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Beltane The Smith (Chapter28)

2006-08-28 16:32

  Chapter XXVIII. Of the Place of Refuge Within the Green

  It was toward evening that Beltane awoke, and sitting up, looked about him. He was in a chamber roughly square, a hollow within the rock part natural and part hewn by hand, a commodious chamber lighted by a jagged hole in the rock above, a fissure all o'er-grown with vines and creeping plants whose luxuriant foliage tempered the sun's rays to a tender green twilight very grateful and pleasant.

  Now pendant from the opening was a ladder of cords, and upon this ladder, just beneath the cleft, Beltane beheld a pair of lusty, well-shaped legs in boots of untanned leather laced up with leathern thongs; as for their owner, he was hidden quite by reason of the leafy screen as he leaned forth of the fissure. Looking upon these legs, Beltane knew them by their very attitude for the legs of one who watched intently, but while he looked, they stirred, shifted, and growing lax, became the legs of one who lounged; then, slow and lazily, they began to descend lower and lower until the brown, comely face of Giles Brabblecombe o' the Hills smiled down upon Beltane with a gleam of white teeth. Cried he:

  "Hail, noble brother, and likewise the good God bless thee! Hast slept well, it lacketh scarce an hour to sundown, and therefore should'st eat well. How say ye now to a toothsome haunch o' cold venison, in faith, cunningly cooked and sufficiently salted and seasoned——ha? And mark me! with a mouthful of malmsey, ripely rare? Oho, rich wine that I filched from a fatuous friar jig-jogging within the green! Forsooth, tall brother, 'tis a wondrous place, the greenwood, wherein a man shall come by all he doth need——an he seek far enough! Thus, an my purse be empty, your beefy burgher shall, by dint of gentle coaxing, haste to fill me it with good, broad pieces. But, an my emptiness be of the belly, then sweet Saint Giles send me some ambulating abbot or pensive-pacing prior; for your churchmen do ever ride with saddle-bags well lined, as I do know, having been bred a monk, and therefore with a rare lust to creature comforts."

  Now while he spake thus, the archer was busily setting forth the viands upon a rough table that stood hard by, what time Beltane looked about him.

  "'Tis a wondrous hiding-place, this, Giles!" quoth he.

  "Aye, verily, brother——a sweet place for hunted men such as we. Here be caves and caverns enow to hide an army, and rocky passage-ways, narrow and winding i' the dark, where we four might hold all Black Ivo's powers at bay from now till Gabriel's trump——an we had food enow!"

  Quoth Beltane:

  "'Tis a fair thought that, and I've heard there be many outlaws in the woods hereabouts?"

  "Yea, forsooth. And each and every a clapper-claw, a rogue in faith. O very lewd, bloody-minded knaves see ye now, that would have slain me three days agone but for my comrade Walkyn. Scurvy dogs, fit for the halter they be, in faith!"

  "Ha!" quoth Beltane, thoughtful of brow. "They be wild men, meseemeth?"

  "Desperate knaves, one and all; and look ye, they would have slain——"

  "Aye?" nodded Beltane.

  "All the off-scourings of town and village——and look ye, they would——"

  "Aye," said Beltane.

  "Thieves, rogues and murderers, branded felons, runaway serfs and villeins——"

  "'Tis well," said Beltane, "so shall they be my comrades henceforth."

  "Thy comrades!" stammered the archer, staring in amaze——"thy comrades! These base knaves that would have hanged me——me, that am free-born like my father before me——"

  "So, peradventure, Giles, will we make them free men also. Howbeit this day I seek them out——"

  "Seek them——'tis death!"

  "Death let it be, 'tis none so fearful!"

  "They will slay thee out of hand——a wild rabblement, lawless and disordered!"

  "So would I bring order among them, Giles. And thou shalt aid me."

  "I——aid thee? How——would'st have me company with such vile carrion? Not I, forsooth. I am a soldier, free-born, and no serf like Walkyn or villein like Roger. But sure you do but jest, brother, so will I laugh with thee——"

  But now, very suddenly, Beltane reached out his long arm and seizing Giles in mighty hand, dragged him to his knees; and Giles, staring up in amaze, looked into the face of the new Beltane whose blue eyes glared 'neath frowning brows and whose lips curled back from gleaming teeth.

