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The Well at the World's End by William Morris

Part 10 out of 11

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Thus then they bided some minutes of time, and then all gat
to horse again, and Ursula's face was cleared of the grief
of fear, and the colour had come back to her cheeks and lips.
But Ralph's face was stern and sorrowful to behold; howbeit, as they
rode away he spake in a loud and seeming cheerful voice:
"Still ever shorteneth more and more the way unto my Fathers' House:
and withal I am wishful to see if it be indeed true that the men
of the Burg have become mild and peaceful; and to know what hath
befallen those doughty champions of the Dry Tree; and if perchance
they have any will to hold us a tilting in courteous fashion."

Richard smiled on him, and said: "Thou holdest more then by the Dry
Tree than by the Burg; though while agone we deemed the Champions
worse men to meet in the wood than the Burgers."

"So it is," said Ralph; "but men are oft mis-said by them that know them
not thoroughly: and now, if it were a good wish, O Sage of Swevenham,
I were fain to fall in with the best of all those champions, a tall man
and a proper, who, meseems, had good-will toward me, I know not why."

Quoth the Sage: "If thou canst not see the end of this wish fulfilled,
no more can I. And yet, meseems something may follow it which is akin
to grief: be content with things so done, my son."

Now Ralph holds his peace, and they speed on their way,
Ursula riding close by Ralph's side, and caressing him with looks,
and by touch also when she might; and after a while he fell
to talking again, and ever in the same loud, cheerful voice.
Till at last, in about another hour, they came in sight of the stream
which ran down toward the Swelling Flood from that pool wherein
erst the Lady of Abundance had bathed her before the murder.
Hard looked Ralph on the stream, but howsoever his heart might
ache with the memory of that passed grief, like as the body aches
with the bruise of yesterday's blow, yet he changed countenance
but little, and in his voice was the same cheery sound.
But Ursula noted him, and how his eyes wandered, and how little
he heeded the words of the others, and she knew what ailed him,
for long ago he had told her all that tale, and so now her heart
was troubled, and she looked on him and was silent.

Thus, then, a little before sunset, they came on that steep cliff
with the cave therein, and the little green plain thereunder,
and the rocky bank going down sheer into the water of the stream.
Forsooth they came on it somewhat suddenly from out of the bushes
of the valley; and there indeed not only the Sage and Richard,
but Ursula also, were stayed by the sight as folk compelled;
for all three knew what had befallen there. But Ralph, though he looked
over his shoulder at it all, yet rode on steadily, and when he saw
that the others lingered, he waved his hand and cried out as he rode:
"On, friends, on! for the road shortens towards my Fathers' House."
Then were they ashamed, and shook their reins to hasten after him.

But in that very nick of time there came forth one from amidst the bushes
that edged the pool of the stream and strode dripping on to the shallow;
a man brown and hairy, and naked, save for a green wreath about his middle.
Tall he was above the stature of most men; awful of aspect, and his
eyes glittered from his dark brown face amidst of his shockhead
of the colour of rain-spoilt hay. He stood and looked while one might
count five, and then without a word or cry rushed up from the water,
straight on Ursula, who was riding first of the three lingerers,
and in the twinkling of an eye tore her from off her horse;
and she was in his grasp as the cushat in the claws of the kite.
Then he cast her to earth, and stood over her, shaking a great club,
but or ever he brought it down he turned his head over his shoulder
toward the cliff and the cave therein, and in that same moment first
one blade and then another flashed about him, and he fell crashing down
upon his back, smitten in the breast and the side by Richard and Ralph;
and the wounds were deep and deadly.

Ralph heeded him no more, but drew Ursula away from him,
and raised her up and laid her head upon his knee; and she had
not quite swooned away, and forsooth had taken but little hurt;
only she was dizzy with terror and the heaving up and casting down.

She looked up into Ralph's face, and smiled on him and said:
"What hath been done to me, and why did he do it?"

His eyes were still wild with fear and wrath, as he answered: "O Beloved,
Death and the foeman of old came forth from the cavern of the cliff.
What did they there, Lord God? and he caught thee to slay thee;
but him have I slain. Nevertheless, it is a terrible and evil place:
let us go hence."

"Yea," she said, "let us go speedily!" Then she stood up,
weak and tottering still, and Ralph arose and put his left
arm about her to stay her; and lo, there before them was
Richard kneeling over the wild-man, and the Sage was coming
back from the river with his headpiece full of water;
so Ralph cried out: "To horse, Richard, to horse!
Hast thou not done slaying the woodman?"

But therewith came a weak and hoarse voice from the earth,
and the wild-man spake. "Child of Upmeads, drive not on so hard:
it will not be long. For thou and Richard the Red
are naught lighthanded."

Ralph marvelled that the wild-man knew him and Richard,
but the wild-man spake again: "Hearken, thou lover,
thou young man!"

But therewith was the Sage come to him and kneeling beside him
with the water, and he drank thereof, while Ralph said to him:
"What is this woodman? and canst thou speak my Latin?
What art thou?"

Then the wild-man when he had drunk raised him up a little, and said:
"Young man, thou and Richard are deft leeches; ye have let me blood to
a purpose, and have brought back to me my wits, which were wandering wide.
Yet am I indeed where my fool's brains told me I was."

Then he lay back again, and turned his head as well as he could toward
the cavern in the cliff. But Ralph deemed he had heard his voice before,
and his heart was softened toward him, he knew not why; but he said:
"Yea, but wherefore didst thou fall upon the Lady?" The wild-man strove
with his weakness, and said angrily: "What did another woman there?"
Then he said in a calmer but weaker voice: "Nay, my wits shall wander no more
from me; we will make the journey together, I and my wits. But 0, young man,
this I will say if I can. Thou fleddest from her and forgattest her.
I came to her and forgat all but her; yea, my very life I forgat."

Again he spoke, and his voice was weaker yet: "Kneel down by me,
or I may not tell thee what I would; my voice dieth before me."

Then Ralph knelt down by him, for he began to have a deeming of what he was,
and he put his face close to the dying man's, and said to him; "I am here,
what wouldst thou?"

Said the wild-man very feebly: "I did not much for thee time was;
how might I, when I loved her so sorely? But I did a little.
Believe it, and do so much for me that I may lie by her side
when I am dead, who never lay by her living. For into the cave
I durst go never."

Then Ralph knew him, that he was the tall champion whom he had
met first at the churchyard gate of Netherton; so he said:
"I know thee now, and I will promise to do thy will herein.
I am sorry that I have slain thee; forgive it me."

A mocking smile came into the dying man's eyes, and he spake whispering:
"Richard it was; not thou."

The smile spread over his face, he strove to turn more toward Ralph,
and said in a very faint whisper: "The last time!"

No more he said, but gave up the ghost presently. The Sage rose
up from his side and said: "Ye may now bury this man as he craved
of thee, for he is dead. Thus hath thy wish been accomplished;
for this was the great champion and duke of the men of the Dry Tree.
Indeed it is a pity of him that he is dead, for as terrible as he was
to his foes, he was no ill man."

Spake Richard: "Now is the riddle areded of the wild-man and the mighty
giant that haunted these passes. We have played together or now,
in days long past, he and I; and ever he came to his above.
He was a wise man and a prudent that he should have become a wild-man.
It is great pity of him."

But Ralph took his knight's cloak of red scarlet, and they lapped
the wild-man therein, who had once been a champion beworshipped.
But first Ursula sheared his hair and his beard, till the face
of him came back again, grave, and somewhat mocking, as Ralph
remembered it, time was. Then they bore him in the four corners
across the stream, and up on to the lawn before the cliff;
and Richard and the Sage bore him into the cave, and laid him down
there beside the howe which Ralph had erewhile heaped over the Lady;
and now over him also they heaped stones.

Meanwhile Ursula knelt at the mouth of the cave and wept;
but Ralph turned him about and stood on the edge of the bank,
and looked over the ripple of the stream on to the valley,
where the moon was now beginning to cast shadows,
till those two came out of the cave for the last time.
Then Ralph turned to Ursula and raised her up and kissed her,
and they went down all of them from that place of death
and ill-hap, and gat to horse on the other side of the stream,
and rode three miles further on by the glimmer of the moon,
and lay down to rest amongst the bushes of the waste,
with few words spoken between them.

CHAPTER 16

They Come to the Castle of Abundance Once More

When they rode on next morning Ralph was few-spoken, and seemed
to heed little so long as they made good speed on the way:
most of the talk was betwixt Richard and the Sage, Ralph but putting
in a word when it would have seemed churlish to forbear.

So they went their ways through the wood till by then the sun
was well westering they came out at the Water of the Oak,
and Richard drew rein there, and spake: "Here is a fair place
for a summer night's lodging, and I would warrant both good knight
and fair lady have lain here aforetime, and wished the dark longer:
shall we not rest here?"

Ralph stared at him astonished, and then anger grew in his face
for a little, because, forsooth, as Richard and the Sage both wotted
of the place of the slaying of the Lady, and he himself had every
yard of the way in his mind as they went, it seemed but due
that they should have known of this place also, what betid there:
but it was not so, and the place was to Richard like any other lawn
of the woodland.

But thought came back to Ralph in a moment, and he smiled
at his own folly, howbeit he could not do to lie another night
on that lawn with other folk than erst. So he said quietly:
"Nay, friend, were we not better to make the most of this daylight?
Seest thou it wants yet an hour of sunset?"

Richard nodded a yeasay, and the Sage said no word more; but Ursula cast
her anxious look on Ralph as though she understood what was moving in him;
and therewith those others rode away lightly, but Ralph turned slowly
from the oak-tree, and might not forbear looking on to the short
sward round about, as if he hoped to see some token left behind.
Then he lifted up his face as one awaking, shook his rein, and rode
after the others down the long water.

So they turned from the water anon, and rode the woodland ways,
and lay that night by a stream that ran west.

They arose betimes on the morrow, and whereas the Sage knew the woodland
ways well, they made but a short journey of it to the Castle of Abundance,
and came into the little plain but two hours after noon, where saving
that the scythe had not yet wended the tall mowing grass in the crofts
which the beasts and sheep were not pasturing, all was as on that other tide.
The folk were at work in their gardens, or herding their cattle in the meads,
and as aforetime they were merry of countenance and well-clad, fair and gentle
to look on.

There were their pleasant cots, and the little white church,
and the fair walls of the castle on its low mound, and the day
bright and sunny, all as aforetime, and Ralph looked on it all,
and made no countenance of being moved beyond his wont.

So they came out of the wood, and rode to the ford of the river,
and the carles and queans came streaming from their garths and meads
to meet them, and stood round wondering at them; but an old carle came
from out the throng and went up to Ralph, and hailed him, and said:
"Oh, Knight! and hast thou come back to us? and has thou brought us
tidings of our Lady? Who is this fair woman that rideth with thee?
Is it she?"

Spake Ralph: "Nay; go look on her closely, and tell me thy
deeming of her."

So the carle went up to Ursula, and peered closely into her face,
and took her hand and looked on it, and knelt down and took her foot
out of the stirrup, and kissed it, and then came back to Ralph,
and said: "Fair Sir, I wot not but it may be her sister;
for yonder old wise man I have seen here erst with our heavenly Lady.
But though this fair woman may be her sister, it is not she.
So tell me what is become of her, for it is long since we have seen her;
and what thou tellest us, that same shall we trow, even as if thou
wert her angel. For I spake with thee, it is nigh two years agone,
when thou wert abiding the coming of our Lady in the castle yonder
But now I see of thee that thou art brighter-faced, and mightier
of aspect than aforetime, and it is in my mind that the Lady
of Abundance must have loved thee and holpen thee, and blessed thee
with some great blessing."

