Part 3 out of 11
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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.
"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
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
HOW BELTANE CAME NIGH TO DEATH
Down went my Beltane, weighted in his heavy mail--down and ever down
through a world of green that grew dark and ever more dark, until,
within the pitchy gloom beneath him was a quaking slime that sucked
viciously at foot and ankle. Desperately he fought and strove to rise,
but ever the mud clung, and, lusty swimmer though he was, his triple
mail bore him down.
And now his mighty muscles failed, lights flamed before his eyes, in
his ears was a drone that grew to a rushing roar, his lungs seemed
bursting, and the quaking ooze yearning to engulf him. Then my Beltane
knew the bitter agony of coming death, and strove no more; but in that
place of darkness and horror, a clammy something crawled upon his face,
slipped down upon his helpless body, seized hold upon his belt and
dragged at him fierce and strong; slowly, slowly the darkness thinned,
grew lighter, and then--Ah, kind mercy of God! his staring eyes beheld
the orbed moon, his famished lungs drank deep the sweet, cool air of
night. And so he gasped, and gasping, strove feebly with arm and leg
while ever the strong hand grasped at his girdle. And now he heard,
faint and afar, a sound of voices, hands reached down and drew him up--
up to good, firm earth, and there, face down among the grass, he lay
awhile, content only to live and breathe. Gradually he became aware of
another sound hard by, a sharp sound yet musical, and in a little, knew
it for the "twang" of a swift-drawn bow-string. Now, glancing up,
Beltane beheld an ancient tree near by, a tree warped and stunted
wherein divers arrows stood, and behind the tree, Giles o' the Bow,
who, as he watched, drew and loosed a shaft, which, flashing upward,
was answered by a cry; whereon Giles laughed aloud.
"Six!" he cried, "six in seven shots: 'tis sweet archery methinks, and
quicker than a noose, my Rogerkin, and more deadly than thy axe, my
surly Walkyn. Let the rogues yonder but show themselves, and give me
arrows enow, so will I slay all Gui's garrison ere the moon fail me
But hereupon Beltane got him to his knees and made shift to stand, and,
coming to the tree, leaned there, being faint and much spent.
"Aha, sweet lord," cried the archer, "a man after my very heart art
thou. What wonders have we achieved this night--paladins in sooth we
be, all four! By the blessed bones of St. Giles, all Pentavalon shall
ring with our doings anon."
Said Beltane, faintly:
"Where is my good Roger?"
"Here, lord," a voice answered from the shade of a bush hard by: "'twas
my comrade Walkyn dragged me up from death--even as he did thee."
"We thought you gone for good, master."
"Aye!" cried the archer, "so would ye all be dead, methinks, but for me
and this my bow."
"Friends," said Beltane, "'tis by doings such as this that men do learn
each other's worth: so shall the bonds betwixt us strengthen day by
day, and join us in accord and brotherhood that shall outlast this puny
life. So now let us begone and join the others."
So they turned their backs upon Belsaye town, and keeping to the brush,
came at length to where upon the borders of the forest the white friar
waited them, with the nine who yet remained of the prisoners; these,
beholding Beltane, came hurrying to meet him, and falling upon their
knees about him, strove with each other to kiss his hands and feet.
"Good fellows," said Beltane, "God hath this night brought ye out of
death into life--how will ye use your lives hereafter? List now:--even
as ye have suffered, others are suffering: as ye have endured the gloom
of dungeon and fear of death, so, at this hour, others do the like by
reason of misrule and tyranny. Now here stand I, together with Sir
Benedict of Bourne who holdeth Thrasfordham Keep, pledged to live
henceforth, sword in hand, until these evils are no more--since 'tis
only by bitter strife and conflict that evil may be driven from our
borders. Thus, Pentavalon needeth men, strong-armed and resolute: if
such ye be, march ye this hour to Thrasfordham within Bourne, and say
to Sir Benedict that God having given you new life, so now will ye give
your lives to Pentavalon, that tyranny may cease and the Duchy be
cleansed of evil. Who now among ye will draw sword for freedom and
Then sprang the squat man Osric to his feet, with clenched fist
upraised and eyes ablaze 'neath his matted hair.
"That will I!" he cried. "And I! And I! And I!" cried the rest, grim-faced
and eager. "Aye--give us but swords, and one to lead, and we will
"Go you then to Sir Benedict within Bourne and say to all men that
Beltane the Duke hath this night burned down Black Ivo's shameful
gibbet, for a sign that he is come at last and is at work, nor will he
stay until he die, or Pentavalon be free!"
HOW BELTANE HAD WORD WITH PERTOLEPE THE RED, AND HOW THEY LEFT HIM IN
"Since all men breathing 'neath the sky
Good or evil, soon must die,
Ho! bring me wine, and what care I
It was Giles Brabblecombe singing to himself as he knelt beside a fire
of twigs, and Beltane, opening sleepy eyes, looked round upon a world
all green and gold and dew-bespangled; a fair world and fragrant,
whose balmy air breathed of hidden flowers and blooming thickets,
whence came the joyous carolling of new-waked birds; and beholding all
this and the glory of it, my Beltane must needs praise God he was
"Hail and good morrow to thee, brother!" cried the bowman, seeing him
astir. "The sun shineth, look you, I sit upon my hams and sing for that
this roasting venison smelleth sweet, while yonder i' the leaves be a
mavis and a merle a-mocking of me, pretty rogues: for each and ever of
which, _Laus Deo, Amen!_"
"Why truly, God hath made a fair world, Giles, a good world to live in,
and to live is to act--yet here have I lain most basely sleeping--"
"Like any paunched friar, brother. But a few days since, I met thee in
the green, a very gentle, dove-like youth that yet became a very lion
of fight and demi-god of battle! Heroes were we all, last night--nay,
very Titans--four 'gainst an army!--whiles now, within this
balmy-breathing morn you shall see Walkyn o' the Bloody Axe with grim
Black Rogerkin, down at the brook yonder, a-sprawl upon their bellies
busily a-tickling trout for breakfast, while I, whose good yew bow
carrieth death in every twang, toasting deer-flesh on a twig, am mocked of
wanton warblers i' the green: and thou, who art an Achilles, a Hector,
an Ajax--a very Mars--do sleep and slumber, soft and sweet as full-fed
friar--Heigho! Yet even a demi-god must nod betimes, and Titans eat,
Now looking from sun to earth and beholding the shortening of the
shadows, Beltane leapt up. Quoth he:
"Sluggard that I am, 'tis late! And Roger was wounded last night, I
"Content you, brother, 'twas nought," said Giles bending above his
cooking, "the kiss of a pike-head i' the thick o' the arm--no more."
"Yet it must be looked to--"
"I did it, brother, as I shoot--that is to say I did it most excellent
well: 'twill be healed within the week."
"How then--art leech as well as bowman?"
"Quite as well, brother. When I was a monk I learned two good things,
_videlicit_: never to argue with those in authority over me, and to
heal the hurts of those that did. So, by my skill in herbs and
leechcraft, Roger, having a hole in his arm, recks not of it--behold
here he cometh, and Walkyn too, and _Laus Deo!_ with a trout! Now shall
we feast like any pampered prelate."
So when Beltane had stripped and bathed him in the brook, they
presently sat down, all four together, and ate and talked and laughed
right merrily, the while lark and thrush and blackbird carolled lustily
far and near.
"Now eat, brothers," cried the bowman, full-mouthed, "eat and spare
not, as I do, for to-day I smell the battle from afar: Ho! Ho! the
noise of captains and the shouting! Yesterday were we heroes, to-day
must we be gods--yet cautious gods, for, mark me, I have but twelve
shafts remaining, and with twelve shafts can but promise ye a poor
But now came Roger wistful-eyed, and with belt a-swing in his hand.
"Master," quoth he, "last night did we four rescue twelve. Now I'm fain
to know if for these twelve I may cut twelve notches from my belt, or
must we share their lives betwixt us and I count but three?"
