There was no candle in the hall when he entered, but it was not so dark therein but he might see Roger sitting on a stool near the chimney, and opposite to him on the settle sat two men; one very tall and big, the other small; Roger was looking away from these, and whistling; and it came into Ralph’s mind that he would have him think that he had nought to do with them, whether that were so or not. But he turned round as Ralph came up the hall and rose and came up to him, and fell to talking with him and asking him how he liked the Burg; and ever he spake fast and loud, so that again it came on Ralph that he was playing a part.
Ralph heeded him little, but ever looked through the hall-dusk on those twain, who presently arose and went toward the hall door, but when they were but half-way across the floor a chamberlain came in suddenly, bearing candles in his hands, and the light fell on those guests and flashed back from a salade on the head of the big man, and Ralph saw that he was clad in a long white gaberdine, and he deemed that he was the very man whom he had seen last in the Great Place at Higham, nigh the church, and before that upon the road. As for the smaller man Ralph had no knowledge of him, for he could see but little of his face, whereas he was wrapped up in a cloak, for as warm as the evening was, and wore a slouch hat withal; but his eyes seemed great and wondrous bright.
But when they were gone Ralph asked Roger if he knew aught of them, or if they had told him aught. “Nay,” said Roger, “they came in here as I sat alone, and had their meat, and spake nought to me, and little to each other. I deem them not to be of the Burg. Nay, sooth to say, I doubt if they be true men.”
As he spake came in a sort of the townsmen somewhat merry and noisy, and called for meat and drink and more lights; so that the board was brought and the hall was speedily astir. These men, while supper was being dight, fell to talking to Ralph and Roger, and asking them questions of whence and whither, but nowise uncourteously: to whom Roger answered with the tale which he had told Ralph, and Ralph told what he would, and that was but little.
But when the board was dight they bade them sit down with them and eat. Ralph sat down at once, and Roger would have served him, but Ralph bade him do it not, and constrained him to sit by his side, and they two sat a little apart from the townsmen.
So when they had eaten their fill, and wine was brought, and men were drinking kindly, Ralph began to ask Roger concerning those women whom he had seen in the street, and the captives whom he had seen brought in by the host, and if they were of one kindred, and generally how it was with them: and he spake somewhat softly as if he would not break into the talk of the townsmen: but Roger answered him in a loud voice so that all could hear:
“Yea, lord, I will tell thee the tale of them, which setteth forth well both the wise policy and the great mercy of the folk of the Burg and their rulers.”
Said Ralph: “Are these women also of the Dry Tree? For I perceive them to be born of the foes of the Burg.”
Now the townsmen had let their talk drop a while to listen to the talk of the aliens; and Roger answered still in a loud voice: “Nay, nay, it is not so. These queens are indeed war-taken thralls, but not from them of the Dry Tree, or they would have been slain at once, like as the carles of those accursed ones. But these are of the folk of the Wheat-wearers, even as those whom thou sawest brought to-day amidst the other spoil. And to this folk the Burg showeth mercy, and whenso the host goeth against them and over-cometh (and that is well-nigh whenever they meet) these worthy lords slay no woman of them, but the men only, whether they be old or young or youngest. As for their women they are brought hither and sold at the market-cross to the highest bidder. And this honour they have, that such of them as be fair, and that is the more part of the younger ones, fetch no ill penny. Yet for my part I were loth to cheapen such wares: for they make but evil servants, being proud, and not abiding stripes lightly, or toiling the harder for them; and they be somewhat too handy with the knife if they deem themselves put upon. Speak I sooth, my masters?” quoth he, turning toward them of the town.
Said a burgher somewhat stricken in years, “Nought but sooth; peaceable men like to me eschew such servants; all the more because of this, that if one of these queens misbehave with the knife, or strayeth from her master’s bed, the laws of the Burg meddle not therein. For the wise men say that such folk are no more within the law than kine be, and may not for their deeds be brought before leet or assize any more than kine. So that if the master punish her not for her misdoings, unpunished she needs must go; yea even if her deed be mere murder.”
