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Beltane The Smith (Chapter31)

2006-08-28 16:33

  Chapter XXXI. How Giles Made a Merry Song

  Morning, young and fragrant, bedecked and brave with gems of dewy fire; a blithe morning, wherein trees stirred whispering and new-waked birds piped joyous welcome to the sun, whose level, far-flung beams filled the world with glory save where, far to the south, a pillar of smoke rose upon the stilly air, huge, awful, and black as sin——a writhing column shot with flame that went up high as heaven.

  "O merry, aye merry, right merry I'll be,To live and to love 'neath the merry green tree,Nor the rain, nor the sleet,Nor the cold, nor the heat,I'll mind, if my love will come thither to me."

  Sang Giles, a sprig of wild flowers a-dance in his new-gotten, gleaming bascinet, his long-bow upon his mailed shoulder, and, strapped to his wide back, a misshapen bundle that clinked melodiously with every swinging stride; and, while he sang, the ragged rogues about him ceased their noise and ribaldry to hearken in delight, and when he paused, cried out amain for more. Whereupon Giles, nothing loth, brake forth afresh:

  "O when is the time a maid to kiss,Tell me this, ah, tell me this?

  'Tis when the day is new begun,'Tis to the setting of the sun,Is time for kissing ever done?

  Tell me this, ah, tell me this?"

  Thus blithely sang Giles the Archer, above the tramp and jingle of the many pack-horses, until, being come to the top of a hill, he stood aside to let the ragged files swing by and stayed to look back at Garthlaxton Keep.

  Now as he stood thus, beholding that mighty flame, Walkyn and Roger paused beside him, and stood to scowl upon the fire with never a word betwixt them.

  "How now," cried Giles, "art in the doleful dumps forsooth on so blithe a morn, with two-score pack-horses heavy with booty——and Garthlaxton aflame yonder? Aha, 'tis a rare blaze yon, a fire shall warm the heart of many a sorry wretch, methinks."

  "Truly," nodded Roger, "I have seen yon flaming keep hung round with hanged men ere now——and in the dungeons beneath——I have seen——God forgive me, what I have seen! Ha! Burn, accursed walls, burn! Full many shall rejoice in thy ruin, as I do——lorn women and fatherless children——fair women ravished of life and honour!"

  "Aye," cried Giles, "and lovely ladies brought to shame! So, Garthlaxton——smoke!"

  "And," quoth frowning Walkyn, "I would that Pertolepe's rank carcass smoked with thee!"

  "Content you, my gentle Walkyn," nodded the archer, "hell-fire shall have him yet, and groweth ever hotter against the day——content you. So away with melancholy, be blithe and merry as I am and the sweet-voiced throstles yonder——the wanton rogues! Ha! by Saint Giles! See where our youthful, god-like brother rideth, his brow as gloomy as his hair is bright——"

  "Ah," muttered Roger, "he grieveth yet for Beda the Jester——and he but a Fool!"

  "Yet a man-like fool, methinks!" quoth the archer. "But for our tall brother now, he is changed these latter days: he groweth harsh, methinks, and something ungentle at times." And Giles thoughtfully touched his arm with tentative fingers.

  "Why, the torment is apt to change a man," said Walkyn, grim-smiling. "I have tried it and I know."

  Now hereupon Giles fell to whistling, Walkyn to silence and Roger to scowling; oft looking back, jealous-eyed, to where Beltane rode a black war-horse, his mail-coif thrown back, his chin upon his breast, his eyes gloomy and wistful; and as often as he looked, Roger sighed amain. Whereat at last the archer cried:

  "Good lack, Roger, and wherefore puff ye so? Why glower ye, man, and snort?"

  "Snort thyself!" growled Roger.

  "Nay, I had rather talk."

  "I had rather be silent."

  "Excellent, Roger; so will I talk for thee and me. First will I show three excellent reasons for happiness——videlicit: the birds sing, I talk, and Garthlaxton burns.——"

  "I would thou did'st burn with it," growled Roger. "But here is a deed shall live when thou and I are dust, archer!"

  "Verily, good Roger, for here and now will I make a song on't for souls unborn to sing——a good song with a lilt to trip it lightly on the tongue, as thus:

  "How Beltane burned Garthlaxton low With lusty Giles, whose good yew bow Sped many a caitiff rogue, I trow,Dixit!"

