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Beltane The Smith (Chapter54)

2006-08-28 16:39

  Chapter LIV. How Beltane Fought with a Doughty Stranger

  "Lord!" quoth Roger, wiping sweat from him, "yonder certes was Hob-gob! Forsooth ne'er saw I night the like o' this! How think ye of yon devilish things? Here was it one moment, and lo! in the twinkle of an eye it is not. How think ye, master?"

  "I do think 'twas some roving knight."

  "Nay but, lord——how shall honest flesh and blood go a-vanishing away into thin air whiles a man but blinketh an eye?"

  "The ground hath sudden slope thereabouts, belike."

  "Nay, yonder was some arch-wizard, master——the Man o' the Oak, or Hob-gob himself. Saint Cuthbert shield us, say I——yon was for sure a spirit damned——"

  "Hark! Do spirits go in steel, Roger?" said Beltane, stooping for his sword; for indeed, plain and loud upon the prevailing quiet was the ring and clash of heavy armour, what time from the bushes that clothed the steep a tall figure strode, and the moon made a glory in polished shield, it gleamed upon close-vizored helm, it flashed upon brassart, vanbrace and plastron. Being come near, the grim and warlike figure halted, and leaning gauntleted hand upon long shield, stood silent a while seeming to stare on Beltane through the narrow slit of his great casque. But even as he viewed Beltane, so stared Beltane on him, on the fineness of his armour, chain and plate of the new fashion, on his breadth of shoulder and length of limb——from shining casque to gleaming shield, whereon was neither charge nor blazon; and so at last, spake my Beltane, very gentle and courteous:

  "Messire, an thou be come in peace, now shalt thou be right welcome——"

  "Peace!" quoth the knight loud and fierce, and his laughter rang hoarse within his helm. "Peace, forsooth! Thou art a tall and seemly youth, a youth fair spoken, and yet——ha! A belt of silver! And golden hair! And yet——so very youthful! Art thou in very truth this famous rogue whose desperate deeds do live on every tongue, who hath waked Duke Ivo from his long-time security, insomuch that he doth yearn him for that yellow head o' thine——art thou Beltane the Outlaw and Rebel?"

  "'Tis so men do call me, messire."

  "Verily, youth, methinks dost lie, for I have heard this outlaw is beyond all men wild and fierce and weaveth him demoniac spells and enchantments most accurst, whereby he maketh gate and door and mighty portcullis to ope and yield before his pointed finger, and bolt and bar and massy wall to give him passage when he will, as witness the great keep of Garthlaxton that he did burn with hellish fire. I have heard he doth commonly burn gibbets to warm him, and beareth off great lords beneath his arm as I might a small coney and slayeth him three or four with his every stroke. 'Tis said that he doth wax daily mightier and more fierce, since he doth drink hot blood and batteneth on flesh o' tender babes beneath the orbed moon——"

  "Messire," said Beltane beginning to frown, "within thy wild and foolish talk is this much truth, that I, with divers trusty comrades, did indeed burn down the shameful gallows of Belsaye, and bore captive a certain lordly knave. As for Garthlaxton, the thing was simple——"

  "O boastful boy!" quoth the knight, tossing aside his shield, "O beardless one, since thou dost proclaim thyself this desperate rogue, here is reason just for some small debate betwixt us. Do on thy coif forthwith, for now will I strive to make an end of thee," and speaking, the knight unsheathed a long and ponderous sword.

  "How an I fight thee not, sir knight?"

  "Then must I needs belabour thee to the good of thy soul, sir outlaw. So on with thy coif, I say!"

  Incontinent ran Roger to fetch his bascinet the which Beltane slowly fitted on above his hood of mail, and thereafter, albeit unwillingly, fronted this doughty knight, foot to foot and point to point. Now stepped they a moment about each other, light-treading for all their weighty armour, and with long blades advanced; then, of a sudden they closed, and immediately the air shivered to the ring and grind of flashing, whirling steel. To and fro, and up and down they fought upon the level sward what time Black Roger rubbed complacent hands, grim-smiling and confident; and ever as they fought the stranger knight laughed and gibed, harsh and loud, from behind his grimly casque.

