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Now at this time the fame of Beltane's doing went throughout the Duchy, insomuch that divers and many were they that sought him out within the green; masterless men, serfs new-broke from thraldom, desperate fellows beyond the law, thieves and rogues in dire jeopardy of life or limb: off-scourings, these, of camp and town and village, hither come seeking shelter with Beltane in the wild wood, and eager for his service.
In very truth, a turbulent company this, prone to swift quarrel and deadly brawl; but, at these times, fiercer than any was Walkyn o' the Axe, grimmer than any was Roger the Black, whereas Giles was quick as his tongue and Eric calm and resolute: four mighty men were these, but mightier than all was Beltane. Wherefore at this time Beltane set himself to bring order from chaos and to teach these wild men the virtues of obedience; but here indeed was a hard matter, for these were lawless men and very fierce withal. But upon a morning, ere the sun had chased the rosy mists into marsh and fen, Beltane strode forth from the cave wherein he slept, and lifting the hunting horn he bare about his neck, sounded it fierce and shrill. Whereon rose a sudden uproar, and out from their caves, from sleeping-places hollowed within the rocks, stumbled his ragged following--an unordered rabblement, half-naked, unarmed, that ran hither and thither, shouting and rubbing sleep from their eyes, or stared fearfully upon the dawn. Anon Beltane sounded again, whereat they, beholding him, came thronging about him and questioned him eagerly on all sides, as thus:
"Master, are we attacked forsooth?"
"Is the Red Pertolepe upon us?"
"Lord, what shall we do--?"
"Lead us, master--lead us!"
Then, looking upon their wild disorder, Beltane laughed for scorn:--
"Rats!" quoth he, "O rats--is it thus ye throng to the slaughter, then? Were I in sooth Red Pertolepe with but a score at my back I had slain ye all ere sun-up! Where be your out-posts--where be your sentinels? Are ye so eager to kick within a hangman's noose?"
Now hereupon divers growled or muttered threateningly, while others, yawning, would have turned them back to sleep; but striding among them, Beltane stayed them with voice and hand--and voice was scornful and hand was heavy: moreover, beside him stood Roger and Giles, with Walkyn and Eric of the wry neck.
"Fools!" he cried, "for that Pentavalon doth need men, so now must I teach ye other ways. Fall to your ranks there--ha! scowl and ye will but use well your ears--mark me, now. But two nights ago we burned down my lord Duke's great castle of Garthlaxton: think you my lord Duke will not seek vengeance dire upon these our bodies therefore? Think ye the Red Pertolepe will not be eager for our blood? But yest're'en, when I might have slain yon knavish Gurth, I suffered him to go--and wherefore? For that Gurth, being at heart a traitor and rogue ingrain, might straightway his him to the Duke at Barham Broom with offers to guide his powers hither. But when they be come, his chivalry and heavy armed foot here within the green, then will we fire the woods about them and from every point of vantage beset them with our arrows--"
"Ha! Bows--bows!" cried Giles, tossing up his bow-stave and catching it featly--"Oho! tall brother--fair lord Duke, here is a sweet and notable counsel. Ha, bows! Hey for bows and bills i' the merry greenwood!"
"So, perceive me," quoth Beltane, "thus shall the hunters peradventure become the hunted, for, an Duke Ivo come, 'tis like enough he ne'er shall win free of our ring of fire." Now from these long and ragged ranks a buzz arose that swelled and swelled to a fierce shout.
"The fire!" they cried. "Ha, to burn them i' the fire!"
"But so to do," quoth Beltane, "rats must become wolves. Valiant men ye are I know, yet are ye but a poor unordered rabblement, mete for slaughter. So now will I teach ye, how here within the wild-wood we may withstand Black Ivo and all his powers. Giles, bring now the book of clean parchment I took from Garthlaxton, together with pens and ink-horn, and it shall be henceforth a record of us every one, our names, our number, and the good or ill we each one do achieve."