Said Ralph: "Old man, canst thou feel sorrow, and canst thou bear it?"
The carle shook his head. "I wot not," said he, "I fear thy words."
Said Ralph: "It were naught to say less than the truth; and this
is the very truth, that thou shalt never see thy Lady any more.
I was the last living man that ever saw her alive."

Then he spake in a loud voice and said: "Lament, ye people! for the Lady
of Abundance is dead; yet sure I am that she sendeth this message to you,
Live in peace, and love ye the works of the earth."

But when they heard him, the old man covered up his face with the folds
of his gown, and all that folk brake forth into weeping, and crying out:
"Woe for us! the Lady of Abundance is dead!" and some of the younger men
cast themselves down on to the earth, and wallowed, weeping and wailing:
and there was no man there that seemed as if he knew which way to turn,
or what to do; and their faces were foolish with sorrow. Yet forsooth it
was rather the carles than the queans who made all this lamentation.

At last the old man spake: "Fair sir, ye have brought us heavy tidings,
and we know not how to ask you to tell us more of the tale.
Yet if thou might'st but tell us how the Lady died?
Woe's me for the word!"

Said Ralph: "She was slain with the sword."

The old man drew himself up stiff and stark, the eyes of him
glittered under his white hair, and wrath changed his face,
and the other men-folk thronged them to hearken what more
should be said.

But the elder spake again: "Tell me who it was that slew her,
for surely shall I slay him, or die in the pain else."

Said Ralph: "Be content, thou mayst not slay him; he was a great
and mighty man, a baron who bore a golden sun on a blue field.
Thou mayst not slay him." "Yea," said the old man, "but I will,
or he me."

"Live in peace," said Ralph, "for I slew him then and there."

The old man held his peace a while, and then he said:
"I know the man, for he hath been here aforetime, and not so long ago.
But if he be dead, he hath a brother yet, an exceeding mighty man:
he will be coming here to vex us and minish us."

Said Ralph: "He will not stir from where he lies till Earth's
bones be broken, for my sword lay in his body yesterday."

The old man stood silent again, and the other carles
thronged him; but the woman stood aloof staring on Ralph.
Then the elder came up to Ralph and knelt before him
and kissed his feet; then he turned and called to him three
of the others who were of the stoutest and most stalwarth,
and he spake with them awhile, and then he came to Ralph again,
and again knelt before him and said: "Lord, ye have come to us,
and found us void of comfort, since we have lost our Lady.
But we see in thee, that she hath loved thee and blessed thee,
and thou hast slain her slayer and his kindred.
And we see of thee also that thou art a good lord.
O the comfort to us, therefore, if thou wouldest be our Lord!
We will serve thee truly so far as we may: yea, even if
thou be beset by foes, we will take bow and bill from
the wall, and stand round about thee and fight for thee.
Only thou must not ask us to go hence from this place:
for we know naught but the Plain of Abundance, and the edges
of the wood, and the Brethren of the House of the Thorn,
who are not far hence. Now we pray thee by thy fathers
not to naysay us, so sore as thou hast made our hearts.
Also we see about thy neck the same-like pair of beads
which our Lady was wont to bear, and we deem that ye were
in one tale together."

Then was Ralph silent awhile, but the Sage spake to the elder:
"Old man, how great is the loss of the Lady to you?"
"Heavy loss, wise old man," said the carle, "as thou thyself
mayst know, having known her."

"And what did she for you?" said the Sage. Said the elder:
"We know that she was gracious to us; never did she lay tax
or tale on us, and whiles she would give us of her store,
and that often, and abundantly. We deem also that every
time when she came to us our increase became more plenteous,
which is well seen by this, that since she hath ceased to come,
the seasons have been niggard unto us."

The Sage smiled somewhat, and the old man went on:
"But chiefly the blessing was to see her when she came to us:
for verily it seemed that where she set her feet the grass grew greener,
and that the flowers blossomed fairer where the shadow of her body fell."
And therewith the old man fell a-weeping again.

The Sage held his peace, and Ralph still kept silence; and now of these men
all the younger ones had their eyes upon Ursula.

After a while Ralph spake and said: "O elder, and ye folk of the People
of Abundance, true it is that your Lady who is dead loved me,
and it is through her that I am become a Friend of the Well.
Now meseemeth though ye have lost your Lady, whom ye so loved
and worshipped, God wot not without cause, yet I wot not why ye
now cry out for a master, since ye dwell here in peace and quiet
and all wealth, and the Fathers of the Thorn are here to do good
to you. Yet, if ye will it in sooth, I will be called your Lord,
in memory of your Lady whom ye shall not see again. And as time
wears I will come and look on you and hearken to your needs:
and if ye come to fear that any should fall upon you with the strong hand,
then send ye a message to me, Ralph of Upmeads, down by the water,
and I will come to you with such following as need be.
And as for service, this only I lay upon you, that ye look
to the Castle and keep it in good order, and ward it against
thieves and runagates, and give guesting therein to any wandering
knight or pilgrim, or honest goodman, who shall come to you.
Now is all said, my masters, and I pray you let us depart in peace;
for time presses."

Then all they (and this time women as well as men) cried out joyfully:
"Hail to our lord! and long life to our helper." And the women withal drew
nearer to him, and some came close up to him, as if they would touch him
or kiss his hand, but by seeming durst not, but stood blushing before him,
and he looked on them, smiling kindly.

But the old man laid his hand on his knee and said:
"Lord, wouldst thou not light down and enter thy Castle;
for none hath more right there now than thou.
The Prior of the Thorn hath told us that there is no lineage
of the Lady left to claim it; and none other might ever have
claimed it save the Baron of Sunway, whom thou hast slain.
And else would we have slain him, since he slew our Lady."

Ralph shook his head and said: "Nay, old friend, and new vassal,
this we may not do: we must on speedily, for belike there is work
for us to do nearer home."

"Yea, Lord," said the carle, "but at least light down and sit
for a while under this fair oak-tree in the heat of the day,
and eat a morsel with us, and drink a cup, that thy luck may
abide with us when thou art gone."

Ralph would not naysay him; so he and all of them got off
their horses, and sat down on the green grass under the oak:
and that people gathered about and sat down by them, save that a
many of the women went to their houses to fetch out the victual.
Meanwhile the carles fell to speech freely with the wayfarers,
and told them much concerning their little land, were it hearsay,
or stark sooth: such as tales of the wights that dwelt in
the wood, wodehouses, and elf-women, and dwarfs, and such like,
and how fearful it were to deal with such creatures.
Amongst other matters they told how a hermit, a holy man,
had come to dwell in the wood, in a clearing but a little way thence
toward the north-west. But when Ralph asked if he dwelt on the way
to the ford of the Swelling Flood, they knew not what he meant;
for the wood was to them as a wall.

Hereon the Sage held one of the younger men in talk, and taught
him what he might of the way to the Burg of the Four Friths,
so that they might verily send a messenger to Upmeads if need were.
But the country youth said there was no need to think thereof,
as no man of theirs would dare the journey through the wood,
and that if they had need of a messenger, one of the Fathers
of the Thorn would do their errand, whereas they were holy men,
and knew the face of the world full well.

Now in this while the folk seemed to have gotten their courage again,
and to be cheery, and to have lost their grief for the Lady:
and of the maidens left about the oak were more than two or three very fair,
who stood gazing at Ralph as if they were exceeding fain of him.

But amidst these things came back the women with the victual;
to wit bread in baskets, and cheeses both fresh and old,
and honey, and wood-strawberries, and eggs cooked diversely,
and skewers of white wood with gobbets of roasted lamb's flesh,
and salad good plenty. All these they bore first to Ralph and Ursula,
and their two fellows, and then dealt them to their own folk:
and they feasted and were merry in despite of that tale of evil tidings.
They brought also bowls and pitchers of wine that was good and strong,
and cider of their orchards, and called many a health to the new
Lord and his kindred.

Thus then they abode a-feasting till the sun was westering
and the shadows waxed about them, and then at last Ralph rose
up and called to horse, and the other wayfarers arose also,
and the horses were led up to them. Then the maidens, made bold
by the joy of the feast, and being stirred to the heart by much
beholding of this beloved Lord, cast off their shamefacedness
and crowded about him, and kissed his raiment and his hands:
some even, though trembling, and more for love than fear,
prayed him for kisses, and he, nothing loath, laughed merrily
and laid his hands on their shoulders or took them by the chins,
and set his lips to the sweetness of their cheeks and their lips,
of those that asked and those that refrained; so that their hearts
failed them for love of him, and when he was gone, they knew not how
to go back to their houses, or the places that were familiar to them.
Therewith he and his got into their saddles and rode away slowly,
because of the thronging about them of that folk, who followed
them to the edge of the wood, and even entered a little thereinto;
and then stood gazing on Ralph and his fellows after they had
spurred on and were riding down a glade of the woodland.

CHAPTER 17

They Fall in With That Hermit

So much had they tarried over this greeting and feasting,
that though they had hoped to have come to the hermit's house
that night, he of whom that folk had told them, it fell not so,
whereas the day had aged so much ere they left the Plain
of Abundance that it began to dusk before they had gone far,
and they must needs stay and await the dawn there; so they dight
their lodging as well as they might, and lay down and slept
under the thick boughs.

Ralph woke about sunrise, and looking up saw a man standing over him,
and deemed at first that it would be Richard or the Sage; but as his
vision cleared, he saw that it was neither of them, but a new comer;
a stout carle clad in russet, with a great staff in his hand and a
short-sword girt to his side. Ralph sprang up, still not utterly awake,
and cried out, "Who art thou, carle?" The man laughed, and said:
"Yea, thou art still the same brisk lad, only filled out to something
more warrior-like than of old. But it is unmeet to forget old friends.
Why dost thou not hail me?"

"Because I know thee not, good fellow," said Ralph.
But even as he spoke, he looked into the man's face again,
and cried out: "By St. Nicholas! but it is Roger of the Ropewalk.
But look you, fellow, if I have somewhat filled out, thou, who wast
always black-muzzled, art now become as hairy as a wodehouse.
What dost thou in the wilds?" Said Roger: "Did they not tell
thee of a hermit new come to these shaws?" "Yea," said Ralph.
"I am that holy man," quoth Roger, grinning; "not that I am
so much of that, either. I have not come hither to pray or
fast overmuch, but to rest my soul and be out of the way of men.
For all things have changed since my Lady passed away."

He looked about, and saw Ursula just rising up from the ground and
the Sage stirring, while Richard yet hugged his bracken bed, snoring.
So he said: "And who be these, and why hast thou taken to the wildwood?
Yea lad, I see of thee, that thou hast gotten another Lady; and if mine
eyes do not fail me she is fair enough. But there be others as fair;
while the like to our Lady that was, there is none such."

He fell silent a while, and Ralph turned about to the others,
for by this time Richard also was awake, and said:
"This man is the hermit of whom we were told."

Roger said: "Yea, I am the hermit and the holy man;
and withal I have a thing to hear and a thing to tell.
Ye were best to come with me, all of you, to my house in the woods;
a poor one, forsooth, but there is somewhat of victual here,
and we can tell and hearken therein well sheltered and at peace.
So to horse, fair folk."

They would not be bidden twice, but mounted and went along with him,
who led them by a thicket path about a mile, till they came to a lawn
where-through ran a stream; and there was a little house in it,
simple enough, of one hall, built with rough tree-limbs and reed thatch.
He brought them in, and bade them sit on such stools or bundles
of stuff as were there. But withal he brought out victual nowise ill,
though it were but simple also, of venison of the wildwood,
with some little deal of cakes baked on the hearth, and he poured
for them also both milk and wine.

