LANCELOTTE

ALDIS DUNBAR April 1 1915

LANCELOTTE

ALDIS DUNBAR April 1 1915

LANCELOTTE

ALDIS DUNBAR

AT his back was the mighty woodland of Marchevalle—terror-sown, for that far-off crashing of mailed feet through windrows of brush and fallen dry boughs was to him no vacant menace, like the mutters of coming rebellion which he had held so light.

Death, inglorious, was hunting him hard, under those grim-set oaks.

Panting, beating desperately with his arms at branches and entangling vines, he struggled on amid the stubborn thickets of pine, undergrown with gorse and bramble, that girt the lan dwa r d edge of the great forest.

His only weapon was the head of a broken javelin, splintered in the headlong scali n g of an unguarded bastion ; yet had breathspace of time been allowed him, the chance is that he would have lashed up courage, though of an untrained sort, to make a stand.

But he had ever slept soft; his

life had been so lapped round with silken ease until those dark hours when, roused by the rude bursting in of door-panels and the reek of burning wood, he had been forced from his couch by fear-driven house-carles, down low, secret passages and ways perilous with broken stones, then out into the black storm which had covered the assault, in haphazard flight, knowing not from whom his life was safe, that no such impulse to withstand the wave of dread which swept him on could reach him.

Light and the day were waning. Down the chill wind came yells of pursuit— nearer—nearer, nearer! In one last rush of unreasoning panic, he stumbled through a sucking, clinging quagmire, up the bank beyond it, over that and fell blindly in a hollow of dead leaves—too near spent for crying out when a hand

gripped his cowering shoulder and shook it fiercely.

“Is it for you the wolf-pack scour the forest yonder?”

“Wolf-pack?” Hope seemed lurking in the sneer. “Ay!” he whispered, drythroated. “To kill!” He was up on his knees, now, staring into the stormy, halfcontemptuous eyes of a girl.

“You have given them a rare chase—” Even as she spoke, she fell suddenly back a pace. The grey eyes widened. The look in them grew akin to vindictive triumph—so held his for a full breath— then, as swiftly, relented. “You!” she repeated, in a curious undertone.

Bewildered, he raised his arm to free his face from the mire that streaked it, blinding him; but she struck away the groping hand.

“Let be!” she cried. “Are you fey, that

you tarry thus to be cut piecemeal likeAmaric? Up! Have you no ears to hear?”

And as they rang indeed with wild clangor of trumpets that seemed on every side, closing in around him, she caught his wrist and dragged him through a final barrier of thorn and bracken, out on the bleak waste of a windswept moor, to a knoll where lay a great, loose-bound fagot of gathered branches.

“Crouch down!” she commanded. “You are Grif, my serving lad. You hear?” “Serving lad! I?” For a moment h e straightened haughtily, glaring with blank resentment at the slender, ill-clad figure, fronting him so masterfully.

“Do you then liefer choose to risk the Raider’s mercies?” she asked coolly. “Of surety, unless you obey me— obey, do you hear?—you are like to feel them swiftly. Down! For your life!” she broke off ; and truth,” he said. as the chill again rushed over his heart, and he bent hurriedly, he felt his long, raindank hair grasped, and the cleaving through it of a keen blade; then, bearing down shoulders and aching back, came on him the crackling weight of the unwieldy fagot. Two uncertain steps forward he took—then felt himself thrust heavily aside; and staggering, he knew the overhanging ends of his burden his only shelter from the fierce encounter of bloodhungry eyes.

From out a clamor of strange, uncouth challenging, his blurred senses caught at the unwavering steadiness of a girl’s clear words in reply.

“King? Nay, no king have we seen, Grif nor I. Would that we had !”

“Ay, scant cause would she have to stay pursuit from the King-master’s weakling tool! None doubt you here, Dame Lancelotte!” came a new voice,

grating and iron-cold as a dungeon-bar. “Hcya! Scatter, hounds, along the forest verge, and let no ditch or covert, north or south, go unscanned, lest Amaric’s puppet be cowering deep-hid therein. And hark ye, bruit your coming less loudly ! Time enough to give tongue when the quarry is in open sight.”

