as jet by the sun's level beams, struck dank and
chill, a place of gloom and awful silence--so stood he, glancing from
one still form to another, twice he knelt to look more closely on the
dead and each time he rose thereafter, his brow was blacker and he
shivered, despite his mantle.

"'Tis strange," said he, "and passing strange that they should all lie
dead--not a living man among them! How think you Roger?"

"I think, lord, others have been here afore us. See you this knight
now, his gorget loosed off--"

"O messire!" said a faint voice hard by, "if ye have any pity save me
from the crone--for the love of Christ let not the hag slay me as she
hath so many--save me!"

Starting round, Beltane espied a pale face that glared up at him from a
thick furze-bush beside the way, a youthful face albeit haggard and
drawn.

"Fear not!" said Beltane, kneeling beside the wounded youth, "thy life
is safe from us. But what mean you by talk of hag and crone?"

"Ah, messire, to-day, ere the dawn, we fell upon Sir Benedict of
Bourne--a seditious lord who hath long withstood Duke Ivo. But though
his men were few they fought hard and gained the ford ahead of us. And
in the fight I, with many others as ye see, was smitten down and the
fight rolled on and left us here in the dust. As I lay, striving to
tend my hurt and hearkening to the sighs and groans of the stricken, I
heard a scream, and looking about, beheld an ancient woman--busied with
her knife--slaying--slaying and robbing the dead--ah, behold her--with
the black-haired archer--yonder!"

And verily Roger stepped forth of the underwood that clothed the steep,
dragging a thing of rags and tatters, a wretched creature, bent and
wrinkled, that mopped and mowed with toothless chaps and clutched a
misshapen bundle in yellow, talon-like fingers, and these yellow
fingers were splotched horribly with dark stains even as were the rags
that covered her. She whined and whimpered querulously, mouthing
inarticulate plaints and prayers as Roger haled her along, with Cnut
and Walkyn, fierce and scowling, behind. Having brought her to Beltane,
Roger loosed her, and wrenching away her bundle, opened it, and lo! a
yellow-gleaming hoard of golden neck-chains, of rings and armlets, of
golden spurs and belt-buckles, the which he incontinent scattered at
Beltane's feet; whereon the gibbering creature screamed in high-pitched,
cracked and ancient voice, and, screeching, threw herself upon
the gold and fell to scrabbling among the dust with her gnarled and
bony fingers; and ever as she raked and raked, she screeched harsh and
high--a hateful noise that ended, of a sudden, in a wheezing sob, and
sinking down, she lay outstretched and silent, her wrinkled face in the
dust and a cloth-yard shaft transfixing her yellow throat.

So swift had death been dealt that all men fell back a pace and were
yet staring down at this awful dead thing when forth from the brush an
archer crawled painfully, his bow yet in his hand, and so lay, panting
loud and hoarse.

"Ha!" cried Cnut, "'tis lusty Siward of our archers! How now, Siward?"

"I'm sped, Cnut!" groaned Siward, "but yon hag lieth dead, so am I--
content. I've watched her slay John that was my comrade, you'll mind--
for his armlet. And--good Sir Hugh she stabbed,--yonder he lieth--him
she slew for--spurs and chain. When I fell I--dropped my bow--in the
brush, yonder--I have been two hours creeping--a dozen yards to--reach
my bow but--I got it at last--Aha!" And Siward, feebly pointing to the
ancient, dead woman, strove to laugh and so--died.

Then Beltane turned, and coming beside the wounded youth spake him
tender and compassionate.

"Young sir, we must hence, but first can I do aught forthee?"

"O messire, an I might--come to the river--water!"

Saying no word, Beltane stooped and lifting the young knight very
carefully, bore him down toward the ford.

"Messire," quoth the young knight, stifling his groans, "art very
strong and wondrous gentle withal!" Presently Beltane brought him
beside the river, and while the youth drank, laid bare an ugly wound
above the knee and bathed it with his hand, and, thereafter, tearing a
strip from his ragged cloak, he bound it tight above the hurt, (even as
he had seen Sir Fidelis do) and thus stayed the bleeding. Now while
this was a-doing, the young knight must needs talk.

"Ho!" cried he, "'twas a good fight, messire, and he who gave me this
was none other than Benedict of Bourne himself--whom our good Duke doth
fondly imagine pent up within Thrasfordham! O indeed 'twas Sir
Benedict, I saw his hawk-face plain ere he closed his vizor, and he
fought left-handed. Moreover, beside him I recognised the leaping dog
blazoned on the shield of Hacon of Trant--Oho, this shall be wondrous
news for Duke Ivo, methinks. But, faith, 'tis wonder how he escaped
Sir Rollo, and as for the outlaw Beltane we saw nought of him--Sir
Pertolepe vows he was not of this company--mayhap Sir Rollo hath him,
'tis so I pray--so, peradventure I shall see him hang yet! My grateful
thanks, messire, for thy tender care of me. At home I have a mother
that watcheth and prayeth for me--prithee tell me thy name that she may
remember it in her prayers?"

"I am called Beltane the Outlaw, sir knight--and I charge thee to heed
that thy bandage slip not, lest the bleeding start afresh--fare thee
well!" So saying, Beltane turned and went on across the ford what time
the young knight, propped upon weak elbow, stared after him wide of eye
and mouth.

Forthwith Beltane, setting horn to lip, sounded the rally, and very
soon the three hundred crossed the ford and swung off to the left into
the green.

Thus, heartened and refreshed by food and rest, they pressed on amain
southward through the forest with eyes and ears alert and on the strain;
what time grim Sir Benedict, riding with his rearguard, peered through
the dust of battle but saw only the threatening column of the foe upon
the forest road behind, rank upon rank far as the eye could reach, and
the dense green of the adjacent woods on either flank whence unseen
arrows whizzed ever and anon to glance from his heavy armour.

"Ha, Benedict!" quoth Sir Brian, "they do know thee, methinks, 'spite
thy plain armour--'tis the third shaft hath struck thee in as many
minutes!"

"So needs must I stifle and sweat within closed casque!" Sir Benedict
groaned. Upon his right hand Sir Brian rode and upon his left his
chiefest esquire, and oft needs must they wheel their chargers to front
the thunderous onset of Red Pertolepe's fierce van, at the which times
Sir Benedict laughed and gibed through his vizor as he thrust and smote
left-armed, parrying sword and lance-point right skilfully
nevertheless, since shield he bare none. Time and again they beat back
their assailants thus, until spent and short of wind they gave place to
three fresh knights.

"By Our Lady of Hartismere!" panted Sir Brian, "but thy left arm serves
thee well, Benedict!"

"'Tis fair, Brian, 'tis fair, God be thanked!" sighed Sir Benedict,
eyeing his reeking blade, "though I missed my thrust 'neath yon gentle
knight's gorget--"

"Yet shore clean through his helm, my lord!" quoth young Walter the
esquire.

"Why truly, 'tis a good blade, this of mine," said Sir Benedict, and
sighed again.

"Art doleful, Benedict?" questioned Sir Brian, "'tis not like thee when
steel is ringing, man."

"In very sooth, Brian, I hanker for knowledge of our Beltane--ha,
Walter!" he cried suddenly, "lower thy vizor, boy--down with it, I
say!"

"Nay, dear my lord, fain would I breathe the sweet, cool air--but a
moment and--"

The young esquire rose up stiffly in his stirrups, threw up gauntleted
hands and swaying from the high saddle, pitched down crashing into the
dust.

"Alas! there endeth my poor Walter!" sighed Sir Benedict.

"Aye, a shaft between the eyes, poor lad! A curse on these unseen
archers!" quoth Sir Brian, beckoning a pikeman to lead forward the
riderless horse. "Ha--look yonder, Benedict--we are beset in flank,
and by dismounted knights from the underwood. See, as I live 'tis the
nuns they make for!"

Nothing saying, Sir Benedict spurred forward beside his hard-pressed
company; in the midst of the column was dire tumult and shouting,
where, from the dense woods upon their left a body of knights sheathed
in steel from head to foot were cutting their way toward the lady
Abbess, who, conspicuous in her white habit, was soothing her
frightened palfrey. All about her a shouting, reeling press of Sir
Benedict's light-armed footmen were giving back and back before the
swing of ponderous axe and mace and sword, were smitten down and
trampled 'neath those resistless, steel-clad ranks.

"Ha! the Abbess!" they cried, "yield us the lady Abbess!" Into this
close and desperate affray Sir Benedict spurred, striving with voice
and hand to re-form his broken ranks, hewing him a path by dint of
sword until he had won beside the Abbess.

"Yolande!" he shouted above the din, "keep thou beside me close--close,
Yolande--stoop--ah, stoop thy head that I may cover thee--the debate
waxeth a little sharp hereabouts!" Even as he spake he reeled 'neath
the blow of a heavy mace, steadied himself, cut down his smiter, and
thrust and smote amain until the grim, fierce-shouting ranks gave back
before the sweep of that long sword.

"See, Yolande!" he panted, hard-breathing, "see yonder where my good
Hacon spurs in to our relief--ha, mighty lance!"

"Ah, Benedict," cried the Abbess, pale-lipped but calm of eye, "of what
avail? 'Tis me they seek, though wherefore I know not, so--dear
Benedict--let me go. Indeed, indeed 'tis best, so shall these fair
lives be saved--ah, sweet Jesu, 'tis horrible! See--O see how fast
they fall and die about us! I must go--I will go! My lord, let me pass--
loose my bridle--"

A hunting horn fiercely winded among the woods hard by! A confused roar
of harsh voices and forth of the green four terrible figures sprang,
two that smote with long-shafted axes and two that plied ponderous
broadswords; and behind these men were others, lean and brown-faced--
the very woods seemed alive with them. And from these fierce ranks a
mighty shout rent the air:

"Arise! Arise! Ha, Beltane--Pentavalon!"

Then did Sir Benedict, laughing loud and joyous, haste to re-form his
swaying ranks, the bloody gap in his column closed up and Sir
Pertolepe's knights, hemmed in thus, smote and were smitten and but
scant few were they that won them free. And presently, through that red
confusion brake Beltane with Roger and Ulf and Walkyn at his heels,
and, sword in hand, he sprang and caught the Abbess in a close embrace.

"Mother!" he cried.

"Dear, dear son of mine--and thou art safe? Thanks be to God who hath
heard the passion of thy mother's prayers!" Now Sir Benedict turned,
and wheeling his horse, left them together and so beheld Sir Hacon near
by, who, standing high in his stirrups, pointed to their rear.

"Benedict!" he panted, "ha, look--Brian is over-borne! Ho! a rescue--a
rescue to Sir Brian of Hartismere!" So shouting, he drave back into
the confusion of the staggering rear-guard with Sir Benedict spurring
behind. But, as Sir Benedict rode, pushing past the files of his halted
company, he felt hands that gripped either stirrup and glancing down
beheld Ulf the Strong on his one flank and grim Walkyn upon the other.
So came they where the road broadened out and where the battle raged
swaying and surging above the form of Sir Brian prostrate in the dust
where horsemen and footmen strove together in desperate grapple, where
knightly shields, aflare with proud devices, rang 'neath the blows of
Beltane's lusty foresters and Sir Benedict's veteran pikemen.

Then of a sudden Walkyn shouted fierce and loud, and sprang forward
with mighty axe whirled aloft.

"Ha--Pertolepe, turn!" he roared, "Ho, Bloody Pertolepe--turn, thou
dog! 'Tis I--'tis Waldron of Brand!" So cried he, and, plunging into
the thick of the affray, smote aside all such as barred his way until
he fronted Sir Pertolepe, who, astride a powerful mailed charger,
wielded a bloody mace, and who, hearing that hoarse cry, turned and met
the shearing axe with blazoned shield--and behold! the gorgeous shield
was split in twain; but even so, he smote in turn and mighty Walkyn was
beaten to his knee. Forth sprang Ulf, swift and eager, but Walkyn,
bounding up, shouldered him aside--his axe whirled and fell once, and
Sir Pertolepe's mace was dashed from his loosened hold--whirled and
fell again, and Sir Pertolepe's great casque was beaten from his head
and all men might see the ghastly, jagged cross that scarred his brow
beneath his fiery hair--whirled again, but, ere it could fall, knights
and esquires mounted and afoot, had burst 'twixt Walkyn and their
reeling lord, and Walkyn was dashed aside, shouting, cursing, foaming
with rage, what time Sir Pertolepe was borne out of the fight.

But the rear-guard was saved, and, with a hedge of bristling pikes
behind, Sir Benedict's sore-battered company marched on along the
forest-road and breathed again, the while their pursuers, staggered in
their onset, paused to re-form ere they thundered down upon that
devoted rear-guard once more. But Sir Benedict was there, loud-voiced
and cheery still despite fatigue, and Sir Hacon was there, his wonted
gloom forgotten quite, and Beltane was there, equipped with shield and
vizored war-helm and astride a noble horse, and there, too, was Roger,
grim and silent, and fierce Ulf, and Walkyn in black and evil temper;
quoth he:

"Ha--'tis ever so, his life within my very grasp, yet doth he escape
me! But one more blow and the Red Pertolepe had been in hell--"

"Yet, forsooth, didst save our rear-guard, comrade!" said Ulf.

"Aye--and what o' that? 'Twas Pertolepe's foul life I sought--"

"And there," quoth Beltane, "there spake Vengeance, and vengeance is
ever a foul thing and very selfish!" Now hereupon Walkyn's scowl
deepened, and, falling further to the rear, he spake no more.

"Beltane, dear my lad," said Sir Benedict as they rode together, "hast
told me nought of thy doings last night--what of Sir Rollo?"

"Nay, Benedict, ask me not yet, only rest ye assured Sir Rollo shall
not trouble us this side Belsaye. But pray, how doth our brave Sir
Brian?"

"Well enough, Beltane; he lieth in a litter, being tended by thy noble
lady mother. A small lance-thrust 'neath the gorget, see'st thou,
'twill be healed--Ha, they charge us again--stand firm, pikes!" So
shouting, Sir Benedict wheeled his horse and Beltane with him, and once
again the road echoed to the din of battle.

Thus all day long they fought their way south along the forest-road,
as, time and again, Sir Pertolepe's heavy chivalry thundered down upon
them, to check and break before that hedge of deadly pikes. So marched
this valiant rear-guard, parched with thirst, choked with dust, grim
with blood and wounds, until, as the sun sank westwards, the woods
thinned away and they beheld at last, glad-eyed and joyful, the walls
and towers of fair Belsaye town. Now just beyond the edge of the
woods, Sir Benedict halted his shrunken column, his dusty pikemen drawn
up across the narrow road with archers behind supported by his cavalry
to hold Sir Pertolepe's powers in check amid the woods what time the
nuns with the spent and wounded hasted on towards the city.

Hereupon Beltane raised his vizor and setting horn to lip, sounded the
rally. And lo! from the city a glad and mighty shout went up, the while
above the square and frowning keep a great standard arose and flapping
out upon the soft air, discovered a red lion on a white field.

"Aha, Beltane!" quoth Sir Benedict, "yon is a rare-sweet sight--behold
thy father's Lion banner that hath not felt the breeze this many a
year--"

"Aye, lords," growled Walkyn, "and yonder cometh yet another lion--a
black lion on red!" and he pointed where, far to their left, a red
standard flaunted above the distant glitter of a wide-flung battle
line.

"Hast good eyes, Walkyn!" said Sir Benedict, peering 'neath his hand
toward the advancing host, "aye, verily--'tis Ivo himself. Sir
Pertolepe must have warned him of our coming."

"So are we like to be crushed 'twixt hammer and anvil," quoth Sir
Hacon, tightening the lacing of his battered casque.

"So will I give thee charge of our knights and men-at-arms--what is
left of them, alas!--to meet Black Ivo's banner, my doleful Hacon!"
spake Sir Benedict.

"Nay, Benedict," said Sir Hacon, grim-smiling, "my dole is but
caution!" So saying, he closed his vizor and rode away to muster his
chivalry to meet their new assailants the while Sir Benedict fell to
re-forming his scanty ranks of pikemen and archers. Meantime Beltane,
sitting his weary charger, glanced from Sir Pertolepe's deep array of
knights and men-at-arms that thronged and jostled each other in the
narrow forest-road to the distant flash and glitter of Duke Ivo's
mighty van-ward, and from these again to the walls of Belsaye. And as
he looked thither he saw the great drawbridge fall, the portcullis
raised, and the gates flung wide to admit the fugitives; even at that
distance he thought to recognise the Abbess, who paused to turn and
gaze towards him, as, last of all, she rode to safety into the city.
Then my Beltane sighed, and, closing his vizor, turned to find Ulf
beside him with Roger and Walkyn, who stood to watch the while Sir
Benedict rode to and fro, ordering his company for their perilous
retreat across the plain. Swift and silent his war-worn veterans fell
to their appointed ranks; his trumpets blew and they began to fall back
on Belsaye town. Grimly silent they marched, and ever Beltane gazed
where, near and ever more near, flashed and flickered Duke Ivo's
hard-riding van-ward.

And now from the forest-road Sir Pertolepe's company marched, and
forming in the open, spurred down upon them.

"Stand firm, pikes!" roared Cnut.

"Aim low, archers!" squealed small Prat, and forthwith the battle
joined.

The weary rear-guard rocked and swayed beneath the onset, but Prat and
his archers shot amain, arrows whistled while pike and gisarm thrust
and smote, as, encompassed now on three sides, they fell back and back
towards the yawning gates of Belsaye; and ever as he fought, Beltane
by times turned to watch where Duke Ivo's threatening van-ward
galloped--a long line of gleaming shields and levelled lances gay with
the glitter of pennon and banderol.

Back and back the rear-guard staggered, hewing and smiting; twice
Beltane reeled 'neath unseen blows and with eyes a-swim beheld Roger
and Ulf, who fought at either stirrup: heard of a sudden shrieks and
cries and the thunder of galloping hooves; was aware of the flash of
bright armour to his left, rank upon rank, where charged Duke Ivo's
van-ward before whose furious onset Sir Benedict's weary pikemen were
hurled back--their centre swayed, broke, and immediately all was dire
uproar and confusion.

"Ah, Beltane--these be fresh men on fresh horses," cried Sir Benedict,
"but hey--body o' me--all's not lost yet--malediction, no! And 'tis
scarce half a mile to the gates. Ha--yonder rides lusty Hacon to stay
their rush--in upon them. Beltane--Ho, Pentavalon!"

Shouting thus, Sir Benedict plunged headlong into the raging fury of
the battle; but, as Beltane spurred in after him, his weary charger,
smitten by an arrow, reared up, screaming, yet ere he fell, Beltane,
kicking free of the stirrups, rolled clear; a mighty hand plucked him
to his feet and Ulf, roaring in his ear, pointed with his dripping axe.
And, looking whither he pointed, Beltane beheld Sir Benedict borne down
beneath a press of knights, but as he lay, pinned beneath his squealing
charger, Beltane leapt and bestrode him, sword in hand.

"Roger!" he shouted, "Ulf--Walkyn--to me!"

All about him was a swaying trample of horses and men, an iron ring
that hemmed him in, blows dinted his long shield, they rang upon his
helmet, they battered his triple mail, they split his shield in sunder;
and 'neath this hail of blows Beltane staggered, thrice he was smitten
to his knees and thrice he arose, and ever his long blade whirled and
darted.

"Yield thee, sir knight--yield thee!" was the cry.

"Ho, Roger!" he shouted hoarsely, "Ulf--Walkyn, to me!"

An axe bit through his great helm, a sword bent against his stout mail,
a knight spurred in upon him, blade levelled to thrust again, but
Beltane's deadly point darted upward and the snorting charger plunged
away--riderless.

But now, as he fought on with failing arm, came a joyous roar on his
right where Ulf smote direly with bloody axe, upon his left hand a
broad-sword flickered where Roger fought silent and grim, beyond him
again, Walkyn's long arms rose and fell as he whirled his axe, and hard
by Tall Orson plied goring pike. So fought these mighty four until the
press thinned out and they had cleared them a space amid the battle,
the while Beltane leaned him, spent and panting, upon his reeking
sword.

Now, as he stood thus, from a tangle of the fallen near by a bent and
battered helm was lifted and Sir Benedict spake, faint and short of
breath:

"'Twas nobly done--sweet lad! 'Tis enough, methinks--there be few of
us left, I fear me, so--get thee hence--with such as be alive--hence,
Beltane, for--thy sweet mother's sake. Nay, heed not--old Benedict, I
did my best and--'tis a fitting couch, this--farewell to thee, my
Beltane--" So saying, Sir Benedict sank weakly to an elbow and from
elbow upon his face, and lay there, very still and mute.

"Master--master!" cried Roger, "we shall win to Belsaye yet, see--see,
Giles hath out-flanked them with his pikes and archers, and--ha! yonder
good Eric o' the Noose chargeth them home!"

But Beltane leaned him upon his sword very spent and sick, and stared
ever upon Sir Benedict's motionless form, his harness bent and hacked,
his proud helm prone in the trampled ling. Slowly, and with fumbling
hands, Beltane sheathed his sword, and stooping, raised Sir Benedict
upon his shoulder and strove to bear him out of the fight, but twice he
staggered in his going and would have fallen but for Roger's ready arm.

"Master," quoth he, "master, let me aid thee with him!" But nothing
saying, Beltane stumbled on until they came where stood Ulf holding a
riderless horse, on the which he made shift to mount with Roger's aid;
thereafter Ulf lifted Sir Benedict to his hold.

"And, pray you," said Beltane, slow and blurred of speech, "pray you
what of noble Sir Hacon?"

"Alack, lord," growled Ulf, "yonder is he where they lie so thick, and
slain, methinks,--yet will I bring him off--"

"Aye, lord," cried Tall Orson, great tears furrowing the grime of his
cheeks, "and little Prat do be killed--and lusty Cnut do be killed wi'
him--and my good comrade Jenkyn do lie smitten to death--O there do be
none of us left, methinks, lord!"