So there and then, while the sun rose high and higher and the mists of dawn thinned and vanished, phantom-like, the record was begun. Two hundred and twenty and four they mustered, and the name of each and every Giles duly wrote down within the book in right fair and clerkly hand. Thereafter Beltane numbered them into four companies; over the first company he set Walkyn, over the second Giles, over the third Roger, and over the fourth Eric of the wry neck. Moreover he caused to be brought all the armour they had won, and ordered that all men should henceforth go armed from head to foot, yet many there were that needs must go short awhile.
Now he ordained these four companies should keep watch and watch day and night with sentinels and outposts in the green; and when they murmured at this he stared them into silence.
"Fools!" said he, "an ye would lie secure, so must ye watch constantly against surprise. And furthermore shall ye exercise daily now, at the spoke command, to address your pikes 'gainst charge of horse or foot, and to that company adjudged the best and stoutest will I, each week, give store of money from my share of booty. So now, Walkyn, summon ye your company and get to your ward."
Thus it was that slowly out of chaos came order, yet it came not unopposed, for many and divers were they that growled against this new order of things; but Beltane's hand was swift and heavy, moreover, remembering how he had dealt with Tostig, they growled amain but hasted to obey. So, in place of idleness was work, and instead of quarrel and riot was peace among the wild men and a growing content. Insomuch that upon a certain balmy eve, Giles the Archer, lolling beside the fire looking upon Black Roger, who sat beside him furbishing his mail-shirt, spake his mind on this wise:
"Mark ye these lamb-like wolves of ours, sweet Roger? There hath been no blood-letting betwixt them these four days, and scarce a quarrel."
ROGER. "Aye, this comes of my lord. My master hath a wondrous tongue, Giles."
GILES. "My brother-in-arms hath a wondrous strong fist, Rogerkin--"
ROGER. "Thy brother-in-arms, archer? Thine, forsooth! Ha!"
GILES. "Snort not, my gentle Roger, for I fell in company with him ere he knew aught of thee--so thy snort availeth nothing, my Rogerkin. Howbeit, our snarling wolves do live like tender lambs these days, the which doth but go to prove how blessed a thing is a fist--a fist, mark you, strong to strike, big to buffet, and swift to smite: a capable fist, Roger, to strike, buffet and smite a man to the good of his soul."
ROGER. "In sooth my master is a noble knight, ne'er shall we see his equal. And yet, Giles, methinks he doth mope and grieve these days. He groweth pale-cheeked and careworn, harsh of speech and swift to anger. Behold him now!" and Roger pointed to where Beltane sat apart (as was become his wont of late) his axe betwixt his knees, square chin propped upon clenched fist, scowling into the fire that burned before his sleeping-cave.
"Whence cometh the so great change in him, think you, Giles?"
"For that, while I am I and he is himself, thou art but what thou art, my Rogerkin--well enough after thy fashion, mayhap, but after all thou art only thyself."
"Ha!" growled Roger, "and what of thee, archer?"
"I am his brother-in-arms, Rogerkin, and so know him therefore as a wondrous lord, a noble knight, a goodly youth and a sweet lad. Some day, when I grow too old to bear arms, I will to pen and ink-horn and will make of him a ballade that shall, mayhap, outlive our time. A notable ballade, something on this wise:--
"Of gentle Beltane I will tell, A knight who did all knights excel, Who loved of all men here below His faithful Giles that bare the bow; For Giles full strong and straight could shoot, A goodly man was Giles to boot. A lusty fighter sure was Giles In counsel sage and full of wiles. And Giles was handsome, Giles was young, And Giles he had a merry--"
"How now, Roger, man--wherefore interrupt me?"
"For that there be too many of Giles hereabouts, and one Giles talketh enough for twenty. So will I to Walkyn that seldom talketh enough for one."
So saying Roger arose, donned his shirt of mail and, buckling his sword about him, strode incontinent away.