"Three?" laughed Giles, "Oho--out upon thee, Rogerkin! Our lord here
claimeth six, since he the rescue planned, next, I claim three, since
but for my goodly shooting ye all had died, then hath Walkyn two, since
he saved thee from the fishes, which leaveth thee--one. _Quod erat
But now, seeing Roger's downcast look, Giles snatched the belt and gave
it unto Beltane, who forthwith cut there-from twelve notches. And, in a
while, having made an end of eating, Beltane rose and looked round upon
"Good comrades all," quoth he, "well do I know ye to be staunch and
trusty; yet to-day am I minded to speak with him men call Pertolepe the
Red, lest he shed innocent blood for that we slew his foresters--"
"Twenty lusty fellows!" nodded Giles, with a morsel of venison on his
"Nay, there one escaped!" quoth Roger.
"Yet he sore wounded!" said Walkyn.
"Ha! Sir Pertolepe is a terrible lord!" quoth Giles, eyeing the morsel
of venison somewhat askance. "'Twill be a desperate adventure,
methinks--and we but four."
"Yet each and all--gods!" quoth Walkyn, reaching for his axe.
"Aye," nodded Giles, frowning at the piece of venison, "yet are we but
"Not so," answered Beltane, "for in this thing shall we be but one. Go
you three to Bourne, for I am minded to try this adventure alone."
"Alone, master!" cried Black Roger, starting to his feet.
"Alone!" growled Walkyn, clutching his axe.
"An death must come, better one should die than four," said Beltane,
"howbeit I am minded to seek out Pertolepe this day."
"Then do I come also, master, since thy man am I."
"I, too," nodded Walkyn, "come death and welcome, so I but stand face
to face with Pertolepe."
"Alack!" sighed Giles, "so needs must I come also, since I have twelve
shafts yet unsped," and he swallowed the morsel of venison with mighty
relish and gusto.
Then laughed Beltane for very gladness, and he looked on each with
"Good friends," quoth he, "as ye say, so let it be, and may God's hand
be over us this day."
Now, as he spake with eyes uplift to heaven, he espied a faint, blue
mist far away above the soft-stirring tree tops--a distant haze, that
rose lazily into the balmy air, thickening ever as he watched.
"Ah!" he exclaimed, fierce-eyed of a sudden and pointing with rigid
finger, "whence cometh that smoke, think ye?"
"Why," quoth Roger, frowning, "Wendonmere village lieth yonder!"
"Nay, 'tis nearer than Wendonmere," said Walkyn, shouldering his axe.
"See, the smoke thickens!" cried Beltane. "Now, God forgive me! the
while I tarry here Red Pertolepe is busy, meseemeth!" So saying, he
caught up his sword, and incontinent set off at speed toward where the
soft blue haze stole upon the air of morning, growing denser and ever
Fast and furious Beltane sped on, crashing through underbrush and
crackling thicket, o'erleaping bush and brook and fallen tree, heedful
of eye, and choosing his course with a forester's unerring instinct,
praying fiercely beneath his breath, and with the three ever close
"Would I had eaten less!" panted Giles.
"Would our legs were longer!" growled Walkyn.
"Would my belt bore fewer notches!" quoth Roger.
And so they ran together, sure-footed and swift, and ever as they ran
the smoke grew denser, and ever Beltane's prayers more fervent. Now in
a while they heard a sound, faint and confused: a hum, that presently
grew to a murmur--to a drone--to a low wailing of voices, pierced of a
sudden by a shrill cry no man's lips could utter, that swelled high
upon the air and died, lost amid the growing clamour.
"They've fired the ricks first!" panted Roger; "'tis ever Pertolepe's
"They be torturing the women!" hissed Walkyn; "'tis ever so Red
"And I have but twelve arrows left me!" groaned Giles.
But Beltane ran in silence, looking neither right nor left, until,
above the hum of voices he heard one upraised in passionate
supplication, followed by another--a loud voice and jovial--and
thereafter, a burst of roaring laughter.
Soon Beltane beheld a stream that flowed athwart their way and, beyond
the stream, a line of willows thick growing upon the marge; and again,
beyond these clustering willows the straggling village lay. Then
Beltane, motioning the others to caution, forded the stream and coming
in the shade of the osiers, drew on his hood of mail, and so,
unsheathing his long sword, peered through the leaves. And this is what
A wide road flanked by rows of scattered cottages, rude of wall and
thatch; a dusty road, that led away east and west into the cool depths
of the forest, and a cringing huddle of wretched village folk whose
pallid faces were all set one way, where some score of men-at-arms
lolled in their saddles watching a tall young maid who struggled
fiercely in the grasp of two lusty fellows, her garments rent, her
white flesh agleam in the sunlight. A comely maid, supple and strong,
who ever as she strove 'gainst the clutching hands that held her, kept
her blazing eyes turned upon one in knightly mail who sat upon a great
war-horse hard by, watching her, big chin in big mailed fist, and with
wide lips up-curling in a smile: a strong man this, heavy and broad of
chest; his casque hung at his saddle-bow, and his mail-coif, thrown
back upon his wide shoulders, showed his thick, red hair that fell a-down,
framing his square-set, rugged face.
"Ha, Cuthbert," quoth he, turning to one who rode at his elbow--a
slender youth who stared with evil eyes and sucked upon his finger,
"Aha, by the fiend, 'tis a sweet armful, Sir Squire?"
"Aye, my lord Pertolepe, 'tis rarely shaped and delicately fleshed!"
answered the esquire, and so fell to sucking his finger again.
"What, silly wench, will ye defy me still?" cried Sir Pertolepe, jovial
of voice, "must ye to the whip in sooth? Ho, Ralph--Otho, strip me this
stubborn jade--so!--Ha! verily Cuthbert, hast shrewd eyes, 'tis a
dainty rogue. Come," said he smiling down into the girl's wide, fierce
eyes, "save that fair body o' thine from the lash, now, and speak me
where is thy father and brother that I may do justice on them, along
with these other dogs, for the foul murder of my foresters yest're'en;
their end shall be swift, look ye, and as for thyself--shalt find those
to comfort thee anon--speak, wench!"
But now came a woman pale and worn, who threw herself on trembling
knees at Sir Pertolepe's stirrup, and, bowed thus before him in the
dust, raised a passionate outcry, supplicating his mercy with bitter
tears and clasped hands lifted heavenwards.
"O good my lord Pertolepe," she wailed, "'twas not my husband, nor son,
nor any man of our village wrought this thing; innocent are we, my
"O witch!" quoth he, "who bade thee speak?" So saying he drew mail-clad
foot from stirrup and kicked her back into the dust. "Ho, whips!" he
called, "lay on, and thereafter will we hang these vermin to their own
roof-trees and fire their hovels for a warning."
But now, even as the struggling maid was dragged forward--even as
Pertolepe, smiling, settled chin on fist to watch the lithe play of her
writhing limbs, the willows behind him swayed and parted to a sudden
panther-like leap, and a mail-clad arm was about Sir Pertolepe--a
mighty arm that bore him from the saddle and hurled him headlong; and
thereafter Sir Pertolepe, half stunned and staring up from the dust,
beheld a great blade whose point pricked his naked throat, and, beyond
this blade, a mail-clad face, pallid, fierce, grim-lipped, from whose
blazing eyes death glared down at him.
"Dog!" panted Beltane.
"Ha! Cuthbert!" roared Red Pertolepe, writhing 'neath Beltane's
grinding heel, "to me, Cuthbert--to me!"
But, as the esquire wheeled upon Beltane with sword uplifted, out from
the green an arrow whistled, and Cuthbert, shrill-screaming, swayed in
his saddle and thudded to earth, while his great war-horse, rearing
affrighted, plunged among the men-at-arms, and all was shouting and
confusion; while from amid the willows arrows whizzed and flew, 'neath
whose cruel barbs horses snorted, stumbling and kicking, or crashed
into the dust; and ever the confusion grew.