So, faint and heart-sick, with Sir Benedict limp across his saddle bow,
Beltane rode from that place of death; beside him went Roger, stumbling
and weary, and behind them strode mighty Ulf with Sir Hacon upon his
shoulder. In a while, as they went thus, Beltane, glancing back at the
fight, beheld stout Eric with the men of Belsaye, well mounted and
equipped, at fierce grapple with Duke Ivo's van-ward, what time Giles
and his archers supported by lusty pikemen, plied Sir Pertolepe's weary
forces with whizzing shafts, drawing and loosing marvellous fast.

So came they at last unto the gates of Belsaye town that were already
a-throng with many wounded and divers others of Sir Benedict's company
that had won out of the affray; now upon the drawbridge Beltane paused
and gave Sir Benedict and brave Hacon into kindly, eager hands, then,
wheeling, with Ulf and Roger beside him, rode back toward the battle.
And ever as they went came scattered groups of Sir Benedict's stout
rear-guard, staggering with weariness and limping with wounds, the
while, upon the plain beyond, Eric with his men-at-arms and Walkyn with
the survivors of the foresters and Giles with his archers and pikemen,
holding the foe in play, fell back upon the town, compact and orderly.
Thus, they in turn began to cross the drawbridge, archers and pikemen,
and last of all, the men-at-arms, until only Eric o' the Noose and a
handful of his horsemen, with Beltane, Roger and Ulf remained beyond
the drawbridge, whereon the enemy came on amain and 'neath their
furious onset brave Eric was unhorsed; then Beltane drew sword and with
Roger and Ulf running at either stirrup, spurred in to the rescue.

A shock of hard-smitten steel--a whirl and flurry of blows--a shout of
triumph, and, reeling in his saddle, dazed and sick, Beltane found
himself alone, fronting a bristling line of feutred lances; he heard
Roger shout to him wild and fearful, heard Walkyn roar at him--felt a
sudden shock, and was down, unhelmed, and pinned beneath his stricken
charger. Half a-swoon he lay thus, seeing dimly the line of on-rushing
lance-points, while on his failing senses a fierce cry smote:

"'Tis Beltane--the Outlaw! Slay him! Slay him!"

But now of a sudden and as one that dreamed, he beheld a tender face
above him with sad-sweet eyes and lips that bent to kiss his brow, felt
soft arms about him--tender arms that drew his weary head upon a
gentle bosom to hide and pillow it there; felt that enfolding embrace
tighten and tighten in sudden shuddering spasm, as, sighing, the lady
Abbess's white-clad arms fell away and her proud head sank beside his
in the dust.

And now was a rush and roar of fierce voices as over them sprang Roger
and Giles with Ulf and Eric, and, amid the eddying dust, axe and sword
swung and smote, while came hands strong yet tender, that bare Beltane
into the city.

Now beyond the gate of the city was a well and beside the well they
laid Beltane and bathed him with the sweet cool water, until at length
the mist vanished from his sight and thus he beheld the White Abbess
who lay upon a pile of cloaks hard by. And beholding the deadly pallor
of lip and cheek, the awful stains that spotted her white robe and the
fading light in those sad-sweet eyes, Beltane cried aloud--a great and
bitter cry, and fell before her on his knees.

"Mother!" he groaned, "O my mother!"

"Dear my Beltane," she whispered faintly, striving to kiss his hand,
"death is none so--painful, so grieve not thine heart for me, sweet
son. And how may a mother--die better than for her own--beloved son?
Beltane, if God--O if God in His infinite mercy--shall think me worthy
--to be--one of His holy angels, then will I be ever near thee when thy
way proveth dark--to comfort thee--to aid thee. O dear my son--I
sought thee so long--so long--'tis a little hard to leave thee--so
soon. But--God's will--fare thee well, I die--aye--this is death,
methinks. Beltane, tell thy father that I--O--dear my--my Beltane--"

So died the gracious lady Abbess that had been the proud Yolande,
Duchess of Pentavalon, wept and bemoaned by full many who had known
her tender care; and, in due season, she was laid to rest within the
fair Minster of Belsaye. And thereafter, Beltane took to his bed and
abode there many days because of his wounds and by reason of his so
great sorrow and heart-break.

But, that night, through the dark hours was strange stir and hum beyond
the walls of Belsaye, and, when the dawn broke, many a stout heart
quailed and many a cheek blanched to see a great camp whose fortified
lines encompassed the city on all sides, where lay Ivo the Black Duke
to besiege them.



CHAPTER LXIII

TELLETH SOMEWHAT OF THE WOES OF GILES O' THE BOW


Six days and nights my Beltane kept his bed, seeing and speaking to no
man; and it is like he would have died but for the fostering care of
the good Friar Martin who came and went softly about him, who watched
and tended and prayed over him long and silently but who, perceiving
his heart-sickness, spake him not at all. Day in and day out Beltane
lay there, heedless of all but his great sorrow, sleeping little and
eating less, his face hid in his pillow or turned to the wall, and in
all this time he uttered no word nor shed a single tear.

His wounds healed apace but his soul had taken a deeper hurt, and day
and night he sorrowed fiercely for his noble mother, wherefore he lay
thus, heeding nought but his great grief. But upon the seventh night,
he dreamed she stood beside his couch, tall and fair and gracious, and
looked down on him, the mother-love alight within her sweet, sad eyes.
Now within her hand she bare his sword and showed him the legend graven
upon the bright steel:

RESURGAM

And therewith she smiled wondrous tender and put the great weapon into
his grasp; then stooped and kissed him, and, pointing upward with her
finger, was gone.

And now within his sleep his anguished heart found solacement in slow
and burning tears, and, sleeping yet, he wept full bitterly, insomuch
that, sobbing, he awoke. And lo! beneath his right hand was the touch
of cold steel and his fingers clenched tight upon the hilt of his great
sword.

Then my Beltane arose forthwith, and finding his clothes near by, clad
himself and did on his mail, and, soft-treading, went forth of his
narrow chamber. Thus came he where Friar Martin lay, deep-breathing in
his slumber, and waking him not, he passed out into the dawn. And in
the dawn was a gentle wind, very cool and grateful, that touched his
burning brow and eyes like a caress; now looking up to heaven, where
stars were paling to the dawn, Beltane raised the hilt of his sword
and pressed it to his lips.

"O blessed mother!" he whispered, "God hath surely found thee worthy to
be one of His holy angels, so hast thou stooped from heaven to teach to
me my duty. Thus now will I set by my idle grieving for thee, sweet
saint, and strive to live thy worthy son--O dear my mother, who, being
dead, yet liveth!"

Then Beltane sheathed his sword and went softly up the narrow stair
that led to the battlements.

It was a bleak dawn, full of a thick, low-lying mist beyond the walls,
but within this mist, to north and south and east and west, was a faint
stir, while, ever and anon, rose the distant cry of some sentinel
within Duke Ivo's sleeping camp, a mighty camp whose unseen powers held
the fair city in deadly grip. In Belsaye nothing stirred and none waked
at this dead hour save where, high on the bartizan above the square and
mighty keep, the watchman paced to and fro, while here and there from
curtain wall and massy tower, spear-head and bascinet gleamed.

Slow and light of foot Beltane climbed the narrow stair that led up to
one of the two square towers that flanked the main gate, but, being
come thither, he paused to behold Giles, who chancing to be captain of
the watch, sat upon a pile of great stones beside a powerful mangonel
or catapult and stared him dolefully upon the lightening east: full oft
sighed he, and therewith shook despondent head and even thus fell he to
soft and doleful singing, groaning to himself 'twixt each verse, on
this wise:

  "She will not heed her lover's moan,
   His mopèd tear, his deep-fetched groan,
   So doth he sit, and here alone
      Sing willow!

("With three curses on this foul mist!)

  "The little fishes fishes woo,
   Birds blithe on bough do bill and coo,
   But lonely I, with sad ado
      Sing willow!"

("And may Saint Anthony's fire consume Bernard, the merchant's round,
plump son!)

  "'Tis sure a maid was made for man,
   'Twas e'en so since the world began,
   Yet doleful here, I only can
      Sing willow!"

("And may the blessed saints have an eye upon her tender slumbers!")

Here Giles paused to sigh amain, to fold his arms, to cross his legs,
to frown and shake gloomy head; having done the which, he took breath
and sang again as followeth:--

  "Alack-a-day, alas and woe!
   Would that Genevra fair might know
   'Tis for her love Giles of the Bow
      Sings willow!"

But now, chancing to turn and espy Beltane, Giles fell suddenly
abashed, his comely face grew ruddy 'neath its tan and he sprang very
nimbly to his feet:

"Ha, tall brother--good brother," he stammered, "noble lord, God den to
ye--hail and good morrow! Verily and in faith, by Saint Giles (my
patron saint, brother) I do rejoice to see thee abroad again, as will
our surly Rogerkin that doth gloom and glower for thee and hath hung
about thy chamber door morn and noon and night, and our noble Sir
Benedict and Walkyn--but none more unfeignedly than Giles that doth
grow glad because of thee--"

"That is well," quoth Beltane, seating himself upon the battlement,
"for verily thy song was vastly doleful, Giles!"

"My song, lord, my song? Ha--hum! O verily, my song is a foolish song
or the song of a fool, for fool am I, forsooth--a love-lorn fool; a
doleful fool, a very fool of fools, that in my foolish folly hath set
his foolish heart on thing beyond reach of such base fool as I. In a
word, tall brother, I'm a fool, _videlicet_--a lover!"

"Truly, hast the speech and outward seeming of your approved lover,
Giles," nodded Beltane.

"Aye, verily!" sighed Giles, "aye, verily--behold my beard, I have had
no heart to trim it this sennight! Alack, I--I that was so point-de-vice
am like to become a second Diogenes (a filthy fellow that never washed
and lived in a foul tub!). As for food, I eat no more than the
chameleon that doth fill its belly with air and nought else, foolish
beast! I, that was wont to be a fair figure of a man do fall away to
skin and bone, daily, hourly, minute by minute--behold this leg, tall
brother!" And Giles thrust out a lusty, mailed limb. "Here was a leg
once--a proper shapely leg to catch a woman's eye--see how it hath
shrunk, nay, faith, 'tis hidden in mine armour! But verily, my shanks
will soon be no thicker than my bowstave! Lastly I--I that loved
company and good cheer do find therein abomination these days, so do I
creep, like moulting fowl, brother, to corners dark and dismal and
there make much ado--and such is love, O me!"

"Doth the maid know of thy love?"

"Nay lord, good lack, how should she?--who am I to speak of it? She is
a fair lady and noble, a peerless virgin, while I--I am only Giles--
poor Giles o' the Bow, after all!"

"Truly, love is teaching thee wisdom, Giles," said Beltane, smiling.

"Indeed, my lord, my wisdom teacheth me this--that were I the proudest
and noblest in the land yet should I be unworthy!" and Giles shook
miserable head and sighed again full deep.

"Who is she, Giles?"

"She is Genevra, daughter to the Reeve! And the Reeve is a great man in
Belsaye and gently born, alas! And with coffers full of good broad
pieces. O would she were a beggar-maid, the poorest, the meanest, then
might I woo her for mine own. As it is, I can but look and sigh--for
speak me her I dare not--ha, and there is a plump fellow!" Here Giles
clenched bronzed fist. "A round and buxom fellow he, a rich merchant's
son doth woo her boldly, may speak with her, may touch her hand! So do
I ofttimes keep him shooting at the butts by the hour together and
therein do make me some small amend. Yet daily do I mope and pine, and
pine and mope--O tall brother, a most accursed thing is this love--and
dearer than my life, heigho!"

"Nay, pluck up thy heart, thou'rt a man, Giles."

"Aye, verily, but she is a maid, brother, therein lieth vasty
difference, and therefore do I fear her for her very sweetness and
purity--fear her? Faith, my knees do knock at sound of her voice, her
very step doth set me direly a-tremble. For she is so fair--so pure and
nigh the angels, that I--alack! I have ever been a something light
fellow in matters of love--forget not I was bred a monk, noble brother!
Thus, brother, a moping owl, I--a very curst fellow, gloomy and silent
as the grave, saving my breath for sighs and groans and curses fell,
wherefore I have builded me a 'mockery' above the wall and there-from
do curse our foes, as only a churchman may, brother."

"Nay, how mean you, Giles?" questioned Beltane, staring.

"Follow me, lord, and I will show thee!" So saying, Giles led the way
down to the battlement above the great gates, where was a thing like
unto a rough pulpit, builded of massy timbers, very stout and strong,
and in these timbers stood many arrows and cross-bow bolts.

"Here, lord," quoth Giles, "behold my 'mockery' wherefrom it is my wont
and custom to curse our foes thrice daily. The which is a right good
strategy, brother, in that my amorous anguish findeth easement and I do
draw the enemy's shafts, for there is no man that heareth my
contumacious dictums but he forthwith falleth into rageful fury, and an
angry fellow shooteth ever wide o' the mark, brother. Thus, thrice
daily do we gather a full sheaf of their ill-sped shafts, whereby we
shall not lack for arrows an they besiege us till Gabriel's trump--
heigho! Thus do I live by curses, for, an I could not curse, then would
my surcharged heart assuredly in sunder burst--aye me!"

Now whiles they sat thus in talk, up rose the sun, before whose joyous
beams the stealthy mists slunk away little by little, until Beltane
beheld Duke Ivo's mighty camp--long lines of tents gay with fluttering
pennon and gonfalon, of huts and booths set well out of bowshot behind
the works of contravallation--stout palisades and barriers with
earthworks very goodly and strong. And presently from among these
booths and tents was the gleam and glitter of armour, what time from
the waking host a hum and stir arose, with blare and fanfare of trumpet
to usher in the day: and in a while from the midst of the camp came the
faint ring and tap of many hammers.

Now as the mists cleared, looking thitherward, Beltane stared wide-eyed
to behold wooden towers in course of building, with the grim shapes of
many powerful war-engines whose mighty flying-beams and massy
supporting-timbers filled him with great awe and wonderment.

"Ha!" quoth Giles, "they work apace yonder, and by Saint Giles they
lack not for engines; verily Black Ivo is a master of siege tactics--
but so is Giles, brother! See where he setteth up his mangonels,
trebuchets, perriers and balistae, with bossons or rams, towers and
cats, in the use of the which he is right cunning--but so also is
Giles, brother! And verily, though your mangonels and trebuchets are
well enough, yet for defence the balista is weapon more apt, methinks,
as being more accurate in the shooting and therefore more deadly--how
think you, lord?"

"Indeed Giles, being a forester I could scarce tell you one from
another."

"Ha--then you'll know nought of their nature and use, lord?"

"Nought, Giles. Ne'er have I seen their like until now."

"Say ye so, brother?" cried Giles full eager, his brown eyes a-kindle,
"say ye so in very truth? Then--an it be so thy wish--I might instruct
thee vastly, for there is no man in the world to-day shall discourse
you more fluent and learned upon siege-craft, engines and various
tormenta than I. So--an it be thy wish, lord--?"

"It is my wish: say on, Giles."

"Why then firstly, lord, firstly we have the great Mangon or mangonel,
_fundis fundibula_, that some do also term _catapultum_, the which
worketh by torsion and shall heave you great stones of the bigness of a
man fully two hundred yards an it be dry weather; next is the
Trebuchet, like to the mangon save that it swingeth by counterpoise;
next cometh the Balista or Springald that worketh by tension--a pretty
weapon! and shall shoot you dart or javelin so strong as shall
transpierce you six lusty fellows at a time, hauberk and shield, like
so many fowl upon a spit--very sweet to behold, brother! Then have we
the Bore or Cat that some again do name _musculus_ or mouse for that it
gnaweth through thick walls--and some do call this hog, sow, _scrofa_
or _sus_, brother, and some again, _vulpes_.

"And this Cat is a massy pole that beareth a great and sharp steel
point, the which, being mounted within a pent-house, swingeth merrily
to and fro, much like to a ram, brother, and shall blithely pick you a
hole through stone and mortar very pleasing to behold. Then we have
the Ram, _cancer testudo_, that battereth; next we have the Tower or
Beffroi that goeth on wheels--yonder you shall see them a-building. And
these towers, moving forward against your city, shall o'ertop the walls
and from them archers and cross-bowmen may shoot into your town what
time their comrades fill up and dam your moat until the tower may come
close unto your walls. And these towers, being come against the wall,
do let fall drawbridges over which the besiegers may rush amain and
carry your walls by assault. Lastly, there be Mantlets--stakes wattled
together and covered with raw-hide--by the which means the besiegers
make their first approaches. Then might I descant at goodly length upon
the Mine and Furnace, with divers and sundry other stratagems, devices,
engines and tormenta, but methinks this shall mayhap suffice thee for
the nonce?"

"Aye, verily--'twill suffice!" said Beltane, rising. "Truly war is even
more terrible than I had thought."

"Why lord, 'tis an art--a notable art and--ha! this doth mind me of my
heart, heigho! And of all terrible things, of all the woes and ills
man-hearts may know is--love. O me, alack and woe!"

"When doth thy watch end, Giles?"

"It ended an hour agone, but to what end? Being a lover I sleep little
and pine much, and this is a fair good place and solitary, so will I
pine awhile and likewise mope and languish, alack!"

So presently, as Beltane descended the stair, he heard the archer break
forth again in doleful song.

Across the wide market-square went Beltane, with brow o'ercast and head
low-bowed until he came to one of the many doors of the great minster;
there paused he to remove bascinet and mail-coif, and thus bareheaded,
entered the cathedral's echoing dimness. The new-risen sun made a glory
of the great east window, and with his eyes uplifted to this
many-coloured glory, Beltane, soft-treading, crossed dim aisle and
whispering transept; but, as he mounted the broad steps of the
sanctuary he paused with breath in check, for he heard a sound--a soft
sound like the flutter of wings or the rustle of silken draperies. Now
as he stood thus, his broad, mail-clad shoulders and golden hair bathed
in the refulgence of the great window, it seemed to him that from
somewhere near there breathed a sigh, tremulous and very soft, and
thereafter was the quick, light tread of feet, and silence.

A while stood Beltane scarce breathing, then, slow and reverent, he
approached the high altar; and ever as he went was a fragrance,
wonder-sweet, that grew stronger and stronger until he was come behind
the high altar where was his mother's grave. And lo! upon that long,
white stone lay flowers a-bloom, roses and lilies whose dewy loveliness
filled the place with their pure and fragrant sweetness. So looked he
round about and upon these flowers with grateful wonder, and sinking to
his knees, bowed his head and folded his hands in prayer.

But presently, as he knelt thus, he was roused by the clank of steel
and a shuffling step, wherefore he arose and crossing to the shadows of
the choir, sat him down within the deeper gloom to wait until his
disturber should be gone. Slowly these halting steps advanced, feet
that stumbled oft; near they came and nearer, until Beltane perceived
a tall figure whose armour gleamed dully and whose shoulders were bowed
like one that is feeble or very weary.

"Yolande!" said a voice, a hoarse voice but very tender, "Yolande,
beloved!" And on the word the voice broke and ended upon a great sob,
swift followed by another and yet another, the fierce sobbing of a
man.

Then Beltane clenched his hands and rose up, for behold! this man was
Sir Benedict. But now, and very suddenly, Sir Benedict was upon his
knees, and bent and kissed that white, smooth stone whereon as yet was
no inscription.

"Yolande!" he whispered, "now thou art one among the holy angels, O
forget not thy most unworthy Benedict. God--O God! Father to whom all
hearts are open, Thou dost know how as child and maid I loved her, how
as a wife I loved her still--how, in my madness, I spake my love--and
she, being saint and woman, bade me to my duty. So, by her purity, kept
she my honour unstained--"

Beltane's long scabbard struck the carven panelling, a soft blow that
yet echoed and re-echoed in vaulted arch and dim roof, and, glancing
swiftly up, Sir Benedict beheld him.

And kneeling thus beside the grave of the woman he had loved, Sir
Benedict looked up into Beltane's face with eyes wide, eyes unflinching
but dimmed with great grief and pain.

Quoth he, firm-voiced:

"My lord, thou hast learned my life's secret, but, ere thou dost judge
me, hear this! Long ere thy princely father met thy mother, we loved,
she and I, and in our love grew up together. Then came the Duke thy
father, a mighty lord; and her mother was ambitious and very guileful--
and she--but a maid. Thus was she wed. Then rode I to the foreign wars
seeking death--but death took me not. So, the wars ended, came I home
again, burning ever with my love, and sought her out, and beholding the
sadness in her eyes I spake my love; and forgetful of honour and all
save her sweet soul and the glory of her beauty, I tempted her--aye,
many times!--tempted her in fashion merciless and cruel insomuch that
she wept many bitter tears, and, upon a day, spake me thus: 'Benedict,
'tis true I loved thee, for thou wert a noble knight--but now, an thy
love for me be so small that thou canst bring me to this shame, then--
take me where thou wilt--but--ne'er shall all thy love nor all my
tears thereafter cleanse us from the shame of it.' Thus went I from
her, nor have I looked on woman since. So followed I thy father in all
his warring and all my days have I fought much--fierce foes within me
and without, and lived--a very solitary life. And to-day she lieth
dead--and I am here, old and worn, a lonely man and sinful, to be
judged of as ye will."

Then came Beltane and looked down into Sir Benedict's pale, sad face.
And beholding him thus in his abasement, haggard with wounds and bowed
with grief, needs must Beltane kneel also and thereafter spake thus:

"Sir Benedict, who am I, to judge of such as thou?"

"I tempted her--I wooed her to shame, I that loved her beyond life--did
cause her many bitter tears--alas!"

"Yet in the end, Sir Benedict, because thy love was a great and noble
love, thou didst triumph over base self. So do I honour thee and pray
that I, in like case, may act as nobly."

"And now--she lieth dead! So for me is life ended also, methinks!"

"She is a saint in heaven, Benedict, living forever. As to thee, on
whose skill and valiance the safety of this fair city doth hang--so
hath God need of thee here, methinks. So now for thy sake and for her
sake needs must I love thee ever and always, thou noble knight. She,
being dead, yet liveth and shall go betwixt us henceforth, drawing us
together in closer bonds of love and amity--is it not so, dear my
friend?" And speaking, Beltane reached out his hands across his
mother's narrow grave, and straightway came Sir Benedict's hands, swift
and eager, to meet and clasp them.