And in a while Beltane arose also, and climbing one of the many precipitous paths, answered the challenge of sentinel and outpost and went on slow-footed as one heavy in thought, yet with eyes quick to heed how thick was the underbrush hereabouts with dead wood and bracken apt to firing. Before him rose an upland crowned by a belt of mighty forest trees and beyond, a road, or rather track, that dipped and wound away into the haze of evening. Presently, as he walked beneath this leafy twilight, he heard the luring sound of running water, and turning thither, laid him down where was a small and placid pool, for he was athirst. But as he stooped to drink, he started, and thereafter hung above this pellucid mirror staring down at the face that stared up at him with eyes agleam 'neath lowering brows, above whose close-knit gloom a lock of hair gleamed snow-white amid the yellow. Long stayed he thus, to mark the fierce curve of nostril, the square grimness of jaw and chin, and the lips that met in a harsh line, down-trending and relentless. And gazing thus upon his image, he spake beneath his breath:
"O lady! O wilful Helen! thy soft white hand hath set its mark upon me; the love-sick youth is grown a man, meseemeth. Well, so be it!" Thus saying, he laughed harshly and stooping, drank his fill.
Now as he yet lay beside the brook hearkening to its pretty babel, he was aware of another sound drawing nearer--the slow plodding of a horse's hoofs upon the road below; and glancing whence it came he beheld a solitary knight whose mail gleamed 'neath a rich surcoat and whose shield flamed red with sunset. While Beltane yet watched this solitary rider, behold two figures that crouched in the underbrush growing beside the way; stealthy figures, that flitted from tree to tree and bush to bush, keeping pace with the slow-riding horseman; and as they came nearer, Beltane saw that these men who crouched and stole so swift and purposeful were Walkyn and Black Roger. Near and nearer they drew, the trackers and the tracked, till they were come to a place where the underbrush fell away and cover there was none: and here, very suddenly, forth leapt Roger with Walkyn at his heels; up reared the startled horse, and thereafter the knight was dragged from his saddle and Walkyn's terrible axe swung aloft for the blow, but Black Roger turned and caught Walkyn's arm and so they strove together furiously, what time the knight lay out-stretched upon the ling and stirred not.
"Ha! Fool!" raged Walkyn, "loose my arm--what would ye?"
"Shalt not slay him," cried Roger, "'tis a notch--'tis a notch from my accursed belt--shalt not slay him, I tell thee!"
"Now out upon thee for a mad knave!" quoth Walkyn.
"Knave thyself!" roared Black Roger, and so they wrestled fiercely together; but, little by little, Walkyn's size and bull strength began to tell, whereupon back sprang nimble Roger, and as Walkyn's axe gleamed, so gleamed Roger's sword. But now as they circled warily about each other, seeking an opening for blow or thrust, there came a rush of feet, and Beltane leapt betwixt them, and bestriding the fallen knight, fronted them in black and bitter anger.
"Ha, rogues!" he cried, "art become thieves and murderers so soon, then? Would'st shed each other's blood for lust of booty like any other lawless knaves, forsooth? Shame--O shame on ye both!"
So saying, he stooped, and lifting the unconscious knight, flung him across his shoulder and strode off, leaving the twain to stare upon each other shame-faced.
Scowling and fierce-eyed Beltane descended into the hollow, whereupon up sprang Giles with divers others and would have looked upon and aided with the captive; but beholding Beltane's frown they stayed their questions and stood from his path. So came he to a certain cave hollowed within the hill-side--one of many such--but the rough walls of this cave Black Roger had adorned with a rich arras, and had prepared also a bed of costly furs; here Beltane laid the captive, and sitting within the mouth of the cave--beyond which a fire burned--fell to scowling at the flame. And presently as he sat thus came Roger and Walkyn, who fain would have made their peace, but Beltane fiercely bade them to begone.
"Lord," quoth Walkyn, fumbling with his axe, "we found this knight hard by, so, lest he should disclose the secret of this our haven--I would have slain him--"
"Master," said Roger, "'tis true I had a mind to his horse and armour, since we do such things lack, yet would I have saved him alive and cut from my belt another accursed notch--"
"So art thou a fool, Roger," quoth Walkyn, "for an this knight live, this our refuge is secret no longer."
"Ha!" sneered Beltane, "what matter for that an it shelter but murderers and thieving knaves--"
"Dost name me murderer?" growled Walkyn.
