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Beltane The Smith (Chapter60)

2006-08-28 16:40

  Chapter LX. Telleth How They Marched from the Valley of Brand

  Within the camp was prodigious stir, a fanfare of trumpets and hoarse commands, where archers and pikemen, knights and men-at-arms were mustering; but nowhere was hurry or confusion, wherefore Beltane's heart rejoiced and he smiled glad-eyed as he came where, before Sir Benedict and the assembled council, stood Roger and Ulf with fifteen of their twenty men.

  "Walkyn," said Sir Benedict, what time his esquire strapped and buckled him into his bright armour, "where-abouts do they hold their march?"

  "Scarce twenty miles from here due west, lord."

  "Ha, and they come through the forest, ye say?" questioned Sir Brian, "so shall they move more slowly, methinks."

  "Why see you, messire," said Walkyn, "they march by way of Felindre that was once a fair town, and from Felindre is a road that leadeth through the wild unto this valley of Brand."

  "So have we, I judge, 'twixt six and seven hours," quoth Hacon of Trant.

  "Less, Hacon, less!" said Sir Benedict, beginning to stride up and down in his clanking armour, "Sir Rollo ever rideth with busy spur, and he will doubtless push on amain nor spare his men that he may take us unprepared. Put it at five hours, Hacon, mayhap less!"

  "'Tis so I pray!" said Beltane, glancing towards the glowing west, "and in two hours it will be dark, my lords! Walkyn, thy company doth lack for five, meseemeth?" "Aye, master——for five; two fell in Winisfarne where I lay in bonds; other three were slain in the pursuit."

  "Saw Sir Rollo aught of thee?"

  "Nay, lord, we lay well hid."

  "'Tis very well. Are they many?"

  "Of horsemen I counted full three thousand, master."

  "And I, lord," quoth Ulf, "did reckon over two thousand foot."

  "'Tis a fairish company!" said Sir Brian.

  "And I do lack my sword-arm!" sighed Sir Benedict, "but my left hath served me well ere now."

  "And Sir Pertolepe lieth yet in Winisfarne!" said Beltane thoughtfully.

  "Aye," nodded Sir Benedict, "and shall march south to cut off our retreat if haply any of us escape Sir Rollo's onfall."

  "So should we strike camp and march forthright," said Sir Brian.

  "March——aye, but whither?" questioned Sir Hacon. "We are threatened on two fronts and for the rest, we have the trackless wilderness! Whither would'st march, Brian?"

  "South to Belsaye," answered Sir Benedict. "South through the wild until we strike the western road by Thornaby. I with certain others will form a rear-guard and hold Sir Rollo in play what time our main body presses on at speed."

  "Ha!" quoth Sir Hacon, "and what of Red Pertolepe? Truly our case is desperate methinks, old comrade!"

  "Why, 'tis not the first time we have out-faced desperate odds, Hacon!"

  "Aye, verily, Benedict——thy cool head and cunning strategy have saved us from dungeon and death a score of times, but then were we a chosen company, swift at onfall or retreat, well mounted and equipped—— to-night we go hampered with our wounded and these lady nuns. So is our case desperate, Benedict, and needeth desperate remedy——"

  "And that, methinks, I've found, messire!" quoth Beltane, and rising up he looked upon them all, his eye bright with sudden purpose. "Hark ye, my lords! Great and valiant knights do I know ye, one and all——wise in experience of battle and much versed in warlike stratagem beyond my understanding; but this is the wild-wood where only wood-craft shall advantage us. Within these wilds your tactics shall avail nothing nor all your trampling chivalry——here must be foresters that may go silent and unseen amid the leaves, 'neath whose trained feet no twig shall snap, who smite unseen from brush and thicket and being wise in wood-craft thus make the forest their ally. And, lords, I am a forester; all my days the greenwood hath been my home, and in my loneliness I made the trees my friends. So, I pray you, let me with three hundred chosen foresters keep our rear to-night, and this night the forest shall fight for us and Sir Rollo rue the hour he dared adventure him within the green. Messires, how say you?"

  "Why my lord, 'tis very well!" sighed Sir Benedict, glancing down at his wounded arm, "I, for one, do agree right heartily."

  "And I!" nodded Sir Brian.

