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Beltane The Smith (Chapter11)

2006-08-28 16:28

  Chapter XI. Which Tells How Three Mighty Men Sware Fealty to Beltane: and How Good Friar Martin Digged a Grave in the Wild

  Now when Beltane's mighty hunger was assuaged he sat——his aching head yet ringing with the blow——and stared up at the moon, sad and wistful-eyed as one full of heaviness the while Black Roger standing beside him gazed askance at the archer who sat near by whistling softly and busied with certain arrows, cleaning and trimming them ere he set them back in his quiver. And presently Black Roger spake softly, low-stooping to Beltane's ear:

  "Lord, we have saved the life of yon prating archer-fellow, and behold my belt lacketh for one notch, which is well. So come, let us go our ways, thou and I, for I love not your talkers, and this fellow hath overmuch to say."

  But now, ere Beltane could make reply, came the hairy man——but behold his rags had given place to fair garments of tanned leather (albeit something small) together with steel cap and shirt of ringed mail, and, about his middle, a broad belt where swung a heavy sword; being come to Beltane he paused leaning upon his axe, and gazed upon him fierce-eyed:

  "Messire," said he, "who ye are I know not, what ye are I care not, for art quick of foot and mighty of arm, and when ye fight, cry a point of war, a battle-shout I knew aforetime ere they enslaved and made of me a serf——and thus it is I would follow thee."

  Quoth Beltane, his aching head upon his hand:

  "Whither?"

  "To death if needs be, for a man must die soon or late, yet die but once whether it be by the steel, or flame, or rope. So what matter the way of it, if I may stand with this my axe face to face with Gilles of Brandonmere, or Red Pertolepe of Garthlaxton Keep: 'twas for this I followed his foresters."

  "Who and whence are you?"

  "Walkyn o' the Dene they call me hereabouts——though I had another name once——but 'twas long ago, when I marched, a lad, 'neath the banner of Beltane the Strong!"

  "What talk be this?" grunted Black Roger, threatening of mien, "my lord and I be under a vow and must begone, and want no runaway serf crawling at our heels!"

  "Ha!" quoth Walkyn, "spake I to thee, hangman? Forsooth, well do I know thee, Roger the Black: come ye into the glade yonder, so will I split thy black poll for thee——thou surly dog!"

  Forth leapt Black Roger's sword, back swung Walkyn's glittering axe, but Beltane was between, and, as they stood thus came Giles o' the Bow:

  "Oho!" he laughed, "must ye be at it yet? Have we not together slain of Sir Pertolepe's foresters a round score?——"

  "'Twas but nineteen!" growled Roger, frowning at Walkyn.

  "So will I make of this hangman the twentieth!" said Walkyn, frowning at Roger.

  "'Tis a sweet thought," laughed the archer, "to it, lads, and slay each other as soon as ye may, and my blessings on ye. As for us, Sir Paladin, let us away——'tis true we together might give check to an army, yet, minding Sir Pertolepe's nineteen foresters, 'twere wiser to his us from Sir Pertolepe's country for the nonce: so march, tall brother——march!"

  "Ha!" snarled Walkyn, "fear ye Red Pertolepe yet, bowman? Well, we want ye not, my lord and I, he hath a sword and I an axe——they shall suffice us, mayhap, an Pertolepe come. So his thee hence with the hangman and save thy rogue's skin."

  "And may ye dangle in a noose yet for a prating do-nothing!" growled Roger.

  "Oho!" laughed Giles, with a flash of white teeth, "a hangman and a serf——must I slay both?" But, ere he could draw sword, came a voice from the shadows near by——a deep voice, clear and very sweet:

  "Oh, children," said the voice, "oh, children of God, put up your steel and pray for one whose white soul doth mount e'en now to heaven!" and forth into the light came one clad as a white friar——a tall man and slender, and upon his shoulder he bare a mattock that gleamed beneath the moon. His coarse, white robe, frayed and worn, was stained with earth and the green of grass, and was splashed, here and there, with a darker stain; pale was he, and hollow-cheeked, but with eyes that gleamed 'neath black brows and with chin long and purposeful. Now at sight of him, fierce-eyed Walkyn cried aloud and flung aside his axe and, falling on his knees, caught the friar's threadbare robe and kissed it.

  "Good brother!" he groaned, "O, gentle brother Martin, pity me!"

  "What, Walkyn?" quoth the friar. "What do ye thus equipped and so far from home?"

  "Home have I none, henceforth, O my father."

  "Ah! What then of thy wife, Truda——of thy little son?"

  "Dead, my father. Red Pertolepe's men slew them this day within the green. So, when I had buried them, I took my axe and left them with God: yet shall my soul go lonely, methinks, until my time be come."

  Then Friar Martin reached out his hand and laid it upon Walkyn's bowed head: and, though the hand was hard and toil-worn, the touch of it was ineffably gentle, and he spake with eyes upraised to heaven:

  "O Christ of Pity, look down upon this stricken soul, be Thou his stay and comfort. Teach him, in his grief and sorrow, to pity the woes of others, that, in comforting his fellows, he may himself find comfort."

