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Beltane The Smith (Chapter17)

2006-08-28 16:29

  Chapter XVII. Of the Ambushment Near Thornaby Mill

  Little by little, as he stumbled along, Beltane's brain began to clear; he became aware of the ring and clash of arms about him, and the trampling of horses. Gradually, the mist lifting, he saw long files of men-at-arms riding along very orderly, with archers and pike-men. Little by little, amid all these hostile forms, he seemed to recognise a certain pair of legs that went on just before: sturdy legs, that yet faltered now and then in their stride, and, looking higher, he saw a broad belt whose edges were notched and saw-like, and a wide, mail-clad back that yet bent weakly forward with every shambling step. Once this figure sank to its knees, but stumbled up again 'neath the vicious prick of a pike-head that left blood upon the bronzed skin, whereat Beltane uttered a hoarse cry.

  "O Black Roger!" he groaned, "I grieve to have brought thee to this!"

  "Nay, lord," quoth Roger, lifting high his drooping head, "'tis but my wound that bleeds afresh. But, bond or free, thy man am I, and able yet to strike a blow on thy behalf an heaven so please."

  "Now God shield thee, brave Roger!" sighed Beltane.

  "O sweet St. Giles——and what of me, brother?" spake a voice in his ear, and turning, Beltane beheld the archer smiling upon him with swollen, bloody lips.

  "Thou here too, good Giles?"

  "Even so, tall brother, in adversity lo! I am with thee——since I found no chance to run other-where, for that divers rogues constrained me to abide——notably yon knave with the scar, whose mailed fist I had perforce to kiss, brother, in whose dog's carcase I will yet feather me a shaft, sweet St. Giles aiding me——which is my patron saint, you'll mind. Nil desperandum, brother: bruised and beaten, bleeding and in bonds, yet I breathe, nothing desponding, for mark me, a priori, brother, Walkyn and the young knight won free, which is well; Walkyn hath long legs, which is better; Walkyn hath many friends i' the greenwood, which is best of all. So do I keep a merry heart——dum spiro spero——trusting to the good St. Giles, which, as methinks you know is my——"

  The archer grew suddenly dumb, his comely face blanched, and glancing round, Beltane beheld Sir Pertolepe beside him, who leaned down from his great white horse to smile wry-mouthed, and smiling thus, put back the mail-coif from his pallid face and laid a finger to the linen clout that swathed his head above the brows.

  "Messire," said he soft-voiced, "for this I might hang thee to a tree, or drag thee at a horse's tail, or hew thee in sunder with this great sword o' thine which shall be mine henceforth——but these be deaths unworthy of such as thou——my lord Duke! Now within Garthlaxton be divers ways and means, quaint fashions and devices strange and rare, messire. And when I'm done, Black Roger shall hang what's left of thee, ere he go to feed my hounds. That big body o' thine shall rot above my gate, and for that golden head——ha! I'll send it to Duke Ivo in quittance for his gallows! Yet first——O, first shalt thou sigh that death must needs be so long a-coming!"

  But now, from where the van-ward marched, came galloping a tall esquire, who, reining in beside Sir Pertolepe, pointed down the hill.

  "Lord Pertolepe," he cried joyously, "yonder, scarce a mile, flies the banner of Gilles of Brandonmere, his company few, his men scattered and heavy with plunder."

  "Gilles!" quoth Sir Pertolepe. "Ha, is it forsooth Gilles of Brandonmere?"

  "Himself, lord, and none other. I marked plain his banner with the three stooping falcons."

  "And he hath booty, say you?"

  "In truth, my lord——and there be women also, three horse litters——"

  "Ah——women! Verily, good Fulk, hast ever a quick eye for the flutter of a kirtle. Now, mark me Fulk, Thornaby Mill lieth in our front, and beyond, the road windeth steep 'twixt high banks. Let archers line these banks east and west: let the pikemen be ambushed to the south, until we from the north have charged them with the horse——see 'tis done, Fulk, and silently——so peradventure, Sir Gilles shall trouble me no more. Pass the word——away!"

  Off rode Sir Fulk, and straightway the pounding hoofs were still, the jingle of bridle and stirrup hushed, and in its place a vague stir of bustle and excitement; of pikemen wheeling right and left to vanish southwards into the green, and of archers stringing bows and unbuckling quiver-caps ere they too wheeled and vanished; yet now Sir Pertolepe stayed four lusty fellows, and beckoning them near, pointed to the prisoners.

  "Good fellows," quoth he, nodding jovially upon the archers, "here be my three rogues, see you——who must with me to Garthlaxton: one to die by slow fire, one to be torn by my hounds, and one——this tall golden-haired youth——mark him well!——to die in slow and subtle fashion. Now these three do I put in charge of ye trusty four; guard them well, good fellows, for, an one escape, so shall ye all four die in his stead and in such fashion as he should have died. Ha! d'ye mark me well, my merry men?"

  "Aye, lord!" nodded the four, scowling of brow yet pale-cheeked.