But now Sir Pertolepe, wriggling beneath Beltane's iron foot had
unsheathed his dagger, yet, ere he could stab, down upon his red pate
crashed the heavy pommel of Beltane's sword and Sir Pertolepe, sinking
backward, lay out-stretched in the dust very silent and very still.
Then Beltane sheathed his sword and, stooping, caught Sir Pertolepe by
the belt and dragged him into the shade of the willows, and being come
to the stream, threw his captive down thereby and fell to splashing his
bruised face with the cool water. And now, above the shouts and the
trampling of hoofs upon the road, came the clash of steel on steel and
the harsh roar of Walkyn and Black Roger as they plied axe and sword--
"Arise! Ha, arise!" Then, as Beltane glanced up, the leaves near by
were dashed aside and Giles came bounding through, his gay feather
shorn away, his escalloped cape wrenched and torn, his broadsword a-swing
in his hand.
"Ho, tall brother--a sweet affray!" he panted, "the fools give back
already: they cry that Pertolepe is slain and the woods full of
outlaws; they be falling back from the village--had I but a few shafts
in my quiver, now--" but here, beholding the face of Beltane's captive,
Giles let fall his sword, staring round-eyed.
"Holy St. Giles!" he gasped, "'tis the Red Pertolepe!" and so stood
agape, what time a trumpet brayed a fitful blast from the road and was
answered afar. Thereafter came Roger, stooping as he ran, and shouting:
"Archers! Archers!--run, lord!"
But Beltane stirred not, only he dashed the water in Sir Pertolepe's
twitching face, wherefore came Roger and caught him by the arm,
"Master, O master!" he panted, "the forest is a-throng with lances, and
there be archers also--let us make the woods ere we are beset!"
But Beltane, seeing the captive stir, shook off Black Roger's grasp;
but now, one laughed, and Walkyn towered above him, white teeth agleam,
who, staring down at Sir Pertolepe, whirled up his bloody axe to smite.
"Fool!" cried Beltane, and threw up his hand to stay the blow, and in
that moment Sir Pertolepe oped his eyes.
"'Tis Pertolepe!" panted Walkyn, "'tis he that slew wife and child: so
now will I slay him, since we, in this hour, must die!"
"Not so," quoth Beltane, "stand back--obey me--back, I say!" So,
muttering, Walkyn lowered his axe, while Beltane, drawing his dagger,
stooped above Sir Pertolepe and spake, swift and low in his ear, and
with dagger at his throat. And, in a while, Beltane rose and Sir
Pertolepe also, and side by side they stepped forth of the leaves out
into the road, where, on the outskirts of the village, pikemen and
men-at-arms, archer and knight, were halted in a surging throng, while
above the jostling confusion rose the hoarse babel of their voices. But
of a sudden the clamour died to silence, and thereafter from a hundred
throats a shout went up:
"A Pertolepe! 'Tis Sir Pertolepe!"
Now in this moment Beltane laid his dagger-hand about Sir Pertolepe's
broad shoulders, and set the point of his dagger 'neath Sir Pertolepe's
"Speak!" quoth Beltane softly, and his dagger-point bit deeper, "speak
now as I commanded thee!"
A while Sir Pertolepe bit savagely at his knuckle-bones, then, lifting
his head, spake that all might hear:
"Ho, sirs!" he cried, "I am fain to bide awhile and hold talk with one
Beltane, who styleth himself--Duke of Pentavalon. Hie ye back,
therefore, one and all, and wait me in Garthlaxton; yet, an I come not
by sunset, ride forth and seek me within the forest. Go!"
Hereupon from the disordered ranks a sound arose, a hoarse murmur that
voiced their stark amaze, and, for a while, all eyes stared upon those
two grim figures that yet stood so close and brotherly. But Sir
Pertolepe quelled them with a gesture:
"Go!" he commanded.
So their disarray fell into rank and order, and wheeling about, they
marched away along the forest road with helm agleam and pennons a-dance,
the while Sir Pertolepe stared after them, wild of eye and with
mailed hands clenched; once he made as if to call them back: but
Beltane's hand was heavy on his shoulder, and the dagger pricked his
throat. And thus stood they, side by side, until the tramp of feet was
died away, until the last trembling villager had slunk from sight and
the broad road was deserted, all save for Cuthbert the esquire, and
divers horses that lay stiffly in the dust, silent and very still.
Then Beltane sighed and sheathed his dagger, and Sir Pertolepe faced
him scrowling, fierce-eyed and arrogant.
"Ha, outlaw!" quoth he, "give back my sword and I will cope with thee--
wolf's head though thou art--aye, and any two other rogues beside."
"Nay," answered Beltane, "I fight with such as thee but when I needs
must. What--Roger!" he called, "go fetch hither a rope!"
"Dog--would ye murder me?"
"Not so," sighed Beltane, shaking his head, "have I not promised to
leave thee alive within the greenwood? Yet I would see thee walk in
"Ha, dare ye bind me, then? He that toucheth me, toucheth Duke Ivo--
dare ye so do, rogue?"
"Aye, messire," nodded Beltane, "I dare so. Bring hither the rope,
Roger." But when Roger was come nigh, Sir Pertolepe turned and stared
"What!" cried he, jovial of voice yet deadly-eyed, "is it my runaway
hangman in very sooth. Did I not pay thee enough, thou black-avised
knave? Did I not love thee for thy skill with the noose, thou
traitorous rogue? Now, mark me, Roger: one day will I feed thee to my
hounds and watch them tear thee, as they have certain other rogues--
aha!--you mind them, belike?"
Pale of cheek and with trembling hands, Roger bound the arms of him
that had been his over-lord, while Walkyn and Giles, silent and
wide-eyed, watched it done.
"Whither would ye take me?" quoth Red Pertolepe, arrogant.
"That shalt thou know anon, messire."
"How an I defy thee?"
"Then must we carry thee, messire," answered Beltane, "yet thine own
legs were better methinks--come, let us begone."
Thus, presently, having forded the brook, they struck into the forest;
first went Walkyn, axe on shoulder, teeth agleam; next strode Sir
Pertolepe, head high, 'twixt pale-faced Roger and silent Beltane, while
the bowman followed after, calling upon St. Giles beneath his breath
and crossing himself: and ever and anon Walkyn would turn to look upon
their scowling captive with eyes that glared 'neath shaggy brows.
Now after they had gone some while, Sir Pertolepe brake silence and
spake my Beltane, proud and fierce.
"Fellow," quoth he, "if 'tis for ransom ye hold me, summon hither thy
rogues' company, and I will covenant for my release."
"I seek no ransom of thee, messire," answered Beltane, "and for my
"Here? I see but three sorry knaves!"
"Yet with these same three did I o'ercome thy foresters, Sir
"Rogue, thou liest--'tis thing impossible!"
"Moreover, with these three did I, last night, burn down Black Ivo's
mighty gallows that stood without Belsaye town, and, thereafter set
wide the dungeon of Belsaye and delivered thence certain woeful
prisoners, and sent them abroad with word that I--Beltane, son of
Beltane the Strong, Duke of Pentavalon, am come at last, bearing the
sword of my father, that was wont to strike deep for liberty and
justice: nor, having life, will I lay it by until oppression is no
Now indeed did Sir Pertolepe stare upon my Beltane in amaze and spake
no word for wonder; then, of a sudden he laughed, scornful and loud.
"Ho! thou burner of gibbets!" quoth he, "take heed lest thy windy
boasting bring thy lordly neck within a noose! Art lusty of arm, yet
lustier of tongue--and as to thy father, whoe'er he be--"
"Messire?" Beltane's voice was soft, yet, meeting the calm serenity of
his gaze, Sir Pertolepe checked the jeer upon his lip and stared upon
Beltane as one new-waked; beheld in turn his high and noble look, the
costly excellence of his armour, his great sword and belt of silver--
and strode on thereafter with never a word, yet viewing Beltane aslance
'neath brows close-knit in dark perplexity. So, at last, they came into
a little clearing deep-hid among the denser green.