  "Giles," said he softly, rocking the archer in his grasp, "O Giles Brabblecombe o' the Hills, did I not save thy roguish life for thee? Did not Walkyn and Roger preserve it to thee? So doth thy life belong to Walkyn and to Roger and to me. Four men are we together, four brothers in arms, vowed to each other in the fulfilment of a purpose—— is it not so?"

  "Yea, verily, lord. Good men and true are we all, but see you not, lord, these outlaws be lewd fellows——base-born——"

  "See you not, Giles, these outlaws be men, even as we, who, like us, can laugh and weep, can bleed and die——who can use their lives to purpose good or evil, even as we. Therefore, since they are men, I will make of them our comrades also, an it may be."

  Thus saying, Beltane loosed Giles and turning to the table, fell to eating again while the archer sat upon the floor nursing his bruised arm and staring open-mouthed.

  Quoth Beltane at last:

  "We will seek out and talk with these outlaws to-night, Giles!"

  "Talk with a pack of——yea, forsooth!" nodded Giles, rubbing his arm.

  "I am minded to strike such a blow as shall hearten Sir Benedict for the siege and shake Black Ivo's confidence."

  "Aha!" cried Giles, springing up so that his link-mail jingled, "aha! a sweet thought, tall brother! Could we fire another gibbet now——"

  "Know you where the outlaws lie hid, Giles?"

  "Nay, lord, none save themselves and Walkyn know that. Walkyn methinks, was great among them once."

  "And where is Walkyn?"

  "So soon as ye slept, lord, he and Roger went forth according to thy word. As for me, I stayed here to watch. From the spy-hole yonder you may command the road a-wind in the valley, and unseen, see you, may see. But come, an thy hunger be allayed, reach me thy hand that I may file off those iron bracelets."

  "Nay, let be, Giles. I will wear them henceforth until my vow be accomplished."

  Hereupon Beltane arose, and, climbing the ladder, looked forth through a screen of leaves and underbrush and saw that from the fissure the ground sloped steeply down, a boulder-strewn hill thick with gorse and bramble, at whose base the road led away north and south until it was lost in the green of the forest. Now as Beltane stood thus, gazing down at the winding road whose white dust was already mellowing to evening, he beheld one who ran wondrous fleetly despite the ragged cloak that flapped about his long legs, and whose rough-shod feet spurned the dust beneath them so fast 'twas a marvel to behold; moreover as he ran, he bounded hither and thither, and with every bound an arrow sped by him from where, some distance behind, ran divers foresters bedight in a green livery Beltane thought he recognized; but even as Beltane grasped the branches that screened him, minded to swing himself up to the fellow's aid, the fugitive turned aside from the road and came leaping up the slope, but, of a sudden, uttered a loud cry and throwing up his hands fell face down upon the ling and so lay, what time came up one of the pursuers that had outstripped his fellows, but as he paused, his sword shortened for the thrust, up sprang the fugitive, a great axe flashed and whirled and fell, nor need was there for further stroke. Then, while the rest of the pursuers were yet a great way off, Walkyn came leaping up the hill. Back from the ladder Beltane leapt and down through the fissure came Walkyn to fall cat-like upon his feet, to shake free the ladder after him, and thereafter to sit panting upon a stool, his bloody axe betwixt his knees.

  "Pertolepe's wolves!" he panted, "two of them have I——slain——within the last mile," and grinning, he patted the haft of his axe.

  "What news, Walkyn?"

  "Death!" panted Walkyn, "there be five dead men a-swing from the bartizan tower above Garthlaxton Keep, and one that dieth under the torture e'en now, for I heard grievous outcry, and all by reason of thy escape, lord."

  "Come you then from Garthlaxton?" quoth Beltane, frowning.

