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Beltane The Smith (Chapter18)

2006-08-28 16:29

  Chapter XVIII. How Beltane Met Sir Gilles of Brandonmere

  It was a night of wind with a flying cloud-wrack overhead whence peeped the pallid moon betimes; a night of gloom and mystery. The woods about them were full of sounds and stealthy rustlings as they strode along the forest road, and so came to that dark defile where the fight had raged. Of what they saw and heard within that place of slaughter it bodeth not to tell, nor of those figures, wild and fierce, that crouched to strip the jumbled slain, or snarled and quarrelled over the work.

  "Here is good plunder of weapons and armour," quoth Roger, "'tis seldom the outlaws come by such. Hark to that cry! There died some wounded wight under his plunderer's knife!"

  "God rest his soul, Amen!" sighed Beltane. "Come, let us hence!" And forthwith he began to run. So in a little while they passed through that place of horror unseen, and so came out again upon the forest road. Ever and anon the moon sent down a feeble ray 'neath which the road lay a-glimmer 'twixt the gloom of the woods, whence came groans and wailings with every wind-gust, whereat Roger quailed, and fumbling at his sword-hilt, pressed closer upon Beltane.

  "Master," he whispered, "'tis an evil night——methinks the souls of the dead be abroad——hark to those sounds! Master, I like it not!——"

  "'Tis but the wind, Roger."

  "'Tis like the cries of women wailing o'er their dead, I have heard such sounds ere now; I would my belt bore fewer notches, master!"

  "They shall be fewer ere dawn, Roger, I pray God!"

  "Master——an I am slain this night, think ye I must burn in hell-fire—— remembering these same notches?"

  "Nay, for surely God is a very merciful God, Roger. Hark!" quoth Beltane, and stopped of a sudden, and thus above the wailing of the wind they presently heard a feeble groaning hard by, and following the sound, beheld a blotch upon the glimmering road. Now as they drew near the moon peeped out, and showed a man huddled 'neath a bush beside the way, whose face gleamed pale amid the shadows.

  "Ha!" cried Roger, stooping, "thou'rt of Brandonmere?"

  "Aye——give me water——I was squire to Sir Gilles——God's love——give me—— water!"

  Then Beltane knelt, and saw this was but a youth, and bidding Roger bring water from a brook near by, took the heavy head upon his knee.

  "Messire," said he, "I have heard that Sir Gilles beareth women captive."

  "There is——but one, and she——a nun. But nuns are——holy women——so I withstood my lord in his——desire. And my lord——stabbed me——so must I die——of a nun, see you!——Ah——give me——water!"

  "Where doth he ride this night, messire?"

  "His men——few——very weary——Sir Pertolepe's——men-at-arms——caught us i' the sunken road——Sir Gilles——to Thornaby Mill——beside the ford——O God ——water!"

  "'Tis here!" quoth Roger, kneeling beside him; then Beltane set the water to the squire's eager lips, but, striving to drink he choked, and choking, fell back——dead.

  So in a while they arose from their knees and went their way, while the dead youth lay with wide eyes that seemed to out-stare the pallid moon.

  Now as they went on very silently together, of a sudden Black Roger caught Beltane by the arm and pointed into the gloom, where, far before them, small lights winked redly through the murk.

  "Yon should be Sir Gilles' watch-fires!" he whispered.

  "Aye," nodded Beltane, "so I think."

  "Master——what would ye now?"

  "Pray, Roger——I pray God Sir Gilles' men be few, and that they be sound sleepers. Howbeit we will go right warily none the less." So saying, Beltane turned aside from the road and led on through underbrush and thicket, through a gloom of leaves where a boisterous wind rioted; where great branches, dim seen, swayed groaning in every fierce gust, and all was piping stir and tumult. Twigs whipped them viciously, thorns dragged at them, while the wind went by them, moaning, in the dark. But, ever and anon as they stumbled forward, guiding themselves by instinct, the moon sent forth a pale beam from the whirling cloud-wrack ——a phantom light that stole upon them, sudden and ghost-like, and, like a ghost, was gone again; what time Black Roger, following hard on Beltane's heel, crossed himself and muttered fragments of forgotten prayers. Thus at last they came to the river, that flowed before them vague in the half-light, whose sullen waters gurgled evilly among the willows that drooped upon the marge.

