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The Well at the World's End
by William Morris
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"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 O, 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 O, 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. There be Burgers otherwhere, housed in no strong castle, but wending the road toward the fair greensward of Upmeads. If thou delay to go look on them, then shall thy work be to begin again amid sorrow of heart and loss that may not be remedied.' Hast thou heard me, lord?"

"Yea, verily," said Ralph, "and at sunrise shall we be in the saddle to ride straight to Upmeads. For I know thee, friend."

"Hold a while," said the carle, "for meseemeth I know thee also. But this withal she said: 'But hearken, Giles, hearken a while, for I see him clearly, and the men that he rideth with, and the men that are following to his aid, fierce and fell are they; but so withal are the foemen that await them, and his are few, howsoever fierce. Therefore bid him this also. Haste, haste, haste! But haste not overmuch, lest thou speed the worse: in Bear Castle I see a mote of our folk, and thee amidst of it with thy champions, and I see the staves of the Shepherds rising round thee like a wood. In Wulstead I see a valiant man with sword by side and sallet on head, and with him sitteth a tall man-at-arms grizzle-headed and red-bearded, big-boned and mighty; they sit at the wine in a fair chamber, and a well-looking dame serveth them; and there are weaponed men no few about the streets. Wilt thou pass by friends, and old friends? Now ride on, Green Coats! stride forth, Shepherds! staves on your shoulders, Wool-wards! and there goes the host over the hills into Upmeads, and the Burg-devils will have come from the Wood Debateable to find graves by the fair river. And then do thy will, O Friend of the Well.'"

The carle took a breath, and then he said: "Lord, this is the say I was charged with, and if thou understandest it, well; but if it be dark to thee, I may make it clear if thou ask me aught."

Ralph pondered a while, and then he said: "Is it known of others than thy spaewife that the Burgers be in Upmeads?" "Nay, lord," said the carle, "and this also I say to thee, that I deem what she said that they be not in Upmeads yet, and but drawing thitherward, as I deem from the Wood Debateable."

Ralph arose from his seat and strode up and down the chamber a while; then he went to bed, and stood over Ursula, who lay twixt sleeping and waking, for she was weary; then he came back to the carle, and said to him: "Good friend, I thank thee, and this is what I shall do: when daylight is broad (and lo, the dawn beginning!) I shall gather my men, and ride the shortest way, which thou shalt show me, to Bear Castle, and there I shall give the token of the four fires which erewhile a good man of the Shepherds bade me if I were in need. And it seems to me that there shall the mote be hallowed, though it may be not before nightfall. But the mote done, we shall wend, the whole host of us, be we few or many, down to Wulstead, where we shall fall in with my friend Clement Chapman, and hear tidings. Thence shall we wend the dear ways I know into the land where I was born and the folk amongst whom I shall die. And so let St. Nicholas and All Hallows do as they will with us. Deemest thou, friend, that this is the meaning of thy wise she-friend?"

The carle's eyes glittered, and he rose up and stood close by Ralph, and said: "Even so she meant; and now I seem to see that but few of thy riders shall be lacking when they turn their heads away from Upmeads towards the strong-places of the Burg-devils that are hereabouts. But tell me, Captain of the host, is that victual and bread that I see on the board?"

Ralph laughed: "Fall to, friend, and eat thy fill; and here is wine withal. Thou needest not to fear it. Wert thou any the worse of the wine that Thirly poured into thee that other day?"

"Nay, nay, master," said the carle between his mouthfuls, "but mickle the better, as I shall be after this: all luck to thee! Yet see I that I need not wish thee luck, since that is thine already. Sooth to say, I deemed I knew thee when I first set eyes on thee again. I looked not to see thee more; though I spoke to thee words at that time which came from my heart, almost without my will. Though it is but a little while ago, thou hast changed much since then, and hast got another sort of look in the eyes than then they had. Nay, nay," said he laughing, "not when thou lookest on me so frankly and kindly; that is like thy look when we passed Thirly about. Yea, I see the fashion of it: one look is for thy friends, another for thy foes. God be praised for both. And now I am full, I will go look on thy wife."

So he went up to the bed and stood over Ursula, while she, who was not fully awake, smiled up into his face. The old man smiled back at her and bent down and kissed her mouth, and said: "I ask thy pardon, lady, and thine, my lord, if I be too free, but such is our custom of the Downs; and sooth to say thy face is one that even a old man should not fail to kiss if occasion serve, so that he may go to paradise with the taste thereof on his lips."

"We are nowise hurt by thy love, friend," said Ursula; "God make thy latter days of life sweet to thee!"