For a while knelt they thus, hand clasping hand above that long, white
stone whence stole to them the mingled fragrance of the flowers, like a
silent benediction. And presently, together they arose and went their
way; but now, seeing how Sir Benedict limped by reason of his wounds,
Beltane set an arm about him. So came they together out of the shadows
into the glory of the morning.

Now as they came forth of the minster, the tocsin rang loud in sudden
alarm.



CHAPTER LXIV

HOW GILES CURSED BELSAYE OUT OF HER FEAR


Within the market-place all was dire confusion; men hasted hither and
thither, buckling on armour as they went, women wept and children
wailed, while ever the bell clashed out its fierce summons.

Presently, through the populace cometh Sir Brian of Hartismere,
equipped in his armour and leaning on the mailed arm of his brother
Eric of the wry neck, but perceiving Sir Benedict and Beltane, they
turned and came up forthwith.

"Eric--Brian, what meaneth the tumult?" questioned Sir Benedict, his
eye kindling, "are we attacked--so soon?"

"Not so," answered Sir Brian, "at the least--not by Ivo's men."

"'Tis worse than that," sighed Eric, shaking his head, "yonder cometh a
churchman, borne on the shoulders of his monks, and with choristers and
acolytes attendant."

"Ha!" said Sir Benedict, frowning and rubbing his chin, "I had dreaded
this! The citizens do shake and shiver already, I'll warrant me! There
is nought like a cowl with bell, book and candle to sap the courage of
your citizen soldier. Let us to the walls!"

In a corner hard by the main gate they beheld Giles, holding forth to
Roger and Walkyn and Ulf, but perceiving Sir Benedict he ceased
abruptly, and advancing, saluted the noble company each in turn, but
addressed himself to Sir Benedict.

"My lord," quoth he, eyes a-dance, "yonder cometh a pompous prior that
was, not very long since, nought but massy monk that did upon a time
(though by dint of some small persuasion) bestow on me a goodly ass. My
lord, I was bred a monk, so do I know, by divers signs and portents,
he cometh here to ban the city with book, bell and candle, wherefore
the townsfolk, fearing greatly, do shiver and shake, especially the
women and maids--sweet souls! And, lord, by reason of the matter of the
ass, I do know this priest prolific of damnatory pronouncements and
curses contumacious (O verily). Yet I, messire (having been bred a
monk) shall blithely him out-curse, an the joy be permitted me, thus
turning tears to laughter and gloomy fear to loud-voiced merriment--my
lord, messires, how say you?"

"'Tis blasphemy unheard!" quoth Sir Brian.

"Save in the greenwood where men do breathe God's sweet air and live
free!" said wry-necked Eric.

"And," spake Sir Benedict, stroking his square chin, "there is a fear
can be quelled but by ridicule, so may thy wit, sir archer, avail more
than our wisdom--an thou canst make these pale-cheeked townsfolk laugh
indeed. How think you, my Beltane?"

"That being the wise and valiant knight thou art, Sir Benedict, thy
will during the siege is law in Belsaye, henceforth."

Now hereupon Giles made his obeisance, and together with Roger and
Walkyn and Ulf, hasted up to the battlement above the gateway.

"Benedict," said Sir Brian as they climbed the turret stair, "blasphemy
is a dread and awful thing. We shall be excommunicate one and all--
better methinks to let the populace yield up the city and die the
death, than perish everlastingly!"

"Brian," quoth Sir Benedict pausing, something breathless by reason of
his recent sickness, "I tell thee fire and pillage and ravishment of
women is a thing more dread and awful--better, methinks, to keep
Innocence pure and unspotted while we may, and leave hereafter in the
hands of God and His holy angels!"

Upon the tower there met them the Reeve, anxious of brow, who pointed
where the townsfolk talked together in fearful undertones or clustered,
mute and trembling, while every eye was turned where, in the open,
'twixt town and camp, a procession of black-robed priests advanced,
chanting very solemn and sweet.

"My lords," said the Reeve, looking round with haggard eyes, "an these
priests do come to pronounce the Church's awful malediction upon the
city--then woe betide! Already there be many--aye, some of our chiefest
citizens do fear the curse of Holy Church more than the rapine of Ivo's
vile soldiery, fair women shamed, O Christ! Lords--ha, messires, there
is talk afoot of seizing the gates, of opening to this churchman and
praying his intercession to Ivo's mercy--to Ivo the Black, that knoweth
nought of mercy. Alas, my lords, once they do ope the gates--"

"That can they in nowise do!" said Sir Benedict gently, but with face
grim and hawk-like. "Every gate is held by stout fellows of my own
following, moreover I have good hope yon churchman may leave us yet
uncursed." And Sir Benedict smiled his wry and twisted smile. "Be you
our tongue, good Reeve, and speak this churchman as thy bold heart
dictateth."

Solemn and sweet rose the chanting voices growing ever more loud, where
paced the black-robed priests. First came acolytes swinging censers,
and next, others bearing divers symbolic flags and standards, and after
these again, in goodly chair borne on the shoulders of brawny monks, a
portly figure rode, bedight in full canonicals, a very solid cleric he,
and mightily round; moreover his nose was bulbous and he had a drooping
lip.

Slow and solemn the procession advanced, and ever as they came the
choristers chanted full melodiously what time the white-robed acolytes
swung their censers to and fro; and ever as they came, the folk of
Belsaye, from wall and turret, eyed these slow-pacing, sweet-singing
monks with fearful looks and hearts cold and full of dire misgiving.
Beyond the moat over against the main gate, the procession halted, the
chair with its portly burden was set down, and lifting up a white,
be-ringed hand, the haughty cleric spake thus, in voice high-pitched,
mellifluous and sweet:

"Whereas it hath pleased ye, O rebellious people of Belsaye, to deny,
to cast off and wantonly repudiate your rightful allegiance to your
most just, most merciful and most august lord--Ivo, Duke of Pentavalon
(whom God and the saints defend--amen!) and whereas ye have moreover
made captive and most barbarously entreated certain of your lord Duke
his ambassadors unto you sent; now therefore--and let all ears be
opened to my pronouncements, since Holy Church doth speak ye, one and
all, each and every through humble avenue of these my lips--list, list,
O list, rebellious people, and mark me well. For inasmuch as I, Prior
of Holy Cross within Pentavalon City, do voice unto ye, one and all,
each and every, the most sacred charge of Holy Church, her strict
command or enactment, mandate or caveat, her holy decree, _senatus
consultum_, her writ, edict, precept or decretal, namely and to wit:
That ye shall one and all, each and every, return to your rightful
allegiance, bowing humbly, each and every, to the will of your lawful
lord the Duke (whom God and the saints defend) and shall forthwith make
full and instant surrender of this his ancient city of Belsaye unto
your lord the Duke (whom God and the saints defend--amen!) Failing the
which, I, in the name of Holy Church, by power of papal bull new come
from Rome--will, here and now, pronounce this most rebellious city
(and all that therein be) damned and excommunicate!"

Now hereupon, from all the townsfolk crowding wall and turret a groan
went up and full many a ruddy cheek grew pale at this dire threat.
Whereupon the Prior, having drawn breath, spake on in voice more stern
and more peremptory:

"Let now your gates unbar! Yield ye unto your lord Duke his mercy! Let
the gates unbar, I say, lest I blast this wicked city with the most
dread and awful ban and curse of Holy Church--woe, woe in this life,
and, in the life to come, torment and everlasting fire! Let the gates
unbar!"

Now once again the men of Belsaye sighed and groaned and trembled in
their armour, while from crowded street and market-square rose buzz of
fearful voices. Then spake the Reeve in troubled tones, his white head
low-stooped above the battlement.

"Good Prior, I pray you an we unbar, what surety have we that this our
city shall not be given over to fire and pillage and ravishment?"

Quoth the Prior:

"Your lives are your lord's, in his hand resteth life and death,
justice and mercy. So for the last time I charge ye--set wide your
rebellious gates!"

"Not so!" cried the Reeve, "in the name of Justice and Mercy ne'er will
we yield this our city until in Belsaye no man is left to strike for
maid and wife and child!"

At the which bold words some few men shouted in acclaim, but for the
most part the citizens were mumchance, their hearts cold within them,
while all eyes stared fearfully upon the Prior, who, lifting white
hand again, rose up from cushioned chair and spake him loud and clear:

"Then, upon this rebellious city and all that therein is, on babe, on
child, on youth, on maid, on man, on wife, on the hale, the sick, the
stricken in years, on beast, on bird, and on all that hath life and
being I do pronounce the church's dread curse and awful ban:--ex--"

The Prior's mellifluous voice was of a sudden lost and drowned in
another, a rich voice, strong and full and merry:

"Quit--quit thy foolish babblement, thou fat and naughty friar; too
plump art thou, too round and buxom to curse a curse as curses should
be cursed, so shall thy curses avail nothing, for who doth heed the
fatuous fulminations of a fat man? But as to me, I could have out-cursed
thee in my cradle, thou big-bellied thing of emptiness--go to for a
sounding brass and tinkling cymbal!"

Thus, from his "mockery" perched high above the battlement, spake
Giles, with many and divers knowing gestures of arm, waggings of the
head, rollings of the eyes and the like, what time Roger and Walkyn and
Ulf, their heads bent close together, busied themselves above a great
and bulging wine-skin.

And now on wall and tower and market-square a great silence had fallen,
yet a silence broken now and then by sound of stifled laughter, while
the Prior, staring in wonder and amaze, suddenly clenched white fist,
and, albeit very red and fiery of visage, strove whole-heartedly to
curse on:

"Ha--now upon the lewd populace of this most accursed and rebellious
city do I call down the--"

"Upon thy round and barrel-like paunch," cried Giles, "do I pronounce
this dire and dreadful ban, _videlicet_, Sir Fatness, _nota bene_ and
to wit: may the fiend rend it with gruesome gripings--aye, rend it with
claws and beak, _unguibus et rostro_, most mountainous monk!"

Here, once again came sounds of stifled merriment, what time the Prior,
puffing out his fat cheeks, fell to his curses full-tongued:

"Upon this evil city be the malison of Holy Church, her maledictions
bitter, her imprecation and anathema. I do pronounce all within this
city ex--"

"Abate thee, friar, abate!" roared Giles, "cease thy rumbling, thou
empty wine-butt. An thou must deal in curses, leave them to one more
apt and better schooled--to Giles, in faith, who shall forthwith curse
thee sweet and trippingly as thus--now mark me, monk! Aroint, aroint
thee to Acheron dark and dismal, there may the foul fiend seize and
plague thee with seven and seventy plaguey sorrows! May Saint Anthony's
fire frizzle and fry thee--woe, woe betide thee everlastingly--(bate
thy babble, Prior, I am not ended yet!) In life may thou be accursed
from heel to head, within thee and without--(save thy wind, Prior, no
man doth hear or heed thee!) Be thou accursed in father and in mother,
in sister and in brother, in oxen and in asses--especially in asses! Be
thou accursed in sleeping and in waking, eating and drinking, standing,
sitting, lying--O be thou accursed completely and consumedly! Here now,
methinks, Sir Monkish Tunbelly, is cursing as it should be cursed. But
now--(hush thy vain babbling, heed and mark me well!)--now will I to
dictums contumacious, from cursing thee I will to song of thee, of thy
plump and pertinacious person--a song wherein shall pleasant mention be
o' thy round and goodly paunch, a song that shall be sung, mayhap, when
thee and it are dusty dust, O shaveling--to wit:

  "O frater fat and flatulent, full foolish, fatuous Friar
   A prime plump priest in passion seen, such pleasure doth inspire,
   That sober souls, 'spite sorrows sad, shall sudden, shout and sing
   Because thy belly big belittleth baleful ban ye bring.
   Wherefore with wondrous wit withal, with waggish wanton wiles,
   I joyful chant to glorify the just and gentle Giles."

And now behold! fear and dread were forgotten quite, and wheresoever
Beltane looked were men who bent and contorted themselves in their
merriment, and who held their laughter yet in check to catch the
archer's final words.

"Thus, thou poor and pitiful Prior, for thy rude speech and curses
canonical we do requite thee with song sweet-sung and of notable rhyme
and metre. Curse, and Belsaye shall out-curse thee; laugh, and Belsaye
laugheth at thee--"

"Sacrilege!" gasped the Prior, "O 'tis base sacrilege! 'Tis a vile,
unhallowed city and shall go up in flame--"

"And thou," cried Giles, "thou art a fiery churchman and shall be
cooled. Ho, Rogerkin--loose off!"

Came the thudding crash of a powerful mangonel, whose mighty beam,
swinging high, hurled aloft the bulging wine-skin, the which, bursting
in mid-air, deluged with water all below--prior and monk, acolyte and
chorister; whereat from all Belsaye a shout went up, that swelled to
peal on peal of mighty laughter, the while, in stumbling haste, the
dripping Prior was borne by dripping monks back to Duke Ivo's mighty
camp. And lo! from this great camp another sound arose, a roar of
anger, fierce and terrible to hear, that smote Belsaye to silence. But,
out upon the battlement, plain for all folk to see, sprang Giles
flourishing his six-foot bow.

"Archers!" he cried, "archers, ye hear the dogs bay yonder--fling back
their challenge!

  "Ho, archers! shout and rend the skies,
   Bold archers shout amain
   Belsaye, Belsaye--arise, arise!
   Pentavalon--Beltane!"

Then from tower and turret, from wall and keep and market-square a
great and joyous shout was raised--a cry fierce and loud and very
purposeful, that rolled afar:

"Arise, arise!--ha, Beltane--Pentavalon!"

"Beltane," quoth Sir Benedict, smiling his wry smile as he turned to
descend the tower, "methinks yon roguish archer's wit hath served us
better than all our wisdom. Belsaye hath frighted away fear with
laughter, and her men, methinks, will fight marvellous well!"



CHAPTER LXV

TELLETH OF ROSES


A fair and strong city was Belsaye, for (as hath been said) to north
and east of it the river flowed, a broad stream and deep, while south
and west it was fortified by a goodly moat; wherefore it was to south
and west that the besiegers mustered their chief force and set up their
mightiest engines and towers. Day in, day out, mangonel, trebuchet and
balista whirred and crashed from keep and tower and curtain-wall, while
from every loophole and crenelle long-bows twanged and arrows flew; yet
with each succeeding dawn the besiegers' fence-works crept nearer,
closing in upon the city until, within close bowshot of the walls, they
set up earthworks and stockades and from these strong barriers plied
the defenders with cloth-yard shaft and cross-bow bolt what time their
mighty engines advanced, perriers and rams wherewith to batter and
breach the city's massy walls.

So day in, day out, Eric's chosen men plied trebuchet and balista, and
Beltane, beholding the dire havoc wrought by heavy stone and whizzing
javelin among the dense ranks of the besiegers despite their mantlets
and stout palisades, grew sick at times and was fain to look
otherwhere. But the besiegers were many and Duke Ivo had sworn swift
destruction on Belsaye; thus, heedless of all else, he pushed on the
attack until, despite their heavy losses, his men were firmly
established close beyond the moat; wherefore my Beltane waxed full
anxious and was for sallying out to destroy their works: at the which,
gloomy Sir Hacon, limping in his many bandages, grew suddenly jovial
and fain was to call for horse and lance forthwith.

Quoth Sir Benedict placidly:

"Nay, let them come, messires; they are a sea, but Belsaye is a rock.
Duke Ivo is cunning in war, but is, mark me! a passionate man, and he
who fighteth in blind anger, fighteth ill. So let them come, I say the
time for us to beware is when Ivo's hot temper shall have cooled. Ha,
look yonder!" and Sir Benedict pointed where a great wooden tower,
urged forward by rope and pulley and winch, was creeping near and
nearer the walls, now stopping jerkily, now advancing, its massy
timbers protected from fire by raw hides, its summit bristling with
archers and cross-bow men, who from their lofty post began to sweep
wall and turret with their whizzing shafts.

"Now mark yon tower," said Sir Benedict, closing his vizor, "here shall
be good sport for Eric's perriers--watch now!" and he nodded where on
the battlement below, crouched Eric with Walkyn and Roger who laboured
at the winches of a great trebuchet hard by. To left and right on wall
and turret, Eric glanced, then blew a blast upon the horn he carried;
and immediately, from wall and turret mangonels, trebuchets and
balistae unknown of until now crashed and whirred, and the tall tower
shook and quivered 'neath the shock of great stones and heavy bolts,
its massy timbers were split and rent, insomuch that it was fain to be
withdrawn.

Thereafter the besiegers brought up a long pent-house or cat unto the
edge of the moat, and sheltered within this cat were many men who fell
to work filling up the moat with bags of earth and stone werewith to
form a causeway across which they might assault the wall with bore and
ram; and because this cat was builded very strong, Eric's engines
battered it in vain, wherefore he presently desisted; thus, hour by
hour the causeway grew and lengthened. So needs must Beltane seek Sir
Benedict and point this out with anxious finger.

"Let them come, Beltane!" quoth Sir Benedict, placid as was his wont,
"once they are close against the wall with ram a-swing, I will make
their labour of no avail; you shall see me burn them with a devil's
brew I learned of in the foreign wars. So, let them come. Beltane!"

Thus, day in, day out, was roar of conflict about the walls of Belsaye
town, and ever Sir Benedict, with Beltane beside him, went to and fro,
quick of eye and hand, swift to foresee and counteract the tactics of
the besiegers, meeting cunning artifice with crafty strategem;
wheresoever was panic or pressing need there was Sir Benedict,
calm-voiced and serene. And Beltane, watching him thus, came to
understand why this man had withstood the powers of Duke Ivo all these
years, and why all men trusted to his judgment.

Thus, all day was rage of battle, but with the night peace came, since
in the dark men might not see to aim and slay each other. And by night
the folk of Belsaye made good their battered walls what time the
besiegers prepared fresh devices of attack. Every morning at sunrise it
was Beltane's custom to steal to the great minster and, soft-treading
despite his armour, come to his mother's grave to hold communion with
her in his prayers. And lo! upon that hallowed stone there always he
found fragrant flowers, roses and lilies, new-gathered, upon whose
sweet petals the dew yet sparkled, and ever his wonder grew.

More than once he had thought to hear again that indefinable stir and
whisper the which had thrilled him on that first morning, and, starting
up, he would peer into the vague shadows. Twice he had thought to see a
draped figure bending above that long, white stone, a veiled figure
slender and graceful, that upon his approach, soft though it was,
flitted swiftly into the dark recesses of the choir. Once he had
followed, and stood amazed to see it vanish through the carven
panelling, though door could he find none. Therefore was he sore
perplexed and oft would touch the dewy flowers as half expecting they
should vanish also. Now upon a certain dawn he had hid himself within
the shadows and waited with bated breath and heart strangely a-throb.
And with the day-spring she came again, tall and gracious in her
clinging draperies and long green veil. Then, even as she bent to lay
the flowers upon the grave came Beltane, soft of foot, and spake ere
she was 'ware of him.

"Lady--!" now though his voice was very low and gentle she started, the
flowers fell from her loosened clasp, and, after a moment, she turned
and fronted him, proud head up-flung beneath her veil. So stood they
within that place of silence, while high above, the great window grew
luminous with coming day.

"Lady," said he again, "for thy sweet flowers, for thy sweeter thought
for one that is--gone, fain would I thank thee, for she who lieth here
I found, and loved, and have lost again a while. She did love all fair
things, so loved she the flowers, methinks; yet I, who have grieved for
my noble mother, ne'er thought to bring her flowers--this did need a
woman's gentle soul. So, for thy flowers, I do most truly thank thee."

Very still she stood, nor spake nor moved, save for the sweet hurry of
her breathing; and beholding her thus, of a sudden Beltane's heart
leapt and he fell a-trembling though wherefore he knew not, only
yearned he mightily to look beneath her veil. And now it seemed to him
that, in the stillness, she must needs hear the passionate throbbing of
his heart; twice would he have spoken yet could not; at last:

"Beseech thee," he whispered, "O beseech thee unveil, that I may behold
the face of one so tender to her that was my dear-loved mother--O
beseech thee!"

As he spake, he drew a swift pace nearer, hand outstretched in
supplication, but, because this hand shook and quivered so, he clenched
it, whereat the unknown shrank back and back and, turning swift and
sudden, was gone.

A while stood my Beltane, his head a-droop, and fell to wonderment
because of the so painful throbbing of his heart. Then knelt he above
his mother's grave with hands tight-clasped.

"Dear mother in heaven," he sighed, "being an angel, thou dost know all
my heart, its hopes and fears--thou hast seen me tremble--thou dost
know wherefore this my heart doth yearn so bitterly. O sweet mother
with God, plead thou on my behalf that I may be worthy her love--meet
to her embracements--fit for so great happiness. Angel of God, thou
dost know how great is my desire--how empty life without her--O
mother--aid me!"

In a while he arose and immediately beheld that which lay beyond his
mother's grave full in the radiance of the great east window--a thing
small and slender and daintily wrought; and stooping, he picked up a
little shoe. Of soft leather it was fashioned, cunningly pinked, and
sewn, here and there, with coloured silks; and as he stared down at it,
so small-seeming in his mailed hand, his heart leapt again, and again
his strong hand fell a-trembling. Of a sudden he raised his eyes to
heaven, then, coming to his mother's grave, very reverently took thence
a single great bloom and thrusting the shoe in the wallet at his girdle
(that same wallet Sir Fidelis had borne) went out into the golden dawn.

Like one in a dream went Beltane, heedless of his going; by silent
street and lane where none stirred at this early hour, thus he wandered
on until he was stayed by a high wall wherein was set a small, green
door.

As he stood, staring down at the rose he held and lost in pleasant
dream, he was aroused by a scrambling sound near by, and, glancing up,
beheld a mailed head and shoulders rise suddenly above the wall and so
looked into the face of Giles o' the Bow. Now in his teeth Giles bare a
great red rose--even as that which Beltane held.

"Giles," quoth he, sharp and stern, "whence had ye that flower?"