Beltane paused here, and lifting mailed hand, pointed to a certain
tree. But hereupon, Sir Pertolepe, staring round about him and down
upon his galling bonds, spake:
"Sir knight," said he, "who thou art I know not, yet, if indeed thou
art of gentle blood, then know that I am Sir Pertolepe, Baron of
Trenda, Seneschal of Garthlaxton, lord warden of the marches: moreover,
friend and brother-in-arms am I to Duke Ivo--"
"Nay," said Beltane, "all this I know, for much of thee have I heard,
messire: of thy dark doings, of the agony of men, the shame of women,
and how that there be many desolate hearths and nameless graves of thy
making, lord Pertolepe. Thou wert indeed of an high estate and strong,
and these but lowly folk and weak--yet mercy on them had ye none. I
have this day heard thee doom the innocent to death and bitter shame,
and, lord, as God seeth us, it is enough!"
Sir Pertolepe's ruddy cheek showed pale, but his blue eyes stared upon
Beltane wide and fearless.
"Have ye then dragged me hither to die, messire?"
"Lord Pertolepe, all men must die, aye, e'en great lords such as thou,
when they have sinned sufficiently: and thy sins, methinks, do reach
high heaven. So have I brought thee hither into the wilderness that
God's will may be wrought upon thee."
"How--wilt forswear thyself?" cried Sir Pertolepe, writhing in his
"Come Roger--Walkyn--bring me him to the tree, yonder."
"Ha! rogue--rogue," panted Sir Pertolepe, "would'st leave me to die in
a noose, unshriven and unannealed, my soul dragged hell-wards weighted
with my sins?"
Now, even as he spake, swift and sudden he leapt aside and would have
fled; but Walkyn's fierce fingers dragged at his throat, and Roger's
iron arms were close about him. Desperately he fought and struggled,
but mighty though he was, his captors were mighty also, moreover his
bonds galled him; wherefore, fighting yet, they dragged him to the
tree, and to the tree Beltane fast bound him, whiles the forest rang
and echoed with his panting cries until his great voice cracked and
broke, and he hung 'gainst the tree, spent and breathless.
Then spake Beltane, grim-lipped yet soft of voice:
"Lord Pertolepe, fain would I hang thee as thou hast hanged many a man
ere now--but this, methinks, is a better way: for here, unless some
wanderer chance to find thee, must thou perish, an so God will it. Thus
do we leave thee in the hands of God to grant thee life or death: and
may he have mercy on thy guilty soul!"
Thus said Beltane, sombre of brow and pale of cheek; and so, beckoning
to the others, turned away, despite Sir Pertolepe's passionate threats
and prayers, and plunging into the dense underbrush, strode swift-footed
from the place, with the captive's wild cries ringing in his ears.
Haphazard went Beltane, yet straining his ears to catch those mournful
sounds that grew faint and fainter with distance till they were lost in
the rustle of the leaves. But, of a sudden, he stayed his going and
stood with his head aslant hearkening to a sound that seemed to have
reached him from the solitudes behind; and presently it came again, a
cry from afar--a scream of agony, hoarse and long drawn out, a hateful
sound that checked the breath of him and brought the sweat out cold
upon his brow; and now, turning about, he saw that his following was
but two, for Walkyn had vanished quite. Now Giles, meeting Beltane's
wide stare, must needs cough and fumble with his bow, whiles Roger
stood with bowed head and fingers tight-clenched upon his quarter-staff:
whereat, fierce-frowning, Beltane spake.
"Wait!" he commanded, "wait you here!" and forthwith turned and ran,
and so running, came again at last to that obscure glade whence now
came a sound of groans, mocked, thereafter, by fierce laughter. Now,
bursting from the green, Beltane beheld Sir Pertolepe writhing in his
bonds with Walkyn's fierce fingers twined in his red hair, and Walkyn's
busy dagger at his upturned brow, where was a great, gory wound, a
hideous cruciform blotch whence pulsed the blood that covered his
writhen face like a scarlet vizard.
"Ah!" cried Beltane, "what hast thou done?"
Back fell Walkyn, fierce-eyed and grim yet with teeth agleam through
the hair of his beard.
"Lord," quoth he, "this man hath slain wife, and child and brother, so
do I know him thrice a murderer. Therefore have I set this mark of
Cain upon him, that all men henceforth may see and know. But now, an it
be so thy will, take this my dagger and slay me here and now--yet shall
Red Pertolepe bear my mark upon him when I am dead."
Awhile stood Beltane in frowning thought, then pointed to the green.
"Go," said he, "the others wait thee!"
So Walkyn, obeying, turned and plunged into the green, while Beltane
followed after, slow and heavy-footed. But now, even as he went, slow
and ever slower, he lifted heavy head and turned about, for above the
leafy stirrings rose the mournful lilting of a pipe, clear and very
sweet, that drew nearer and louder until it was, of a sudden, drowned
in a cry hoarse and woeful. Then Beltane, hasting back soft-treading,
stood to peer through the leaves, and presently, his cock's-comb
flaunting, his silver bells a-jingle, there stepped a mountebank into
the clearing--that same jester with whom Beltane had talked aforetime.
"Beda!" cried Sir Pertolepe faintly, his bloody face uplifted, "and is
it forsooth, thou, Beda? Come, free me of my bonds. Ha! why stay ye, I
am Pertolepe--thy lord--know you me not, Beda?"
"Aye, full well I know thee, lord Pertolepe, thou art he who had me
driven forth with blows and bitter stripes--thou art he who slew my
father for an ill-timed jest--oho! well do I know thee, my lord
Pertolepe." So saying, Beda the Jester set his pipe within his girdle,
and, drawing his dagger, began to creep upon Sir Pertolepe, who shook
the dripping blood from his eyes to watch him as he came. Quote he:
"Art a good fool, Beda, aye, a good fool. And for thy father, 'twas the
wine, Beda--the wine, not I--come, free me of these my bonds--I loved
thy father, e'en as I loved thee."
"Yet is my father dead, lord--and I am outcast!" said Beda, smiling and
fingering his dagger.
"So then, will ye slay me, Beda--wilt murder thy lord? Why then,
strike, fool, strike--here, i' the throat, and let thy steel be
Then Sir Pertolepe feebly raised his bloody head, proffering his throat
to the steel and so stood faint in his bonds, yet watching the jester
calm-eyed. Slowly, slowly the dagger was lifted for the stroke while
Sir Pertolepe watched the glittering steel patient and unflinching;
then, swift and sudden the dagger flashed and fell, and Sir Pertolepe
staggered free, and so stood swaying. Then, looking down upon his
severed bonds, he laughed hoarsely.
"How, 'twas but a jest, then, my Beda?" he whispered. "A jest--ha! and
methinks, forsooth, the best wilt ever make!"
So saying, Sir Pertolepe stumbled forward a pace, groping before him
like a blind man, then, groaning, fell, and lay a'swoon, his bloody
face hidden in the grass.
And turning away, Beltane left him lying there with Beda the Jester
kneeling above him.
OF THE RUEFUL KNIGHT OF THE BURNING HEART
Southward marched Beltane hour after hour, tireless of stride, until
the sun began to decline; on and on, thoughtful of brow and speaking
not at all, wherefore the three were gloomy and silent also--even Giles
had no mind to break in upon his solemn meditations. But at last came
Roger and touched him on the shoulder.
"Master," said he, "the day groweth to a close, and we famish."
"Why, then--eat," said Beltane.
Now while they set about building a fire, Beltane went aside and
wandering slow and thoughtful, presently came to a broad glade or ride,
and stretching himself out 'neath a tree, lay there staring up at the
leafy canopy, pondering upon Sir Pertolepe his sins, and the marvellous
ways of God. Lying thus, he was aware of the slow, plodding hoof-strokes
of a horse drawing near, of the twang of a lute, with a voice
sweet and melodious intoning a chant; and the tune was plaintive and
the words likewise, being these:--
"Alack and woe
That love is so
Akin to pain!
