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Beltane The Smith (Chapter56)

2006-08-28 16:39

  Chapter LVI. What They Found at Winisfarne

  Two and two they rode——for the way was oft-times narrow——their flanks well covered by light-armed archers who marched within the green, with mounted archers far in their van and others in their rear.

  A glory of sun dappled their way with dancing shadows, flowers were a-bloom in bank and hedgerow, and birds carolled blithe in the fragrant air, what time Sir Benedict rode beside Beltane, his ponderous casque a-swing at saddle-bow; and oft he turned his grizzled head to view my thoughtful Beltane as one might look upon a son, new-found.

  Now in a while Beltane turned and meeting his look reached out to him his hand.

  "Dear Benedict," said he, "how much——how very much I owe to thee. Thou art methinks the greatest knight that e'er couched lance——"

  "Save thy noble father!" quoth Sir Benedict with solemn nod.

  "My father——you were his esquire and much-loved comrade, Benedict?"

  "I was, Beltane."

  "Knew you my mother well, also?"

  "Thy mother? Why——aye, forsooth, I——knew thy mother——very well, Beltane."

  "What manner of woman was she, I pray?"

  "The fairest and noblest these eyes have e'er beheld!"

  "The——noblest?"

  "And purest! Hark ye, Beltane, and mark me well——there ne'er lived wife of so stainless honour as the noble woman that bare thee!"

  "And yet," sighed Beltane, with wrinkled brow, "within the garden of Pentavalon——my father——"

  "Thy father was a sick man, faint with wounds and spent with hardship. All that day, as we rode unto Pentavalon City, he and I, his mind oft wandered and he held wild talk in his fever. But hale was I, mind and body, and I do know the Duke thy father fell to strange and sudden madness upon that dreadful day, whereby came woe to Pentavalon, and bitter remorse to him. This do I swear, thy mother was noble wife and saintly woman!"

  "Loved she my father?"

  "Aye, verily——she was his wife! Thy father was a noble knight and peerless——and oft warring on the marches, but methinks——she was something lonely——at times, Beltane."

  "Alas!" sighed Beltane, and again "Alas!" So fell they incontinent to deep thought and rode full long in silence. But ever and anon as they paced along together thus, Sir Benedict must needs lift his head to gaze upon my Beltane, and his grim lips curved to smile infinite tender, and in his eyes was growing wonder.

  Quoth he at last:

  "Beltane, d'ye mark this our silent company, not a stave have they carolled since we set forth! But how shall a man sing and jest whose heart is set on great emprise? Verily thy words have fired e'en this shrivelled heart o' mine till I, even as they, methinks, do burn to fight Pentavalon's cause, to shield her from woeful shame and——ha!—— such vile sights as yon!"

  Now looking where Sir Benedict pointed, Beltane beheld a thing, crookedly contorted, a-dangle from a knotted branch that jutted athwart the way, insomuch that the must needs stoop, cowering in his saddle, lest he touch the twisted feet of it.

  "Dead three days I judge!" mused Sir Benedict. "Much is possible to the Red Pertolepe in three days. And he hath a great and powerful following, 'tis said!"

  Quoth Beltane, pale-cheeked and frowning a little:

  "So would I have it, Benedict——they shall be the more for us to smite!"

  "I've heard he musters full three thousand, Beltane."

  "What then, good Benedict? Yon poor, dead thing we passed but now was worth a score of men to us——and there will be others——Sir Pertolepe loveth to see men hang! So perchance, ere we come to Winisfarne, the strength of thousands shall lie within these arms of ours."

  "'Tis a fair thought, lad——aye, 'tis a right fair thought! May all the poor souls done thus to sudden, cruel death, march within our slender ranks and smite with us, shoulder to shoulder, henceforth!"

  And now as they went, came they on many and divers signs of the Red Pertolepe's passing; here a smouldering heap of ruin whereby lay pale, stiff shapes half hidden in the grass——yonder a little child outstretched as though asleep, save for wide eyes that looked so blindly on the sun: and there, beyond, upon the white dust of the road, great gouts and pools that had trickled from something sprawled among the underbrush.

