When he awoke again the sun was shining through the hazel leaves, though it was yet early; he arose and looked to his horse, and led him out of the hazel copse and stood and looked about him; and lo! a man coming slowly through the wood on Ralph’s right hand, and making as it seemed for the want-way; he saw Ralph presently, and stopped, and bent a bow which he held in his hand, and then came towards him warily, with the arrow nocked. But Ralph went to meet him with his sword in his sheath, and leading Falcon by the rein, and the man stopped and took the shaft from the string: he had no armour, but there was a little axe and a wood-knife in his girdle; he was clad in homespun, and looked like a carle of the country-side. Now he greeted Ralph, and Ralph gave him the sele of the day, and saw that the new-comer was both tall and strong, dark of skin and black-haired, but of a cheerful countenance. He spake frank and free to Ralph, and said: “Whither away, lord, out of the woodland hall, and the dwelling of deer and strong-thieves? I would that the deer would choose them a captain, and gather head and destroy the thieves—and some few others with them.”
Said Ralph: “I may scarce tell thee till I know myself. Awhile ago I was minded for the Burg of the Four Friths; but now I am for Hampton under Scaur.”
“Yea?” said the carle, “when the Devil drives, to hell must we.”
“What meanest thou, good fellow?” said Ralph, “Is Hampton then so evil an abode?” And indeed it was in his mind that the adventure of the lady led captive bore some evil with it.
Said the carle: “If thou wert not a stranger in these parts I need not to answer thy question; but I will answer it presently, yet not till we have eaten, for I hunger, and have in this wallet both bread and cheese, and thou art welcome to a share thereof, if thou hungerest also, as is most like, whereas thou art young and fresh coloured.”
“So it is,” said Ralph, laughing, “and I also may help to spread this table in the wilderness, since there are yet some crumbs in my wallet. Let us sit down and fall to at once.”
“By your leave, Sir Gentleman,” said the carle, “we will go a few yards further on, where there is a woodland brook, whereof we may drink when my bottle faileth.”
“Nay, I may better that,” said Ralph, “for I have wherewithal.” “Nevertheless,” said the carle, “we will go thither, for here is it too open for so small a company as ours, since this want-way hath an ill name, and I shall lead thee whereas we shall be somewhat out of the way of murder-carles. So come on, if thou trusteth in me.”
Ralph yeasaid him, and they went together a furlong from the want-way into a little hollow place wherethrough ran a clear stream betwixt thick-leaved alders. The carle led Ralph to the very lip of the water so that the bushes covered them; there they sat down and drew what they had from their wallets, and so fell to meat; and amidst of the meat the carle said:
“Fair Knight, as I suppose thou art one, I will ask thee if any need draweth thee to Hampton?”
Said Ralph: “The need of giving the go-by to the Burg of the Four Friths, since I hear tell that the folk thereof be robbers and murderers.”
“Thou shalt find that out better, lord, by going thither; but I shall tell thee, that though men may slay and steal there time and time about, yet in regard to Hampton under Scaur, it is Heaven, wherein men sin not. And I am one who should know, for I have been long dwelling in Hell, that is Hampton; and now am I escaped thence, and am minded for the Burg, if perchance I may be deemed there a man good enough to ride in their host, whereby I might avenge me somewhat on them that have undone me: some of whom meseemeth must have put in thy mouth that word against the Burg. Is it not so?”
“Maybe,” said Ralph, “for thou seemest to be a true man.” No more he spake though he had half a mind to tell the carle all the tale of that adventure; but something held him back when he thought of that lady and her fairness. Yet again his heart misgave him of what might betide that other maiden at Hampton, and he was unquiet, deeming that he must needs follow her thither. The carle looked on him curiously and somewhat anxiously, but Ralph’s eyes were set on something that was not there; or else maybe had he looked closely on the carle he might have deemed that longing to avenge him whereof he spoke did not change his face much; for in truth there was little wrath in it.