"And me a thief, master?" sighed Roger, "I that am thy man, that would but have borrowed--"
"Peace!" cried Beltane, "hence--begone, and leave me to my thoughts!" Hereupon Walkyn turned and strode away, twirling his axe, but Roger went slow-footed and with head a-droop what time Beltane frowned into the fire, his scowl blacker than ever. But as he sat thus, from the gloom of the cave behind him a voice spake--a soft voice and low, at sound whereof he started and turned him about.
"Meseemeth thy thoughts are evil, messire."
"Of a verity, sir knight: for needs must I think of women and the ways of women! To-night am I haunted of bitter memory."
Now of a sudden, the stranger knight beholding Beltane in the light of the fire, started up to his elbow to stare and stare; then quailing, shivering, shrank away, hiding his face within his mailed hands. Whereat spake Beltane in amaze:
"How now, sir knight--art sick in faith? Dost ail of some wound--?"
"Not so--ah, God! not so. Those fetters--upon thy wrists, messire--?"
"Alack, sir knight," laughed Beltane, "and is it my looks afflict thee so? 'Tis true we be wild rogues hereabout, evil company for gentle knights. Amongst us ye shall find men new broke from the gallows-foot and desperate knaves for whom the dungeon yawns. As for me, these gyves upon my wrists were riveted there by folly, for fool is he that trusteth to woman and the ways of woman. So will I wear them henceforth until my work be done to mind me of my folly and of one I loved so much I would that she had died ere that she slew my love for her."
Thus spake Beltane staring ever into the fire, joying bitterly to voice his grief unto this strange knight who had risen softly and now stood upon the other side of the fire. And looking upon him in a while. Beltane saw that he was but a youth, slender and shapely in his rich surcoat and costly mail, the which, laced close about cheek and chin, showed little of his face below the gleaming bascinet, yet that little smooth-skinned and pale.
"Sir knight," said Beltane, "free art thou to go hence, nor shall any stay or spoil thee. Yet first, hear this: thou art perchance some roving knight seeking adventure to the glory and honour of some fair lady. O folly! choose you something more worthy--a horse is a noble beast, and dogs, they say, are faithful. But see you, a woman's love is a pitiful thing at best, while dogs and horses be a-plenty. Give not thine heart into a woman's hand lest she tear it in her soft, white fingers: set not thine honour beneath her shapely feet, lest she tread it into the shameful mire. So fare thee well, sir knight. God go with thee and keep thee ever from the love of woman!"
So saying Beltane rose, and lifting the bugle-horn he wore, sounded it; whereon came all and sundry, running and with weapons brandished--but Roger first of all.
To all of whom Beltane spake thus:
"Behold here this gentle knight our guest is for the nonce--entreat him courteously therefore; give him all that he doth lack and thereafter set him upon his way--"
But hereupon divers cast evil looks upon the knight, murmuring among themselves--and loudest of all Walkyn.
"He knoweth the secret of our hiding-place!"
"'Tis said he knoweth the causeway through the fen!"
"He will betray us!"