  And the soft wind crooned and whispered in the leaves——leaves that parting, showed other shapes swung high in air, whose pallid faces looked down on them, awful-eyed, from the tender green, faces drawn and haggard, with teeth agleam or open mouths whence screams had come, but very silent now until the Day of Judgment.

  So rode they, with death above them and around, death in many hateful shapes; and oft Sir Benedict bowed his head as one that prayed, the while his strong hands knit themselves to iron fists; and oft from those grim ranks behind a sound went up to heaven, a sound ominous and low, that was like unto a moan.

  Thus marched they, through heat and dust, through cool, green shadow, splashing through noisy brook and shallow ford, until, as the sun reached the zenith, they came to the brow of a hill and saw afar the walls and roofs of the prosperous town of Winisfarne.

  And ever as they drew nearer. Sir Benedict stared on it, his black brows close-knit, and fingered his square chin as one puzzled.

  "Beltane," quoth he at last, "'tis full ten years since I saw Winisfarne, and yet——meseemeth——it looked not so! 'Tis as though I missed somewhat, and yet——"

  But now came Roger, a dusty figure, spurring from the rear:

  "Master," he cried, pointing with eager finger, "O master, the keep—— where is the great keep that stood yonder?"

  "Aye, verily——the keep!" nodded Sir Benedict, clapping mailed hand to thigh, "and 'twas a great and mighty hold as I do mind me!"

  Now looked they gloomily on each other and halted their array what time Sir Benedict passed word for bows to be strung and every eye and every ear to be strained right needfully; then moved they on again.

  Betimes they reached the outskirts of the town, for defences it had none, but no man moved therein and no sound reached them but the noise of their own going. Thus, in a while, with hands tight-clenched and lips firm-set they rode into the desolation of the market-place befouled by signs of battle fierce and fell, while beyond, a mass of charred ruin, lay all that was left of Winisfarne's once great and famous keep.

  Now above this ruin divers gibbets had been set up, and behold! these gibbets each bore a heavy burden. Then Beltane lighted from his horse, and going apart, laid by his casque and sat him down, his head bowed betwixt his hands as one that is direly sick. In a while as he sat thus, heedless of all things, cometh Roger.

  "Master," said he, "saw ye the gibbets yonder?"

  "I saw them, Roger."

  "Upon those gibbets be divers of our good fellows, master. There is Diccon and Peter of my company of pikes, and Gregory that was a fair good bowman, and there be others also——and master, these be not hanged men!"

  "Not hanged——?"

  "No, master! All these our men died in battle, as their wounds do testify——they were dead men already when Pertolepe hanged them on his gibbets. And Walkyn is not here, wherefore, methinks, he liveth yet. And Pertolepe is not here, yet where Pertolepe is, there shall we surely find Walkyn, for Walkyn hath sworn full oft——ha! master—— master, behold what cometh here——see, yonder!"

  Then Beltane arose, and looking where Roger pointed, beheld a strange, misshapen thing, half beast, half man, that ran wondrous fleetly towards them, and, as it ran, flourished aloft a broken sword; now was he lost to sight behind some bush or quick-set, now he bounded high over stream or stone or fallen tree——nought was there could let or stay him——until he came where stood Sir Benedict's outposts, to whose conduct he yielded him forthwith and so was presently brought into the market-square.

  A wild figure this, great and hairy of head and with the arms and shoulders of a very giant; bedight was he in good link-mail, yet foul with dirt and mire and spattered with blood from heel to head, and in one great hand he griped still the fragment of a reddened sword. All a-sweat was he, and bleeding from the hair, while his mighty chest heaved and laboured with his running.