  "How!" exclaimed Roger, "here be two whole lines to thy knavish self and but one to our master?"

  "Aye," grumbled Walkyn, "and what of Roger?——what of me?——we were there also, methinks?"

  "Nay, show patience," said Giles, "we will amend that in the next triplet, thus:

  "There Roger fought, and Walkyn too,And Giles that bare the bow of yew;O swift and strong his arrows flew,Dixit!"

  "How think ye of that, now?"

  "I think, here is too much Giles," said Roger.

  "Forsooth, and say ye so indeed? Let us then to another verse:

  "Walkyn a mighty axe did sway,Black Roger's sword some few did slay,Yet Giles slew many more than they,Dixit!"

  "Here now, we have each one his line apiece, which is fair——and the lines trip it commendingly, how think ye?"

  "I think it a lie!" growled Roger.

  "Aye me!" sighed the archer, "thou'rt fasting, Rogerkin, and an empty belly ever giveth thee an ill tongue. Yet for thy behoof my song shall be ended, thus:

  "They gave Garthlaxton to the flame,Be glory to Duke Beltane's name,And unto lusty Giles the same,Dixit!"

  "Par Dex!" he broke off, "here is a right good song for thee, trolled forth upon this balmy-breathing morn sweet as any merle; a song for thee and me to sing to our children one day, mayhap——so come, rejoice, my rueful Rogerkin——smile, for to-day I sing and Garthlaxton is ablaze."

  "And my master grieveth for a Fool!" growled sulky Roger, "and twenty and two good men slain."

  "Why, see you, Roger, here is good cause for rejoicing also, for, our youthful Ajax grieving for a dead Fool, it standeth to reason he shall better love a live one——and thou wert ever a fool, Roger——so born and so bred. As for our comrades slain, take ye comfort in this, we shall divide their share of plunder, and in this thought is a world of solace. Remembering the which, I gathered unto myself divers pretty toys——you shall hear them sweetly a-jingle in my fardel here. As, item: a silver crucifix, very artificially wrought and set with divers gems—— a pretty piece! Item: a golden girdle from the East——very sweet and rare. Item: four silver candlesticks——heavy, Roger! Item: a gold hilted dagger——a notable trinket. Item——"

  A sudden shout from the vanward, a crashing in the underbrush beside the way, a shrill cry, and three or four of Eric's ragged rogues appeared dragging a woman betwixt them, at sight of whom the air was filled with fierce shouts and cries.

  "The witch! Ha! 'Tis the witch of Hangstone Waste! To the water with the hag! Nay, burn her! Burn her!"

  "Aye," cried Roger, pushing forward, "there's nought like the fire for your devils or demons!"

  Quoth the archer:

  "In nomen Dominum——Holy Saint Giles, 'tis a comely maid!"

  "Foul daughter of an accursed dam!" quoth Roger, spitting and drawing a cross in the dust with his bow-stave.

  "With the eyes of an angel!" said Giles, pushing nearer where stood a maid young and shapely, trembling in the close grasp of one Gurth, a ragged, red-haired giant, whose glowing eyes stared lustfully upon her ripe young beauty.

  "'Tis Mellent!" cried the fellow. "'Tis the witch's daughter that hath escaped me thrice by deviltry and witchcraft——"

  "Nay——nay," panted the maid 'twixt pallid lips, "nought am I but a poor maid gathering herbs and simples for my mother. Ah, show pity——"

  "Witch!" roared a score of voices, "Witch!"

  "Not so, in sooth——in very sooth," she gasped 'twixt sobs of terror, "nought but a poor maid am I——and the man thrice sought me out and would have shamed me but that I escaped, for that I am very swift of foot——"

  "She lured me into the bog with devil-fires!" cried Gurth.

  "And would thou had'st rotted there!" quoth Giles o' the Bow, edging nearer. Now hereupon the maid turned and looked at Giles through the silken curtain of her black and glossy hair, and beholding the entreaty of that look, the virginal purity of those wide blue eyes, the archer stood awed and silent, his comely face grew red, grew pale——then, out flashed his dagger and he crouched to spring on Gurth; but, of a sudden, Beltane rode in between, at whose coming a shout went up and thereafter a silence fell. But now at sight of Beltane, the witch-maid uttered a strange cry, and shrinking beneath his look, crouched upon her knees and spake in strange, hushed accents.

