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Beltane The Smith (Chapter13)

2006-08-28 16:28

  Chapter XIII. How They Brake Open the Dungeon of Belsaye

  Being yet in the shade of the woods, Beltane paused, hearkening to the distant uproar of Belsaye town and watching the torches that hovered upon its walls and the cressets that glowed on tower and bartizan.

  "Messire Beltane," quoth the friar, setting his rumpled frock in order, "are ye minded still to adventure breaking ope the dungeon of Belsaye?"

  "Aye, verily!" nodded Beltane. "Know you the city, good friar?"

  "That do I, my brother: every lane and street, every hole and corner of it——'twas there I first drew breath. A fair, rich city, freed by charter long ago——but now, alas, its freedom snatched away, its ancient charter gone, it bleeds 'neath a pale-cheeked tyrant's sway——a pallid man who laughs soft-voiced to see men die, and smiles upon their anguish. O Belsaye, grievous are thy wrongs since Ivo came five years agone and gave thee up to pillage and to ravishment. O hateful day! O day of shame! What sights I saw——what sounds I heard——man-groans and screams of women to rend high heaven and shake the throne of God, methinks. I see——I hear them yet, and must forever. Jesu, pity!" and leaning against a tree near by, the stalwart friar shivered violently and hid his eyes.

  "Why, good brother Martin," said Beltane, setting an arm about him, "doth memory pain thee so, indeed? good Brother Martin, be comforted——"

  "Nay, nay——'tis past, but——O my son, I——had a sister!" said the good friar, and groaned. Yet in a while he raised his head and spake again: "And when Duke Ivo had wrought his will upon the city, he builded the great gibbet yonder and hanged it full with men cheek by jowl, and left Sir Gui the cruel with ten score chosen men for garrison. But the men of Belsaye have stubborn memories; Sir Gui and his butchers slumber in a false security, for stern men are they and strong, and wait but God's appointed time. Pray God that time be soon!"

  "Amen!" said Beltane. Now, even as he spake came the sound of a distant tucket, the great gates of Belsaye swung wide, and forth rode a company of men-at-arms, their bascinets agleam 'neath the moon.

  "Now!" spake the friar, "and you are for Belsaye, my brother, follow me; I know a way——albeit a moist way and something evil——but an you will follow,——come!" So saying Friar Martin set off among the trees, and Beltane, beckoning to the others, followed close. Fast strode the friar, his white robe fluttering on before, through moonlight and shadow, until they reached a brook or freshet that ran bubbling betwixt flowery banks; beside this strode the tall friar, following its winding course, until before them, amid the shadow——yet darker than the shadow ——loomed high an embattled flanking tower of the walls of Belsaye town; but ever before them flitted the friar's white gown, on and on until the freshet became a slow-moving river, barring their advance——a broad river that whispered among the reeds on the one side and lapped against rugged wall on the other.

  Here the friar stayed to glance from gloomy wall and turret to fast waning moon on their left, then, girding up his gown, he stepped down into the reeds, and a moment later they saw him——to their amaze—— fording the river that flowed scarce knee deep.

  So, needfully, Beltane followed, and, stepping into the water found his feet upon a narrow causeway cunningly devised. Thus, slowly and carefully, because of the flowing of the water, they came betimes to where the friar waited in the shadow of the massy wall; yet, even as they came near, the friar waved his arm, stooped——and was gone; whereon my Beltane stared amazed and the three muttered uneasily behind him. But, coming nearer, Beltane espied above the hurrying waters the curve of an arch or tunnel, and pointing it to the others, took a great breath and, stooping beneath the water, stumbled on and on until it shallowed, and he was free to breathe again.

  On he went, through water now breast-high, with slimy walls above him and around, seeing naught by reason of the pitchy blackness, and hearing only the smothered splash of those behind, and gasping breaths that boomed hollow in the dark. Yet presently he saw a gleam before him that broadened with each step, and, of a sudden, was out beneath the sky——a narrow strip wherein stars twinkled, and so beheld again friar Martin's white frock flitting on, ghost-like, before. In a while he brought them to a slimy stair, and climbing this, with ever growing caution, they found themselves at last beneath the frowning shadow of the citadel within the walls of Belsaye town. Now, looking north, Beltane beheld afar a fiery gallows that flamed to heaven, and from the town thitherward came a confused hum of the multitude who watched; but hereabouts the town seemed all deserted.