They were well content with the banquet, and when they were full, Roger said:
"Now, my Lord, like as oft befalleth minstrels, ye have had your wages before
your work. Fall to, then, and pay me the scot by telling me all that hath
befallen you since (woe worth the while!) my Lady died,--I must needs say,
for thy sake."

"'All' is a big word," said Ralph, "but I will tell thee somewhat.
Yet I bid thee take note that I and this ancient wise one, and my
Lady withal, deem that I am drawn by my kindred to come to their help,
and that time presses."

Roger scowled somewhat on Ursula; but he said: "Lord and master,
let not that fly trouble thy lip. For so I deem of it, that whatsoever
time ye may lose by falling in with me, ye may gain twice as much
again by hearkening my tale and the rede that shall go with it.
And I do thee to wit that the telling of thy tale shall unfreeze mine;
so tarry not, if ye be in haste to be gone, but let thy tongue wag."

Ralph smiled, and without more ado told him all that had befallen him;
and of Swevenham and Utterbol, and of his captivity and flight;
and of the meeting in the wood, and of the Sage (who there was),
and of the journey to the Well, and what betid there and since,
and of the death of the Champion of the Dry Tree.

But when he had made an end, Roger said: "There it is, then, as I
said when she first spake to me of thee and bade me bring about
that meeting with her, drawing thee first to the Burg and after
to the Castle of Abundance, I have forgotten mostly by what lies;
but I said to her that she had set her heart on a man over lucky,
and that thou wouldst take her luck from her and make it thine.
But now I will let all that pass, and will bid thee ask what thou wilt;
and I promise thee that I will help thee to come thy ways to thy kindred,
that thou mayst put forth thy luck in their behalf."

Said Ralph: "First of all, tell me what shall I do to pass
unhindered through the Burg of the Four Friths?" Said Roger:
"Thou shalt go in at one gate and out at the other, and none
shall hinder thee."

Said Ralph: "And shall I have any hindrance from them of the Dry Tree?"

Roger made as if he were swallowing down something, and answered:
"Nay, none."

"And the folk of Higham by the Way, and the Brethren and
their Abbot?" said Ralph.

"I know but little of them," quoth Roger, "but I deem
that they will make a push to have thee for captain;
because they have had war on their hands of late.
But this shall be at thine own will to say yea or nay to them.
But for the rest on this side of the shepherds' country ye
will pass by peaceful folk."

"Yea," said Ralph, "what then hath become of the pride and cruelty
of the Burg of the Four Friths, and the eagerness and fierceness
of the Dry Tree?"

Quoth Roger: "This is the tale of it: After the champions of the Dry
Tree had lost their queen and beloved, the Lady of Abundance,
they were both restless and fierce, for the days of sorrow hung
heavy on their hands. So on a time a great company of them had
ado with the Burgers somewhat recklessly and came to the worse;
wherefore some drew back into their fastness of the Scaur and
the others still rode on, and further west than their wont had been;
but warily when they had the Wood Perilous behind them, for they
had learned wisdom again. Thus riding they had tidings of an host
of the Burg of the Four Friths who were resting in a valley hard
by with a great train of captives and beasts and other spoil:
for they had been raising the fray against the Wheat-wearers,
and had slain many carles there, and were bringing home to the Burg
many young women and women-children, after their custom.
So they of the Dry Tree advised them of these tidings, and deemed
that it would ease the sorrow of their hearts for their Lady if they
could deal with these sons of whores and make a mark upon the Burg:
so they lay hid while the daylight lasted, and by night and cloud
fell upon these faineants of the Burg, and won them good cheap,
as was like to be, though the Burg-dwellers were many the more.
Whereof a many were slain, but many escaped and gat home to the Burg,
even as will lightly happen even in the worst of overthrows,
that not all, or even the more part be slain.

"Well, there were the champions and their prey, which was very great,
and especially of women, of whom the more part were young and fair:
for the women of the Wheat-wearers be goodly, and these had been picked
out by the rutters of the Burg for their youth and strength and beauty.
And whereas the men of the Dry Tree were scant of women at home,
and sore-hearted because of our Lady, they forbore not these women,
but fell to talking with them and loving them; howbeit in
courteous and manly fashion, so that the women deemed themselves
in heaven and were ready to do anything to please their lovers.
So the end of it was that the Champions sent messengers to Hampton
and the Castle of the Scaur to tell what had betid, and they themselves
took the road to the land of the Wheat-wearers, having those women
with them not as captives but as free damsels.

"Now the road to the Wheat-wearing country was long,
and on the way the damsels told their new men many things
of their land and their unhappy wars with them of the Burg
and the griefs and torments which they endured of them.
And this amongst other things, that wherever they came,
they slew all the males even to the sucking babe, but spared
the women, even when they bore them not into captivity.

"'Whereof,' said these poor damsels, 'it cometh that our land is ill-furnished
of carles, so that we women, high and low, go afield and do many things,
as crafts and the like, which in other lands are done by carles.'
In sooth it seemed of them that they were both of stouter fashion,
and defter than women are wont to be. So the champions, part in jest,
part in earnest, bade them do on the armour of the slain Burgers,
and take their weapons, and fell to teaching them how to handle
staff and sword and bow; and the women took heart from the valiant
countenance of their new lovers, and deemed it all bitter earnest
enough, and learned their part speedily; and yet none too soon.
For when the fleers of the Burg came home the Porte lost no time,
but sent out another host to follow after the Champions and their spoil;
for they had learned that those men had not turned about to Hampton
after their victory, but had gone on to the Wheat-wearers.

"So it befell that the host of the Burg came up with the Champions on
the eve of a summer day when there were yet three hours of daylight.
But whereas they had looked to have an easy bargain of their foemen,
since they knew the Champions to be but a few, lo! there was the hillside
covered with a goodly array of spears and glaives and shining helms.
They marvelled; but now for very shame, and because they scarce could
help it, they fell on, and before sunset were scattered to the winds again,
and the fleers had to bear back the tale that the more part of their foes
were women of the Wheat-wearers; but this time few were those that came
back alive to the Burg of the Four Friths; for the freed captives were
hot and eager in the chase, casting aside their shields and hauberks
that they might speed the better, and valuing their lives at naught
if they might but slay a man or two of the tyrants before they died.

"Thus was the Burg wounded with its own sword: but the matter
stopped not there: for when that victorious host of men and women
came into the land of the Wheat-wearers, all men fled away in terror
at first, thinking that it was a new onset of the men of the Burg;
and that all the more, as so many of them bore their weapons and armour.
But when they found out how matters had gone, then, as ye may deem,
was the greatest joy and exultation, and carles and queans
both ran to arms and bade their deliverers learn them all that
belonged to war, and said that one thing should not be lacking,
to wit, the gift of their bodies, that should either lie dead
in the fields, or bear about henceforth the souls of free men.
Nothing lothe, the Champions became their doctors and teachers
of battle, and a great host was drawn together; and meanwhile
the Champions had sent messengers again to Hampton telling them
what was befallen, and asking for more men if they might be had.
But the Burg-abiders were not like to sit down under their foil.
Another host they sent against the Wheat-wearers, not so huge,
as well arrayed and wise in war. The Champions espied its goings,
and knew well that they had to deal with the best men of the Burg,
and they met them in like wise; for they chose the very best of the men
and the women, and pitched on a place whence they might ward them well,
and abode the foemen there; who failed not to come upon them,
stout and stern and cold, and well-learned in all feats of war.

"Long and bitter was the battle, and the Burgers were fierce without
head-strong folly, and the Wheat-wearers deemed that if they
blenched now, they had something worse than death to look to.
But in the end when both sides were grown weary and worn out,
and yet neither would flee, on a sudden came into the field
the help from the Dry Tree, a valiant company of riders to whom
battle was but game and play. Then indeed the men of the Burg
gave back and drew out of the battle as best they might:
yet were they little chased, save by the new-comers of the Dry Tree,
for the others were over weary, and moreover the leaders had no
mind to let the new-made warriors leave their vantage-ground
lest the old and tried men-at-arms of the Burg should turn upon
them and put them to the worse.

"Men looked for battle again the next day; but it fell not out so;
for the host of the Burg saw that there was more to lose
than to gain, so they drew back towards their own place.
Neither did they waste the land much; for the riders of the Dry
Tree followed hard at heel, and cut off all who tarried,
or strayed from the main battle.

"When they were gone, then at last did the Wheat-wearers give themselves
up to the joy of their deliverance and the pleasure of their new lives:
and one of their old men that I have spoken with told me this;
that before when they were little better than the thralls of the Burg,
and durst scarce raise a hand against the foemen, the carles were but slow
to love, and the queans, for all their fairness, cold and but little kind.
However, now in the fields of the wheat-wearers themselves all this
was changed, and men and maids took to arraying themselves gaily
as occasion served, and there was singing and dancing on every green,
and straying of couples amongst the greenery of the summer night;
and in short the god of love was busy in the land, and made the eyes
seem bright, and the lips sweet, and the bosom fair, and the arms
sleek and the feet trim: so that every hour was full of allurement;
and ever the nigher that war and peril was, the more delight had man
and maid of each other's bodies.

"Well, within a while the Wheat-wearers were grown so full
of hope that they bade the men of the Dry Tree lead them
against the Burg of the Four Friths, and the Champions were
ready thereto; because they wotted well, that, Hampton being
disgarnished of men, the men of the Burg might fall on it;
and even if they took it not, they would beset all ways
and make riding a hard matter for their fellowship.
So they fell to, wisely and deliberately, and led an host
of the best of the carles with them, and bade the women keep
their land surely, so that their host was not a great many.
But so wisely they led them that they came before the Burg
well-nigh unawares; and though it seemed little likely that
they should take so strong a place, yet nought less befell.
For the Burg-dwellers beset with cruelty and bitter anger
cried out that now at last they would make an end of this
cursed people, and the whoreson strong-thieves their friends:
so they went out a-gates a great multitude, but in worser
order than their wont was; and there befell that marvel
which sometimes befalleth even to very valiant men,
that now at the pinch all their valour flowed from them,
and they fled before the spears had met, and in such evil
order that the gates could not be shut, and their foemen
entered with them slaying and slaying even as they would.
So that in an hour's space the pride and the estate of the Burg
of the Four Friths was utterly fallen. Huge was the slaughter;
for the Wheat-wearers deemed they had many a grief whereof
to avenge them; nor were the men of the Dry Tree either
sluggards or saints to be careless of their foemen, or to be
merciful in the battle: but at last the murder was stayed:
and then the men of the Wheat-wearers went from house to house
in the town to find the women of their folk who had been made
thralls by the Burgers. There then was many a joyful meeting
betwixt those poor women and the men of their kindred:
all was forgotten now of the days of their thralldom,
their toil and mocking and stripes; and within certain days
all the sort of them came before the host clad in green raiment,
and garlanded with flowers for the joy of their deliverance;
and great feast was made to them.

"As for them of the Burg, the battle and chase over, no more were slain,
save that certain of the great ones were made shorter by the head.
But the Champions and the Wheat-wearers both, said that none
of that bitter and cruel folk should abide any longer in the town;
so that after a delay long enough for them to provide stuff for
their wayfaring, they were all thrust out a-gates, rich and poor,
old and young, man, woman and child. Proudly and with a stout
countenance they went, for now was their valour come again to them.
And it is like that we shall hear of them oft again; for though
they had but a few weapons amongst them when they were driven
out of their old home, and neither hauberk nor shield nor helm,
yet so learned in war be they and so marvellous great of pride,
that they will somehow get them weapons; and even armed but
with headless staves, and cudgels of the thicket, woe betide
the peaceful folk whom they shall first fall on. Yea, fair sir,
the day shall come meseemeth when folk shall call on thee to lead
the hunt after these famished wolves, and when thou dost so,
call on me to tell thee tales of their doings which shall make
thine heart hard, and thine hand heavy against them."

