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Now it fell out upon a day, that as Beltane strode the forest ways, there met him a fine cavalcade, gay with the stir of broidered petticoat and ermined mantle; and, pausing beneath a tree, he stood to hearken to the soft, sweet voices of the ladies and to gaze enraptured upon their varied beauty. Foremost of all rode a man richly habited, a man of great strength and breadth of shoulder, and of a bearing high and arrogant. His face, framed in long black hair that curled to meet his shoulder, was of a dark and swarthy hue, fierce looking and masterful by reason of prominent chin and high-arched nose, and of his thin-lipped, relentless mouth. Black were his eyes and bold; now staring bright and wide, now glittering 'twixt heavy, narrowed lids; yet when he smiled they glittered brightest, and his lips showed moistly red. Beside him rode a lady of a wondrous dark beauty, sleepy eyed and languid; yet her glance was quick to meet the Duke's bold look, and, 'neath her mantle, her fingers met, once in a while, and clung with his, what time his red lips would smile; but, for the most part, his brow was gloomy and he fingered his chin as one in thought.
As he paced along upon his richly caparisoned steed, pinching at his long, blue-shaven chin with supple fingers, his heavy brows drawn low, of a sudden his narrowed lids widened and his eyes gleamed bright and black as they beheld my Beltane standing in the shade of the tree.
"Aha!" said he, drawing rein, "what insolent, long-legged rogue art thou, to stand gaping at thy betters?"
And Beltane answered:
"No rogue, messire, but an honest man, I pray God, whom folk call Beltane the Smith."
The staring eyes grew suddenly narrow, the scarlet mouth curled in a slow smile, and the tall man spake, yet with his gaze bent ever upon Beltane:
"Fair lords," he said, "and you, most sweet and gentle ladies, our sport hath been but poor, hitherto--methinks I can show you a better, 'tis a game we play full oft in my country. Would that our gracious lady of Mortain were here, nor had balked us of her wilful company. Ho! Gefroi!" he called, "come you and break me the back of this 'honest' rogue." And straightway came one from the rear, where rode the servants and men-at-arms, a great, bronzed fellow, bearded to the eyes of him, loosing his sword-belt as he came; who, having tossed aside cap and pourpoint, strode toward Beltane, his eyes quick and bright, his teeth agleam through the hair of his beard.
"Come, thou forest rogue," said he, "my lord Duke loveth not to wait for man or maid, so--have at thee!"
Great he looked and tall as Beltane's self, a hairy man of mighty girth with muscles that swelled on arm and breast and rippled upon his back. Thus, as he stood and laughed, grimly confident and determined, not a few were they who sighed for Beltane for his youth's sake, and because of his golden curls and gentle eyes, for this Gefroi was accounted a very strong man, and a matchless wrestler withal.
"'Tis a fair match, how think you, Sir Jocelyn?" said the Duke, and turned him to one who rode at his elbow; a youthful, slender figure with long curled hair and sleepy eyes, "a fair match, Sir Jocelyn?"
"In very sooth, sweet my lord, gramercy and by your gracious leave--not so," sighed Sir Jocelyn. "This Gefroi o' thine is a rare breaker of necks and hath o'er-thrown all the wrestlers in the three duchies; a man is he, set in his strength and experienced, but this forester, tall though he be, is but a beardless youth."
The Duke smiled his slow smile, his curving nostrils quivered and were still, and he glanced toward Sir Jocelyn through veiling lids. Quoth he:
"Art, rather, for a game of ball, messire, or a song upon a lute?" So saying he turned and signed to Gefroi with his finger; as for Sir Jocelyn, he only curled a lock of his long hair, and hummed beneath his breath.
Now Beltane, misliking the matter, would fain have gone upon his way, but wheresoever he turned, there Gefroi was also, barring his path, wherefore Beltane's eye kindled and he raised his staff threateningly.
"Fellow," quoth he, "stand from my way, lest I mischief thee."
But Gefroi only laughed and looked to his lord, who, beckoning an archer, bid him lay an arrow to his string.
"Shoot me the cowardly rogue so soon as he turn his back," said he, whereat Gefroi laughed again, wagging his head.
"Come, forest knave," quoth he, "I know a trick to snap thy neck so sweetly shalt never know, I warrant thee. Come, 'twill take but a moment, and my lord begins to lack of patience."
So Beltane laid by his staff, and tightening his girdle, faced the hairy Gefroi; and there befell that, the which, though you shall find no mention of it in any chronicle, came much to be talked of thereafter; so that a ballade was writ of it the which beginneth thus:
'Beltane wrestled in the green With a mighty man, A goodlier bout was never seen Since the world began,'
While Beltane was tightening his girdle, swift and sudden Gefroi closed, pinning his arms in a cunning hold, and thrice he swung my Beltane from his feet so that many clapped their hands the while the squires and men-at-arms shouted lustily. Only Sir Jocelyn curled the lock of hair upon his finger and was silent.
To him quoth my lord Duke, smiling:
"Messire, an you be in a mind to wager now, I will lay you this my roan stallion 'gainst that suit of triple mail you won at Dunismere joust, that Gefroi breaks thy forester's back within two falls--how say you?"
