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Beltane The Smith (Chapter10)

2006-08-28 16:27

  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.

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