  So stood he betwixt his brawny captors what time he panted hoarse and loud, and stared about him fierce-eyed 'neath beetling brows. Thus, of a sudden he espied my Beltane standing bare-headed in his youthful might, whereon this monstrous man forthwith dashed aside his stalwart guards as they had been babes, and ran towards Beltane with hairy hands outstretched, whereon sprang Roger to front him, dagger a-gleam; but lo! Roger was caught up in those mighty arms and shaken helplessly. "Fool!" cried this grim fellow, "think ye I would harm Beltane that is my most loved lord henceforth? I am Ulf, called the Strong, and, as this my hateful body is strong, so is my love——lie there!" So saying, Ulf laid Roger upon his back, and coming to Beltane, fell upon his face before him and caught his mailed feet and kissed them.

  "Lord Beltane," he cried, harsh-voiced, "thou seest I do love thee——yet 'twas I did bear thee captive to thy foe by command of one I love beyond all others. But thou, lord Beltane, thou at peril of thy life did save her from shame and fiery death when Ulf could not——so do I love thee, lord Beltane, and will be thy slave henceforth, to love and serve thee till I die——an thou wilt take me. Misshapen and unlovely ye behold me——a vile thing that men would jeer at but that they fear to die, for God who hath denied me all else, hath given me strength beyond all men. Yet do I hate myself and do hide me from the eyes of my fellows: but, an thou canst bear with me, canst suffer me beside thee and be not ashamed of my unloveliness, then will I front all eyes right boldly. Now lord, an thou wilt take Ulf for thy man, reach down to me thy hand."

  Then Beltane reached down and took Ulf's hairy hand in his.

  "Ulf," said he, "thou that God hath blessed with such noble strength, methinks 'neath thy grim shape thy heart is noble also, and thy soul, mayhap, straight and lovely. So will I make thee brother in arms to my faithful Roger, that ye two shall ride ever near me when the battle joins."

  Now Ulf the strong stood up erect upon his feet, and on his swart cheeks great tears rolled, glistening.

  "Lord!" said he, "O Beltane, my lord and master——" and bowed grim head with sudden sob, whereat Beltane questioned him full hastily, as thus:

  "Art wounded, Ulf! And whence come ye in such guise?"

  "Lord," says Ulf, wiping off his tears and choking upon a sob, "I came through Bloody Pertolepe's array."

  "Through?——nay, how mean you?" questioned Beltane, the while Sir Benedict and many wondering knights and esquires pressed round them in a ring.

  "I mean through, lord, for Walkyn's need is dire. So burst I through them——I had an axe but it brake in my hold, see you, even as this my sword——alack, there is no weapon that I do not break! Howbeit here am I, lord, hither come with word for one Sir Benedict of Bourne that did covenant to meet with Walkyn here at Winisfarne!"

  "Behold us here——speak on!" quoth Sir Benedict.

