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Beltane The Smith (Chapter69)

2006-08-28 16:42

  Chapter LXIX. How at Last They Came to Pentavalon City

  All day long the din and thunder of battle had roared upon the plain; all day the Duchess Helen with Sir Hacon at her side had watched the eddying dust-clouds rolling now this way, now that, straining anxious eyes to catch the gleam of a white plume or the flutter of the blue banner amid that dark confusion. And oft she heard Sir Hacon mutter oaths half-stifled, and oft Sir Hacon had heard snatches of her breathless prayers as the tide of battle swung to and fro, a desperate fray whence distant shouts and cries mingled in awful din. But now, as the sun grew low, the close-locked fray began to roll southwards fast and ever faster, a mighty storm of eddying dust wherein armour gleamed and steel glimmered back and forth, as Duke Ivo and his proud array fell back and back on their last stronghold of Pentavalon City. Whereupon Sir Hacon, upon the bartizan, cursed no more, but forgetful of his many wounds, waxed jubilant instead.

  "Now, by Holy Rood!" he cried, "see, lady——they break——they break! 'Twas that last flanking onset! None but Beltane the Strong could have marshalled that last charge——drawing on Black Ivo to attempt his centre, see you, and crushing in his flanks——so needs must their main battle fall back or meet attack on two sides! Oho, a wondrous crafty leader is Duke Beltane the Strong! See——ha, see now how fast he driveth them——and southward——southward on Pentavalon town!"

  "So do I thank God, but see how many——O how many do lie fallen by the way!"

  "Why, in battle, most gentle lady, in battle men must needs fall or wherefore should battles be? Much have I seen of wars, lady, but ne'er saw eyes sterner fray than this——"

  "And I pray God," spake the Duchess, shivering, "these eyes may ne'er look upon another! O 'tis hateful sight——see——look yonder!" and she pointed where from the awful battle-wrack reeled men faint with wounds while others dragged themselves painfully across the trampled ground.

  "Why, 'twas a bloody business!" quoth the knight, shaking his bandaged head.

  "Sir Hacon," said the Duchess, frowning and pale, "I pray you summon me the Reeve, yonder." And when the Reeve was come, she spake him very soft and sweet:

  "Messire, I pray you let us out and aid the poor, stricken souls yonder."

  "But lady, the battle is not yet won——to open our gates were unwise, methinks."

  "Good Reeve, one died but lately whom all men loved, but dying, Friar Martin spake these words——'I see Belsaye rich and happy, her gates ever open to the woeful and distressed.' Come, ope the gates and let us out to cherish these afflicted."

  Thus presently forth from Belsaye rode the Duchess Helen, with Sir Hacon beside her and many of the townsfolk, hasting pale-cheeked and trembling to minister unto the hurt and dying, and many there were that day who sighed out their lives in blessings on her head.

  But meantime the battle roared, fierce and furious as ever, where Black Ivo's stubborn ranks, beset now on three sides, gave back sullenly, fighting step by step.

  And amid the blood and dust, in the forefront of that raging tumult, a torn and tattered blue banner rocked and swayed, where Beltane with Giles at his right hand led on his grim foresters, their ranks woefully thinned and with never a horse among them. But Roger was there, his face besmeared with blood that oozed 'neath his dinted bascinet, and Ulf was there, foul with slaughter, and there was Walkyn fierce and grim, while side by side amid the trampling pikemen behind, Jenkyn and Tall Orson fought. And presently to Beltane came Walkyn, pointing eagerly to their left.

  "Master," he cried, "yonder flaunteth Pertolepe's banner, beseech thee let us make thitherward——"

  "Not so," quoth Beltane, stooping 'neath the swing of a gisarm, "O forget thy selfish vengeance, man, and smite but for Pentavalon this day——her foes be many enow, God wot! Ho!" he roared, "they yield! they yield! Close up pikes——in, in——follow me!" Forward leapt he with Roger beside him and the blue banner close behind, and forward leapt those hardy foresters where the enemy's reeling line strove desperately to stand and re-form. So waxed the fight closer, fiercer; griping hands fumbled at mailed throats and men, locked in desperate grapple, fell and were lost 'neath the press; but forward went the tattered banner, on and on until, checking, it reeled dizzily, dipped, swayed and vanished; but Roger had seen and sprang in with darting point.

  "Up, man," he panted, covering the prostrate archer with his shield, "up, Giles, an ye can——we're close beset——"

  "But we be here, look'ee Roger——'tis we, look'ee!" cried a voice behind.

  "Aye, it do be us!" roared another voice, and Roger's assailants were borne back by a line of vicious-thrusting pikes.