That to my heart
The bitter smart
Alack and woe!"
Glancing up therefore, Beltane presently espied a knight who bestrode a
great and goodly war-horse; a youthful knight and debonair, slender and
shapely in his bright mail and surcoat of flame-coloured samite. His
broad shield hung behind his shoulder, balanced by a long lance whose
gay banderol fluttered wanton to the soft-breathing air; above his
mail-coif he wore a small bright-polished bascinet, while, at his
high-peaked saddle-bow his ponderous war-helm swung, together with
broad-bladed battle-axe. Now as he paced along in this right gallant
estate, his roving glance, by hap, lighted on Beltane, whereupon,
checking his powerful horse, he plucked daintily at the strings of his
lute, delicate-fingered, and brake into song anew:--
"Ah, woe is me
That I should be
A lonely wight!
That in mankind
No joy I find
By day or night,
Ah, woe is me!"
Thereafter he sighed amain and smote his bosom, and smiling upon
Beltane sad-eyed, spake:
"Most excellent, tall, and sweet young sir, I, who Love's lorn pilgrim
am, do give thee woeful greeting and entreat now the courtesy of thy
"And wherefore pity, sir?" quoth Beltane, sitting up.
"For reason of a lady's silver laughter. A notable reason this; for,
mark me, ye lovers, an thy lady flout thee one hour, grieve not--she
shall be kind the next; an she scorn thee to-day, despair nothing--she
shall love thee to-morrow; but, an she laugh and laugh--ah, then poor
lover, Venus pity thee! Then languish hope, and tender heart be rent,
for love and laughter can ne'er be kin. Wherefore a woeful wight am I,
foredone and all distraught for love. Behold here, the blazon on my
shield--lo! a riven heart proper (direfully aflame) upon a field vert.
The heart, methinks, is aptly wrought and popped, and the flame in
sooth flame-like! Here beneath, behold my motto, 'Ardeo' which
signifieth 'I burn.' Other device have I laid by for the nonce, what
time my pilgrimage shall be accompt."
But Beltane looked not so much upon the shield as on the face of him
that bore it, and beholding its high and fearless look, the clear,
bright eyes and humorous mouth (albeit schooled to melancholy) he
smiled, and got him to his feet.
"Now, well met, Sir Knight of the Burning Heart!" quoth he. "What would
ye here, alone, within these solitudes?"
"Sigh, messire. I sing and sigh, and sigh and sing."
"'Tis a something empty life, methinks."
"Not so, messire," sighed the rueful knight, "for when I chance to meet
a gentle youth, young and well beseen--as thou, bedight in goodly mail
--as thou, with knightly sword on thigh, why then, messire, 'tis ever my
wont to declare unto him that she I honour is fairer, nobler, and
altogether more worthy and virtuous than any other she soever, and to
maintain that same against him, on horse or afoot, with lance, battle-axe
or sword. Thus, see you messire, even a love-lorn lover hath
betimes his compensations, and the sward is soft underfoot, and level."
Saying which, the knight cocked a delicate eyebrow in questioning
fashion, and laid a slender finger to the pommel of his long sword.
"How," cried Beltane, "would'st fight with me?"
"Right gladly would I, messire--to break the monotony."
"I had rather hear thy song again."
"Ha, liked you it in sooth? 'Tis small thing of mine own."
"And 'tis brief!" nodded Beltane.
"Brief!" quoth the knight, "brief! not so, most notable youthful sir,
for even as love is long enduring so is my song, it being of an hundred
and seventy and eight cantos in all, dealing somewhat of the woes and
ills of a heart sore smitten (which heart is mine own also). Within my
song is much matter of hearts (in truth) and darts, of flames and
shames, of yearnings and burnings, the which this poor heart must needs
endure since it doth constant bleed and burn."
"Indeed, messire, I marvel that you be yet alive," said Beltane
gravely, whereat the young knight did pause to view him, dubious-eyed.
"In sooth, most youthful and excellent sir, I have myself marvelled
thereat betimes, but, since alive am I, now do I declare unto you that
she for whom I sigh is the fairest, gentlest, noblest, most glorious
and most womanly of all women in the world alive--"
"Save one!" said Beltane.
"Save none, messire!" said the young knight, eager-eyed.
"One!" said Beltane.
"None!" quoth the knight, as, casting aside ponderous lance he vaulted
lightly from his saddle and drew his sword; but, seeing that Beltane
bore no shield, paused to lay his own tenderly aside, and so faced him
serene of brow and smiling of lip. "Sweet sir," said he gaily, "here
methinks is fair cause for argument; let us then discuss the matter
together for the comfort of our souls and to the glory of our ladies.
As to my name--" "'Tis Jocelyn," quoth Beltane.
"Ha!" exclaimed the knight, staring.
"That won a suit of triple mail at Dunismere joust, and wagered it
'gainst Black Ivo's roan stallion within Deepwold forest upon a time."
"Now, by Venus!" cried the knight, starting back, "here be manifest
sorcery! Ha! by the sweet blind boy, 'tis black magic!" and he crossed
himself devoutly. But Beltane, laughing, put back his hood of mail,
that his long, fair hair fell a-down rippling to his shoulders.
"Know you me not, messire?" quoth he.
"Why," said Sir Jocelyn, knitting delicate brows, "surely thou art the
forester that o'ercame Duke Ivo's wrestler; aye, by the silver feet of
lovely Thetis, thou'rt Beltane the Smith!"
"Verily, messire," nodded Beltane, "and 'tis not meet that knight cross
blade with lowly smith."
"Ha!" quoth Sir Jocelyn, rubbing at his smooth white chin, "yet art a
goodly man withal--and lover to boot--methinks?"
"Aye," sighed Beltane, "ever and always."
"Why then, all's well," quoth Sir Jocelyn with eyes a-dance, "for since
true love knoweth nought of distinctions, therefore being lovers are
we peers, and, being peers, so may we fight together. So come, Sir
Smith, here stand I sword in hand to maintain 'gainst thee and all men
the fame and honour of her I worship, of all women alive, maid or wife
or widow, the fairest, noblest, truest, and most love-worthy is--"
"Helen of Mortain!" quoth Beltane, sighing.
"Helen?--Helen?--thou too!" exclaimed Sir Jocelyn, and forthwith
dropped his sword, staring in stark amaze. "How--dost thou love her
"Aye," sighed Beltane, "to my sorrow!"
Then stooped Sir Jocelyn and, taking up his sword, slowly sheathed it.
Quoth he, sad-eyed:
"Life, methinks, is full of disappointments; farewell to thee, Sir
Smith," and sighing, he turned away; yet ere he had taken lance and
shield, Beltane spake:
"Whither away, Sir Jocelyn?"
"To sigh, and sing, and seek adventure. 'Twas for this I left my goodly
castle of Alain and journeyed, a lorn pilgrim, hither to Pentavalon,
since when strange stories have I heard that whisper in the air,
speeding from lip to lip, of a certain doughty knight-at-arms, valiant
beyond thought, that beareth a sword whose mighty sweep none may abide,
who, alone and unaided slew an hundred and twenty and four within the
greenwood, and thereafter, did, 'neath the walls of Belsaye town burn
down Duke Ivo's gibbet, who hath sworn to cut Duke Ivo into gobbets,
look you, and feed him to the dogs; which is well, for I love not Duke
Ivo. All this have I heard and much beside, idle tales mayhap, yet
would I seek out this errant Mars and prove him, for mine own behoof,
with stroke of sword."
"And how an he prove worthy?" questioned Beltane.
"Then will I ride with him, to share his deeds and glory mayhap, Sir
Smith--I and all the ten-score lusty fellows that muster to my pennon,
since in the air is whispered talk of war, and Sir Benedict lieth ready
in Thrasfordham Keep."
"Two hundred men," quoth Beltane, his blue eyes agleam, "two hundred,
say you?" and, speaking, he stepped forward, unsheathing his sword.