  "Master," said Roger, wiping sweat from his face, "there's evil hereabouts——I've had a warning——a dead man touched me as we came through the brush yonder."

  "Nay Roger, 'twas but some branch——"

  "Lord, when knew ye a branch with——fingers——slimy and cold——upon my cheek here. 'Twas a warning, master——he dead hand! One of us twain goeth to his death this night!"

  "Let not thine heart fail therefor, good Roger: man, being dead, liveth forever——"

  "Nay, but——the dead hand, master——on my cheek, here——Ah!——" Crying thus, Black Roger sprang and caught Beltane's arm, gripping it fast, for on the air, borne upon the wind, yet louder than the wind, a shrill sound rang and echoed, the which, passing, seemed to have stricken the night to silence. Then Beltane brake from Roger's clasp, and ran on beside the river, until, beyond the sullen waters the watch-fires flared before him, in whose red light the mill loomed up rugged and grim, its massy walls scarred and cracked, its great wheel fallen to ruin.

  Now above the wheel was a gap in the masonry, an opening roughly square that had been a window, mayhap, whence shone a warm, mellow light.

  "Master," panted Roger, "a God's name——what was it?"

  "A woman screamed!" quoth Beltane, staring upon the lighted window. As he spake a man laughed sleepily beside the nearest watch-fire, scarce a bow-shot away.

  "Look'ee, master," whispered Roger, "we may not cross by the ford because of the watch-fires——'tis a fair light to shoot by, and the river is very deep hereabouts."

  "Yet must we swim it, Roger."

  "Lord, the water is in flood, and our armour heavy!"

  "Then must we leave our armour behind," quoth Beltane, and throwing back his hood of mail, he began to unbuckle his broad belt, but of a sudden, stayed to point with outstretched finger. Then, looking whither he pointed, Roger saw a tree whose hole leaned far out across the stream, so that one far-flung branch well nigh scraped the broken roof of the mill.

  "Yon lieth our way, Roger——come!" said he.

  Being come to that side of the tree afar from the watch-fires, Beltane swung himself lightly and began to climb, but hearing a groan, paused.

  "Roger," he whispered, "what ails thee, Roger?"

  "Alas!" groaned Roger, "'tis my wound irketh me; O master, I cannot follow thee this way!"

  "Nay, let me aid thee," whispered Beltane, reaching down to him. But, despite Beltane's strong hand, desperately though he tried, Black Roger fell back, groaning.

  "Master," he pleaded, "O master, adventure not alone lest ill befall thee." "Aye, but I must, Roger."

  Then Roger leaned his head upon his sound arm, and wept full bitterly.

  "O master,——O sweet lord," quoth he, "bethink thee now of the warning—— the dead hand——"

  "Yet must I go, my Roger."

  "Then——an they kill thee, lord, so shall they kill me also; thy man am I, to live or die with thee——"

  "Nay, Roger, sworn art thou to redeem Pentavalon: so now, in her name do I charge thee, haste to Sir Jocelyn, an he yet live——seek Giles and Walkyn and whoso else ye may, and bring them hither at speed. If ye find me not here, then hie ye all to Thrasfordham, for by to-morrow Sir Pertolepe and Gui of Allerdale will have raised the country against us. Go now, do even as I command, and may God keep thee, my faithful Roger." Then Beltane began to climb, but being come where the great branch forked, looked down to see Roger's upturned face, pale amid the gloom below.

  "The holy angels have thee in their keeping, lord and master!" he sighed, and so turned with head a-droop and was gone. And now Beltane began to clamber out across the swirl of dark waters, while the tough bough swung and swayed beneath him in every gust of wind, wherefore his going was difficult and slow, and he took heed only to his hands and feet.

  But, all at once, he heard a bitter, broken cry, and glancing up, it chanced that from his lofty perch he could look within the lighted window, and thus beheld a nun, whose slender, black-robed body writhed and twisted in the clasp of two leathern-clad arms; vicious arms, that bent her back and back across the rough table, until into Beltane's vision came the leathern-clad form of him that held her: a black-haired, shapely man, whose glowing eyes and eager mouth stooped ever nearer above the nun's white loveliness.