  "The dungeons lie beneath our feet," whispered Friar Martin. "Come!"

  So, keeping ever in the shadow of the great square keep, they went on, soft-treading and alert of eye till, being come to the angle of the wall, the friar stayed of a sudden and raised a warning hand. Then came Beltane with Walkyn close behind, and peering over the friar's broad shoulders, they beheld a sentinel who stood with his back to them, leaning on his spear, to watch the burning gallows, his chain-mail agleam and his head-piece glittering as he stirred lazily in time to the merry lilt he sang softly.

  Then, or ever Beltane could stay him, Walkyn o' the Dene laid by his axe, and, his soaked shoes soundless upon the stones, began to steal upon the unconscious singer, who yet lolled upon his spear some thirty paces away. With great body bowed forward and hairy fingers crooked, Walkyn stole upon him; six paces he went, ten——twenty——twenty-five—— the soldier ceased his humming, stood erect and turned about; and Walkyn leapt——bore him backward down into the shadow——a shadow wherein their bodies writhed and twisted silently awhile. When Walkyn rose out of the shadow and beckoned them on.

  So, following ever the friar's lead, they came to a narrow doorway that gave upon a small guard-room lighted by a smoking torch socketed to the wall. The place was empty, save for a medley of arms stacked in corners, wherefore, treading cautiously, the friar led them a-down a narrow passage and so to a second and larger chamber where burned a fire of logs. Upon the walls hung shining head-pieces; cloaks and mantles lay where they had been flung on bench and floor, but none was there to give them let or hindrance. Then Friar Martin took a torch that smoked near by, and, crossing to the hearth, reached down a massy key from the wall, and with this in his hand, came to a door half hidden in a corner, beyond which were steps that wound downwards into the dark, a darkness close and dank, and heavy with corruption.

  But on went the friar——his torch lighting the way——down and ever down until they trod a narrow way 'twixt reeking walls, where breathed an air so close and foul the very torch languished. At length the friar stopped before a mighty door, thick-banded with iron bars and with massy bolts, and while Beltane held the torch, he fitted key to lock and thereafter the great door swung on screaming hinge and showed a dungeon beyond——a place foul and noisome, where divers pale-faced wretches lay or crouched, blinking in the torch's glare.

  "What?" cried one, coming to his feet, a squat broad-shouldered man—— "be this the dawn so soon? Well, we be ready, better to hang i' the clean air than rot in a dungeon, say I. So we be ready, eh, my brothers?"

  But now, some groaned and wept and others laughed, while yet others got them to their knees, bowed of head and silent. Then went in the friar to them and laid his hands upon the squat man's shoulder and spake him gently.

  "And is it Osric," said he. "Day is not yet, my son, nor with the day shalt thou die nor any here, an ye be silent all and follow where we lead, soft-footed, so will we bring you to God's good world again. Rise, then, each one, speak nothing, but follow!"

  So then did these men, snatched of a sudden from the horror of death to the hope of new life, follow on stumbling feet, out from the noisome gloom of the dungeon, out from the clammy air breathing of death, up the narrow winding stair; and with each step came strength and manhood. Thus as they strode forth of the frowning keep, each man bore sword or gisarm. So, with breath in cheek, but hearts high-beating, they came one and all, to where the slimy stair led down into the gloom. Yet here Friar Martin paused, sighing, to look behind, whence rose the distant hum of those thronging townsfolk who yet crowded wall and street and market square to watch the gallows burn.

  "Now sweet Christ shield ye, good people of Belsaye!" he sighed.

  "What mean ye, my brother?" questioned Beltane.

  "Alas! my son," groaned the friar, "I needs must think upon the coming day and of the vengeance of Sir Gui for this our work!"

  "His vengeance, friar?"

  "There will be torture and death busy hereabouts tomorrow, my son, for, the prisoners being gone, so will Sir Gui vent his anger on the townsfolk——'tis ever his custom——"

  "Ha!" quoth my Beltane, knitting his brows, "I had not thought on this!"——and with the word, he turned him back, drawing on his hood of mail.

  "Come, lord," whispered Black Roger in his ear, "let us be going while yet we may."

  "Aye, come, my son," spake the friar, low-voiced. "Tarry not, Belsaye is in the hand of God! Nay, what would you?"

  "I must go back," said Beltane, loosening sword in scabbard, "for needs must I this night have word with Gui of Allerdale."

