They were not long ere they were before the gate of Warding Knowe, and the master thereof standing over against them, bidding them a free and fair welcome. He was well on in years, more than grizzled, but a stout and stark knight: he hight Sir Alwyn. He embraced Sir Mark as he got off his horse, for they were dear friends, and then looked keenly on the Maiden, and took her by the hand and led her in and treated her with all honour. Thereafter, before supper, while she was under the hands of the tire-women, the said lord took occasion to ask the Blue Knight if he had done well, so doing, or whether he should have given her less honour; and the Blue Knight said that he had done right well, and that he thanked him for it, for of all honour was she worthy.
Now the Maiden sat at table beside the lord and Sir Mark, and hearkened their talk, which at one time ran much upon that great captain of war whom they called Sir Godrick of Longshaw. And she might see of both of them that they thought much of his wisdom, and not little of his luck, and feared him what he would do to them of the Barons' League, whereof were both those knights. And Sir Alwyn furthermore told the Blue Knight concerning tidings in the City of the Sundering Flood, and said that the King thereof was of little account before such a man as was Sir Godrick, for though he were well enough in a fray if the sword were put in his hand and the horse were between his knees, yet was he feathered-headed, stubborn in wrong, and hard-hearted. Said Sir Alwyn, that save the said King was in all things according with the best men of the City, as the Porte and the masters of the Great Crafts, he was undone. Then he said again: "Yea, and there is talk also how that the Small Crafts have in their hearts to rise against both Porte and King, and certes if they may have Sir Godrick on their side, which is not wholly unlike, they will perchance come to their above; and then again is the King's cake but dough."
Said Sir Mark, and smiled withal: "One thing we have to our comfort, that there may not lightly be found two Sir Godricks, and though his men be fell fighters, there where he is only shall his luck prevail to the full."
"Yea," said the houselord; "but I can see in the eye of my mind another well-nigh as good has he, if he might but hit upon him. Yea, and one who should be even better than his double, filling up what little lacks there may be in him; one who should cheer the heart of his host as much even as the captain, and yet should be liker to the men themselves, and a part of them in all wise."
Said Sir Mark: "Even so much as this I said a day or two ago. Yet scarce is such an one found by seeking." "Sooth is that," said Sir Alwyn, "but such-like haps drift toward the lucky."
So the talk thereof dropped down in a while; but the Carline, who had been shown to a good seat not far off, heard all this, and said to herself: I wonder if this old knight is somewhat wise of foresight, for surely along the same road wendeth my mind. And afterwards, the next morning, when as it happened the Carline was standing close to the lord, and they two alone, she said to him: "Lord, might an old and feeble woman ask of thy wisdom without rebuke if thou hast any inkling of what thine end shall be?" He looked hard on her and said: "Dame, I note of thee that thou hast some foresight of things to come, and thou art old as I am, therefore to thee will I tell it, as I would to none other, that I shall fall in battle, and in that said battle our backs shall be turned toward the foe and our faces toward the world beyond; and this shall be ere the earth is eighteen months older." So she thanked him, and they parted.
But as for the Maiden, she also had hearkened heedfully to the talk of the two knights, and something went to her heart as they talked about a meet fellow for this great captain, and she said to herself, Ah! and where shall such a man be on the earth, if it not be he whom no man friendly may see without his heart being drawn to him, whom no foe may see without casting aside hope of victory, the wise one, while yet a boy, of the war of Eastcheaping, the frank and the fair, and mine own love who is seeking me?
When the morning was they departed with all good wishes from Warding Knowe, and the franklin's men turned back home; for Sir Alwyn's stronghold was as a bar against the strong-thieves of the forest and thereabout. But the others went forward toward Brookside, nor is there much to tell of their journey; for the most part they guested at the houses of the husbandmen, or whiles at a franklin's or yeoman's house, and none begrudged them the harbour and victual; but the poor folk Sir Mark paid largely therefor.
At last, on the ninth day as it grew toward dusk, and they had been riding a land of little hills, with no little woodland betwixt the meadows so that they might see no great way ahead, they saw but a half mile aloof a hill nowise high, and before it a little river bridged with a goodly stone bridge; and on the said hill was a long house, defensible by reason of its towers and walls, yet no mere stronghold, but a goodly dwelling. Then Sir Mark raised his hand and pointed to it, and said to the Maiden: "Lady, yonder is Brookside, my poor house, where I would have thee dwell so long as it pleases thee." Therewith he drew forth his horn and said: "We will sing a little to them, for it will be in their minds to ride out some of them to meet us, and I would not balk their good will." Therewith he set his horn to his mouth and blew a long and loud blast, wherein were strange changes and quirks, so that it might be known for his music; and then they rode on slowly, and presently a banner of the blue and white waves came out from a high tower, and therewithal from out the Castle-gate came forth a score of folk a-horseback and rode swiftly down to the bridge.