  "Aye, lord. For, see you, 'twas market day, so went I to one I know that is a swineherd, a trusty fellow that bringeth hogs each week unto Garthlaxton. So did we change habits and went to Garthlaxton together, driving the hogs before us. Thereafter, while he was away chaffering, I sat me down in the outer bailey tending my beasts, yet with eyes and ears wide and with my hand upon mine axe 'neath my cloak lest haply I might chance within striking distance of Red Pertolepe. And, sitting thus, I heard tell that he had marched out with all his array to join Black Ivo's banner. Whereupon was I mightily cast down. But it chanced the wind lifted my cloak, and one of the warders, spying mine axe, must think to recognise me and gave the hue and cry; whereat I, incontinent, fled ere they could drop the portcullis——and divers rogues after me. Aha! then did I lead them a right merry dance by moor and moss, by briar and bog, and contrived to slay of them five in all. But as to Pertolepe, a malison on him! he is not yet to die, meseemeth. But, some day——aye, some day!" So saying he kissed the great axe and setting it by came to the table and fell to eating mightily while Giles sat hard by busied with certain arrows, yet betwixt whiles watching Beltane who, crossing to the bed of fern, laid him down thereon and closed his eyes. But of a sudden he raised his head, hearkening to a whistle, soft and melodious, near at hand.

  "Aha!" exclaimed Giles, setting aside his arrows, "yonder should be Roger——a hungry Roger and therefore surly, and a surly Roger is rare sport to lighten a dull hour. Heaven send our Roger be surly!" So saying, the archer went forth and presently came hasting back with Roger at his heels scowling and in woeful plight. Torn and stained and besprent with mud, his rawhide knee-boots sodden and oozing water, he stood glowering at Giles beneath the bloody clout that swathed his head, his brawny fist upon his dagger.

  "No food left, say ye, Giles, no food, and I a-famishing? You and Walkyn drunk up all the wine betwixt ye, and I a-perish——ha——so now will I let it out again——" and out flashed his dagger.

  "Nay, 'tis but the archer's folly," quoth Walkyn——"sit, man, eat, drink, and speak us thy news."

  "News," growled Roger, seating himself at table, "the woods be thick with Pertolepe's rogues seeking my master, rogues known to me each one, that ran to do my bidding aforetime——in especial one Ralpho——that was my assistant in the dungeons once. Thrice did they beset me close, and once did I escape by running, once by standing up to my neck in a pool, and once lay I hid in a tree whiles they, below, ate and drank like ravening swine——and I a-famishing. A murrain on 'em, one and all, say I——in especial Ralpho that was my comrade once——may he rot henceforth——"

  "Content you, Roger, he doth so!" laughed grim Walkyn and pointed to his axe.

  "Forsooth, and is it so?" growled Roger, his scowl relaxing——"now will I eat full and blithely, for Ralpho was an arrant knave."

  Now when his hunger was somewhat assuaged, Roger turned and looked where Beltane lay.

  "My master sleepeth?" said he, his voice grown gentle.

  "Nay, Roger, I lie and wait thy news," spake Beltane, his eyes yet closed.

  "Why then, 'tis war, master——battle and siege. The country is up as far as Winisfarne. Black Ivo lieth at Barham Broom with a great company——I have seen their tents and pavilions like a town, and yet they come, for Ivo hath summoned all his powers to march against Thrasfordham. 'Twixt here and Pentavalon city, folk do say the roads be a-throng with bows and lances——lords and barons, knights and esquires, their pennons flutter everywhere."

  "'Tis well!" sighed Beltane.

  "Well, master——nay, how mean you?"

  "That being at Barham Broom, they cannot be otherwhere, Roger. Saw you Pertolepe's banner among all these?"

  "Aye, master; they have set up his pavilion beside the Duke's."

  "Tell me now," said Beltane, coming to his elbow, "how many men should be left within Garthlaxton for garrison, think you?"

  "An hundred, belike!" said Walkyn.

  "Less," quoth Roger; "Garthlaxton is so strong a score of men have held it ere now. 'Tis accounted the strongest castle in all the Duchy, save only Thrasfordham."

  "Truly 'tis very strong!" said Beltane thoughtfully, and lying down again he closed his eyes and spake slow and drowsily——"Aye, 'tis so strong, its garrison, being secure, should sleep sound o' nights. So 'twould be no great matter to surprise and burn it ere the dawn, methinks!"

