“Alas! that one so fair should be a thing so evil!” But, above the whispers of the trees, loud and insistent rose the merry chatter of the brook speaking to him of many things; of life, and the lust of life; the pomp and stir of cities; the sound of song and laughter; of women and the beauty of women, and of the sweet, mad wonder of love. Of all these things the brook sang in the darkness, and Beltane sighed, and sighing, fell asleep.
Thus lived my Beltane in the woodland, ranging the forest with eye quick to see the beauty of earth and sky, and ear open to the thousand voices around him; or, busied at his anvil, hearkening to the wondrous tales of travel and strange adventure told by wandering knight and man-at-arms the while, with skilful hand, he mended broken mail or dented casque; and thereafter, upon the mossy sward, would make trial of their strength and valour, whereby he both took and gave right lusty knocks; or again, when work failed, he would lie upon the grass, chin on fist, poring over some ancient legend, or sit with brush and colours, illuminating on vellum, wherein right cunning was he. Now it chanced that as he sat thus, brush in hand, upon a certain fair afternoon, he suddenly espied one who stood watching him from the shade of a tree, near by. A very tall man he was, long and lean and grim of aspect, with a mouth wry-twisted by reason of an ancient sword-cut, and yet, withal, he had a jovial eye. But now, seeing himself observed, he shook his grizzled head and sighed. Whereat said Beltane, busied with his brush again:
“Good sir, pray what’s amiss?”
“The world, youth, the world—’tis all amiss. Yet mark me! here sit you a-dabbing colour with a little brush!”
Answered Beltane: “An so ye seek to do your duty as regardfully as I now daub this colour, messire, in so much shall the world be bettered.”
“My duty, youth,” quoth the stranger, rasping a hand across his grizzled chin, “my duty? Ha, ’tis well said, so needs must I now fight with thee.”
“Fight with me!” says Beltane, his keen gaze upon the speaker.
“Aye, verily!” nodded the stranger, and, forthwith, laying by his long cloak, he showed two swords whose broad blades glittered, red and evil, in the sunset.
“But,” says Beltane, shaking his head, “I have no quarrel with thee, good fellow.”
“Quarrel?” exclaimed the stranger, “no quarrel, quotha? What matter for that? Surely you would not forego a good bout for so small a matter? Doth a man eat only when famishing, or drink but to quench his thirst? Out upon thee, messire smith!”
“But sir,” said Beltane, bending to his brush again, “an I should fight with thee, where would be the reason?”
“Nowhere, youth, since fighting is ever at odds with reason; yet for such unreasonable reasons do reasoning men fight.”
“None the less, I will not fight thee,” answered Beltane, deftly touching in the wing of an archangel, “so let there be an end on’t.”