For answer, Giles, straddling the wall, laid finger to lip, then
dropping cat-like to his feet, drew Beltane down an adjacent lane.

"Lord," said he, "yonder is the Reeve's garden and in the Reeve's
garden cometh the Reeve to taste the sweet dawn, wherefore Giles doth
incontinent vanish him over the Reeve's wall because of the Reeve;
nevertheless needs must I bless the Reeve because of the Reeve's
daughter--though verily, both in my speech and in the Reeve's garden is
too much Reeve, methinks. As to this rose, now--ha!"

"How came you by the rose, Giles?"

"Why, in the first place, tall brother, I stole it--"

"Stole it!" repeated Beltane, and behold! his frown was gone
completely.

"But, in the second place, brother, 'twas given to me--"

"Given to thee--by whom?" and immediately Beltane's frown was back
again.

"And therefore, in the third place, brother, Giles this day would not
change skins with any lord, duke, archduke, pope or potentate that e'er
went in skin--"

"Who gave it thee?--speak, man!"

"Faith, lord, I had it from one as pure, as fair, as--"

"Aye, but what like is she?"

"Like unto this flower for sweetness, lord, and--ha, saints and
martyrs! whence had ye that bloom, tall brother--speak!" and Giles
pointed to the rose in Beltane's fingers.

"What like is she--answer me!"

"Alack!" sighed Giles, shaking gloomy head, "she is very like a woman,
after all, methinks--"

"Mean ye the Reeve's daughter?"

"Even so, lord!"

"Doth she wear ever a--a green veil, Giles?"

"Verily, lord, and with a most sweet grace--"

"And her shoes--"

"Her shoes, tall brother, O methinks her sweet shoe doth kiss the earth
so sweet and light poor earth must needs love and languish as doth poor
Giles! Her shoe--"

"Is it aught like to this, Giles?" and forthwith Beltane took out the
little shoe.

"Aye, 'tis her very own, master!" groaned Giles. "Ah, woe is me, for if
she hath given to thee rose and therewith her pretty shoe--thou hast,
belike, her heart also, and with her heart--"

"Nay, take it, Giles,--take it!" quoth Beltane, sighing. "I did but
find it in my going, and this rose--I found also, but this will I keep.
Methinks thy love is what thy heart telleth thee--a maid very gentle
and sweet--so God prosper thy wooing, Giles!"

So saying, Beltane thrust the shoe upon bewildered Giles and, turning
swiftly about, hasted away. But even then, while the archer yet stared
after him, Beltane turned and came striding back.

"Giles," quoth he, "how tall is the Reeve's daughter?"

"Lord, she is better than tall--"

"Ha--is she short of stature, good Giles?"

"Messire, God hath shaped her lovely body no higher and no lower than
my heart. Small is she and slender, yet in her sweet and slender
shapeliness is all the beauty of all the women that all men have ever
loved--"

"Small, say you, Giles--small? Then give me back yon lovely thing!"

Saying the which, Beltane caught the shoe from Giles's hold and strode
away blithe and debonair, leaving the garrulous archer dumb for once
and beyond all words amazed.

Now as Beltane went very deep in thought there met him Friar Martin,
who bore upon his arm a great basket full of green vegetables and
sweet herbs. Quoth Beltane:

"Good friar, what do ye abroad so early?"

"Sweet son, I praise the good God for His mercies and pant by reason of
this my weighty basket."

"Indeed 'tis a something well-laden basket," said Beltane, relieving
the friar of his burden with gentle force.

"Why, verily, my children are hungry children and clamour to be filled.
And see you, my son, I have a secret of a certain broth whereof these
lentils and these sweet herbs do so tickle their palates that to
satisfy them is a hard matter--more especially Orson and Jenkyn--who
being nigh cured of their hurts do eat like four men and vaunt my
cooking full-mouthed, insomuch that I must needs grow heedful of vain
pride."

"Fain would I see these children of thine an I may, good friar, so will
I bear thy burden for thee."

"Verily they shall rejoice to see thee," quoth the friar, "but for my
basket, methinks 'tis better suited to my habit than thy knightly mail--"

For answer Beltane slipped the basket on his arm and they went on
together talking whole-heartedly of many things. Thus the gentle friar
brought him at last to a low-arched portal within a narrow lane, and
pushing open the door, ushered him into the great refectory of the
abbey, where Beltane set down the basket, and Friar Martin, rolling up
his sleeves, brought pot and pannikin but paused to smile and shake his
head, as from a stone-flagged passage hard by came the sound of voices
raised in altercation.

"My children do grow a little fractious at times," quoth he, "as is but
natural, methinks. Yonder you shall hear Orson and Jenkyn, who having
saved each other's life in battle and loving like brothers, do oft
contend together with tongues most ungentle; go you, my son, and quiet
me the naughty rogues."

So saying, Friar Martin fell to washing and preparing his herbs and
vegetables whiles Beltane, hasting down the passage, opened a certain
door and entered a cool and airy dormitory, where upon pallets neat and
orderly lay divers fellows whose hurts were swathed in fair white
linen, and who, despite their bandages, started up on hand or elbow to
greet Beltane right gladly. And behold! beside each man's couch was a
bowl wherein roses bloomed.

"Master," quoth Tall Orson, "us do be glad to see thee--in especial me--
and Jenkyn that I did save the carcase of and as do be a liar as do
say my roses do be a-fading, master, and as his roses do bloom fairer
than my roses and--"

"And look'ee master, so they be, for I ha' watered mine wi' Orson's
drinking-water, while he snored, look'ee--" "So Jenkyn do be thief as
well, master--"

"Nay," said Beltane smiling, and seating himself on Orson's bed, "stint
now your angers and tell me who gave ye flowers so fair?"

"Master, she do be an angel!"

"Heed him not, lord, for look'ee, she is a fair and lovely woman, and
look'ee, a good woman is better than an angel, look'ee!"

"And what like is she?" questioned Beltane.

"She do be like to a stag for grace o' body, and wi' the eyes of a
stag--"

"Nay, master, her eyes do be maid's eyes, look'ee, very soft and sweet,
and her hair, look'ee--"

"Her hair do be like a forest-pool brim-full o' sunset--"

"Not so, master, her hair is red, look'ee--"

"And each day she do bring us flowers, master--"

"And suckets, look'ee, very sweet and delicate, master."

In a while Beltane arose and going from bed to bed spake with each and
every, and went his way, leaving Orson and Jenkyn to their
recriminations.

Being come back into the refectory, he found Friar Martin yet busied
with the preparations of his cooking, and seating himself upon the
great table hard by, fell to a profound meditation, watched ever and
anon by the friar's kindly eyes: so very silent and thoughtful was he
that the friar presently looked up from slicing and cutting his
vegetables and spake with smile wondrous tender:

"Wherefore so pensive, my son?"

"Good father, I think and dream of--red roses!"

Friar Martin cut and trimmed a leek with great care, yet surely here
was no reason for his eyes to twinkle within the shadow of his white
cowl.

"A sweet and fragrant thought, my son!" quoth he.

"As sweet, methinks, holy father, as pure and fragrant as she herself!"

"'She,' my son?"

"As Helen, good friar, as Helen the Beautiful, Duchess of Mortain!"

"Ah!" sighed the friar, and forthwith popped the leek into the pot. "I
prithee, noble son, reach me the salt-box yonder!"



CHAPTER LXVI

CONCERNING A BLUE CAMLET CLOAK


Next morning, ere the sun was up, came Beltane into the minster and
hiding within the deeper gloom of the choir, sat there hushing his
breath to listen, trembling in eager anticipation. Slowly amid the
dimness above came a glimmer from the great window, a pale beam that
grew with dawn until up rose the sun and the window glowed in many-hued
splendour.

And in a while to Beltane's straining senses came the faint creak of a
door, a soft rustle, the swift light tread of feet, and starting forth
of his lurking place he stepped forward with yearning arms
outstretched--then paused of a sudden beholding her who stood at gaze,
one slender foot advanced and white hands full of roses and lilies, one
as fair, as sweet and pure as the fragrant blooms she bore. Small was
she and slender, and of a radiant loveliness, red of lip and grey-eyed:
now beholding Beltane thus suddenly, she shrank and uttered a soft cry.

"Nay," quoth he, "fear me not, sweet maid, methought thee other than
thou art--I grieve that I did fright thee--forgive me, I pray," so
saying, he sighed and bowing full humbly, turned, but even so paused
again: "Thou art methinks the Reeve's fair daughter--thou art the lady
Genevra?" he questioned.

"Aye, my lord."

"Then, an thou dost love, gentle maid, heaven send thee happier in thy
love than I." At the which Genevra's gentle eyes grew softer yet and
her sweet mouth full pitiful and tender.

"Art thou so unhappy, lord Beltane?"

"Aye, truly!" he sighed, and drooped mournful head.

"Ah, messire, then fain would I aid thee an I might!" said she,
soft-voiced.

"Then where, I pray you, is she that came here yesterday?"

"Nay, lord, how may I tell thee this? There be many women in Belsaye
town."

"For me," quoth Beltane, "in all the world there is but one and to this
one, alas! thou canst not aid me, yet for thy kind intent I thank thee,
and so farewell, sweet maid." Thus saying, he took three steps away
from her, then turning, came back in two. "Stay," quoth he, slipping
hand in wallet, "know you this shoe?"

Now beholding this, Genevra's red lips quivered roguishly, and she
bowed her little, shapely head:

"Indeed, my lord, 'tis mine!" said she.

"Then pray you, who was she did wear it yesterday--?"

"Aye, messire, 'twas yesterday I--missed it, wilt not give it me
therefore? One shoe can avail thee nothing and--and 'tis too small for
thee to wear methinks--"

"Did she--she that lost this yesterday, send thee to-day in her
stead?"

"Wilt not give a poor maid her shoe again, messire?"

"O Genevra, beseech thee, who was she did wear it yesterday--speak!"

"Nay, this--this I may not tell thee, lord Beltane."

"And wherefore?"

"For that I did so promise--and yet--what seek you of her, my lord?"

"Forgiveness," said Beltane, hot and eager, "I would woo her sweet
clemency on one that hath wrought her grievous wrong. O sweet Genevra,
wilt not say where I may find her?"

A while stood the maid Genevra with bowed head as one in doubt, then
looked on him with sweet maiden eyes and of a sudden smiled
compassionate and tender.

"Ah, messire," said she, "surely thine are the eyes of one who loveth
greatly and well! And I do so love her that fain would I have her
greatly loved--so will I tell thee despite my word--hearken!" And
drawing him near she laid white finger to rosy lip and thereafter spake
in whispers. "Go you to the green door where yesterday thou didst meet
with Gi--with the captain of the archers--O verily we--she and I, my
lord, did see and hear all that passed betwixt you--and upon this door
knock you softly three times. Go--yet, O prithee say not 'twas Genevra
told thee this!" and again she laid white finger to roguish, pouting
lip.

Then Beltane stooped, and catching that little hand kissed it, and
thereafter hasted blithely on his way.

Swift of foot went he and with eyes a-dance, nor paused in his long
stride until he was come to a certain high wall wherein was set the
small, green door, whereon he knocked three times. And presently he
heard the bar softly raised, the door was opened slow and cautiously,
and stooping, Beltane stepped beneath the lintel and stood suddenly
still, staring into the face of Black Roger. And even as Beltane stared
thus amazed, so stared Roger.

"Why, master--" quoth he, pushing back his mail-coif to rumple his
black hair, "why, master, you--you be early abroad--though forsooth
'tis a fair morning and--"

"Roger," quoth Beltane, looking round upon a fair garden a-bloom with
flowers, "Roger, where is the Duchess Helen?"

"Ha, so ye do know, master--who hath discovered it--?"

"Where is she, Roger?"

"Lord," quoth Roger, giving a sudden sideways jerk of his head, "how
should Roger tell thee this?" Now even as he spake, Roger must needs
gesture again with his head and therewith close one bright, black eye,
and with stealthy finger point to a certain tall hedge hard by; all of
which was seen by one who stood beyond the hedge, watching Beltane with
eyes that missed nought of him, from golden spur to golden head; quick
to note his flushing cheek, his parted lips and the eager light of his
blue eyes; one who perceiving him turn whither Roger's sly finger
pointed, gathered up her flowing robe in both white hands that she
might flee the faster, and who, speeding swift and light, came to a
certain leafy bower where stood a tambour frame, and sitting there,
with draperies well ordered, caught up silk and needle, yet paused to
close her eyes and set one hand upon rounded bosom what time a quick,
firm step drew near and ever nearer with clash and ring of heavy mail
until Beltane stood before her. And how was he to know of the eyes that
had watched him through the hedge, or that the hand that held the
needle had paused lest he should see how direfully it trembled: how
should my Beltane know all this, who was but a very man?

A while stood he, viewing her with eyes aglow with yearning tenderness,
and she, knowing this, kept her face down-bent, therefore. Now
beholding all the beauty of her, because of her gracious loveliness,
his breath caught, then hurried thick and fast, insomuch that when he
would have spoken he could not; thus he worshipped her in a look and
she, content to be so worshipped, sat with head down-bent, as sweetly
demure, as proud and stately as if--as if she ne'er in all her days had
fled with hampering draperies caught up so high!

So Beltane stood worshipping her as she had been some young goddess in
whose immortal beauty all beauty was embodied.

At last he spake, hoarse and low and passionate:

"Helen!" said he, "O Helen!"

Slowly, slowly the Duchess lifted stately head and looked on him: but
now, behold! her glance was high and proud, her scarlet mouth firm-set
like the white and dimpled chin below and her eyes swept him with look
calm and most dispassionate.

"Ah, my lord Beltane," she said, sweet-voiced, "what do you here within
the privacy of Genevra's garden?"

Now because of the sweet serenity of her speech, because of the calm,
unswerving directness of her gaze, my Beltane felt at sudden loss, his
outstretched arms sank helplessly and he fell a-stammering.

"Helen, I--I--O Helen, I have dreamed of, yearned for this hour! To see
thee again--to hear thy voice, and yet--and yet--"

"Well, my lord?"

Now stood Beltane very still, staring on her in dumb amaze, and the
pain in his eyes smote her, insomuch that she bent to her embroidery
and sewed three stitches woefully askew.

"O surely, surely I am mad," quoth he wondering, "or I do dream. For
she I seek is a woman, gentle and prone to forgiveness, one beyond all
women fair and brave and noble, in whose pure heart can nothing evil
be, in whose gentle eyes her gentle soul lieth mirrored, whose tender
lips be apt and swift to speak mercy and forgiveness. Even as her soft,
kind hands did bind up my wounds, so methought she with gentle sayings
might heal my grieving heart--and now--now--"

"O my lord," she sighed, bending over idle fingers, "methinks you came
seeking an angel of heaven and find here--only a woman."

"Yet 'tis this woman I do love and ever must--'tis this woman I did
know as Fidelis--"

"Alas!" she sighed again, "alas, poor Fidelis, thou didst drive him
from thee into the solitary wild-wood. So is poor Fidelis lost to thee,
methinks--"

"Nay, Helen--O Helen, be just to me--thou dost know I loved Fidelis--"

"Yet thou didst spurn and name him traitor and drave him from thee!"

Now of a sudden he strode towards her, and as he came her bosom
swelled, her lashes drooped, for it seemed he meant to clasp her to his
heart. But lo! being only man, my Beltane paused and trembled, and
dared not touch her, and sinking before her on his knees, spake very
humbly and with head low-bowed.

"Helen--show me a little mercy!" he pleaded. "Would'st that I abase
myself? Then here--here behold me at thy feet, fearing thee because of
my unworthiness. But O believe--believe, for every base doubt of thee
this heart hath known, now doth it grieve remorseful. For every harsh
and bitter word this tongue hath spoke thee, now doth it humbly crave
thy pitiful forgiveness! But know you this, that from the evil hour I
drave thee from me, I have known abiding sorrow and remorse, for
without thee life is indeed but an empty thing and I a creature lost
and desolate--O Helen, pity me!"

Thus spake he, humble and broken, and she, beholding him thus, sighed
(though wondrous softly) and 'neath her long lashes tears glittered
(though swift dashed away) but--slowly, very slowly, one white hand
came out to him, faltered, stopped, and glancing up she rose in haste
and shrank away. Now Beltane, perceiving only this last gesture, sprang
up, fierce-eyed:

"How?" quoth he, "am I then become a thing so base my presence doth
offend thee--then, as God liveth, ne'er shalt see me more until thou
thyself do summon me!"

Even as he spake thus, swift and passionate, Giles clambered the
adjacent wall and dropping softly within the garden, stared to behold
Beltane striding towards him fierce-eyed, who, catching him by the arm
yet viewing him not, spun him from his path, and coming to the green
door, sped out and away.

Now as Giles stood to rub his arm and gape in wonderment, he started to
find the Duchess beside him; and her eyes were very bright and her
cheeks very red, and, meeting her look, poor Giles fell suddenly
abashed.

"Noble lady--" he faltered.

"Foolish Giles!" said she, "go, summon me my faithful Roger." But as
she spake, behold Roger himself hasting to her through the roses.

"Roger," said she, frowning a little, "saw you my lord go but now?"

"Aye, verily, dear my lady," quoth he, ruffling up his hair, "but
wherefore--"

"And I," said Giles, cherishing his arm, "both saw and felt him--"

"Ha," quoth Roger, "would'st have him back, sweet mistress?"

"Why truly I would, Roger--"

"Then forsooth will I go fetch him."

"Nay--rather would I die, Roger."

"But--dear lady--an thou dost want him--"

"I will bring him by other means!" said the Duchess, "aye, he shall
come despite himself," and her red lips curved to sudden roguish smile,
as smiling thus, she brought them to a certain arbour very shady and
remote, and, seating herself, looked from one tanned face to the other
and spake them certain matters, whereat the archer's merry eyes grew
merrier yet, but Roger sighed and shook his head; said he:

"Lady, here is tale shall wring his noble heart, methinks, wherefore
the telling shall wring mine also--"

"Then speak not of it, Roger. Be this Giles's mission."

"Aye, Rogerkin, leave it to me. In faith, noble lady, I will with
suggestion soft and subtle, with knowing look and wily wag of head, so
work upon my lord that he shall hither hot-foot haste--"

"At moonrise," said the Duchess softly, "this evening at moonrise!"

"Verily, lady, at moonrise! And a blue camlet cloak, say you?"

"Come, Giles, and I will give it thee."

Meanwhile, Beltane, hurt and angry, betook him to the walls where bow
and perrier had already begun their deadly morning's work; and coming
to a quiet corner of the battlement, he leaned him there to watch
where the besiegers, under cover of the cat that hourly crept more
nigh, worked amain to dam the moat.

Now as he leaned thus, a hand slipped within his arm, and turning, he
beheld Sir Benedict.

"A right fair morning, my Beltane," quoth he.

"Aye, truly, Benedict," sighed Beltane, "though there be clouds to the
west. And the causeway across the moat groweth apace; I have watched
yon cat creep a full yard--"

"Aye, verily, by mid-day, Beltane, 'twill reach our wall, then will
they advance their ram to the battery, methinks."

"And what then, Benedict?"

"Then shall we destroy their ram forthwith with devil-fire, dear lad!"

"Aye, and how then, Benedict?"

"Then, belike will they plant ladders on the causeway and attempt the
wall by storm, so shall we come to handstrokes at last and beset them
with pitch and boiling oil and hew their ladders in sunder."

"And after, Benedict?"

"Hey-day, Beltane, here be a many questions--"

"Aye, Benedict, 'tis that I do look into the future. And what future
can there be? Though we maintain our walls a year, or two, or three,
yet in the end Belsaye must fall."

"And I tell thee, Beltane, were Ivo twice as strong Belsaye should yet
withstand him. So gloom not, lad, Belsaye is safe, the sun shineth and
behold my arm--'tis well-nigh healed, thanks to--to skilful nursing--"

"Of the Duchess Helen, Benedict?"

"Ha--so hast found it out--at last, lad--"

"Knew you she was here?"

"Aye, verily."

"And told me not?"

"For that she did so command, Beltane."

"And wherefore came she hither?"

"For thy dear sake in the first place, and--"

"Nay, mock me not, friend, for I do know myself of none account."

"And in the second place, Beltane, to save this fair city of Belsaye."

"Nay, how mean you?"

"I mean that Belsaye cannot fall whiles it holdeth Helen the Proud. And
the reason this--now mark me, Beltane! Since her father's death Duke
Ivo hath had his glutton eye on fair Mortain, whereof her counsellors
did ken, yet, being old men and averse to war, would fain have had her
wed with him. Now upon a day word reached me in Thrasfordham bidding me
come to her and Waldron of Brand at Winisfarne. So, as thou dost know,
stole I from my goodly castle and marched north. But on the way she
came to me bedight in mail, and she and I took counsel together.
Wherefore came she hither to Belsaye and sent speedy messengers to Sir
Jocelyn of Alain and others of her greatest lords and knights, bidding
them come down with all their powers--nay, why shake ye gloomy head,
fond boy? Body o' me, Beltane, I tell thee this--to-day she--"

"To-day," sighed Beltane, frowning, "to-day she spurneth me! Kneeling
at her feet e'en as I was she shrank away as I had leprous been!"

"Aye, lad, and then--didst woo as well as kneel to her, didst clasp her
to thee, lift her proud head that needs must she give to thine her
eyes--she is in sooth very woman--did you this, my Beltane?"

"Ah, dear Benedict, she that I love was not wont to shrink from me
thus! 'Tis true I am unworthy--and yet, she spurned me--so is her love
dead, methinks!"

"So art thou but youth, and foolish youth, and belike, foolish, hungry
youth--so come, let us break our fast together."

"Not I, Benedict, for if love be dead, no mind have I to food."

"O lad--lad!" sighed Sir Benedict, "would I had one as fair and noble
to love me in such sort!" And turning, he gazed sad-eyed towards
Belsaye's great minster, and sighing, went his way.

And presently, as Beltane leaned thus, grieving and alone, cometh Giles
that way, who, pausing beside him, peered down where the besiegers, but
ill-sheltered by battered mantlet and palisades, strove amain to bring
up one of their rams, since the causeway across the moat was well-nigh
complete.