  "Messire," she whispered, "mine eyes do tell me thou art the lord Beltane!"

  "Aye, 'tis so."

  "Ah!" she cried, "now glory be and thanks to God that I do see thee hale and well!" So saying, she shivered and covered her face. Now while Beltane yet stared, amazed by her saying, the bushes parted near by and a hooded figure stepped forth silent and soft of foot, at sight of whom all men gave back a pace, and Roger, trembling, drew a second cross in the dust with his bow-stave, what time a shout went up:

  "Ha!——the Witch——'tis the witch of Hangstone Waste herself!"

  Very still she stood, looking round upon them all with eyes that glittered 'neath the shadow of her hood; and when at last she spake, her voice was rich and sweet to hear.

  "Liar!" she said, and pointed at Gurth a long, white finger, "unhand her, liar, lest thou wither, flesh and bone, body and soul!" Now here, once again, men gave back cowering 'neath her glance, while Roger crossed himself devoutly.

  "The evil eye!" he muttered 'twixt chattering teeth, "cross thy fingers, Giles, lest she blast thee!" But Gurth shook his head and laughed aloud.

  "Fools!" he cried, "do ye forget? No witch hath power i' the sun! She can work no evil i' the sunshine. Seize her!——'tis an accursed hag—— seize her! Bring her to the water and see an she can swim with a stone at her hag's neck. All witches are powerless by day. See, thus I spit upon and defy her!"

  Now hereupon a roar of anger went up and, for that they had feared her before, so now grew they more fierce; a score of eager hands dragged at her, hands that rent her cloak, that grasped with cruel fingers at her long grey hair, bending her this way and that; but she uttered no groan nor complaint, only the maid cried aloud most pitiful to hear, whereat Giles, dagger in hand, pushed and strove to come at Gurth. Then Beltane alighted from his horse and parting the throng with mailed hands, stood within the circle and looking round upon them laughed, and his laugh was harsh and bitter.

  "Forsooth, and must ye war with helpless women, O men of Pentavalon?" quoth he, and laughed again right scornfully; whereat those that held the witch relaxed their hold and fain would justify themselves.

  "She is a witch——a cursed witch!" they cried.

  "She is a woman," says Beltane.

  "Aye——a devil-woman——a notable witch——we know her of old!"

  "Verily," cried one, "'tis but a sennight since she plagued me with aching teeth——"

  "And me with an ague!" cried another.

  "She bewitched my shafts that they all flew wide o' the mark!" cried a third.

  "She cast on me a spell whereby I nigh did perish i' the fen——"

  "She is a hag——she's demon-rid and shall to the fire!" they shouted amain. "Ha!——witch!——witch!"

  "That doeth no man harm by day," said Beltane, "so by day shall no man harm her——"

  "Aye, lord," quoth Roger, "but how by night? 'tis by night she may work her spells and blast any that she will, or haunt them with goblins damned that they do run mad, or——"

  "Enough!" cried Beltane frowning, "on me let her bewitchments fall; thus, see you, an I within this next week wither and languish 'neath her spells, then let her burn an ye will: but until this flesh doth shrivel on these my bones, no man shall do her hurt. So now let there be an end——free these women, let your ranks be ordered, and march——"

  "Comrades all!" cried red-haired Gurth, "will ye be slaves henceforth to this girl-faced youth? We have arms now and rich booty. Let us back to the merry greenwood, where all men are equal——come, let us be gone, and take these witches with us to our sport——"

  But in this moment Beltane turned.

  "Girl-faced, quotha?" he cried; and beholding his look, Gurth of a sudden loosed the swooning maid and, drawing sword, leapt and smote at Beltane's golden head; but Beltane caught the blow in his mailed hand, and snapped the blade in sunder, and, seizing Gurth about the loins, whirled him high in air; then, while all men blenched and held their breath waiting the thud of his broken body in the dust, Beltane stayed and set him down upon his feet. And lo! Gurth's cheek was pale, his eye wide and vacant, and his soul sat numbed within him. So Beltane took him by the throat, and, laughing fierce, shook him to and fro.

  "Beast!" said he, "unfit art thou to march with these my comrades. Now therefore do I cast thee out. Take thy life and go, and let any follow thee that will——Pentavalon needeth not thy kind. Get thee from among us, empty-handed as I found thee——thy share of treasure shall go to better men!"

