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Beltane The Smith (Chapter30)

2006-08-28 16:32

  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.

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