"Holy saints!" quoth Giles, "the rogues grow bold and venturesome,
methinks!" So saying, he strung his powerful bow, and laying arrows to
his hand fell to drawing and loosing amain. So swift shot he and with
aim so true, that in a while the enemy gave over their attempt and
betook them to cover what time their archers and cross-bowmen plied the
wall with a storm of shafts and bolts.

Upon this Giles, laying by his bow, seated himself in corner well
screened from harm, beckoning Beltane to do the like, since the enemy's
missiles whizzed and whistled perilously near. But sighing, Beltane
closed his vizor and heedless of flying bolt and arrow strode to the
narrow stair that led up to the gate-tower and being come there sat him
down beside the great mangonel. But lo! very soon Giles was there also
and even as Beltane sighed, so sighed Giles.

"Heigho--a sorry world, brother!" quoth he, "a sorry world!" and
forthwith fell to his archery, yet now, though his aim was true as
ever, he sighed and murmured plaintively 'twixt every shot: "Alack, a
sorry world!" So deep and oft were his sighs, so plaintive his groans,
that Beltane, though plunged in bitter thought, must needs at length
take heed of him.

"Giles," quoth he, looking up, "a heaven's name, what aileth thee,
man?"

"'Tis my eyes, lord."

"Thine eyes are well enough, Giles, and see wondrous well to judge by
thy shooting."

"Wondrous well--aye, there it is, tall brother, mine eyes do see
wondrous well, mine eyes do see so much, see you, that they do see
over-much, over-much, aye--too, too much. Alack, 'tis a sorry and
woeful world, brother! beshrew my eyes, I say!"

"And wherefore, Giles?"

"For that these eyes do see what other eyes see not--thine, methinks,
saw nought of a fine, lusty and up-standing fellow in a camlet cloak
within the Reeve's garden this morning, I'll warrant me now? A tall,
shapely rogue, well be-seen, see you, soft-voiced and very debonair?"

"Nay, not I," said Beltane, and sighing he arose and descended to the
battlement above the gates. And presently, behold Giles was there also!

"Brother," quoth he, selecting an arrow with portentous care, "'tis an
ill thing to be cursed with eyes such as mine, I tell thee!"

"Aye, and wherefore, Giles?" said Beltane, yet intent on his own
thoughts.

"For that they do see more than is good for this heart o' mine--as this
fellow in the blue camlet cloak--"

"What fellow, Giles?"

"The buxom fellow that was in the Reeve's garden this morning."

"Why then," quoth Beltane, turning away, "go you not to the Reeve's
garden, Giles."

All day long Beltane kept the wall, eating not at all, wherefore his
gloom waxed the more profound; so spake he to few men and oft exposed
himself to shaft and missile. And so, all day long, wheresoever he
came, on tower or keep, in corners most remote, there sure was Giles to
come also, sighing amain and with brow of heavy portent, who, so oft as
he met Beltane's gloomy eye, would shake his head in sad yet knowing
fashion. Thus, as evening fell, Beltane finding him at his elbow yet
despondent, betook him to speech at last; quoth he:

"Giles, art thou sick?"

"Aye, lord, by reason of this fellow in the blue camlet--"

"What fellow?"

"The tall and buxom fellow in the Reeve's garden."

"Ha!" quoth Beltane, frowning. "In the garden, say you--what manner of
man is this?"

"O brother--a shapely man, a comely man--a man of words and cunning
phrases--a man shall sing you sweet and melodious as any bird--why, I
myself can sing no sweeter!"

"Cometh he there often, Giles?"

"Why lord, he cometh and he goeth--I saw him there this morning!"

"What doeth he there?"

"Nay, who shall say--Genevra is wondrous fair, yet so is she that is
Genevra's friend, so do I hope belike 'tis she--"

"Hold thy peace, Giles!"

Now beholding Beltane's fierce eye and how his strong hands clenched
themselves, Giles incontinent moved further off and spake in accents
soft and soothing:

"And yet, tall brother, and yet 'tis belike but some gentle troubadour
that singeth songs to their delectation, and 'tis meet to hark to songs
sweet-sung--at moonrise, lord!"

"And wherefore at moonrise?"

"'Tis at this sweet hour your minstrel singeth best. Aye me, and to-night
there is a moon!" Hereupon Beltane must needs turn to scowl upon
the moon just topping the distant woods. Now as they sat thus, cometh
Roger with bread and meat for his lord's acceptance; but Beltane,
setting it aside, stared on Roger with baleful eye.

"Roger," said he, "wherefore hast avoided me this day?"

"Avoided thee, master--I?"

"And what did you this morning in the Reeve's garden?"

"Master, in this big world are two beings that I do truly love, and
thou art one and the other Sir Fidelis thy right sweet and noble lady--
so is it my joy to serve her when I may, thus daily do I go aid her
with the sick."

"And what of him that singeth; saw you this troubadour within the
garden?"

"Troubadour?" quoth Roger, staring.

"Why verily," nodded Giles, "my lord meaneth the tall and goodly fellow
in the cloak of blue camlet, Roger."

"Ne'er have I seen one in blue cloak!" said Roger, "and this do I
swear!"

"None the less," said Beltane, rising, "I will seek him there myself."

"At moonrise, lord?" questioned Giles.

"Aye," said Beltane grimly; "at moonrise!" and scowling he turned away.

"Aha!" quoth Giles, nudging Roger with roguish elbow, "it worketh,
Roger, it worketh!"

"Aye, Giles, it worketh so well that an my master get his hands on this
singing fellow--then woe betide this singing fellow, say I."



CHAPTER LXVII

TELLETH WHAT BEFELL IN THE REEVE'S GARDEN


The moon was already filling the night with her soft splendour when
Beltane, coming to a certain wall, swung himself up, and, being there,
paused to breathe the sweet perfume of the flowers whose languorous
fragrance wrought in him a yearning deep and passionate, and ever as
love-longing grew, bitterness and anger were forgot. Very still was it
within this sheltered garden, where, fraught by the moon's soft magic,
all things did seem to find them added beauties.

But, even as he paused thus, he heard a step approaching, a man's
tread, quick and light yet assured, and he beheld one shrouded in a
long cloak of blue, a tall figure that hasted through the garden and
vanished behind the tall yew hedge.

Down sprang Beltane fierce-eyed, trampling the tender flowers under
cruel feet, and as he in turn passed behind the hedge the moon
glittered evilly on his dagger blade. Quick and soft of foot went he
until, beholding a faint light amid the leaves, he paused, then hasted
on and thus came to an arbour bowered in eglantine.

She sat at a table where burned a rushlight that glowed among the
splendour of her hair, for her head was bowed above the letter she was
writing.

Now as he stood regarding her 'neath frowning brows, she spake, yet
lifted not her shapely head.

"Well, my lord?"

"Helen, where is he that came here but now?"

Slowly she lifted her head, and setting white hands 'neath dimpled
chin, met his frown with eyes of gentleness.

"Nay, first put up thy dagger, my lord."

"Helen," said he again, grim-lipped, "whom dost wait for?"

"Nay, first put up thy dagger, messire."

Frowning he obeyed, and came a pace nearer.

"What do you here with pen and ink-horn?"

"My lord, I write."

"To whom?"

"To such as it pleaseth me."

"I pray you--show me."

"Nay, for that doth not please me, messire."

"I pray you, who was he that came hither but now--a tall man in a long
blue cloak?"

"I saw him not, my lord."

"So needs must I see thy letter."

"Nay, that thou shalt not, my lord," said she, and rose to her stately
height.

"Aye, but I shall!" quoth Beltane softly, and came a pace yet nearer.

Now because of the grim and masterful look of him, her heart fell
a-fluttering, yet she fronted him scornful-eyed, and curled her red lip
at him.

"Messire," said she, "methinks you do forget I am the--"

"I remember thou art woman and thy name--Helen!"

Now at this laughed she softly and thereafter falleth to singing very
sweet and blithe and merry withal.

"The letter!" said he, "give me thy letter!"

Hereupon she took up the letter, and, yet singing, crumpled it up
within white fingers.

Then Beltane set by the table and reaching out sudden arms, caught her
up 'neath waist and knee, and lifting her high, crushed her upon his
breast.

"Helen!" said he, low-voiced and fierce, "mine art thou as I am thine,
forever, 'twas so we plighted our troth within the green. Now for thy
beauty I do greatly love thee, but for thy sweet soul and purity of
heart I do reverence and worship thee--but an thou slay my reverent
worship then this night shalt thou die and I with thee--for mine art
thou and shalt be mine forever. Give me thy letter!"

But now her eyes quailed 'neath his, her white lids drooped, and
sighing, she spake small-voiced:

"O my lord, thine arms are so--so tyrannous that I do fear thee--
almost! And how may a poor maid, so crushed and helpless thus, gainsay
thee? So prithee, O prithee take my poor letter an thou wilt ravish it
from one so defenceless--O beseech thee, take it!"

So she gave the crumpled parchment into his hand, yet while he read it,
nestled closer in his arms and hid her face against him; for what he
read was this:

"Beloved, art thou angered, or sorrowful, or humble in thy foolish
jealousy? If angered, then must I woo thee. If sorrowful, cherish thee.
But being Beltane, needs must I love thee ever--so write I this,
bidding thee come, my Beltane the Smith, for I--"

The crumpled letter fell to the ground.

"Helen!" he whispered, "Beloved, I am all of this, so do I need thy
comfort, thy cherishing, and all thy dear love--turn thy head--O Helen,
how red is thy sweet mouth!" Then stooped he, and so they kissed each
other, such kisses as they ne'er had known, until she sighed and
trembled and lay all breathless in his arms.

"O my lord," she whispered, "have mercy, I pray! Dear Beltane, loose me
for I--I have much to tell thee."

And because of her pleading eyes he loosed her, and she, sinking upon
the bench, leaned there all flushed and tremulous, and looking on him,
sighed, and sighing, put up her hands and hid her face from his regard.

"Beltane," she whispered, "how wondrous a thing is this our love, so
great and fierce it frighteth me--see how I tremble!" and she held out
to him her hands.

Then came he and knelt before her, and kissed those slender fingers
amain.

"Dear hands of Fidelis," said he, "but for their tender skill and
gentle care I had not lived to know this night--O brave, small hands
of Fidelis!"

"Poor Fidelis!" she sighed, "but indeed it wrung my heart to see thy
woeful face when I did tell thee Fidelis was lost to thee--Nay,
Beltane, stay--O prithee let me speak--"

Quoth Beltane 'twixt his kisses:

"Wherefore wert so cold and strange to me but yesterday?"

"Dear my heart," she murmured, "I needs must make thee suffer a little--
just a very little, for that I had known so much of pain and heartache
because of thee. But I was glad to see thee bear the wallet of poor
Fidelis--and O, 'twas foolish in thee to grieve for him, for he being
gone, thy Helen doth remain--unless, forsooth, thou had rather I came
to thee bedight again in steel--that did so chafe me, Beltane--indeed,
my tender skin did suffer much on thy account--"

"Then soon with my kisses will I seek--" But a cool, soft hand schooled
his hot lips to silence and the while he kissed those sweet arresting
fingers, she spake 'twixt smiling lips: "Prithee where is my shoe that
was Genevra's? Indeed, 'twas hard matter to slip it off for thee,
Beltane, for Genevra's foot is something smaller than mine--a very
little! Nay, crush me not, messire, but tell me, what of him ye came
hither seeking--the man in the long cloak--what of him?"

"Nought!" answered Beltane, "the world to-night doth hold but thee and
me--"

"Aye, my Beltane, as when sick of thy wound within the little cave I
nursed thee, all unknown. O love, in all thy sickness I was with thee,
to care for thee. Teaching good Roger to tend thee and--to drug thee to
gentle sleep that I might hold thee to me in the dark and--kiss thy
sleeping lips--"

"Ah!" he sighed, "and methought 'twas but a dream! O Helen, sure none
ever loved as we?"

"Nay, 'twere thing impossible, Beltane."

"And thou art truly mine?"

"Beltane--thou dost know this! Ah, love--what would you?" For of a
sudden his mighty arms were close about her, and rising, he lifted her
upon his breast. "What would'st do with me, Beltane?"

"Do?" quoth he, "do? This night, this very hour thou shalt wed me--"

"Nay, dear my lord--bethink thee--"

"It hath been my thought--my dearest dream since first I saw thee
within the woods at Mortain--so now shalt wed me--"

"But, Beltane--"

"Shalt wed me!"

"Nay, love, I--I--thou art so sudden!"

"Aye, within this hour shalt call me 'husband'!"

"Wilt force me, my lord?"

"Aye, verily," said Beltane, "as God sees me, I will!"

"Why then," she sighed, "how may I gainsay thee!" and she hid her face
against him once more. But, as he turned to leave the arbour, she
stayed him:

"I prithee, now, whither dost take me, Beltane?"

"To the minster--anywhere, so that I find good Friar Martin."

"Nay, prithee, Beltane, prithee set me down!"

"What would'st, my Helen?"

"Loose me and shalt see."

So Beltane, sighing, let her go, whereupon she took a small silver
whistle that hung at her girdle and sounded it.

"Ah--what do you?" he questioned.

"Wait!" said she, roguish-eyed.

And in a while came the sound of steps from the outer garden, and
looking thither, Beltane beheld a tall man in cloak of blue camlet, and
when this man drew near, behold! it was Giles.

"Giles!" quoth he, "thou wily rogue--"

"Giles," spake the Duchess softly, "I pray you let them come!"

Then Giles bowed him low, and smiling, hasted joyously away.

"Beltane, dear my lord," said the Duchess a little breathlessly,
"because thou art true man and thy love is a noble love, I did lure
thee hither to-night that I might give myself to thee in God's holy
sight--an so it be thy will, my lord. O Beltane, yonder Giles and Roger
do bring--Friar Martin to make me--thy wife--wherefore I do grow
something fearful. 'Tis foolish in me to fear thee and yet--I do--a
little, Beltane!" So saying, she looked on him with eyes full sweet
and troubled, wherefore he would have kissed her, but steps drew nigh
and lo! without the arbour stood the white friar with Giles and Roger
in the shadows behind.

Now came Beltane and took the friar's hand.

"Holy father," said he, "O good Friar Martin, though I am but what I
am, yet hath this sweet and noble lady raised me up to be what I have
dreamed to be. To-night, into my care she giveth her sweet body and
fair fame, of which God make me worthy."

"Sweet children," spake the friar, "this world is oft-times a hard and
cruel world, but God is a gentle God and merciful, wherefore as he hath
given to man the blessed sun and the sweet and tender flowers, so hath
he given him love. And when two there be who love with soul as well as
body, with mind as well as heart, then methinks for them this world may
be a paradise. And, my children, because I do love thee for thy sweet
lives and noble works, so do I joy now to bind ye one to another."

Then hand in hand, the Duchess and my Beltane knelt together, and
because he had no ring, needs must she give to him one of hers; so were
they wed.

As one that dreamed, Beltane knelt there murmuring the responses, and
thus knelt he so long that he started to feel a soft touch upon his
cheek, and looking up, behold! they were alone.

"Dost dream, my lord?" she questioned, tender-voiced.

"Aye, verily," he answered, "of the wonder of our love and thee,
beloved, as I did see thee first within the thicket at Mortain,
beautiful as now, though then was thy glorious hair unbound. I dream of
thine eyes beneath thy nun's veil when I did bear thee in my arms from
Thornaby--but most do I dream of thee as Fidelis, and the clasp of thy
dear arms within the dark."

"But thou didst leave me in Mortain thicket despite my hair, Beltane!
And thou didst tell me mine eyes were not--a nun's eyes, Beltane--"

"Wherefore this night do I thank God!" said he, drawing her close
beside him on the bench.

"And for my arms, Beltane, thou didst think them man's arms--because
they went bedight in mail, forsooth!"

"So this night shall they go bedight in kisses of my mouth! loose me
this sleeve, I pray--"

"Nay, Beltane,--I do beseech thee--"

"Art not my wife?"

"Aye, my lord."

"Then loose me thy sleeve, Helen."

So blushing, trembling, needs must she obey and yield her soft arms to
his caresses and hide her face because of their round, white nakedness.

But in a while she spake, low and very humble.

"Dear my lord, the moon doth set already, methinks!"

"Aye, but there is no cloud to dim her glory to-night, Helen!"

"But the hour waxeth--very late, my lord and I--must away."

"Aye, beloved, let us go."

"Nay my lord, I--O dear Beltane--"

"Wife!" said he, "dear my love and wife, have I not waited long
enough?"

Hand in hand they walked amid the flowers with eyes only for each other
until came they to a stair and up the stair to a chamber, rich with
silk and arras and sweet with spicy odours, a chamber dim-lighted by a
silver lamp pendent from carven roof-beam, whose soft glow filled the
place with shadow. Yet even in this tender dimness, or because of it,
her colour ebbed and flowed, her breath came apace and she stood before
him voiceless and very still save for the sweet tumult of her bosom.

Then Beltane loosed off his sword and laid it upon the silken couch,
but perceiving how she trembled, he set his arm about her and drew her
to the open lattice where the moon made a pool of glory at their feet.

"Dost fear me, Helen?"

"Nay, my lord, I--think not."

"Then wherefore dost tremble?"

"Ah, Beltane, thou methinks dost--tremble also?"

Then Beltane knelt him at her feet and looked upon her loveliness with
yearning eyes, yet touched her not:

"O beloved maid!" said he, "this is, methinks, because of thy sweet
virgin eyes! For I do so love thee, Helen, that, an it be thy will,
e'en now will I leave thee until thy heart doth call me!"

Now stooped she and set her white arms about him and her soft cheek to
his hot brow.

"Dear my lord and--husband," she whispered, "'tis for this so sweet
tenderness in thee that I do love thee best, methinks!"

"And fear me no more?"

"Aye, my lord, I do fear thee when--when thou dost look on me so, but--
when thou dost look on me so--'tis then I do love thee most, my
Beltane!"

Up to his feet sprang Beltane and caught her to him, breast to breast
and lip to lip.

The great sword clattered to the floor; but now, even as she sank in
his embrace, she held him off to stare with eyes of sudden terror as,
upon the stilly night broke a thunderous rumble, a shock, and
thereafter sudden roar and outcry from afar, that swelled to a wild
hubbub of distant voices and cries, lost, all at once, in the raving
clamour of the tocsin.

Locked thus within each other's arms, eye questioned eye, while ever
the bell beat out its fierce alarm. And presently, within the garden
below, was the sound of running feet and, coming to the casement,
Beltane beheld a light that hovered to and fro, growing ever nearer and
brighter, until he saw that he who bore it was Black Roger; and Roger's
face shone with sweat and his breath laboured with his running.

"Master!" he panted, "O master--a mine! a mine! They have breached the
wall beside the gate--hark, where they storm the city! Come, master, O
come ere it be too late!"

Now Beltane clenched his fists and scowled on pale-faced Roger and from
him to the radiant sky, yet when he spake his voice was low and even:

"I thank thee, faithful Roger! Go you and summon such of our foresters
as ye may, muster them in the market-square, there will I come to
thee."

Now when Roger's flickering light had vanished he turned, and found
Helen close beside him; her cheeks were pale, but in her hand she held
his sword.

"'Tis well thou wert not all unarmed, my lord!" she sighed, and
forthwith belted the weapon about him. "Kneel down, I prithee, that I
may lace for thee thy hood of mail." And when it was done she knelt
also, and taking his hand pressed it to her throbbing heart, and
holding him thus fell to prayer:

"O God of mercy, have in care those that fight in our defence this
night, in especial guard and shield this man of mine that I do love
beyond all men--O God of mercy, hear us!"

So they arose, and as he looked on her so looked she on him, and of a
sudden clasped him in close and passionate embrace:

"Beltane--Beltane!" she sobbed, "God knoweth I do so love thee that thy
dear flesh is mine, methinks, and the steel that woundeth thee shall
hurt me also. And--O love--an thou should'st die to-night, then surely
will this heart of mine die with thee--no man shall have my love other
than thou--so to my grave will I go thy virgin wife for thy dear sake.
Fare thee well Beltane, O dear my husband, fare thee well. Tarry no
longer, lest I pray thee on my knees to go not to the battle."

So Beltane kissed her once and went forth of the chamber, looking not
back. She heard the ring of his armour a-down the stair, the quick
tread of his feet, and leaning from the casement watched him go; and
he, knowing her there, looked not up, but with teeth hard shut and iron
hands clenched, strode fast upon his way.

And now, since he looked not up, it seemed to her she was out of his
thoughts already, for his face was stern and set, and in his eyes was
the fierce light of battle.

And she, kneeling alone in the failing glory of the moon, hid her face
within yearning, desolate arms and wept long and bitterly.



CHAPTER LXVIII

FRIAR MARTIN'S DYING PROPHECY


Now as Beltane hasted along he heard the tread of mailed feet, and
looking round beheld the white friar, and 'neath his white frock mail
gleamed, while in his hand he grasped a heavy sword. Close on his heels
came many men, old men these for the most part, grey of beard and white
of head, and their armour, even as they, was ancient and rusty; but the
faces that stared from casque and mail-hood were grim and sorrow-lined,
stern faces and purposeful, and the eyes that gleamed 'neath shaggy
brows ere now had looked on sons and brothers done to death by fire and
gallows, and wives and daughters shamed and ravished. And ever as they
came Friar Martin smote, sword in hand, on door and shuttered window,
and cried hoarse and loud:

"Ye men of Belsaye--fathers and husbands, arm ye, arm ye! Ye greybeards
that have seen Duke Ivo's mercy, arm ye! Your foes be in, to burn, to
loot again and ravish! O ye husbands and fathers, arise, arise--arm,
arm and follow me to smite for wife and children!"

So cried the tall white friar, pallid of cheek but dauntless of eye,
and ever as he cried, smote he upon door and shutter with his sword,
and ever his company grew.