"Meantime," said Ralph, "what has betid to the Fellowship of the Dry Tree?
for I see that thou hast some grief on thy mind because of them."

Roger kept silence a little and then he said: "I grieve
because Hampton is no more a strong place of warriors;
two or three carles and a dozen of women dwell now in the halls
and chambers of the Scaur. Here on earth, all endeth.
God send us to find the world without end!"

"What then," said Ralph, "have they then had another great overthrow,
worse than that other?" "Nay," said Roger doggedly, "it is not so."
"But where is the Fellowship?" said Ralph. "It is scattered abroad,"
quoth Roger. "For some of the Dry Tree had no heart to leave
the women whom they had wooed in the Wheat-wearer's land:
and some, and a great many, have taken their dears to dwell in
the Burg of the Four Friths, whereas a many of the Wheat-wearers
have gone to beget children on the old bondwomen of the Burgers;
of whom there were some two thousand alive after the Burg was taken;
besides that many women also came with the carles from their own land.

"So that now a mixed folk are dwelling in the Burg, partly of
those women-thralls, partly of carles and queans come newly from
the Wheat-wearers, partly of men of our Fellowship the more part
of whom are wedded to queans of the Wheat-wearers, and partly of men,
chapmen and craftsmen and others who have drifted into the town,
having heard that there is no lack of wealth there, and many
fair women unmated."

"Yea," said Ralph, "and is all this so ill?" Said Roger, "Meseems it
is ill enough that there is no longer, rightly said, a Fellowship of
the Dry Tree, though the men be alive who were once of that fellowship."
"Nay," said Ralph, "and why should they not make a new fellowship in the Burg,
whereas they may well be peaceful, since they have come to their above
of their foemen?"

"Yea," said Roger slowly, "that is sooth; and so is this,
that there in the Burg they are a strong band, with a captain
of their own, and much worshipped of the peaceful folk;
and moreover, though they be not cruel to torment helpless folk,
or hard to make an end of all joy to-day, lest they lose their
joy to-morrow, they now array all men in good order within
the Burg, so that it shall be no easier for a foeman to win
that erst it was."

"What, man!" said Ralph, "then be of better cheer, and come thou with us, and
may be the old steel of the champions may look on the sun down in Upmeads.
Come thou with me, I say, and show me and my luck to some of thy fellows who
are dwelling in the Burg, and it may be when thou hast told my tale to them,
that some of them shall be content to leave their beds cold for a while,
that they may come help a Friend of the Well in his need."

Roger sat silent as if he were pondering the matter, while Richard
and the Sage, both of them, took up the word one after the other,
and urged him to it.

At last he said: "Well, so be it for this adventure. Only I say
not that I shall give up this hermitage and my holiness for ever.
Come thou aside, wise man of Swevenham, and I shall tell thee wherefore."
"Yea," said Ralph, laughing, "and when he hath told thee, tell me not again;
for sure I am that he is right to go with us, and belike shall be wrong
in his reason therefore."

Roger looked a little askance at him, and he went without doors
with the Sage, and when they were out of earshot, he said to him:
"Hearken, I would have gone with my lord at the first word, and have
been fain thereof; but there is this woman that followeth him.
At every turn she shall mind me of our Lady that was; and I shall
loath her, and her fairness and the allurements of her body,
because I see of her, that she it is that hath gotten my Lady's luck,
and that but for her my Lady might yet have been alive."

Said the Sage: "Well quoth my lord that thou wouldst give me
a fool's reason! What! dost not thou know, thou that knowest so much
of the Lady of Abundance, that she it was who ordained this Ursula
to be Ralph's bedmate, when she herself should be gone from him,
were she dead or alive, and that she also should be a Friend
of the Well, so that he might not lack a fellow his life long?
But this thou sayest, not knowing the mind of our Lady, and how she
loved him in her inmost heart."

Roger hung his head and spake not for a while, and then he said:
"Well, wise man, I have said that I will go on this adventure,
and I will smooth my tongue for this while at least, and for what
may come hereafter, let it be. And now we were best get to horse;
for what with meat and minstrelsy, we have worn away the day till
it wants but a little of noon. Go tell thy lord that I am ready.
Farewell peace, and welcome war and grudging!"

So the Sage went within, and came out with the others,
and they mounted their horses anon, and Roger went ahead on foot,
and led them through the thicket-ways without fumbling; and they
lay down that night on the farther side of the Swelling Flood.

CHAPTER 18

A Change of Days in the Burg of the Four Friths

There is naught to tell of their ways till they came out of the thicket
into the fields about the Burg of the Four Friths; and even there was
a look of a bettering of men's lives; though forsooth the husbandmen
there were much the same as had abided in the fields aforetime,
whereas they were not for the most part freemen of the Burg, but aliens
who did service in war and otherwise thereto. But, it being eventide,
there were men and women and children, who had come out of gates,
walking about and disporting themselves in the loveliness of early summer,
and that in far merrier guise than they had durst do in the bygone days.
Moreover, there was scarce a sword or spear to be seen amongst them,
whereat Roger grudged somewhat, and Richard said: "Meseems this
folk trusts the peace of the Burg overmuch since, when all is told,
unpeace is not so far from their borders."

But as they drew a little nigher Ralph pointed out to his fellows
the gleam of helms and weapons on the walls, and they saw a watchman
on each of the high towers of the south gate; and then quoth Roger:
"Nay, the Burg will not be won so easily; and if a few fools get
themselves slain outside it is no great matter."

Folk nowise let them come up to the gate unheeded, but gathered
about them to look at the newcomers, but not so as to hinder them,
and they could see that these summerers were goodly folk enough,
and demeaned them as though they had but few troubles
weighing on them. But the wayfarers were not unchallenged
at the gate, for a stout man-at-arms stayed them and said:
"Ye ride somewhat late, friends. What are ye?" Quoth Ralph:
"We be peaceful wayfarers save to them that would fall on us,
and we seek toward Upmeads." "Yea?" said the man, "belike ye shall
find something less than peace betwixt here and Upmeads, for rumour
goes that there are alien riders come into the lands of Higham,
and for aught I know the said unpeace may spread further on.
Well if ye will go to the Flower de Luce and abide there this night,
ye shall have a let-pass to-morn betimes."

Then Ralph spake a word in Roger's ear, and Roger nodded his head,
and, throwing his cowl aback, went up to the man-at-arms and said:
"Stephen a-Hurst, hast thou time for a word with an old friend?"
"Yea, Roger," said the man "is it verily thou? I deemed that thou
hadst fled away from all of us to live in the wilds."

"So it was, lad," said Roger, "but times change from good to bad
and back again; and now am I of this good lord's company; and I shall
tell thee, Stephen, that though he rideth but few to-day, yet merry
shall he be that rideth with him to-morrow if unpeace be in the land.
Lo you, Stephen, this is the Child of Upmeads, whom belike thou hast
heard of; and if thou wilt take me into the chamber of thy tower,
I will tell thee things of him that thou wottest not."

Stephen turned to Ralph and made obeisance to him and said:
"Fair Sir, there are tales going about concerning thee, some whereof
are strange enow, but none of them ill; and I deem by the look
of thee that thou shalt be both a stark champion and a good lord;
and I deem that it shall be my good luck, if I see more of thee,
and much more. Now if thou wilt, pass on with thine other fellows
to the Flower de Luce, and leave this my old fellow-in-arms with me,
and he shall tell me of thy mind; for I see that thou wouldest
have somewhat of us; and since, I doubt not by the looks of thee,
that thou wilt not bid us aught unknightly, when we know thy will,
we shall try to pleasure thee."

"Yea, Lord Ralph," said Roger, "thou mayest leave all
the business with me, and I will come to thee not later than
betimes to-morrow, and let thee wot how matters have sped.
And methinks ye may hope to wend out-a-gates this time otherwise
than thou didest before."

So Ralph gave him yeasay and thanked the man-at-arms and rode
his ways with the others toward the Flower de Luce, and whereas
the sun was but newly set, Ralph noted that the booths were gayer
and the houses brighter and more fairly adorned than aforetimes.
As for the folk, they were such that the streets seemed full of
holiday makers, so joyous and well dight were they; and the women
like to those fair thralls whom he had seen that other time,
saving that they were not clad so wantonly, however gaily.
They came into the great square, and there they saw that the masons
and builders had begun on the master church to make it fairer
and bigger; the people were sporting there as in the streets,
and amongst them were some weaponed men, but the most part
of these bore the token of the Dry Tree.

So they entered the Flower de Luce, and had good welcome there, as if they
were come home to their own house; for when its people saw such a goodly
old man in the Sage, and so stout and trim a knight as was Richard,
and above all when they beheld the loveliness of Ralph and Ursula,
they praised them open-mouthed, and could scarce make enough of them.
And when they had had their meat and were rested came two of
the maids there and asked them if it were lawful to talk with them;
and Ralph laughed and bade them sit by them, and eat a dainty morsel;
and they took that blushing, for they were fair and young, and Ralph's
face and the merry words of his mouth stirred the hearts within them:
and forsooth it was not so much they that spake as Ursula and the Sage;
for Ralph was somewhat few spoken, whereas he pondered concerning
the coming days, and what he half deemed that he saw a-doing at Upmeads.
But at last they found their tongues, and said how that already
rumour was abroad that they were in the Burg who had drunk
of the Water of the Well at the World's End; and said one:
"It is indeed a fair sight to see you folk coming back in triumph;
and so methinks will many deem if ye abide with us over to-morrow,
and yet, Lady, for a while we are well-nigh as joyous as ye
can be, whereas we have but newly come into new life also:
some of us from very thralldom of the most grievous, and I am of those;
and some of us in daily peril of it, like to my sister here.
So mayhappen," said she, smiling, "none of us shall seek to the Well
until we have worn our present bliss a little threadbare."

Ursula smiled on her, but the Sage said: "Mayhappen it is of no avail
speaking of such things to a young and fair woman; but what would betide you
if the old Burgers were to come back and win their walls again?" The maid who
had been a thrall changed countenance at his word; but the other one said:
"If the Burgers come back, they will find them upon the walls who have
already chaced them. Thou mayst deem me slim and tender, old wise man;
but such as mine arm is, it has upheaved the edges against the foe; and if it
be a murder to slay a Burger, then am I worthy of the gallows." "Yea, yea,"
quoth Richard, laughing, "ye shall be double-manned then in this good town:
ye may well win, unless the sight of you shall make the foe over fierce
for the gain."

Said the Sage "It is well, maiden, and if ye hold to that, and keep
your carles in the same road, ye need not to fear the Burgers:
and to say sooth, I have it in my mind, that before long ye shall
have both war and victory."

Then Ralph seemed to wake up as from a dream, and he arose, and said:
"Thou art in the right, Sage, and to mine eyes it seemeth that
both thou and I shall be sharers in the war and the victory."
And therewith he fell to striding up and down the hall, while the two
maidens sat gazing on him with gleaming eyes and flushed cheeks.

But in a little while he came back to his seat and sat him down,
and fell to talk with the women, and asked them of the town
and the building therein, and the markets, whether they throve;
and they and two or three of the townsmen or merchants
answered all, and told him how fair their estate was,
and how thriving was the lot of one and all with them.
Therewith was Ralph well pleased, and they sat talking
there in good fellowship till the night was somewhat worn,
and all men fared to bed.

