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Beltane The Smith (Chapter57)

2006-08-28 16:39

  Chapter LVII. Telleth of the Onfall at Brand

  By wild and lonely ways Ulf led them, through mazy thicket, o'er murmurous rill, through fragrant bracken that, sweeping to their saddle-girths, whispered as they passed; now rode they by darkling wood, now crossed they open heath; all unerring rode Ulf the Strong, now wheeling sharp and sudden to skirt treacherous marsh or swamp, now plunging into the gloom of desolate woods, on and on past lonely pools where doleful curlews piped, nor faltered he nor stayed until, as the sun grew low, they climbed a sloping upland crowned by mighty trees and thick with underbrush; here Ulf checked his horse and lifted long arm in warning, whereon the company halted, hard-breathing, yet very orderly and silent.

  Forthwith down lighted Beltane with Sir Benedict and Ulf who pointed before them with his finger.

  "Lords," said he, "beyond yon trees is a valley and in the valley the tower of Brand, the which you may see from the brush yonder——aha! and hear also, methinks!"

  And indeed the air was full of a strange droning sound that rose and fell unceasing, a drowsy, ominous hum.

  "Ah, Benedict," said Beltane, frowning a little, "I like not that sound! Summon we our wisest heads, for here is matter for thought and sudden action methinks!"

  Hereupon Sir Benedict beckoned to his five chiefest knights and they together followed Ulf's broad back up the slope until they were come within the little wood; and ever as they advanced the strange hum grew louder, hoarser——a distant roar, pierced, ever and anon, by sharper sound, a confused din that was the voice of desperate conflict. Presently Ulf brought them to the edge of the little wood and, parting twig and leaf, they looked forth and down. And what they saw was this:

  A little valley, wondrous green but very desolate-seeming, for here and there stood ruined walls and charred timbers that once had been fair dwellings; and in the midst of this small and ruined hamlet, a mighty tower uprose, hoary and weather-beaten, yet stark and grim against the sunset. All about this tower a great camp lay, set well out of bow-shot, and 'twixt camp and tower were many men whose armour flashed, rank on rank, and archers who, kneeling behind mantlets, shot amain at battlement and loophole. Against the tower were two great ladders, roughly fashioned and a-swarm with men; but ever as they strove to reach the battlement a mighty axe whirled and swung and a long sword flashed, and ever as they fell, so fell one of the besiegers.

  "There stand Walkyn and Tall Orson!" quoth Ulf, biting his nails. "Ha!—— they be dour fighters——would I stood with them!"

  "We come in due season, methinks!" said Sir Benedict, stroking his square chin, "what is your counsel, my lords?"

  Quoth young Sir John of Griswold:

  "Let us to horse and sally out on them, the hill is with us and we shall——"

  "Slay and be slain!" quoth Sir Benedict.

  "Verily!" nodded grim Sir Bertrand, "dost speak like a very youth, John!"

  "Here, methinks," said Sir Benedict, "is work for pike and bow-string. First break we their charge, then down on them in flank with shock and might of all our lances."

  "Ha! 'tis well be-thought, Benedict!" growled old Hubert of Erdington, "so let me march with the pikes."

  "Art silent, lord Beltane," quoth Sir Hacon, "dost agree?"

  "Aye, truly," answered Beltane, rising, "but let our pikes march in V formation, our mightiest men at the point of the V, and with archers behind. Then, ere the foe do engage, let the V become an L, so shall we oppose them two faces. Now, when Sir Pertolepe's chivalry charge, let Sir Benedict with two hundred knights and men-at-arms spur in upon their flank, driving them confused upon their main battle, what time I, yet hid within the green, will sound my rallying note that Walkyn knoweth of old, whereat he shall sally out upon their further flank. Then will I, with my hundred horse, charge down upon their rear, so should we have them, methinks? How say you, my lords?"

  "Truly," quoth Sir Bertrand, closing his vizor, "thy father liveth again in thee, methinks!"

  Forthwith, pikemen and archers fell into array with Cnut at their head, while behind the spreading ranks of pikes Prat and his archers were ranged, bows strung and quivers slung before; and presently, at Beltane's word, they swung forth of the sheltering green, fierce-eyed, grim-lipped, bascinet and pike-head a-twinkle. Away they swung down the slope, a stalwart company swift-treading and light, and in their midst old Hubert of Erdington in his heavy armour, whose long sword flashed as he flourished his farewell.

