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It was very dark upon the forest road, where trees loomed gigantic against the pitchy gloom wherein dim-seen branches creaked and swayed, and leaves rustled faint and fitful in the stealthy night-wind; and through the gloom at the head of his silent company Beltane rode in frowning thought, his humour blacker than the night.
Now in a while, Sir Fidelis, riding ever at his elbow, ventured speech with him:
"Art very silent, messire. Have I angered thee, forsooth? Is aught amiss betwixt us?"
Quoth Beltane, shortly:
"Art over-young, sir knight, and therefore fond and foolish. Is a man a lover of self because he hateth dishonour? Art a presumptuous youth-- and that's amiss!"
"Art thou so ancient, messire, and therefore so wise as to judge 'twixt thy hates and loves and the abiding sorrows of Pentavalon?" questioned Fidelis, low-voiced and gentle.
"Old enough am I to know that in all this world is no baser thing than the treachery of a faithless woman, and that he who seeketh aid of such, e'en though his cause be just, dishonoureth himself and eke his cause. So God keep me from all women henceforth--and as for thee, speak me no more the name of this light wanton."
"My lord," quoth Sir Fidelis, leaning near, "my lord--whom mean you?"
"Whom should I mean but Mortain Helen--Helen the Beautiful--"
Now cried Sir Fidelis as one that feels a blow, and, in the dark, he seized Beltane in sudden griping fingers, and shook him fiercely.
"And dare ye name her 'wanton!'" he cried. "Ye shall not--I say ye shall not!" But, laughing, Beltane smote away the young knight's hold and laughed again.
"Is this light lady's fame so dear to thee, poor, youthful fool?" said he. "Aye me! doubt not her falsity shall break thy heart some day and teach thee wisdom--"
A shout among the woods upon their right, a twinkling light that came and went amid the underbrush, and Walkyn appeared, bearing a lighted brand.
"Lord," he growled, "here has been devil's work of late, for yonder a cottage lieth a heap of glowing ashes, and upon a tree hard by a dead man doth swing."
"Learned ye aught else, Walkyn?"
"Nothing, save that a large company passed here yesterday as I judge. Horse and foot--going south, see you," and he held his torch to the trampled road.
"Going south--aye, Walkyn, to Barham Broom, methinks. Here is another debt shall yet be paid in full, mayhap," quoth Beltane grimly. "Forward!"
The jingling column moved on again, yet had gone but a little way when Sir Fidelis, uttering a cry, swerved his horse suddenly and sprang to earth.
"What now?" questioned Beltane, staring into the murk.
"My lord--my lord, a woman lieth here, and--ah, messire--she is dead!"
"O, a woman?" quoth Beltane, "and dead, say you? Why then, the world shall know less of evil and treachery, methinks. Come--mount, sir knight, mount, I say, and let us on!"
But Sir Fidelis, on his knees beside that silent, dim-seen form, heeded him not at all, and with reverent, folded hands, and soft and tender voice, spake a prayer for the departed soul. Now hereupon Beltane knew sudden shame and swift remorse, and bowed his head also, and would have prayed--yet could not; wherefore his black mood deepened and his anger grew more bitter.
"Mount, mount, sir knight!" cried he harshly. "Better to seek vengeance dire than mumble on thy knees--mount, I say!"
Forthwith Sir Fidelis arose, nothing speaking, and being in the saddle, reined back and suffered Beltane to ride alone. But in a while, Beltane perceiving himself thus shunned, found therein a new grievance and fiercely summoned Sir Fidelis beside him.
"Wherefore slink ye behind me?" he demanded.
Then spake Sir Fidelis in voice full low and troubled:
"My lord Beltane, 'twas said thou wert a noble knight--very strong and very gentle--"
"Ha! dost think such report a lie, mayhap?"
"Alas!" sighed the young knight; and again "alas!" and therewith a great sob brake from him.
Of a sudden, from the gloom beside the way rose a woman's scream, and thereafter a great and fierce roar; and presently came Walkyn with his torch and divers of his men, dragging a woman in their midst, and lo! it was the witch of Hangstone Waste.
Now she, beholding Beltane's face beneath his lifted vizor, cried out for very joy:
"Now heaven bless thee, Duke Beltane! Ah, my lord--hear me!"
"What would ye? What seek ye of such as I?"
But hereupon Black Roger spurred beside Beltane, his eyes wide and fearful in the shadow of his helm, his strong, mailed hand a-tremble on Beltane's arm.
"Beware, my lord, beware!" he cried, "'tis nigh the midnight hour and she a noted witch--heed her not lest she blight thy fair body, lest she--"
"Peace, Roger! Now speak, woman--what would ye?"
"A life, my lord!"
