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Beltane The Smith (Chapter29)

2006-08-28 16:32

  Chapter XXIX. How Beltane Slew Tostig anD Spake with the Wild Men

  The sun was down what time they left the hill country and came out upon a wide heath void of trees and desolate, where was a wind cold and clammy to chill the flesh, where rank-growing rush and reed stirred fitfully, filling the dark with stealthy rustlings.

  "Master," quoth Roger, shivering and glancing about him, "here is Hangstone Waste, and yonder the swamps of Hundleby Fen——you can smell them from here! And 'tis an evil place, this, for 'tis said the souls of murdered folk do meet here betimes, and hold high revel when the moon be full. Here, on wild nights witches and warlocks ride shrieking upon the wind, with goblins damned——"

  "Ha, say ye so, good Roger?" quoth the archer, "now the sweet Saint Giles go with us——amen!" and he crossed himself devoutly.

  So went they in silence awhile until they were come where the sedge grew thick and high above whispering ooze, and where trees, stunted and misshapen, lifted knotted arms in the gloom.

  "Lord," spake Walkyn, his voice low and awe-struck, "here is the marsh, a place of death for them that know it not, where, an a man tread awry, is a quaking slime to suck him under. Full many a man lieth 'neath the reeds yonder, for there is but one path, very narrow and winding—— follow close then, and step where I shall step."

  "Aye, master," whispered Roger, "and look ye touch no tree as ye go; 'tis said they do grow from the bones of perished men, so touch them not lest some foul goblin blast thee."

  So went they, following a narrow track that wound betwixt slow-stirring sedge, past trees huddled and distorted that seemed to writhe and shiver in the clammy air until, beyond the swamp, they came to a place of rocks where ragged crags loomed high and vague before them. Now, all at once, Walkyn raised a warning hand, as from the shadow of those rocks, a hoarse voice challenged:

  "Stand!" cried the voice, "who goes?"

  "What, and is it thou, rogue Perkyn?" cried Walkyn, "art blind not to know me?"

  "Aye," growled the voice, "but blind or no, I see others with thee."

  "Good friends all!" quoth Walkyn.

  "Stand forth that I may see these friends o' thine!" Drawing near, Beltane beheld a man in filthy rags who held a long bow in his hand with an arrow on the string, at sight of whom Roger muttered and Giles held his nose and spat.

  "Aha," growled the man Perkyn, peering under his matted hair, "I like not the looks o' these friends o' thine——"

  "Nor we thine, foul fellow," quoth Giles, and spat again whole-heartedly.

  "How!" cried Walkyn fiercely, "d'ye dare bid Walkyn stand, thou dog's meat? Must I flesh mine axe on thy vile carcase?"

  "Not till I feather a shaft in thee," growled Perkyn, "what would ye?"

  "Speak with Eric o' the Noose."

  "Aha, and what would ye with half-hung Eric, forsooth? Tostig's our chief, and Tostig's man am I. As for Eric——"

  "Aye——aye, and what of Eric?" spake a third voice——a soft voice and liquid, and a man stepped forth of the rocks with two other men at his heels.

  "Now well met, Eric o' the Noose," quoth Walkyn. "I bring promise of more booty, and mark this, Eric——I bring also him that you wot of."

  Now hereupon the man Eric drew near, a broad-set man clad in skins and rusty mail who looked upon Beltane with head strangely askew, and touched a furtive hand to his battered head-piece.

  "Ye come at an evil hour," said he, speaking low-voiced. "Tostig holdeth high feast and revel, for to-day we took a rich booty at the ford beyond Bassingthorp——merchants out of Winisfarne, with pack-horses well laden——and there were women also——in especial, one very fair. Her, Tostig bore hither. But a while since, when he bade them bring her to him, behold she had stabbed herself with her bodkin. So is she dead and Tostig raging. Thus I say, ye come in an evil hour."

  "Not so," answered Beltane. "Methinks we come in good hour. I am fain to speak with Tostig——come!" and he stepped forward, but Eric caught him by the arm:

  "Messire," said he soft-voiced, "yonder be over five score lusty fellows, fierce and doughty fighters all, that live but to do the will of Tostig and do proclaim him chief since he hath proved himself full oft mightiest of all——"

  "Ah," nodded Beltane, "a strong man!"

