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Beltane The Smith (Chapter7)

2006-08-28 16:27

  Chapter VII. How Beltane Talked with One Hight Giles Brabblecombe, Who was a Notable and Learned Archer

  The morning was yet young when my Beltane fared forth into the world, a joyous, golden morning trilling with the glad song of birds and rich with a thousand dewy scents; a fair, sweet, joyous world it was indeed, whose glories, stealing in at eye and ear, filled him with their gladness. On strode my Beltane by rippling brook and sleepy pool, with step swift and light and eyes wide and shining, threading an unerring course as only a forester might; now crossing some broad and sunny glade where dawn yet lingered in rosy mist, anon plunging into the green twilight of dell and dingle, through tangled brush and scented bracken gemmed yet with dewy fire, by marsh and swamp and lichened rock, until he came out upon the forest road, that great road laid by the iron men of Rome, but now little better than a grassy track, yet here and there, with mossy stone set up to the glory of proud emperor and hardy centurion long since dust and ashes; a rutted track, indeed, but leading ever on, 'neath mighty trees, over hill and dale towards the blue mystery beyond.

  Now, in a while, being come to the brow of a hill, needs must my Beltane pause to look back upon the woodlands he had loved so well and, sighing, he stretched his arms thitherward; and lo! out of the soft twilight of the green, stole a gentle wind full of the scent of root and herb and the fresh, sweet smell of earth, a cool, soft wind that stirred the golden hair at his temples, like a caress, and so——was gone. For a while he stood thus, gazing towards where he knew his father yet knelt in prayer for him, then turned he slowly, and went his appointed way.

  Thus did Beltane bid farewell to the greenwood and to woodland things, and thus did the green spirit of the woods send forth a gentle wind to kiss him on the brow ere he went out into the world of men and cities.

  Now, after some while, as he walked, Beltane was aware of the silvery tinkle of bells and, therewith, a full, sweet voice upraised in song, and the song was right merry and the words likewise:

  "O ne'er shall my lust for the bowl decline,Nor my love for my good long bow;For as bow to the shaft and as bowl to the wine,Is a maid to a man, I trow."

  Looking about, Beltane saw the singer, a comely fellow whose long legs bestrode a plump ass; a lusty man he was, clad in shirt of mail and with a feather of green brooched to his escalloped hood; a long-bow hung at his back together with a quiver of arrows, while at his thigh swung a heavy, broad-bladed sword. Now he, espying Beltane amid the leaves, brought the ass to a sudden halt and clapped hand to the pommel of his sword.

  "How now, Goliath!" cried he. "Pax vobiscum, and likewise benedicite! Come ye in peace, forsooth, or is it to be bellum internecinum? Though, by St. Giles, which is my patron saint, I care not how it be, for mark ye, vacuus cantat coram latrone viator, Sir Goliath, the which in the vulgar tongue signifieth that he who travels with an empty purse laughs before the footpad——moreover, I have a sword!"

  But Beltane laughed, saying:

  "I have no lust to thy purse, most learned bowman, or indeed to aught of thine unless it be thy company."

  "My company?" quoth the bowman, looking Beltane up and down with merry blue eyes, "why now do I know thee for a fellow of rare good judgment, for my company is of the best, in that I have a tongue which loveth to wag in jape or song. Heard ye how the birds and I were a-carolling? A right blithesome morn, methinks, what with my song, and the birds' song, and this poor ass's bells——aye, and the flowers a-peep from the bank yonder. God give ye joy of it, tall brother, as he doth me and this goodly ass betwixt my knees, patient beast."

  Now leaning on his quarter-staff Beltane smiled and said:

  "How came ye by that same ass, master bowman?"

  "Well——I met a monk!" quoth the fellow with a gleam of white teeth. "O! a ponderous monk, brother, of most mighty girth of belly! Now, as ye see, though this ass be sleek and fat as an abbot, she is something small. 'And shall so small a thing needs bear so great a mountain o' flesh?' says I (much moved at the sight, brother)。 'No, by the blessed bones of St. Giles (which is my patron saint, brother), so thereafter (by dint of a little persuasion, brother) my mountainous monk, to ease the poor beast's back, presently got him down and I, forthwith, got up—— as being more in proportion to her weight, sweet beast! O! surely ne'er saw I fairer morn than this, and never, in so fair a morn, saw I fairer man than thou, Sir Forester, nor taller, and I have seen many men in my day. Wherefore an so ye will, let us company together what time we may; 'tis a solitary road, and the tongue is a rare shortener of distance."

