Before it was light were all men come into the market-place, and Ralph and Richard and Clement and Stephen a-Hurst fell to and arrayed them duly; and now, what with the company which Ralph had led into Wulstead, what with the men of the town, and them that had fled from Upmeads (though these last were mostly old men and lads), they were a thousand and four score and three. Ralph would go afoot as he went yesterday; but today he bore in his hand the ancient staff of war, the gold-written guisarme; and he went amongst the Shepherds, with whom were joined the feeble folk of Upmeads, men whom he had known of old and who knew him, and it was as if their hearts had caught fire from his high heart, and that whatever their past days had been to them, this day at least should be glorious. Withal anon comes Ursula from St. Austin’s with the Sage of Swevenham, whose face was full smiling and cheerful. Ursula wore that day a hauberk under her gown, and was helmed with a sallet; and because of her armour she rode upon a little horse. Ralph gave her into the warding of the Sage, who was armed at all points, and looked a valiant man of war. But Ralph’s brother, Hugh, had gotten him a horse, and had fallen into the company of the Champions, saying that he deemed they would go further forth than a sort of sheep-tending churls and the runaways of Upmeads.
As for Ralph, he walked up and down the ranks of the stout men of the Down-country, and saw how they had but little armour for defence, though their weapons for cutting and thrusting looked fell and handy. So presently he turned about to Giles, who, as aforesaid, bore a long hauberk, and said: “Friend, the walk we are on to-day is a long one for carrying burdens, and an hour after sunrise it will be hot. Wilt thou not do with thy raiment as I do?” And therewith he did off his hauberk and his other armour save his sallet. “This is good,” said he, “for the sun to shine on, so that I may be seen from far; but these other matters are good for folk who fight a-horseback or on a wall; we striders have no need of them.”
Then arose great shouting from the Shepherds, and men stretched out the hand to him and called hail on his valiant heart.
Amidst of which cries Giles muttered, but so as Ralph might hear him: “It is all down hill to Upmeads; I shall take off my iron-coat coming back again.” So Ralph clapped him on the shoulder and bade him come back whole and well in any case. “Yea, and so shalt thou come back,” said he.
Then the horns blew for departure, and they went their ways out of the market-place, and out into the fields through the new wooden wall of Wulstead. Richard led the way with a half score of the Champions, but he rode but a little way before Ralph, who marched at the head of the Shepherds.
So they went in the fresh morning over the old familiar fields, and strange it seemed to Ralph that he was leading an host into the little land of Upmeads. Speedily they went, though in good order, and it was but a little after sunrise when they were wending toward the brow of the little hill whence they would look down into the fair meads whose image Ralph had seen on so many days of peril and weariness.
And now Richard and his fore-riders had come up on to the brow and sat there on their horses clear against the sky; and Ralph saw how Richard drew his sword from the scabbard and waved it over his head, and he and his men shouted; then the whole host set up a great shout, and hastened up the bent, but with the end of their shout and the sound of the tramp of their feet and the rattle of their war-gear was mingled a confused noise of cries a way off, and the blowing of horns, and as Ralph and his company came crowding up on to the brow, he looked down and saw the happy meadows black with weaponed men, and armour gleaming in the clear morning, and the points of weapons casting back the low sun’s rays and glittering like the sparks in a dying fire of straw. Then again he looked, and lo! the High House rising over the meadows unburned and unhurt, and the banner of the fruited tree hanging forth from the topmost tower thereof.
Then he felt a hand come on to his cheek, and lo, Ursula beside him, her cheeks flushed and her eyes glittering; and she cried out: “O thine home, my beloved, thine home!” And he turned to her and said; “Yea, presently, sweetheart!” “Ah,” she said, “will it be long? and they so many!” “And we so mighty!” said Ralph. “Nay, it will be but a little while. Wise man of Swevenham, see to it that my beloved is anigh me to-day, for where I am, there will be safety.”
The Sage nodded yeasay and smiled.
