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.