  So Beltane strode on beside this garrulous bowman, hearkening to his merry talk, yet himself speaking short and to the point as was ever his custom; as thus:

  BOWMAN. "How do men call thee, tall brother?"

  BELTANE. "Beltane."

  BOWMAN. "Ha! 'Tis a good name, forsooth I've heard worse——and yet, forsooth, I've heard better. Yet 'tis a fairish name——'twill serve. As for me, Giles Brabblecombe o' the Hills men call me, for 'twas in the hill country I was born thirty odd years agone. Since then twelve sieges have I seen with skirmishes and onfalls thrice as many. Death have I beheld in many and divers shapes and in experience of wounds and dangers am rich, though, by St. Giles (my patron saint), in little else. Yet do I love life the better, therefore, and I have read that 'to despise gold is to be rich.'"

  BELTANE. "Do all bowmen read, then?"

  BOWMAN. "Why look ye, brother, I am not what I was aforetime——non sum quails eram ——I was bred a shaveling, a mumbler, a be-gowned do-nothing——brother, I was a monk, but the flesh and the devil made of me a bowman, heigho——so wags the world! Though methinks I am a better bowman than ever I was a monk, having got me some repute with this my bow."

  BELTANE (shaking his head)。 "Methinks thy choice was but a sorry one for——"

  BOWMAN (laughing)。 "Choice quotha! 'Twas no choice, 'twas forced upon me, vi et armis. I should be chanting prime or matins at this very hour but for this tongue o' mine, God bless it! For, when it should have been droning psalms, it was forever lilting forth some blithesome melody, some merry song of eyes and lips and stolen kisses. In such sort that the good brethren were wont to gather round and, listening,—— sigh! Whereof it chanced I was, one night, by order of the holy Prior, drubbed forth of the sacred precincts. So brother Anselm became Giles o' the Bow——the kind Saints be praised, in especial holy Saint Giles (which is my patron saint!)。 For, heed me——better the blue sky and the sweet, strong wind than the gloom and silence of a cloister. I had rather hide this sconce of mine in a hood of mail than in the mitre of a lord bishop——nolo episcopare, good brother! Thus am I a fighter, and a good fighter, and a wise fighter, having learned 'tis better to live to fight than to fight to live."

  BELTANE. "And for whom do ye fight?"

  BOWMAN. "For him that pays most, pecuniae obediunt omnia, brother."

  BELTANE (frowning)。 "Money? And nought beside?"

  BOWMAN (staring)。 "As what, brother?"

  BELTANE. "The justice of the cause wherefore ye fight."

  BOWMAN. "Justice quotha——cause! O innocent brother, what have such matters to do with such as I? See you now, such lieth the case. You, let us say, being a baron (and therefore noble!) have a mind to a certain other baron's castle, or wife, or both——(the which is more usual) wherefore ye come to me, who am but a plain bowman knowing nought of the case, and you chaffer with me for the use of this my body for so much money, and thereafter I shoot my best on thy behalf as in mine honour bound. Thus have I fought both for and against Black Ivo throughout the length and breadth of his Duchy of Pentavalon. If ye be minded to sell that long sword o' thine, to none better market could ye come, for there be ever work for such about Black Ivo."

  BELTANE. "Aye, 'tis so I hear."

  BOWMAN. "Nor shall ye anywhere find a doughtier fighter than Duke Ivo, nor a leader quicker to spy out the vantage of position and attack."

  BELTANE. "Is he so lusty a man-at-arms?"

  BOWMAN. "With lance, axe, or sword he hath no match. I have seen him lead a charge. I have watched him fight afoot. I have stormed behind him through a breach, and I know of none dare cope with him——unless it be Sir Pertolepe the Red."

  BELTANE. "Hast ne'er heard tell, then, of Benedict of Bourne?"

  BOWMAN (clapping hand to thigh)。 "Now by the blood and bones of St. Giles 'tis so! Out o' the mouth of a babe and suckling am I corrected! Verily if there be one to front Black Ivo 'tis Benedict o' the Mark. To behold these two at handstrokes——with axes——ha, there would be a sweet affray indeed——a sight for the eyes of holy archangels! Dost know aught of Sir Benedict, O Innocence?"

  BELTANE. "I have seen him."

  BOWMAN. "Then, my soft and gentle dove-like youth, get thee to thy marrow-bones and pray that kind heaven shall make thee more his like, for in his shoes doth stand a man——a knight——a very paladin!"

  BELTANE. "Who fighteth not for——hire. Sir Bowman!"