  "Burn Garthlaxton!" cried the archer, and sprang up, scattering the arrows right and left.

  "Master!" stammered Roger, "master——"

  As for Walkyn, he, having his mouth full and striving to speak, choked instead.

  "Lord——lord!" he gasped at last, "to see Garthlaxton go up in flame——O blessed sight! Its blood-soaked walls crumble to ruin——ah, sweet, rare sight! But alas! 'tis a mighty place and strong, and we but four——"

  "There be outlaws in the wild-wood!" quoth Beltane.

  "Ha!——the outlaws!" cried Giles, and clapped hand to thigh.

  "Aye," nodded Beltane, "bring me to the outlaws."

  "But bethink thee, tall brother——of what avail a thousand such poor, ragged, ill-armed rogues 'gainst the walls of Garthlaxton? They shall not tear you the stones with their finger-nails nor rend them with their teeth, see'st thou!"

  "To burn Garthlaxton!" growled Walkyn, biting at his fingers. "Ha, to give it to the fire! But the walls be mighty and strong and the outlaws scattered. 'Twould take a week to muster enough to attempt a storm, nor have they engines for battery——"

  "Enough!" said Beltane rising, his brows close drawn, "now hearken, and mark me well; the hole whereby one man came out may let a thousand in. Give me but an hundred men at my back and Garthlaxton shall be aflame ere dawn. So, come now, Walkyn——bring me to the outlaws."

  "But lord, these be very wild men, obedient to no law save their own, and will follow none but their own; lawless men forsooth, governed only by the sword and made desperate by wrong and fear of the rope——"

  "Then 'tis time one learned them other ways, Walkyn. So now I command thee, bring me to them——'tis said thou wert great among them once."

  Hereupon Walkyn rose and taking up his mighty axe twirled it lightly in his hand. "Behold, lord," said he, "by virtue of this good axe am I free of the wild-wood; for, long since, when certain lords of Black Ivo burned our manor, and our mother and sister and father therein, my twin brother and I had fashioned two axes such as few men might wield——this and another——and thus armed, took to the green where other wronged men joined us till we counted many a score tall fellows, lusty fighters all. And many of Ivo's rogues we slew until of those knights and men-at-arms that burned our home there none remained save Red Pertolepe and Gui of Allerdale. But in the green——love came——even to me——so I laid by mine axe and vengeance likewise and came to know happiness until——upon a day——they hanged my brother, and thereafter they slew——her——my wife and child——e'en as ye saw. Then would I have joined the outlaws again. But in my place they had set up one Tostig, a sturdy rogue and foul, who ruleth by might of arm and liveth but for plunder——and worse. Him I would have fought, but upon that night I fell in with thee. Thus, see you, though I am free of the wild, power with these outlaws have I none. So, an I should bring thee into their secret lurking-place, Tostig would assuredly give thee to swift death, nor could I save thee——"

  "Yet must I go," said Beltane, "since, while I live, vowed am I to free Pentavalon. And what, think you, is Pentavalon? 'Tis not her hills and valleys, her towns and cities, but the folk that dwell therein; they, each one, man and woman and child, the rich and poor, the high and low, the evil and the good, aye, all those that live in outlawry——these are Pentavalon. So now will I go unto these wild men, and once they follow my call, ne'er will I rest until they be free men every one. Each blow they strike, the wounds they suffer, shall win them back to honourable life, to hearth and home——and thus shall they be free indeed. So, Walkyn, bring me to the outlaws!"

  Then stood Walkyn and looked upon Beltane 'neath heavy brows, nothing speaking, and turned him of a sudden and, striding forth of the cave, came back bearing another great axe.

  "Lord," said he, "thy long sword is missing, methinks. Take now this axe in place of it——'twas my brother's once. See, I have kept it bright, for I loved him. He was a man. Yet man art thou also, worthy, methinks, and able to wield it. Take it therefore, lord Duke that art my brother-in-arms; mayhap it shall aid thee to bring order in the wild-wood and win Pentavalon to freedom. Howbeit, wheresoe'er thou dost go, e'en though it be to shame and failure, I am with thee!"

  "And I!" cried Giles, reaching for his bow.

  "And I also!" quoth Roger.

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