Then Ralph looked along the ridge to right and left of him, and saw that all the host had come up and had a sight of the foemen; on the right stood the Shepherds staring down into the meadow and laughing for the joy of battle and the rage of the oppressed. On the left sat the Champions of the Dry Tree on their horses, and they also were tossing up their weapons and roaring like lions for the prey; and down below the black crowd had drawn together into ordered ranks, and still the clamour and rude roaring of the warriors arose thence, and beat against the hill’s brow.
Now so fierce and ready were the men of Ralph’s company that it was a near thing but that they, and the Shepherds in especial, did not rush tumultuously down the hill all breathless and in ill order. But Ralph cried out to Richard to go left, and Giles to go right, and stay the onset for a while; and to bid the leaders come to him where he stood. Then the tumult amidst his folk lulled, and Stephen a-Hurst and Roger and three others of the Dry Tree came to him, and Giles brought three of the Shepherds, and there was Clement and a fellow of his. So when they were come and standing in a ring round Ralph, he said to them:
“Brothers in arms, ye see that our foes are all in array to meet us, having had belike some spy in Wulstead, who hath brought them the tale of what was toward. Albeit methinks that this irks not either you nor me; for otherwise we might have found them straggling, and scattered far and wide, which would have made our labour the greater. Now ye can see with your eyes that they are many more than we be, even were Nicholas to issue out of the High House against them, as doubtless he will do if need be. Brethren, though they be so many, yet my heart tells me that we shall overcome them; yet if we leave our strength and come down to them, both our toil shall be greater, and some of us, belike many, shall be slain; and evil should I deem it if but a score of my friends should lose their lives on this joyous day when at last I see Upmeads again after many troubles. Wherefore my rede is that we abide their onset on the hillside here; and needs must they fall on us, whereas we have Wulstead and friends behind us, and they nought but Nicholas and the bows and bills of the High House. But if any have aught to say against it let him speak, but be speedy; for already I see a stir in their array, and I deem that they will send men to challenge us to come down to them.”
Then spake Stephen a-Hurst: “I, and we all meseemeth, deem that thou art in the right, Captain; though sooth to say, when we first set eyes on these dogs again, the blood so stirred in us that we were like to let all go and ride down on them.”
Said Richard: “Thou biddest us wisdom of war; let them have the hill against them.” Said Clement: “Yea, for they are well learned and well armed; another sort of folk to those wild men whom we otherthrew in the mountains.”
And in like wise said they all.
Then spake Stephen again: “Lord, since thou wilt fight afoot with our friends of the Shepherds, we of the Dry Tree are minded to fare in like wise and to forego our horses; but if thou gainsay it——”
“Champion,” said Ralph, “I do gainsay it. Thou seest how many of them be horsed, and withal ye it is who must hold the chase of them; for I will that no man of them shall escape.”
They laughed joyously at his word, and then he said: “Go now, and give your leaders of scores and tens the word that I have said, and come back speedily for a little while; for now I see three men sundering them from their battle, and one beareth a white cloth at the end of his spear; these shall be the challengers.”
So they did after his bidding, and by then they had come back to Ralph those three men were at the foot of the hill, which was but low. Then Ralph said to his captains: “Stand before me, so that I be not seen of them until one of you hath made answer, ‘Speak of this to our leader and captain.’” Even so they did; and presently those three came so nigh that they could see the whites of their eyes. They were all three well armed, but the foremost of them was clad in white steel from head to foot, so that he looked like a steel image, all but his face, which was pale and sallow and grim. He and his two fellows, when they were right nigh, rode slowly all along the front of Ralph’s battles thrice, and none spake aught to them, and they gave no word to any; but when they came over against the captains who stood before Ralph for the fourth time, they reined up and faced them, and the leader put back his sallet and spake in a great and rough voice:
“Ye men! we have heard these three hours that ye were coming, wherefore we have drawn out into the meads which we have taken, that ye might see how many and how valiant we be, and might fear us. Wherefore now, ye broken reivers of the Dry Tree, ye silly shepherds of silly sheep, ye weavers and apprentices of Wulstead, and if there by any more, ye fools! we give you two choices this morn. Either come down to us into the meadow yonder, that we may slay you with less labour, or else, which will be the better for you, give up to us the Upmeads thralls who be with you, and then turn your faces and go back to your houses, and abide there till we come and pull you out of them, which may be some while yet. Hah! what say ye, fools?”
