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Beltane The Smith (Chapter14)

2006-08-28 16:28

  Chapter XIV. How Beltane Came Nigh to Death

  Down went my Beltane, weighted in his heavy mail——down and ever down through a world of green that grew dark and ever more dark, until, within the pitchy gloom beneath him was a quaking slime that sucked viciously at foot and ankle. Desperately he fought and strove to rise, but ever the mud clung, and, lusty swimmer though he was, his triple mail bore him down.

  And now his mighty muscles failed, lights flamed before his eyes, in his ears was a drone that grew to a rushing roar, his lungs seemed bursting, and the quaking ooze yearning to engulf him. Then my Beltane knew the bitter agony of coming death, and strove no more; but in that place of darkness and horror, a clammy something crawled upon his face, slipped down upon his helpless body, seized hold upon his belt and dragged at him fierce and strong; slowly, slowly the darkness thinned, grew lighter, and then——Ah, kind mercy of God! his staring eyes beheld the orbed moon, his famished lungs drank deep the sweet, cool air of night. And so he gasped, and gasping, strove feebly with arm and leg while ever the strong hand grasped at his girdle. And now he heard, faint and afar, a sound of voices, hands reached down and drew him up—— up to good, firm earth, and there, face down among the grass, he lay awhile, content only to live and breathe. Gradually he became aware of another sound hard by, a sharp sound yet musical, and in a little, knew it for the "twang" of a swift-drawn bow-string. Now, glancing up, Beltane beheld an ancient tree near by, a tree warped and stunted wherein divers arrows stood, and behind the tree, Giles o' the Bow, who, as he watched, drew and loosed a shaft, which, flashing upward, was answered by a cry; whereon Giles laughed aloud.

  "Six!" he cried, "six in seven shots: 'tis sweet archery methinks, and quicker than a noose, my Rogerkin, and more deadly than thy axe, my surly Walkyn. Let the rogues yonder but show themselves, and give me arrows enow, so will I slay all Gui's garrison ere the moon fail me quite."

  But hereupon Beltane got him to his knees and made shift to stand, and, coming to the tree, leaned there, being faint and much spent.

  "Aha, sweet lord," cried the archer, "a man after my very heart art thou. What wonders have we achieved this night——paladins in sooth we be, all four! By the blessed bones of St. Giles, all Pentavalon shall ring with our doings anon."

  Said Beltane, faintly:

  "Where is my good Roger?"

  "Here, lord," a voice answered from the shade of a bush hard by: "'twas my comrade Walkyn dragged me up from death——even as he did thee."

  "We thought you gone for good, master."

  "Aye!" cried the archer, "so would ye all be dead, methinks, but for me and this my bow."

  "Friends," said Beltane, "'tis by doings such as this that men do learn each other's worth: so shall the bonds betwixt us strengthen day by day, and join us in accord and brotherhood that shall outlast this puny life. So now let us begone and join the others."

  So they turned their backs upon Belsaye town, and keeping to the brush, came at length to where upon the borders of the forest the white friar waited them, with the nine who yet remained of the prisoners; these, beholding Beltane, came hurrying to meet him, and falling upon their knees about him, strove with each other to kiss his hands and feet.

  "Good fellows," said Beltane, "God hath this night brought ye out of death into life——how will ye use your lives hereafter? List now:——even as ye have suffered, others are suffering: as ye have endured the gloom of dungeon and fear of death, so, at this hour, others do the like by reason of misrule and tyranny. Now here stand I, together with Sir Benedict of Bourne who holdeth Thrasfordham Keep, pledged to live henceforth, sword in hand, until these evils are no more——since 'tis only by bitter strife and conflict that evil may be driven from our borders. Thus, Pentavalon needeth men, strong-armed and resolute: if such ye be, march ye this hour to Thrasfordham within Bourne, and say to Sir Benedict that God having given you new life, so now will ye give your lives to Pentavalon, that tyranny may cease and the Duchy be cleansed of evil. Who now among ye will draw sword for freedom and Pentavalon?"

  Then sprang the squat man Osric to his feet, with clenched fist upraised and eyes ablaze 'neath his matted hair.

  "That will I!" he cried. "And I! And I! And I!" cried the rest, grim-faced and eager. "Aye——give us but swords, and one to lead, and we will follow!"

  Quoth Beltane:

  "Go you then to Sir Benedict within Bourne and say to all men that Beltane the Duke hath this night burned down Black Ivo's shameful gibbet, for a sign that he is come at last and is at work, nor will he stay until he die, or Pentavalon be free!"

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