  "Ho!——fight, youth, fight!" cried he, "have done with love-taps! Sa-ha, have at thee——fight, I say!" A panther-like side-leap, a whirl of glimmering steel, and his long blade smote sparks from Beltane's bascinet, whereat Roger's smile, incontinent, vanished, and his face waxed suddenly anxious and long.

  But fierce and fiercer the stranger knight beset my Beltane, the while he lashed him with mocking tongue:

  "Call ye this fighting, sir youthful outlaw? Doth thine arm fail thee so soon? Tap not, I say, lest I grow angered and slay thee forthright!"

  Then, blow for blow, did Beltane the mighty fall on right furiously, but ever blade met blade whiles Roger danced on anxious feet, praying for the end. Of a sudden, shouted he joyously, for, flashing high in air, down came Beltane's long blade strong and true upon the knight's helm——a fell, deep-dinting stroke that drave the stranger reeling back. Fierce and swift leapt Beltane to smite again——came a shock of clashing steel, a flurry of stroke and counter-stroke, and thereafter, a hoarse shout of dismay from Roger: for Beltane stood as one dazed, staring upon his empty right hand what time the knight boomed derisive laughter through his vizor. Then sprang grim Roger, dagger aloft, but swifter than he, the knight's sword swung; flat fell that long blade on Roger's bascinet, wielded by an arm so strong that Roger, staggering aside, rolled upon the ling, and thereafter, sat up, round-eyed and fearful:

  "O master!" he panted, "here is none of——honest flesh and blood, 'tis—— Hob-gob himself, as I did warn thee. May Saint Cuthbert, Saint Bede, Saint Edmund——"

  "Go to——cease thy windy prattling, Roger Thick-pate!" spake the knight, and letting fall his sword, he lifted his visor. And behold! a face lean and hawk-like, with eyes quick and bright, and a smiling mouth wry-twisted by reason of an ancient wound.

  "Know ye me not, lord Beltane?" quoth he, with look right loving, "hast forgot me indeed, most loved lad?" But swift came my Beltane, glad-eyed and with arms out-flung in eager welcome.

  "Sir Benedict!" he cried, "hast come at last? Now do I joy to see thee!"

  "My lord," says Benedict, wagging mailed finger. "Ha, Beltane, canst burn gibbets, storm mighty castles and out-face desperate odds, yet is old Benedict thy master at stroke of sword still——though, forsooth, hast dinted me my helm, methinks! O sweet lad, come to my arms, I've yearned for thee these many days." Herewith Sir Benedict caught Beltane within his close embrace, and patted him with gauntleted hands, and laughed for very gladness.

  "O foolish youth——O youthful fool!" quoth he, "surely thou of all fools art greatest, a youthful, god-like fool! O mighty son of mighty father, how mighty hath thy folly been! O lovely lad that hath attempted deeds impossible, pitting thyself 'gainst Ivo and all his might! Verily, Beltane, thou'rt the loveliest fool that ever man did love——"

  "Nay, but dear messire," says Beltane as Sir Benedict stayed for breath, "pray thee, where is thy meaning?"

  "Sweet lad, I do but strive to tell thee thou'rt a fool, yet so glad am I of thy foolish company the words do stick somewhat, but my meaning shall be manifest——now mark me! Didst not carry off the Red Pertolepe 'neath the lances of his men-at-arms?"

  "Aye, my lord."

  "Didst not have thy hand on the throat of that cold, smiling rogue Sir Gui of Allerdale?"

  "Verily, messire."

  "And hold within thy grasp the life of that foul-living Gilles of Brandonmere, whose father I slew twelve years agone, I thank God!"

  "'Tis true, good Benedict."

  "And didst not suffer these arch-knaves to live on and work their pestilent wills, Beltane?"

  "Sir, I did, but——"

  "So art thrice a fool. When we see a foul and noxious worm, to tread it under foot is a virtuous act. So when a man doth constant sin 'gainst man and maid, to kill him——"

  Quoth Beltane:

  "Sir Gui and Gilles of Brandonmere have made an end of sinning, methinks."