  Now even as Beltane spake, Gurth's red head sank until his face was hidden within his hands; strong hands, that slowly clenched themselves into anger-trembling fists. And ever as Beltane spake, the witch, tossing back her long grey hair, looked and looked on him with bright and eager eyes; a wondering look, quick to note his shape and goodly size, his wide blue eyes, his long and golden hair and the proud, high carriage of his head: and slowly, to her wonderment came awe and growing joy. But Beltane spake on unheeding:

  "Thou dost know me for a hunted man with a price upon my head, but thou art thing so poor thy death can pleasure no man. So take thy life and get thee hence, but come not again, for in that same hour will I hang thee in a halter——go!" So, with drooping head, Gurth of the red hair turned him about, and plunging into the green, was gone; then Beltane looked awhile upon the others that stood shifting on their feet, and with never a word betwixt them.

  "Comrades," quoth he, "mighty deeds do lie before us——such works as only true men may achieve. And what is a man? A man, methinks, is he, that, when he speaketh, speaketh ever from his heart; that, being quick to hate all evil actions, is quicker to forgive, and who, fearing neither ghost nor devil, spells nor witchcraft, dreadeth only dishonour, and thus, living without fear, he without fear may die. So now God send we all be men, my brothers. To your files there——pikes to the front and rear, bows to the flanks——forward!"

  But now, as with a ring and clash and tramp of feet the ragged company fell into rank and order, the witch-woman came swiftly beside Beltane and, touching him not, spake softly in his ear.

  "Beltane——Beltane, lord Duke of Pentavalon!" Now hereupon Beltane started, and turning, looked upon her grave-eyed.

  "What would ye, woman?" he questioned.

  "Born wert thou of a mother chaste as fair, true wife unto the Duke thy father——a woman sweet and holy who liveth but to the good of others: yet was brother slain by brother, and thou baptised in blood ere now!"

  "Woman," quoth he, his strong hands a-tremble, "who art thou——what knowest thou of my——mother? Speak!"

  "Not here, my lord——but, an thou would'st learn more, come unto Hangstone Waste at the full o' the moon, stand you where the death-stone stands, that some do call the White Morte-stone. There shalt thou learn many things, perchance. Thou hast this day saved a witch from cruel death and a lowly beggar-maid from shame. A witch! A beggar-maid! The times be out a joint, methinks. Yet, witch and beggar, do we thank thee, lord Duke. Fare thee well——until the full o' the moon!" So spake she, and clasping the young maid within her arm they passed into the brush and so were gone.

  Now while Beltane stood yet pondering her words, came Roger to his side, to touch him humbly on the arm.

  "Lord," said he, "be not beguiled by yon foul witches' arts: go not to Hangstone Waste lest she be-devil thee with goblins or transform thee to a loathly toad. Thou wilt not go, master?"

  "At the full o' the moon, Roger!"

  "Why then," muttered Roger gulping, and clenching trembling hands, "we must needs be plague-smitten, blasted and everlastingly damned, for needs must I go with thee."

  Very soon pike and bow and gisarm fell into array; the pack-horses stumbled forward, the dust rose upon the warm, still air. Now as they strode along with ring and clash and the sound of voice and laughter, came Giles to walk at Beltane's stirrup; and oft he glanced back along the way and oft he sighed, a thing most rare in him; at last he spake, and dolefully:

  "Witchcraft is forsooth a deadly sin, tall brother?"

  "Verily, Giles, yet there be worse, methinks."

  "Worse! Ha, 'tis true, 'tis very true!" nodded the archer. "And then, forsooth, shall the mother's sin cleave unto the daughter——and she so wondrous fair? The saints forbid." Now hereupon the archer's gloom was lifted and he strode along singing softly 'neath his breath; yet, in a while he frowned, sudden and fierce: "As for that foul knave Gurth——ha, methinks I had been wiser to slit his roguish weasand, for 'tis in my mind he may live to discover our hiding place to our foes, and perchance bring down Red Pertolepe to Hundleby Fen."

  "In truth," said Beltane, slow and thoughtful, "so do I think; 'twas for this I spared his life."

  Now here Giles the Archer turned and stared upon Beltane with jaws agape, and fain he would have questioned further, but Beltane's gloomy brow forbade; yet oft he looked askance at that golden head, and oft he sighed and shook his own, what time they marched out of the golden glare of morning into the dense green depths of the forest.

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