  "Beyond equal. A fierce man that knoweth not mercy, swift to anger and joyful to slay at all times——"

  "Why, look you," sighed Beltane, "neither am I a lamb. Come, fain am I to speak with this Tostig."

  A while stood Eric, head aslant, peering at Beltane, then, at a muttered word from Walkyn, he shook his head and beckoning the man Perkyn aside, led the way through a cleft in the rocks and up a precipitous path beyond; and as he went, Beltane saw him loosen sword in scabbard.

  Ever as they clomb, the path grew more difficult, until at last they were come to a parapet or outwork with mantelets of osiers beyond, cunningly wrought, above which a pike-head glimmered and from beyond which a voice challenged them; but at a word from Eric the sentinel stood aside and behold, a narrow opening in the parapet through which they passed and so up another path defended by yet another parapet of osiers. Now of a sudden, having climbed the ascent, Beltane paused and stood leaning upon his axe, for, from where he now stood, he looked down into a great hollow, green and rock-begirt, whose steep sides were shaded by trees and dense-growing bushes. In the midst of this hollow a fire burned whose blaze showed many wild figures that sprawled round about in garments of leather and garments of skins; its ruddy light showed faces fierce and hairy; it glinted on rusty mail and flashed back from many a dinted head-piece and broad spear-head; and upon the air was the sound of noisy talk and boisterous laughter. Through the midst of this great green hollow a stream wound that broadened out in one place into a still and sleepy pool upon whose placid surface stars seemed to float, a deep pool whereby was a tall tree. Now beneath this tree, far removed from the fire, sat a great swarthy fellow, chin on fist, scowling down at that which lay at his feet, and of a sudden he spurned this still and silent shape with savage foot.

  "Oswin!" he cried, "Walcher! Throw me this useless carrion into the pool!" Hereupon came two sturdy rogues who, lifting the dead betwixt them, bore her to the edge of the silent pool. Once they swung and twice, and lo, the floating stars shivered to a sullen splash, and subsiding, rippled softly to the reedy banks.

  Slowly the swarthy giant rose and stood upon his legs, and Beltane knew him for the tallest man he had ever seen.

  "Oswin," quoth he, and beckoned with his finger, "Oswin, did I not bid thee keep watch upon yon dainty light o' love?" Now meeting the speaker's baleful eye, the man Oswin sprang back, striving to draw sword, but even so an iron hand was about his throat, he was lifted by a mighty arm that held him a while choking and kicking above the silent pool until he had gasped and kicked his life out 'midst shouts and gibes and hoarse laughter; thereafter again the sullen waters quivered, were still, and Tostig stood, empty-handed, frowning down at those floating stars.

  Then Beltane leapt down into the hollow and strode swift-footed, nor stayed until he stood face to face with Tostig beside the sullen pool. But swift as he had come, Roger had followed, and now stood to his back, hand on sword.

  "Aha!" quoth Tostig in staring amaze, and stood a while eying Beltane with hungry gaze. "By Thor!" said he, "but 'tis a good armour and should fit me well. Off with it——off, I am Tostig!" So saying, he drew a slow pace nearer, his teeth agleam, his great hands opening and shutting, whereat out leapt Roger's blade; but now the outlaws came running to throng about them, shouting and jostling one another, and brandishing their weapons yet striking no blow, waiting gleefully for what might befall; and ever Beltane looked upon Tostig, and Tostig, assured and confident, smiled grimly upon Beltane until the ragged throng about them, watching eager-eyed, grew hushed and still. Then Beltane spake:

  "Put up thy sword, Roger," said he, "in very truth this Tostig is a foul thing and should not die by thy good steel——so put up thy sword, Roger."