CHAPTER 19

Ralph Sees Hampton and the Scaur

When it was morning Ralph arose and went into the hall of the hostelry,
and even as he entered it the outside door opened, and in came Roger,
and Richard with him (for he had been astir very early) and Roger,
who was armed from head to foot and wore a coat of the Dry Tree, cried out:
"Now, Lord, thou wert best do on thy war-gear, for thou shalt presently be
captain of an host." "Yea, Roger," quoth Ralph, "and hast thou done well?"
"Well enough," said Richard; "thine host shall not be a great one, but no
man in it will be a blencher, for they be all champions of the Dry Tree."

"Yea," quoth Roger, "so it was that Stephen a-Hurst brought
me to a company of my old fellows, and we went all of us
together to the Captain of the Burg (e'en he of the Dry Tree,
who in these latest days is made captain of all), and did him
to wit that thou hadst a need; and whereas he, as all of us,
had heard of the strokes that thou struckest in the wood that day
when thy happiness first began, (woe worth the while!) he stickled
not to give some of us leave to look on the hand-play with thee.
But soft, my Lord! abound not in thanks as yet, till I tell thee.
The said Captain hath gotten somewhat of the mind of a chapman
by dwelling in a town, 'tis like (the saints forgive me
for saying so!) and would strike a bargain with thee."
"Yea," said Ralph, smiling, "I partly guess what like the bargain is;
but say thou."

Said Roger: "I like not his bargain, not for thy sake but mine own;
this it is, that we shall ride, all of us who are to be of thy fellowship,
to the Castle of the Scaur to-day, and there thy Lady shall sit in the throne
whereas in past days our Lady and Queen was wont to sit; and that thou shalt
swear upon her head, that whensoever he biddeth thee come to the help of the
Burg of the Four Friths and the tribes of the Wheat-wearers, thou shalt come
in arms by the straightest road with such fellowship as thou mayst gather;
and if thou wilt so do, we of the Dry Tree who go with thee on this
journey are thine to save or to spend by flood or field, or castle wall,
amidst the edges and the shafts and the fire-flaught. What sayest thou--
thou who art lucky, and hast of late become wise? And I will tell thee,
that though I hope it not, yet I would thou shouldst naysay it; for it
will be hard for me to see another woman sitting in our Lady's seat:
yea, to see her sitting there, who hath stolen her luck."

Said Ralph: "Now this proffer of the Captain's I call friendly
and knightly, and I will gladly swear as he will; all the more as without
any oath I should never fail him whensoever he may send for me.
As for thee, Roger, ride with us if thou wilt, and thou shalt be
welcome both in the company, and at the High House of Upmeads whenso
we come there."

Then was Roger silent, but nowise abashed; and as they spoke they
heard the tramp of horses and the clash of weapons, and they saw
through the open door three men-at-arms riding up to the house;
so Ralph went out to welcome them; they were armed full
well in bright armour, and their coats were of the Dry Tree,
and were tall men and warrior-like. They hailed Ralph as captain,
and he gave them the sele of the day and bade come in and drink a cup;
so did they, but they were scarce off their horses ere there came
another three, and then six together, and so one after other till
the hall of the Flower de Luce was full of the gleam of steel
and clash of armour, and the lads held their horses without
and were merry with the sight of the stalwart men-at-arms.
Now cometh Ursula down from her chamber clad in her bravery;
and when they saw her they set up a shout for joy of her,
so that the rafters rang again; but she laughed for pleasure
of them, and poured them out the wine, till they were merrier
with the sight of her than with the good liquor.

Now Roger comes to Ralph and tells him that he deems his host hath come
to the last man. Then Ralph armed him, and those two maidens brought him
his horse, and they mount all of them and draw up in the Square; and Roger
and Stephen a-Hurst array them, for they were chosen of them as leaders
along with Ralph, and Richard, whom they all knew, at least by hearsay.
Then Roger drew from his pouch a parchment, and read the roll of names,
and there was no man lacking, and they were threescore save five, besides
Roger and the way-farers, and never was a band of like number seen better;
and Richard said softly unto Ralph: "If we had a few more of these,
I should care little what foemen we should meet in Upmeads: soothly, my lord,
they had as well have ridden into red Hell as into our green fields."
"Fear not, Richard," said Ralph, "we shall have enough."

So then they rode out of the Square and through the streets
to the North Gate, and much folk was abroad to look on them,
and they blessed them as they went, both carles and queans;
for the rumour was toward that there was riding a good and dear
Lord and a Friend of the Well to get his own again from out
of the hands of the aliens.

Herewith they ride a little trot through the Freedom of the Burg,
and when they were clear of it they turned aside from the woodland
highway whereon Ralph had erst ridden with Roger and followed
the rides a good way till it was past noon, when they came into
a very close thicket where there was but a narrow and winding
way whereon two men might not ride abreast, and Roger said:
"Now, if we were the old Burgers, and the Dry Tree still holding
the Scaur, we should presently know what steel-point dinner meaneth;
if the dead could rise out of their graves to greet their foemen,
we should anon be a merry company here. But at last they learned
the trick, and were wont to fetch a compass round about Grey Goose
Thicket as it hight amongst us."

"Well," said Ralph, "but how if there by any waylaying us;
the Burgers may be wiser still than thou deemest, and ye may
have learned them more than thou art minded to think."

"Nay," said Roger, "I bade a half score turn aside by the thicket path
on our left hands; that shall make all sure; but indeed I look for no
lurkers as yet. In a month's time that may betide, but not yet; not yet.
But tell me, fair Sir, have ye any deeming of where thou mayst get thee
more folk who be not afraid of the hard hand-play? For Richard hath been
telling me that there be tidings in the air."

Said Ralph: "If hope play me not false, I look to gather some stout carles
of the Shepherd Country." "Yea," said Roger, "but I shall tell thee
that they have been at whiles unfriends of the Dry Tree." Said Ralph:
"I think they will be friends unto me." "Then it shall do well,"
said Roger, "for they be good in a fray."

So talked they as they rode, but ever Roger would give no heed to Ursula.
but made as if he wotted not that she was there, though ever and anon Ralph
would be turning back to speak to her and help her through the passes.

At last the thicket began to dwindle, and presently riding
out of a little valley or long trench on to a ridge nearly
bare of trees, they saw below them a fair green plain,
and in the midst of it a great heap of grey rocks rising
out of it like a reef out of the sea, and on the said reef,
and climbing up as it were to the topmost of it, the white walls
of a great castle, the crown whereof was a huge round tower.
At the foot of the ridge was a thorp of white houses thatched
with straw scattered over a good piece of the plain.
The company drew rein on the ridge-top, and the Champions
raised a great shout at the sight of their old strong-place;
and Roger turned to Ralph and said: "Fair Sir, how deemest
thou of the Castle of the Scaur?" but Richard broke in:
"For my part, friend Roger, I deem that ye do like to people
unlearned in war to leave the stronghold ungarnished of men.
This is a fool's deed." "Nay, nay," said Roger, "we need
not be over-hasty, while it is our chief business to order
the mingled folk of the Wheat-wearers and others who dwell
in the Burg as now."

Then spake Ralph: "Yet how wilt thou say but that the foemen whom we go
to meet in Upmeads may be some of those very Burgers: hast thou heard whether
they have found a new dwelling among some unhappy folk, or be still roving:
maybe they shall deem Upmeads fair."

Spake Michael a-Hurst: "By thy leave, fair Sir, we have had a word of those
riders and strong-thieves that they have fetched a far compass, and got
them armour, and be come into the woodland north of the Wood Debateable.
For like all strong-thieves, they love the wood."

Roger laughed: "Yea, as we did, friend Michael, when we were thieves;
whereas now we be lords and gentlemen. But as to thy tidings, I set
not much by them; for of the same message was this word that they had
already fallen on Higham by the Way; and we know that this cannot be true;
since though forsooth the Abbot has had unpeace on his hands, we know
where his foemen came from, the West to wit, and the Banded Barons."

"Yea, yea," quoth the Sage, "but may not the Burgers have taken
service with them?" "Yea, forsooth," quoth Roger, "but I deem not,
or we had been surer thereof."

Thus they spake, and they lighted down all of them to
breathe their horses, and Ursula spake with Ralph as they
walked the greensward together a little apart, and said:
"Sweetheart, I am afraid of to-day."

"Yea, dear," said he, "and wherefore?" She said:
"It will be hard for me to enter that grim house yonder,
and sit in the seat whence I was erewhile threatened by the evil
hag with hair like a grey she-bear."

He made much of her and said: "Yet belike a Friend of the Well may overcome
this also; and withal the hall shall be far other to-day when it was."

She looked about on the warriors as they lay on the grass
or loitered by their horses; then she smiled, and her face
lightened, and she reddened and cast down her eyes and said:
"Yea, that is sooth; that day there were few men in the hall,
and they old and evil of semblance. It was a band of women
who took me in the thorp and brought me up into the Castle,
and mishandled me there, and cast me into prison there;
whereas these be good fellows, and frank and free of aspect.
But 0, my heart, look thou how fearful the piled-up rocks
rise from the plain and the walls wind up amongst them;
and that huge tower, the crown of all! Surely there is none
more fearful in the world."

He kissed her and laughed merrily, and said: "Yea, sweetheart,
and there will be another change in the folk of the hall when we come
there this time, to wit, that thou shouldst not be alone therein,
even were all these champions, and Richard and the Sage away from thee.
Wilt thou tell me how that shall be?"

She turned to him and kissed him and caressed him, and then
they turned back again toward their fellows, for by now they
had walked together a good way along the ridge.

So then they gat to horse again and rode into the thorp, where men and women
stood about to behold them, and made them humble reverence as they passed by.
So rode they to the bailly of the Castle; and if that stronghold looked
terrible from the ridge above, tenfold more terrible of aspect it was
when the upper parts were hidden by the grey rocks, and they so huge
and beetling, and though the sun was bright about them, and they in the midst
of their friends, yet even Ralph felt somewhat of dread creep over him:
yet he smiled cheerfully as Ursula turned an anxious face on him.
They alighted from their horses in the bailly, for over steep for horse-hoofs
was the walled way upward; and as they began to mount, even the merry
Champions hushed their holiday clamour for awe of the huge stronghold,
and Ralph took Ursula by the hand, and she sidled up to him,
and said softly: "Yea, it was here they drave me up, those women,
thrusting and smiting me; and some would have stripped off my raiment,
but one who seemed the wisest, said, 'Nay, leave her till she come
before the ancient Lady, for her gear may be a token of whence she is,
and whither, if she be come as a spy.' So I escaped them for that moment.
And now I wonder what we shall find in the hall when we come in thither.
It is somewhat like to me, as when one gets up from bed in the dead night,
when all is quiet and the moon is shining, and goes out of the chamber
into the hall, and coming back, almost dreads to see some horror lying
in one's place amid the familiar bedclothes."

And she grew paler as she spake. Then Ralph comforted her and trimmed
his countenance to a look of mirth, but inwardly he was ill at ease.

So up they went and up, till they came to a level place whereon
was built the chief hall and its chambers: there they stood awhile
to breathe them before the door, which was rather low than great;
and Ursula clung to Ralph and trembled, but Ralph spake in her ear:
"Take heart, my sweet, or these men, and Roger in especial,
will think the worse of thee; and thou a Friend of the Well.
What! here is naught to hurt thee! this is naught beside the perils
of the desert, and the slaves and the evil lord of Utterbol."
"Yea," she said, "but meseemeth I loved thee not so sore as now I do.
O friend, I am become a weak woman and unvaliant, and there is
naught in me but love of thee, and love of life because of thee;
nor dost thou know altogether what befell me in that hall."