  "Nay," whispered the friar, with pleading hand on Beltane's arm, "'tis thing impossible——"

  "Yet must I try, good brother——"

  "Ah, dear my son, 'twill be thy death——"

  "Why look you, gentle friar, I am in Belsaye, and Belsaye 'is in the hand of God!' So fear not for me, but go you all and wait for me beyond the river. And, if I come not within the hour, then press on with speed for Thrasfordham within Bourne, and say to Sir Benedict that, while he liveth to draw sword, so is there hope for Pentavalon. But now—— quick!——where lodgeth Sir Gui?"

  "Within the keep——there is a stair doth mount within the thickness of the wall——nay, I will be thy guide if go indeed thou must——"

  "Not so, good friar, be it thy duty to lead these prisoners to freedom and to safety within Bourne."

  "Then will I come," whispered Roger hoarse and eager, as the friar turned slow-footed to follow the others adown the slippery stair, "beseech thee, lord, thy man am I, twice sworn to thee till death, so suffer me beside thee."

  "Nay," said Beltane, "Pentavalon's need of thee is greater e'en than mine, therefore will I adventure this thing alone. Go you with the friar, my Roger, and so farewell to each."

  "God keep thee, noble son!" whispered the friar, his hand upraised in blessing: but Roger stood, chin on breast and spake no word.

  Then Beltane turned him and sped away, soft-treading in the shadow of the great keep.

  The waning moon cast shadows black and long, and in these shadows Beltane crept and so, betimes, came within the outer guard-room and to the room beyond; and here beheld a low-arched doorway whence steps led upward,——a narrow stair, gloomy and winding, whose velvet blackness was stabbed here and there by moonlight, flooding through some deep-set arrow-slit. Up he went, and up, pausing once with breath in check, fancying he heard the stealthy sound of one who climbed behind him in the black void below; thus stayed he a moment, with eyes that strove to pierce the gloom, and with naked dagger clenched to smite, yet heard nought, save the faint whisper of his own mail, and the soft tap of his long scabbard against the wall; wherefore he presently sped on again, climbing swiftly up the narrow stair. Thus, in a while, he beheld a door above: a small door, yet stout and strong, a door that stood ajar, whence came a beam of yellow light.

  So, with sure and steady hand, Beltane set wide the door, that creaked faintly in the stillness, and beheld a small, square chamber where was a narrow window, and, in this window, a mail-clad man lolled, his unhelmed head thrust far without, to watch the glow that leapt against the northern sky.

  Then Beltane sheathed his dagger and, in three long strides was close behind, and, stooping above the man, sought and found his hairy throat, and swung him, mighty-armed, that his head struck the wall; then Beltane, sighing, laid him upon the floor and turned toward a certain arras-hung arch: but, or ever his hand came upon this curtain, from beyond a voice hailed——a voice soft and musical.

  "Hugo——O Hugo, spawn of hell, hither to me!"

  Then Beltane, lifting the curtain, opened the door and, striding into the chamber beyond, closed and barred the door behind him, and so stood, tall and menacing, looking on one who sat at a table busied with pen and ink-horn. A slender man this, and richly habited: a sleepy-eyed man, pale of cheek, with long, down-curving nose, and mouth thin-lipped and masterful, who, presently lifting his head, stared up in amaze, sleepy-eyed no longer: for now, beholding Beltane the mighty, sheathed in mail from head to foot, the pen dropped from his fingers and his long pale hands slowly clenched themselves.

  So, for a space, they fronted each other, speaking not, while eye met eye unswerving——the menacing blue and the challenging black, and, through the open casement near by came a ruddy glow that flickered on arras-hung wall and rugged roof-beam. Now raising his hand, Beltane pointed toward this glowing window.

  "Sir Gui," quoth he, "Lord Seneschal of Belsaye town, thou hast good eyes——look now, and tell me what ye see."

  "I see," said Sir Gui, stirring not, "I see a presumptuous knave——a dog who shall be flung headlong from the turret. Ha! Hugo!" he called, his black eyes yet unswerving, "O Hugo, son of the fiend, hither to me!"

  "Trouble not, my lord," quoth Beltane gently, "behold, the door is barred: moreover, Hugo lieth without——pray God I have not killed him. But, as for thee——look yonder, use thine eyes and speak me what thou dost see."