  And now, no man spake or moved, but all stood rigid and scarce breathing, waiting for the end. For Tostig, smiling no more, stood agape as one that doubts his senses, then laughed he loud and long, and turned as if to reach his sword that leaned against the tree and, in that instant, sprang straight for Beltane's throat, his griping hands outstretched; but swift as he, Beltane, letting fall his axe, slipped aside and smote with mailed fist, and as Tostig reeled from the blow, closed with and caught him in a deadly wrestling hold, for all men might see Beltane had locked one arm 'neath Tostig's bearded chin and that Tostig's shaggy head was bending slowly backwards. Then the outlaws surged closer, a dark, menacing ring where steel flickered; but lo! to Roger's right hand sprang Walkyn, gripping his axe, and upon his left came Giles, his long-bow poised, a shaft upon the string; so stood the three alert and watchful, eager for fight, what time the struggle waxed ever more fierce and deadly. To and fro the wrestlers swayed, locked in vicious grapple, grimly silent save for the dull trampling of their feet upon the moss and the gasp and hiss of panting breaths; writhing and twisting, stumbling and slipping, or suddenly still with feet that gripped the sod, with bulging muscles, swelled and rigid, that cracked beneath the strain, while eye glared death to eye. But Beltane's iron fingers were fast locked, and little by little, slow but sure, Tostig's swart head was tilting up and back, further and further, until his forked beard pointed upwards——until, of a sudden, there brake from his writhen lips a cry, loud and shrill that sank to groan and ended in a sound——a faint sound, soft and sudden. But now, behold, Tostig's head swayed loosely backwards behind his shoulders, his knees sagged, his great arms loosed their hold: then, or he could fall, Beltane stooped beneath and putting forth all his strength, raised him high above his head, and panting, groaning with the strain, turned and hurled dead Tostig down into the pool whose sullen waters leapt to a mighty splash, and presently subsiding, whispered softly in the reeds; and for a while no man stirred or spoke, only Beltane stood upon the marge and panted.

  Then turned he to the outlaws, and catching up his axe therewith pointed downwards to that stilly pool whose placid waters seemed to hold nought but a glory of floating stars.

  "Behold," he panted, "here was an evil man——a menace to well-being, wherefore is he dead. But as for ye, come tell me——how long will ye be slaves?"

  Hereupon rose a hoarse murmur that grew and grew——Then stood the man Perkyn forward, and scowling, pointed at Beltane with his spear.

  "Comrades!" he cried, "he hath slain Tostig! He hath murdered our leader——come now, let us slay him!" and speaking, he leapt at Beltane with levelled spear, but quick as he leapt, so leapt Walkyn, his long arms rose and fell, and thereafter, setting his foot upon Perkyn's body, he shook his bloody axe in the scowling faces of the outlaws.

  "Back, fools!" he cried, "have ye no eyes? See ye not 'tis he of whom I spake——he that burned Belsaye gallows and brake ope the dungeon of Belsaye——that is friend to all distressed folk and broken men; know ye not Beltane the Duke? Hear him, ye fools, hear him!"

  Hereupon the outlaws stared upon Beltane and upon each other, and fumbled with their weapons as men that knew not their own minds, while Beltane, wiping sweat from him, leaned upon his axe and panted, with the three at his elbow alert and watchful, eager for fight; but Perkyn lay where he had fallen, very still and with his face hidden in the grass.

  Of a sudden, Beltane laid by his axe and reached out his hands.

  "Brothers," said he, "how long will ye be slaves?"

  "Slaves, forsooth?" cried one, "slaves are we to no man——here within the green none dare gainsay us——we be free men, one and all. Is't not so, comrades?"

  "Aye! Aye!" roared a hundred voices.

  "Free?" quoth Beltane, "free? Aye, free to wander hither and thither, hiding forever within the wilderness, living ever in awe and dread lest ye die in a noose. Free to go in rags, to live like beasts, to die unpitied and be thrown into a hole, or left to rot i' the sun——call ye this freedom, forsooth? Hath none among ye desire for hearth and home, for wife and child——are ye become so akin to beasts indeed?"

  Now hereupon, divers muttered in their beards and others looked askance on one another. Then spake the man Eric, of the wry neck.

  "Messire," quoth he, "all that you say is sooth, but what remedy can ye bring to such as we. Say now?"