So close was the speaker that the teeth of his great horse were tearing and champing at the withered leaves of the fagot. “And what do you here, Dame?” he pursued, harshly. “Nightfall is no time for one noble-born to be out along Glasmoor, with naught but a craven thrall as warde.”

She gave a low laugh. “No thrall, Count Itho, but one free-born, as befits my estate! Craven, alas, I fear he is, my poor Grif—none having as yet taught him to stand firm and face men. Moreover, he hears but ill. Those who long had him in hand rendered him dull of wit, lest he should one day claim his own of them; and in the end, he was thrust away from the door that should have been his, to wander, spiritless and empty-handed, untill of his need and mine I took him to serve me as house-carle. Though all but useless his old masters had made him, for aught save bearing fagots and the like.”

The Raider’s growl was that of a restless wolf. “Better give me your estray, to make into a man. What say you, Grif?”

“Nay!” cried the girl. “He is mine—of my sore need, I tell you, Itho Edricsson ! Whom have you left me, within my broken walls? Ainward thecripple, and the crone, his mother. Truly, a lordlike following for service or defence ! Free carle and slave-born have you drawn away by hopes of rich plunder, or by threats, until with mine own hands must I labor, that Huelin, my father, lack not some measure of comfort—must aid in gleaning dry sticks and fallen wood, like any field-thrall, that he lie not a-cold ! Yet am I still Chatelaine of Arz, and mine to give is the shielding-right, that one of your house had no shame in craving, at its gates, in his hour of death-peril from Goderic of Irrenham, forest-thane of the Great King! I give it now! Home, Grif !”

She caught and slightly shook the stiffened arm that upheld the fagot, then pointed off across the moor, as directing one of slow understanding. “That way, Grif! . . Dread of the wolf-pack’s hunger hath dulled his ears!” She spoke louder, urging into motion onward, by insistent pressure, the dog-weary limbs. “Home, Grif! Home! . . . He is mine!” she called back, defiantly.

“By the War God, that I leave him! But if he labor not lustily at thy lightest word, he shall swing in the night wind from as tall an oak as that we gave the King-master’s Hammer!”

Count Itho’s shout of mirthless laughter echoed behind them, then died away as they turned downward into a sunken track that ran like a deep furrow across the barren.

Like one bound in a dream to some weird toil, the boy—scarcely was he more —went plodding vaguely forward, with heavily dragging steps, his shoulders numb and cramped under their load. Presently words came to his ear, spoken in a low, even tone.

“To pause and let you rest—here— would be wolves’ mercy. The Raider’s eyes were watchful of us, and his horde runs keen on the blood-scent.”

“Yet—you dared brave him—so?” His own voice reached him as a thing unreal —hoarse and far away.

“Am I churl-born? Had I known fear, your life had paid for it,” she returned, quietly.

“And yours.” He shivered.

“You thought of that?” The blank amaze in her question rang strangely in his mind through long after-silence, as a twist of the path brought them once more among the trees, now somber with nightshadows. To reply had not occurred to him, when she went on :

“It is true. Sword-fellows were Edric Einarsson and the wild hawks of Arz— Aymon, Gautare, and the rest—for which memory the Raider shows me some rude favor; yet this hour would find us both dead on Glasmoor, did he guess wherefore I hindered his hunting by word on word concerning a mere witless herdboy or house-carle. No safe matter is it to beguile a fierce land-waster of his prey— and that with true speech!”

“True!” Anger in a great surge overmastered all else in him; but even as he flung down the hateful burden, the darkling world went from him in black waves.

