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Slowly the days sped, dewy dawn and tender eve, days of sun and shadow and gentle rain; golden days wherein Beltane lay 'twixt sleep and wake, and nights of silver wherein he slept full deep and dreamed wondrously of gentle hands that soothed him with their touch, and warm soft lips on cheek and brow that filled him with a great and deep content.
And in these days, who so cheery as Black Roger, full of a new-found gaiety, who laughed for small reason and ofttimes for none at all and was forever humming snatches of strange song as he stooped above pipkin and pannikin. Much given was he also to frequent comings and goings within the green to no apparent end, while Beltane, within the little cave, lay 'twixt sleep and waking; moreover, full oft as they ate their evening meal together, he would start, and falling to sudden silence, sit as one that hearkens to distant sounds. Yet withal was he ever heedful of Beltane's many wants, who, as health came, grew more eager to be gone, but finding himself too weak, straightway waxed moody and rebellious, whereat smiling Roger waxed firm, so needs must frowning Beltane be bathed and bandaged and swallow his draught--because of She who had so commanded.
Now it befell upon a certain evening as Roger bent to peer into the pot that seethed and bubbled upon the fire and to sniff its appetising savour, he presently fell a-singing to himself in a voice gruff yet musical withal; whereupon Beltane, turning languid head, fell to watching this new Roger, and thereafter spake on this wise:
BELTANE. "What do ye so oft within the green?"
ROGER. "Hunt, that we may eat, master."
BELTANE. "I have seen thee go full oft of late and leave thy bow behind, Roger."
ROGER. "Whereby I judge that though thine eyes be shut ye do not always slumber, master, and methinks our supper is done--"
BELTANE. "Nay--what do ye in the green?"
ROGER. "Master, thy horse Mars hath a proud spirit and snorteth against his bonds. So, lest he break thy slumber, have I made him a shelter of wattles in the green."
BELTANE. "Truly, Roger, thou art greatly changed methinks."
ROGER (starting). "As how, master?"
BELTANE. "I have heard thee called Roger the grim, and Roger the surly, ere now."
ROGER (shaking woeful head). "Ere now, lord, I hanged men, conceiving it my duty."
BELTANE. "And to-day you sing--and wherefore?"
ROGER. "For joy in life, master."
BELTANE. "And thou dost laugh, surly Roger--oft-times for little reason, meseemeth."
ROGER. "For that my heart is renewed within me, master. Happiness is my bedfellow and companion--here is good reason for laughter, methinks."
BELTANE. "And wherefore art thou happy, Roger?"
ROGER. "Item first: thou dost mend apace, lord. Item second: this mess of venison hath a savour most delectable. Item third: happiness is the birthright of every man. Moreover I have learned that behind the blackest cloud is a glory of sun, and beyond sorrow, joy. So do I rejoice that all is like to be well with thee."
BELTANE (bitterly). "Well with me, say you? Is Pentavalon free, Roger? Do I not lie here, weak and helpless--my company scattered? O, call you this well, forsooth?"
ROGER. "'Tis true thou art weak as yet, master, but thou shalt rise again stronger than aforetime--aye, thou shalt arise indeed, and all Pentavalon with thee. So let thine heart rejoice and sing, as mine doth."
BELTANE (fiercely). "O evil day, that ere I gave my heart to woman's love, so do I lie here a useless thing--O day accursed!"
ROGER. "O day most blessed, since woman's love hath lifted thee from death and shall be thy glory and Pentavalon's salvation, master!"
BELTANE (eagerly). "Roger--Roger, speak you of the Duchess Helen? What mean you, man?"
ROGER. "There be signs and portents, master, the very air is full o' them. Whiles we tarry here, others be up and doing--"
BELTANE. "Others, Roger?"
ROGER. "Notably Walkyn o' the Axe, master!"
BELTANE. "Ha! and what of Walkyn?"
ROGER. "He smiled, master, as I told thee ere this, and when Walkyn smileth it behoveth others to be wary. So now do I tell thee that Walkyn hath taken and burned Duke Ivo's great Castle of Brandonmere, that Winisfarne city hath risen 'gainst the Duke and all the border villages likewise--aha! master, there be scythe-blades and good brown bills a-twinkle all along the marches eager to smite for freedom and Pentavalon when time is ripe!"
BELTANE (rising upon his knees). "Forsooth, is this so? O Roger, is this so in very truth?"
ROGER. "'Tis very truth, master. Upon my sword I swear it!"
BELTANE. "But whence had ye the wondrous news--how--when?"
ROGER. "Master, 'twas three nights agone, as I wrestled prodigiously in prayer on thy behalf, one came to me and spake me many things marvellous good to hear. Moreover, I have met divers folk within the greenwood and upon the forest-road yonder, and with all do I hold converse."
Then to Roger's amaze Beltane rose up, and standing square upon his feet lifted hands and eyes to heaven. "Now glory be to the living God," quoth he, "that hath heard the prayers of such as I. So now do I swear, come life, come death, to walk my appointed way sword in hand, henceforth, nor will I turn aside for man or woman, heeding not the lure of friendship or of love. I do swear never to look upon a woman to love--"
ROGER (fearfully). "Master--master!"
BELTANE. "Nor to suffer woman's love to come 'twixt me and my duty--"
ROGER (despairingly). "O master, swear it not--swear it not--"
BELTANE. "Nor shall aught let or stay me until Pentavalon win to freedom or my poor soul return whence it came. And this do I swear to the ears of God!"
Now turned he to Roger, bright-eyed and with hands tight-clenched.
"Roger," said he, "thou art witness to this my oath, an I do fail or falter henceforth, then in that same hour may sharp death be mine. So now bring to me sword and armour, for this night must I hence."
Now was Roger sore troubled and fain was to speak, but beholding his master's flashing eye, he presently did as he was commanded. So Beltane took hold upon the sword and drew it, and looked glad-eyed upon its broad and shining blade. But when he would have wielded it, behold! he scarce could lift it; with teeth fierce-clenched he strove against his weakness until his breath waxed short and the sweat ran from him, but ever the great blade grew the heavier. Then he groaned to find himself so feeble, and cried aloud an exceeding bitter cry, and cast the sword from him, and, staggering, fell into Roger's waiting arms. Forthwith Roger bare him to the cave and laid him down upon his bed.
"Master," quoth he, "O master, grieve not thyself, thou shalt be hale and strong anon, but the time is not yet. Comfort ye, comfort ye, my lord--ere long thou shalt be strong, aye, and mightier e'en than aforetime. So grieve not nor repine, my master!"
But Beltane lay heeding not, nor would he eat despite all Roger's wheedling arts; but being fevered and athirst, drank deep of the sleeping draught, and thereafter, falling to his black humour, turned his face to the shadows, and, lying thus, straightway fell to weeping, very silently, because of his so great weakness, until, like a child, he had wept himself to sleep.
Slowly the moon sank, the fire burned low and Roger snored blissfully hard by, but Beltane, blessed within his slumbers, dreamed again of one who stole, light of foot, to lie beside him watchful in the dark and with warm, soft arms set close about him like the sheltering arms of that mother he had never known.
Thus slept Beltane, like a weary child upon a mother's breast, and knew great peace and solace and a deep and utter content.
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