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Beltane The Smith (Chapter21)

2006-08-28 16:30

  Chapter XXI. Of the Tale of Godric the Huntsman

  Thus came white-haired old Godric the huntsman, lusty despite his years, bright-eyed and garrulous with joy, to fall upon his knees before his lady and to kiss those outstretched hands.

  "Godric!" she cried, "'tis my good Godric!" and laughed, though with lips a-tremble.

  "O sweet mistress," quoth he, "now glory be to the kind Saint Martin that I do see thee again hale and well. These many days have I followed hard upon thy track, grieving for thee——"

  "Yet here am I in sooth, my Godric, and joyful, see you!"

  "Ah, dear my lady, thy wilfulness hath e'en now brought thee into dire perils and dangers. O rueful day!"

  "Nay, Godric, my wilfulness hath brought me unto my heart's desire. O most joyful day!"

  "Lady, I do tell thee here is an evil place for thee: they do say the devil is abroad and goeth up and down and to and fro begirt in mail, lady, doing such deeds as no man ever did. Pentavalon is rife with war and rumours of war, everywhere is whispered talk of war——death shall be busy within this evil Duchy ere long——aye, and even in Mortain, perchance——nay, hearken! Scarce was thy flight discovered when there came messengers hot-foot to thy guest, Duke Ivo, having word from Sir Gui of Allerdale that one hath arisen calling himself son of Beltane the Strong that once was Duke of Pentavalon, as ye know. And this is a mighty man, who hath, within the week, broke ope my lord Duke Ivo's dungeon of Belsaye, slain divers of my lord Duke's good and loyal subjects, and burnt down the great gallows of my lord Duke."

  "Ah!" sighed the Duchess, her brows knit thoughtfully, "and what said Duke Ivo to this, Godric?"

  "Smiled, lady, and begged instant speech with thee; and, when thou wert not to be found, then Duke Ivo smiled upon thy trembling counsellors. 'My lords,' said he, 'I ride south to hang certain rogues and fools. But, when I have seen them dead, I shall come hither again to woo and wed the Duchess Helen. See to it that ye find her, therefore, else will I myself seek her through the length and breadth of Mortain until I find her——aye, with lighted torches, if need be!"

  "And dare he threaten us?" cried the Duchess, white hands clenched.

  "Aye, doth he, lady," nodded Godric, garrulous and grim. "Thereafter away he rode, he and all his company, and after them, I grieving and alone, to seek thee, dear my lady. And behold, I have found thee, the good Saint Martin be praised!"

  "Verily thou hast found me, Godric!" sighed the Duchess, looking upon Beltane very wistfully.

  "So now will I guide thee back to thine own fair duchy, gentle mistress, for I do tell thee here in Pentavalon shall be woeful days anon. Even as I came, with these two eyes did I behold the black ruin of Duke Ivo's goodly gallows——a woeful sight! And divers tales have I heard of this gallows-burner, how that he did, unaided and alone, seize and bear off upon his shoulders one Sir Pertolepe——called the 'Red'—— Lord Warden of the Marches. So hath Duke Ivo put a price upon his head and decreed that he shall forthright be hunted down, and thereto hath sent runners far and near with his exact description, the which have I heard and can most faithfully repeat an you so desire?"

  "Aye me!" sighed the Duchess, a little wearily.

  "As thus, lady. Item: calleth himself Beltane, son of Beltane, Duke of Pentavalon that was: Item——"

  "Beltane!" said the Duchess, and started.

  "Item: he is very tall and marvellous strong. Item: hath yellow hair——"

  "Yellow hair!" said the Duchess, and turned to look upon Beltane.

  "Item: goeth in chain-mail, and about his middle a broad belt of gold and silver. Item: beareth a great sword whereon is graven the legend—— lady, dost thou attend?——Ha! Saint Martin aid us!" cried Godric, for now, following the Duchess's glance, he beheld Beltane leaning upon his long sword. Then, while Godric stared open-mouthed, the Duchess looked on Beltane, a new light in her eyes and with hands tight clasped, while Beltane looking upon her sighed amain.