  "And I also!" quoth Sir Hacon, "though 'tis a far cry to Belsaye and I love not to be pent within walls, and with Red Pertolepe threatening our flank 'tis a very parlous case, methinks."

  "And thou art ever at thy best where danger is, Hacon," said Sir Benedict, "so will I give thee charge of our van-ward!" Now hereupon Sir Hacon's gloom vanished and rising up, he smiled and forthwith did on his great war-helm.

  "Then it is agreed!" said Beltane and beckoned to Roger and Walkyn; quoth he:

  "Good friends, go now and choose three hundred trusty fellows, skilled foresters all; look that each doth bear flint and steel for by yon clouds I judge 'twill be a dark night. Let every fire within the camp be quenched and the ground well cooled with water, that by the feel of it none may know how long we have removed——see you to this, Ulf."

  Now when the mighty three were gone about the business, their fifteen lusty fellows at their heels, Beltane turned and pointed westward, and lo! the sun was set.

  "Messires," said he, "you were wise, methinks, to mount and away ere the night fall. To-night, since the moon is hid, 'twill be very dark amid the trees, therefore let Orson guide you——he is forest-bred and well knoweth the way to Thornaby. Heaven prosper you, for in your valiant keeping is the safety of——of our noble lady Abbess——and her ladies. So mount, my lords, press on with what speed ye may, and God aid us this night each and every——fare ye well!"

  Presently the trumpets sounded and forthwith armour was buckled on, horses saddled, while everywhere was stir and bustle of departure, what time, within his osier hut, my Beltane was busily doing on his armour, and, being in haste, making slow business of it; thrice he essayed to buckle a certain strap and thrice it escaped him, when lo! came a slim white hand to do it for him, and turning, he beheld the lady Abbess. And in her eyes was yet that soft and radiant look, but nought said she until Beltane stood armed from head to heel, until she had girt the great sword about him; then she set her hands upon his shoulders:

  "Beltane," said she soft-voiced, "thou didst yearn for thy mother, so is she come to thee at last, dear son!" So saying, she drew him down into her embrace. "O Beltane, son of mine, long, long have I waited—— aye, bitter, weary years, and oft-times in my sorrow I have dreamed of this hour——the arms about thee are thy mother's arms!"

  Now fell Beltane upon his knees and caught those white and gentle hands and kissed them; quoth he:

  "Mother——O dear my mother, ne'er did I know how deep had been my need of thee until now. And yet, all unknowing, I have yearned for thee; in my youth I did love all sweet and gentle things in thy stead——the trees, the tender flowers, the murmurous brooks——these did I love in place of thee for that mine heart did yearn and hunger for a mother's tender love——" Here needs must she stoop, all soft whispers and tender mother-cries, to kiss him oft, to lay her cheek upon his golden head and murmur over him.

  "And thou wilt love thy mother, Beltane——thou wilt love thy unknown mother——now and always, for that she is thy mother?"

  "I will love her and honour her now and always, for that my mother is a sweet and noble woman!"

  "And thou didst need me, Beltane, in thy lonely childhood thou didst need me, and I——O God pity me——I was far from thee! But, dear my son, because I could not cherish thee within these arms I strove to love and cherish all motherless children for thy dear sake and to grieve for all sorrowing mothers. So builded I the nunnery at Winisfarne and there sought to bring solace and comfort to desolate hearts because my heart was so desolate for thee, my babe, my Beltane. And I have prayed unceasing unto God, and He, in His infinite mercy, hath given thee to my arms again——"

  A trumpet brayed harsh and loud near by, whereat those tender mother-arms drew him closer yet within their sheltering embrace.

  "Sweet son," she sighed, "methinks death is very near each one of us to-night——but I have held thee to my heart, have felt thy kisses and heard thy loving words——now if death come how shall it avail 'gainst such love as ours? Sir Benedict telleth me thou hast chosen the post of danger——'tis so I would have it, dear my son, and thy proud mother's prayers go with thee——God keep thee——O God keep thee, my Beltane——ah, there sounds again the clarion bidding me from thee! Kiss now thy mother farewell, for alas! I must be gone!"

  So presently Beltane brought the Abbess where stood Sir Benedict with an easy-paced jennet for her use and his company formed up in column beyond the camp. Then Beltane lifted the lady Abbess to the saddle and with her hand yet clasped in his, reached the other to Sir Benedict.