But Ralph turned about and cried out in a loud, cheerful voice:
"Let us enter, friends! and lo you, I will show the Champions
of the Dry Tree the way into their own hall and high place."
Therewith he thrust the door open, for it was not locked,
and strode into the hall, still leading Ursula by the hand,
and all the company followed him, the clash of their armour
resounding through the huge building. Though it was long, it was not
so much that it was long as that it was broad, and exceeding high,
so that in the dusk of it the great vault of the roof was dim
and misty. There was no man therein, no halling on its walls,
no benches nor boards, naught but the great standing table
of stone on the dais, and the stone high-seat amidst of it:
and the place did verily seem like the house and hall of a people
that had died out in one hour because of their evil deeds.

They stood still a moment when they were all fairly within doors, and Roger
thrust up to Ralph and said, but softly: "The woman is blenching, and all
for naught; were it not for the oath, we had best have left her in the thorp:
I fear me she will bring evil days on our old home with her shivering fear.
How far otherwise came our Lady in hither when first she came amongst us,
when the Duke of us found her in the wood after she had been
thrust out from Sunway by the Baron whom thou slewest afterward.
Our Duke brought her in hither wrapped up in his knight's scarlet cloak,
and went up with her on to the dais; but when she came thither, she turned
about and let her cloak fall to earth, and stood there barefoot in her smock,
as she had been cast out into the wildwood, and she spread abroad her hands,
and cried out in a loud voice as sweet as the May blackbird, 'May God bless
this House and the abode of the valiant, and the shelter of the hapless.'"

Said Ursula (and her voice was firm and the colour come back
to her cheeks now, while Ralph stood agaze and wondering): "Roger,
thou lovest me little, meseemeth, though if I did less than I do,
I should do against the will of thy Lady that was Queen in this hall.
But tell me, Roger, where is gone that other one, the fearful she-bear
of this crag, who sat in yonder stone high-seat, and roared at me
and mocked me, and gave me over into the hands of her tormentors,
who haled me away to the prison wherefrom thy very Lady delivered me?"

"Lady," said Roger, "the tale of her is short since the day thou sawest
her herein. On the day when we first had the evil tidings of the slaying
of my Lady we were sad at heart, and called to mind ancient transgressions
against us; therefore we fell on the she-bear, as thou callest her,
and her company of men and women, and some we slew and some we thrust forth;
but as to her, I slew her not three feet from where thou standest now.
A rumour there is that she walketh, and it may be so; yet in the summer
noon ye need not look to see her."

Ralph said coldly: "Roger, let us be done with minstrels' tales; lead me
to the place where the oath is to be sworn, for time presses."

Scarce were the words out of his mouth ere Roger strode forward and gat
him on to the dais and went hastily to the wall behind the high-seat,
whence he took down a very great horn, and set it to his lips and winded
it loudly thrice, so that the great and high hall was full of its echoes.
Richard started thereat and half drew his sword; but the Sage put his hand
upon the hilts, and said: "It is naught, let the edges lie quiet."
Ursula stared astonished, but now she quaked no more; Ralph changed not
countenance a wit, and the champions of the Tree made as if naught had been
done that they looked not for. But thereafter cried Roger from the dais:
"This is the token that the men of the Dry Tree are met for matters of import;
thus is the Mote hallowed. Come up hither, ye aliens, and ye also of
the fellowship, that the oath may be sworn, and we may go our ways,
even as the alien captain biddeth."

Then Ralph took Ursula's hand again, and went up the hall calmly
and proudly, and the champions followed with Richard and the Sage.
Ralph and Ursula went up on to the dais, and he set down Ursula
in the stone high-seat, and even in the halldusk a right fair-coloured
picture she looked therein; for she was clad in a goodly green
gown broidered with flowers, and a green cloak with gold orphreys
over it; her hair was spread abroad over her shoulders, and on
her head was a garland of roses which the women of the Flower
de Luce had given her; so there she sat with her fair face,
whence now all the wrinkles of trouble and fear were smoothed out,
looking like an image of the early summer-tide itself.
And the champions looked on her and marvelled, and one whispered
to the other that it was their Lady of aforetime come back again;
only Roger, who had now gone back to the rest of the fellowship,
cast his eyes upon the ground, and muttered.

Now Ralph draws his sword, and lays it naked on the stone table,
and he stood beside Ursula and said: "Champions of the Dry Tree,
by the blade of Upmeads which lieth here before me, and by the head
which I love best in the world, and is best worthy of love"
(and herewith he laid his hand on Ursula's head), "I swear
that whensoever the Captain of the Dry Tree calleth on me,
whether I be eating or drinking, abed or standing on my feet,
at peace or at war, glad or sorry, I shall do my utmost to come
to his aid straightway with whatso force I may gather.
Is this rightly sworn, Champions?"

Said Stephen a-Hurst: "It is sworn well and knightly,
and now cometh our oath."

"Nay," said Ralph, "I had no mind to drive a bargain with you;
your deeds shall prove you; and I fear not for your doughtiness."

Said Stephen: "Yea, Lord; but he bade us swear to thee.
Reach me thy sword, I pray thee."

Then Ralph reached him his sword across the great stone table,
and Stephen took it, and kissed the blade and the hilts;
and then lifted up his voice and said: "By the hilts and the blade,
by the point and the edge, we swear to follow the Lord Ralph
of Upmeads for a year and a day, and to do his will in all wise.
So help us God and Allhallows!"

And therewith he gave the sword to the others, and each man of them
kissed it as he had.

But Ralph said: "Champions, for this oath I thank you all heartily.
But it is not my meaning that I should hold you by me for a year,
whereas I deem I shall do all that my kindred may need in three days'
space from the first hour wherein we set foot in Upmeads."

Stephen smiled friendly at him and nodded, and said: "That may well be;
but now to make a good end of this mote I will tell thee a thing; to wit,
that our Captain, yea, and all we, are minded to try thee by this fray
in Upmeads, now we know that thou hast become a Friend of the Well.
And if thou turn out as we deem is likest, we will give thee this Castle
of the Scaur, for thee and those that shall spring from thy loins;
for we deem that some such man as thou will be the only one to hold
it worthily, and in such wise as it may be a stronghold against
tyrants and for the helping of peaceable folk; since forsooth,
we of the Dry Tree have heard somewhat of the Well at the World's End,
and trow in the might thereof."

He made an end; and Ralph kept silence and pondered the matter.
But Roger lifted up his head and broke in, and said: "Yea, yea! that is it:
we are all become men of peace, we riders of the Dry Tree!"
And he laughed withal, but as one nowise best pleased.

But as Ralph was gathering his words together, and Ursula
was looking up to him with trouble in her face again,
came a man of the thorp rushing into the hall, and cried out:
"O, my lords! there are weaponed men coming forth from the thicket.
Save us, we pray you, for we are ill-weaponed and men of peace."

Roger laughed, and said: "Eh, good man! So ye want us back again?
But my Lord Ralph, and thou Richard, and thou Stephen,
come ye to the shot-window here, that giveth on to the forest.
We are high up here, and we shall see all as clearly as in a good mirror.
Hast thou shut the gates, carle?" "Yea, Lord Roger," quoth he,
"and there are some fifty of us together down in the base-court."

Ralph and Richard and Stephen looked forth from the shot window,
and saw verily a band of men riding down the bent into the thorp,
and Ralph, who as aforesaid was far-sighted and clear-sighted, said:
"Yea, it is strange: but without doubt these are riders of the Dry Tree;
and they seem to me to be some ten-score. Thou Stephen, thou Roger,
what is to hand? Is your Captain wont to give a gift and take it
back...and somewhat more with it?" Stephen looked abashed at his word;
and Roger hung his head again.

But therewith the Sage drew up to them and said: "Be not dismayed,
Lord Ralph. What wert thou going to say to the Champions when this
carle brake in?"

"This," said Ralph, "that I thanked the Dry Tree heartily for its gift,
but that meseemed it naught wise to leave this stronghold disgarnished
of men till I can come or send back from Upmeads."

Stephen's face cleared at the word, and he said: "I bid thee
believe it, lord, that there is no treason in our Captain's heart;
and that if there were I would fight against him and his men
on thy behalf." And Roger, though in a somewhat surly voice,
said the like.

Ralph thought a little, and then he said: "It is well; go we down and out
of gates to meet them, that we may the sooner get on our way to Upmeads."
And without more words he went up to Ursula and took her hand and went
out of the hall, and down the rock-cut stair, and all they with him.
And when they came into the Base-court, Ralph spoke to the carles
of the thorp, who stood huddled together sore afeard, and said:
"Throw open the gates. These riders who have so scared you are naught else
than the Champions of the Dry Tree who are coming back to their stronghold
that they may keep you sure against wicked tyrants who would oppress you."

The carles looked askance at one another, but straightway opened
the gates, and Ralph and his company went forth, and abode the
new-comers on a little green mound half a bowshot from the Castle.
Ralph sat down on the grass and Ursula by him, and she said:
"My heart tells me that these Champions are no traitors, however rough
and fierce they have been, and still shall be if occasion serve.
But 0, sweetheart, how dear and sweet is this sunlit greensward after
yonder grim hold. Surely, sweet, it shall never be our dwelling?"

"I wot not, beloved," said he; "must we not go and dwell
where deeds shall lead us? and the hand of Weird is mighty.
But lo thou, here are the newcomers to hand!"

So it was as he said, and presently the whole band came before them,
and they were all of the Dry Tree, stout men and well weaponed, and they
had ridden exceeding fast, so that their horses were somewhat spent.
A tall man very gallantly armed, who rode at their head, leapt at
once from his horse and came up to Ralph and hailed him, and Roger
and Stephen both made obeisance to him. Ralph, who had risen up,
hailed him in his turn, and the tall man said: "I am the Captain of
the Dry Tree for lack of a better; art thou Ralph of Upmeads, fair sir?"
"Even so," said Ralph.

Said the Captain: "Thou wilt marvel that I have ridden
after thee on the spur; so here is the tale shortly.
Your backs were not turned on the walls of the Burg an hour,
ere three of my riders brought in to me a man who said,
and gave me tokens of his word being true, that he had fallen
in with a company of the old Burgers in the Wood Debateable,
which belike thou wottest of."

"All we of Upmeads wot of it," said Ralph. "Well," said the Captain,
"amongst these said Burgers, who were dwelling in the wildwood in summer
content, the word went free that they would gather to them other bands
of strong-thieves who haunt that wood, and go with them upon Upmeads,
and from Upmeads, when they were waxen strong, they would fall upon Higham by
the Way, and thence with yet more strength on their old dwelling of the Burg.
Now whereas I know that thou art of Upmeads, and also what thou art, and what
thou hast done, I have ridden after thee to tell thee what is toward.
But if thou deemest I have brought thee all these riders it is not wholly so.
For it was borne into my mind that our old stronghold was left bare of men,
and I knew not what might betide; and that the more, as more than one man
has told us how that another band of the disinherited Burgers have fallen
upon Higham or the lands thereof, and Higham is no great way hence;
so that some five score of these riders are to hold our Castle of the Scaur,
and the rest are for thee to ride afield with. As for the others, thou hast
been told already that the Scaur, and Hampton therewith is a gift from us
to thee; for henceforward we be the lords of the Burg of the Four Friths,
and that is more than enough for us."

Ralph thanked the Captain for this, and did him to wit that he would
take the gift if he came back out the Upmeads fray alive: said he,
"With thee and the Wheat-wearers in the Burg, and me in the Scaur,
no strong-thief shall dare lift up his hand in these parts."

The Captain smiled, and Ralph went on: "And now I must needs
ask thee for leave to depart; which is all the more needful,
whereas thy men have over-ridden their horses, and we must
needs go a soft pace till we come to Higham."