  With rhythmic step and swing of broad mailed shoulders they marched until they were come down into the valley. And now, as they advanced swift and steady, rose shouts from besieged and besiegers; Sir Pertolepe's trumpets brayed defiance and alarm, and of a sudden, forth of his camp mailed horsemen rode rank upon rank, pennons a-flutter and armour flashing in the sunset glare. But, as they mustered to the charge, as shields flashed and lances sank, Sir Benedict's pikemen wheeled, their ranks swung wide, and lo! the V was become an L. Now from this L bows twanged and arrows flew amain above the kneeling pikemen, what time Sir Pertolepe's trumpets blared the charge, and down upon those slender ranks his heavy-armed chivalry thundered; horses reared and fell, screaming, beneath the whistling arrow-shower, but on swept the charge; those thin ranks bent and swayed 'neath the shock as lance crossed pike, but these pike-butts rested on firm ground and upon their deadly points, horses, smitten low, reared transfixed, and above these rocking pikes steel flashed and flickered where the stout archers plied their heavy broadswords, while, loud above the din, Sir Hubert's voice boomed hoarse encouragement what time he thrust and smote above the kneeling pikemen.

  Now out from the green Sir Benedict paced astride his great black charger, and behind him his two hundred steel-girt knights and men-at-arms, their vizors closed, their shields slung before, the points of their long and ponderous lances agleam high in air. Then turned Sir Benedict and looked on their grimly ranks, glad-eyed:

  "O sirs," quoth he, "who would not be a man to fight in such just cause!"

  So saying, he smiled his wry and twisted smile and closed his vizor: then, with shield addressed and feet thrust far within the stirrups he lightly feutred his deadly lance; and behold! down swept every lance behind him as, leaning low behind his shield, he shouted right joyously:

  "Come ye, messires——lay on this day for Pentavalon!"

  Forward bounded the great horses a-down the slope——away, away, gathering speed with every stride——away, away, across the level with flying rein and busy spur; and now a loud shouting and dire amaze among Sir Pertolepe's battle with desperate wheeling of ranks and spurring of rearing horses, while Sir Benedict's riders swept down on them, grim and voiceless, fast and faster. Came a roaring crash beneath whose dire shock Sir Pertolepe's ranks were riven and rent asunder, and over and through their red confusion Sir Benedict rode in thunderous, resistless might, straight for where, above their mid-most, close-set ranks, fluttered and flew Sir Pertolepe's Raven banner. Now, in hot haste, Sir Pertolepe launched another charge to check that furious onset, what time he reformed and strengthened his main battle; but, with speed unchecked, Sir Benedict's mighty ranks met them in full career——broke them, flung them reeling back on Sir Pertolepe's staggering van and all was wild disorder, above which roaring tumult the Raven banner reeled and swayed and the fray waxed ever fiercer.

  Now ran Beltane where stood Roger to hold his horse, with Ulf who leaned upon a goodly axe and young Sir John of Griswold, who clenched and wrung his mailed hands and bit upon his boyish lip and stamped in his impatience.

  "My lord," he cried, "my lord, suffer us to charge——ah! see——our good Sir Benedict will be surrounded——cut off——"

  "Nay, methinks he is too wise in war, he fighteth ever with calm head, Sir John."

  "But, messire, do but see——his charge is checked——see——see, he yieldeth ground——he giveth back!"

  "Aye, verily!" quoth Beltane, springing to saddle, "but behold how he orders his line! O lovely knight! O wise Benedict! See you not his wisdom now, Sir John? In his retreat he draweth Sir Pertolepe's main battle athwart our line of charge, their flank exposed and open——to horse, Sir John, to horse! Yet stir not until I give the word." Forthwith sprang Sir John to saddle and Roger and Ulf also, what time Beltane sat, his gaze upon the conflict, his bugle-horn in his hand; of a sudden he clapped it to lip and sounded the old fierce rallying note. High and shrill and loud it rang above the roar of battle, and lo! distant and far, like an answer to the call, from the grim and battered tower of Brand a mighty shout went up——"Arise! Arise!——Pentavalon!"

  "Oho!" cried Roger, sitting close on Beltane's left, "list ye to that, now! And see——ha! there cometh our long-legged Walkyn, first of them all! See how they order their pikes——O master, they be sweet and doughty fellows! See how Jenkyn's archers shoot——each man to the ear!"

  Awhile sat Beltane watching, wide-eyed, while Sir Benedict, fighting sword in hand, fell back and back before the furious onset of Sir Pertolepe's main battle until he had drawn the fight mid-way. Then, quick-breathing, my Beltane closed his vizor.

  "Now!" cried he, "now, good comrades all, God willing, we have them. Let each man choose his foe and smite this day for Liberty and Justice!"