Then spake Clement and said: “Ye messengers of the robbers and oppressors, why make ye this roaring to the common people and the sergeants? Why speak ye not with our Captain?”
Cried out the challenger, “Where then is the Captain of the Fools? is he hidden? can he hear my word?”
Scarce was it out of his mouth ere the captains fell away to right and left, and there, standing by himself, was Ralph, holding the ancient lettered war-staff; his head was bare, for now he had done off his sallet, and the sun and the wind played in his bright hair; glorious was his face, and his grey eyes gleamed with wrath and mastery as he spake in a clear voice, and there was silence all along the ranks to hearken him:
“O messenger of the robbers! I am the captain of this folk. I see that the voice hath died away within the jaws of you; but it matters not, for I have heard thy windy talk, and this is the answer: we will neither depart, nor come down to you, but will abide our death by your hands here on this hill-side. Go with this answer.”
The man stared wild at Ralph while he was speaking, and seemed to stagger in his saddle; then he let his sallet fall over his face, and, turning his horse about, rode swiftly, he and his two fellows, down the hill and away to the battle of the Burgers. None followed or cried after him; for now had a great longing and expectation fallen upon Ralph’s folk, and they abode what shall befall with little noise. They noted so soon as the messenger was gotten to the main of the foemen that there was a stir amongst them, and they were ordering their ranks to move against the hill. And withal they saw men all armed coming from out the High House, who went down to the Bridge and abode there. Upmeads-water ran through the meadows betwixt the hill and the High House, as hath been said afore; but as it winded along, one reach of it went nigh to the House, and made wellnigh a quarter of a circle about it before it turned to run down the meadows to the eastward; and at this nighest point was there a wide bridge well builded of stone.
The Burg-devils heeded not the men at the Bridge, but, being all arrayed, made but short tarrying (and that belike only to hear the tale of their messenger) ere they came in two battles straight across the meadow. They on their right were all riders, and these faced the Champions of the Dry Tree, but a great battle of footmen came against the Shepherds and the rest of Ralph’s footmen, but in their rearward was a company of well-horsed men-at-arms; and all of them were well armed and went right orderly and warrior-like.
It was but some fifteen minutes ere they were come to the foot of the hill, and they fell to mounting it with laughter and mockery, but Ralph’s men held their peace. The horsemen were somewhat speedier than those on foot, though they rode but at a foot’s pace, and when they were about halfway up the hill and were faltering a little (for it was somewhat steep, though nought high), the Champions of the Dry Tree could forbear them no longer, but set up a huge roar, and rode at them, so that they all went down the hill together, but the Champions were lost amidst of the huge mass of the foemen.
But Ralph was left at the very left end of his folk, and the foemen came up the hill speedily with much noise and many foul mocks as aforesaid, and they were many and many more than Ralph’s folk, and now that the Champions were gone, could have enfolded them at either end; but no man of the company blenched or faltered, only here and there one spake soft to his neighbour, and here and there one laughed the battle-laugh.
Now at the hanging of the hill, whenas either side could see the whites of the foemen’s eyes, the robbers stayed a little to gather breath; and in that nick of time Ralph strode forth into the midst between the two lines and up on to a little mound on the hill-side (which well he knew), and he lifted up the ancient guisarme, and cried on high: “Home now! Home to Upmeads!”
Then befell a marvel, for even as all eyes of the foemen were turned on him, straightway their shouts and jeering and laughter fell dead, and then gave place to shrieks and wailing, as all they who beheld him cast down their weapons and fled wildly down the hill, overturning whatever stood in their way, till the whole mass of them was broken to pieces, and the hill was covered with nought but cravens and the light-footed Shepherds slaughtering them in the chase.