"Yea, art thou for Higham, fair sir?" said the Captain. "That is well;
for ye may get men therefrom, and at the least it is like that ye shall
hear tidings: as to my men and their horses, this hath been looked to.
For five hundred good men of the Wheat-wearers, men who have not learned
the feat of arms a-horseback, are coming through the woods hither to help
ward thy castle, fair lord; they will be here in some three hours'
space and will bring horses for thy five score men, therefore do ye but ride
softly to Higham and if these sergeants catch up with you it is well,
but if not, abide them at Higham."

"Thanks have thou for this once more," said Ralph; "and now I
have no more word than this for thee; that I will come to thee
at thy least word, and serve thee with all that I have,
to my very life if need be. And yet I must say this,
that I wot not why ye and these others are become to me,
who am alien to you, as very brothers." Said the Captain:
"There is this to be said of it, as was aforesaid, that all we
count thy winning of the Well at the World's End as valiancy
in thee, yea, and luck withal. But, moreover, she who was
Our Lady would have had thee for her friend had she lived,
and how then could we be less than friends to thee?
Depart in peace, my friend, and we look to see thee again
in a little while."

Therewith he kissed him, and bade farewell; and Ralph bade
his band to horse, and they were in the saddle in a twinkling,
and rode away from Hampton at a soft pace.

But as they went, Ralph turned to Ursula and said:
"And now belike shall we see Bourton Abbas once more,
and the house where first I saw thee. And O how sweet thou wert!
And I was so happy and so young."

"Yea," she said, "and sorely I longed for thee, and now we
have long been together, as it seemeth; and yet that long space
shall be but a little while of our lives. But, my friend,
as to Bourton Abbas, I misdoubt me of our seeing it;
for there is a nigher road by the by-ways to Higham,
which these men know, and doubtless that way we shall wend:
and I am glad thereof; for I shall tell thee, that somewhat I
fear that thorp, lest it should lay hold of me, and wake me
from a dream."

"Yea," said Ralph, "but even then, belike thou shouldst find me
beside thee; as if I had fallen asleep in the ale-house, and dreamed
of the Well at the World's End, and then awoke and seen the dear
barefoot maiden busying her about her house and its matters.
That were naught so ill."

"Ah," she said, "look round on thy men, and think of the might
of war that is in them, and think of the deeds to come.
But O how I would that these next few days were worn away,
and we yet alive for a long while."

CHAPTER 20

They Come to the Gate of Higham By the Way

It was as Ursula had deemed, and they made for Higham by the shortest road,
so that they came before the gate a little before sunset:
to the very gate they came not; for there were strong barriers before it,
and men-at-arms within them, as though they were looking for an onfall.
And amongst these were bowmen who bended their bows on Ralph and his company.
So Ralph stayed his men, and rode up to the barriers with Richard and Stephen
a-Hurst, all three of them bare-headed with their swords in the sheaths;
and Stephen moreover bearing a white cloth on a truncheon. Then a knight
of the town, very bravely armed, came forth from the barriers and went up
to Ralph, and said: "Fair sir, art thou a knight?" "Yea," said Ralph.
Said the knight, "Who be ye?" "I hight Ralph of Upmeads," said Ralph,
"and these be my men: and we pray thee for guesting in the town of my Lord
Abbot to-night, and leave to depart to-morrow betimes."

"O unhappy young man," said the knight, "meseems these men be not
so much thine as thou art theirs; for they are of the Dry Tree,
and bear their token openly. Wilt thou then lodge thy company
of strong-thieves with honest men?"

Stephen a-Hurst laughed roughly at this word, but Ralph said mildly:
"These men are indeed of the Dry Tree, but they are my men and under my rule,
and they be riding on my errands, which be lawful."

The knight was silent a while and then he said: "Well, it may be so;
but into this town they come not, for the tale of them is over long
for honest men to hearken to."

Even as he spake, a man-at-arms somewhat evilly armed shoved through
the barriers, thrusting aback certain of his fellows, and, coming up to Ralph,
stood staring up into his face with the tears starting into his eyes.
Ralph looked a moment, and then reached down his arms to embrace him,
and kissed his face; for lo! it was his own brother Hugh.
Withal he whispered in his ear: "Get thee behind us, Hugh, if thou
wilt come with us, lad." So Hugh passed on quietly toward the band,
while Ralph turned to the knight again, who said to him, "Who is that man?"
"He is mine own brother," said Ralph. "Be he the brother of whom he will,"
said the knight, "he was none the less our sworn man. Ye fools,"
said he, turning toward the men in the barrier, "why did ye not slay him?"
"He slipped out," said they, "before we wotted what he was about."
Said the knight, "Where were your bows, then?"

Said a man: "They were pressing so hard on the barrier,
that we could not draw a bowstring. Besides, how might we
shoot him without hitting thee, belike?"

The knight turned toward Ralph, grown wroth and surly,
and that the more he saw Stephen and Richard grinning; he said:
"Fair sir, ye have strengthened the old saw that saith, Tell me
what thy friends are, and I will tell thee what thou art.
Thou hast stolen our man with not a word on it."

"Fair sir," said Ralph, "meseemeth thou makest more words
than enough about it. Shall I buy my brother of thee, then?
I have a good few pieces in my pouch." The captain shook
his head angrily.

"Well," said Ralph, "how can I please thee, fair sir?"

Quoth the knight: "Thou canst please me best by turning thy horses'
heads away from Higham, all the sort of you." He stepped back
toward the barriers, and then came forward again, and said:
"Look you, man-at-arms, I warn thee that I trust thee not, and deem
that thou liest. Now have I mind to issue out and fall upon you:
for ye shall be evil guests in my Lord Abbot's lands."

Now at last Ralph waxed somewhat wroth, and he said:
"Come out then, if you will, and we shall meet you man for man;
there is yet light on this lily lea, and we will do so much
for thee, churl though thou be."

But as he spoke, came the sounds of horns, and lo, over the bent showed
the points of spears, and then all those five-score of the Dry Tree
whom the captain had sent after Ralph came pouring down the bent.
The knight looked on them under the sharp of his hand, till he saw
the Dry Tree on their coats also, and then he turned and gat him hastily
into the barriers; and when he was amongst his own men he fell to roaring
out a defiance to Ralph, and a bolt flew forth, and two or three shafts,
but hurt no one. Richard and Stephen drew their swords, but Ralph cried out:
"Come away, friends, tarry not to bicker with these fools, who are afraid
of they know not what: it is but lying under the naked heaven to-night
instead of under the rafters, but we have all lodged thus a many times:
and we shall be nigher to our journey's end to-morrow when we wake up."

Therewith he turned his horse with Richard and Stephen and came
to his own men. There was much laughter and jeering at the Abbot's
men amidst of the Dry Tree, both of those who had ridden with Ralph,
and the new-comers; but they arrayed them to ride further in good order,
and presently were skirting the walls of Higham out of bow-shot,
and making for the Down country by the clear of the moon.
The sergeants had gotten a horse for Hugh, and by Ralph's bidding
he rode beside him as they went their ways, and the two brethren
talked together lovingly.

CHAPTER 21

Talk Between Those Two Brethren

Ralph asked Hugh first if he wotted aught of Gregory their brother.
Hugh laughed and pointed to Higham, and said: "He is yonder."
"What," said Ralph, "in the Abbot's host?" "Yea," said Hugh,
laughing again, "but in his spiritual, not his worldly host:
he is turned monk, brother; that is, he is already a novice,
and will be a brother of the Abbey in six months' space." Said Ralph:
"And Launcelot Long-tongue, thy squire, how hath he sped?" Said Hugh:
"He is yonder also, but in the worldly host, not the spiritual:
he is a sergeant of theirs, and somewhat of a catch for them,
for he is no ill man-at-arms, as thou wottest, and besides he adorneth
everything with words, so that men hearken to him gladly."
"But tell me," said Ralph, "how it befalleth that the Abbot's men
of war be so churlish, and chary of the inside of their town;
what have they to fear? Is not the Lord Abbot still a mighty man?"
Hugh shook his head: "There hath been a change of days at Higham;
though I say not but that the knights are over careful,
and much over fearful." "What has the change been?" said Ralph.
Hugh said: "In time past my Lord Abbot was indeed a mighty man,
and both this town of Higham was well garnished of men-at-arms,
and also many of his manors had castles and strong-houses on them,
and the yeomen were ready to run to their weapons whenso the gathering
was blown. In short, Higham was as mighty as it was wealthy;
and the Abbot's men had naught to do with any, save with thy friends
here who bear the Tree Leafless; all else feared those holy walls
and the well-blessed men who warded them. But the Dry Tree feared,
as men said, neither man nor devil (and I hope it may be so still
since they are become thy friends), and they would whiles lift
in the Abbot's lands when they had no merrier business on hand,
and not seldom came to their above in their dealings with his men.
But all things come to an end; for, as I am told, some year and a
half ago, the Abbot had debate with the Westland Barons, who both
were and are ill men to deal with, being both hungry and doughty.
The quarrel grew till my Lord must needs defy them, and to make a long
tale short, he himself in worldly armour led his host against them,
and they met some twenty miles to the west in the field of the
Wry Bridge, and there was Holy Church overthrown; and the Abbot,
who is as valiant a man as ever sang mass, though not over-wise in war,
would not flee, and as none would slay him, might they help it,
they had to lead him away, and he sits to this day in their
strongest castle, the Red Mount west-away. Well, he being gone,
and many of his wisest warriors slain, the rest ran into gates again;
but when the Westlanders beset Higham and thought to have it good cheap,
the monks and their men warded it not so ill but that the Westlanders
broke their teeth over it. Forsooth, they turned away thence
and took most of the castles and strong-houses of the Abbot's lands;
burned some and put garrisons into others, and drave away a mighty
spoil of chattels and men and women, so that the lands of Higham
are half ruined; and thereby the monks, though they be stout enough
within their walls, will not suffer their men to ride abroad.
Whereby, being cooped up in a narrow place, and with no deeds to hand
to cheer their hearts withal, they are grown sour and churlish."

"But, brother," said Ralph, "howsoever churlish they may be,
and howso timorous, I cannot see why they should shut their gates
in our faces, a little band, when there is no foe anear them."

"Ralph," said Hugh, "thou must think of this once more, that the Dry
Tree is no good let-pass to flourish in honest men's faces;
specialiter if they be monks. Amongst the brothers of Higham
the tale goes that those Champions have made covenant with the devil
to come to their above whensoever they be not more than one to five.
Nay, moreover, it is said that there be very devils amongst them;
some in the likeness of carles, and some (God help us)
dressed up in women's flesh; and fair flesh also, meseemeth.
Also to-day they say in Higham that no otherwise might they ever
have overcome the stark and cruel carles of the Burg of the Four
Friths and chased them out of their town, as we know they have done.
Hah! what sayest thou?"

"I say, Hugh," quoth Ralph angrily, "that thou art a fool to go about with
a budget of slanderous old wives' tales." Hugh laughed. "Be not so wroth,
little lord, or I shall be asking thee tales of marvels also. But hearken.
I shall smooth out thy frowns with a smile when thou hast heard this:
this folk are not only afeard of their old enemies, the devil-led men,
but also they fear those whom the devil-led men have driven out of house
and home, to wit, the Burgers. Yet again they fear the Burgers yet more,
because they have beaten some of the very foes of Higham, to wit,
the Westland Barons; for they have taken from them some of their strong-holds,
and are deemed to be gathering force."

Ralph pondered a while, and then he said: "Brother, hast thou any
tidings of Upmeads, or that these Burgers have gone down thither?"
"God forbid!" said Hugh. "Nay, I have had no tidings of Upmeads
since I was fool enough to leave it."

"What! brother," said Ralph, "thou hast not thriven then?"