When light returned, it was a wide gleam of yellow sunshine, falling on him from a battered loophole, far up in the rude stone wall. It caught the edge of a thick, dust-laden cobweb that hung from a rotting beam above him, and he lay, passive, watching it with lazy curiosity. A name was in his mind, dimly troubling him. “Arz,” “The Lady of Arz,” it seemed. Slowly a memory grew clear. There had been a banquet in the long western hall. Amaric the archbishop, as had grown to be custom, shared with him the high seat. Harpers were playing merrily, and as he laughed at their jesting, into the hall had come a woman, veiled in black, who cried out for aid from the King—for justice by the Land Law on one who had slain his rival, her bridegroom, even as he left the marriage altar at her side. The slayer was at the feast, a henchman of Gisulf the Hammer, brother to Amaric. The archbishop had whispered something, with a little sneering smile, and he had turned impatiently from the suppliant with a few empty words, forgotten as soon as uttered. Was that the girl who—

Sudden, full consciousness beat in on him! This, where he lay, was no king’s chamber, tapestry-hung! With hasty, groaning effort, he got to his feet from the pile of mouldering straw, and stared around the narrow place as one caged; then recoiled, and stood rigid and suspicious. From the low archway she was regarding him silently, this grave-eyed girl who had stood up unflinching between pursuing death and that for which it thirsted. Was she planning a revenge more bitter, now that night had passed?

He waited.

“Here is bread. You have not eaten,” she began, looking at him oddly as without a word he set his teeth in the coarse, dark loaf. “And I have brought you this.” Beside him she flung a tunic of rough homespun. “Safer that you wear it, now,

than one of silk, however torn and stained. It was in vain, savage defence of his master that Ainward was sore crippled, and should he learn the truth, it might go ill with you, even now.”

“Now?”

“You would know that which is unwelcome?”

“Tell me!” He ground his heel on the stones.

“Now that others, anger-driven, have taken the vengeance denied him. Amaric, whom all named the King-master, lies dead in Irrenham—none venturing to give him burial. Gisulf—”

“The King’s Hammer? What of him?”

“The King-master’s, you would say. Where was King in the land, save Amaric, whose word gave the law? Heard you not the Raider’s threat? Gisulf and his men will waste the valleys no more. The north is aflame, and the sea-fighters would make Valger king. In the south—”

“Ay?”

“In the south men speak of the SilverBeard as one who might bring peace to a land long harassed,” she finished.

“And I—” Rage stifled him.

Her eyes held scorn. “What of you? Rule was never yours. With kingship reft away, it would be well if you took thought—how to become a man, Beau-

“You—you dare mock at me?” He took one threatening step, then threw himself down in the straw, and lay with shaking shoulders amid the ruin of his royalty.

After a time—how long he knew not— he rose again, heavily, and wincing at the ache of unused muscles, he took up the worn garment and drew it on, over the tatters of broidered purple silk that still covered him. Then he went out into the warm sunlight of the courtyard. Lancelotte, standing by a broken gap in the outer wall, through which the forest peered inward, seemed not to notice his coming until he spoke, dully:

“What would you have me to do?”

She turned, without surprise. “If you can keep in mind the words I said of you to Itho Edricsson, it will serve you. As to their truth, you may yet come to grant it. Know you not that by the Land Law a master may name his lands-folk as he will? So are you Grif, my serving-lad, whose life, by mine own free choice, I took into my hands, thereby putting Arz in peril of the brand. Forget it not. Now I shall take you to my father, Huelin, once a strong knight of Davenesse. Ainward and his mother alone remain of our household. All these have been told of your coming, though none have as yet set eyes on you.”

“But—I awoke—there!” he pointed to the square gate-tower.

“It was I who drew you within, from the forest path,” she said simply. “It was not far.”

The boy straightened himself, looked down at the slightness of her, then at his own stalwart body; and over him came the first heat of shame that he had ever known. Without a word he followed where she led, through a deep-carven doorarch, and into a vaulted hall, dim-lighted by narrow windows. By the wood-embers that smouldered in a corner of the wide hearth, on an oaken chest covered with

ragged furs, drowsed an old man who stirred at their approach.

“I bring the house-carle who is to serve us,” said the Lady of Arz. “The fire burns low, Grif. Put on wood.”

