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Beltane The Smith (Chapter39)

2006-08-28 16:35

  Chapter XXXIX. How Beltane Fought for One Mellent that was a Witch.

  Barham Broom was gay with the stir of flags and streamers, where, above broidered pavilion and silken tent, pennons and banderoles, penoncels and gonfalons fluttered and flew, beyond which long lines of smaller tents stretched away north and south, east and west, and made up the camp of my lord Duke Ivo.

  Beyond the confines of this great and goodly camp the lists had been formed, and here from earliest dawn a great concourse had been gathering; villein and vassal, serf and freedman from town and village: noble lords and ladies fair from castle hall and perfumed bower, all were here, for to-day a witch was to die——to-day, from her tortured flesh the flame was to drive forth and exorcize, once and for all, the demon who possessed her, by whose vile aid she wrought her charms and spells. So country wenches pushed and strove amid the throng, and dainty ladies leaned from canopied galleries to shudder with dread or trill soft laughter; but each and every stared at one who stood alone, 'twixt armed guards, so young and fair and pale within her bonds, oft turning piteous face to heaven or looking with quailing eye where stake and chain and faggot menaced her with awful doom. And ever the kindly sun rose high and higher, and ever the staring concourse grew.

  Now, of a sudden the clarions rang out a point of war, and all voices were hushed, as, forth into the lists, upon his richly-caparisoned charger, my lord Duke Ivo rode, followed by his chiefest lords and barons; and as he rode, he smiled to himself full oft as one that meditates a hidden jest. Being come where the witch stood, her disordered garments rent by vicious handling, striving to veil her beauty in her long, dark hair, my lord Duke reined in his pawing steed to sit a while and look down at her 'neath sleepy lids; and, ever as he looked, his arching nostrils fluttered above curling lip, and ever he fingered his long, blue-shaven chin.

  "Alack!" cried he at last, "'tis a comely wench, and full young, methinks, to die so soon! But witchcraft is a deadly sin, abhorred by man and hateful unto God——"

  "My lord——my lord," spake the witch swift and passionate yet trembling 'neath his sleepy gaze, "thou knowest I am no witch indeed——thou knowest——"

  "Nay, nay," quoth the Duke, shaking his head, and coming more near he stooped and spake her, low-voiced, "nay, she thou would'st name was a lady proud, soft and white, with hair bright and glorious as the sun—— in sooth a fair lady——yet something too ambitious. But thou, though of her size and shape, art of a dark and swarthy hue and thy hair black, meseemeth. Of a verity thou art only the witch Mellent, and so, by reason of thy sun-browned skin and raven hair——aye, and for thy witchcraft——thou, alack! must die——unless thou find thee a champion. Verily I fear me no man will dare take up thy cause, for Sir Gilles is a lusty man and famous at the joust. Moreover——my will is known in the matter, so do I fear there none shall come to fight on thy behalf. Alack! that one should die so young!"

  "Ah, my lord——my lord Ivo," she whispered, eager and breathless, "show me a little mercy. For that, to be thy Duchess, I denied thee thy desire in the past, let me now be prisoned all my days, an it be thy will——but give me not to the fire——ah, God——not the fire! Pity——pity me for what I did for thee——be merciful——"

  "Did, wench——did?" quoth the Duke, gently. "Now when spake I with witch ere this? 'Tis true there was a lady——something of thy seeming——who, to gain much, promised much, and——achieved me nothing. So now do I know thee far one Mellent, a notable witch, that shall this day instead of ducal crown, wear crown of flame. Alack!——and so, farewell!"

  Thus speaking, my lord Duke rode on up the lists, where stood certain noble lords to hold his stirrup and aid him to earth; so mounted he to his place 'neath broidered canopy, and many a fair cheek blanched, and many a stout knight faltered in his speech, beholding that slow-creeping, stealthy smile and the twitch of those thin nostrils.