"I have had ups and downs," said Hugh, "but the ups have
been one rung of the ladder, and the downs three--or more.
Three months I sat in prison for getting me a broken head in a quarrel
that concerned me not. Six months was I besieged in a town whither
naught led me but ill-luck. Two days I wore in running thence,
having scaled the wall and swam the ditch in the night.
Three months I served squire to a knight who gave me the business
of watching his wife of whom he was jealous; and to help me
out of the weariness of his house I must needs make love myself
to the said wife, who sooth to say was perchance worth it.
Thence again I went by night and cloud. Ten months I wore
away at the edge of the wildwood, and sometimes in it,
with a sort of fellows who taught me many things, but not how
to keep my hands from other men's goods when I was hungry.
There was I taken with some five others by certain sergeants
of Higham, whom the warriors of the town had sent out cautiously
to see if they might catch a few men for their ranks.
Well, they gave me the choice of the gallows-tree or service
for the Church, and so, my choice made, there have I been
ever since, till I saw thy face this evening, fair sir."

"Well, brother," said Ralph, "all that shall be amended, and thou shalt
back to Upmeads with me. Yet wert thou to amend thyself somewhat,
it might not be ill."

Quoth Hugh: "It shall be tried, brother. But may I ask thee somewhat?"
Said Ralph: "Ask on." "Fair Sir," said Hugh, "thou seemedst grown
into a pretty man when I saw thee e'en-now before this twilight
made us all alike; but the men at thy back are not wont to be led
by men who have not earned a warrior's name, yet they follow thee:
how cometh that about? Again, before the twilight gathered I saw the woman
that rideth anigh us (who is now but a shadow) how fair and gentle she is:
indeed there is no marvel in her following thee (though if she be an earl's
daughter she is a fair getting for an imp of Upmeads), for thou art
a well shapen lad, little lord, and carriest a sweet tongue in thy mouth.
But tell me, what is she?"

"Brother," said Ralph kindly, "she is my wife."

"I kiss her hands," said Hugh; "but of what lineage is she?"

"She is my wife," said Ralph. Said Hugh: "That is, forsooth,
a high dignity." Said Ralph: "Thou sayest sooth, though in mockery
thou speakest, which is scarce kind to thine own mother's son:
but learn, brother, that I am become a Friend of the Well,
and were meet to wed with the daughters of the best of the Kings:
yet is this one meeter to wed with me than the highest of the Queens;
for she also is a Friend of the Well. Moreover, thou sayest
it that the champions of the Dry Tree, who would think
but little of an earl for a leader, are eager to follow me:
and if thou still doubt what this may mean, abide, till in two days
or three thou see me before the foeman. Then shalt thou tell
me how much changed I am from the stripling whom thou knewest
in Upmeads a little while ago."

Then was Hugh somewhat abashed, and he said: "I crave thy pardon,
brother, but never had I a well filed tongue, and belike it hath
grown no smoother amid the hard haps which have befallen me of late.
Besides it was dull in there, and I must needs try to win a little
mirth out of kith and kin."

"So be it, lad," quoth Ralph kindly, "thou didst ask and I told,
and all is said."

"Yet forsooth," said Hugh, "thou hast given me marvel for marvel, brother."
"Even so," said Ralph, "and hereafter I will tell thee more when we sit safe
by the wine at Upmeads."

Now cometh back one of the fore-riders and draweth rein by Ralph
and saith that they are hard on a little thorp under the hanging
of the hill that was the beginning of the Down country on that road.
So Ralph bade make stay there and rest the night over, and seek
new tidings on the morrow; and the man told Ralph that the folk
of the thorp were fleeing fast at the tidings of their company,
and that it were best that he and some half score should
ride sharply into the thorp, so that it might not be quite
bare of victuals when they came to their night's lodging.
Ralph bids him so do, but to heed well that he hurt no man, or let
fire get into any house or roof; so he takes his knot of men and rides
off on the spur, and Ralph and the main of them come on quietly;
and when they came into the street of the thorp, lo there by the cross
a big fire lighted, and the elders standing thereby cap in hand,
and a score of stout carles with weapons in their hands.
Then the chief man came up to Ralph and greeted him and said:
"Lord, when we heard that an armed company was at hand we
deemed no less than that the riders of the Burg were upon us,
and deemed that there was nought for it but to flee each as far
and as fast as he might. But now we have heard that thou art
a good lord seeking his own with the help of worthy champions,
and a foeman to those devils of the Burg, we bid thee look upon
us and all we have as thine, lord, and take kindly such guesting
as we may give thee."

The old man's voice quavered a little as he looked on the stark
shapes of the Dry Tree; but Ralph looked kindly on him, and said:
"Yea, my master, we will but ask for a covering for our heads,
and what victual thou mayst easily spare us in return
for good silver, and thou shalt have our thanks withal.
But who be these stout lads with staves and bucklers,
or whither will they to-night?"

Thereat a tall young man with a spear in his hand and girt with
a short sword came forth and said boldly: "Lord, we be a few
who thought when we heard that the Burg-devils were at hand that we
might as well die in the field giving stroke for stroke, as be
hauled off and drop to pieces under the hands of their tormentors;
and now thou hast come, we have little will to abide behind,
but were fain to follow thee, and do thee what good we can:
and after thou hast come to thine above, when we go back
to our kin thou mayst give us a gift if it please thee:
but we deem that no great matter if thou but give us leave
to have the comfort of thee and thy Champions for a while in
these hard days."

When he had done speaking there rose up from the Champions a hum as
of praise, and Ralph was well-pleased withal, deeming it a good omen;
so he said: "Fear not, good fellows, that I shall forget you when we
have overcome the foemen, and meanwhile we will live and die together.
But thou, ancient man, show our sergeants where our riders shall lie
to-night, and what they shall do with their horses."

So the elders marshalled the little host to their abodes
for that night, lodging the more part of them in a big barn on
the western outskirt of the thorp. The elder who led them thither,
brought them victual and good drink, and said to them:
"Lords, ye were best to keep a good watch to-night because it
is on this side that we may look for an onfall from the foemen
if they be abroad to-night; and sooth to say that is one cause
we have bestowed you here, deeming that ye would not grudge us
the solace of knowing that your valiant bodies were betwixt us
and them, for we be a poor unwalled people."

Stephen to whom he spake laughed at his word, and said:
"Heart-up, carle! within these few days we shall build
up a better wall than ye may have of stone and lime;
and that is the overthrow of our foemen in the open field."

So there was kindness and good fellowship betwixt the thorp-dwellers
and the riders, and the country folk told those others many tales
of the evil deeds of the Burg-devils, as they called them;
but they could not tell them for certain whether they had gone
down into Upmeads.

As to Ralph and Ursula they, with Richard and Roger,
were lodged in the headman's house, and had good feast there,
and he also talked over the where-abouts of the Burgers
with the thorp-dwellers, but might have no certain tidings.
So he and Ursula and his fellows went to bed and slept peacefully
for the first hours of the night.

CHAPTER 22

An Old Acquaintance Comes From the Down Country to See Ralph

But an hour after midnight Ralph arose, as his purpose was,
and called Richard, and they took their swords and went forth
and about the thorp and around its outskirts, and found naught
worse than their own watch any where; so they came back again
to their quarters and found Roger standing at the door,
who said to Ralph: "Lord, here is a man who would see thee."
"What like is he?" said Ralph. Said Roger "He is an old man,
but a tough one; however, I have got his weapons from him."
"Bring him in," said Ralph, "and he shall have his say."

So they all went into the chamber together and there was light therein;
but the man said to Ralph: "Art thou the Captain of the men-at-arms, lord?"
"Yea," said Ralph. Said the man, "I were as lief have these others away."
"So be it," said Ralph; "depart for a little while, friends."
So they went but Ursula lay in the bed, which was in a nook in the wall;
the man looked about the chamber and said: "Is there any one in the bed?"
"Yea," said Ralph, "my wife, good fellow; shall she go also?"
"Nay," said the carle, "we shall do as we are now. So I will begin my tale."

Ralph looked on him and deemed he had seen him before,
but could not altogether call his visage to mind; so he held
his peace and the man went on.

"I am of the folk of the shepherds of the Downs: we be not a many
by count of noses, but each one of us who is come to man's yean,
and many who be past them, as I myself, can handle weapons at a pinch.
Now some deal we have been harried and have suffered by these wretches
who have eaten into the bowels of this land; that is to say,
they have lifted our sheep, and slain some of us who withstood them:
but whereas our houses be uncostly and that we move about easily
from one hill-side to another, it is like that we should have deemed
it wisest to have borne this trouble, like others of wind and weather,
without seeking new remedy, but that there have been tokens on earth
and in the heavens, whereof it is too long to tell thee, lord, at present,
which have stirred up our scattered folk to meet together in arms.
Moreover, the blood of our young men is up, because the Burg-devils
have taken some of our women, and have mishandled them grievously
and shamefully, so that naught will keep point and edge from seeking
the war-clash. Furthermore, there is an old tale which hath now come
up again, That some time when our folk shall be in great need,
there shall come to our helping one from afar, whose home is anigh;
a stripling and a great man; a runaway, and the conqueror of many:
then, say they, shall the point and the edge bring the red water
down on the dear dales; whereby we understand that the blood
of men shall be shed there, and naught to our shame or dishonour.
Again I mind me of a rhyme concerning this which sayeth:

The Dry Tree shall be seen On the green earth, and green
The Well-spring shall arise For the hope of the wise.
They are one which were twain, The Tree bloometh again,
And the Well-spring hath come From the waste to the home.

Well, lord, thou shalt tell me presently if this hath aught to do with thee:
for indeed I saw the Dry Tree, which hath scared us so many a time,
beaten on thy sergeants' coats; but now I will go on and make an end
of my story."

Ralph nodded to him kindly, for now he remembered the carle, though he had
seen him but that once when he rode the Greenway across the downs to Higham.
The old man looked up at him as if he too had an inkling of old acquaintance
with Ralph, but went on presently:

"There is a woman who dwells alone with none to help her,
anigh to Saint Ann's Chapel; a woman not very old; for she
is of mine own age, and time was we have had many a fair play
in the ingles of the downs in the July weather--not very old,
I say, but wondrous wise, as I know better than most men;
for oft, even when she was young, would she foretell things
to come to me, and ever it fell out according to her spaedom.
To the said woman I sought to-day in the morning, not to win
any wisdom of her, but to talk over remembrances of old days;
but when I came into her house, lo, there was my carline walking
up and down the floor, and she turned round upon me like the young
woman of past days, and stamped her foot and cried out:
'What does the sluggard dallying about women's chambers
when the time is come for the deliverance?'

"I let her talk, and spake no word lest I should spoil her story,
and she went on:

"'Take thy staff, lad, for thou art stout as well as merry,
and go adown to the thorps at the feet of the downs toward Higham;
keep thee well from the Burg-devils, and go from stead to stead
till thou comest on a captain of men-at-arms who is lord over a
company of green-coats, green-coats of the Dry Tree--a young lord,
fair-faced, and kind-faced, and mighty, and not to be conquered,
and the blessing of the folk and the leader of the Shepherds,
and the foe of their foeman and the well-beloved of Bear-father.
Go night and day, sit not down to eat, stand not to drink;
heed none that crieth after thee for deliverance, but go, go, go till
thou hast found him. Meseems I see him riding toward Higham,
but those dastards will not open gate to him, of that be sure.
He shall pass on and lie to-night, it may be at Mileham, it may be
at Milton, it may be at Garton; at one of those thorps shall ye find him.
And when ye have found him thus bespeak him: O bright Friend
of the Well, turn not aside to fall on the Burgers in this land,
either at Foxworth Castle, or the Longford, or the Nineways Garth:
all that thou mayest do hereafter, thou or thy champions.

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