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Beltane The Smith (Chapter34)

2006-08-28 16:34

  Chapter XXXIV. How They Came to Belsaye

  Through broad glades deep-hid within the wild; by shady alleyway and leafy track they held their march south and by east, a close, well-ordered company striding long and free and waking the solitudes to a blithe babblement of laughing echoes. And who among them all so merry as Giles o' the Bow at the head of his sturdy archers? Oft trolling some merry stave or turning with some quip or jape upon his tongue, but with eyes quick to mark the rhythmic swing of broad, mail-clad shoulders, eyes critical, yet eyes of pride. Who so grimly eager as mighty Walkyn, his heavy axe lightly a-swing, his long legs schooling themselves to his comrade's slower time and pace? Who so utterly content as Black Roger, oft glancing from Beltane's figure in the van to the files of his pike-men, their slung shields agleam, their spears well sloped? And who so gloomy and thoughtful as Beltane, unmindful of the youthful knight who went beside him, and scarce heeding his soft-spoke words until his gaze by chance lighted upon the young knight's armour that gleamed in the sun 'neath rich surcoat; armour of the newest fashion of link, reinforced by plates of steel, gorget and breast, elbow and knee, and with cunningly jointed sollerets. Moreover, his shield was small and light according with the new fashion, and bare the blazon of two hands, tight clasped, and the legend: "Semper Fidelis."

  Now viewing all this with a smith's knowledgful eye, quick to note the costly excellence of this equipment, Beltane forthwith brake silence:

  "How do men name thee, sir knight?"

  Hereupon, after some delay, the young knight made answer:

  "Messire, the motto I bear upon my shield is a good motto methinks. So shalt call me Fidelis an ye will, my lord."

  "So be it, Sir Faithful," saying which Beltane fell to deep thought again.

  "I pray you, my lord," quoth Fidelis, "wherefore so sad, so full of gloom and thought?"

  "I seek how we may win through the gates of Belsaye, Sir Fidelis, for they go strongly guarded night and day; yet this day, ere sunset, ope to us they must. But how——how?"

  "My lord," spake Sir Fidelis, "I have heard say that few may go where many oft-times may not. Let first some two or three adventure it, hid 'neath some close disguise——"

  "A disguise!" cried Beltane, "Ha——a disguise. 'Tis well bethought, good Fidelis. Forsooth, a disguise! And 'twill be market day!" Thereafter Beltane strode on, head bent in frowning thought, nor spake again for a space. And ever the files swung along behind in time to a marching song carolled blithe in the rich, sweet voice of Giles. At length Beltane raised his head and beholding the sun well-risen, halted his company beside a stream that flowed athwart their way, and sitting thereby, summoned to him the four——namely, Walkyn and Roger, Giles and Eric of the wry neck; and while they ate together, they held counsel on this wise:

  BELTANE. "How think ye of this our adventure, comrades all?"

  GILES. "Forsooth, as a man do I think well of it. Ho! for the twang of bowstrings! the whirr and whistle of well-sped shafts loosed from the ear! Ha! as an archer and a man 'tis an adventure that jumpeth with my desire. But——as a soldier, and one of much and varied experience, as one that hath stormed Belsaye ere now——with divers other towns, cities, keeps, and castles beyond number——as a soldier, I do think it but a gloomy business and foredoomed to failure——"

  BELTANE. "And wherefore?"

  GILES. "Method, tall brother, method precise and soldier-like. War is a very ancient profession——an honourable profession and therefore to be treated with due reverence. Now, without method, war would become but a scurvy, sorry, hole-and-corner business, unworthy your true soldier. So I, a soldier, loving my profession, do stand for method in all things. Thus, would I attack a city, I do it modo et forma: first, I set up my mantelets for my archers, and under cover of their swift shooting I set me up my mangonels, my trebuchets and balistae: then, pushing me up, assault the walls with cat, battering-ram and sap, and having made me a breach, would forthwith take me the place by sudden storm."

  ROGER. "Ha, bowman! here is overmuch of thee, methinks! And dost speak like a very archer-like fool——and forsooth, a foolish archer to boot. Sure, well ye know that engines for the battery have we none——"

  GILES. "Verily! So shall we none of Belsaye, methinks. Lacking engines, we lack for all——no method, no city! Remember that, dolt Rogerkin!"

  ROGER. "Nay, I remember Garthlaxton aflame, the gallows aflare, and the empty dungeon. So, an we go up 'gainst Belsaye again, shall we surely take it. Remember these, long-winded Giles, and being a soldier, be ye also——a man."