  Now when the prayer was ended he turned and looked upon the others, and, beholding Beltane in his might and glittering mail, he spake, saluting him as one of rank.

  "Sir Knight," said he, "do these men follow thee?"

  "Aye, verily," cried the archer, "that do I in sooth——Verbum sat sapienti——good friar."

  "Not so," growled Roger, "'tis but a pestilent archer that seeketh but base hire. I only am my lord's man, sworn to aid him in his vow." "I also," quoth Walkyn, "an so my lord wills?"

  "So shall it be," sighed Beltane, his hand upon his throbbing brow.

  "And what have ye in mind to do?"

  "Forsooth," cried Giles, "to fight, good friar, manibus pedibusque."

  "To obey my lord," said Roger, "and speak good Saxon English."

  "To adventure my body in battle with joyful heart," quoth Walkyn.

  "To make an end of tyranny!" sighed Beltane.

  "Alas!" said the friar, "within this doleful Duchy be tyrants a many, and ye are but four, meseemeth; yet if within your hearts be room for pity——follow me, and I will show you a sight, mayhap shall nerve you strong as giants. Come!"

  So Beltane followed the white friar with the three upon his heels who wrangled now no more; and in a while the friar paused beside a new-digged grave.

  "Behold," said he, "the bed where we, each one, must sleep some day, and yet 'tis cold and hard, methinks, for one so young and tender!" So saying he sighed, and turning, brought them to a hut near by, an humble dwelling of mud and wattles, dim-lighted by a glimmering rush. But, being come within the hut Beltane stayed of a sudden and held his breath, staring wide-eyed at that which lay so still: then, baring his head, sank upon his knees.

  She lay outstretched upon a bed of fern, and looked as one that sleeps save for the deathly pallor of her cheek and still and pulseless bosom: and she was young, and of a wondrous, gentle beauty.

  "Behold," said the friar, "but one short hour agone this was alive——a child of God, pure of heart and undefiled. These gentle hands lie stilled forever: this sweet, white body (O shame of men!) blasted by brutality, maimed and torn——is nought but piteous clay to moulder in the year. Yet doth her radiant soul lie on the breast of God forever, since she, for honour, died the death——Behold!" So saying, the friar with sudden hand laid bare the still and marble bosom; and, beholding the red horror wrought there by cruel steel, Beltane rose up, and taking off his cloak, therewith reverently covered the pale, dead beauty of her, and so stood awhile with eyes close shut and spake, soft-voiced and slow, 'twixt pallid lips:

  "How——came this——thing?"

  "She was captive to Sir Pertolepe, by him taken in a raid, and he would have had her to his will: yet, by aid of my lord's jester, she escaped and fled hither. But Sir Pertolepe's foresters pursued and took her and——so is she dead: may God requite them!"

  "Amen!" quoth Giles o' the Bow, hoarse-voiced, "so do they all lie dead within the green!"

  "Save one!" said Roger.

  "But he sore wounded!" quoth Walkyn.

  "How!" cried the friar aghast, "have ye indeed slain Sir Pertolepe's foresters?"

  "Nineteen!" nodded Roger, grimly.

  "Alas!" cried the friar, "may God save the poor folk hereabouts, for now will Sir Pertolepe wreak vengeance dire upon them."

  "Then," said Beltane, "then must I have word with Sir Pertolepe."

  Now when he said this, Black Roger stared agape and even the archer's tongue failed him for once; but Walkyn smiled and gripped his axe.

  "Art mad, tall brother!" cried Giles at length, "Sir Pertolepe would hang thee out of hand, or throw thee to his dogs!"

  "Lord," said Roger, "Sir Pertolepe hath ten score men-at-arms in Garthlaxton, beside bowmen and foresters."

  "There should be good work for mine axe!" smiled Walkyn.

  "None the less must I speak with him," said Beltane, and turned him to the door.

  "Then will I die with thee, lord," growled Roger.

  "So will I come and watch thee die——hangman, and loose a shaft or two on mine own account!"

  But now, of a sudden, Walkyn raised a warning hand.

  "Hark!" said he: and, in a while, as they listened, upon the stillness came a rustle of leaves and thereafter a creeping step drawing slowly nearer: then swift and soft-treading, Walkyn stole out into the shadows.

  Very soon he returned, leading a woman, pale and haggard, who clasped a babe within her threadbare cloak; her eyes were red and sore with much weeping and upon the threshold she paused as one in sudden fear, but espying the friar, she uttered a cry:

  "O Father Martin——good father——pray, pray for the soul of him who is father to my child, but who at dawn must die with many others upon my lord Duke's great gallows!"

  "Alas!" cried the friar, wringing his hands, "what news is this?"