"Dogs!" said Beltane, clenching his hands, "will ye defy me then? I say this knight shall go hence and none withstand him. Make way, then--or must I?" But now spake the youthful knight his gaze still bent upon the flame, nor seemed he to heed the fierce faces and eager steel that girt him round. "Nay, messire, for here methinks my quest is ended!" "Thy quest, sir knight--how so?" Then the knight turned and looked upon Beltane. Quoth he: "By thy size and knightly gear, by thy--thy yellow hair, methinks thou art Beltane, son of Beltane the Strong?" "Verily, 'tis so that I am called. What would you of me?" "This, messire." Herewith the stranger knight loosed belt and surcoat and drew forth a long sword whose broad blade glittered in the firelight, and gave its massy hilt to Beltane's grasp. And, looking upon its shining blade, Beltane beheld the graven legend "Resurgam." Now looking upon this, Beltane drew a deep, slow breath and turned upon the youthful knight with eyes grown suddenly fierce. Quoth he softly: "Whence had you this, sir knight?" "From one that liveth but for thee." "Ah!" said Beltane with scornful lip, "know ye such an one, in faith?" "Aye, messire," spake the knight, low-voiced yet eager, "one that doth languish for thee, that hath sent me in quest of thee bearing this thy sword for a sign, and to bid thee to return since without thee life is an emptiness, and there is none so poor, so heart-sick and woeful as Helen of Mortain!" "Ah--liar!" cried Beltane, and reaching out fierce hands crushed the speaker to his knees; but even so, the young knight spake on, soft-voiced and calm of eye: "Greater than thine is her love for thee, methinks, since 'tis changeless and abiding--Slay me an thou wilt, but while I live I will declare her true to thee. Whatever hath chanced, whate'er may chance, despite all doubts and enemies she doth love--love--love thee through life till death and beyond. O my lord Beltane--" "Liar!" spake Beltane again. But now was he seized of a madness, a cold rage and a deadly. "Liar!" said he, "thou art methinks one of her many wooers, so art thou greater fool. But Helen the Beautiful hath lovers a-plenty, and being what she is shall nothing miss thee: howbeit thou art surely liar, and surely will I slay thee!" So saying he swung aloft the great blade, but even so the young knight fronted the blow with eyes that quailed not: pale-lipped, yet smiling and serene; and then, or ever the stroke could fall--an arm, bronzed and hairy, came between, and Roger spake hoarse-voiced: "Master," he cried, "for that thy man am I and love thee, shalt ne'er do this till hast first slain me. 'Tis thus thou did'st teach me--to show mercy to the weak and helpless, and this is a youth, unarmed. Bethink thee, master--O bethink thee!" Slowly Beltane's arm sank, and looking upon the bright blade he let it fall upon the ling and covered his face within his two hands as if its glitter had blinded him. Thus did he stand awhile, the fetters agleam upon his wrists, and thereafter fell upon his knees and with his face yet hidden, spake: "Walkyn," said he, "O Walkyn, but a little while since I named thee 'murderer'! Yet what, in sooth, am I? So now do I humbly ask thy pardon. As for thee, sir knight, grant thy pity to one that is abased. Had I tears, now might I shed them, but tears are not for me. Go you therefore to--to her that sent thee and say that Beltane died within the dungeons of Garthlaxton. Say that I who speak am but a sword for the hand of God henceforth, to smite and stay not until wrong shall be driven hence. Say that this was told thee by a sorry wight who, yearning for death, must needs cherish life until his vow be accomplished." But as Beltane spake thus upon his knees, his head bowed humbly before them all, the young knight came near with mailed hands outstretched, yet touched him not. "Messire," said he, "thou hast craved of me a boon the which I do most full and freely grant. But now would I beg one of thee." "'Tis thine," quoth Beltane, "who am I to gainsay thee?" "Messire, 'tis this; that thou wilt take me to serve thee, to go beside thee, sharing thy woes and perils henceforth." "So be it, sir knight," answered Beltane, "though mine shall be a hazardous service, mayhap. So, when ye will thou shalt be free of it." Thus saying he arose and went aside and sat him down in the mouth of the cave. But in a while came Roger to him, his sword-belt a-swing in his hand, and looked upon his gloomy face with eyes full troubled. And presently he spake, yet halting in his speech and timid: "Master," he said, "suffer me a question." "Verily," quoth Beltane, looking up, "as many as thou wilt, my faithful Roger." "Master," says Roger, twisting and turning the belt in hairy hands, "I would but ask thee if--if I might cut another notch from this my accursed belt--a notch, lord--I--the young knight--?" "You mean him that I would have murdered, Roger? Reach me hither thy belt." So Beltane took the belt and with his dagger cut thence two notches, whereat quoth Roger, staring: "Lord, I did but save one life--the young knight--" "Thou did'st save two," answered Beltane, "for had I slain him, Roger--O, had I slain him, then on this night should'st have hanged me for a murderer. Here be two notches for thee--so take back thy belt and go, get thee to thy rest--and, Roger--pray for one that tasteth death in life." So Roger took the belt, and turning softly, left Beltane crouched above the fire as one that is deadly cold.
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