“That is sooth,” said a somewhat younger man; “yet whiles it fareth ill with them at the hands of our women. To wit, my father’s brother has even now come from the war to find his thrall all spoilt by his wife: and what remedy may he have against his wife? his money is gone, even as if she had houghed his horse or his best cow.”
“Yea,” said a third, “we were better without such cattle. A thrust with a sword and all the tale told, were the better way of dealing with them.”
Said another; “Yet are the queens good websters, and, lacking them, figured cloth of silk would be far-fetched and dear-bought here.”
A young man gaily clad, who had been eyeing the speakers disdainfully, spake next and said: “Fair sirs, ye are speaking like hypocrites, and as if your lawful wives were here to hearken to you; whereas ye know well how goodly these thralls be, and that many of them can be kind enough withal; and ye would think yourselves but ill bestead if ye might not cheapen such jewels for your money. Which of you will go to the Cross next Saturday and there buy him a fairer wife than he can wed out of our lineages? and a wife withal of whose humours he need take no more account of than the dullness of his hound or the skittish temper of his mare, so long as the thong smarts, and the twigs sting.”
One or two grinned as he spake, but some bent their brows at him, yet scarce in earnest, and the talk thereover dropped, nor did Ralph ask any more questions; for he was somewhat down-hearted, calling to mind the frank and free maidens of Upmead, and their friendly words and hearty kisses. And him seemed the world was worse than he had looked to find it.
Howsoever, the oldest and soberest of the guests, seeing that he was a stranger and of noble aspect, came unto him and sat by him, and fell to telling him tales of the wars of the men of the Burg with the Wheat-wearers; and how in time past, when the town was but little fenced, the Wheat-wearers had stormed their gates and taken the city, and had made a great slaughter; but yet had spared many of the fighting-men, although they had abided there as the masters of them, and held them enthralled for three generations of men: after which time the sons’ sons of the old Burg-dwellers having grown very many again, and divers of them being trusted in sundry matters by the conquerors, who oppressed them but little, rose up against them as occasion served, in the winter season and the Yule feast, and slew their masters, save for a few who were hidden away.
“And thereafter,” quoth he, “did we make the Burg strong and hard to win, as ye see it to-day; and we took for our captain the Forest Lord, who ere-while had dwelt in the clearings of the wildwood, and he wedded the Fair Lady who was the son’s daughter of him who had been our lord ere the Wheat-wearers overcame us; and we grew safe and free and mighty again. And the son of the Forest Lord, he whom we call the War-smith, he it was who beheld the Burg too much given to pleasure, and delighting in the softness of life; and he took order to harden our hearts, and to cause all freemen to learn the craft of war and battle, and let the women and thralls and aliens see to other craftsmanship and to chaffer; and even so is it done as he would; and ye shall find us hardy of heart enough, though belike not so joyous as might be. Yet at least we shall not be easy to overcome.”
“So indeed it seemeth,” said Ralph. “Yet will I ask of you first one question, and then another.”
“Ask on,” said the burgher.
Said Ralph: “How is it that ye, being so strong, should still suffer them of the Dry Tree, taking a man here and a man there, when ye might destroy them utterly?”
The Burgher reddened and cleared his throat and said: “Sir, it must be made clear to you that these evil beasts are no peril to the Burg of the Four Friths; all the harm they may do us, is as when a cur dog biteth a man in the calf of the leg; whereby the man shall be grieved indeed, but the dog slain. Such grief as that they have done us at whiles: but the grief is paid for thus, that the hunting and slaying of them keeps our men in good trim, and pleasures them; shortly to say it, they are the chief deer wherewith our wood is stocked.”