  "Helen!" he cried, "O Helen, 'tis true that I who am Beltane the Smith, am likewise son of Beltane, Duke of Pentavalon. Behold, the sword I bear is the sword of the Duke my father, nor must I lay it by until wrong is vanquished and oppression driven hence. Thus, see you, I may not stay to love, within my life it must not be——yet-a-while," and speaking, Beltane groaned and bowed his head. So came she to him and looked on him with eyes of yearning, yet touched him not.

  "Dear my lord," said she, tender-voiced, "thou should'st make a noble duke, methinks: and yet alas! needs must I love my gentle Beltane the Smith. And I did love him so! Thou art a mighty man-at-arms, my lord, and terrible in war, meseemeth, O——methinks thou wilt make a goodly duke indeed!"

  "Mayhap," he answered heavily, "mayhap, an God spare me long enough. But now must I leave thee——"

  "Aye, but wherefore?"

  "Thou hast heard——I am a hunted man with a price upon my head, by my side goeth death——"

  "So will I go also," she murmured, "ever and always beside thee."

  "Thou? Ah, not so, beloved. I must tread me this path alone. As for thee——haste, haste and get thee to Mortain and safety, and there wait for me——pray for me, O my love!"

  "Beltane——Beltane," she sighed, "dost love me indeed——and yet would send me from thee?"

  "Aye," he groaned, "needs must it be so."

  "Beltane," she murmured, "Beltane, thou shalt be Duke within the week, despite Black Ivo."

  "Duke——I? Of Pentavalon?"

  "Of Mortain!" she whispered, "an thou wilt wed me, my lord."

  "Nay," stammered Beltane, "nay, outcast am I, my friends very few——to wed thee thus, therefore, were shame——"

  "To wed me thus," said she, "should be my joy, and thy joy, and Pentavalon's salvation, mayhap. O, see you not, Beltane? Thou should'st be henceforth my lord, my knight-at-arms to lead my powers 'gainst Duke Ivo, teaching Mortain to cringe no more to a usurper——to free Pentavalon from her sorrows——ah, see you not, Beltane?"

  "Helen!" he murmured, "O Helen, poor am I——a beggar——"

  "Beltane," she whispered, "an thou wed this lonely maid within the forest, then will I be beggar with thee; but, an thou take to wife the Duchess, then shalt thou be my Duke, lord of me and of Mortain, with her ten thousand lances in thy train."

  "Thou would'st give me so much," he sighed at last, "so much, my Helen?"

  "Nay," said she, with red lips curved and tender, "for this wide world to me is naught without thee, Beltane. And I do need thy mighty arm——to shelter me, Beltane, since Ivo hath defied me, threatening Mortain with fire and sword. So when he cometh, instead of a woman he shall find a man to withstand him, whose sword is swift and strong to smite and who doeth such deeds as no man ever did; so shalt thou be my love, my lord, my champion. Wilt not refuse me the shelter of thy strength, Beltane?"

  Now of a sudden Beltane lifted his head and seized her in his arms and held her close.

  Quoth he:

  "So be it, my Helen. To wife will I take thee so soon as may be, to hold thee ever in love and reverence, to serve thee ever, to live for thee and for thee to die an needs be."

  But now strode Godric forward, with hands outstretched in eager protest.

  "Lady," he cried, "O dear lady bethink thee, now, bethink thee, thy choice is a perilous choice——"

  "Yet is it my choice, Godric."

  "But, O, dear my mistress——"

  "O my faithful Godric, look now upon lord Beltane, my well-beloved who shall be Duke of Mortain ere the moon change. Salute thy lord, Godric!"

  So, perforce, came old Godric to fall upon his knee before Beltane, to take his hand and swear the oath of fealty.

  "Lord Beltane," said he, "son art thou of a mighty Duke; God send Mortain find in thee such another!"

  "Amen!" said Beltane.