  "Look to it I find them secure, therefore, and entreat them tenderly. March you at the rear and see they take no harm; choose ye some secure corner where they may lie safe from chance of stray shafts, for I would have them come hale and sound to Garthlaxton, since to die well, a man must be strong and hearty, look you. D'ye mark me well, good fellows?"

  "Aye, lord!" growled the four.

  Then Sir Pertolepe, fondling his great chin, smiled upon Beltane and lifted Beltane's glittering sword on high, "Advance my banner!" he cried, and rode forward among his men-at-arms. On went the company, grimly silent now save for the snort of a horse, the champing of curbing bits and the thud of slow trampling hoofs upon the tender grass, as the west flamed to sunset. Thus in a while they came to a place where the road, narrowing, ran 'twixt high banks clothed in gorse and underbrush; a shadowy road, the which, winding downwards, was lost in a sharp curve. Here the array was halted, and abode very still and silent, with helm and lance-point winking in the last red rays of sunset.

  "O brother," whispered Giles, "ne'er saw I place sweeter or more apt for ambushment. Here shall be bloody doings anon, and we——helpless as babes! O me, the pity on't!" But now with blows and gibes the four archers dragged them unto a tall tree that stood beside the way, a tree of mighty girth whose far-flung branches cast a deep gloom. Within this gloom lay my Beltane, stirring not and speaking no word, being faint and sick with his hurts. But Giles the archer, sitting beside him, vented by turns bitter curses upon Sir Pertolepe and humble prayers to his patron saint, so fluent and so fast that prayers and curses became strangely blent and mingled, on this wise:

  "May Red Pertolepe be thrice damned with a candle to the blessed Saint Giles that is my comfort and intercessor. May his bones rot within him with my gold chain to sweet Saint Giles. May his tongue wither at the roots——ah, good Saint Giles, save me from the fire. May he be cursed in life and may the flesh shrivel on his bones and his soul be eternally damned with another candle and fifty gold pieces to the altar of holy Saint Giles——"

  But now hearing Roger groan, the archer paused to admonish him thus:

  "Croak not, Roger, croak not," quoth he, "think not upon thy vile body ——pray, man, pray——pray thyself speechless. Call reverently upon the blessed saints as I do, promise them candles, Roger, promise hard and pray harder lest we perish——I by fire and thou by Pertolepe's hounds. Ill deaths, look you, aye, 'tis a cruel death to be burnt alive, Roger!"

  "To be torn by hounds is worse!" growled Roger.

  "Nay, my Rogerkin, the fire is slower, methinks——I have watched good flesh sear and shrivel ere now——ha! by Saint Giles, 'tis an evil subject; let us rather think upon two others."

  "As what, archer?"

  "The long legs of our comrade Walkyn. Hist! hark ye to that bruit! Here cometh Gilles of Brandonmere, meseemeth!" And now from the road in front rose the sound of an approaching company, the tramp of weary horses climbing the ascent with the sound of cheery voices upraised in song; and ever the sinking sun glinted redly on helm and lance-point where sat Sir Pertolepe's mailed riders, grim and silent, while the cheery voices swelled near and more near, till, all at once, the song died to a hum of amaze that rose to a warning shout that was drowned in the blare of a piercing trumpet blast. Whereat down swept glittering lance-point, forward leaned shining bascinet, and the first rank of Sir Pertolepe's riders, striking spurs, thundered upon them down the hill; came thereafter the shock of meeting ranks, with shouts and cries that grew to a muffled roar. Up rose the dust, an eddying cloud wherein steel flickered and dim forms strove, horse to horse and man to man, while Sir Pertolepe, sitting his great white charger, nursed his big chin and, smiling, waited his chance. Presently, from the eddying cloud staggered the broken remnant of Sir Gilles' van-ward, whereon, laughing fierce and loud, Sir Pertolepe rose in his stirrups with Beltane's long sword lifted high, his trumpets brayed the charge, and down the hill thundered Sir Pertolepe and all his array; and the road near by was deserted, save for the prisoners and the four archers who stood together, their faces set down-hill, where the dust rose denser and denser, and the roar of the conflict fierce and loud.

  But now, above the din and tumult of the fight below, shrill and high rose the notes of a horn winded from the woods in the east, that was answered——like an echo, out of the woods in the west; and, down the banks to right and left, behold Sir Pertolepe's archers came leaping and tumbling, pursued by a hissing arrow shower. Whereat up sprang Giles, despite his bonds, shouting amain:

  "O, Walkyn o' the Long Legs——a rescue! To us! Arise, I will arise!" Now while he shouted thus, came one of the four archers, and Giles was smitten to his knees; but, as the archer whirled up his quarter-staff to strike again, an arrow took him full in the throat, and pitching upon his face, he lay awhile, coughing, in the dust.

  Now as his comrades yet stared upon this man so suddenly dead, down from the bank above leapt one who bore a glittering axe, with divers wild and ragged fellows at his heels; came a sound of shouting and blows hard smitten, a rush of feet and, thereafter, silence, save for the din of battle afar. But, upon the silence, loud and sudden rose a high-pitched quavering laugh, and Giles spake, his voice yet shrill and unsteady.