CHAPTER 23

They Ride to Bear Castle

But while they spake thus and were merry, the dawn had wellnigh passed into daylight. Then Ralph bade old Giles sleep for an hour, and went forth and called Roger and Richard and went to the great barn. There he bade the watch wake up Stephen and all men, and they gat to horse as speedily as they might, and were on the road ere the sun was fully up. The spearmen of the thorp did not fail them, and numbered twenty and three all told. Giles had a horse given him and rode the way by Ralph.

They rode up and down the hills and dales, but went across country and not by the Greenway, for thuswise the road was shorter.

But when they had gone some two leagues, and were nigh on top of a certain low green ridge, they deemed that they heard men's voices anigh and the clash of arms; and it must be said that by Ralph's rede they journeyed somewhat silently. So Ralph, who was riding first with Giles, bid all stay and let the crown of the ridge cover them. So did they, and Giles gat off his horse and crept on to the top of the ridge till he could see down to the dale below. Presently he came down again the old face of him puckered with mirth, and said softly to Ralph: "Did I not say thou wert lucky? here is the first fruits thereof. Ride over the ridge, lord, at once, and ye shall have what there is of them as safe as a sheep in a penfold."

So Ralph drew sword and beckoned his men up, and they all handled their weapons and rode over the brow, and tarried not one moment there, not even to cry their cries; for down in the bottom were a sort of men, two score and six (as they counted them afterward) sitting or lying about a cooking fire, or loitering here and there, with their horses standing behind them, and they mostly unhelmed. The Champions knew them at once for men of their old foes, and there was scarce time for a word ere the full half of them had passed by the sword of the Dry Tree; then Ralph cried out to spare the rest, unless they offered to run; so the foemen cast down their weapons and stood still, and were presently brought before Ralph, who sat on the grass amidst of the ring of the Champions. He looked on them a while and remembered the favour of those whom he had seen erewhile in the Burg; but ere he could speak Giles said softly in his ear: "These be of the Burg, forsooth, as ye may see by their dogs' faces; but they be not clad nor armed as those whom we have met heretofore. Ask them whence they be, lord."

Ralph spake and said: "Whence and whither are ye, ye manslayers?" But no man of them answered. Then said Ralph: "Pass these murderers by the edge of the sword, Stephen; unless some one of them will save his life and the life of his fellows by speaking."

As he spake, one of the youngest of the men hung down his head a little, and then raised it up: "Wilt thou spare our lives if I speak?" "Yea," said Ralph. "Wilt thou swear it by the edge of the blade?" said the man. Ralph drew forth his sword and said: "Lo then! I swear it." The man nodded his head, and said: "Few words are best; and whereas I wot not if my words will avail thee aught, and since they will save our lives, I will tell thee truly. We are men of the Burg whom these green-coated thieves drave out of the Burg on an unlucky day. Well, some of us, of whom I was one, fetched a compass and crossed the water that runneth through Upmeads by the Red Bridge, and so gat us into the Wood Debateable through the Uplands. There we struck a bargain with the main band of strong-thieves of the wood, that we and they together would get us a new home in Upmeads, which is a fat and pleasant land. So we got us ready; but the Woodmen told us that the Upmeads carles, though they be not many, are strong and dauntless, and since we now had pleasant life before us, with good thralls to work for us, and with plenty of fair women for our bed-mates, we deemed it best to have the most numbers we might, so that we might over-whelm the said carles at one blow, and get as few of ourselves slain as might be. Now we knew that another band of us had entered the lands of the Abbot of Higham, and had taken hold of some of his castles; wherefore the captains considered and thought, and sent us to give bidding to our folk south here to march at once toward us in Upmeads, that our bands might meet there, and scatter all before us. There is our story, lord."

Ralph knitted his brow, and said: "Tell me (and thy life lieth on thy giving true answers), do thy folk in these strongholds know of your purpose of falling upon Upmeads?" "Nay," said the Burger. Said Ralph: "And will they know otherwise if ye do them not to wit?" "Nay," again said the man. Said Ralph: "Are thy folk already in Upmeads?" "Nay," said the captive, "but by this time they will be on the road thither." "How many all told?" said Ralph The man reddened and stammered: "A thousand—two—two thousand—A thousand, lord," said he. "Get thy sword ready, Stephen," said Ralph. "How many, on thy life, Burger?" "Two thousand, lord," said the man. "And how many do ye look to have from Higham-land?" Said the Burger, "Somewhat more than a thousand." Withal he looked uneasily at his fellows, some of whom were scowling on him felly. "Tell me now," said Ralph, "where be the other bands of the Burgers?"