  BOWMAN. "Yet who hireth to fight, Sir Dove-eyed Giant, for I have fought for him, ere now, within his great keep of Thrasfordham within Bourne. But, an ye seek employ, his is but a poor service, where a man shall come by harder knocks than good broad pieces."

  BELTANE. "And yet, 'spite thy cunning and all thy warring, thy purse goeth empty!"

  BOWMAN. "My purse, Sir Dove? Aye, I told thee so for that I am by nature cautious——sicut mos est nobis! But thy dove's eyes are honest eyes, so now shall you know that hid within the lining of this my left boot be eighty and nine gold pieces, and in my right a ring with stones of price, and, moreover, here behold a goodly chain."

  So saying, the bowman drew from his bosom a gold chain, thick and long and heavy, and held it up in the sunlight.

  "I got this, Sir Dove, together with the ring and divers other toys, at the storming of Belsaye, five years agone. Aha! a right good town is Belsaye, and growing rich and fat against another plucking."

  "And how came Belsaye to be stormed?" Quoth Giles the Bowman, eying his golden chain:

  "My lord Duke Ivo had a mind to a certain lady, who was yet but a merchant's daughter, look ye. But she was young and wondrous fair, for Duke Ivo hath a quick eye and rare judgment in such pretty matters. But she (and she but a merchant's daughter!) took it ill, and when Duke Ivo's messengers came to bear her to his presence, she whined and struggled, as is ever woman's way, and thereafter in the open street snatched a dagger and thereupon, before her father's very eye did slay herself (and she but a merchant's daughter!), whereat some hot-head plucked out sword and other citizens likewise, and of my lord Duke's messengers there none escaped save one and he sore wounded. So Belsaye city shut its gates 'gainst my lord Duke and set out fighting-hoards upon its walls. Yet my lord Duke battered and breached it, for few can match him in a siege, and stormed it within three days. And, by Saint Giles, though he lost the merchant's daughter methinks he lacked not at all, for the women of Belsaye are wondrous fair."

  The rising sun made a glory all about them, pouring his beams 'twixt mighty trees whose knotted, far-flung branches dappled the way here and there with shadow; but now Beltane saw nought of it by reason that he walked with head a-droop and eyes that stared earthward; moreover his hands were clenched and his lips close and grim-set. As for Giles o' the Bow, he chirrupped merrily to the ass, and whistled full melodiously, mocking a blackbird that piped amid the green. Yet in a while he turned to stare at Beltane rubbing at his square, shaven chin with strong, brown fingers.

  "Forsooth," quoth he, nodding, "thou'rt a lusty fellow, Sir Gentleness, by the teeth of St. Giles, which is my patron saint, ne'er saw I a goodlier spread of shoulder nor such a proper length of arm to twirl an axe withal, and thy legs like me well——hast the makings of a right lusty man-at-arms in thee, despite thy soft and peaceful look!"

  "Yet a lover of peace am I!" said Beltane, his head yet drooping.

  "Peace, quotha——peace? Ha? by all the holy saints——peace! A soft word! A woman's word! A word smacking of babes and milk! Out upon thee, what hath a man with such an arm——aye, and legs——to do with peace? An you would now, I could bring ye to good service 'neath Duke Ivo's banner. 'Tis said he hath sworn, this year, to burn Thrasfordham keep, to hang Benedict o' the Mark and lay waste to Bourne. Aha! you shall see good fighting 'neath Ivo's banner, Sir Dove!"

  Then Beltane raised his head and spake, swift and sudden, on this wise:

  "An I must fight, the which God forbid, yet once this my sword is drawn ne'er shall it rest till I lie dead or Black Ivo is no more."

  Then did the archer stare upon my Beltane in amaze with eyes full wide and mouth agape, nor spake he for awhile, then:

  "Black Ivo——thou!" he cried, and laughed amain. "Go to, my tender youth," said he, "methinks a lute were better fitted to thy hand than that great sword o' thine." Now beholding Beltane's gloomy face, he smiled within his hand, yet eyed him thoughtfully thereafter, and so they went with never a word betwixt them. But, in a while, the archer fell to snuffing the air, and clapped Beltane upon the shoulder.

  "Aha!" quoth he, "methinks we reach the fair Duchy of Pentavalon; smell ye aught, brother?" And now, indeed, Beltane became aware of a cold wind, foul and noisome, a deadly, clammy air breathing of things corrupt, chilling the flesh with swift unthinking dread; and, halting in disgust, he looked about him left and right.

  "Above——above!" cried Giles o' the Bow, "this is Sir Pertolepe's country——look you heavenward, Sir Innocence!"