The boy started. She meant him? Then he caught the steady intent of her face, and complied, sulkily.

Huelin, the old knight, looked at him sternly. “A stout limbed youngling, in truth,” he said, “but strength availeth no man, even were he a king, failing knowledge to direct it aright. See to it that Ainward delay not in testing what skill he hath in use of bow and war-spear; or, lacking it, whether he have wit to learn. Can he obey?”

“That will he do,” returned the girl, unsmiling, “seeing that Itho Edricsson hath taken the enforcing of it upon him.”

“And who is Itho Edricsson, outlaw and wolf’s-head, that he should thrust aid on us in the matter of a herd-lad?” kindled the old warrior. “By the Golden Dragon, had we one ruling the land as in the days of the Great King, who beat back the Northmen at Alderdun and on Roncevert—” He fell back weakly on t }i e couch, closing his eyes.

Beckoning the boy to follow softly, Lancelotte passed out of the hall by a far door, and through a postern to the court

“Your task will be to aid old Berga,” she said, pointing to the bent figure of an ancient crone, toiling in at the open gate with slow steps. “She must have water drawn and carried, and meal ground for her baking. You understand?” As if to still the hot rebellion tingling in his blood, she laid her hand on his arm. He shook it off desperately.

“Is there no escape for me?” he cried out.

“Nay,” she answered him coldly, “nor safety without these walls.”

He turned from her and flung himself aeainst the wall, hiding his face with his hands. Yet after a little time he was again standing before her with bent head.

“Yet—high lordship was mine!” he stammered. “Is that naught—” He

broke off, bethinking him of that hour in the banquet hall, and considering how frail a thing might prove the whim that held him still scathe-free.

“Hearken,” she began, having thought silently. “The Great King Autharis, of whose line you come, rode once by Irrenham forge. In the highway before it lay à ragged thrall, his hands and feet chained to a log, the iron collar galling his neck. There he had been, the hot sun beating on him, for many long hours, without respite from hunger and parching thirst, having angered the smith. But the King, seeing him, leaped from his horse and pitifully put fresh water to his lips, bringing back life. He bade the smith loose him, and thereafter to treat

no man like a hound. Was he less kingly for his gentilesse and compassion?”

The boy shook his head, hanging it still lower.

“Hearken again. On the field of Roncevert, when battle raged hotly, the King’s horse fell with him. But for the swiftgiven aid of one man, death had been his, and the land a prey of plundering Northmen. That man was Thord Ulfsson, to whom he had given cool water in his utter need. This same Thord, after the battle, desiring knighthood as guerdon, and having taken its vow to fight nobly—to hold all women in honor, gentle or simple, old

or young—to show mercy to the weak and to aid all poor and helpless—rode away in quest of his mortal foe, hoping to slay him in fair combat. Yet so he held in reverence the King’s nobleness that before the sun set he had given his life for that foe and another who had wrought him evil—defending them from torture at the hands of beast-like moormen. Himself he might have saved, by leaving them, who were wounded nigh to death ; but he cried out: ‘The King would not!.’—and fought greatly to the end!”

“Never was I told of this!” panted the boy, eagerly. “Is there more?”

“More!” she flashed out at him. “Is it a saga-tale for your diverting? If it be nobly done, how can any deed, however lowly, shame the honor of one highhearted? But should a king prove less wise and brave, less knightly, more self-loving and helpless than his meanest thrall and kingship then be wholly wrested from him, what remains?”

“I—I thought you my — friend !”

“Nay,” she said, “your enemy!”

Wordless, hot and cold by turn, he went from her. Through his mind, as he toiled at the cumbers ome hand-mill, beat anger that any should so dare plain speech to him — together with a growing smart at the recollection o f his hasty flight. Then came a formless feeling that — during long-grown hours of the night, as he lay restless on the straw which was his bed — rose ever plainer. She should see.

