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Now in a while, he started to feel a hand among his hair, and the hand was wondrous light and very gentle; wherefore, wondering, he raised his head, but behold, the sun was gone and the shadows deepening to night. Yet even so, he stared and thrilled 'twixt wonder and fear to see Sir Fidelis bending over him.
"Fidelis!" he murmured, "and is it thee in truth,--or do I dream?"
"Dear my lord, 'tis I indeed. How long hast lain thus? I did but now wake from my swoon. Is it thy hurt?--suffer me to look."
"Nay, 'tis of none account, but I did dream thee--dead--Fidelis!"
"Ah, messire, thy hurt bleedeth apace--the steel hath gone deep! Sit you thus, thy back against the tree--so. Within my wallet I have a salve--wait you here." So, whiles Beltane stared dreamily upon the twilit river, Sir Fidelis hasted up the bank and was back again, the wallet by his side, whence he took a phial and goblet and mixed therein a draught which dreamy Beltane perforce must swallow, and thereafter the dreamy languor fell from him, what time Sir Fidelis fell to bathing and bandaging the ugly gash that showed beneath his knee. Now as he watched these busy, skilful fingers he knew a sudden, uneasy qualm, and forthwith spake his thought aloud:
"Thy hands are wondrous--small and slender, Sir Fidelis!"
"Belike, messire, they shall grow bigger some day."
"Yet are they wondrous fair--and soft--and white, Fidelis!"
"Mayhap, messire, they shall grow rough and brown and hairy anon--so content you."
"Yet wherefore are they so soft, Fidelis, and so--maid-like? And wherefore--"
"See you, my lord, thus must the bandage lie, fast-knotted--so. Nor must it slacken, lest the bleeding start afresh." So saying, Sir Fidelis arose, and taking the wallet in one hand and setting the other 'neath Beltane's arm, led him to where, deep-bowered under screening willows, a fire burned cheerily, whereby were two beds of scented bracken.
Dark and darker the shadows crept down, deepening to a night soft and warm and very still, whose quietude was unbroken save for the drowsy lap and murmur of the river and the sound the war-horse Mars made as he cropped the grass near by. Full of a languorous content lay Beltane, despite the smarting of his wound, what time Sir Fidelis came and went about the fire; and there, within this great and silent wilderness, they supped together, and, while they supped, Beltane looked oft upon Sir Fidelis, heedful of every trick of mail-girt feature and gesture of graceful hand as he ne'er had been ere now. Wherefore Sir Fidelis grew red, grew pale, was by turns talkative and silent, and was fain to withdraw into the shadows beyond the fire. And from there, seeing Beltane silent and full of thought, grew bold to question him.
"Dost meditate our course to-morrow, my lord Beltane?"
"Nay--I do but think--a strange thought--that I have seen thy face ere now, Fidelis. Yet art full young to bear arms a-field."
"Doth my youth plague thee still, messire? Believe me, I am--older than I seem."
"Thou, at peril of thy life, Fidelis, didst leap 'twixt me and death, so needs must I know thee for my friend, and yet--"
"And yet, messire?"
"Thou hast betimes the look and speech of one--of one beyond all traitors vile!"
"Ah," murmured Sir Fidelis, a sudden tremor in his voice, "thou dost mean--?"
"Helen of Mortain--poor Fidelis--whom thou dost love."
"Whom thou dost hate, Beltane! And O, I pray thee, wherefore is thy hate so bitter?"
"Fidelis, there lived a fool, that, for her beauty, loved her with a mighty love: that, for her seeming truth and purity, honoured her beyond all things: that, in the end, did find her beyond all things vile. Aye, there lived a fool--and I am he."
"Ah, beseech thee," cried Sir Fidelis, white hands outstretched, "how know you her thus false to thee, Beltane?"
"Know then, Sir Fidelis, that--upon our wedding-eve I was--by her command struck down--within the chapel--upon the very altar, and by her borne in bonds unto Garthlaxton Keep--a present to mine enemy, Duke Ivo--"
"O, 'tis a lie--O dear my lord--'tis lie most foul--!"
"In witness whereof behold upon my wrists the shameful irons from my dungeon--"
"Alas! here was no work of Helen's--no thought, no will--Helen would have died to save thee this--"
"So, Fidelis, do I scorn all women that do live upon this earth henceforth--but, above all, Helen the Beautiful! the Wilful! who in her white bosom doth bear a heart more foul than Trojan Helen, that was a woman false and damned. So now, all's said."
Now fell Sir Fidelis upon his knees and spake quick and passionate:
"Nay, Beltane, hear me! For now do I swear that he who told thee 'twas Helen wrought thee this vile wrong--who told thee this doth lie--O, doth lie! Now do I swear that never by word or thought or deed, hath she been false to thee--I do swear she loveth thee--ah, spurn me not-- O, believe--"
"Enough--enough, good Fidelis, perjure not thy sweet youth for one so much unworthy, for with these eyes did I behold her as they bore me in my bonds--and shall I not believe mine eyes?"
"Never--ah! never, when they do shew thee Helen false and cruel to thee! Here was some vile magic--witchcraft--"
"Enough, Fidelis, 'tis past and done. Here was a woman false--well, 'tis none so singular--there have been others--there will be others. So, God keep thee, sweet youth, from the ways of women. Nay, let us speak of this no more, for in sooth I grow a-weary and we must ride with the dawn to-morrow. So, betake thee to thy rest, nor grieve thee for my sorrows past and done--mayhap they shall be things to smile upon one day."
So saying, Beltane sighed, and laid him down among the bracken and thereafter Fidelis did the like; the fire sank and waned, and oft Sir Fidelis stirred restless in the shadows; the river murmured slumberously among the sedge, but Beltane, hearkening with drowsy ears, oft thought to hear another sound, very soft and repressed yet very dolorous, ere, worn and spent, and something weakened by wound and loss of blood, he sank at last to deep and gentle sleep.
But in his sleep he dreamed that one knelt above him in the dark, keeping watch upon his slumbers in the attitude of one in prayer--one whom he knew, yet knew not; it seemed to Beltane in his dream, that this silent, slender shape, stooped of a sudden, low and lower, to kiss the iron fetters that bound his wrists; then Beltane strove to wake yet could not wake, but in his slumber sighed a name, soft-breathed and gentle as the languorous murmur of the stream:
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