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Beltane The Smith (Chapter55)

2006-08-28 16:39

  Chapter LV. How They Marched for Winisfarne

  At peep of day the trumpets blew, and Beltane, starting up from slumber, found the great camp all astir about him; the smoke of a hundred watch-fires rose up into the stilly air of morning and made a fragrant mist amid the trees beneath which armour glinted as guard relieved guard and the new-waked companies mustered under arms. And ever as the sun rose the bustle waxed and grew, with a coming and going about the fires where the morning meal was preparing; here a mighty furbishing of arms and armour, yonder a prodigious hissing and so-hoing where chargers and pack-horses were picketed, line upon line——goodly beasts that stamped and snorted and whinnied joyously——and everywhere was noise and cheer of talk and laughter; yet everywhere was method and a strict orderliness in all things, wherefore Beltane's very heart sang within him.

  Now as he stood thus, viewing all things keen-eyed and watchful, he was presently aware of Sir Benedict and Black Roger who walked together within a distant alley; and as they passed them to and fro Black Roger talked amain, what time Sir Benedict seemed to hearken right solemn and attentive, oft pausing to question him quick and eager, and oft to clap hand to Roger's brawny back; and sometimes laughed he blithe and joyous and sometimes hearkened with grizzled head a-droop, until a turn in the glade hid them from sight.

  Little by little, above the resinous fragrance of the fires rose other scents more delectable to the nostrils of a hungry man, thus, waking from his meditations Beltane turned him wistfully towards where, above the nearest fire, a goodly cooking pot seethed and bubbled invitingly. But even now a hand slipped within his arm and holding him thus, Sir Benedict viewed him joyful-eyed and smiled on him his wry and twisted smile.

  "Beltane," said he, wagging his head, "O Beltane, thou wilt mind how upon a time as I drank a bowl of milk with thee amid the green in Mortain, I did warn thee that she had red hair and was like to prove a spit-fire, therefore!"

  Now hereupon my Beltane must needs catch his breath and flush to the ears of him, and therewith strive to look at his ease, like the very youth he was.

  "How, messire, hath Roger babbled to thee?"

  "Babbled?" quoth Sir Benedict, shaking his head, "nay, Roger is no babbler of secret matters, for many do ken of thy love, Beltane——and I am thy friend, so is thy happiness my happiness. Thus do I say God and the sweet saints bless thee in thy love, dear lad, for a right noble lady is Helen the Beautiful and meet to thine embracements. By her so great love, by her proved faithfulness shalt thou yet win to happiness——"

  "Nay, dear my Benedict, first must Pentavalon win to peace."

  "Aye, by Helen's noble love, for——"

  "O Sir Benedict, I have sworn an oath!"

  "Aye, sweet lad, but Roger hath prayed a prayer!"

  "Hath he told thee so much, Benedict?"

  "So much," quoth Sir Benedict, pressing his arm, "so much, O man, that hereafter needs must I love thee and honour thee the more. Since man art thou, my Beltane, for all thy so great youthfulness."

  "Nay, Benedict, am none so youthful."

  "Thy very speech doth prove thee so, yet, being boy, thou art forsooth a man to-day."

  "And wherefore?"

  "For that to-day I do know more of thee. 'Tis suffering, 'tis sorrow nobly borne doth make the man, Beltane."

  "Suffering, messire?"

  "Yon lock of hair showeth very white amid the gold, Beltane, but thou art better man therefore, methinks. The fetters of thy dungeon yet gleam upon thy wrists, Beltane. But truly I do think within thy prison was forged the sword shall avenge our woes and free Pentavalon at last."

  "Think you indeed, thou wise Benedict, that we by grief and sorrow do rise to find our nobler selves?"

  "Aye verily! 'Tis but by sorrow and suffering our strength or weakness groweth manifest, Beltane."

  "Yet——O Benedict——I did doubt her——plied her with scornful tongue and—— drave her lonely from me!"

  "And dost grieve amain, and sorrow therefore, O youth!"

  "Yea, indeed, indeed——sleeping and waking!"

  "And do yearn to woo her to forgiveness on thy knees, to crush her in thine arms and kiss her breath away, O Lover?"

  "Aye, dear Sir Benedict, in such sort and so greatly that my passion oft doth fright me, so fiercely do I yearn and long——yet tremble and grow faint at thought of it!"

  "Yet art thou here, bedight in arms, O man——thy yearning body far removed from all temptation till thou hast proved thee worthy her embrace! And thus it is I know thee for a man, my Beltane!"

  "And thou, Benedict, thou hast yearned and trembled with love ere now, thou hast been a lover once, methinks?" But here Sir Benedict fell to silence, walking with face averted and gaze bent towards the dewy grass, and quickened his steps until they were come nigh unto the camp. Then lifted he his head; quoth he:

  "My lord Beltane, how think you of this thy new-found company?"

