When they rode on next morning Ralph was few-spoken, and seemed to heed little so long as they made good speed on the way: most of the talk was betwixt Richard and the Sage, Ralph but putting in a word when it would have seemed churlish to forbear.
So they went their ways through the wood till by then the sun was well westering they came out at the Water of the Oak, and Richard drew rein there, and spake: “Here is a fair place for a summer night’s lodging, and I would warrant both good knight and fair lady have lain here aforetime, and wished the dark longer: shall we not rest here?”
Ralph stared at him astonished, and then anger grew in his face for a little, because, forsooth, as Richard and the Sage both wotted of the place of the slaying of the Lady, and he himself had every yard of the way in his mind as they went, it seemed but due that they should have known of this place also, what betid there: but it was not so, and the place was to Richard like any other lawn of the woodland.
But thought came back to Ralph in a moment, and he smiled at his own folly, howbeit he could not do to lie another night on that lawn with other folk than erst. So he said quietly: “Nay, friend, were we not better to make the most of this daylight? Seest thou it wants yet an hour of sunset?”
Richard nodded a yeasay, and the Sage said no word more; but Ursula cast her anxious look on Ralph as though she understood what was moving in him; and therewith those others rode away lightly, but Ralph turned slowly from the oak-tree, and might not forbear looking on to the short sward round about, as if he hoped to see some token left behind. Then he lifted up his face as one awaking, shook his rein, and rode after the others down the long water.
So they turned from the water anon, and rode the woodland ways, and lay that night by a stream that ran west.
They arose betimes on the morrow, and whereas the Sage knew the woodland ways well, they made but a short journey of it to the Castle of Abundance, and came into the little plain but two hours after noon, where saving that the scythe had not yet wended the tall mowing grass in the crofts which the beasts and sheep were not pasturing, all was as on that other tide. The folk were at work in their gardens, or herding their cattle in the meads, and as aforetime they were merry of countenance and well-clad, fair and gentle to look on.
There were their pleasant cots, and the little white church, and the fair walls of the castle on its low mound, and the day bright and sunny, all as aforetime, and Ralph looked on it all, and made no countenance of being moved beyond his wont.
So they came out of the wood, and rode to the ford of the river, and the carles and queans came streaming from their garths and meads to meet them, and stood round wondering at them; but an old carle came from out the throng and went up to Ralph, and hailed him, and said: “Oh, Knight! and hast thou come back to us? and has thou brought us tidings of our Lady? Who is this fair woman that rideth with thee? Is it she?”
Spake Ralph: “Nay; go look on her closely, and tell me thy deeming of her.”
So the carle went up to Ursula, and peered closely into her face, and took her hand and looked on it, and knelt down and took her foot out of the stirrup, and kissed it, and then came back to Ralph, and said: “Fair Sir, I wot not but it may be her sister; for yonder old wise man I have seen here erst with our heavenly Lady. But though this fair woman may be her sister, it is not she. So tell me what is become of her, for it is long since we have seen her; and what thou tellest us, that same shall we trow, even as if thou wert her angel. For I spake with thee, it is nigh two years agone, when thou wert abiding the coming of our Lady in the castle yonder But now I see of thee that thou art brighter-faced, and mightier of aspect than aforetime, and it is in my mind that the Lady of Abundance must have loved thee and holpen thee, and blessed thee with some great blessing.”
Said Ralph: “Old man, canst thou feel sorrow, and canst thou bear it?” The carle shook his head. “I wot not,” said he, “I fear thy words.” Said Ralph: “It were naught to say less than the truth; and this is the very truth, that thou shalt never see thy Lady any more. I was the last living man that ever saw her alive.”
Then he spake in a loud voice and said: “Lament, ye people! for the Lady of Abundance is dead; yet sure I am that she sendeth this message to you, Live in peace, and love ye the works of the earth.”
