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 0, 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 0, 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.”