  "Men——ha! men, good Benedict——soldiers born and bred!"

  "Forsooth, and 'neath mine own eye, Beltane. There is not one but I have watched him in the stress of battle. Body o' me, but I have chosen needfully, there is none but hath proved his worthiness! See you the little man yonder, in half-mail with sword as great as himself——he that pipeth shrill-voiced as a boy? 'Tis Prat who alone stood off a score what time I lay wounded and pinned beneath my charger. Mark ye yon lusty fellow beside him? 'Tis Cnut that, single-handed, hewed him a path through Ivo's battle and bare away his own banner, the which doth grace my hall at Thrasfordham e'en now. And yonder is Dirk that was a slave, yet fighteth like a paladin. And there again is Siward, that with his brother maintained the sallyport 'gainst Ivo's van what time they drave us from the outer bailey. And yonder Cedric——but so could I name them each and every——ha! there sounds the welcome tucket! Come, let us break our fast, and there be many knights and esquires and gentles of degree do wait to pay thee homage."

  So presently came they into the midst of the camp, where, seated on the mossy ling, hungry and expectant, were many noble lords and gentle knights and esquires of degree, who, beholding Sir Benedict with Beltane, rose up with one accord. Young men were these for the most part, yet were there many grizzled heads and wrinkled brows among them—— grim lords of the old Duke's following much versed in war, calm of judgment and wise in council; but one and all did they stare upon my Beltane in wonder at his youth because of his so famous deeds.

  Now spake to them Sir Benedict, short and soldier-like:

  "My lords, this is he of whom ye all have heard, Beltane hight, son of Beltane our Duke, for whom we together have held Thrasfordham so long and painfully. My lord Beltane, of all the knights and nobles of the Duke thy father's days, here do stand, sire or son, all that have withstood Black Ivo. Behold here Sir Bertrand, that was thy father's seneschal of Pentavalon City. Here, Sir John of Griswold whose sire bare thy father's banner, wherefore Griswold is ashes long since. Here Hubert of Erdington, that was thy father's marshal-of-the-field. Here, Hacon of Trant, that was wont to lead thy father's vanward, and here, Sir Brian of Hartismere, brother to Eric, called the Wry-neck. So now, all's said, my lord, wherefore I pray, let us eat."

  Forthwith down they sat together on the grass, all and sundry, and ate and drank and laughed and talked, insomuch that in brake and thicket near and far the birds carolled and chattered in pretty mockery.

  "Lord Beltane," quoth Sir Benedict when the meal was ended, "ere I met thee, 'twas my intent this hour to march on Winisfarne, according to my promise to Waldron of Brand, how say you?"

  "Forsooth," nodded Beltane, "as soon as ye will."

  Thus, within the hour, the trumpets brayed 'to horse' and all was seeming hurry and confusion; yet a confusion, this, governed by soldierly method, so that, ere long, horsemen were mounted and footmen in array what time Beltane, bedight in goodly vizored casque, with lance and shield borne behind him, came where stood Sir Benedict beside a great and noble war-horse.

  Forthwith Beltane mounted, and forthwith from these well-ordered ranks a great shout arose:

  "Beltane——the Duke——the Duke!"

  Now, reining in his eager beast, Beltane looked upon that stern array, and as he looked his eye kindled and his heart swelled within him.

  "O men!" said he, "I that ye do acclaim am but a man even as ye are men, to bear with ye the heat and labour of the day. What ye must endure that will I endure with you. Here stand I, ready to spill my blood that Wrong may cease. Even as ye, I am prepared to adventure me, life and limb, that Lust and Murder may cease to be and Innocence and Truth may walk again all unashamed. So shall I lead ye into battles and affrays desperate and bloody, where foes shall be a-many and we, few. But we do fight for hearth and home, and the thought of this, methinks, shall nerve us strong as giants. Yet is our way a perilous way, and some of us, belike, must die. But, by the blood of such, this our country is hallowed unto those that shall come after us, so shall our memories teach others how to die——and better——how to live that this our country may stand, hereafter, for all things great and noble. He that dieth for home and children shall, mayhap, from the floor of heaven, look down upon a great and happy people whose freedom he——by weary marches, by pain of wounds, by sharp and sudden death——he himself hath helped to purchase, and, in their peace and happiness, find an added joy.

  "O men! who would not be a man to fight in such just cause? Who would not cherish life that he might lose it to such noble purpose?

  "Now therefore, all ye that do love Pentavalon——follow!"

  Thus saying, my Beltane wheeled his horse; and with rhythmic ring and clash, together, rank on rank, horsemen and footmen, they followed hard behind, a silent, grim array, with eyes that gleamed 'neath helm and bascinet, and purposeful hands that griped full strong on lance and spear-shaft, as, coming to the forest-road, they swung away northwards towards Winisfarne.

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