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Beltane The Smith (Chapter27)

2006-08-28 16:32

  Chapter XXVII. How Beltane Took to the Wild-Wood

  A faint glimmer growing ever brighter, a jagged patch of pale sky, a cleft in the rock o'er-grown with bush and creeping vines; this Beltane saw ere he stepped out into the cool, sweet air of dawn. A while he stood to stare up at the sky where yet a few stars showed paling to the day, and to drink in mighty breaths of the fragrant air. And thus, plain to his ears, stole the ripple of running water hard by, and going thitherward he stripped, and naked came down to the stream where was a misty pool and plunged him therein. Now as he bathed him thus, gasping somewhat because of the cold, yet glorying in the rush and tingle of his blood, behold, the leaves parted near by, and uprising in his naked might, Beltane beheld the face of one that watched him intently.

  "Master!" cried a voice harsh but very joyful, "O dear, my lord!" And Roger sprang down the bank and heedless of the water, plunged in to catch Beltane's hands and kiss them. "Master!" he cried. And thus it was these two met again. And presently, having donned clothes and harness, Beltane sat down him beside the brook, head upon hand, staring at the swift-running water, whiles Roger, sitting near, watched him in a silent ecstasy.

  "Whence come ye, Roger?"

  "From Thrasfordham-within-Bourne, lord. Ho, a mighty place, great and strong as Sir Benedict himself. And within Thrasfordham be many lusty fighting men who wait thy coming,——for, master, Bourne, aye and all the Duchy, doth ring with tales of thy deeds."

  "Hath Sir Benedict many men?"

  "Aye——within Thrasfordham five hundred and more."

  "So few, Roger?"

  "And mayhap as many again in Bourne. But, for Sir Benedict——a right lusty knight in sooth, master! and he doth hunger for sight of thee. He hath had me, with Walkyn and the archer, speak full oft of how we fired the gibbet and roars mighty laughs to hear how thou didst bear off Sir Pertolepe in the green——aye, Sir Benedict doth love to hear tell of that."

  "Aye; and what of Duke Ivo——where is he now, Roger?"

  "He hath reinforced Belsaye garrison and all the coast towns and castles of the Marches, and lieth at Pentavalon, gathering his powers to attack Thrasfordham, so men say, and hath sworn to burn it within the year, and all therein save only Sir Benedict——him will he hang; 'tis so proclaimed far and wide."

  "And do men yet come in to Sir Benedict?"

  "Not so, master. Since Duke Ivo came they are afraid."

  "Ha! And what of the outlaws——there be many wild men within the forests."

  "The outlaws——hey, that doth mind me. I, with Giles and Walkyn and the young knight Sir Jocelyn brought down the outlaws upon Thornaby Mill. But when we found thee not, we burned it, and thereafter the outlaws vanished all within the wild-wood; Sir Jocelyn rode away a-singing mighty doleful, and we three came to Thrasfordham according to thy word. But when ye came not, master, by will of Sir Benedict we set out, all three, to find thee, and came to a cave of refuge Walkyn wots of: there do we sleep by night and by day search for thee. And behold, I have found thee, and so is my tale ended. But now, in an hour will be day, master, and with the day will be the hue and cry after thee. Come, let us haste over into Bourne, there shall we be safe so long as Thrasfordham stands."

  "True," nodded Beltane and rose to his feet. "Go you to Thrasfordham, Roger, Sir Benedict shall need such lusty men as thou, meseemeth."

  "Aye——but what of thee, master?"

  "I? O, I'm for the wild-wood, to a wild life and wilder doings, being myself a wild man, henceforth, lawful food for flame or gibbet, kin to every clapper-claw rogue and rascal 'twixt here and Mortain."

  "Nay master, within Thrasfordham ye shall laugh at Black Ivo and all his powers——let us then to Thrasfordham, beseech thee!"

  "Nay, I'm for the woods in faith, to seek me desperate rogues, wild men whose lives being forfeit, are void of all hope and fear. So, get thee to Sir Benedict and speak him this from me, to wit: that while he holdeth Ivo in check before Thrasfordham, I will arise indeed and bring with me flame and steel from out the wild-wood. When he shall see the night sky aflame, then shall he know I am at work, and when by day he heareth of death sudden and swift, then shall he know I am not idle. Bid him rede me this riddle: That bringing from chaos order, so from order will I bring chaos, that order peradventure shall remain. Haste you into Bourne, Roger, and so——fare thee well!"

  Now as he spake, Beltane turned on his heel and strode along beside the brook, but even as he went, so went Roger, whereon Beltane turned frowning.

  Quoth he:

  "Roger——Thrasfordham lieth behind thee!"

  "Aye, master, but death lieth before thee!"

  "Why then, death will I face alone, Roger."

  "Nay, master——not while Roger live. Thy man am I——"

  "Ha——wilt withstand me, Black Roger?"