But when they heard him, the old man covered up his face with the folds of his gown, and all that folk brake forth into weeping, and crying out: “Woe for us! the Lady of Abundance is dead!” and some of the younger men cast themselves down on to the earth, and wallowed, weeping and wailing: and there was no man there that seemed as if he knew which way to turn, or what to do; and their faces were foolish with sorrow. Yet forsooth it was rather the carles than the queans who made all this lamentation.
At last the old man spake: “Fair sir, ye have brought us heavy tidings, and we know not how to ask you to tell us more of the tale. Yet if thou might’st but tell us how the Lady died? Woe’s me for the word!”
Said Ralph: “She was slain with the sword.”
The old man drew himself up stiff and stark, the eyes of him glittered under his white hair, and wrath changed his face, and the other men-folk thronged them to hearken what more should be said.
But the elder spake again: “Tell me who it was that slew her, for surely shall I slay him, or die in the pain else.”
Said Ralph: “Be content, thou mayst not slay him; he was a great and mighty man, a baron who bore a golden sun on a blue field. Thou mayst not slay him.” “Yea,” said the old man, “but I will, or he me.”
“Live in peace,” said Ralph, “for I slew him then and there.”
The old man held his peace a while, and then he said: “I know the man, for he hath been here aforetime, and not so long ago. But if he be dead, he hath a brother yet, an exceeding mighty man: he will be coming here to vex us and minish us.”
Said Ralph: “He will not stir from where he lies till Earth’s bones be broken, for my sword lay in his body yesterday.”
The old man stood silent again, and the other carles thronged him; but the woman stood aloof staring on Ralph. Then the elder came up to Ralph and knelt before him and kissed his feet; then he turned and called to him three of the others who were of the stoutest and most stalwarth, and he spake with them awhile, and then he came to Ralph again, and again knelt before him and said: “Lord, ye have come to us, and found us void of comfort, since we have lost our Lady. But we see in thee, that she hath loved thee and blessed thee, and thou hast slain her slayer and his kindred. And we see of thee also that thou art a good lord. O the comfort to us, therefore, if thou wouldest be our Lord! We will serve thee truly so far as we may: yea, even if thou be beset by foes, we will take bow and bill from the wall, and stand round about thee and fight for thee. Only thou must not ask us to go hence from this place: for we know naught but the Plain of Abundance, and the edges of the wood, and the Brethren of the House of the Thorn, who are not far hence. Now we pray thee by thy fathers not to naysay us, so sore as thou hast made our hearts. Also we see about thy neck the same-like pair of beads which our Lady was wont to bear, and we deem that ye were in one tale together.”
Then was Ralph silent awhile, but the Sage spake to the elder: “Old man, how great is the loss of the Lady to you?” “Heavy loss, wise old man,” said the carle, “as thou thyself mayst know, having known her.”
“And what did she for you?” said the Sage. Said the elder: “We know that she was gracious to us; never did she lay tax or tale on us, and whiles she would give us of her store, and that often, and abundantly. We deem also that every time when she came to us our increase became more plenteous, which is well seen by this, that since she hath ceased to come, the seasons have been niggard unto us.”
The Sage smiled somewhat, and the old man went on: “But chiefly the blessing was to see her when she came to us: for verily it seemed that where she set her feet the grass grew greener, and that the flowers blossomed fairer where the shadow of her body fell.” And therewith the old man fell a-weeping again.
The Sage held his peace, and Ralph still kept silence; and now of these men all the younger ones had their eyes upon Ursula.
After a while Ralph spake and said: “O elder, and ye folk of the People of Abundance, true it is that your Lady who is dead loved me, and it is through her that I am become a Friend of the Well. Now meseemeth though ye have lost your Lady, whom ye so loved and worshipped, God wot not without cause, yet I wot not why ye now cry out for a master, since ye dwell here in peace and quiet and all wealth, and the Fathers of the Thorn are here to do good to you. Yet, if ye will it in sooth, I will be called your Lord, in memory of your Lady whom ye shall not see again. And as time wears I will come and look on you and hearken to your needs: and if ye come to fear that any should fall upon you with the strong hand, then send ye a message to me, Ralph of Upmeads, down by the water, and I will come to you with such following as need be. And as for service, this only I lay upon you, that ye look to the Castle and keep it in good order, and ward it against thieves and runagates, and give guesting therein to any wandering knight or pilgrim, or honest goodman, who shall come to you. Now is all said, my masters, and I pray you let us depart in peace; for time presses.”