  "My lord of Bourne," said he, "dear my friend, to thy care I give this lady Abbess, Duchess of Pentavalon——my well-beloved and noble mother. O Benedict, no prouder son than I in all the world, methinks——nor one so humble! God send we meet again anon, but now——fare ye well!" Saying the which, Beltane caught his mother's hand to his lips, and turning him suddenly about, hasted to Roger and Walkyn and the chosen three hundred. And in a while, the nuns and wounded in their midst, Sir Benedict's steel-clad column moved forward up the slope. First rode Sir Hacon and his knights in the van and last Sir Benedict with his grim men-at-arms to form a rear-ward, while archers and pikemen marched upon their flanks. With ring of steel, with jingle of stirrup and bridle-chain they swung away up the slope and plunging into the gloom of the forest were gone; only Sir Benedict paused to turn in his saddle and lift unwounded arm in salutation ere he too vanished into the shadows of the wild-wood. Awhile stood Beltane before the three hundred, his head bowed as one in meditation until the sound of voices, the ring and clash of their companions' going was died away; then looked he at the cloudy sky already deepening to evening, and round about upon the encircling woods.

  "The wind is from the south, methinks!" said he.

  "Aye, master," nodded Walkyn.

  "South-westerly!" quoth Roger.

  Now came Beltane and looked upon his company, tall, lusty fellows they, whose bold, sun-tanned faces proclaimed them free men of the forest-lands; and beholding their hardy look Beltane's eye brightened.

  "Comrades," quoth he, "we be foresters all, and the wild-wood our home and playground. But yonder from the west do march full five thousand of Duke Ivo's knights and soldiery-men, they, of courts, of town and city, so now will we teach them 'tis an ill thing to adventure them 'gainst trained foresters within the green. List now——and mark me well, for, an our plan do fail, there shall few of us live to see to-morrow's sun."

  Then Beltane spake them plain and to the point, insomuch that when all was said, these hardy foresters stood mute awhile, desperate fellows though they were; then laughed they fierce and loud, and flourished sword and bow-stave and so fell to clamourous talk.

  Now did Beltane divide the three hundred into five companies of sixty; over the first company he set Walkyn, over the second, Roger, over the third, Ulf, over the fourth Jenkyn o' the Ford. Then spake he on this wise:

  "Walkyn, take now these sixty good fellows and march you north-westerly yonder across the valley; let your men lie well hid a bow-shot within the forest, but do you stay upon the verge of the forest and watch for the coming of our foes. And when they be come, 'tis sure they will plant outposts and sentinels within the green, so be ye wary to smite outpost and sentinel suddenly and that none may hear within the camp nor take alarm; when 'tis done, cry you thrice like unto a curlew that we may know. Are all things understood?"

  "Aye, lord!" they cried, one and all.

  "Why then, be ye cautious each and every, for, an our foes do take alarm, so shall it be our death. March, Walkyn——away!"

  Forthwith Walkyn lifted his axe and strode off up the slope until he and his sixty men had vanished quite into the glooming woods to the north-west.

  "Jenkyn, didst hear my commands to Walkyn, so shalt thou do also——your post doth lie to the east, yonder."

  "Aye, master, and look'ee now——my signal shall be three owl-hoots, master, look'ee!"

  So saying, Jenkyn turned, his sixty at his heels, and swung away until they were lost to sight in the woods to the east.

  "Ulf the Strong, thy post doth lie south-westerly, and Roger's south-easterly; thus I, lying south, shall have ye on my left and right: go get ye to your places, watch ye, and wait in patience for the signals, and when time for action cometh, be swift and sure."

  Away marched Roger and Ulf with their companies, and presently were gone, and there remained within the little valley only Beltane and his sixty men. Awhile he stood to look to the north and east and west but nought saw he save the dense gloom of forest growing dark and ever darker with evening. Then of a sudden turned he, and summoning his company, strode away into the forest to the south.

  Thus, as night fell, the valley of Brand lay deserted quite, and no sound brake the pervading quiet save the wind that moaned feebly through those dark and solitary woods wherein Death lay hid, so very silent——so very patient, but Death in grim and awful shape.

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