But Ralph called Clement to him and they drew a stalworth band together, and, heeding nought the chase of the runaways, they fell on those who had the Champions in their midst, and fell to smiting down men on either hand; and every man who looked on Ralph crouched and cowered before him, casting down his weapons and throwing up his hands. Shortly to say it, when these horsemen felt this new onset, and looking round saw their men fleeing hither and thither over the green fields of Upmeads, smitten by the Shepherds and leaping into the deep pools of the river, they turned and fled, every man who could keep his saddle, and made for the Bridge, the Dry Tree thundering at their backs. But even as they came within bowshot, a great flight of arrows came from the further side of the water, and the banner of the Fruitful Tree came forth from the bridge-end with Nicholas and his tried men-at-arms behind it; and then indeed great and grim was the murder, and the proud men of the Burg grovelled on the ground and prayed for mercy till neither the Champions nor the men of Nicholas could smite helpless men any longer.
Now had Ralph held his hand from the chase, and he was sitting on a mound amidst of the meadow under an ancient thorn, and beside him sat the Sage of Swevenham and Ursula. And she was grown pale now and looked somewhat scared, and she spake in a trembling voice to Ralph, and said: “Alas friend! that this should be so grim! When we hear the owls a-nighttime about the High House, shall we not deem at whiles that it is the ghosts of this dreadful battle and slaughter wandering about our fair fields?” But Ralph spake sternly and wrathfully as he sat there bareheaded and all unarmed save for the ancient glaive: “Why did they not slay me then? Better the ghosts of robbers in our fields by night, than the over-burdened hapless thrall by day, and the scourged woman, and ruined child. These things they sought for us and have found death on the way— let it be!”
He laughed as he spake; but then the grief of the end of battle came upon him and he trembled and shook, and great tears burst from his eyes and rolled down his cheeks, and he became stark and hard-faced.
Then Ursula took his hands and caressed them, and kissed his face, and fell a-talking to him of how they rode the pass to the Valley of Sweet Chestnuts; and in a while his heart and his mind came back to him as it did that other time of which she spake, and he kissed her in turn, and began to tell her of his old chamber in the turret of the High House.
And now there come riding across the field two warriors. They draw rein by the mound, and one lights down, and lo! it is Long Nicholas; and he took Ralph in his arms, and kissed him and wept over him for all his grizzled beard and his gaunt limbs; but few words he had for him, save this: “My little Lord, was it thou that was the wise captain to-day, or this stout lifter and reiver!” But the other man was Stephen a-Hurst, who laughed and said: “Nay, Nicholas, I was the fool, and this stripling the wise warrior. But, Lord Ralph, thou wilt pardon me, I hope, but we could not kill them all, for they would not fight in any wise; what shall we do with them?” Ralph knit his brows and thought a little; then he said: “How many hast thou taken?” Said Stephen: “Some two hundred alive.” “Well,” quoth Ralph; “strip them of all armour and weapons, and let a score of thy riders drive them back the way they came into the Debateable Wood. But give them this last word from me, that or long I shall clear the said wood of all strong-thieves.”
Stephen departed on that errand; and presently comes Giles and another of the Shepherds with a like tale, and had a like answer.
Now amidst all these deeds it yet lacked an hour of noon. So presently Ralph arose and took Richard apart for a while and spoke with him a little, and then came back to Ursula and took her by the hand, and said: “Beloved, Richard shall take thee now to a pleasant abode this side the water; for I grudge that thou shouldst enter the High House without me; and as for me I must needs ride back to Wulstead to bring hither my father and mother, as I promised to do after the battle. In good sooth, I deemed it would have lasted longer.” Said Ursula: “Dear friend, this is even what I should have bidden thee myself. Depart speedily, that thou mayst be back the sooner; for sorely do I long to enter thine house, beloved.” Then Ralph turned to Nicholas, and said: “Our host is not so great but that thou mayst victual it well; yet I deem it is little less than when we left Wulstead early this morning.”
“True is that, little lord,” said Nicholas. “Hear a wonder amongst battles: of thy Shepherds and the other footmen is not one slain, and but some five hurt. The Champions have lost three men slain outright, and some fifteen hurt; of whom is thy brother Hugh, but not sorely.” “Better than well is thy story then,” said Ralph. “Now let them bring me a horse.” So when he was horsed, he kissed Ursula and went his ways. And she abode his coming back at Richard’s house anigh the water.