"How now," quoth Sir Jocelyn, "what would ye, sweet smith?"
"I would have thee prove me for thy behoof, Sir Jocelyn; for I am he
that with aid of five good men burned down the gibbet without Belsaye."
"Thou!" cried Sir Jocelyn, "and thou art a smith! And yet needs must I
credit thee, for thine eyes be truthful eyes. And did'st indeed slay so
many in the green, forsooth?"
"Nay," answered Beltane, "there were but twenty; moreover I--"
"Enough!" cried Sir Jocelyn, gaily, "be thou smith or be thou demi-god,
now will I make proof of thy might and valiance." And he drew sword.
So did these two youths face each other, smiling above their gleaming
steel, and so the long blades rang together, and, thereafter, the air
was full of a clashing din, in so much that Roger came running sword in
hand, with Walkyn and Giles at his heels; but, seeing how matters
stood, they sat them down on the sward, watching round-eyed and eager.
And now Sir Jocelyn (happy-eyed), his doleful heart forgot, did show
himself a doughty knight, skipping lightly to and fro despite his heavy
armour, and laying on right lustily while the three a-sprawl upon the
grass shouted gleefully at each shrewd stroke or skilful parry; but,
once Sir Jocelyn's blade clashed upon Beltane's mailed thigh, and
straightway they fell silent; and once his point touched the links on
Beltane's wide breast, and straightway their brows grew anxious and
gloomy--yet none so gloomy as Roger. But now, on a sudden, was the
flash and ring of hard smitten steel, and behold, Sir Jocelyn's sword
sprang from his grasp and thudded to earth a good three yards away;
whereupon the three roared amain--yet none so loud as Roger.
"Now by sweet Cupid his tender bow!" panted Sir Jocelyn--"by the
cestus of lovely Venus--aye, by the ox-eyed Juno, I swear 'twas featly
done, Sir Smith!"
Quoth Beltane, taking up the fallen sword:
"'Tis a trick I learned of that great and glorious knight, Sir Benedict
"Messire," said Sir Jocelyn, his cheek flushing, "an earl am I of
thirty and two quarterings and divers goodly manors: yet thou art the
better man, meseemeth, and as such do I salute thee, and swear myself
thy brother-in-arms henceforth--an ye will."
Now hereupon Beltane turned, and looking upon the mighty three with
kindling eye, beckoned them near.
"Lord Jocelyn," said he, "behold here my trusty comrades, valiant men
all:--this, my faithful Roger, surnamed the Black: This, Giles
Brabblecombe, who shooteth as ne'er did archer yet: and here, Walkyn--
who hath known overmuch of sorrow and bitter wrong. Fain would we take
thee for our comrade, Lord Jocelyn, for God knoweth Pentavalon hath
need of true men these days, yet first, know this--that I, and these my
three good comrades do stand pledged to the cause of the weak and
woefully oppressed within this sorrowful Duchy; to smite evil, nor
stay till we be dead, or Black Ivo driven hence."
"Ivo?--Ivo?" stammered Sir Jocelyn, in blank amaze, "'tis madness!"
"Thus," said Beltane, "is our cause, perchance, a little desperate, and
he who companies with us must company with Death betimes." "To defy
Black Ivo--ha, here is madness so mad as pleaseth me right well! A
rebellion, forsooth! How many do ye muster?"
"Thou seest--we be four--"
"Four!" cried Sir Jocelyn, "Four!"
"But Sir Benedict lieth within Thrasfordham Keep, and God is in heaven,
"Aye, but heaven is far, methinks, and Duke Ivo is near, and hath an
arm long and merciless. Art so weary of life, Sir Smith?"
"Nay," answered Beltane, "but to what end hath man life, save to spend
it for the good of his fellows?"
"Art mad!" sighed Sir Jocelyn, "art surely mad! Heigho!--some day,
mayhap, it shall be written how one Jocelyn Alain, a gentle, love-lorn
knight, singing his woes within the greenwood, did meet four lovely
madmen and straight fell mad likewise. So here, upon my sword, do I
swear to take thee for my brother-in-arms, and these thy comrades for
my comrades, and to spend my life, henceforth, to the good of my
So saying, Sir Jocelyn smiled his quick bright smile and reached out
his hand to my Beltane, and there, leaning upon their swords, their
mailed fingers clasped and wrung each other. Thereafter he turned upon
the three, but even as he did so, Walkyn uttered a fierce cry, and
whirling about with axe aloft, sprang into the green, whence of a
sudden rose a babel of voices, and the sound of fierce blows and,
thereafter, the noise of pursuit. A flicker of steel amid the green--a
score of fierce faces all about him, and Beltane was seized from
behind, borne struggling to his knees, to his face, battered by unseen
weapons, dragged at by unseen hands, choked, half-stunned, his arms
twisted and bound by galling thongs. Now, as he lay thus, helpless, a
mailed foot spurned him fiercely and looking up, half-swooning, he
beheld Sir Pertolepe smiling down at him.
"Ha--thou fool!" he laughed jovially, "did'st think to escape me, then
--thou fool, I have followed on thy tracks all day. By the eyes of God,
I would have followed thee to hell! I want thee in Garthlaxton--there
be gibbets for thee above the keep--also, there are my hounds--aye, I
want thee, Messire Beltane who art Duke of Pentavalon! Ho! Arnulf--a
halter for his ducal throat!" So, when they had cast a noose about his
neck, they dragged Beltane, choking, to his feet, and led him away
gasping and staggering through the green; and having eyes, he saw not,
and having ears, he heard not, being very spent and sick.
Now, as they went, evening began to fall.
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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,
"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
"'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
"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
"Stay," cried he striking right and left. "Halt, dogs, and take up the
prisoners. Ha! will ye defy me-rogues, caitiffs! Fulk! Raoul! Denis!
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
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."
"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
"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
"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.
HOW BELTANE MET SIR GILLES OF BRANDONMERE
It was a night of wind with a flying cloud-wrack overhead whence peeped
the pallid moon betimes; a night of gloom and mystery. The woods about
them were full of sounds and stealthy rustlings as they strode along
the forest road, and so came to that dark defile where the fight had
raged. Of what they saw and heard within that place of slaughter it
bodeth not to tell, nor of those figures, wild and fierce, that
crouched to strip the jumbled slain, or snarled and quarrelled over the
"Here is good plunder of weapons and armour," quoth Roger, "'tis seldom
the outlaws come by such. Hark to that cry! There died some wounded
wight under his plunderer's knife!"
"God rest his soul, Amen!" sighed Beltane. "Come, let us hence!" And
forthwith he began to run. So in a little while they passed through
that place of horror unseen, and so came out again upon the forest
road. Ever and anon the moon sent down a feeble ray 'neath which the
road lay a-glimmer 'twixt the gloom of the woods, whence came groans
and wailings with every wind-gust, whereat Roger quailed, and fumbling
at his sword-hilt, pressed closer upon Beltane.
"Master," he whispered, "'tis an evil night--methinks the souls of the
dead be abroad--hark to those sounds! Master, I like it not!--"
"'Tis but the wind, Roger."
"'Tis like the cries of women wailing o'er their dead, I have heard
such sounds ere now; I would my belt bore fewer notches, master!"
"They shall be fewer ere dawn, Roger, I pray God!"
"Master--an I am slain this night, think ye I must burn in hell-fire--
remembering these same notches?"
"Nay, for surely God is a very merciful God, Roger. Hark!" quoth
Beltane, and stopped of a sudden, and thus above the wailing of the
wind they presently heard a feeble groaning hard by, and following the
sound, beheld a blotch upon the glimmering road. Now as they drew near
the moon peeped out, and showed a man huddled 'neath a bush beside the
way, whose face gleamed pale amid the shadows.
"Ha!" cried Roger, stooping, "thou'rt of Brandonmere?"