Ere the captive could speak, he who stood next him snatched an unsheathed knife from the girdle of one of the Dry Tree, and quick as lightning thrust it into his fellow's belly, so that he fell dead at once amongst them. Then Stephen, who had his sword naked in his hand, straightway hewed down the slayer, and swords came out of the scabbards everywhere; and it went but a little but that all the Burgers were slain at once. But Ralph cried out: "Put up your swords, Champions! Stephen slew yonder man for slaying his fellow, who was under my ward, and that was but his due. But I have given life to these others, and so it must be held to. Tie their hands behind them and let us on to Bear Castle. For this tide brooks no delay."

So they gat to horse, and the footmen from Garton mounted the horses of the slain Burgers, and had the charge of guarding the twenty that were left. So they rode off all of them toward Bear Castle, and shortly to say it, came within sight of its rampart two hours before noon. Sooner had they came thither; but divers times they caught up with small companies of weaponed men, whose heads were turned the same way; and Giles told Ralph each time that they were of the Shepherd-folk going to the mote. But now when they were come so nigh to the castle they saw a very stream of men setting that way, and winding up the hill to the rampart. And Giles said: "It is not to be doubted but that Martha hath sent round the war-brand, and thou wilt presently have an host that will meet thy foemen without delay; and what there lacks in number shall be made good by thy luck, which once again was shown by our falling in with that company e'en now."

"Yea truly," said Ralph, "but wilt thou now tell me how I shall guide myself amongst thy folk, and if they will grant me the aid I ask?"

"Look, look," said Giles, "already some one hath made clear thine asking to our folk; and hearken! up there they are naming the ancient Father of our Race, without whom we may do nought, even with the blessed saints to aid. There then is thine answer, lord."

Indeed as he spoke came down on the wind the voice of a chant, sung by many folk, the words whereof he well remembered: SMITE ASIDE AXE, O BEAR-FATHER. And therewith rose up into the air a column of smoke intermingled with fire from each of the four corners of that stronghold of the Ancient Folk. Ralph rejoiced when he saw it, and the heart rose within him and fluttered in his bosom, and Ursula, who rode close behind him, looked up into his face well pleased and happy.

Thus rode they up the bent and over the turf bridge into the plain of the garth, and whatso of people were there flocked about to behold the new-come warriors; sooth to say, there were but some two hundreds, who looked but few indeed in the great square place, but more were streaming in every minute. Giles led him and his men into the north-east corner of the castle, and there they gat off their horses and lay down on the grass awaiting what should betide.



CHAPTER 24

The Folkmote of the Shepherds

In about an hour all the folk within the castle began to set toward the ingle wherein lay Ralph and his fellows, and then all rose up, while the folk of the Shepherds took their places on the slopes of the earth walls, but on the top hard by the fire, which was still burning, stood up an old hoar man with a beard exceeding long; he had a sallet on his head, and held a guisarme in his hand. All men held their peace when they saw him standing there; and straightway he proclaimed the hallowing of the Mote in such form of words as was due amongst that folk, and which were somewhat long to tell here. Then was silence again for a little, and then the old man spake: "Few words are best to-day, neighbours; for wherefore are we met together?" There arose a hum of assent from the Shepherds as he spoke and men clashed their weapons together; but none said any clear word. Then spake the old man: "We be met together because we have trouble on hand, and because there is a helper to hand, of whom the words of the wise and tales of old have told us; and because as he shall help us, so shall we help him, since indeed our trouble is his also: now, neighbours, shall I say the word for you which ye would say to this young man, who is nevertheless old in wisdom, and true-hearted and kind?"

Then came the hum of yeasay again, the clashing of weapons, and the old man spake again: "Ralph of Upmeads, there thou standest, wilt thou help us against the tyrants, as we shall help thee?"

"Yea," said Ralph. Said the Elder: "Wilt thou be our Captain, if we do according to thy bidding? For thou needest not fear our failing thee."

"Yea verily," said Ralph.

Said the Elder: "Ralph of Upmeads, wilt thou be our Captain as an alien and a hireling, or as a brother?"

"As a brother," quoth Ralph.

"Come up here then, Captain of our folk, and take my hand in thine, and swear by our fathers and thine to be a true brother of us, and take this ancient staff of war in thine hand. And, ye kindred of the Shepherds, bear witness of his swearing. Yea and ye also, O neighbours of the Dry Tree!"

So Ralph went up on the wall-top and took the Elder's hand, and took from him the ancient guisarme, which was inlaid with gold letters of old time; and he swore in a loud voice to be a true brother of the Shepherd-folk, and raised the weapon aloft and shook it strongly, and all the Folk cried, "Hail our brother!" and the Champions shouted gladly withal, and great joy there was in that ingle of the ancient work.

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