“An I must fight, the which God forbid, yet once this my sword is drawn ne’er shall it rest till I lie dead or Black Ivo is no more.”
Then did the archer stare upon my Beltane in amaze with eyes full wide and mouth agape, nor spake he for awhile, then:
“Black Ivo—thou!” he cried, and laughed amain. “Go to, my tender youth,” said he, “methinks a lute were better fitted to thy hand than that great sword o’ thine.” Now beholding Beltane’s gloomy face, he smiled within his hand, yet eyed him thoughtfully thereafter, and so they went with never a word betwixt them. But, in a while, the archer fell to snuffing the air, and clapped Beltane upon the shoulder.
“Aha!” quoth he, “methinks we reach the fair Duchy of Pentavalon; smell ye aught, brother?” And now, indeed, Beltane became aware of a cold wind, foul and noisome, a deadly, clammy air breathing of things corrupt, chilling the flesh with swift unthinking dread; and, halting in disgust, he looked about him left and right.
“Above—above!” cried Giles o’ the Bow, “this is Sir Pertolepe’s country—look you heavenward, Sir Innocence!”
Then, lifting his eyes to the shivering leaves overhead, Beltane of a sudden espied a naked foot—a down-curving, claw-like thing, shrivelled and hideous, and, glancing higher yet, beheld a sight to blast the sun from heaven: now staring up at the contorted horror of this shrivelled thing that once had lived and laughed, Beltane let fall his staff and, being suddenly sick and faint, sank upon his knees and, covering his eyes, crouched there in the grass the while that grisly, silent thing swayed to and fro above him in the gentle wind of morning and the cord whereby it hung creaked faintly.
“How now—how now!” cried Giles; “do ye blench before this churlish carrion? Aha! ye shall see the trees bear many such hereabouts. Get up, my qualmish, maid-like youth; he ne’er shall injure thee nor any man again—save by the nose—faugh! Rise, rise and let us be gone.”
So, presently Beltane, shivering, got him to his feet and looking up, pale-faced, beheld upon the ragged breast a parchment with this legend in fair, good writing:
Then spake Beltane ’twixt pallid lips:
“And do they hang men for killing deer in this country?”
“Aye, forsooth, and very properly, for, heed me, your ragged rogues be a plenty, but a stag is a noble creature and something scarcer— moreover they be the Duke’s.”
“By whose order was this done?”
“Why, the parchment beareth the badge of Sir Pertolepe, called the Red. But look you, Sir Innocent, no man may kill a deer unless he be of gentle blood.”
“’Tis so the law!”
“And who made the law?”
“Why—as to that,” quoth Giles, rubbing his chin, “as to that—what matters it to you or me? Pah! come away lest I stifle!”