"Aye--give me water--I was squire to Sir Gilles--God's love--give me--
Then Beltane knelt, and saw this was but a youth, and bidding Roger
bring water from a brook near by, took the heavy head upon his knee.
"Messire," said he, "I have heard that Sir Gilles beareth women
"There is--but one, and she--a nun. But nuns are--holy women--so I
withstood my lord in his--desire. And my lord--stabbed me--so must I
die--of a nun, see you!--Ah--give me--water!"
"Where doth he ride this night, messire?"
"His men--few--very weary--Sir Pertolepe's--men-at-arms--caught us i'
the sunken road--Sir Gilles--to Thornaby Mill--beside the ford--O God
"'Tis here!" quoth Roger, kneeling beside him; then Beltane set the
water to the squire's eager lips, but, striving to drink he choked,
and choking, fell back--dead.
So in a while they arose from their knees and went their way, while the
dead youth lay with wide eyes that seemed to out-stare the pallid moon.
Now as they went on very silently together, of a sudden Black Roger
caught Beltane by the arm and pointed into the gloom, where, far before
them, small lights winked redly through the murk.
"Yon should be Sir Gilles' watch-fires!" he whispered.
"Aye," nodded Beltane, "so I think."
"Master--what would ye now?"
"Pray, Roger--I pray God Sir Gilles' men be few, and that they be sound
sleepers. Howbeit we will go right warily none the less." So saying,
Beltane turned aside from the road and led on through underbrush and
thicket, through a gloom of leaves where a boisterous wind rioted;
where great branches, dim seen, swayed groaning in every fierce gust,
and all was piping stir and tumult. Twigs whipped them viciously,
thorns dragged at them, while the wind went by them, moaning, in the
dark. But, ever and anon as they stumbled forward, guiding themselves
by instinct, the moon sent forth a pale beam from the whirling cloud-wrack
--a phantom light that stole upon them, sudden and ghost-like,
and, like a ghost, was gone again; what time Black Roger, following
hard on Beltane's heel, crossed himself and muttered fragments of
forgotten prayers. Thus at last they came to the river, that flowed
before them vague in the half-light, whose sullen waters gurgled evilly
among the willows that drooped upon the marge.
"Master," said Roger, wiping sweat from his face, "there's evil
hereabouts--I've had a warning--a dead man touched me as we came
through the brush yonder."
"Nay Roger, 'twas but some branch--"
"Lord, when knew ye a branch with--fingers--slimy and cold--upon my
cheek here. 'Twas a warning, master--he dead hand! One of us twain
goeth to his death this night!"
"Let not thine heart fail therefor, good Roger: man, being dead, liveth
"Nay, but--the dead hand, master--on my cheek, here--Ah!--" Crying
thus, Black Roger sprang and caught Beltane's arm, gripping it fast,
for on the air, borne upon the wind, yet louder than the wind, a shrill
sound rang and echoed, the which, passing, seemed to have stricken the
night to silence. Then Beltane brake from Roger's clasp, and ran on
beside the river, until, beyond the sullen waters the watch-fires
flared before him, in whose red light the mill loomed up rugged and
grim, its massy walls scarred and cracked, its great wheel fallen to
Now above the wheel was a gap in the masonry, an opening roughly square
that had been a window, mayhap, whence shone a warm, mellow light.
"Master," panted Roger, "a God's name--what was it?"
"A woman screamed!" quoth Beltane, staring upon the lighted window. As
he spake a man laughed sleepily beside the nearest watch-fire, scarce a
"Look'ee, master," whispered Roger, "we may not cross by the ford
because of the watch-fires--'tis a fair light to shoot by, and the
river is very deep hereabouts."
"Yet must we swim it, Roger."
"Lord, the water is in flood, and our armour heavy!"
"Then must we leave our armour behind," quoth Beltane, and throwing
back his hood of mail, he began to unbuckle his broad belt, but of a
sudden, stayed to point with outstretched finger. Then, looking whither
he pointed, Roger saw a tree whose hole leaned far out across the
stream, so that one far-flung branch well nigh scraped the broken roof
of the mill.
"Yon lieth our way, Roger--come!" said he.
Being come to that side of the tree afar from the watch-fires, Beltane
swung himself lightly and began to climb, but hearing a groan, paused.
"Roger," he whispered, "what ails thee, Roger?"
"Alas!" groaned Roger, "'tis my wound irketh me; O master, I cannot
follow thee this way!"
"Nay, let me aid thee," whispered Beltane, reaching down to him. But,
despite Beltane's strong hand, desperately though he tried, Black Roger
fell back, groaning.
"Master," he pleaded, "O master, adventure not alone lest ill befall
thee." "Aye, but I must, Roger."
Then Roger leaned his head upon his sound arm, and wept full bitterly.
"O master,--O sweet lord," quoth he, "bethink thee now of the warning--
the dead hand--"
"Yet must I go, my Roger."
"Then--an they kill thee, lord, so shall they kill me also; thy man am
I, to live or die with thee--"
"Nay, Roger, sworn art thou to redeem Pentavalon: so now, in her name
do I charge thee, haste to Sir Jocelyn, an he yet live--seek Giles and
Walkyn and whoso else ye may, and bring them hither at speed. If ye
find me not here, then hie ye all to Thrasfordham, for by to-morrow Sir
Pertolepe and Gui of Allerdale will have raised the country against us.
Go now, do even as I command, and may God keep thee, my faithful
Roger." Then Beltane began to climb, but being come where the great
branch forked, looked down to see Roger's upturned face, pale amid the
"The holy angels have thee in their keeping, lord and master!" he
sighed, and so turned with head a-droop and was gone. And now Beltane
began to clamber out across the swirl of dark waters, while the tough
bough swung and swayed beneath him in every gust of wind, wherefore his
going was difficult and slow, and he took heed only to his hands and
But, all at once, he heard a bitter, broken cry, and glancing up, it
chanced that from his lofty perch he could look within the lighted
window, and thus beheld a nun, whose slender, black-robed body writhed
and twisted in the clasp of two leathern-clad arms; vicious arms, that
bent her back and back across the rough table, until into Beltane's
vision came the leathern-clad form of him that held her: a black-haired,
shapely man, whose glowing eyes and eager mouth stooped ever nearer
above the nun's white loveliness.
And thus it was that my Beltane first looked upon Sir Gilles of
Brandonmere. He had laid sword and armour by, but as the nun yet
struggled in his arms, her white hand came upon and drew the dagger at
his girdle, yet, ere she could strike, Sir Gilles had seen and leapt
back out of reach.
Then Beltane clambered on at speed, and with every yard their voices
grew more loud--hers proud and disdainful, his low and soft, pierced,
now and then, by an evil, lazy laugh.
Now ever as Beltane went, the branch swayed more dizzily, bending more
and more beneath his weight, and ever as he drew nearer, between the
wind-gusts came snatches of their talk.
"Be thou nun, or duchess, or strolling light-o'-love, art woman--by
Venus! fair and passing fair!--captive art thou--aye, mine, I tell
thee--yield thee--hast struggled long enough to save thy modesty--yield
thee now, else will I throw thee to my lusty rogues without--make them
"O--beast--I fear thee not! For thy men--how shall they harm me, seeing
I shall be dead!"
Down swayed the branch, low and lower, until Beltane's mailed foot,
a-swing in mid air, found something beneath--slipped away--found it
again, and thereupon, loosing the branch, down he came upon the ruined
mill-wheel. Then, standing upon the wheel, his groping fingers found
divers cracks in the worn masonry--moreover the ivy was thick; so,
clinging with fingers and toes, up he went, higher and higher until his
steel-mittened hands gripped the sill: thus, slowly and cautiously he
drew himself up until his golden head rose above the sill and he could
peer into the room.