  So saying, he levelled his lance, and a hundred lances sank behind him. Spurs struck deep, horses reared, plunged, and sped away. Before their galloping line rode Sir John of Griswold with Roger and Ulf: and before these, Beltane.

  He felt the wind a-whistle through the eye-vents of his casque, heard the muffled thunder of the galloping hoofs behind mingled with the growing din of battle; heard a shout——a roar of anger and dismay, saw a confusion of rearing horses as Sir Pertolepe swung about to meet this new attack, steadied his aim, and with his hundred lances thundering close behind, drove in upon those bristling ranks to meet them shield to shield with desperate shock of onset——felt his tough lance go home with jarring crash——saw horses that reared high and were gone, lost beneath the trampling fray, and found his lance shivered to the very grip. Out flashed his sword, for all about him was a staggering press of horses that neighed and screamed, and men who smote, shouting, and were smitten; unseen blows battered him while he thrust and hewed, and wondered to see his long blade so dimmed and bloody. And ever as he fought, through the narrow vent of his casque he caught small and sudden visions of this close-locked, desperate fray; of Ulf standing in his stirrups to ply his whirling axe whose mighty, crashing blows no armour might withstand; of grim Roger, scowling and fierce, wielding ponderous broad-sword; of young Sir John of Griswold, reeling in his saddle, his helpless arms wide-flung.

  So cut they bloody path through Pertolepe's deep array, on and forward with darting point and deep-biting edge, unheeding wounds or shock of blows, until Beltane beheld the press yield, thin out, and melt away, thereupon shouted he hoarse and loud, rode down a knight who sought to bar his way, unhorsed a second, and wheeling his snorting charger, wondered at the seeming quiet; then lifting his vizor, looked about him. And lo! wheresoever his glance fell were men that crawled groaning, or lay very mute and still amid a huddle of fallen horses, and, beyond these again, were other men, a-horse and a-foot, that galloped and ran amain for the shelter of the green. Sir Pertolepe's array was scattered up and down the valley——the battle was lost and won.

  Now while he yet sat thus, dazed by the shock of blows and breathing deep of the sweet, cool air, he beheld one rise up from where the battle-wrack lay thickest, an awful figure that limped towards him, holding aloft the broken shaft of an axe.

  "Aha, lord Beltane!" cried Ulf, wiping sweat and blood from him, "there be no more——left to smite, see you. The which——is well, for weapon—— have I none. This axe was the third this day——broken, see you! Alas! there is no weapon I may use. Saw you Roger, lord, that is my comrade?"

  "Nay, good Ulf——ha, what of him?"

  "His horse was slain, lord. So fought he afoot, since when I saw him not."

  "And where is Sir Benedict and Walkyn——O see you not Sir Benedict? mine eyes are dazzled with the sun."

  But now Ulf uttered a joyful cry and pointed with his axe-shaft.

  "Yonder cometh Roger, lord, and with him the little archer, but whom bring they?"

  Very slowly they came, Roger and Prat the archer, up-bearing betwixt them good Sir Hubert of Erdington, his harness hacked and broken, his battered helm a-swing upon its thongs, his eyes a-swoon in the pallor of his face.

  Down sprang Beltane and ran to greet him and to catch his nerveless hands:

  "Lord Beltane," quoth he, faintly, "full oft have I shed my blood for—— Pentavalon——to-day I die, messire. But, as thou didst say——'tis well to die——in cause so noble! My lord, farewell to thee!"

  And with the word, even as he stood 'twixt Roger and the archer, the stout old knight was dead. So they laid Hubert of Erdington very reverently upon that trampled field he had maintained so well.

  "A right noble knight, my lord," quoth Prat, shaking gloomy head, "but for him, methinks our pikemen would have broke to their third onset!"

  "There is no man of you hath not fought like ten men this day!" said Beltane, leaning on his sword and with head a-droop. "Have we lost many, know ye?"

  "A fair good number, master, as was to be expected," quoth Roger, cleansing his sword on a tuft of grass, "Sir John of Griswold fell beside me deep-smitten through the helm."

  "And what of Sir Benedict?"

  "See yonder——yonder he rides, my lord!" cried Prat, "though methinks you scarce shall know him." And he pointed where, on spent and weary charger, one rode, a drooping, languid figure, his bright armour bespattered and dim, his dinted casque smitten awry; slowly he rode before his weary company until of a sudden espying Beltane, he uttered a great and glad cry, his drooping shoulders straightened, and he rode forward with mailed arms outstretched.