  "Thy man am I, to follow thee in life and go down with thee in death——"

  Now hereupon Beltane came close, and in the dim light Black Roger beheld the new Beltane glaring down at him fierce-eyed and with great mailed fist clenched to smite; but even so Black Roger gave not back, only he drew dagger and strove to set it in Beltane's iron fingers.

  "Take this," quoth he, "for, an ye would be free of Roger, first must ye slay him, master." So Beltane took the dagger and fumbled with it awhile then gave it back to Roger's hand.

  "Roger!" muttered he, his hand upon his brow, "my faithful Roger! So, men can be faithful——" saying which he sighed——a long, hissing breath, and hid his face within his mittened hand, and turning, strode swiftly upon his way. Now in a while, they being come into the forest, Roger touched him on the arm.

  "Master," said he, "whither do ye go?"

  "Nay, it mattereth not so long as I can lie hid a while, for I must sleep, Roger."

  "Then can I bring thee to a place where none shall ever find thee—— Come, master!" So saying, Roger turned aside into the denser wood, bursting a way through a tangle of brush, plunging ever deeper into the wild until they came to a place where great rocks and boulders jutted up amid the green and the trees grew scant. Day was breaking, and before them in the pale light rose a steep cliff, whose jagged outline clothed here and there with brush and vines loomed up before them, barring their advance.

  But at the foot of this cliff grew a tree, gnarled and stunted, the which, as Beltane watched, Black Roger began to climb, until, being some ten feet from the ground, he, reaching out and seizing a thick vine that grew upon the rock, stepped from the tree and vanished into the face of the cliff. But in a moment the leaves were parted and Roger looked forth, beckoning Beltane to follow. So, having climbed the tree, Beltane in turn seized hold upon the vine, and stumbling amid the leaves, found himself on his knees within a small cave, where Roger's hand met his. Thereafter Roger led him to the end of the cavern where was a winding passage very rough and narrow, that brought them to a second and larger cave, as Beltane judged, for in the dark his hands could feel nought but space. Here Roger halted and whistled three times, a melodious call that woke many a slumbering echo. And in a while, behold a glow that grew ever brighter, until, of a sudden, a man appeared bearing a flaming pine-torch, that showed a wide cave whose rugged roof and walls glistened here and there, and whose rocky floor ended abruptly in a yawning gulf from whose black depths came soft murmurs and ripplings of water far below. Now, halting on the opposite side of this chasm, the man lifted his flaming torch and lo! it was Walkyn, who, beholding Beltane in his mail, uttered a hoarse shout of welcome, and stooping, thrust a plank across the gulf. So Beltane crossed the plank and gave his hand to Walkyn's iron grip and thereafter followed him along winding, low-roofed passage-ways hollowed within the rock, until they came to a cavern where a fire blazed, whose red light danced upon battered bascinets and polished blades that hung against the wall, while in one corner, upon a bed of fern, Giles o' the Bow lay snoring right blissfully.

  To him went Roger to shake him into groaning wakefulness and to point with eager finger to Beltane. Whereat up sprang Giles and came running with hands outstretched in welcome, yet of a sudden, paused and stood staring upon Beltane, as did the others also, for the place was very bright and moreover Beltane's mail-coif was fallen back. So they looked on him all three, yet spake no word. Therefore Beltane sat him down beside the fire and rested his head upon his hands as one that is weary. Sitting thus, he told them briefly what had chanced, but of the Duchess he said nothing. And in a while, lifting his head he saw them watching him all three, and all three incontinent glanced otherwhere.

  Quoth Beltane:

  "Wherefore do ye stare upon me?"

  "Why, as to that, good brother," said the archer, "'tis but that——that we do think thee something——changed of aspect."

  "Changed!" said Beltane, and laughed short and bitter, "aye, 'tis like I am."

  "Lord," quoth Walkyn, clenching mighty fists, "have they tormented thee——was it the torture, lord?"

  "Aye," nodded Beltane, "'twas the torture. So now good comrades, here will I sleep awhile. But first——go forth with the sun and question all ye may of Ivo and his doings——where he doth lie, and where his forces muster——hear all ye can and bring me word, for methinks we shall be busy again anon!" Then, throwing himself upon the bed of fern that Roger had re-made, Beltane presently fell asleep. And while he slept came the three, very silent and treading very soft, to look down upon his sleeping face and the manacles that gleamed upon his wrists; and behold, even as he slept, he groaned and writhed, his tender lips grown fierce, a relentless, down-curving line——his jaws grim set, and between his frowning brows a lock of silky hair that gleamed snow-white among the yellow.

  "The torture!" growled Roger, and so, soft as they came, the three turned and left him to his slumber. But oft he moaned and once he spake a word, sudden and fierce 'twixt clenched teeth.

  And the word was:

  "Helen!"

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