Sir Gilles half stood, half sat upon the table, while the nun faced
him, cold and proud and disdainful, the gleaming dagger clutched to her
quick-heaving bosom; and Sir Gilles, assured and confident, laughed
softly as he leaned so lazily, yet ever he watched that gleaming steel,
waiting his chance to spring. Now as they stood fronting each other
thus, the nun stirred beneath his close regard, turned her head, and on
the instant Beltane knew that she had seen him; knew by the sudden
tremor of her lips, the widening of her dark eyes, wherein he seemed to
read wonder, joy, and a passionate entreaty; then, even as he thrilled
to meet that look, down swept languorous lid and curling lash, and,
sighing, she laid the dagger on the table. For a moment Sir Gilles
stared in blank amaze, then laughed his lazy laugh.
"Ah, proud beauty! 'Tis surrender then?" said he, and speaking, reached
for the dagger; but even as he did so, the nun seized the heavy table
and thrust with sudden strength, so that Sir Gilles, taken unawares,
staggered back and back--to the window. Then Beltane reached up into
the room and, from behind, caught Sir Gilles by the throat and gripped
him with iron fingers, strangling all outcry, and so, drawing himself
over the sill and into the room, dragged Sir Gilles to the floor and
choked him there until his eyes rolled upward and he lay like one dead.
Then swiftly Beltane took off the belt of Sir Gilles and buckled it
tight about the wrists and arms of Sir Gilles, and, rending strips from
Sir Gilles' mantle that lay near, therewith fast gagged and bound him.
Now it chanced that as he knelt thus, he espied the dagger where it
lay, and taking it up, glanced from it to Sir Gilles lying motionless
in his bonds. But as he hesitated, there came a sudden knocking on the
door and a voice spake without:
"My lord! my lord--'tis I--'tis Lupo. My lord, our men be few and
wearied, as ye know. Must I set a guard beyond the ford, think you, or
will the four watch-fires suffice?"
Now, glancing up, scarce breathing, Beltane beheld the nun who crouched
down against the wall, her staring eyes turned towards the door, her
cheeks ashen, her lips a-quiver with deadly fear. Yet, even so, she
spake. But that 'twas she indeed who uttered the words he scarce could
credit, so soft and sweetly slumberous was her voice:
"My lord is a-weary and sleepeth. Hush you, and come again with the
dawn." Now was a moment's breathless silence and thereafter an evil
chuckle, and, so chuckling, the man Lupo went down the rickety stair
And when his step was died away, Beltane drew a deep breath, and
together they arose, and so, speaking no word, they looked upon each
other across the prostrate body of Sir Gilles of Brandonmere.
CONCERNING THE EYES OF A NUN
Eyes long, thick-lashed and darkly blue that looked up awhile into his
and anon were hid 'neath languorous-drooping lids; a nose tenderly
aquiline; lips, red and full, that parted but to meet again in sweet
and luscious curves; a chin white, and round, and dimpled.
This Beltane saw 'twixt hood and wimple, by aid of the torch that
flickered against the wall; and she, conscious of his look, stood with
white hands demurely crossed upon her rounded bosom, with eyes abased
and scarlet lips apart, as one who waits--expectant. Now hereupon my
Beltane felt himself vaguely at loss, and finding he yet held the
dagger, set it upon the table and spake, low-voiced.
"Reverend Mother--" he began, and stopped--for at the word her dark
lashes lifted and she stared upon him curiously, while slowly her red
lips quivered to a smile. And surely, surely this nun so sweet and
saintly in veiling hood and wimple was yet a very woman, young and
passing fair; and the eyes of her--how deep and tender and yet how
passionate! Now beholding her eyes, memory stirred within him and he
sighed, whereat she sighed also and meekly bowed her head, speaking him
with all humility.
"Sweet son, speak on--thy reverend mother heareth."
Now did Beltane, my Innocent, rub his innocent chin and stand mumchance
awhile, finding nought to say--then:
"Lady," he stammered, "lady--since I have found thee--let us go while
yet we may."
"Messire," says she, with eyes still a-droop, "came you in sooth--in
quest of me?"
"Yea, verily. I heard Sir Gilles had made captive of a nun, so came I
to deliver her--an so it might be."
"E'en though she were old, and wrinkled, and toothless, messire?"
"Lady," says my Innocent, staring and rubbing his chin a little harder,
"surely all nuns, young and old, be holy women, worthy a man's
reverence and humble service. So would I now bear thee from this
unhallowed place--we must be far hence ere dawn--come!"
"Aye, but whither?" she sighed, "death is all about us, messire--how
may we escape it? And I fear death no whit--now, messire!"
"Aye, but I do so, lady, since I have other and greater works yet to
"How, messire, is it so small a thing to have saved a nun--even though
she be neither old, nor wrinkled, nor toothless?" And behold, the nun's
meek head was high and proud, her humility forgotten quite.
Then she frowned, and 'neath her sombre draperies her foot fell
a-tapping; a small foot, dainty and slender in its gaily broidered shoe,
so much at variance with her dolorous habit. But Beltane recked nought
of this, for, espying a narrow window in the opposite wall, he came
thither and thrusting his head without, looked down upon the sleeping
camp. And thus he saw that Sir Gilles' men were few indeed, scarce
three-score all told he counted as they lay huddled about the
smouldering watch-fires, deep-slumbering as only men greatly wearied
might. Even the sentinels nodded at their posts, and all was still save
for the rush of a sudden wind-gust, or the snort and trampling of the
horses. And leaning thus, Beltane marked well where the sentinels
lolled upon their pikes, or marched drowsily to and fro betwixt the
watch-fires, and long he gazed where the horses were tethered, two
swaying, trampling lines dim-seen amid the further shadows. Now being
busied measuring with his eye the distances 'twixt sentinel and
sentinel, and noting where the shadows lay darkest, he was suddenly
aware of the nun close beside him, of the feel of her, soft and warm
against him, and starting at the contact, turned to find her hand,
small and white, upon his mailed arm.
"Sweet son," said she soft-voiced, from the shadow of her sombre hood,
"thy reverend mother now would chide thee, for that having but short
while to live, thou dost stand thus mumchance, staring upon vacancy--
for, with the dawn, we die."
Quoth Beltane, deeply conscious of the slender hand:
"To die, nay--nay--thou'rt too young and fair to die--"
Sighed she, with rueful smile:
"Thou too art neither old nor cold, nor bent with years, fair son. Come
then, till death let us speak together and comfort each other. Lay by
thy melancholy as I now lay by this hood and wimple, for the night is
hot and close, methinks."
"Nay, lady, indeed 'tis cool, for there is much wind abroad," says
Beltane, my Innocent. "Moreover, while standing here, methinks I have
seen a way whereby we may win free--"
Now hereupon she turned and looked on him, quick-breathing and with
eyes brim-full of fear.
"Messire!" she panted, "O messire, bethink thee. For death am I
prepared--to live each moment fully till the dawn, then when they came
to drag me down to--to shame, then should thy dagger free me quite--
such death I'd smile to meet. But ah! should we strive to flee, and
thou in the attempt be slain--and I alive--the sport of that vile
rabblement below--O, Christ,--not that!" and cowering, she hid her
"Noble lady," said Beltane, looking on her gentle-eyed, "indeed I too
had thought on that!" and, coming to the table, he took thence the
dagger of Sir Gilles and would have put it in her hand, but lo! she
"Not that, messire, not that," she sighed, "thy dagger let it be, since
true knight art thou and honourable, I pray you give me thine. It is
thy reverend mother asks," and smiling pale and wan, she reached out a
white, imperious hand. So Beltane drew his dagger and gave it to her
keeping; then, having set the other in his girdle, he crossed to the
door and stood awhile to hearken.
"Lady," said he, "there is no way for us but this stair, and meseemeth
'tis a dangerous way, yet must we tread it together. Reach me now thy
hand and set it here in my girdle, and, whatsoe'er befall, loose not
thy hold." So saying, Beltane drew his sword and set wide the door.
"Look to thy feet," he whispered, "and tread soft!" Then, with her
trailing habit caught up in her left hand and with her right upon his
belt, the nun followed Beltane out upon the narrow stair. Step by step
they stole downwards into the dark, pausing with breath in check each