  "Beltane!" he cried, "praise be to God! One told me thou wert down——art well, sweet lad, and all unharmed? God is merciful!" And he patted Beltane's mailed shoulder, what time blood oozed from his steel gauntlet and his sobbing charger hung weary head and snorted purple foam. "O lad," quoth he, smiling his wry smile, "here was an hour worth living for——though Sir Bertrand is sore hurt and many do lie dead of my company."

  "And here," sighed Beltane, "brave Hubert of Erdington——behold!"

  "A gallant knight, Beltane! May I so valiantly die when that my time be come. Truly 'twas a sharp debate what time it lasted, there be many that will ride with us no more."

  "And thou, my lord?" cried Beltane suddenly, "thy cheek so pale—— thou'rt hurt, Benedict!"

  "Nought to matter, lad, save that it is my sword-arm: nay indeed, my Beltane, 'twas but an axe bit through my vanbrace, 'twill heal within the week. But take now my horn and summon ye our scattered company, for I do lack the wind."

  Knight and man-at-arms, limping and afoot, on horses weary and blown, they came at the summons——archer and pike-man they came, a blood be-spattered company; many were they that staggered, faint with wounds, and many that sank upon the trampled grass a-swoon with weariness, but in the eyes of each and every was the look of men that triumph.

  Cnut was there, his bascinet gone, his fiery hair betousled: Tall Orson was there, leaning on a bent and battered pike, and there his comrade, Jenkyn o' the Ford, with many others that Beltane well remembered and others whose faces he knew not. So formed they their battle-scarred array what time Beltane viewed them with glowing eye and heart swelling within him.

  "Master!" cried Tall Orson of a sudden, "O master, us do be clean men and goodly fighters as us did promise thee time 'gone i' the Hollow, master, ye'll mind us as did promise so to be——I and Jenkyn as be my comrade?"

  "Aye, master!" cried Jenkyn o' the Ford, "aye, look'ee, we ha' kept our word to thee as we did promise, look'ee master! So now, speak word to us master, look'ee!"

  "Ye men!" quoth Beltane, hoarse-voiced, "O my good comrades all, your deeds this day shall speak when we are dust, methinks! Your foes this day did muster three thousand strong, and ye do number scarce a thousand——yet have ye scattered them, for that your cause is just——'tis thus ye shall lift Pentavalon from shame and give to her peace at last!"

  Then Tall Orson shook aloft his battered pike and shouted amain, and on the instant, others took up the cry——a hoarse roar that rolled from rank to rank; lance and sword, axe and pike were flourished high in air, and from these men who had marched so grimly silent all the day a great and mighty shout went up:

  "Arise, Pentavalon! Ha! Beltane——Pentavalon!" Now even as they shouted, upon this thunderous roar there stole another sound, high and clear and very sweet, that rose and swelled upon the air like the voices of quiring angels; and of a sudden the shouting was hushed, as, forth of the tower's gloomy portal the lady Abbess came, tall and fair and saintly in her white habit, her nuns behind her, two and two, their hands clasped, their eyes upraised to heaven, chanting to God a hymn of praise and thanksgiving. Slow paced they thus, the stately Abbess with head low-bended and slim hands clasped upon her silver crucifix until, the chant being ended, she raised her head and beheld straightway Sir Benedict unhelmed and yet astride his great charger. The silver crucifix fell, the slim hands clasped themselves upon her bosom and the eyes of the tall, white Abbess grew suddenly wide and dark: and even as she gazed on him, so gazed Sir Benedict on her.

  "Yolande!" said he, hoarse-voiced and low.

  "Benedict!" she murmured.

  Slowly Sir Benedict bowed his head, and turning, laid his hand on Beltane's mailed shoulder.

  "Lady," said he, "behold here Beltane——that is son to Beltane heretofore Duke and Lord of Pentavalon!"

  "Ah!" she whispered, "Beltane!" and of a sudden stretched out her arms in passionate yearning gesture, then, covering her face, sank upon her knees, "God pity me!" she sighed, "God pity me!" Thereafter she rose to her stately height and looked on Beltane, gentle and calm-eyed.

  "My lord Beltane," said she, "I have heard tell thou art a noble knight, strong yet gentle——so should thy father be greatly blessed in thee——and thy——mother also. God have thee ever in His keeping—— Beltane!"

  Now as she spake the name her soft voice brake, and turning, she stood with head bowed upon her hands, and standing thus, spake again, deep-voiced and soft:

  "Sir Benedict, we are come to minister to the hurt, all is prepared within the tower, let them be brought to us I pray, and——my lord, forget not the sacred oath thou didst swear me——long years agone!"

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