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Beltane The Smith (Chapter41)

2006-08-28 16:35

  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.

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