Within the square was Roger, hoarse-voiced, with Beltane's battered
war-helm on a pike whereto the foresters mustered--hardy and brown-faced
men, fitting on bascinet and buckling belt, yet very quiet and
orderly. And beside Roger, Ulf the Mighty leaned him upon his axe, and
in the ranks despite their bandages stood Orson the Tall and Jenkyn o'
the Ford, even yet in wordy disputation.

Quoth Beltane:

"How many muster ye, Roger?"

"One hundred and nine, master."

"And where is Walkyn--where Giles?"

"With Sir Benedict, hard by the gate, master. My lord, come take thy
helm--come take it, master, 'twill be a close and bitter fight--and
thou art no longer thine own man--bethink thee of thy sweet wife, Sir
Fidelis, master!"

So Beltane did on the great casque and even now came Sir Brian beside
whom Sir Hacon limped, yet with sword bloody.

"Ha, my lord," he cried, "mine eyes do joy to see thee and these goodly
fellows--'tis hard and fierce business where Benedict and his pikes do
hold the gate--"

"Aye, forsooth," quoth Sir Brian, "they press their attack amain, for
one that falleth, two do fill his place."

"Verily, and what fighting man could ask more of any foe? And we be
fighting men, praise be to Saint Cuthbert--"

"Aye," quoth Roger, crossing himself, "Saint Cuthbert be our aid this
night."

Forthwith Beltane formed his column and with Ulf and Roger beside him
marched from the square. By narrow streets went they, 'neath dim-lighted
casements where pale faces looked down to pray heaven's aid on
them.

So came they where torch and lanthorn smoked and gleamed, by whose
fitful light they beheld a barricade, rough and hastily contrived,
whence Sir Benedict fought and Walkyn smote, with divers of their stout
company and lusty fellows from the town. Above, upon the great flanking
tower of the gate, was Giles with many archers who plied their whizzing
shafts amain where, 'twixt outer and inner wall, the assailants sought
to storm the barricade; but the place was narrow, and moreover, beyond
the breach stout Eric, backed by his fierce townsmen, fought in
desperate battle: thus, though the besiegers' ranks were constantly
swelled by way of the breach, yet in that confined space their very
numbers hampered them, while from sheltered wall and gate-tower Giles
and his archers showered them with whistling shafts very fast and
furious; so in that narrow place death was rife and in the fitful
torch-glare was a sea of tossing steel and faces fierce and wild, and
ever the clamour grew, shouts and screams and cries dreadful to be
heard.

Now as Beltane stood to watch this, grim-lipped, for it needed but few
to man the barricade, so narrow was it, Roger caught his arm and
pointed to the housetops above them; and what he saw, others saw also,
and a cry went up of wonder and amaze. For, high upon the roof, his
mail agleam, his white robe whiter in the torch-glare, stood Friar
Martin, while crouched behind him to left and right were many men in
ancient and rusty armour, men grey-bearded and white of head, at sight
of whom the roar of battle died down from sheer amaze until all men
might hear the friar's words:

"Come, ye men of Belsaye!" he cried, "all ye that do love wife or
daughter or little child--all ye that would maintain them innocent and
pure--follow me!"

As he ended, his sword flashed, and, even as he sprang, so sprang all
those behind him--down, down they leapt upon the close-ranked foemen
below, so swift, so sudden and unexpected, that ere they could be met
with pike or sword the thing was done. And now from that narrow way,
dim-lit by lanthorn and torch-glare, there rose a sound more awful to
hear than roar of battle, a hoarse and vicious sound like to the
worrying snarl of many great and fierce hounds.

With ancient swords, with axe and dagger and fierce-rending teeth they
fought, those fathers of Belsaye; thick and fast they fell, yet never
alone, while ever they raved on, a company of madmen, behind the
friar's white robe. Back and back the besiegers reeled before that
raging fury--twice the white friar was smitten down yet twice he arose,
smiting the fiercer, wherefore, because of his religious habit, the
deathly pallor of his sunken cheek and the glare of his eyes, panic
came, and all men shrank from the red sweep of his sword.

Then Sir Benedict sounded his horn, and sword in hand leapt over the
barricade, and behind him Beltane with Roger and Ulf and Walkyn and
their serried pikemen, while Sir Brian and Sir Hacon limped in their
rear.

"The breach!" cried Sir Benedict, "seize we now the breach!"

"The breach! The breach!" roared a hundred voices. And now within the
gloom steel rasped steel, groping hands seized and griped with
merciless fingers; figures, dim-seen, sank smitten, groaning beneath
the press. But on they fought, slipping and stumbling, hewing and
thrusting, up and up over ruined masonry, over forms that groaned
beneath cruel feet--on and ever on until within the narrow breach
Beltane's long sword darted and thrust and Ulf's axe whirled and fell,
while hard by Walkyn's hoarse shout went up in roaring triumph.

So within this narrow gap, where shapeless things stirred and whimpered
in the dark, Beltane leaned breathless upon his sword and looked down
upon the watch-fires of Duke Ivo's great camp. But, even as he gazed,
these fires were blotted out where dark figures mounted fresh to the
assault, and once again sword and axes fell to their dire work.

And ever as he fought Beltane bethought him of her whose pure lips
voiced prayers for him, and his mighty arm grew mightier yet, and he
smote and thrust untiring, while Walkyn raged upon his left, roaring
amain for Red Pertolepe, and Ulf the strong saved his breath to ply his
axe the faster.

Now presently as they fought thus, because the breach was grown very
slippery, Beltane tripped and fell, but in that instant two lusty
mailed legs bestrode him, and from the dimness above Roger's voice
hailed:

"Get thee back, master--I pray thee get back and take thy rest awhile,
my arm is fresh and my steel scarce blooded, so get thee to thy rest--
moreover thou art a notch, lord--another accursed notch from my belt!"

Wherefore Beltane presently crept down from the breach and thus beheld
many men who laboured amain beneath Sir Benedict's watchful eye to
build a defence work very high and strong where they might command the
breach. And as Beltane sat thus, finding himself very spent and weary,
cometh Giles beside him.

"Lord," said he, leaning him on his bow, "the attack doth languish,
methinks, wherefore I do praise the good God, for had they won the
town--ah, when I do think on--her--she that is so pure and sweet--and
Ivo's base soldiery--O sweet Jesu!" and Giles shivered.

"Forsooth, thou didst see fair Belsaye sacked--five years agone,
Giles?"

"Aye, God forgive me master, for I--I--O, God forgive me!"

"Thou once did show me a goodly chain, I mind me, Giles."

"Aye, but I lost it--I lost it, master!" he cried eagerly, "O verily I
did lose it, so did it avail me nothing."

"Moreover, Giles, thou didst with knowing laugh, vaunt that the women
of Belsaye town were marvellous fair--and methinks didst speak truly,
Giles!"

Now at this Giles bowed his head and turning him about, went heavily
upon his way. Then, sighing, Beltane arose and came where stood Sir
Benedict who forthwith hailed him blithely:

"Can we but hold them until the dawn, Beltane--and mark me, we can,
here is a work shall make us strong 'gainst all attacks," and he
pointed to the growing barricade. "But what of our noble Friar Martin?
But for him, Beltane, but for him and his ancient company we had been
hard put to it, lad. Ha, 'neath that white gown is saint and friar,
and, what is better--a man! Now God be praised, yonder cometh the dawn
at last! Though forsooth this hath been a sorry wedding-night for thee,
dear lad--and for her, sweet maid--"

"Thou dost know then, Benedict?"

"Think ye not good Roger hasted to tell me, knowing thy joy is my joy--
ha! list ye to those blessed joy-bells! glory be to God, there doth
trusty Eric tell us he hath made an end of such as stormed the breach.
But who cometh here? And by this hand, in tears!"

Already in the east was a roseate glory by whose soft light Beltane
beheld Tall Orson, who grasped a bloody sword in one hand and wiped
away his tears with the other. He, perceiving Beltane and Sir Benedict,
limped to them forthwith and spake, albeit hoarse and brokenly.

"Lords, I do be bid hither to bring ye where he lieth a-dying--the
noblest as do be in this world alive--his white robe all bloodied,
lords, yet his face do be an angel's face!"

"Ah," sighed Beltane rising, "is it the noble Friar Martin, Orson?"

"Aye, lord, it do be he--as blessed me wi' his poor hand as do be so
faint and feeble."

So saying, Orson brought them to a house beside the wall, wherein, upon
a pallet, the white friar lay with Jenkyn beside him, and the
white-haired Reeve and many other of the sturdy townsfolk about him.

Now came Beltane to kneel beside the friar, who, opening swooning eyes,
smiled and spake faint-voiced:

"My lord Beltane--noble son, my work on earth is ended, methinks--so
doth God call me hence--and I do go right gladly. These dying eyes grow
dim--but with the deathless eyes of the soul I do see many things most
plainly--so, dear and valiant children, hear ye this! The woes of
Belsaye are past and done--behold, thy deliverance is at hand! I see
one that rideth from the north--and this I give thee for a sign--he is
tall, this man, bedight in sable armour and mounted upon a great white
horse. And behind him marcheth a mighty following--the woods be bright
with the gleam of armour! O ye valiant men--O children of Belsaye that
I have loved so well, let now your hearts be glad! O Belsaye town, thy
shames and sorrows be passed away forever. I see thee through the years
a rich city and a happy, thy gates ever open to the woeful and
distressed! Rejoice, rejoice--thy sorrows are past and done--even as
mine. Ah, list--list ye to those bells! Hear ye not their joyful
clamour--hearken!"

But indeed, silence had fallen upon Belsaye, and no sound brake the
quiet save the distant hum and stir of conflict upon the broken wall.
Nevertheless the friar's dying face waxed bright with a wondrous
happiness.

"O blessed--blessed sound!" he whispered. Of a sudden he rose up from
his pillow with radiant eyes uplifted, and stretched up arms in eager
welcome.

"Sweet Jesu!" he whispered. Slowly his arms sank, the thin hands strove
to fold themselves--fell apart, and, sighing rapturously, Friar Martin
sank back upon his pillows like one that is weary, and, with the sigh,
was dead. And lo! in that same moment, from tower and belfry near and
far, rose a sudden wild and gladsome clamour of bells ringing out peal
on peal of rapturous joy, insomuch that those who knelt beside that
couch of death lifted bowed heads--eye questioning eye in a wonder
beyond words.

And now, all at once was the ring and tramp of mailed feet coming
swiftly, and in the doorway stood Roger, his riven mail befouled with
battle.

"Lords!" he panted, "rejoice--rejoice! our woes and sorrows be past and
done--hark ye to the bells! Our deliverance cometh from the north--you
shall see the woods alight with--the gleam of their armour!"

Nothing saying, Beltane arose and went soft-treading from the chamber,
past the blood and horror of the breach, and climbing the flanking
tower beside the gate, looked to the north. And there he beheld a
mighty company that marched forth of the woods, rank upon rank, whose
armour, flashing in the early sun, made a dazzling splendour against
the green. Company by company they mustered on the plain, knights and
men-at-arms with footmen and archers beyond count.

And presently, before this deep array, two standards were advanced--a
white banner whereon was a red lion and a banner on whose blue ground
black leopards were enwrought.

Now as Beltane gazed upon this glorious host he felt a gentle hand
touch him and turning, beheld the Duchess Helen, and her cheek showed
pale with her long night vigil.

"My Beltane," said she, flushing 'neath his regard, "lord Duke of
Mortain, behold yonder thy goodly powers of Mortain that shall do thy
bidding henceforth--look yonder, my lord Duke!"

"Duke!" quoth Beltane, "Duke of Mortain--forsooth, and am I so indeed?
I had forgot this quite, in thy beauty, my Helen, and did but know that
I had to wife one that I do love beyond all created things. And now,
beloved, thy sweet eyes do tell me thy night was sleepless."

"Mine eyes--ah, look not on them, Beltane, for well I know these poor
eyes be all red and swollen with weeping for thee--though indeed I
bathed them ere I sought thee--"

"Sweet eyes of love!" said he, setting his arm about her, "come let me
kiss them!"

"Ah, no, Beltane, look yonder--behold where salvation cometh--"

"I had rather look where my salvation lieth, within these dear eyes--
nay, abase them not. And didst weep for me, and wake for me, my Helen?"

"I was so--so fearful for thee, my lord."

"Aye, and what more?"

"And very sorrowful--"

"Aye, and what more?"

"And--heartsick--"

"Aye, sweet my wife--but what more?"

"And--very lonely, Beltane--"

Then my Beltane caught her close and kissed her full long, until she
struggled in his embrace and slipping from him, stood all flushed and
breathless and shy-eyed. But of a sudden she caught his hand and
pointed where, before the glittering ranks of Mortain's chivalry, a
herald advanced.

"Look, Beltane," she said, "oh, look and tell me who rideth yonder!"

Now behind this herald two knights advanced, the one in glittering
armour whose shield was resplendent with many quarterings, but
beholding his companion, Beltane stared in wondering awe; for lo! he
saw a tall man bedight in sable armour who bore a naked sword that
flashed in the sun and who bestrode a great, white charger. And because
of Friar Martin's dying words, Beltane stood awed and full of amaze.

Nearer and nearer they came until all men might read the cognizance
upon the first knight's resplendent shield and know him for one Sir
Jocelyn, lord of Alain, but his companion they knew not, since neither
charge nor blazon bore he of any sort. Of a sudden the herald set
clarion to lip and blew a challenge that was taken up and answered from
within the camp, and forth came Duke Ivo, bare-headed in his armour
and with knights attendant, who, silencing the heralds with a gesture,
spake loud and fierce.

"Sir Jocelyn, lord of Alain, why come ye against me in arms and so
ungently arrayed, wherefore come ye in such force, and for what?"

Then answered Sir Jocelyn:

"My lord Ivo, thou wert upon a time our honoured guest within Mortain,
thou didst with honeyed word and tender phrase woo our fair young
Duchess to wife. But--and heed this, my lord!--when Helen the
Beautiful, the Proud, did thy will gainsay, thou didst in hearing of
divers of her lords and counsellors vow and swear to come one day and
seek her with flaming brands. So here to-day stand I and divers other
gentles of Mortain--in especial this right noble lord--to tell thee
that so long as we be men ne'er shalt set foot across our marches.
Lastly, we are hither come to demand the safe conduct from Belsaye of
our lady Duchess Helen, and such of the citizens as may choose to
follow her."

"So!" quoth Duke Ivo, smiling and fingering his long, blue chin, "'tis
war ye do force on me, my lord of Alain?"

"Nay, messire," answered Sir Jocelyn, "that must be asked of this sable
knight--for he is greater than I, and leadeth where I do but follow."

Now hereupon the black knight paced slowly forward upon his great,
white horse nor stayed until he came close beside Duke Ivo. Then
reining in his charger, he lifted his vizor and spake in voice deep and
strong.

"O thou that men call Ivo the Duke, look upon this face--behold these
white hairs, this lined brow! Bethink thee of the innocent done to
cruel death by thy will, the fair cities given to ravishment and flame--
and judge if this be just and sufficient cause for war, and bitter
war, betwixt us!"

Now beholding the face of the speaker, his proud and noble bearing, his
bold eyes fierce and bright and the grim line of nose and chin, Duke
Ivo blenched and drew back, the smile fled from his lip, and he stared
wide of eye and breathless.

"Beltane!" quoth he at last, "Beltane--ha! methought thee dusty bones
these many years--so it is war, I judge?"

For answer Duke Beltane lifted on high the long sword he bore.

"Ivo," said he, "the cries and groans of my sorrowful and distressed
people have waked me from my selfish griefs at last--so am I come for
vengeance on their innocent blood, their griefs and wrongs so long
endured of thee. This do I swear thee, that this steel shall go
unsheathed until I meet thee in mortal combat--and ere this sun be set
one of us twain shall be no more."

"Be it so," answered Black Ivo, "this night belike I shall hang thee
above the ruins of Belsaye yonder, and thy son with thee!" So saying,
he turned about and chin on fist rode into his camp, where was mounting
and mustering in hot haste.

"Beltane," spake the Duchess, clasping Beltane's hand, "dost know at
last?"

"Aye," answered he with eyes aglow, "But how cometh my noble father
yonder?"

"I sought him out in Holy Cross Thicket, Beltane. I told him of thy
valiant doings and of thy need of instant aid, and besought him to take
up arms for thee and for me and for dear Mortain, and to lead my army
'gainst--"

But Beltane, falling before her on his knee spake quick and passionate:

"O Helen--Helen the Beautiful! without thee I had been nought, and less
than nought! Without thee, Pentavalon had groaned yet 'neath cruel
wrong! Without thee--O without thee, my Helen, I were a thing lost and
helpless in very truth!"

Now hereupon, being first and foremost a woman, young and loving and
passionate, needs must she weep over him a little and stoop to cherish
his golden head on her bosom, and holding it thus sweetly pillowed, to
kiss him full oft and thereafter loose him and blush and sigh and turn
from his regard, all sweet and shy demureness like the very maid she
was.

Whereat Beltane, forgetful of all but her loveliness, heedful of nought
in the world but her warm young beauty, rose up from his knees and,
trembling-mute with love, would have caught her to his eager arms; but
of a sudden cometh Giles, breathless--hasting up the narrow stair and,
all heedless of his lord, runneth to fling himself upon his knees
before the Duchess, to catch her robe and kiss it oft.

"O dear and gracious lady!" he cried, "Genevra hath told me! And is it
true thou hast promised me a place within thy court at fair Mortain--is
it true thou wilt lift me up that I may wed with one so much o'er me in
station--is it true thou wilt give me my Genevra, my heart's desire--
all unworthy though I be--I--O--" And behold! Giles's ready tongue
faltered for very gratitude and on each tanned cheek were bright,
quick-falling tears.

"Giles," said she, "thou wert true and faithful to my lord when his
friends were few, so methinks thou should'st be faithful and true to
thy sweet Genevra--so will I make thee Steward and Bailiff of Mortain
an my lord is in accord--"

"Lord," quoth Giles brokenly, "ere thou dost speak, beseech thee hear
this. I have thought on thy saying regarding my past days--and grieved
sorely therefore. Now an ye do think my shameful past beyond
redemption, if these arms be too vile to clasp her as my wife, if my
love shall bring her sorrow or shame hereafter, then--because I do
truly love her--I will see her no more; I will--leave her to love one
more worthy than I. And this I do swear thee, master--on the cross!"

Quoth Beltane:

"Giles, he that knoweth himself unworthy, if that his love be a true
love, shall by that love make himself, mayhap, worthier than most. He
that loveth so greatly that in his love base self is forgot--such a
man, methinks, doth love in God-like fashion. So shall it be as my lady
hath said."

Then Giles arose, and wiping off his tears strove to speak his thanks
but choked upon a sob instead, and turning, hasted down the turret
stair.

Now presently within the city Sir Benedict's trumpets Hew, and looking
from the battlement Beltane beheld Sir Hacon mustering their stout
company, knights and men-at-arms, what time Roger and Walkyn and Ulf
ordered what remained of their pikemen and archers.

"Beloved!" sighed Beltane, drawing his Duchess within his arm, "see
yonder, 'tis horse and saddle--soon must I leave thee again."

Now did she sigh amain, and cling to him and droop her lovely head, yet
when she spake her words were brave:

"My Beltane, this love of mine is such that I would not have thee fail
in duty e'en though this my heart should break--but ah! husband, stay
yet a little longer, I--I have been a something lonely wife hitherto,
and I--do hate loneliness, Beltane--" A mailed foot sounded upon the
stone stair and, turning about, they beheld a knight in resplendent
armour, blazoned shield slung before.

"Greeting to thee, my lord Duke of Mortain, and to thy lovely lady
wife," spake a cheery voice, and the speaker, lifting his vizor,
behold! it was Sir Benedict. "I go in mine own armour to-day, Beltane,
that haply thy noble father shall know me in the press. Ha, see where
he ordereth his line, 'twas ever so his custom, I mind me--in four
columns with archers betwixt. Mark me now lad, I have brought thee here
a helm graced with these foolish feathers as is the new fashion--white
feathers, see you--that my lady's sweet eyes may follow thee in the
affray."

"For that, dear Benedict," cried she, "for that shalt kiss me, so off
with thy great helm!" Forthwith Sir Benedict did off his casque, and
stooping, kissed her full-lipped, and meeting Beltane's eye, flushed
and laughed and was solemn all in a moment.

"Ah, Beltane, dear lad," quoth he, "I envy thee and grieve for thee! To
possess such a maid to wife--and to leave her--so soon! May God bring
thee safe again to her white arms. Ah, youth is very sweet, lad, and
love--true love is youth's fair paradise and--body o' me, there sound
our tuckets! See where Ivo formeth his main battle--and yonder he
posteth a goodly company to shut us up within the city. So must we wait
a while until the battle joins--thy noble father is wondrous wise in
war--O verily he hath seen, behold how he altereth his array! O wise
Beltane!"

Now Duke Ivo threw out a screen of archers and horsemen to harass the
powers of Mortain what time he formed his battle in three great
companies, a deep and formidable array of knights and men-at-arms whose
tall lances rose, a very forest, with pennons and banderols a-flutter
in the gentle wind of morning. Far on the left showed the banner of
his marshal Sir Bors; above his right battle flew the Raven banner of
Sir Pertolepe the Red, and above his main battle rose his own standard--
a black lion on a red field. So mustered he his powers of Pentavalon,
gay with stir of pennons and rich trappings; the sun flashed back from
ponderous casques and bascinets innumerable and flamed on blazoned
shields. And beholding their might and confident bearing, Beltane
clenched nervous hands and his mouth grew hard and grim, so turned he
from this formidable host to where, just beyond the woods, his father's
banner flew beside the leopards of Mortain. Conspicuous upon his white
charger he beheld Duke Beltane, a proud and warlike figure, who sat his
stamping war-horse deep in converse with Sir Jocelyn, while behind were
the dense ranks of Mortain. Suddenly, Sir Jocelyn wheeled his charger
and galloped along Mortain's front, his rich armour glittering, until
he halted at the head of that knightly company posted upon the left.