  Thereafter Godric rose and pointed up to the zenith.

  "Behold, my lady," said he, "it groweth to noon and there is danger hereabouts——more danger e'en than I had dreamed. Let us therefore haste over into Mortain——to thy Manor of Blaen."

  "But Godric, see you not my lord is faint of his wound, and Blaen is far, methinks."

  "Not so, lady, 'tis scarce six hours' journey to the north, nay, I do know of lonely bridle-paths that shall bring us sooner."

  "To Blaen?" mused the Duchess. "Winfrida is there——and yet——and yet—— aye, let us to Blaen, there will I nurse thee to thy strength again, my Beltane, and there shalt thou——wed with me——an it be so thy pleasure in sooth, my lord."

  So, in a while, they set off through the forest, first Godric to guide them, then Beltane astride the great war-horse with the Duchess before him, she very anxious for his wound, yet speaking oft of the future with flushing cheek and eyes a-dream.

  Thus, as the sun declined, they came forth of the forest-lands and beheld that broad sweep of hill and dale that was Mortain.

  "O loved Mortain!" she sighed, "O dear Mortain! 'Tis here there lived a smith, my Beltane, who sang of and loved but birds and trees and flowers. 'Tis here there lived a Duchess, proud and most disdainful, who yearned for love yet knew naught of it until——upon a day, these twain looked within each other's eyes——O day most blissful! Ah, sweet Mortain!"

  By pleasant ways they went, past smiling fields and sleepy villages bowered 'mid the green. They rode ever by sequestered paths, skirting shady wood and coppice where birds sang soft a drowsy lullaby, wooing the world to forgetfulness and rest; fording prattling brook and whispering stream whose placid waters flamed to the glory of sunset. And thus they came at last to Blaen, a cloistered hamlet beyond which rose the grey walls of the ancient manor itself.

  Now as they drew near, being yet sheltered 'mid the green, old Godric halted in his stride and pointed to the highway that ran in the vale below.

  "Lady," quoth he, "mine eyes be old, and yet methinks I should know yon horseman that rideth unhelmed so close beside the lady Winfrida——that breadth of shoulder! that length of limb! Lady, how think ye?"

  "'Tis Duke Ivo!" she whispered.

  "Aye," nodded Godric, "armed, see you, yet with but two esquires——"

  "And with Winfrida!" said the Duchess, frowning. "Can it indeed be as I have thought, betimes? And Blaen is a very solitary place!"

  "See!" whispered Godric, "the Duke leaveth her. Behold him kiss her hand! Ha, he summoneth his esquires. Hey now, see how they ride——sharp spur and loose bridle, 'tis ever Ivo's way!"

  Now when the Duke and his esquires were vanished in the dusk and the sound of their galloping died away, the Duchess sprang lightly to the sward and bidding them wait until she summoned them, hasted on before.

  Thus, in a while, as Winfrida the Fair paced slowly along upon her ambling palfrey, her blue eyes a-dream, she was suddenly aware of a rustling near by and, glancing swiftly up, beheld the Duchess Helen standing before her, tall and proud, her black brows wrinkled faintly, her eyes stern and challenging.

  "Lady——dear my lady!" stammered Winfrida——"is it thou indeed——"

  "Since when," quoth the Duchess, soft-voiced yet menacing, "since when doth Winfrida hold sly meeting with one that is enemy to me and to Mortain?"

  "Enemy?——nay, whom mean you——indeed I——O Helen, in sooth 'twas but by chance——"

  "Is this treason, my lady Winfrida, or only foolish amourette?"

  "Sweet lady——'twas but chance——an you mean Duke Ivo——he came——I saw——"

  "My lady Winfrida, I pray you go before, we will speak of this anon. Come, Godric!" she called.

  Then the lady Winfrida, her beauteous head a-droop, rode on before, sighing deep and oft yet nothing speaking, with the Duchess proud and stern beside her while Beltane and Godric followed after.

  And so it was they came to the Manor of Blaen.

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