  "Thus, then, saith Walkyn o' the Dene: That scarce had he stormed and set fire to yonder prison-keep, than from the south cometh a great company, the which he at the first did take for ye. But, in a while, behold Sir Pertolepe's accursed Raven banner, the which giveth Walkyn much to think. Now cometh to him one beyond all women noble and gracious and holy (as I do know) the fair and stately Abbess Veronica, who, years agone, did build and endow yon great and goodly abbey, wherein all poor desolate souls should be cherished and comforted by her and her saintly nuns, and where the stricken fugitive might find sanctuary and peace and moreover be healed of his hurts. (All this know I since I was fugitive, hurt and very woeful and found me solace there.) So cometh this noble lady to Walkyn (and with her, I) and speaketh him calm and sweetly, thus: 'Yonder rideth Sir Pertolepe that is knight of noble birth, yet the rather would I trust myself and these my good sisters in thy hands, O man! So do I pray thee when thou goest hence, yield us the protection of thy strength, so shall heaven bless thee!' Hereon Walkyn frowned and plucked his beard awhile, but thereafter, came he to kneel and kiss her hand and swear to aid her the while life him lasted. Then summoned he his company (lusty fellows all) and called for thirty men that would remain to hold Red Pertolepe in play what time he seeketh place of greater vantage well beknown to him. Forthwith stood out one Tall Orson hight (a doughty fellow) and with him nine and twenty other lusty fellows, right willing (and with them, I) and thereafter Walkyn formeth his company (the nuns in the midst) and marched in haste for Brand that is a lonely tower. Then did these thirty (and with them I) shoot arrows amain on Pertolepe's vanguard from every place of vantage hereabouts, and met them with right lusty hand-strokes and stayed thus their advance until of the thirty there none remained alive save seven (and of these, I)。 And, since we could do no more, I (that do know this country from my misshapen youth) brought these men by secret ways unto the Tower of Brand that is desolate and a ruin, yet strong withal. And there lay Walkyn (that is a notable fighter) keeping watch and ward within the tower what time he waited thy succour. Now who so skilful and tender with our wounded as this sweet and gracious lady Abbess! Next day, sure enough, cometh Pertolepe with brave show of horse and foot (above three thousand, lords) and straightway sendeth he a haughty fellow to demand incontinent surrender——a loud-voiced knight whom Walkyn forthwith shot and slew with his own hand. Whereat Sir Pertolepe waxed exceeding wroth and came on amain and beset the tower on all sides, whereby they lost others of their men, for Walkyn's fellows shot exceeding strong and true (and with them, I)。 Then, O my lords, in all that fierce debate, who so brave and calm, heartening wearied and wounded with gentle voice and gentler hand, than this same noble lady Abbess! For two days lay we besieged whereby our food and drink began to fail (for the well within the tower is well-nigh dried up) yet none did eat or drink so sparingly as this same holy Abbess. Now on this (the second day, lords) cometh Pertolepe himself (under flag of truce, lords) and demands we yield to him the body of this same lady Abbess (to our ransom) swearing on his knightly word he then will march away forthwith, and seek our hurt no more. And, to save our lives, fain would this brave lady have yielded her to Pertolepe's hands. But Walkyn (mindful of his oath, lords), leaning him from the battlement, spake Red Pertolepe defiantly, calling him knave and liar, and therewith spat upon him, very fairly. Whereat Pertolepe sware to hang us one and all and the battle joined again fiercer than before. Therefore, on this the third day, seeing no hope of succour, Walkyn made him ready to sally out (a right desperate venture because of the women)。 Then spake I before them all, saying I doubted not I might win through, and bring thee to their aid (an ye had kept the tryst) would they but ply their shafts amain to cover me. The which was so agreed. Then did this saintly lady Abbess set her white hand on this my hateful head and prayed the sweet Christ to shield this my monstrous body, and I thereafter being bedight in right good mail (as thou seest) issued suddenly out of the tower whiles our foemen sat at meat, and ran among them roaring dreadfully and smote amain full many until my axe brake and I betook me to my sword and smote them as I ran what time Walkyn's archers shot right furiously and well. Thus came I through Bloody Pertolepe's array, and thus, lords, ye do behold a something weary man and a mighty hungry one withal!"

  Now came Sir Benedict to grasp Ulf's great hand.

  "Forsooth, hast done a great and noble thing!" quoth he. "Thy twisted body doth hide a great and manly soul, meseemeth, so ne'er shalt lack for friend whiles Benedict doth live!"

  And after Sir Benedict came many other knights and esquires of degree, to bring him of their own viands and press upon him rich and goodly wine. In so much that Ulf grew hot and awkward, and presently stole away to eat with Roger in a quiet corner.

  But now within the market-place was sound of song, of jest and laughter, where bow-strings were looked to heedfully, sword-belts buckled tighter, mail-coifs laced the closer, stirrup-chain and saddle-girth carefully regarded, whiles ever and anon all eyes turned where Beltane sat among the older knights, Sir Benedict beside him, hearkening to their counsel. And presently he rose and lifted his hand, whereat the trumpets blared and, thereafter, with ring of hoof and tramp of foot, marched they forth of Winisfarne, the sun bright on helm and shield, a right gallant array.

  And at their head rode Ulf the Strong.

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