"Sweet my lord, it liketh me beyond telling, thy roan is a peerless beast!" sighed Sir Jocelyn, and so fell once more to humming his song beneath his breath.
Now Beltane had wrestled oft with strangers in the greenwood and had learned many cunning and desperate holds; moreover, he had learned to bide his time; thus, though Gefroi's iron muscles yet pinned his arms, he waited, calm-eyed but with every nerve a-quiver, for that moment when Gefroi's vicious grip should slacken.
To and fro the wrestlers swayed, knee to knee and breast to breast, fierce and silent and grim. As hath been said, this Gefroi was a very cunning fellow, and once and twice, he put forth all his strength seeking to use a certain cruel trick whereby many a goodly man had died ere now; but once, and twice, the hold was foiled, yet feebly and as though by chance, and Gefroi wondered; a third time he essayed it therefore, but, in that moment, sudden and fierce and strong, Beltane twisted in his loosened grasp, found at last the deadly hold he sought, and Gefroi wondered no more, for about him was a painful grip that grew ever tighter and more relentless. Now Gefroi's breath grew short and laboured, the muscles stood out on his writhing body in knotted cords, but ever that cruel grip grew more deadly, crushing his spirit and robbing him of his wonted strength. And those about them watched that mighty struggle, hushed for wonder of it; even Sir Jocelyn had forgot his lock of hair, and hummed no more.
For, desperately though he fought and struggled, they saw Gefroi's great body was bending slowly backward; his eyes stared up, wild and bloodshot, into the fierce, set face above him; swaying now, he saw the wide ring of faces, the quiver of leaves and the blue beyond, all a-swim through the mist of Beltane's yellow hair, and then, writhing in his anguish, he turned and buried his teeth in Beltane's naked arm, and with a cunning twist, broke from that deadly grip and staggered free.
Straightway the air was full of shouts and cries, some praising, some condemning, while Gefroi stood with hanging arms and panted. But Beltane looking upon his hurt, laughed, short and fierce, and as Gefroi came upon him, stooped and caught him below the loins. Then Beltane the strong, the mighty, put forth his strength and, whirling Gefroi aloft, hurled him backwards over his shoulder. So Gefroi the wrestler fell, and lay with hairy arms wide-tossed as one that is dead, and for a space no man spake for the wonder of it.
"By all the Saints, but 'twas a mighty throw!" sighed Sir Jocelyn, "though alack! sweet my lord, 'twould almost seem my forester hath something spoiled thy wrestler!"
"And is the roan stallion thine" frowned the Duke, "and to none would I lose him with a fairer grace, for 'twas a good bout as I foretold: yet, by the head of St. Martin! meseemeth yon carrion might have done me better!" So saying, my lord Duke gave his horse the spur and, as he passed the prostrate form of Gefroi, leaned him down and smote the wrestler thrice with the whip he held and so rode on, bidding his followers let him lie.
But Sir Jocelyn paused to look down at Beltane, who was setting his dress in order.
"Sir forester, thou hast a mighty arm," quoth he, "and thy face liketh me well. Here's for thee," and tossing a purse to Beltane's feet, he rode upon his way.
So the gay cavalcade passed 'neath the leafy arches, with the jingle of bridle and stirrup and the sound of jest and laughter, and was presently lost amid the green; only Gefroi the wrestler lay there upon his back and groaned. Then came Beltane and knelt and took his heavy head upon his knee, whereat Gefroi opened his eyes and groaned again.
"Good fellow," said Beltane, "I had not meant to throw thee so heavily--"
"Nay, forester, would it had been a little harder, for a ruined man am I this day."
"How so--have you not life?"
"I would 'twere death. And I bit you--in the arm, I mind me?"
"Aye, 'twas in the arm."
"For that am I heartily sorry, forester. But when a man seeth fame and fortune slipping from him--aye, and his honour, I had nigh forgot that-- fame and fortune and honour, so small a thing as a bite may be forgiven?"
"I forgive thee--full and freely."
"Spoke like an honest forester," said Gefroi, and groaned again. "The favour of a lord is a slippery thing--much like an eel--quick to wriggle away. An hour agone my lord Duke held me in much esteem, while now? And he struck me! On the face, here!" Slowly Gefroi got him upon his feet, and having donned cap and pourpoint, shook his head and sighed; quoth he:
"Alack! 'tis a ruined man am I this day! Would I had broken thy neck, or thou, mine--and so, God den to ye, forester!" Then Gefroi the wrestler turned and plodded on his way, walking slow and with drooping head as one who knoweth not whither he goes, or careth. Now, as he watched, Beltane bethought him of the purse and taking it up, ran after Gefroi and thrust it into his hand.
"'Twill help thee to find a new service, mayhap." So saying my Beltane turned upon his heel and strode away, while Gefroi stood staring wide-eyed long after Beltane was vanished amid the trees.
So thus it was that Beltane looked his first upon Duke Ivo of Pentavalon, and thus did he overthrow Gefroi the famous wrestler. And because of this, many were they, knights and nobles and esquires, who sought out Beltane's lonely hut beside the brook, with offers of service, or to try a fall with him. But at their offers Beltane laughed and shook his head, and all who came to wrestle he threw upon their backs. And thus my Beltane dwelt within the greenwood, waxing mightier day by day.
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