  But Sir Gui sat on, his thin lips upcurling to a smile, his black eyes unswerving: wherefore came Beltane and seized him in fierce hands and plucked him to his feet and so brought him to the window.

  "Ha!" he cried, "look now and tell me what ye see. Speak! speak——for, God help me! now am I minded to kill thee here and now, unarmed though ye be, and cast thy carrion to the dogs——speak!"

  Now, beholding the mail-clad face above him, the blue eyes aflame, the pale lips tight-drawn, Sir Gui, Seneschal of Belsaye, spake soft-voiced on this wise:

  "I see my lord Duke's gallows go up in flame——wherefore men shall die!"

  "Aye," sighed Beltane, "said I not thine eyes were good, Lord Seneschal? Now, use thine ears——hearken! 'Twas I and five others, men from beyond the marches, fired this night Black Ivo's gibbet, moreover, to-night also have we broke the dungeon that lieth beneath this thy keep, and set thy prisoners free——I and these five, all men from the north, mark me this well! This have we done for a sign and portent——ha! look!" and Beltane pointed of a sudden to where the great gallows, outlined against the night in seething flame, swayed to and fro, crumbled, and crashed to earth 'mid whirling sparks and flame, while, from the town below rose a murmur that swelled and swelled to a shout, and so was gone.

  "Behold, lord Seneschal, Black Ivo's gallows to-night hath ceased to be: here is a sign, let those heed it that will. But for thee——this! To-night have I burned this gallows, to-night have I freed thy prisoners. Upon me therefore, and only me, be the penalty; for——mark me this, Seneschal!——spill but one drop of blood of these innocents of Belsaye, and, as God seeth me, so will I hunt thee down, and take thee and tear out thine eyes, and cut off thine hands, and drive thee forth to starve! And this do I swear by the honour of my father, Beltane the Strong, Duke of Pentavalon!"

  But now, even as Sir Gui shrank back before the death in Beltane's look, amazed beyond all thought by his words, came a sudden shout, and thereafter a clash and ring of steel upon the stair without. And now, above the sudden din, hoarse and loud a battle-cry arose, at the sound of which Sir Gui's jaws hung agape, and he stood as one that doubts his ears; for 'twas a cry he had heard aforetime, long ago.

  "Arise! Arise! I will arise!"

  Then Beltane cast up the bar, and, plucking wide the door, beheld the broad, mail-clad back of one who held the narrow stair where flashed pike and gisarm.

  "Roger!" he called, "Black Roger!"

  "Aye, lord, 'tis I," cried Roger, parrying a pike-thrust, "make sure of thy work, master, I can hold these in check yet a while."

  "My work is done, Roger. To me——to me, I say!"

  So Roger, leaping back from the stair-head, turned about and ran to Beltane, stumbling and spattering blood as he came, whereupon Beltane clapped-to the door and barred it in the face of the pursuit. A while leaned Roger, panting, against the wall, then, beholding Sir Gui:

  "How!" he cried, "lives the pale fox yet? Methought thy work was done, master!" So saying, he swung aloft his bloody sword, but, even as the Seneschal waited the blow, smiling of lip, Beltane caught Black Roger's wrist.

  "Stay!" cried he, above the thunder of blows that shook the door, "would'st slay a man unarmed?"

  "Aye, master, as he hath slain many a man ere now!" quoth Roger, striving to free his arm. "The door is giving, and there be many without: and, since to-night we must die, so let us slay the white fox first."

  "Not so," said Beltane, "get you through the window——the river runs below: through the window——out, I say!" and, with the word, he stooped and bore Black Roger to the window.

  "But, lord——"

  "Jump!" cried Beltane, "jump, ere the door fall."

  "But you, master——"

  "Jump, I say: I will follow thee." So, groaning, Black Roger hurled his sword far out from the window, and leaping from the sill, was gone.

  Then Beltane turned and looked upon Gui of Allerdale. "Seneschal," said he, "I who speak am he, who, an God so wills, shall be Duke of Pentavalon ere long: howbeit, I will keep my promise to thee, so aid me God!"

  Thus saying, he mounted the window in his turn, and, even as the door splintered behind him, forced himself through, and, leaping wide, whirled over and over, down and down, and the sluggish river closed over him with a mighty splash; thereafter the placid waters went upon their way, bubbling here and there, and dimpling 'neath the waning moon.

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