  Now once again the trumpet blew, and a herald stepped forth:

  "God save ye, lord Duke," he cried, "ye noble lords and ladies fair—— good people all, God save ye. Know that before you here assembled, hath been brought one Mellent——that hath been denounced a notable witch and sorceress, who, by her fiendish arts and by the aid of demons foul and damned, doth seek the hurt of our lord the Duke, whom God and the saints defend. Forasmuch as this witch, yclept Mellent, did, by her unhallowed spells and magic, compass and bring about the escape from close duress of one Beltane, a notable outlaw, malefactor and enemy to our lord the Duke; and whereas she did also by aid of charms, incantations and the like devilish practices, contrive the sack, burning and total destruction of my lord Duke's good and fair castle of Garthlaxton upon the March. Now therefore it is adjudged that she be taken and her body burned to ashes here before you. All of which charges have been set forth and sworn to by this right noble lord and gallant knight Sir Gilles of Brandonmere——behold him here in person."

  Hereupon, while the trumpets brayed a flourish and fanfare, forth rode Sir Gilles upon a mighty charger, a grim and warlike figure in his shining mail and blazoned surcoat, his ponderous, crested war-helm closed, his long shield covering him from shoulder to stirrup, and his lance-point twinkling on high.

  Then spake again the herald loud and clear: "Good people all, behold Sir Gilles of Brandonmere, who cometh here before you prepared to maintain the truth and justice of the charges he hath made——unto the death, 'gainst any man soever, on horse or on foot, with lance, battle-axe or sword. Now if there be any here do know this witch Mellent for innocent, if there be any here dare adventure his body for her innocence and run the peril of mortal combat with Sir Gilles, let him now stand forth."

  And immediately the trumpets sounded a challenge. Thereafter the herald paced slowly round the lists, and behind him rode Sir Gilles, his blazon of the three stooping falcons plain for all men to see, on gleaming shield and surcoat.

  North and south, and east and west the challenge was repeated, and after each the trumpet sounded a warlike flourish, yet no horseman paced forth and no man leapt the barriers; and the witch Mellent drooped pale and trembling betwixt her warders. But, of a sudden she opened swooning eyes and lifted her heavy head; for, from the distant woods, faint as yet and far, a horn brayed hoarsely——three notes, thrice repeated, defiant and warlike. And now, among the swaying crowds rose a hum that grew and grew, while ever and anon the horn rang out, fiercely winded——and ever it sounded nearer: until, of a sudden, out from the trees afar, two horsemen galloped, their harness bright in the sunshine, helm and lance-point twinkling, who, spurring knee and knee, thundered over the ling; while every tongue grew hushed, and every eye turned to mark their swift career.

  Tall were these men and lusty, bedight from head to foot in glistening mail, alike at all points save that one bare neither shield nor lance, and 'neath his open bascinet showed a face brown and comely, whereas his companion rode, his long shield flashing in the sun, his head and face hid by reason of his ponderous, close-shut casque. Swift they rode, the throng parting before them; knee and knee together they leapt the palisade, and reining in their horses, paced down the lists and halted before the pale and trembling captive. Then spake the knight, harsh-voiced behind his vizor:

  "Sound, Roger!"

  Forthwith the black-haired, ruddy man set a hunting horn to his lips, and blew thereon a flourish so loud and shrill as made the very welkin ring.

  Now came pursuivants and the chief herald, which last made inquisition thus:

  "Sir Knight, crest hast thou none, nor on thy shield device, so do I demand name and rank of thee, who thus in knightly guise doth give this bold defiance, and wherefore ye ride armed at points. Pronounce, messire!"

  Then spake the tall knight loud and fierce, his voice deep-booming within the hollow of his closed casque.

  "Name and rank have I laid by for the nonce, until I shall have achieved a certain vow, but of noble blood am I and kin unto the greatest——this do I swear by Holy Rood. To-day am I hither come in arms to do battle on behalf of yon innocent maid, and to maintain her innocence so long as strength abide. And furthermore, here before ye all and every, I do proclaim Sir Gilles of Brandonmere a shame and reproach unto his order. To all the world I do proclaim him rogue and thief and wilful liar, the which (God willing) I will here prove upon his vile body. So now let there be an end of words. Sound, Roger!"

  Hereupon he of the ruddy cheek clapped horn to lip and blew amain until his cheek grew redder yet, what time the heralds and pursuivants and marshals of the field debated together if it were lawful for a nameless knight to couch lance 'gainst one of noble blood. But now came Sir Gilles himself, choking with rage, and fuming in his harness.