Meantime, Black Ivo's archers advancing, fell into arrow formation and
began to ply the Mortain ranks with clouds of shafts and bolts 'neath
which divers men and horses fell--what time Black Ivo's massed columns
moved slowly forward to the attack--yet Duke Beltane, sitting among his
knights, stirred not, and the army of Mortain abode very silent and
still. But of a sudden Duke Beltane wheeled his horse, his sword
flashed on high, whereat trumpets brayed and on the instant Sir Jocelyn
wheeled off to the left, he and all his company, and gathering speed
began to skirt Duke Ivo's advanced pikemen and archers, and so rode
down upon those men of Pentavalon who were drawn up against Belsaye.
Hereupon Black Ivo would have launched a counter-charge to check Sir
Jocelyn's attack, but his advanced lines of cross-bowmen and archers
hampered him. Once again Duke Beltane's sword flashed up, the first
line of Mortain's great array leapt forward and with levelled lances
thundered down upon Black Ivo's ranks, scattering and trampling down
his archers; but as they checked before the serried pikes behind, forth
galloped Duke Beltane's second line and after this a third--
o'erwhelming Ivo's pikemen by their numbers, and bursting over and
through their torn ranks, reformed, and, spurring hard, met Ivo's rank
with crashing shock in full career. And, behind this raging battle,
Duke Beltane rode at the head of his reserves, keen-eyed and watchful,
what time Sir Jocelyn was hotly engaged upon the left, nigh unto the
town itself.

"Ah, Beltane!" sighed the Duchess, shivering and covering her face--
"'tis horrible, horrible--see how they fall!"

"Nay, my brave Fidelis, heed rather how valiant Sir Jocelyn and his
knights drive in their advanced lines--ha! Benedict, see how he breaks
their array--an he can but turn their flank--"

"Nay, Beltane--yonder cometh the Raven banner where Pertolepe spurreth
in support--"

"Aye, but yonder doth my father launch yet another charge--ha!
Benedict, let us out and aid them--the way lieth open beyond the
drawbridge an we can but turn Ivo's flank!" quoth Beltane looking ever
upon the battle, "O, methinks the time is now, Benedict!"

With Helen's soft hand a-tremble in his, Beltane hasted down from the
tower and Sir Benedict followed, until they were come to the square
where, amid the joyful acclaim of the populace, their small and hardy
following were drawn up; and, as they came, from townsfolk and soldiery
a shout arose:

"Beltane--the Duke--the Duke!"

"My lord Duke of Mortain," quoth Sir Benedict, "I and thy company do
wait thee to lead us."

But Beltane smiled and shook his head.

"Not so, my lord of Bourne, thou art so cunning in war and hast led us
so valiantly and well--shalt lead us to this battle, the which I pray
God shall be our last! As for me, this day will I march with the
foresters--so mount, my lord."

Hereupon, from foresters, from knights and men-at-arms another shout
arose what time Sir Benedict, having knelt to kiss the Duchess Helen's
white hand, found it woefully a-tremble.

"Alas, my lady Helen," said he, "methinks thine is the harder part this
day. God strengthen thy wifely heart, for God, methinks, shall yet
bring him to thine embrace!" So saying, Sir Benedict mounted and rode
to the head of his lances, where flew his banner. "Unbar the gates!" he
cried. And presently the great gates of Belsaye town swung wide, the
portcullis clanked up, the drawbridge fell, and thus afar off they
beheld where, 'mid swirling dust-cloud the battle raged fierce and
fell.

And behold a sorry wight who hobbled toward them on a crutch, so begirt
and bandaged that little was to see of him but bright eyes.

"O Sir Hacon!" cried the Duchess, "did I not bid thee to thy bed?"

"Why truly, dear my lady, but since I may not go forth myself, fain
would I see my good comrades ride into the battle--faith, methinks I
might yet couch a lance but for fear of this thy noble lady, my lord
Beltane--aye me, this shall be a dismal day for me, methinks!"

"Nay, then I will keep thee company, good Sir Hacon!" smiled the
Duchess a little tremulously, "shalt watch with me from the bartizan
and tell me how the day goeth with us."

And now Sir Benedict lifted aloft his lance, the trumpet sounded, and
with ring and tramp he with his six hundred knights and men-at-arms
rode forth of the market-square, clattering through the narrow street,
thundering over the drawbridge, and, forming in the open, spurred away
into the battle.

Then Beltane sighed, and kneeling, kissed his lady's white hands:

"Beloved," spake he low-voiced, "e'en now must I go from thee, but
howsoever fortune tend--thine am I through life--aye, and beyond."

"Beltane," she whispered 'twixt quivering lips, "O loved Beltane, take
heed to thy dear body, cover thee well with thy shield since thy hurts
are my hurts henceforth and with thee thou dost bear my heart--O risk
not my heart to death without good cause!" So she bent and kissed him
on the brow: but when he would have risen, stayed him. "Wait, my lord!"
she whispered and turning, beckoned to one behind her, and lo! Genevra
came forward bearing a blue banner.

"My lord," said the Duchess, "behold here thy banner that we have
wrought for thee, Genevra and I."

So saying, she took the banner and gave it into Beltane's mailed hand.
But as he arose, and while pale-cheeked Genevra, hands clasped upon
the green scarf at her bosom, looked wet-eyed where the archers stood
ranked, forth stepped Giles and spake quick and eager.

"Lord!" said he, "to-day methinks will be more hard smiting than chance
for good archery, wherefore I do pray let me bear thy standard in the
fight--ne'er shall foeman touch it whiles that I do live--lord, I pray
thee!"

"Be it so, Giles!" So Giles took the banner whiles Beltane fitted on
his great, plumed helm; thereafter comes Roger with his shield and Ulf
leading his charger whereon he mounted forthwith, and wheeling, put
himself at the head of his pikemen and archers, with Roger and Ulf
mounted on either flank and Giles bestriding another horse behind.

Yet now needs must he turn to look his last upon the Duchess standing
forlorn, and beholding the tender passion of her tearless eyes he
yearned mightily to kiss them, and sighed full deep, then, giving the
word, rode out and away, the blue standard a-dance upon the breeze; but
his heart sank to hear the clash and clang of gate and portcullis,
shutting away from him her that was more to him than life itself.

Now when they had gone some way needs must he look back at Belsaye, its
battered walls, its mighty towers; and high upon the bartizan he beheld
two figures, the one be-swathed in many bandages, and one he knew who
prayed for him, even then; and all at once wall and towers and distant
figures swam in a mist of tears wherefore he closed his bascinet, yet
not before Giles had seen--Giles, whose merry face was grim now and
hard-set, and from whose bright bascinet a green veil floated.

"Lord," said he, blinking bright eyes, "we have fought well ere now,
but to-day methinks we shall fight as ne'er we fought in all our days."

"Aye," nodded Beltane, "verily, Giles, methinks we shall!"

Thus saying, he turned and looked upon the rolling battle-dust and
settling his feet within the stirrups, clenched iron fingers upon his
long sword.



CHAPTER LXIX

HOW AT LAST THEY CAME TO PENTAVALON CITY


All day long the din and thunder of battle had roared upon the plain;
all day the Duchess Helen with Sir Hacon at her side had watched the
eddying dust-clouds rolling now this way, now that, straining anxious
eyes to catch the gleam of a white plume or the flutter of the blue
banner amid that dark confusion. And oft she heard Sir Hacon mutter
oaths half-stifled, and oft Sir Hacon had heard snatches of her
breathless prayers as the tide of battle swung to and fro, a desperate
fray whence distant shouts and cries mingled in awful din. But now, as
the sun grew low, the close-locked fray began to roll southwards fast
and ever faster, a mighty storm of eddying dust wherein armour gleamed
and steel glimmered back and forth, as Duke Ivo and his proud array
fell back and back on their last stronghold of Pentavalon City.
Whereupon Sir Hacon, upon the bartizan, cursed no more, but forgetful
of his many wounds, waxed jubilant instead.

"Now, by Holy Rood!" he cried, "see, lady--they break--they break!
'Twas that last flanking onset! None but Beltane the Strong could have
marshalled that last charge--drawing on Black Ivo to attempt his
centre, see you, and crushing in his flanks--so needs must their main
battle fall back or meet attack on two sides! Oho, a wondrous crafty
leader is Duke Beltane the Strong! See--ha, see now how fast he driveth
them--and southward--southward on Pentavalon town!"

"So do I thank God, but see how many--O how many do lie fallen by the
way!"

"Why, in battle, most gentle lady, in battle men must needs fall or
wherefore should battles be? Much have I seen of wars, lady, but ne'er
saw eyes sterner fray than this--"

"And I pray God," spake the Duchess, shivering, "these eyes may ne'er
look upon another! O 'tis hateful sight--see--look yonder!" and she
pointed where from the awful battle-wrack reeled men faint with wounds
while others dragged themselves painfully across the trampled ground.

"Why, 'twas a bloody business!" quoth the knight, shaking his bandaged
head.

"Sir Hacon," said the Duchess, frowning and pale, "I pray you summon me
the Reeve, yonder." And when the Reeve was come, she spake him very
soft and sweet:

"Messire, I pray you let us out and aid the poor, stricken souls
yonder."

"But lady, the battle is not yet won--to open our gates were unwise,
methinks."

"Good Reeve, one died but lately whom all men loved, but dying, Friar
Martin spake these words--'I see Belsaye rich and happy, her gates ever
open to the woeful and distressed.' Come, ope the gates and let us out
to cherish these afflicted."

Thus presently forth from Belsaye rode the Duchess Helen, with Sir
Hacon beside her and many of the townsfolk, hasting pale-cheeked and
trembling to minister unto the hurt and dying, and many there were that
day who sighed out their lives in blessings on her head.

But meantime the battle roared, fierce and furious as ever, where Black
Ivo's stubborn ranks, beset now on three sides, gave back sullenly,
fighting step by step.

And amid the blood and dust, in the forefront of that raging tumult, a
torn and tattered blue banner rocked and swayed, where Beltane with
Giles at his right hand led on his grim foresters, their ranks woefully
thinned and with never a horse among them. But Roger was there, his
face besmeared with blood that oozed 'neath his dinted bascinet, and
Ulf was there, foul with slaughter, and there was Walkyn fierce and
grim, while side by side amid the trampling pikemen behind, Jenkyn and
Tall Orson fought. And presently to Beltane came Walkyn, pointing
eagerly to their left.

"Master," he cried, "yonder flaunteth Pertolepe's banner, beseech thee
let us make thitherward--"

"Not so," quoth Beltane, stooping 'neath the swing of a gisarm, "O
forget thy selfish vengeance, man, and smite but for Pentavalon this
day--her foes be many enow, God wot! Ho!" he roared, "they yield! they
yield! Close up pikes--in, in--follow me!" Forward leapt he with Roger
beside him and the blue banner close behind, and forward leapt those
hardy foresters where the enemy's reeling line strove desperately to
stand and re-form. So waxed the fight closer, fiercer; griping hands
fumbled at mailed throats and men, locked in desperate grapple, fell
and were lost 'neath the press; but forward went the tattered banner,
on and on until, checking, it reeled dizzily, dipped, swayed and
vanished; but Roger had seen and sprang in with darting point.

"Up, man," he panted, covering the prostrate archer with his shield,
"up, Giles, an ye can--we're close beset--"

"But we be here, look'ee Roger--'tis we, look'ee!" cried a voice
behind.

"Aye, it do be us!" roared another voice, and Roger's assailants were
borne back by a line of vicious-thrusting pikes.

"Art hurt, Giles?"

"Nay," quoth the archer, getting to unsteady legs, "but they've spoiled
me Genevra's veil, methinks--and our flag is something smirched, but,
as for me, I'll sing ye many a song yet!"

"Then here's twice I've saved thee, Giles, so art two accursed notches
from my--"

A mace beat Roger to his knees, but, ere his assailant could strike
again, Giles's broadsword rose and fell.

"So are we quits, good Roger!" he cried, "Ha, see--they break! On,
pikes, on! Bows and bills, sa-ha!"

Up rose the dust, forward swept the battle as Black Ivo's hosts gave
back before the might of Mortain; forward the blue banner reeled and
staggered where fought Beltane fierce and untiring, his long shield
hacked and dinted, his white plumes shorn away, while ever his hardy
foresters smote and thrust on flank and rear. Twice Black Roger fell
and twice Giles leapt 'twixt him and death, and perceiving his haggard
eyes and the pallor of his grimed and bloody cheek, roared at him in
fierce anxiety:

"Fall out, Roger, fall out and rest ye, man!"

"Not whiles I can stand, archer!"

"Art a fool, Roger."

"Belike I am, Giles--"

"And therefore do I love thee, Rogerkin! Ha, bear up man, yonder is
water--a muddy brook--"

"O blessed Saint Cuthbert!" panted Roger.

Now before them was a water-brook and beyond this brook Black Ivo's
harassed columns made a fierce and desperate rally what time they
strove to re-form their hard-pressed ranks; but from Duke Beltane's
midmost battle the trumpets brayed fierce and loud, whereat from a
thousand parched throats a hoarse cry rose, and chivalry and foot, the
men of Mortain charged with levelled lance, with goring pike, with
whirling axe and sword, and over and through and beyond the brook the
battle raged, sweeping ever southwards.

Presently before them the ground sloped sharply down, and while Beltane
shouted warning to those behind, his voice was drowned in sudden
trumpet-blast, and glancing to his left, he beheld at last all those
knights and men-at-arms who had ridden with his father in their reserve
all day--a glittering column, rank on rank, at whose head, his sable
armour agleam, his great, white charger leaping 'neath the spur, Duke
Beltane rode. Swift and sure the column wheeled and with lances couched
thundered down upon Black Ivo's reeling flank.

A crash, a sudden roaring clamour, and where had marched Black Ivo's
reserve of archers and pikemen was nought but a scattered rout. But on
rode Duke Beltane, his lion banner a-flutter, in and through the
enemy's staggering columns, and ever as he charged thus upon their
left, so charged Sir Jocelyn upon their right. Then Beltane leaned him
on his sword, and looking down upon the battle, bowed his head.

"Now praise be to God and his holy saints!" quoth he, "yonder is
victory at last!"

"Aye, master," said Roger hoarsely, "and yonder as the dust clears you
shall see the walls and towers of Pentavalon City!"

"And lord--lord," cried Walkyn, "yonder--in their rear--you shall see
Red Pertolepe's accursed Raven banner! Why tarry we here, lord? See,
their ranks break everywhere--'twill be hot-foot now for the city
gates--ha, let us on, master!"

"Aye, verily," quoth Beltane, looking westward, "it groweth to sunset
and the city is yet to storm. To your ranks, there--forward!"

Now as they advanced, Beltane beheld at last where, high above
embattled walls and towers, rose Pentavalon's mighty keep wherein he
had been born; and, remembering his proud and gentle mother, he drooped
his head and grieved; and bethinking him of his proud and gentle Helen,
he took fresh grip upon his sword, and lengthening his stride, looked
where Black Ivo's broken columns, weary with battle, grim with blood
and wounds, already began to ride 'neath the city's frowning gateway,
while hard upon their straggling rearguard Duke Beltane's lion banner
fluttered. A desperate hewing and thrusting in the narrow gateway, and
Black Ivo's shattered following were driven in and the narrow streets
and alleys of the town full of battle and slaughter. Street by street
the town was won until before them loomed the mighty keep of
Pentavalon's ducal stronghold. Outer and inner bailey were stormed and
so at last came they, a desperate, close-fighting company, into the
great tilt-yard before the castle.

Now of a sudden a shout went up and thereafter was a great quiet--a
silence wherein friend and foe, panting and weary, stood alike at gaze.
And amid this expectant hush the two Dukes of Pentavalon fronted each
other. No word said they, but, while all eyes watched them, each took
lance and riding to the extremity of the courtyard, wheeled, and
couching their lances, spurred fiercely against each other. And now men
held their breath to behold these two great knights, who, crouched low
in their saddles, met midway in full career with crash and splintering
shock of desperate onset. Duke Beltane reeled in his stirrups,
recovered, and leaning forward stared down upon his enemy, who,
prostrate on his back, slowly lifted gauntleted hand that, falling
weakly, clashed upon the stones--a small sound, yet plain to be heard
by reason of that breathless hush.

Slow and stiffly Duke Beltane dismounted, and reeling in his gait, came
and knelt beside Black Ivo and loosed off his riven helm. Thereafter,
slow and painfully, he arose, and looking round upon all men, spake
faint-voiced.

"God--hath judged--betwixt us this day!" said he, "and to-day--
methinks--He doth summon me--to judgment--" Even as he spake he lifted
his hands, struggling with the lacing of his helmet, staggered, and
would have fallen, wherefore Beltane sprang forward. Yet one there was
quicker than he, one whose goodly armour, smirched and battered, yet
showed the blazon of Bourne.

"Benedict!" quoth Duke Beltane feebly, "faithful wert thou to the last!
O Benedict, where is my noble son!"

"Father!" cried Beltane, "thou hast this day won Pentavalon from her
shame and misery!" But the Duke lay very still in their arms and spake
no word.

So, when they had uncovered his white head, they bore him tenderly into
the great banqueting hall and laid him on goodly couch and cherished
him with water and wine, wherefore, in a while, he opened swooning
eyes.

"Beltane!" he whispered, "dear and noble son--thy manhood--hath belike
won thy father's soul to God's mercy. So do I leave thee to cherish all
those that--have known wrong and woe--by reason of my selfish life!
Dear son, bury me with thy--noble mother, but let me lie--at her feet,
Beltane. O had I been less selfish--in my sorrow! But God is merciful!
Benedict--kiss me--and thou, my Beltane--God calleth me--to rest. _In
manus tuas--Domine!_" Then Duke Beltane, that had been the Hermit
Ambrose, clasped his mailed hands and smiling wondrous glad and tender,
yielded his soul to God.

In a while Beltane came forth into the courtyard and beheld Sir Jocelyn
mustering their knightly prisoners in the ward below, for, with Black
Ivo's death, all resistance was ended. And now the trumpets blared,
rallying their various companies, but Beltane abode very full of
sorrowful thoughts. To him presently cometh Giles yet grasping the blue
standard befouled with dust and blood, the which he laid reverently at
Beltane's feet.

"Lord," said he, "my trust is ended. See, yonder standeth our company
of foresters!" and he pointed where a single rank of grimed and weary
men lay upon the hard flag-stones or leaned on their battered weapons.

"Giles--O Giles, is this all?"

"Aye, lord, we muster but seventy and one all told, and of these Tall
Orson lieth dead yonder in Jenkyn's arms, and Roger--poor Roger is
a-dying, methinks--and Ulf and Walkyn are not."

But even as he spake he turned and started, for, from the ward below a
hunting horn brayed feebly.

"'Tis our forester's rally, master!" quoth he, "and see--Jesu, what men
are these?" For into the courtyard, followed by many who gaped and
stared in wonderment, six men staggered, men hideously stained and
besplashed from head to foot, and foremost came two. And Walkyn was one
and Ulf the Strong the other.

Now as he came Walkyn stared in strange, wild fashion, and choked often
in his breathing, and his mailed feet dragged feebly, insomuch that he
would have fallen but for Ulf's mighty arm. Being come where Beltane
stood with Sir Benedict and many other wondering knights and nobles,
Walkyn halted and strove to speak but choked again instead. In one hand
bare he his great axe, and in the other a torn and stained war-cloak.

"Lord," quoth he in sobbing breaths, "a good day for thee--this--lord
Duke--a good day for Pentavalon--a joyous day--blessed day for me--
You'll mind they slew mother and father and sister, lord--brother and
wife and child? Empty-hearted was I and desolate therefore, but--to-day,
ha, to-day I die also, methinks. So, an ye will, lord Duke--keep
thou mine axe in memory--of Walkyn--'tis a goodly axe--hath served me
well today--behold!"

Now as he spake he loosed a corner of the war-cloak, and from its
grimed and ghastly folds there rolled forth into the red light of the
cleanly sun a thing that trundled softly across the pavement and
stopping, shewed a pallid face crowned with red hair, 'neath which upon
the brow, betwixt the staring eyes, was a jagged scar like to a cross.

Now while all men stared upon this direful thing, holding their
breaths, Walkyn laughed loud and high, and breaking from Ulf's clasp,
staggered to where it lay and pointed thereto with shaking finger.

"Behold!" he cried, "behold the head of Bloody Pertolepe!" Therewith he
laughed, and strove to kick it with feeble foot--but staggered instead,
and, loosing his axe, stretched wide his long arms and fell, face
downward.

"Bloody Pertolepe--is dead!" he cried, and choked; and choking--died.



CHAPTER LXX

WHICH SPEAKETH FOR ITSELF


It was not the piping of throstle or sweet-throated merle that had
waked my Beltane, who with slumberous eyes stared up at carven canopy,
round him upon rich arras, and down upon embroidered bed-covering and
silken pillow, while through the narrow lattice the young sun played
upon gilded roof-beam and polished floor. So lay Beltane, blinking
sleepy eyes and hearkening to a soft and melodious whistling from the
little garden below his casement.

Being thus heavy with sleep, he wondered drowsily what great content
was this that filled him, and wherefore? Wondering yet, he sighed, and
because of the sun's radiance, closed slumberous eyes again and would
have slept; but, of a sudden the whistling ceased, and a rich, sweet
voice fell to gentle singing.

  "Hark! in the whisper of the wind
   Love calleth thee away,
   Each leaf a small, soft voice doth find,
   Each pretty bird doth cry in kind,
   O heart, haste north to-day."

Beltane sat up broad awake, for Blaen lay to the north, and in Blaen--
But Giles was singing on:

  "Youth is quick to speed away,
   But love abideth ever.
   Fortune, though she smile to-day,
   Fickle is and will not stay,
   But true-love changeth never.

  "The world doth change, as change it must,
   But true-love changeth never.
   Proud ambition is but dust,
   The bow doth break, the sword doth rust,
   But love abideth ever."

Beltane was leaning half out of the casement, of the which fact who so
unconscious as Giles, busily furbishing armour and bascinet.

"Giles!" he cried, "O Giles--rouse ye, man!"

"How, lord--art awake so early?" questioned Giles, looking up innocent
of eye.

