HOW THEY SMOTE GARTHLAXTON
It was in the cold, still hour ’twixt night and dawn that Beltane halted his wild company upon the edge of the forest where ran a water-brook gurgling softly in the dark; here did he set divers eager fellows to fell a tree and thereafter to lop away branch and twig, and so, bidding them wait, stole forward alone. Soon before him rose Garthlaxton, frowning blacker than the night, a gloom of tower and turret, of massy wall and battlement, its mighty keep rising stark and grim against a faint light of stars. Now as he stood to scan with purposeful eye donjon and bartizan, merlon and arrow-slit for gleam of light, for glint of mail or pike-head, he grew aware of a sound hard by, yet very faint and sweet, that came and went—a small and silvery chime he could by no means account for. So crept he near and nearer, quick-eyed and with ears on the stretch till he was stayed by the broad, sluggish waters of the moat; and thus, he presently espied something that moved in the gloom high above the great gateway, something that stirred, pendulous, in the cold-breathing air of coming dawn.
Now as he peered upward through the gloom, came the wind, colder, stronger than before—a chill and ghostly wind that flapped the heavy folds of his mantle, that sighed forlornly in the woods afar, and softly smote the misty, jingling thing above—swayed it—swung it out from the denser shadows of scowling battlement so that Beltane could see at last, and seeing—started back faint and sick, his flesh a-creep, his breath in check ’twixt pale and rigid lips. And beholding what manner of thing this was, he fell upon his knees with head bowed low yet spake no prayer, only his hands gripped fiercely upon his axe; while to and fro in the dark above, that awful shape turned and swung— its flaunting cock’s-comb dreadfully awry, its motley stained and rent —a wretched thing, twisted and torn, a thing of blasting horror.
And ever as it swung upon the air, it rang a chime upon its little, silver bells; a merry chime and mocking, that seemed to gibe at coming day.
Now in a while, looking upon that awful, dim-seen shape, Beltane spake low-voiced.
“O Beda!” he whispered, “O manly heart hid ’neath a Fool’s disguise! O Fool, that now art wiser than the wisest! Thy pains and sorrows have lifted thee to heaven, methinks, and freed now of thy foolish clay thou dost walk with angels and look within the face of God! But, by thine agonies endured, now do I swear this night to raise to thy poor Fool’s body a pyre fit for the flesh of kings!”