The Blue Knight rode beside the Maiden, and it could be seen that in all ways he would take care of her and give her honour; but he was few-spoken at first, nor for a while had she much mind to speak. But after a little she looked on him aside, and seemed to think that he would be fain were she to cast a word to him. And she herself was grown of good cheer now, for she deemed herself delivered from captivity; and, however it were, she trusted in this man's good faith and kindness. So she asked him some simple question about the way, and he started when he heard her voice, but turned and answered her frankly, and seemed as if he had liked it better if he might have made more of it. Then she said: "Fair sir, thou hast not yet told me whither we be going."
"Nay," he said, "that is true, and heedless it was of me, and I pray thee pardon me. We be bound for the Castle of Brookside, which is my chiefest manor house, though no great things. But we shall not be there tonight, nor for many nights. Now if thou ask me what we shall find there, I shall tell thee that beside the serving-men and a few men-at-arms and sergeants, and three squires, thou shalt find little save my mother there, for I am unwedded as yet."
At that word the Maiden fell silent again, for she was wondering what like would be the Knight's mother, and what days she was like to make for her. But presently she set all that aside, and fell to ask the Knight of other matters, such as the fashion of the country-side and the ways of the folk round about his castle, and freely he answered to everything; and so at last began to ask her concerning her land and folk, and her way of life, and she told him of all freely. But no word did she say to him of the man whom she loved; nay, when the talk seemed drawing near to such a point that it seemed he must be told of presently, she would break off and hold her peace straightway; neither did the Knight say aught, nor ask her wherefore she went not on with her tale, but let speech be till the spring thereof began to run again of its own will.
Thus then they wore the day, riding through a fair country of husbandry, not very thickly housed. None meddled with them, till at sunset they came to a goodly grange walled and moated; and the Blue Knight said: "If we take not harbour here we shall have to lie out in the field, for we shall fall in with no other house till the night is well deep." Therewith he rode up to the door and lighted down, and so did they all; and there came forth a tall and somewhat goodly man of some fifty winters and bade Welcome, Sir Mark! And without more ado they entered the hall, which was fair and big and well-plenished. There presently they were feasted by the goodman and his sons and his folk, for Sir Mark the Blue Knight was well known to the said goodman. In due time withal the Maiden was shown to a fair chamber well hung and with a good bed therein, wherein she slept sweet without dreams. So was the ending of that day better than the beginning. They took to their road betimes on the morrow, and two of the goodman's sons and three of his men rode with them, well armed; for though this was a peopled part, yet whiles reivers rode therein. But on the way the Blue Knight excused him to the Maiden for suffering this eking of his army, and he said: "Seest thou, lady, were I with my two lads here, or even were I riding birdalone, I would have bidden these five good fellows abide at home; but I fear for thee, lest the fewness of our company should draw on this rascaile to come within smiting distance, and then who knows what might betide? For a chance stroke might do all the scathe at once, and make me an unhappy man till the end of my days."
She smiled on him friendly and said: "Sir Knight, there is no need to excuse thee; trust me I am nowise greedy of battle, and thank thee heartily for thinking of me."
The Knight made as if he would have said something which would not come forth out of his mouth, and he turned very red, and so rode, but presently drew rein, and bade the others ride on and he would catch up with them. So they went on, and the Maiden would have ridden on also, but he said: "I beseech thee to abide with me, for I have a word or two to say to thee before we get on with this day's journey." She looked on him wonderingly, and was somewhat abashed, but turned to hearken to him, and he said, not speaking very glibly: "Thou thankest me for thinking of thee, but meseems I have nowise thought of thee enough. I have told thee that we be riding to my house of Brookside, but now I will ask thee if thou hast will to go thither?"
"Why not?" she said; "I deem not by thy looks and thy speech that thou wilt be hard or cruel with me, or do me wrong in any wise, or suffer others to do so."