"Ah, the blessed saints forfend--I feared so!" gasped Roger.
But now the witch turned and looked on Roger, and he incontinent crossed himself and fell thenceforth to mumbling prayers beneath his breath.
"Lord Duke, for that I am but a woman poor and helpless, now would I beseech thine aid for--"
"Nay, tell me first, whence come ye?"
"From Barham Broom, messire. Ah! spare aid for one that lieth in peril of death--the maid Mellent--they do proclaim her witch--they will burn her--"
"O--a woman!" quoth Beltane, wrinkling his brows; and beholding Sir Fidelis watching him, straightway frowned the blacker.
"Nay, messire, hear me!" cried the witch, "ah, turn not away! This maid, indeed, is not of common blood--a lady is she of birth and wide demesnes--"
"Why then," said Beltane, heedful ever of the young knight's burning glance, "why then is she more apt for treachery and evil."
"Not so, my lord; weak is she and beset by cruel enemies. I found her, a stranger, wandering lonely in the green, and she, being sick of heart and brain, spake wild words of a great wrong, vainly done and suffered, and of an abiding remorse. And when I had nursed her into health she told me a wondrous tale. So, lord Beltane, do I know that in her hands thy happiness doth lie."
"Not so!" sighed Beltane. "Happiness and I are strangers henceforth--"
But here once again came a hoarse and angry roar with the sound of desperate struggling amid the leaves hard by, whence came Jenkyn and Orson with divers others, dragging a strange, hairy, dwarf-like creature, great and shaggy of head and with the arms and shoulders of a giant; smirched was he in blood from a great wound above the brow and his rich habit was mired and torn. Now looking upon this monstrous creature that writhed and struggled mightily with his captors, groaning and roaring betimes, Beltane felt his flesh a-creep with swift and pregnant memory, and straightway beset the witch with fierce question:
"Woman, what thing is this?"
"My lord, 'tis naught but poor Ulf, a natural, messire, very strong and faithful, that hath fought mightily and is nigh slain in our defence-- see how he bleeds! Let them not harm him, my lord!"
"Yet have I seen him ere this, methinks."
"But for the maid Mellent--thou wilt not let her burn--and for thy deeds?"
"Mine, forsooth! How mean you?"
"'Twas yester-eve we were beset hereabouts by a lewd company, and brought unto their lord, Sir Grilles of Brandonmere--a man beyond all other men base and vile--who, beholding her so young and fair would have forced her to his will."
"Ha!--methinks Sir Gilles doth live too long!"
"So to save her from his violence, I discovered to him her name and high estate, whereupon at first he would fain have her wed with him. But, angered by her scorn, he bore her with him to Duke Ivo at Barham Broom, and me also. And there I heard her denounced as witch, by whose spells thou, lord Beltane, wert freed of thy duress and Garthlaxton utterly destroyed. Thus, to-morrow she must burn, unless one can be found to champion her cause and prove her innocent by trial of combat. So, when they had let me go I came seeking thee, my lord, since 'tis said thou art a very strong man and swift to aid the defenceless." Now glancing aside upon Sir Fidelis, Beltane beheld him leaning forward with his lips apart and slender hands tight-clasped; whereupon he frowned and shook his head.
"A woman!" quoth he, "nay, I had rather fight in a dog's cause."
"Forsooth!" cried Roger, "for rogue is he and fool that would champion a vile witch."
"Why, then, let us on, lord," growled Walkyn. "Why tarry we here?"
But now, as the witch sank upon the road with pleading hands uplifted, Sir Fidelis rode beside her and, stooping, caught her outstretched hands; quoth he:
"Of what avail to plead with such as these? So will I adventure me on behalf of this poor maid."
"Enough!" cried Beltane. "Walkyn, march ye one and all for Hundleby Fen--wait me there and let your watch be strict. But, an I come not within two days from now, then hie you each and every to reinforce Eric and Giles in Belsaye. As for Roger, he rideth with me to Barham Broom."
"Ha, lord!--wilt fight, then, in the witch's cause?" cried Walkyn.
"Aye, forsooth, though--forsooth I had rather fight in a dog's cause, for a dog, see you, is a faithful beast."
"To Barham Broom?" quoth Roger, staring. "Thou and I, master, to Black Ivo--alone?" And speaking, he loosened sword in scabbard.
"My lord Beltane," cried Sir Fidelis, beholding him with shining eyes, "an thou wilt do this noble thing, suffer me beside thee!"
"Not so, messire," answered Beltane, shaking his head, "art over young and tender, methinks--go, get thee back to her that sent thee--keep thou thy fond and foolish dream, and may thy gentle heart go unbroken. Come, Roger!"
So saying, Beltane wheeled about and rode away with Roger at his heels.
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