  Then spake Beltane on this wise:

  "All ye that have suffered wrong, all ye that be broken men——hearken! Life is short and quick to escape a man, yet do all men cherish it, and to what end? What seek ye of life——is it arms, is it riches? Go with me and I will teach ye how they shall be come by. Are ye heavy-hearted by reason of your wrongs——of bitter shame wrought upon the weak and innocent? Seek ye vengeance?——would ye see tyrants die?——seek ye their blood, forsooth? Then follow me!"

  Now at this the outlaws began to murmur among themselves, wagging their heads one to another and voicing their grievances thus:

  "They cut off mine ears for resisting my lord's taxes, and for this I would have justice!"

  "They burned me in the hand for striking my lord's hunting dog!"

  "I had a wife once, and she was young and fair; so my lord's son took her and thereafter gave her for sport among his huntsmen, whereof she died——and for this would I have vengeance!"

  "They burned my home, and therein wife and child——and for this would I have vengeance!"

  "They cut off my brother's hands!"

  "They put out my father's eyes!"

  Quoth Eric:

  "And me they sought to hang to mine own roof-tree!——behold this crooked neck o' mine——so am I Eric o' the Noose. Each one of us hath suffered wrong, great or little, so live we outlaws in the green, lawless men in lawless times, seeking ever vengeance for our wrongs. Who then shall bring us to our desire, how shall our grievous wrongs be righted? An we follow, whither would'st thou lead us?"

  "By dangerous ways," answered Beltane, "through fire and battle. But by fire men are purged, and by battle wrongs may be done away. An ye follow, 'tis like some of us shall die, but by such death our brethren shall win to honour, and home, and happiness, for happiness is all men's birthright. Ye are but a wild, unordered rabble, yet are ye men! 'Tis true ye are ill-armed and ragged, yet is your cause a just one. Ye bear weapons and have arms to smite——why then lurk ye here within the wild-wood? Will not fire burn? Will not steel cut? He that is not coward, let him follow me!"

  "Aye," cried a score of harsh voices, "but whither——whither?"

  Quoth Beltane:

  "Be there many among ye that know Sir Pertolepe the Red?"

  Now went there up a roar, deep-lunged and ominous; brawny fists were shaken and weapons flashed and glittered.

  "Ah——we know him——the Red Wolf——we know him——ah!"

  "Then tell me," said Beltane, "will not steel cut? Will not fire burn? Arise, I say, rise up and follow me. So will we smite Tyranny this night and ere the dawn Garthlaxton shall be ablaze!"

  "Garthlaxton!" cried Eric, "Garthlaxton!" and thereafter all men stared on Beltane as one that is mad.

  "Look now," said Beltane, "Sir Pertolepe hath ridden forth with all his company to join Black Ivo's banner. Thus, within Garthlaxton his men be few; moreover I know a secret way beneath the wall. Well, is't enough? Who among ye will follow, and smite for freedom and Pentavalon?"

  "That will I!" cried Eric, falling upon his knee.

  "And I! And I!" cried others, and so came they to crowd eagerly about Beltane, to touch his hand or the links of his bright mail.

  "Lead us!" they cried, "come——lead us!"

  "Nay first——hearken! From henceforth outlaws are ye none. Come now, one and all, draw, and swear me on your swords:——To make your strength a shelter to the weak; to smite henceforth but in honourable cause for freedom, for justice and Pentavalon——swear me upon your swords to abide by this oath, and to him that breaks it——Death. Swear!"

  So there upon their knees with gleaming swords uplifted, these wild men swore the oath. Then up sprang Walkyn, pointing to Beltane with his axe.

  "Brothers!" he cried, "behold a man that doeth such deeds as no man ever did——that burned the gallows——burst ope the dungeon of Belsaye and slew Tostig the mighty with naked hands! Behold Beltane the Duke! Is he not worthy to be our leader——shall we not follow him?" Then came a roar of voices:

  "Aye——let us follow——let us follow!"

  "On, then!" cried Walkyn, his glittering axe aloft. "To Garthlaxton!"

  Then from an hundred brawny throats a roar went up to heaven, a cry that hissed through clenched teeth and rang from eager lips, wilder, fiercer than before. And the cry was:——

  "Garthlaxton!"

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