"Nay, by Allhallows," said he; "but this I ask. Tell me right out if thou hast any will to go back to thine old home in the Dale. I beseech thee to tell me thy mind hereon; and if thou longest to go back, then will we turn bridle at once and seek to the stead where thou wert born and bred, and there will I say farewell to thee. For what! it may not be for ever; I shall ride to see thee once and again, I promise thee."
Now the Maiden flushed red and the tears gathered in her eyes, and she looked piteous-kind on him; but she said: "Thou art kind indeed; but that farewell in the Dale needeth not to be, for I have no will to go back home. Such an errand is laid on me that hath made me homeless now; for I must go seeking that which is lost, it may be, wide over the world; and if thou wilt shelter me a while in Brookside Castle I shall thank thee and bless thee as scarce a man hath yet been thanked since earth was new."
The Knight hung down his head, but presently he raised it, and heaved a sigh as if a weight were lifted from his heart, and he said: "Let each of us take what content may be in the passing days." Then he shook his rein, and they both sped on together till they caught up with their company.
That night they harboured at a husbandman's cot, where was no room save for the two women, and the men lay out under the bare heaven, but all was done that might be for the easement of the Maiden. The franklin's folk rode on with them on the morrow, and whereas they must needs wend a somewhat thick wood the more part of the day, they rode close, and had the Maiden in their midst, while the Blue Knight went the foremost of their company, and was as wary as might be. So whatever strong-thieves might have been lurking under cover of the thicket, they adventured them not against so stout and well-ordered a company, and they all came safely through the wood into a fair grassy valley some little time before sunset. But though the pasture was good there and the land well watered, there were no houses within sight, for it was over-nigh to the wood for folk to venture their goods, yea and their lives, by dwelling in neighbourhood to such ill men as haunted the thickets of the forest. Wherefore this night all the company, women as well as men, must needs forego lying under rafters: albeit they dight some kind of tent within what cloths they had for the Maiden and her fosterer.
The fourth day, as they rode the grassy fair valley, as it was noon, they saw somewhat aloof the riding of another company, which they deemed to be more than they. So they looked to their weapons and rode on steadily, but without haste, lest the others might deem they were fleeing them. So the others, when they had well espied their demeanour, passed on without meddling with them; and well-nigh the whole valley could be ridden, so there was nought to drive them to meet side by side in a strait road, wherefore they came not very nigh, but yet nigh enough to know the newcomers for such as would be evil way-fellows to any whom they feared not. As it was, the Blue Knight and his drew rein and turned a little toward them as they went by, to show that they feared them not, and Sir Mark rode forward before his folk and abode them with a sword in fist. But the newcomers did nought but set up a yelling and jeering, and rode on their way not over slowly.
Three hours thereafter they saw, a little mile aloof, a fair white house garnished with towers on a knoll, round about which ran a little river; so the Maiden, who was now again riding close beside the Blue Knight, asked him if that were Brookside, and he smiled and said: "Nay, my house is still five days' ride away, but this house, which hight Warding Knowe, is the house of a friend, and there shall we have good guesting, whereof I rejoice for thy sake." Then he was silent a while, and said thereafter: "Tell me, lady, doest thou wish those five days over?"
"Nay," she said, "it is little matter to me where I am, and to say sooth, this riding through the fair land likes me well."
He sighed and said, yet slowly: "Well, for my part I would that the five days were fifty." "Why?" she said heedlessly. He reddened and said: "I must needs tell thee since thou askest me. It is because I have got used to seeing these men and thy Carline about thee; neither does it irk me to see the folk that give us guesting gazing on thee or speaking to thee. But when we come to Brookside it will be all other than that; for there will be the folk all about, and some belike will make friends with thee; and there will be my mother. And look you, all and each of these folk shall have as much part and lot in thee as I shall have. Now, art thou angry that I have said this."
"Nay," she said, and knew not what more to say. And she looked at him covertly and saw grief and torment in him, and she was sorry for him. But within herself she said, Woe's me! and how long it shall be belike ere I meet my beloved!