  BELTANE. "What think you, Walkyn?"

  WALKYN. (patting his axe) "Of Gui of Allerdale, master."

  BELTANE. "And you, Eric?"

  ERIC. "That where thou dost go, messire, we follow."

  BELTANE. "'Tis well. Now here beside me sitteth Sir Fidelis, who though methinks the most youthful of us all, hath a head in council wiser than us all. For he hath spoke me that whereby though few in number and lacking engines for battery, Giles——we yet may win through the walls of Belsaye ere sun-down. Know you this country, Walkyn?"

  WALKYN. "As my hand, lord."

  BELTANE. "Is there a village hereabouts?"

  WALKYN. "Aye, five miles west by south is Brand-le-Dene. But there is a mill scarce a mile down stream, I wot."

  BELTANE. "A mill? 'Twill serve——go ye thither. Here is money——buy therewith four hats and smocks the like that millers wear, and likewise four meal-sacks well stuffed with straw."

  WALKYN. (rising) "Smocks, master? Straw and meal-sacks?"

  BELTANE. "And haste, Walkyn. We must be far hence within the hour."

  Forthwith up rose Walkyn and summoning divers of his company strode away down stream, what time Giles, staring after him in wonderment, thereafter shook his head at Roger. Quoth he:

  "Tall brother and lord, now do I see that our Roger burneth for knowledge, panteth for understanding, and fain would question thee but that his mouth is full-crammed of meat. Yet do his bulging eyes supplicate the wherefore of smocks, and his goodly large ears do twitch for the why of sacks. O impatient Rogerkin, bolt thy food, man, gulp—— swallow, and ask and importune my lord thyself!"

  "Not I——not I!" quoth Roger, "an my master lacketh for a smock or a sack, for me is no question of wherefore or why, so long as he doth get them!"

  "But the straw, Roger," said Giles, glancing askew at Beltane, "an thou should'st plague my lord with questions, how think ye then he shall answer of this straw?"

  "Thus, thou crafty Giles," answered Beltane. "Belsaye is strong, but strength may be, perchance, beguiled. So may a miller's smock hide a shirt of mail, and straw, I have heard, will burn." "Oho, a wile!" cried Giles, "Aha! some notable wile! What more?"

  "More shalt thou know, mayhap, in Belsaye market-place."

  And when Beltane had handled the well-worn smocks, had viewed the bulging meal-sacks that Walkyn and his fellows brought him, he arose. At his word the company fell to their ranks and forthwith swung off again south and by east, what time Giles carolled blithely, and divers chorused lustily: while Roger whistled and even grim Walkyn (bethinking him of Gui of Allerdale) rumbled hoarsely in his hairy throat.

  So the miles passed unheeded until, as the sun declined, they left the wild country behind; wherefore Beltane commanded all men to a strict silence and thus came they betimes to the edge of the woods, and halting within the green, beheld afar across the plain, the walls of fair Belsaye town.

  "We are well to time," quoth Beltane, glancing from sinking sun to lengthening shadow, "we have yet an hour to sunset, but in this hour much have we to do! Hark ye now!" and drawing the four about him, he spake them thus: "Walkyn and Roger and Eric shall into the town with me in miller's guise, each bearing his sack of flour, what time you, Giles, with Sir Fidelis and all our power bide here well hid till such time as ye shall see a smoke within Belsaye. And when ye see this smoke, rise up and make you ready one and all, yet stir not from the green till that ye hear my bugle-horn sound our rallying-note. Then come ye on amain, and being within the city, charge ye where my horn shall sound. How now, is't agreed?"

  "Aye, lord!" nodded Giles, "'tis an excellent strategy in faith, and yet 'twere wiser methinks to suffer me in Roger's place: for being guileful in war, so should I be a very beguiling miller, whereas Roger, an we plastered him with flour, would ne'er be other than Rogerkin the Black."

  "Nay Giles, thy post is here. Let your bows be strung and ready, but set your pikes to the fore——and Giles, watch! Walkyn, bring now the smocks."

  So saying, Beltane tightened his belt, drew on his hood of mail and laced it close, and turning, found Sir Fidelis close by to aid him with the hooded smock; and Beltane wondered to see him so pale and his slender hands a-tremble.

  So the smocks were donned, with straw about their legs bound by withies as was the custom, and taking the sacks upon their shoulders, they turned aside into the green and were gone.

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