  "Art hurt, Giles?"

  "Nay," quoth the archer, getting to unsteady legs, "but they've spoiled me Genevra's veil, methinks——and our flag is something smirched, but, as for me, I'll sing ye many a song yet!"

  "Then here's twice I've saved thee, Giles, so art two accursed notches from my——"

  A mace beat Roger to his knees, but, ere his assailant could strike again, Giles's broadsword rose and fell.

  "So are we quits, good Roger!" he cried, "Ha, see——they break! On, pikes, on! Bows and bills, sa-ha!"

  Up rose the dust, forward swept the battle as Black Ivo's hosts gave back before the might of Mortain; forward the blue banner reeled and staggered where fought Beltane fierce and untiring, his long shield hacked and dinted, his white plumes shorn away, while ever his hardy foresters smote and thrust on flank and rear. Twice Black Roger fell and twice Giles leapt 'twixt him and death, and perceiving his haggard eyes and the pallor of his grimed and bloody cheek, roared at him in fierce anxiety:

  "Fall out, Roger, fall out and rest ye, man!"

  "Not whiles I can stand, archer!"

  "Art a fool, Roger."

  "Belike I am, Giles——"

  "And therefore do I love thee, Rogerkin! Ha, bear up man, yonder is water——a muddy brook——"

  "O blessed Saint Cuthbert!" panted Roger.

  Now before them was a water-brook and beyond this brook Black Ivo's harassed columns made a fierce and desperate rally what time they strove to re-form their hard-pressed ranks; but from Duke Beltane's midmost battle the trumpets brayed fierce and loud, whereat from a thousand parched throats a hoarse cry rose, and chivalry and foot, the men of Mortain charged with levelled lance, with goring pike, with whirling axe and sword, and over and through and beyond the brook the battle raged, sweeping ever southwards.

  Presently before them the ground sloped sharply down, and while Beltane shouted warning to those behind, his voice was drowned in sudden trumpet-blast, and glancing to his left, he beheld at last all those knights and men-at-arms who had ridden with his father in their reserve all day——a glittering column, rank on rank, at whose head, his sable armour agleam, his great, white charger leaping 'neath the spur, Duke Beltane rode. Swift and sure the column wheeled and with lances couched thundered down upon Black Ivo's reeling flank.

  A crash, a sudden roaring clamour, and where had marched Black Ivo's reserve of archers and pikemen was nought but a scattered rout. But on rode Duke Beltane, his lion banner a-flutter, in and through the enemy's staggering columns, and ever as he charged thus upon their left, so charged Sir Jocelyn upon their right. Then Beltane leaned him on his sword, and looking down upon the battle, bowed his head.

  "Now praise be to God and his holy saints!" quoth he, "yonder is victory at last!"

  "Aye, master," said Roger hoarsely, "and yonder as the dust clears you shall see the walls and towers of Pentavalon City!"

  "And lord——lord," cried Walkyn, "yonder——in their rear——you shall see Red Pertolepe's accursed Raven banner! Why tarry we here, lord? See, their ranks break everywhere——'twill be hot-foot now for the city gates——ha, let us on, master!"

  "Aye, verily," quoth Beltane, looking westward, "it groweth to sunset and the city is yet to storm. To your ranks, there——forward!"

  Now as they advanced, Beltane beheld at last where, high above embattled walls and towers, rose Pentavalon's mighty keep wherein he had been born; and, remembering his proud and gentle mother, he drooped his head and grieved; and bethinking him of his proud and gentle Helen, he took fresh grip upon his sword, and lengthening his stride, looked where Black Ivo's broken columns, weary with battle, grim with blood and wounds, already began to ride 'neath the city's frowning gateway, while hard upon their straggling rearguard Duke Beltane's lion banner fluttered. A desperate hewing and thrusting in the narrow gateway, and Black Ivo's shattered following were driven in and the narrow streets and alleys of the town full of battle and slaughter. Street by street the town was won until before them loomed the mighty keep of Pentavalon's ducal stronghold. Outer and inner bailey were stormed and so at last came they, a desperate, close-fighting company, into the great tilt-yard before the castle.

  Now of a sudden a shout went up and thereafter was a great quiet——a silence wherein friend and foe, panting and weary, stood alike at gaze. And amid this expectant hush the two Dukes of Pentavalon fronted each other. No word said they, but, while all eyes watched them, each took lance and riding to the extremity of the courtyard, wheeled, and couching their lances, spurred fiercely against each other. And now men held their breath to behold these two great knights, who, crouched low in their saddles, met midway in full career with crash and splintering shock of desperate onset. Duke Beltane reeled in his stirrups, recovered, and leaning forward stared down upon his enemy, who, prostrate on his back, slowly lifted gauntleted hand that, falling weakly, clashed upon the stones——a small sound, yet plain to be heard by reason of that breathless hush.