  Then, lifting his eyes to the shivering leaves overhead, Beltane of a sudden espied a naked foot——a down-curving, claw-like thing, shrivelled and hideous, and, glancing higher yet, beheld a sight to blast the sun from heaven: now staring up at the contorted horror of this shrivelled thing that once had lived and laughed, Beltane let fall his staff and, being suddenly sick and faint, sank upon his knees and, covering his eyes, crouched there in the grass the while that grisly, silent thing swayed to and fro above him in the gentle wind of morning and the cord whereby it hung creaked faintly.

  "How now——how now!" cried Giles; "do ye blench before this churlish carrion? Aha! ye shall see the trees bear many such hereabouts. Get up, my qualmish, maid-like youth; he ne'er shall injure thee nor any man again——save by the nose——faugh! Rise, rise and let us be gone."

  So, presently Beltane, shivering, got him to his feet and looking up, pale-faced, beheld upon the ragged breast a parchment with this legend in fair, good writing:


  Then spake Beltane 'twixt pallid lips:

  "And do they hang men for killing deer in this country?"

  "Aye, forsooth, and very properly, for, heed me, your ragged rogues be a plenty, but a stag is a noble creature and something scarcer—— moreover they be the Duke's."

  "By whose order was this done?"

  "Why, the parchment beareth the badge of Sir Pertolepe, called the Red. But look you, Sir Innocent, no man may kill a deer unless he be of gentle blood."

  "And wherefore?"

  "'Tis so the law!"

  "And who made the law?"

  "Why——as to that," quoth Giles, rubbing his chin, "as to that——what matters it to you or me? Pah! come away lest I stifle!"

  But now, even as they stood thus, out of the green came a cry, hoarse at first but rising ever higher until it seemed to fill the world about and set the very leaves a-quiver. Once it came, and twice, and so——was gone. Then Beltane trembling, stooped and caught up his long quarter-staff, and seized the bowman in a shaking hand that yet was strong, and dragging him from the ass all in a moment, plunged into the underbrush whence the cry had come. And, in a while, they beheld a cottage upon whose threshold a child lay——not asleep, yet very still; and beyond the cottage, his back to a tree, a great hairy fellow, quarter-staff in hand, made play against five others whose steel caps and ringed hauberks glittered in the sun. Close and ever closer they beset the hairy man who, bleeding at the shoulder, yet swung his heavy staff; but ever the glittering pike-heads thrust more close. Beside the man a woman crouched, young and of comely seeming, despite wild hair and garments torn and wrenched, who of a sudden, with another loud cry, leapt before the hairy man covering him with her clinging body and, in that moment, her scream died to a choking gasp and she sank huddled 'neath a pike-thrust. Then Beltane leapt, the great sword flashing in his grasp, and smote the smiter and set his feet upon the writhing body and smote amain with terrible arm, and his laughter rang out fierce and wild. So for a space, sword clashed with pike, but ever Beltane, laughing loud, drave them before him till but two remained and they writhing upon the sward. Then Beltane turned to see Giles o' the Bow, who leaned against a tree near by, wide-eyed and pale.

  "Look!" he cried, pointing with quivering finger, "one dead and one sore hurt——Saint Giles save us, what have ye done? These be Sir Pertolepe's foresters——behold his badge!"

  But Beltane laughed, fierce-eyed.

  "How, bowman, dost blench before a badge, then? I was too meek and gentle for thee ere this, but now, if thou'rt afraid——get you gone!"

  "Art surely mad!" quoth Giles. "The saints be my witness here was no act of mine!" So saying he turned away and hasted swift-footed through the green. Now when the bowman was gone, Beltane turned him to the hairy man who yet kneeled beside the body of the woman. Said he:

  "Good fellow, is there aught I may do for thee?"

  "Wife and child——and dead!" the man muttered, "child and wife——and dead! A week ago, my brother——and now, the child, and then the wife! Child and wife and brother——and dead!" Then Beltane came, minded to aid him with the woman, but the hairy man sprang before her, swinging his great staff and muttering in his beard; therefore Beltane, sick at heart, turned him away. And, in a while, being come to the road once more, he became aware that he yet grasped his sword and beheld its bright steel dimmed here and there with blood, and, as he gazed, his brow grew dark and troubled.

  "'Tis thus have I made beginning," he sighed, "so now, God aiding me, ne'er will I rest 'till peace be come again and tyranny made an end of!"

  Then, very solemnly, did my Beltane kneel him beside the way and lifting the cross hilt of his sword to heaven kissed it, and thereafter rose. And so, having cleansed the steel within the earth, he sheathed the long blade and went, slowfooted, upon his way.

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