Day brought labor, again, at the bidding of the crone, with scarce a glance from the Lady of Arz, as she passed him. Yet he felt that no throb of his repulsion toward the unkinglike drudgery went unguessed by her and he drove himself ever more doggedly to it.

Ainward he saw not until a third night had passed, when a lean, tall man, misshapen and haggard, came into the court, leading two rough-coated moor-ponies.

From that hour the boy was as iron smith-beaten. The rigorous hardening he

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underwent from the grim carle, the open sneers at untrained eye and sinew, even blows, borne with set lips—being from a war-man—galled him less than the quiet scrutiny of a girl’s grey eyes. Under that, while affecting unconcern, he nerved his arm to steadier control of spear and heavy war-axe, and laid arrow to longbow with surer aim. Moreover, the muscles of his sword-wrist grew stronger and more pliant. Withal his heart still beat heavily on entering even the first shadow of the forest marge.

Twice, as time wore on, came secret messengers to the half ruined manor. When the second had ridden on his way, Lancelotte went pacing the hall for long hours, as one musing very earnestly.

The boy grew restless. “She still goes in sorrow for the Lord of Arz?” he suggested to Ainward.

“But thrice had she ever seen him,” replied the other. “Far more dear to her is this war-wasted land of ours, whose need lies heavy on her soul, than love of any man; though high in her thoughts, as one strong in its defence, was my lord—a valiant sea-fighter against the Northland pirate hordes—Huelin dwelling here to hold Arz for him, the while, having no child other than this one. Ay, a maid that should have been war-thane to a King! No marvel Gisulf’s hound had eyes for her!”

“How then came Arz Manor in such plight?” pressed the boy.

“How other should it be, when the puppet-king withheld from his widow weregild or any justice—thereby leaving all comers free to ravage unhindered; while Itho Edricsson hath stripped us of our men.”

The boy averted his face. “Yet Conradin was king’s march-ward in the west.”

“The Raider was the juster man,” returned Ainward. “What would you now?”

Odd lightness of heart had come to the boy. “Mend Arz wall!” he cried lifting a block of moss-covered stone from the earth to the gap whence it had fallen, reckless of straining thews. Ainward chuckled, and the boy turning, saw the Chatelaine regarding him with a quaint attention, hearkening, the while, to words that old Berga was muttering. Some of them came to his ears, and straightway his cheeks burned miserably. “It—it was naught!” he blurted.

“Naught, as you say, for a stout lad to lift a helpless crone from the marsh-pool where she lay bemired, and bear her safely home; nor is it any great matter that he should go back in the darkness to seek for the few herbs that she had been gathering, to ease her. So a task of other sort I set you, Grif. Make ready the moor-ponies, with all speed, for Ainward and myself. Until we return, I leave Arz in your hands to guard.”

The boy started, incredulous ; but there was no mockery in her meaning. Within the hour the forest branches had hidden

the riders, and he was lord over a strange garrison indeed.

The weight of a broad kingdom had been feather-light beside the responsibility now burdening his shoulders. The knight was broken and querulous with pain. The feeble crone had care of tending him, grumbling at the need. Also, in odd hours she kept watch, of a sort, that the boy might snatch a little rest At night he tramped the courtyard steadily, back and forth; and what sleep he took was caught lying across the gateway, that none might pass within. Often he sprang up from it, tense and cold, thinking he heard the wolf-pack’s cry; but only the great lonely forest was there. He could not rid his memory of an unconscious appeal that had been in the grey eyes as the girl had looked back from the narrow path. He still hated her, of course, yet— she should see!

Days and nights passed. He had been given no clue as to the length of his wardenship, and he would not stoop to question Berga, even supposing she knew more than he. In the end, the two rode into sight when he looked least for them, one early dawn—mounted now, not on the shaggy ponies, but on powerful warchargers.

Ainward dismounted, awkwardly, and would have lifted down his companion, heavily cloaked as she was, with his great gaunt arms, but she shook her head.