He stopped awhile and then went on again and said: “To say sooth they be not very handy for crushing as a man crushes a wasp, because sorcery goes with them, and the wiles of one who is their Queen, the evilest woman who ever spat upon the blessed Host of the Altar: yet is she strong, a devouring sea of souls, God help us!” And he blessed himself therewith.
Said Ralph: “Yet a word on these Wheat-wearers; it seemeth that ye never fail to overcome them in battle?”
“But seldom at least,” quoth the Burgher.
Said Ralph: “Then it were no great matter for you to gather a host overwhelming, and to take their towns and castles, and forbid them weapons, and make them your thralls to till the land for you which now they call theirs; so that ye might have of their gettings all save what were needful for them to live as thralls.”
“I deem it were an easy thing,” said the burgher.
Quoth Ralph: “Then why do ye not so?”
“It were but a poor game to play,” said the burgher. “Such of their wealth as we have a mind to, we can have now at the cost of a battle or two, begun one hour and ended the next: were we their masters sitting down amidst of their hatred, and amidst of their plotting, yea, and in the very place where that were the hottest and thickest, the battle would be to begin at every sun’s uprising, nor would it be ended at any sunset. Hah! what sayest thou?”
Said Ralph: “This seemeth to me but the bare truth; yet it is little after the manner of such masterful men as ye be. But why then do ye slay all their carles that are taken; whereas ye bear away the women and make thralls of them at home, that is to say, foes in every house?”
“It may be,” said the Burgher, “that this is not amongst the wisest of our dealings. Yet may we do no otherwise; for thus we swore to do by all the greatest oaths that we might swear, in the days when we first cast off their yoke, and yet were not over strong at the first; and now it hath so grown into a part of our manners, yea, and of our very hearts and minds, that the slaying of a Wheat-wearer is to us a lighter matter than the smiting of a rabbit or a fowmart. But now, look you, fair sir, my company ariseth from table; so I bid thee a good night. And I give thee a good rede along with the good wish, to wit, that thou ask not too many questions in this city concerning its foemen: for here is the stranger looked upon with doubt, if he neither will take the wages of the Burg for battle, nor hath aught to sell.”
Ralph reddened at his word, and the other looked at him steadily as he spoke, so that Ralph deemed that he mistrusted him: he deemed moreover that three or four of the others looked hard at him as they went towards the door, while Roger stood somewhat smiling, and humming a snatch of an old song.
But when the other guests had left the hostelry, Roger left his singing, and turned to Ralph and said: “Master, meseems that they mistrust us, and now maybe is that peril that I spake of nigher than I deemed when we came into the Burg this morning. And now I would that we were well out of the Burg and in the merry greenwood again, and it repents me that I brought thee hither.”
“Nay, good fellow,” quoth Ralph, “heed it not: besides, it was me, not thee, that they seemed to doubt of. I will depart hence to-morrow morning no worser than I came, and leave thee to seek thy fortune here; and good luck go with thee.”
Roger looked hard at him and said: “Not so, young lord; if thou goest I will go with thee, for thou hast won my heart, I know not how: and I would verily be thy servant, to follow thee whithersoever thou goest; for I think that great deeds will come of thee.”
This word pleased Ralph, for he was young and lightly put faith in men’s words, and loved to be well thought of, and was fain of good fellowship withal. So he said: “This is a good word of thine, and I thank thee for it; and look to it that in my adventures, and the reward of them thou shalt have thy due share. Lo here my hand on it!”
Roger took his hand, yet therewith his face seemed a little troubled, but he said nought. Then spoke Ralph: “True it is that I am not fain to take the wages of the Burg; for it seems to me that they be hard men, and cruel and joyless, and that their service shall be rather churlish than knightly. Howbeit, let night bring counsel, and we will see to this to-morrow; for now I am both sleepy and weary.” Therewith he called the chamberlain, who bore a wax light before him to his chamber, and he did off his raiment and cast himself on his bed, and fell asleep straightway, before he knew where Roger was sleeping, whether it were in the hall or some place else.