  "O good friar," sobbed the woman, "my lord's hand hath been so heavy upon us of late——so heavy: and there came messengers from Thrasfordham in Bourne bidding us thither with fair promises:——and my father, being head of our village, hearkened to them and we made ready to cross into Bourne. But my lord came upon us and burned our village of Shallowford and lashed my father with whips and thereafter hanged him, and took my man and many others and cast them into the great dungeon at Belsaye—— and with the dawn they must hang upon the Duke's great gallows."

  So she ended and stood weeping as one that is hopeless and weary. But of a sudden she screamed and pointed at Black Roger with her finger:

  "'Tis Roger!" she cried, "'tis Black Roger, that slew my father!"

  Then Roger the Black groaned and hid his face within his arm and shrank before the woman's outstretched finger and, groaning, cowered to his knees; whereupon the archer turned his back and spat upon the floor while Walkyn glared and fingered his great axe: but in this moment my Beltane came beside him and laid his hand on Roger's stooping shoulder.

  "Nay," said he, "this is my friend henceforth, a man among men, who liveth to do great things as thus: To-night he will give back to thee the father of thy child, and break open the dungeon of Belsaye!"

  Thus spake my Beltane while all stared at his saying and held their peace because of their amaze: only Black Roger turned of a sudden and caught his hand and kissed it savagely.

  "Sir," said the woman, peering up in Beltane's face, "Lord——ah, would ye mock the weak and helpless——"

  "Nay," said Beltane gently, "as God seeth me, to-night the prisoners shall go free, or this man and I die with them. So now be comforted——go you to Bourne, to Sir Benedict within Thrasfordham Keep, and say you come from Beltane, Duke of Pentavalon, who swore thee, by the honour of the Duke Beltane his father, that never again shall a man hang from the great gallows of Black Ivo the usurper——from this night it shall cease to be!"

  Now would the woman have knelt and kissed his hand, but Beltane smiled and brought her to the door. Then, wondering and amazed, she made her obeisance to Beltane and with her babe clasped to her bosom went forth into the night. Thereafter Beltane turned and looked grave-eyed upon the three.

  "My masters," quoth he, "ye have heard my words, how this night I go to take down Black Ivo's great gallows. Come ye with me? Aye or no?"

  "Aye, lord!" cried the three in one acclaim.

  "Do ye then stand with me henceforth 'gainst Black Ivo and all his might? Aye or no?"

  "Aye, lord!" cried they again.

  Then Beltane smiled and drew his sword and came to them, the great blade gleaming in his hand.

  "'Tis well!" said he, "but first come now and lay your hands here upon my sword and swear me this, each one,——To follow ever where I shall lead, to abide henceforth in brotherhood together, to smite evil within you and without, to be pitiful to the weak, and to honour God at all times."

  Then did the three, being upon their knees, lay their hands upon the sword and swear the oath as Beltane commanded; now came the white friar and stared upon the sword and beholding the motto graven in the steel, lifted up his hand to heaven and cried aloud:——

  "Now greeting and fair greeting to thee, lord Duke, may thy body be strong for war and thy head wise in the council, for Pentavalon hath dire need of thee, Beltane, son of Duke Beltane the Strong. Moreover I was sent to thee by Sir Benedict of Bourne who bids thee 'Arise and follow' for that the time is at hand."

  "How," cried Beltane, "art thou indeed from Sir Benedict?"

  "Even so, lord. In Thrasfordham be seven hundred chosen men-at-arms, and within Bourne, mayhap a thousand more. It is become a haven for those that flee from tyranny and bitter wrong. As for me, I journey where I will within the Duchy, serving the poor and ministering to the broken-hearted, and everywhere is black sin and suffering and death. So now in the name of these oppressed do I give thee welcome to this thy sorrowful Duchy, and may God make of thee Duke indeed!"

  Quoth Beltane:

  "Duke am I in blood and Duke will I yet be in very sooth an God so will it." Then turning to the three, who stood hearkening open-mouthed and wide of eye, he smiled and reached to them his hand.

  "Good friends," said he, "knowing nought of me yet were ye willing to follow my fortunes. For this do I thank ye one and all, and so shall my fortune, high or low, be thine, henceforth. To-day is Ivo Duke, and I thy companion-in-arms, no more, no less——this, I pray you all, remember."

  So saying, Beltane sheathed his sword and beholding Friar Martin on his knees beside that muffled figure, he knelt also, and the three with him. Thereafter at a sign from the friar, Beltane stooped and raised this slender, shrouded figure in his arms and reverently bore it out into the shadows.

  And there, all in the tender radiance of the moon, they buried her whose name they never knew, and stood a while in silence. Then, pointing to the new-turned earth, Friar Martin spake soft-voiced:

  "Lo, here——in but a little time, wild flowers shall bloom above her—— yet none purer or sweeter than she! In a little shall the grass be green again, and she sleep here forgot by all——save God! And God, my brothers, is a gentle God and very pitiful——so now do we leave her in God's abiding care."

  And presently they turned, soft-footed, and went upon their way leaving the place to solitude.

  But from the vault of heaven the stars looked down upon that lonely grave like the watching eyes of holy angels.

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