  And thus it was that my Beltane first looked upon Sir Gilles of Brandonmere. He had laid sword and armour by, but as the nun yet struggled in his arms, her white hand came upon and drew the dagger at his girdle, yet, ere she could strike, Sir Gilles had seen and leapt back out of reach.

  Then Beltane clambered on at speed, and with every yard their voices grew more loud——hers proud and disdainful, his low and soft, pierced, now and then, by an evil, lazy laugh.

  Now ever as Beltane went, the branch swayed more dizzily, bending more and more beneath his weight, and ever as he drew nearer, between the wind-gusts came snatches of their talk.

  "Be thou nun, or duchess, or strolling light-o'-love, art woman——by Venus! fair and passing fair!——captive art thou——aye, mine, I tell thee——yield thee——hast struggled long enough to save thy modesty——yield thee now, else will I throw thee to my lusty rogues without——make them sport——"

  "O——beast——I fear thee not! For thy men——how shall they harm me, seeing I shall be dead!"

  Down swayed the branch, low and lower, until Beltane's mailed foot, a-swing in mid air, found something beneath——slipped away——found it again, and thereupon, loosing the branch, down he came upon the ruined mill-wheel. Then, standing upon the wheel, his groping fingers found divers cracks in the worn masonry——moreover the ivy was thick; so, clinging with fingers and toes, up he went, higher and higher until his steel-mittened hands gripped the sill: thus, slowly and cautiously he drew himself up until his golden head rose above the sill and he could peer into the room.

  Sir Gilles half stood, half sat upon the table, while the nun faced him, cold and proud and disdainful, the gleaming dagger clutched to her quick-heaving bosom; and Sir Gilles, assured and confident, laughed softly as he leaned so lazily, yet ever he watched that gleaming steel, waiting his chance to spring. Now as they stood fronting each other thus, the nun stirred beneath his close regard, turned her head, and on the instant Beltane knew that she had seen him; knew by the sudden tremor of her lips, the widening of her dark eyes, wherein he seemed to read wonder, joy, and a passionate entreaty; then, even as he thrilled to meet that look, down swept languorous lid and curling lash, and, sighing, she laid the dagger on the table. For a moment Sir Gilles stared in blank amaze, then laughed his lazy laugh.

  "Ah, proud beauty! 'Tis surrender then?" said he, and speaking, reached for the dagger; but even as he did so, the nun seized the heavy table and thrust with sudden strength, so that Sir Gilles, taken unawares, staggered back and back——to the window. Then Beltane reached up into the room and, from behind, caught Sir Gilles by the throat and gripped him with iron fingers, strangling all outcry, and so, drawing himself over the sill and into the room, dragged Sir Gilles to the floor and choked him there until his eyes rolled upward and he lay like one dead. Then swiftly Beltane took off the belt of Sir Gilles and buckled it tight about the wrists and arms of Sir Gilles, and, rending strips from Sir Gilles' mantle that lay near, therewith fast gagged and bound him. Now it chanced that as he knelt thus, he espied the dagger where it lay, and taking it up, glanced from it to Sir Gilles lying motionless in his bonds. But as he hesitated, there came a sudden knocking on the door and a voice spake without:

  "My lord! my lord——'tis I——'tis Lupo. My lord, our men be few and wearied, as ye know. Must I set a guard beyond the ford, think you, or will the four watch-fires suffice?"

  Now, glancing up, scarce breathing, Beltane beheld the nun who crouched down against the wall, her staring eyes turned towards the door, her cheeks ashen, her lips a-quiver with deadly fear. Yet, even so, she spake. But that 'twas she indeed who uttered the words he scarce could credit, so soft and sweetly slumberous was her voice:

  "My lord is a-weary and sleepeth. Hush you, and come again with the dawn." Now was a moment's breathless silence and thereafter an evil chuckle, and, so chuckling, the man Lupo went down the rickety stair without.

  And when his step was died away, Beltane drew a deep breath, and together they arose, and so, speaking no word, they looked upon each other across the prostrate body of Sir Gilles of Brandonmere.

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