  "Why 'tis so I've heard of late, Beltane, and herein is some small comfort; but Red Pertolepe is yet to slay——"

  "Truly!" cried Beltane, clenching his fists, "and he marcheth on Winisfarne, to burn and hang——"

  "Content you, my lord Beltane, Waldron of Brand lieth in Winisfarne, and I am here——"

  "So doth my heart rejoice for thee, Benedict, thou right trusty and doughty friend. But how came ye hither, and wherefore? Methought thee yet in Thrasfordham!"

  "Aha, dear lad, so doth Ivo at this moment, I pray God. A week agone and, ere the investment was complete, wondrous news reached me from Waldron of Brand, whose sire bore my pennon in thy noble father's wars. And because I knew Waldron's word is ever less than his deed, and, belike, that I grow weary of sieges (seven have I withstood within these latter years) I, at dead of night, by devious and secret ways, stole forth of Thrasfordham——dight in this armour new-fashioned (the which, mark me! is more cumbrous than fair link-mail) howbeit, I got me clear, and my lord Beltane, here stand I to aid and abet thee in all thy desperate affrays, henceforth. Aha! methinks shall be great doings within the greenwood anon!"

  "Aye, but what of Thrasfordham? An Duke Ivo besiege it——"

  "He shall find five hundred and more right doughty fellows, with Sir Richard of Wark and Sir Brian of Shand (that were armour-bearers to thy knightly sire) to keep him in play."

  "And what would ye here, Sir Benedict?"

  "Fight, Beltane, fight! Methinks he shall lack nothing for hard smiting that rideth with thee——hey, boy, I do yearn amain for the shock of a charge!"

  "My company is but small, alas!" sighed Beltane.

  "'Tis so I've heard, my Beltane," quoth Sir Benedict, and smiling his wry smile, he took a small hunting-horn that hung about his neck, "let us therefore make it larger——"

  "How so——how so, good Benedict?——Ha! mean you——"

  "Watch now!"

  So saying, Sir Benedict set the horn to his lip and winded it three times loud and shrill, and thereafter stood with hand upraised. And lo! upon the stillness a sound that grew and grew——a whisper, a rustling as of strong wind in trees, and presently upon the high banks to north and east and west a great company appeared, horse-men and footmen, whose armour flashed 'neath the moon, while high o'er bascinet and helm rose deadly pike and ponderous lance, rank upon rank, a very forest.

  Quoth Sir Benedict loud-voiced, and pointing to the grim array:

  "Behold, lord Duke, hither have I brought thee five hundred archers and pike-men, with three hundred knights and men-at-arms, and each and every a man well tried and chosen, all vowed to follow thee and smite in Pentavalon's cause even as I, their lord, that do love thee for thy noble father's sake and for thine own sweet and knightly worth!"

  So saying, Sir Benedict fell upon his knee before that great assemblage and caught Beltane's hand and kissed it; whereon, from those gleaming ranks rose a deep and thunderous shout while lance and spear-head flashed again.

  Now looking from this right goodly array to the proud and war-like figure that bent so humbly at his feet, Beltane's heart swelled amain and all things grew blurred and misty in his sight.

  "Sir Benedict," said he hoarse-voiced, "thou good and noble knight——O Benedict, dear my friend, kneel not to me. For thy so great love, thy faith and loyalty, fain would I thank thee——yet words be so poor, and I——O, Benedict——"

  "Lord," said Benedict, "our camp lieth scarce three miles westward, come, I pray thee——"

  "Nay, first come ye, friend, and look upon a dead witch that was indeed a noble woman."

  So Beltane brought Sir Benedict where lay the dead Jolette, smiling yet as though into the eyes of God. Now beholding her, Sir Benedict beckoned Roger and bid him stimmon certain of his company, forthwith; and when Roger hasted back with divers awestruck fellows at his heels, they stood staring, amazed to behold these two great knights humbly kneeling side by side to pray for the soul of her who, all her days, had been scorned of men as the witch Jolette.

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