  "Ha, thou nameless dog!" cried he, brandishing his heavy lance, "be thou serf or noble, art an errant liar——so will I slay thee out of hand!" Thus saying, he reined round the great roan stallion he bestrode, and galloped to one end of the lists. Now spake Black Roger low-voiced, and his hand shook upon his bridle:

  "Master, now do I fear for thee. Sir Gilles is a mighty jouster and skilled withal, moreover he rideth his famous horse Mars——a noble beast and fresh, while thine is something wearied. And then, master, direst of all, she thou would'st champion is a witch——"

  "That worketh no evil by day, Roger. So do I charge thee, whatsoe'er betide, look to the maid, take her across thy saddle and strive to bring her to safety. As for me, I will now with might and main seek to make an end of Sir Gilles of Brandonmere."

  So saying, Beltane rode to the opposite extremity of the lists.

  And now, while the trumpets blared, the two knights took their ground, Sir Gilles resplendent in lofty crest and emblazoned surcoat, the three stooping falcons conspicuous on his shield, his mighty roan charger pawing the ling with impatient hoof; his opponent, a gleaming figure astride a tall black horse, his round-topped casque unadorned by plume or crest. So awhile they remained, very still and silent, what time a single trumpet spake, whereat——behold! the two long lances sank feutred to the charge, the broad shields flashed, glittered and were still again; and from that great concourse a sound went up——a hum, that swelled, and so was gone.

  The maid Mellent had sunk upon her knees and was praying desperate prayers with face upturned to heaven; but none was there to mark her now amid that silent gathering——all eyes were strained to watch those grim and silent horsemen that fronted each other, the length of the lists between; even Duke Ivo, leaning on lazy elbow, looked with glowing eye and slow-flushing cheek, ere he let fall his truncheon.

  And, on the instant, shrill and fierce the trumpets brayed, and on the instant each knight struck spurs, the powerful horses reared, plunged, and sprang away at speed. Fast and faster they galloped, their riders low-stooped above the high-peaked saddles, shields addressed and lances steady, with pounding hooves that sent the turves a-flying, with gleaming helms and deadly lance-points a-twinkle; fast and ever faster they thundered down upon each other, till, with a sudden direful crash, they met in full career with a splintering of well-aimed lances, a lashing of wild hooves, a rearing of powerful horses, staggering and reeling beneath the shock. And now a thunderous cry went up, for the tall black horse, plunging and snorting, went down rolling upon the sward. But his rider had leapt clear and, stumbling to his feet, stood swaying unsteadily, faint and dazed with the blow of Sir Gilles' lance that had borne down the great black horse and torn the heavy casque from his head. So stood Beltane, unhelmed, staring dazedly from heaving earth to reeling heaven; yet, of a sudden, shook aloft the fragment of his splintered lance and laughed fierce and loud, to behold, 'twixt reeling earth and sky, a great roan stallion that foamed upon his bit 'neath sharp-drawn rein, as, swaying sideways from the lofty saddle, Sir Gilles of Brandonmere crashed to earth, transfixed through shield and hauberk, through breast and back, upon the shaft of a broken lance. High over him leapt Beltane, to catch the roan's loose bridle, to swing himself up, and so, with stirrups flying and amid a sudden clamour of roaring voices, to thunder down the lists where Roger's heavy sword flashed, as smiting right and left, he stooped and swung the maid Mellent before him.

  "Ride, Roger——ride! Spur——spur!" shouted Beltane above the gathering din, and shouting, drew his sword, for now before them, steel glittered and cries rang upon the air:

  "'Tis Beltane the outlaw! Seize him——slay him! 'Tis the outlaw!"

  But knee and knee, with loose rein and goading spur rode they, and nought could avail and none were quick enough to stay that headlong gallop; side by side they thundered over the ling, and knee and knee they leapt the barrier, bursting through bewildered soldiery, scattering frighted country-folk, and so away, over gorse and heather and with arrows, drawn at a venture, whistling by them. Betimes they reached the shelter of the woods, and turning, Beltane beheld a confusion of armed men, a-horse and a-foot, what time borne upon the air came a sound hoarse and menacing, a sound dreadful to hear——the sound of the hue and cry.

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