Then all they (and this time women as well as men) cried out joyfully: “Hail to our lord! and long life to our helper.” And the women withal drew nearer to him, and some came close up to him, as if they would touch him or kiss his hand, but by seeming durst not, but stood blushing before him, and he looked on them, smiling kindly.
But the old man laid his hand on his knee and said: “Lord, wouldst thou not light down and enter thy Castle; for none hath more right there now than thou. The Prior of the Thorn hath told us that there is no lineage of the Lady left to claim it; and none other might ever have claimed it save the Baron of Sunway, whom thou hast slain. And else would we have slain him, since he slew our Lady.”
Ralph shook his head and said: “Nay, old friend, and new vassal, this we may not do: we must on speedily, for belike there is work for us to do nearer home.”
“Yea, Lord,” said the carle, “but at least light down and sit for a while under this fair oak-tree in the heat of the day, and eat a morsel with us, and drink a cup, that thy luck may abide with us when thou art gone.”
Ralph would not naysay him; so he and all of them got off their horses, and sat down on the green grass under the oak: and that people gathered about and sat down by them, save that a many of the women went to their houses to fetch out the victual. Meanwhile the carles fell to speech freely with the wayfarers, and told them much concerning their little land, were it hearsay, or stark sooth: such as tales of the wights that dwelt in the wood, wodehouses, and elf-women, and dwarfs, and such like, and how fearful it were to deal with such creatures. Amongst other matters they told how a hermit, a holy man, had come to dwell in the wood, in a clearing but a little way thence toward the north-west. But when Ralph asked if he dwelt on the way to the ford of the Swelling Flood, they knew not what he meant; for the wood was to them as a wall.
Hereon the Sage held one of the younger men in talk, and taught him what he might of the way to the Burg of the Four Friths, so that they might verily send a messenger to Upmeads if need were. But the country youth said there was no need to think thereof, as no man of theirs would dare the journey through the wood, and that if they had need of a messenger, one of the Fathers of the Thorn would do their errand, whereas they were holy men, and knew the face of the world full well.
Now in this while the folk seemed to have gotten their courage again, and to be cheery, and to have lost their grief for the Lady: and of the maidens left about the oak were more than two or three very fair, who stood gazing at Ralph as if they were exceeding fain of him.
But amidst these things came back the women with the victual; to wit bread in baskets, and cheeses both fresh and old, and honey, and wood-strawberries, and eggs cooked diversely, and skewers of white wood with gobbets of roasted lamb’s flesh, and salad good plenty. All these they bore first to Ralph and Ursula, and their two fellows, and then dealt them to their own folk: and they feasted and were merry in despite of that tale of evil tidings. They brought also bowls and pitchers of wine that was good and strong, and cider of their orchards, and called many a health to the new Lord and his kindred.
Thus then they abode a-feasting till the sun was westering and the shadows waxed about them, and then at last Ralph rose up and called to horse, and the other wayfarers arose also, and the horses were led up to them. Then the maidens, made bold by the joy of the feast, and being stirred to the heart by much beholding of this beloved Lord, cast off their shamefacedness and crowded about him, and kissed his raiment and his hands: some even, though trembling, and more for love than fear, prayed him for kisses, and he, nothing loath, laughed merrily and laid his hands on their shoulders or took them by the chins, and set his lips to the sweetness of their cheeks and their lips, of those that asked and those that refrained; so that their hearts failed them for love of him, and when he was gone, they knew not how to go back to their houses, or the places that were familiar to them. Therewith he and his got into their saddles and rode away slowly, because of the thronging about them of that folk, who followed them to the edge of the wood, and even entered a little thereinto; and then stood gazing on Ralph and his fellows after they had spurred on and were riding down a glade of the woodland.