Now the carle said: “Thou hast a tale which thou deemest unmeet for my ears, as it well may be. Well, thou must speak, or refrain from speaking, what thou wilt; but thou art so fair a young knight, and so blithe with a poor man, and withal I deem that thou mayest help me to some gain and good, that I will tell thee a true tale: and first that the Burg is a good town under a good lord, who is no tyrant nor oppressor of peaceful men; and that thou mayest dwell there in peace as to the folk thereof, who be good folk, albeit they be no dastards to let themselves be cowed by murder-carles. And next I will tell thee that the folk of the town of Hampton be verily as harmless and innocent as sheep; but that they be under evil lords who are not their true lords, who lay heavy burdens on them and torment them even to the destroying of their lives: and lastly I will tell thee that I was one of those poor people, though not so much a sheep as the more part of them, therefore have these tyrants robbed me of my croft, and set another man in my house; and me they would have slain had I not fled to the wood that it might cover me. And happy it was for me that I had neither wife, nor chick, nor child, else had they done as they did with my brother, whose wife was too fair for him, since he dwelt at Hampton; so that they took her away from him to make sport for them of the Dry Tree, who dwell in the Castle of the Scaur, who shall be thy masters if thou goest thither.
“This is my tale, and thine, I say, I ask not; but I deem that thou shalt do ill if thou go not to the Burg either with me or by thyself alone; either as a guest, or as a good knight to take service in their host.”
Now so it was that Ralph was wary; and this time he looked closely at the carle, and found that he spake coldly for a man with so much wrath in his heart; therefore he was in doubt about the thing; moreover he called to mind the words of the lady whom he had delivered, and her loveliness, and the kisses she had given him, and he was loth to find her a liar; and he was loth also to think that the maiden of Bourton had betaken her to so evil a dwelling. So he said:
“Friend, I know not that I must needs be a partaker in the strife betwixt Hampton and the Burg, or go either to one or the other of these strongholds. Is there no other way out of this wood save by Hampton or the Burg? or no other place anigh, where I may rest in peace awhile, and then go on mine own errands?”
Said the Carle: “There is a thorp that lieth somewhat west of the Burg, which is called Apthorp; but it is an open place, not fenced, and is debateable ground, whiles held by them of the Burg, whiles by the Dry Tree; and if thou tarry there, and they of the Dry Tree take thee, soon is thine errand sped; and if they of the Burg take thee, then shalt thou be led into the Burg in worse case than thou wouldest be if thou go thereto uncompelled. What sayest thou, therefore? Who shall hurt thee in the Burg, a town which is under good and strong law, if thou be a true man, as thou seemest to be? And if thou art seeking adventures, as may well be, thou shalt soon find them there ready to hand. I rede thee come with me to the Burg; for, to say sooth, I shall find it somewhat easier to enter therein if I be in the company of thee, a knight and a lord.”
So Ralph considered and thought that there lay indeed but little peril to him in the Burg, whereas both those men with whom he had striven were hushed for ever, and there was none else to tell the tale of the battle, save the lady, whose peril from them of the Burg was much greater than his; and also he thought that if anything untoward befel, he had some one to fall back on in old Oliver: yet on the other hand he had a hankering after Hampton under Scaur, where, to say sooth, he doubted not to see the lady again.
So betwixt one thing and the other, speech hung on his lips awhile, when suddenly the carle said: “Hist! thou hast left thy horse without the bushes, and he is whinnying” (which indeed he was), “there is now no time to lose. To horse straightway, for certainly there are folk at hand, and they may be foemen, and are most like to be.”
Therewith they both arose and hastened to where Falcon stood just outside the alder bushes, and Ralph leapt a-horseback without more ado, and the carle waited no bidding to leap up behind him, and pointing to a glade of the wood which led toward the highway, cried out, “Spur that way, thither! they of the Dry Tree are abroad this morning. Spur! ’tis for life or death!”