Then Sir Mark said: "Now light we down and meet the rest on this pleasant greensward, for they will like it better to come on us thus, so that they may have the better and the nigher sight of us; and though there be little shade of trees here, yet this cool hour before the twilight all green places be pleasant this fair day."
Even as he bade so did they, and it was a night to the bridge, so that it was but a few minutes ere that folk were riding over toward them, and the Maiden could see at once of them that they were merry-faced and gay-clad. The two that rode first were young men, and one slim and very goodly, with the hair of his head plenteous and waving and brown, and little hair upon his pleasant, happy young face. He threw himself off his horse at once and ran straight up to the Blue Knight, and made obeisance to him, and took his hand and kissed it; but the Knight laid his hands on to his shoulders and shook him and rolled him about, looking kindly in his face the while, and then he cried out: "Ha, Roland! by St. Christopher but thou art glad to see me, lad! Is all well up there?"
"All is well, Sir Mark," said the youngling, "and I am like to be glad to see thee back safe and sound, when who knows what folly thou wilt have been mixed up with, so that thou mayst well be brought home any day between the four corners: and all is well up yonder."
"Hark to the prudence of the sage and the grey-beard," said Sir Mark, laughing. "Yet I must tell thee, and all of you, that I have had an adventure. But here is James and his greeting." Now this was the other young man, who got off his horse in less haste and came up slower to his lord, and as he went cast an eye on the Maiden, who had risen up to meet the newcomers and was standing there simply and somewhat shyly; and the young man beheld her he blushed red and cast his eyes down. He was not so fair a youth as the other, tall and stark, red-haired, the hair cut short to his head, yet no ill-looked man neither, grey-eyed and firm-lipped. The Knight took him kindly by the hands and greeted him, and then he turned to the Maiden and took each of the young men by a hand, and let them before her, and said: "Fair lady, these two, who will ere long be knights, are my squires-of-arms, who love me wholly and are good men and true, and perilous in the stour to them that love me not. Now I pray thee be as kind to them as thou wilt, yet as I am, to wit, ruling them well, and making them run and return for thee, and giving them but little of their will." And he laughed therewith.
So James knelt down before her, and would have kissed her hand but she reached it not to him. But if James were abashed when he first cast eyes on her, how was it now with Roland? He turned red indeed, and made no obeisance to her, but stood staring at her with all his eyes.
But the other folk gathered round them to get the Blue Knight's greeting, and also, sooth to say, to gaze upon the Maiden. And when the Knight had taken the welcome of them with many kind words, he said in a loud voice so that all could hear: "Squires and sergeants and men-at-arms, this is the adventure that I have had: that I came upon this lady in the hands of a caitiff who had set his men to steal her while others held her kinsmen and folk in battle, and now called her his war-taken thrall. And whereas he was a craven and would not fight for her, I must needs buy her of him, though I bade him battle in all honour; and fain am I that he took it not, for the slaying of such dogs is but dirty work. But hearken, though I have bought this lady at a price, it was to make her her own and not mine, and of her own will has she come hither to my house. But I think on the way thither she has become somewhat my friend in all kindness and honour, and I deem that to you also she will be a friend while she dwells with us, and if ye be less than friendly with her, then are ye hewn out of far other wood than I be. But all this I have told you that there may be no slander or backbiting, or deeming of evil whereas none is; yea, and no deeming of guile or mystery in the tale, but all may be plain and outspoken."
They gave forth a murmur of yeasay and welcome when he had done, and the Maiden deemed that they looked as if they loved and trusted the Knight. But therewith one and all of them came before her and knelt to her and did her obeisance, and she looked full kindly on them, for she deemed all this good and happy. And yet she said to herself, If it could be that I could forget him or the search for him, how should I one day awaken when all was lost and curse myself! But she heard the Blue Knight say: "James and Roland, I would have you prevent us and go up to the Castle, and go to my Lady-mother in her chamber and tell her hereof, how I have come home, and all that ye have seen and heard." But the Maiden wondered somewhat, for looking now on Sir Mark she saw that his face had reddened and his brows were knit.
But the two squires got to their horses and rode briskly up to the Castle as silent as might be, and all the others followed at a foot's pace.
Now they were soon under the gate of the Castle, and came into the forecourt, and the buildings round about it were goodly and great, but not very new. There were a many weaponed men in the said court, all come together to welcome their lord and his fellowship, and they clattered their spears on their shields, and tossed their swords aloft and shouted, so that the Maiden's eyes glittered and her heart beat quick.
But when they were off their horses, straightway Sir Mark took the Maiden by the hand and led her into the great hall, and all that folk followed flock-meal. Long was the said hall and great, but not very high, and its pillars thick and big, and its arches beetling; and that the folk loved better than flower-fair building, for very ancient it was and of all honour. Ancient withal were its adornments, and its halling was of the story of Troy, and stern and solemn looked out from it the stark woven warriors and kings, as they wended betwixt sword and shield on the highway of Fate.