By pleasant ways they went, past smiling fields and sleepy villages bowered ’mid the green. They rode ever by sequestered paths, skirting shady wood and coppice where birds sang soft a drowsy lullaby, wooing the world to forgetfulness and rest; fording prattling brook and whispering stream whose placid waters flamed to the glory of sunset. And thus they came at last to Blaen, a cloistered hamlet beyond which rose the grey walls of the ancient manor itself.
Now as they drew near, being yet sheltered ’mid the green, old Godric halted in his stride and pointed to the highway that ran in the vale below.
“Lady,” quoth he, “mine eyes be old, and yet methinks I should know yon horseman that rideth unhelmed so close beside the lady Winfrida—that breadth of shoulder! that length of limb! Lady, how think ye?”
“’Tis Duke Ivo!” she whispered.
“Aye,” nodded Godric, “armed, see you, yet with but two esquires—”
“And with Winfrida!” said the Duchess, frowning. “Can it indeed be as I have thought, betimes? And Blaen is a very solitary place!”
“See!” whispered Godric, “the Duke leaveth her. Behold him kiss her hand! Ha, he summoneth his esquires. Hey now, see how they ride—sharp spur and loose bridle, ’tis ever Ivo’s way!”
Now when the Duke and his esquires were vanished in the dusk and the sound of their galloping died away, the Duchess sprang lightly to the sward and bidding them wait until she summoned them, hasted on before.
Thus, in a while, as Winfrida the Fair paced slowly along upon her ambling palfrey, her blue eyes a-dream, she was suddenly aware of a rustling near by and, glancing swiftly up, beheld the Duchess Helen standing before her, tall and proud, her black brows wrinkled faintly, her eyes stern and challenging.
“Lady—dear my lady!” stammered Winfrida—“is it thou indeed—”
“Since when,” quoth the Duchess, soft-voiced yet menacing, “since when doth Winfrida hold sly meeting with one that is enemy to me and to Mortain?”
“Enemy?—nay, whom mean you—indeed I—O Helen, in sooth ’twas but by chance—”
“Is this treason, my lady Winfrida, or only foolish amourette?”
“Sweet lady—’twas but chance—an you mean Duke Ivo—he came—I saw—”
“My lady Winfrida, I pray you go before, we will speak of this anon. Come, Godric!” she called.
Then the lady Winfrida, her beauteous head a-droop, rode on before, sighing deep and oft yet nothing speaking, with the Duchess proud and stern beside her while Beltane and Godric followed after.
And so it was they came to the Manor of Blaen.
CONCERNING THE WILES OF WINFRIDA THE FAIR
Now in these days did my Beltane know more of joy and come more nigh to happiness than ever in his life before. All day, from morn till eve, the Duchess was beside him; each hour her changing moods won him to deeper love, each day her glowing beauty enthralled him the more, so that as his strength grew so grew his love for her.