Ralph went straight from St. Austin’s to Clement’s house, and found much people about the door thereof, what of the townsmen, what of the men of his own host. He passed through these, and found Clement in his chamber, and with him a half score of such company as was without, and amongst them Roger and the Sage; but Stephen and Richard both were amongst their men doing what was needful. All men arose when Ralph entered; but he looked around, and could see nought of his gossip amongst them. Then he sat down by Clement and asked if he had any fresh tidings; and Clement did him to wit that there had come in a carle from out of Upmeads, who had told them by sure tokens that the foe were come into the Upmeads-land at noon that day, and between then and sunset had skirmished with Nicholas and them that were holding the High House, but had gotten nought thereby. This man, said Clement, being both bold and of good sleight had mingled with the foe; and had heard the talk of them, and he said that they had no inkling of the Shepherds or the Dry Tree coming against them; but they looked to have aid from their own folk from the lands of Higham; wherefore they made a mock of the defence of the Upmeads’ men; and said that since, when they were all joined together in Upmeads, they might enter where they would without the loss of a half-score men, therefore they would risk nought now; nor would they burn either the High House or the other steadings, since, said they, they were minded to keep them sound and whole for their own.
These tidings seemed good to Ralph; so he took a cup of wine and pledged the company, and said: “My masters, such of you as list to sleep long to-night had best be abed presently, for I warn you that the trumpets will blow for departure before the sun riseth to-morrow; and he that faileth to see to-morrow’s battle will be sorry for his lack all his life long.”
When he had thus spoken they all cried hail to him, and anon arose and went their ways. Then Ralph bade Clement come with him that he might visit the quarters of his men-at-arms, and see that all the leaders knew of the muster, and of the order of departing on the morrow; and Clement arose and went with him.
As they were on the way Ralph asked Clement what ailed his gossip Katherine that she had not come to meet him already; and Clement laughed and said: “Nought, nought; she is somewhat shamefaced to meet thee first amongst a many folk, and she not able belike to refrain her kisses and caresses to thee. Fear not, she is in her bower-aloft, and we shall find her there when we come back from our errand; fear not! she will not sleep till she hath had her arms about thee.” “Good is that,” said Ralph; “I had looked to see her ere now; but when we meet apart from folk, something we shall be able to say to each other, which belike neither she nor I had liked to leave unsaid till we meet again.”
So came they to the chief quarters of the fighting men, and Ralph had all the leaders called to him, and he spake to them of how they should do on the morrow, both footmen and horsemen, whatwise they should stand together, and how they should fall on; and he told them all as clearly as if he were already in the field with the foe before him; so that they wondered at him, so young in years, being so old in the wisdom of war. Withal they saw of him that he had no doubt but that they should come to their above on the morrow; and all men, not only of the tried men-at-arms of the Dry Tree, but they of the Shepherds also, even those of them who had never stricken a stroke in anger, were of high heart and feared not what should befall.
So when all this business was over, they turned about and came their ways home to Clement’s house again.
They saw lights in the chamber or ever they entered, and when they came to the door, lo! there within was Katherine walking up and down the floor as if she knew not how to contain herself. She turned and saw Ralph at the door, and she cried aloud and ran towards him with arms outspread. But when she drew nigh to him and beheld him closely, she withheld her, and falling down on her knees before him took his hand and fell to kissing it and weeping and crying out, “O my lord, my lord, thou art come again to us!” But Ralph stooped down to her, and lifted her up, and embraced her and kissed her on the cheeks and the mouth, and led her to the settle and sat down beside her and put his arm about her; and Clement looked on smiling, and sat him down over against them.
Then spake Katherine: “O my lord! how great and masterful hast thou grown; never did I hope to see thee come back so mighty a man.” And again she wept for joy; but Ralph kissed her again, and she said, laughing through her tears: “Master Clement, this lord and warrior hath brought back with him something that I have not seen; and belike he hath had one fair woman in his arms, or more it may be, since I saw him last. For though he but kisses me as his gossip and foster-mother, yet are his kisses closer and kinder than they were aforetime.”
Said Clement: “Sooth is the Sage’s guess; yet verily, fair sir, I have told her somewhat of thy journeys, so far as I knew of them.”
Said Katherine: “Dear lord and gossip, wilt thou not tell me more thereof now?”
“What!” said Ralph; “shall I not sleep to-night?”
“Dear gossip,” she said, “thou art over-mighty to need sleep. And ah! I had forgotten in the joy of our meeting that to-morrow thou goest to battle; and how if thou come not again?”
“Fear nought,” said Ralph; “art thou not somewhat foreseeing? Dost thou not know that to-morrow or the day after I shall come back unhurt and victorious; and then shall both thou and Clement come to Upmeads and abide there as long as ye will; and then shall I tell thee a many tales of my wanderings; and Ursula my beloved, she also shall tell thee.”
Katherine reddened somewhat, but she said: “Would I might kiss her feet, dear lord. But now, I pray thee, tell me somewhat, now at once.”
“So shall it be,” said Ralph, “since thou wilt have it, dear gossip; but when I have done I shall ask thee to tell me somewhat, whereof hath long been wonder in my mind; and meseemeth that by the time we are both done with tales, I shall needs be putting on my helm again.—Nay, again I tell thee it is but a show of battle that I go to!”
So then he went and sat by Clement’s side, and began and told over as shortly as might be the tidings of his journeys. And oft she wept for pity thereat.
But when he was done and he had sat beholding her, and saw how goodly a woman she was, and how straight and well knit of body, he said: “Gossip, I wonder now, if thou also hast drunk of the Well; for thou art too fair and goodly to be of the age that we call thee. How is this! Also tell me how thou camest by this pair of beads that seem to have led me to the Well at the World’s End? For as I said e’en now, I have long marvelled how thou hadst them and where.”
“Fair sir,” said Clement, “as for her drinking of the Well at the World’s End, it is not so; but this is a good woman, and a valiant, and of great wisdom; and such women wear well, even as a well-wrought piece of armour that hath borne many strokes of the craftsman’s hand, and hath in it some deal of his very mind and the wisdom of him. But now let her tell thee her tale (which forsooth I know not), for night is growing old.”