“No time for that!” she cried out, “if he who overheard us was of the wolfpack! Rest have I had—what I need thereof. Arm him, and that with swiftness!”

The boy was waiting—for a look; but Ainward gave him no time for questioning. Roughly, avoiding the meeting of his eyes, he pulled him to one side and flung to him, from the saddle-bow, a burden that clanked in the misty stillness as it fell. A shield—ring-mail—a light winged helmet.

“For me?” he whispered. The words made no sound, but Lancelotte signed assent. This, be sure, was a dream—such as came to him when over-wearied. So was it also when, at her gesture, he mounted the second horse and rode by her side into the ghostly forest, spear in rest, swinging sword at his belt. The boughs were low-hanging, dew-heavy— and they must needs bend to pass beneath. After a space of time they were out on the open moor, but not on any beaten track. Following her lead still, he struck spur into the iron-grey charger, and at full speed they took the slope of a hill before them. Beyond it was more wild moorland, bounded on its farther edge by another line of forest, toward which they were heading. Hills might lie between them and the north, but fog rolled up and hid all, its fresh moisture bringing some clearness to his brain.

It was close on an hour gone when the Lady of Arz reined in to a walk and turned to him.

“Curt speech will serve,” she said. “You may be king again.”

“I?” he checked his horse.

“If we can win onward and reach a strong sword-band sent down for our safety, from Passe Hilari, by the western

thanes, before Itho Edricsson hath wind of our purpose from his spy. Pay heed, for now shall all be lost or won ! The land must have a king! Valger, last of your house, hath his death-wound. The Silver Beard lieth in wait, ready to overrun the kingdom with an array of outlanders, eager to enslave and devour us. Better death than peace at his hands!”

Here eyes flashed a challenge to him, and quick flushes reddened her pale cheeks, half hidden by a close drawn hood. “Have you heart for the venture, like him of old, now that your hair hath again the length befitting a noble-born warrior?” she laughed, her look searching him intently. “Have you a man’s courage?”

Courage—to stand firm, to kill, if need were, to win through? How could he be certain that it had grown up within him?

“I—I know not—” he stammered.

“But you shall, I say!” With a swift motion, she threw off the enshrouding cloak and was revealed in a coat of ringmail, and steel-capped even as he. In her hand was poised a light lance.

“Unfitting were it that the King should ride into danger from Arz, and none of the house be at his side,” she said. “Hearken!”

Through the silence on the moor came a far-off, muffled thudding.

“Onward!” she ordered, forcing the great steeds into a gallop with spur and blow. “Above is a point of rocks, reached but by a narrow cleft. There will we await what comes, whether it be the wolfpack or the thanes’ men. Two can hold off all comers—if we be not cut off from reaching it!” she added, for in the instant of speaking two dark figures looi >d ahead of them. “Itho’s wolves!” the gasped; and the next breath fou d swords ringing and clashing in the fogwreaths. Then they were again out of the melee, pushing forward.

The boy was cold to the lips. Twice, as he thrust furiously, unreasoningly, sword-blows had fallen hard on him ; and the breath shook within him. He dared not look at Lancelotte, who was somewhat before him, leaning against her horse’s neck, as though discerning what was before them. How she would scorn his craven relief! “Craven!” the scoff rang in his ears. “Spiritless! Useless, but for bearing fagots and the like!” echoed in his

The rocks were almost above them, now. A dark chasm opened ahead. The girl raised herself and pointed. She was swaying in the saddle. With a cry of rage, the boy drove his barbed heel into his horse and was at her side, catching her and swinging her in front of him as she fell.

“On!” she breathed. “Forward—up—the cleft!” He set lips grimly and obeyed. When they had reached 'a mighty heap of boulders that blocked their way, he dismounted, lifting her gently to the ground at his feet. Through the enlaced metal on her shoulder was a great gash—red and wet. He put down his head and listened—but not for any mailed feet on the stones below. All that was in his heart, now, was fierce desire to slay— coldly—steadily. He bent once more, then straightened up and strode forward to face those who should come.