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Beltane The Smith (Chapter61)

2006-08-28 16:41

  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.

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