  "'Twas Walkyn——ha, Saint Giles bless Walkyn's long legs! 'Twas Walkyn I saw——Walkyn hath brought down the outlaws——the woods be full of them. Oho! Sir Pertolepe's slow fire shall not roast me yet awhile, nor his dogs mumble the carcase, my Rogerkin!"

  "Aye," quoth Roger feebly, "but what of my lord, see how still he lieth!"

  "Forsooth," exclaimed the archer, writhing in his bonds to stare upon Beltane, "forsooth, Roger, he took a dour ding upon his yellow pate, look ye; but for his mail-coif he were a dead man this hour——"

  "He lieth very still," groaned Roger.

  "Yet is he a mighty man and strong, my Rogerkin-never despond, man, for I tell thee——ha!——heard ye that outcry? The outlaws be at work at last, they have Sir Pertolepe out-flanked d'ye see——now might ye behold what well-sped shafts can do upon a close array——pretty work-sweet work! Would I knew where Walkyn lay!"

  "Here, comrade!" said a voice from the shade of the great tree.

  "How——what do ye there?" cried the archer.

  "Wait for Red Pertolepe."

  "Why then, sweet Walkyn, good Walkyn——come loose us of our bonds that we may wait with thee——"

  "Nay," growled Walkyn, "ye are the bait. When the outlaws have slain enough of them, Pertolepe's men must flee this way: so will Red Pertolepe stay to take up his prisoners, and so shall I slay him in that moment with this mine axe. Ha!——said I not so? Hark I they break already! Peace now——wait and watch." So saying, Walkyn crouched behind the tree, axe poised, what time the dust and roar of battle rolled toward them up the hill. And presently, from out the rolling cloud, riderless horses burst and thundered past, and after them——a staggering rout, mounted and afoot, spurring and trampling each other 'neath the merciless arrow-shower that smote them from the banks above. Horse and foot they thundered by until at last, amid a ring of cowering men-at-arms, Sir Pertolepe galloped, his white horse bespattered with blood and foam, his battered helm a-swing upon its thongs; grim-lipped and pale he rode, while his eyes, aflame 'neath scowling brows, swept the road this way and that until, espying Beltane 'neath the tree, he swerved aside in his career and strove to check his followers' headlong flight.

  "Stay," cried he striking right and left. "Halt, dogs, and take up the prisoners. Ha! will ye defy me-rogues, caitiffs! Fulk! Raoul! Denis! Ho, there!"

  But no man might stay that maddened rush, wherefore, swearing a great oath, Sir Pertolepe spurred upon Beltane with Beltane's sword lifted for the blow. But, from the shade of the tree a mighty form uprose, and Sir Pertolepe was aware of a hoarse, glad cry, saw the whirling flash of a broad axe and wrenched hard at his bridle; round staggered the white horse, down came the heavy axe, and the great horse, death-smitten, reared up and up, back and back, and crashing over, was lost 'neath the dust of swift-trampling hoofs.

  Now presently, Beltane was aware that his bonds cramped him no longer, found Roger's arm about him, and at his parched lips Roger's steel head-piece brimming with cool, sweet water; and gulping thirstily, soon felt the numbness lifted from his brain and the mist from his eyes; in so much that he sat up, and gazing about, beheld himself alone with Roger.

  Quoth he, looking down at his swollen wrists:

  "Do we go free then, Roger?"

  "Aye, master——though ye had a woundy knock upon the head."

  "And what of Giles?"

  "He is away to get him arrows to fill his quiver, and to fill his purse with what he may, for the dead lie thick in the road yonder, and there is much plunder."

  "And Walkyn?"

  "Walkyn, master, having slain Sir Pertolepe's horse yonder, followeth Pertolepe, minded straight to slay him also."

  "Yet dost thou remain, Roger."

  "Aye, lord; and here is that which thou wilt need again, methinks; I found it hard by Sir Pertolepe's dead horse." So saying, Roger put Beltane's great sword into his hand. Then Beltane took hold upon the sword, and rising to his feet stretched wide his arms, and felt his strength renewed within him. Therefore he sheathed the sword and set his hand on Roger's broad, mail-clad shoulder.

  "Roger," said he, "thou faithful Roger, God hath delivered us from shameful death, wherefore, I hold, He hath yet need of these our bodies."

  "As how, master?"

  "As I went, nigh swooning in my bonds, methought I heard tell that Sir Gilles of Brandonmere had captive certain women; so now must we deliver them, thou and I, an it may be so."

  "Lord," quoth Roger, "Sir Gilles marcheth with the remnant of his company, and we are but two. Let us therefore get with us divers of these outlaws."

  "I have heard tell that to be a woman and captive to Sir Gilles or Pertolepe the Red is to be brought to swift and dire shame. So now let us deliver these women from shame, thou and I. Wilt go with me, Roger?"

  "Aye lord, that will I: yet first pray thee aid me to bind a clout upon my arm, for my wound irketh me somewhat."

  And in a while, when Beltane had laved and bound up Roger's wound, they went on down the darkening road together.

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