Ralph shook the rein and Falcon leapt away without waiting for the spur, while the carle looked over his shoulder and said, “Yonder they come! they are three; and ever they ride well horsed. Nay, nay! They are four,” quoth he, as a shout sounded behind them. “Spur, young lord! spur! And thine horse is a mettlesome beast. Yea, it will do, it will do.”
Therewith came to Ralph’s ears the sound of their horse-hoofs beating the turf, and he spurred indeed, and Falcon flew forth.
“Ah,” cried the carle! “but take heed, for they see that thy horse is good, and one of them, the last, hath a bent Turk bow in his hand, and is laying an arrow on it; as ever their wont is to shoot a-horseback: a turn of thy rein, as if thine horse were shying at a weasel on the road!”
Ralph stooped his head and made Falcon swerve, and heard therewith the twang of the bowstring and straightway the shaft flew past his ears. Falcon galloped on, and the carle cried out: “There is the highway toward the Burg! Do thy best, do thy best! Lo you again!”
For the second shaft flew from the Turkish bow, and the noise of the chase was loud behind them. Once again twanged the bow-string, but this time the arrow fell short, and the woodland man, turning himself about as well as he might, shook his clenched fist at the chase, crying out in a voice broken by the gallop: “Ha, thieves! I am Roger of the Rope-walk, I go to twist a rope for the necks of you!”
Then he spake to Ralph: “They are turning back: they are beaten, and withal they love not the open road: yet slacken not yet, young knight, unless thou lovest thine horse more than thy life; for they will follow on through the thicket on the way-side to see whether thou wert born a fool and hast learned nothing later.”
“Yea,” said Ralph, “and now I deem thou wilt tell me that to the Burg I needs must.”
“Yea, forsooth,” said the carle, “nor shall we be long, riding thus, ere we come to the Burg Gate.”
“Yea, or even slower,” said Ralph, drawing rein somewhat, “for now I deem the chase done: and after all is said, I have no will to slay Falcon, who is one of my friends, as thou perchance mayest come to be another.”
Thereafter he went a hand-gallop till the wood began to thin, and there were fields of tillage about the highway; and presently Roger said: “Thou mayst breathe thy nag now, and ride single, for we are amidst friends; not even a score of the Dry Tree dare ride so nigh the Burg save by night and cloud.”
So Ralph stayed his horse, and he and Roger lighted down, and Ralph looked about him and saw a stone tower builded on a little knoll amidst a wheatfield, and below it some simple houses thatched with straw; there were folk moreover working, or coming and going about the fields, who took little heed of the two when they saw them standing quiet by the horse’s head; but each and all of these folk, so far as could be seen, had some weapon.
Then said Ralph: “Good fellow, is this the Burg of the Four Friths?” The carle laughed, and said: “Simple is the question, Sir Knight: yonder is a watch-tower of the Burg, whereunder husbandmen can live, because there be men-at-arms therein. And all round the outskirts of the Frank of the Burg are there such-like towers to the number of twenty-seven. For that, say folk, was the tale of the winters of the Fair Lady who erewhile began the building of the Burg, when she was first wedded to the Forest Lord, who before that building had dwelt, he and his fathers, in thatched halls of timber here and there about the clearings of the wild-wood. But now, knight, if thou wilt, thou mayest go on softly toward the Gate of the Burg, and if thou wilt I will walk beside thy rein, which fellowship, as aforesaid, shall be a gain to me.”
Said Ralph: “I pray thee come with me, good fellow, and show me how easiest to enter this stronghold.” So, when Falcon was well breathed, they went on, passing through goodly acres and wide meadows, with here and there a homestead on them, and here and there a carle’s cot. Then came they to a thorp of the smallest on a rising ground, from the further end of which they could see the walls and towers of the Burg. Thereafter right up to the walls were no more houses or cornfields, nought but reaches of green meadows plenteously stored with sheep and kine, and with a little stream winding about them.