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Beltane The Smith (Chapter40)

2006-08-28 16:35

  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.

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