  Slow and stiffly Duke Beltane dismounted, and reeling in his gait, came and knelt beside Black Ivo and loosed off his riven helm. Thereafter, slow and painfully, he arose, and looking round upon all men, spake faint-voiced.

  "God——hath judged——betwixt us this day!" said he, "and to-day—— methinks——He doth summon me——to judgment——" Even as he spake he lifted his hands, struggling with the lacing of his helmet, staggered, and would have fallen, wherefore Beltane sprang forward. Yet one there was quicker than he, one whose goodly armour, smirched and battered, yet showed the blazon of Bourne.

  "Benedict!" quoth Duke Beltane feebly, "faithful wert thou to the last! O Benedict, where is my noble son!"

  "Father!" cried Beltane, "thou hast this day won Pentavalon from her shame and misery!" But the Duke lay very still in their arms and spake no word.

  So, when they had uncovered his white head, they bore him tenderly into the great banqueting hall and laid him on goodly couch and cherished him with water and wine, wherefore, in a while, he opened swooning eyes.

  "Beltane!" he whispered, "dear and noble son——thy manhood——hath belike won thy father's soul to God's mercy. So do I leave thee to cherish all those that——have known wrong and woe——by reason of my selfish life! Dear son, bury me with thy——noble mother, but let me lie——at her feet, Beltane. O had I been less selfish——in my sorrow! But God is merciful! Benedict——kiss me——and thou, my Beltane——God calleth me——to rest. In manus tuas——Domine!" Then Duke Beltane, that had been the Hermit Ambrose, clasped his mailed hands and smiling wondrous glad and tender, yielded his soul to God.

  In a while Beltane came forth into the courtyard and beheld Sir Jocelyn mustering their knightly prisoners in the ward below, for, with Black Ivo's death, all resistance was ended. And now the trumpets blared, rallying their various companies, but Beltane abode very full of sorrowful thoughts. To him presently cometh Giles yet grasping the blue standard befouled with dust and blood, the which he laid reverently at Beltane's feet.

  "Lord," said he, "my trust is ended. See, yonder standeth our company of foresters!" and he pointed where a single rank of grimed and weary men lay upon the hard flag-stones or leaned on their battered weapons.

  "Giles——O Giles, is this all?"

  "Aye, lord, we muster but seventy and one all told, and of these Tall Orson lieth dead yonder in Jenkyn's arms, and Roger——poor Roger is a-dying, methinks——and Ulf and Walkyn are not."

  But even as he spake he turned and started, for, from the ward below a hunting horn brayed feebly.

  "'Tis our forester's rally, master!" quoth he, "and see——Jesu, what men are these?" For into the courtyard, followed by many who gaped and stared in wonderment, six men staggered, men hideously stained and besplashed from head to foot, and foremost came two. And Walkyn was one and Ulf the Strong the other.

  Now as he came Walkyn stared in strange, wild fashion, and choked often in his breathing, and his mailed feet dragged feebly, insomuch that he would have fallen but for Ulf's mighty arm. Being come where Beltane stood with Sir Benedict and many other wondering knights and nobles, Walkyn halted and strove to speak but choked again instead. In one hand bare he his great axe, and in the other a torn and stained war-cloak.

  "Lord," quoth he in sobbing breaths, "a good day for thee——this——lord Duke——a good day for Pentavalon——a joyous day——blessed day for me—— You'll mind they slew mother and father and sister, lord——brother and wife and child? Empty-hearted was I and desolate therefore, but——to-day, ha, to-day I die also, methinks. So, an ye will, lord Duke——keep thou mine axe in memory——of Walkyn——'tis a goodly axe——hath served me well today——behold!"

  Now as he spake he loosed a corner of the war-cloak, and from its grimed and ghastly folds there rolled forth into the red light of the cleanly sun a thing that trundled softly across the pavement and stopping, shewed a pallid face crowned with red hair, 'neath which upon the brow, betwixt the staring eyes, was a jagged scar like to a cross.

  Now while all men stared upon this direful thing, holding their breaths, Walkyn laughed loud and high, and breaking from Ulf's clasp, staggered to where it lay and pointed thereto with shaking finger.

  "Behold!" he cried, "behold the head of Bloody Pertolepe!" Therewith he laughed, and strove to kick it with feeble foot——but staggered instead, and, loosing his axe, stretched wide his long arms and fell, face downward.

  "Bloody Pertolepe——is dead!" he cried, and choked; and choking——died.

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