"Was it not for this thou didst sing, rogue Giles? Go now, bid Roger
have three horses saddled, for within the hour we ride hence."

"To Mortain, lord?" questioned Giles eagerly.

"Aye, Giles, to Mortain--north to Blaen; where else should we ride
to-day?"

So saying, Beltane turned back into his sumptuous chamber and fell to
donning, not his habiliments of state, but those well-worn garments,
all frayed by his heavy mail. Swift dressed he and almost stealthily,
oft pausing to glance into the empty garden below, and oft staying to
listen to some sound within the massy building. And thus it was he
started to hear a soft knocking at the door, and turning, beheld Sir
Benedict.

"Forsooth, art up betimes, my lord Duke," quoth he, bright eyes
a-twinkle, "and verily I do commend this so great zeal in thee since
there be many and divers matters do need thy ducal attention--matters
of state and moment--"

"Matters of state?" saith Beltane, something troubled.

"There be many noble and illustrious lords come in to pay thee homage
and swear to thee divers fealty oaths--"

"Then must they wait, Benedict."

"Wait, my lord--men so illustrious! Then this day a deputation waiteth
on thee, merchants and what not--"

"These must wait also, Benedict--" saith Beltane, his trouble growing.

"Moreover there is high festival at the minster with much chanting and
glorification in thy behalf--and 'tis intended to make for thee a
triumphal pageant--fair maidens to strow flowers beneath thy horse's
feet, musicians to pleasure thee with pipe and tabor--and--"

"Enough, enough, Benedict. Prithee why must I needs endure this?"

"Such things do wait upon success, Beltane, and moreover thou'rt Duke!
Aye, verily thou'rt Duke! The which mindeth me that, being Duke, it
behoveth thee--"

"And yet, Benedict, I do tell thee that all things must wait awhile,
methinks, or better--do you attend them for me--"

"Nay--I am no Duke!" quoth Sir Benedict hastily.

"Yet thou art my chiefest counsellor and lord Seneschal of Pentavalon.
So to thy wise judgment I do entrust all matters soever--"

"But I have no warranty, thou cunning boy, and--"

"Shalt have my bond, my ducal ring, nay, the very crown itself, howbeit
this day--"

"Wilt ride for Mortain, O lover?" said Sir Benedict, smiling his wry
smile.

"Aye, verily, dear Benedict, nor shall aught under heaven let or stay
me--yet how knew ye this, Benedict?"

"For that 'tis so my heart would have prompted had I been so blessed as
thou art, dear my Beltane. And knowing thou needs must to thy beauteous
Helen, I have a meal prepared within my chamber, come your ways and let
us eat together."

So came they to a handsome chamber hard by where was spread a goodly
repast whereto they did full justice, though talking much the while,
until one tapped lightly upon the door, and Roger entered bearing
Beltane's new-burnished mail.

"Nay, good Roger," said Beltane, smiling, "need for that is done
methinks; we ride light to-day!" But Sir Benedict shook wise head.

"My lord 'tis true our wars be ended I thank God, and we may sheathe
our swords at last, but the woods be full of Black Ivo's scattered
soldiery, with outlaws and other masterless men."

"Ha, verily, lords," quoth Roger, "there shall many turn outlaw,
methinks--"

"Then must we end outlawry!" said Beltane, frowning.

"And how would'st do it, Beltane?"

"Make an end of the game laws, Benedict--throw wide the forests to all
who will--"

"But master, thus shall every clapper-claw rogue be free to kill for
his base sport thy goodly deer, or belike a hart of ten, fit for sport
of kings--"

"Well, let them in this thing be kings. But I do hold a man's life
dearer than a stag's. So henceforth in Pentavalon the woods are free--I
pray you let this be proclaimed forthwith, my lord."

Quoth Sir Benedict, as with Roger's aid Beltane did on his armour:

"There is a postern beyond the pleasaunce yonder shall bring you forth
of the city and no man the wiser."

"Why, then, bring ye the horses thither, Roger, and haste ye!"

Now when Roger was gone, Sir Benedict arose and setting his hands on
Beltane's shoulders questioned him full serious:

"Mean ye forsooth to make the forests free, Beltane?"

"Aye, verily, Benedict."

"This shall cause much discontent among the lords--"

"Well, we wear swords, Benedict! But this I swear, whiles I am Duke,
never again shall a man hang for killing of my deer. Moreover, 'tis my
intent forthwith to lower all taxes, more especially in the market
towns, to extend their charters and grant them new privileges."

"Beltane, I fear thy years shall be full of discord."

"What matter, an my people prosper? But thou art older and much wiser
than I, Benedict, bethink thee of these things then, I pray, and judge
how best such changes may be 'stablished, for a week hence, God
willing, I summon my first council. But now, dear Benedict, I go to
find my happiness."

"Farewell, my lord--God speed thee, my Beltane! O lad, lad, the heart
of Benedict goeth with thee, methinks!" and Sir Benedict turned
suddenly away. Then Beltane took and clasped those strong and able
hands.

"Benedict," said he, "truer friend man never had than thou, and for
this I do love thee--and thou art wise and valiant and great-hearted,
and thou didst love my noble mother with a noble love, and for this do
I love thee best of all, dear friend."

Then Benedict lifted his head, and like father and son they kissed each
other, and together went forth into the sweet, cool-breathing morn.

Beyond the postern were Giles and Black Roger with the horses, and
Giles sang blithe beneath his breath, but Roger sighed oft and deep.

Now being mounted, Beltane reined close beside Sir Benedict and smiled
full joyous and spake him thus, low-voiced:

"Dear Benedict, to-day one that loveth thee doth ride away, but in a
week two that love thee shall return. And needs must these two love
thee ever and always, very greatly, Benedict, since but for thee they
had not come to their joy." So saying, he touched spur to flank and
bounded away, with Giles and Roger spurring behind.

Soon were they free of the city and reaching that rolling down where
the battle had raged so lately, Beltane set his horse to a stretching
gallop, and away they raced, over upland and lowland until they beheld
afar to their right the walls and towers of Belsaye. But on they rode
toward the green of the woods, and ever as they rode Giles sang full
blithely to himself whiles Roger gloomed and sighed; wherefore at last
the archer turned to clap him on the shoulder.

"What aileth thee, my Rogerkin?" quoth he.

"Ha," growled Roger, "the world waggeth well with thee, Giles, these
days, but as for me--poor Roger lacketh. Saint Cuthbert knoweth I have
striven and likewise plagued him sore upon the matter, and yet my
belt--my accursed belt yet beareth a notch--behold!"

"Why, 'tis but a single notch, Roger."

"Yet a notch it is, forsooth, and how shall my heart go light and my
soul clean until I have a belt with notches not one?"

"Belike thou hast forgot some of the lives thou didst save, Roger--mine
thou didst save four times within the battle, I mind me--"

"Nay, 'twas but twice, Giles."

"Why, then 'twas thrice, Roger--the banner hampered me and--"

"'Twas but twice, alack!" sighed Roger, "Saint Cuthbert knoweth 'twas
but twice and being a very watchful saint may not be cheated, Giles."

"Why then, Roger, do ye beset him in prayer, so, while thou dost hold
him in play thus, I will snick away thy solitary notch so sweetly he
shall never know--"

"Alack, 'twill not avail, Giles. I must needs bear this notch with me
unto the grave, belike."

"Nay, Roger, I will to artifice and subtle stratagem on thy behalf as--
mark me! I do know a pool beside the way! Now if I slip within the pool
and thou should'st pull me from the pool--how then? Ha--'tis well
bethought, let's do't!"

"Were it any but Saint Cuthbert!" sighed Roger, "but I do thank thee
for thy kindly thought, Giles."

Now after this went they some way in silence, Beltane riding ahead very
full of thought, and his companions behind, the one smiling and
debonair, the other frowning and sad.

"Forsooth," quoth Giles at last, "as thou sayest, Roger, the world
waggeth well with me. Hast heard, belike, our lady Duchess hath been
pleased to--"

"Aye, I've heard, my lord Bailiff--who hath not?"

"Nay, I did but mention it to two or three," quoth Giles. "Moreover our
lord doth smile on me these days, though forsooth he hath been familiar
with me since first I found him within the green--long ere he found
thee, Rogerkin! I rode a white ass, I mind me, and my lord walked
beside me very fair and soft-spoken, whereupon I called him--Sir Dove!
O me--a dove, mark you! Since when, as ye know, we have been comrades,
he and I, nay, brothers-in-arms, rather! Very close in his counsels!--
very near to all his thoughts and actions. All of the which cometh of
possessing a tongue as ready as my wit, Rogerkin!"

Now as he hearkened, Roger's frown grew blacker and his powerful hand
clenched upon the bridle.

"And yet," quoth Giles, "as I am in my lord's dear friendship, so art
thou in mine, Roger, man, nor in my vaulting fortunes will I e'er
forget thee. Belike within Mortain shalt aid me in my new duties, or
shall I speak my lord on thy behalf?"

"Ha!" cried Roger suddenly, "first tell me this, my lord Steward and
high Bailiff of Mortain, did the Duke my master chance ever to take thy
hand, to wet it with his tears and--kiss it?"

"Art mad, Roger! Wherefore should my lord do this?"

"Aye," nodded Roger, "wherefore?"

And when Giles had whistled awhile and Roger had scowled awhile, the
archer spake again:

"Hast never been in love, Roger?"

"Never, Saint Cuthbert be praised!"

"Then canst know nought of the joy and wonder of it. So will I make for
thee a song of love, as thus: open thine ears and hearken:

  "So fair, so sweet, so pure is she
   I do thank God;
   Her love an armour is to me
   'Gainst sorrow and adversity,
   So in my song right joyfully
   I do thank God for love.

  "Her love a cloak is, round me cast,
   I do thank God;
   To cherish me 'gainst fortunes blast.
   Her love, forgetting evils past,
   Shall lift me up to heaven at last,
   So I thank God for love."

"Here is a fair song, methinks; dost not wonder at love now, Roger, and
the glory of it?"

"I wonder," quoth Roger, "how long thou shalt believe all this when
thou art wed. I wonder how long thou wilt live true to her when she is
thy wife!"

Now hereupon the archer's comely face grew red, grew pale, his bronzed
hands flew to his belt and leapt on high, gripping his dagger; but
Roger had seen, his fingers closed on the descending wrist and they
grappled, swaying in their saddles.

Grim and silent they slipped to earth and strove together on the ling.
But Roger had Giles in a cruel wrestling-hold, wrenched him, bent him,
and bearing him to earth, wrested away the dagger and raised it above
the archer's naked throat. And Giles, lying powerless beneath, looked
up into Roger's fierce scowling face and seeing no pity there, his pale
cheek grew paler and in his eyes came an agony of broken hopes; but his
gaze quailed not and when he spake, his voice was firm.

"Strike true, comrade!" said he.

The hand above him wavered; the dagger was dashed aside and covering
his face, Black Roger crouched there, his broad shoulders and powerful
figure quaking and shivering. Then Giles arose and stepping to his
dagger, came back with it grasped in his hand.

"Roger!" said he.

Quoth Roger, his face still hidden:

"My throat is bare also, archer!"

"Roger--comrade, give to me thy belt!"

Now at this Roger looked up, wondering.

"My belt?" quoth he, "what would ye, Giles?"

"Cut away thy last notch, Roger--thy belt shall go smooth-edged
henceforth and thy soul clean, methinks."

"But I meant to slay thee, Giles."

"But spared me, Roger, spared me to life and--love, my Rogerkin. O
friend, give me thy belt!"

So Roger gave him the belt, wherefrom Giles forthwith cut the last
notch, which done, they together, like mischievous lads, turned to look
where their lord rode far ahead; and beholding him all unconscious and
lost in thought, they sighed their relief and mounting, went on
together.

Now did Roger oft glance at Giles who kept his face averted and held
his peace, whereat Roger grew uneasy, fidgeted in his saddle, fumbled
with the reins, and at last spake:

"Giles!"

"Aye, Roger!"

"Forgive me!"

But Giles neither turned nor spake, wherefore contrite Roger must needs
set an arm about him and turn him about, and behold, the archer's eyes
were brimming with great tears!

"O Giles!" gasped Roger, "O Giles!"

"Roger, I--I do love her, man--I do love her, heart and soul! Is this
so hard to believe, Roger, or dost think me rogue so base that true
love is beyond me? 'Tis true I am unworthy, and yet--I do verily love
her, Roger!"

"Wilt forgive me--can'st forgive me, Giles?"

"Aye, Roger, for truly we have saved each other's lives so oft we must
needs be friends, thou and I. Only thy words did--did hurt me, friend--
for indeed this love of mine hath in it much of heaven, Roger. And--
there be times when I do dream of mayhap--teaching--a little Giles--to
loose a straight shaft--some day. O sweet Jesu, make me worthy, amen!"

And now Beltane glancing up and finding the sun high, summoned Giles
and Roger beside him.

"Friends," said he, "we have journeyed farther than methought. Now let
us turn into the boskage yonder and eat."

So in a while, the horses tethered, behold them within a leafy bower
eating and drinking and laughing like the blithe foresters they were,
until, their hunger assuaged, they made ready to mount. But of a sudden
the bushes parted near by and a man stepped forth; a small man he,
plump and buxom, whose quick, bright eyes twinkled 'neath his wide-eaved
hat as he saluted Beltane with obeisance very humble and lowly. Quoth he:

"Right noble and most resplendent lord Duke Beltane, I do most humbly
greet thee, I--Lubbo Fitz-Lubbin, past Pardoner of the Holy See--who
but a poor plain soul am, do offer thee my very insignificant, yet most
sincere, felicitous good wishes."

"My thanks are thine. Pardoner. What more would you?"

"Breath, lord methinks," said Giles, "wind, my lord, after periods so
profound and sonorous!"

"Lord Duke, right puissant and most potential, I would but tell thee
this, to wit, that I did keep faith with thee, that I, by means of this
unworthy hand, did set thee beyond care, lift thee above sorrow, and
gave to thee the heaven of thy most warm and earnest desires."

"How mean you, Pardoner?"

"Lord Duke, when thou didst bestow life on two poor rogues upon a time,
when one rogue stole away minded to betray thee to thine enemy, the
second rogue did steal upon the first rogue, and this second rogue bare
a small knife whereof the first rogue suddenly died. And thus Duke Ivo,
thine enemy, came not before Belsaye until thou and thy company were
safe within its walls. So by reason of this poor second rogue,
Pentavalon doth rejoice in freedom. To-day is singing on every village
green--happiness is in the very air, for 'tis Pentavalon's Beltane, and
Beltane is a sweet season; so doth this poor second rogue find him
recompense. Verily art well named, lord Beltane, since in thee
Pentavalon's winter is passed away and spring is come--O happy season
of Beltane, O season of new beginnings and new hopes! So, my lord
Beltane, may it ever be Beltane with thee, may it be sweet spring ever
within thy noble heart. God keep thee and farewell."

So saying the Pardoner turned about, and plunging into the dense green,
was gone.

"A pestilent wordy fellow, lord," quoth Giles, "one of your windy
talkers that talketh that no other talker may talk--now give me a good
listener, say I."

"And yet," said Beltane, swinging to saddle, "spake he truly I wonder?
Had Ivo been a little sooner we had not been here, methinks!"

On they rode, through sun and shadow, knee and knee, beneath leafy
arches and along green glades, talking and laughing together or plunged
in happy thought.

Quoth Beltane of a sudden:

"Roger, hast heard how Giles waxeth in fortune these days?"

"And methinks no man is more worthy, master. Giles is for sure a man of
parts."

"Aye--more especially of tongue, Roger."

"As when he did curse the folk of Belsaye out o' their fears, master.
Moreover he is a notable archer and--"

"Art not envious, then, Roger?"

"Not I, master!"

"What would'st that I give unto thee?"

"Thy love, master."

"'Tis thine already, my faithful Roger."

"And therewithal am I content, master."

"Seek ye nought beside?"

"Lord, what is there? Moreover I am not learned like Giles, nor ready
of tongue, nor--"

"Art wondrous skilled in wood-lore, my Rogerkin!" quoth Giles.
"Forsooth, lord, there is no man knoweth more of forestry than my good
comrade Roger!"

"So will I make of him my chiefest huntsman, Giles--"

"Master--O master!" gasped Roger.

"And set thee over all my foresters of Pentavalon, Roger."

"Why master, I--forsooth I do love the greenwood--but lord, I am only
Roger, and--and how may I thank thee--"

"Come!" cried Beltane, and spurred to a gallop.

Thus rode they through the leafy by-ways, avoiding town and village;
yet oft from afar they heard the joyous throb of bells upon the air, or
the sound of merry voices and happy laughter from village commons where
folk rejoiced together that Ivo's iron yoke was lifted from them at
last. But Beltane kept ever to the woods and by-ways, lest, being
recognised, he should be stayed longer from her of whom he dreamed,
bethinking him ever of the deep, shy passion of her eyes, the soft
tones of her voice, the clinging warmth of her caress, and all the
sweet, warm beauty of her. Betimes they crossed the marches into
Mortain, but it was late evening ere they saw at last the sleepy manor
of Blaen, its white walls and steepy roofs dominated by its one square
watch-tower, above which a standard, stirring lazily in the gentle
air, discovered the red lion of Pentavalon.

And now Beltane's breath grew short and thick, his strong hand trembled
on the bridle, and he grew alternate hot and cold. So rode they into
the echoing courtyard whither hasted old Godric to welcome them, and
divers servants to take their horses. Being ushered forthwith into the
garden, now who so silent and awkward as my Beltane, what time his lady
Duchess made known to him her gentle ladies, among whom sweet Genevra,
flushed of cheek, gazed breathless upon Giles even as Giles gazed upon
her--who so mumchance as Beltane, I say, who saw and heard and was
conscious only of one among them all. And who so stately, so
calm-voiced and dignified as this one until--aye, until they stood alone
together, and then--

To see her sway to his fierce arms, all clinging, yearning womanhood,
her state and dignity forgotten quite! To hear her voice soft and low
and all a-thrill with love, broken with sighs and sinking to
passionate-whispered questioning:

"And thou art come back to me at last. Beltane! Hast brought to me my
heart unharmed from the battle, beloved! And thou didst take no hurt--
no hurt, my Beltane? And art glad to see--thy--wife, Beltane? And dost
love me--as much as ever, Beltane? O wilt never, never leave me
desolate again, my lord--art thou mine--mine henceforth as I am thine,
Beltane? And wilt desire me ever near thee, my lord?"

"Helen," said he, "O my 'Helen the Beautiful'--our wars be ended, our
time of waiting is done, I thank God! So am I here to claim thee,
beloved. Art glad to be in mine arms--glad I am come to--make thee mine
own at last, Helen?"

"I had died without thee, Beltane--I would not live without thee now,
my Beltane. See, my lord, I--O how may I speak if thus you seal my
lips, Beltane? And prithee how may I show thee this gown I wear for
thee if thou wilt hold me so--so very close, Beltane?"

And in a while as the moon rose she brought him into that bower he well
remembered and bade him admire the beauty of her many flowers, and he,
viewing her loveliness alway, praised the flowers exceeding much yet
beheld them not at all, wherefore she chid him, and yet chiding,
yielded him her scarlet mouth. Thus walked they in the fragrant garden
until Genevra found them and sweet-voiced bid them in to sup. But the
Duchess took Genevra's slender hands and looked within her shy, sweet
eyes.

"Art happy, sweet maid?" she questioned.

"O dear my lady, methinks in all this big world is none more happy than
thy grateful Genevra."

"Then haste thee back to thy happiness, dear Genevra, to-morrow we will
see thee wed."

And presently came they within a small chamber and here Beltane did off
his armour, and here they supped together, though now the lady Helen
spake little and ate less, and oft her swift-flushing cheek rebuked the
worshipping passion of his eyes; insomuch that presently she arose and
going into the great chamber beyond, came back, and kneeling at his
feet, showed him a file.

"Beltane," said she, "thou didst, upon a time, tell poor Fidelis
wherefore thy shameful fetters yet bound thy wrists--so now will thy
wife loose them from thee."

Then, while Beltane, speaking not, watched her downbent head and busy
hands, she filed off his fetters one by one, and kissing them, set them
aside.

But when she would have risen he prevented her, and with reverent
fingers touched the coiled and braided glory of her hair.

"O Helen," he whispered, "loose me down thy hair."

"Nay, dear Beltane--"

"My hands are so big and clumsy--"

"Thy hands are my hands!" and she caught and kissed them.

"Let down for me thy hair, beloved, I pray thee!"

"Forsooth my lord and so I will--but--not yet."

"But the--the hour groweth late, Helen!"

"Nay--indeed--'tis early yet, my lord--nay, as thou wilt, my Beltane,
only suffer that I--I leave thee a while, I pray."

"Must I bide here alone, sweet wife?"

"But indeed I will--call thee anon, my lord."

"Nay, first--look at me, my Helen!"

Slowly, slowly she lifted her head and looked on him all sweet and
languorous-eyed.

"Aye, truly--truly thine eyes are not--a nun's eyes, Helen. So will I
wait thy bidding." So he loosed her and she, looking on him no more,
turned and hasted into the further chamber.

And after some while she called to him very soft and sweet, and he,
trembling, arose and entered the chamber, dim-lighted and fragrant.

But now, beholding wherefore she had left him, his breath caught and he
stood as one entranced, nor moved, nor spake he a while.

"O Helen!" he murmured at last, "thou art glorious so--and with thy
long hair--"

But now, even as he came to her, the Duchess Helen put out the little
silver lamp. But in the moonlit dusk she gave her lips to his, and her
tender arms were close about him.

"Beltane," she whispered 'neath his kiss, "dear my lord and husband,
here is an end at last of sorrow and heart-break, I pray."

"Here--my Helen, beginneth--the fulness of life, methinks!"

Now presently upon the stillness, from the court below, stole the notes
of a lute and therewith a rich voice upraised in singing:

  "O when is the time a maid to kiss?
   Tell me this, now tell me this.
   'Tis when the day is scarce begun,
   'Tis from the setting of the sun.
   Is time for kissing ever done,
   Tell me this, now tell me this."

THE END





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