Ralph looks on to the ford and sees folk riding through the thorp aforesaid and down to the river, and they take the water and are many in company, some two score by his deeming, and he sees the sun glittering on their weapons.
Now he thought that he would abide their coming and see if he might join their company, since if he crossed the water he would be on the backward way: and it was but a little while ere the head of them came up over the hill, and were presently going past Ralph, who rose up to look on them, and be seen of them, but they took little heed of him. So he sees that though they all bore weapons, they were not all men-at-arms, nay, not more than a half score, but those proper men enough. Of the others, some half-dozen seemed by their attire to be merchants, and the rest their lads; and withal they had many sumpter horses and mules with them. They greeted him not, nor he them, nor did he heed them much till they were all gone by save three, and then he leapt into the road with a cry, for who should be riding there but Blaise, his eldest brother, and Richard the Red with him, both in good case by seeming; for Blaise was clad in a black coat welted with gold, and rode a good grey palfrey, and Richard was armed well and knightly.
They knew him at once, and drew rein, and Blaise lighted down from his horse and cast his arms about Ralph, and said: “O happy day! when two of the Upmeads kindred meet thus in an alien land! But what maketh thee here, Ralph? I thought of thee as merry and safe in Upmeads?”
Ralph said smiling, for his heart leapt up at the sight of his kindred: “Nay, must I not seek adventures like the rest? So I stole myself away from father and mother.” “Ill done, little lord!” said Blaise, stroking Ralph’s cheek.
Then up came Richard, and if Blaise were glad, Richard was twice glad, and quoth he: “Said I not, Lord Blaise, that this chick would be the hardest of all to keep under the coop? Welcome to the Highways, Lord Ralph! But where is thine horse? and whence and whither is it now? Hast thou met with some foil and been held to ransom?”
Ralph found it hard and grievous and dull work to answer; for now again his sorrow had taken hold of him: so he said: “Yea, Richard, I have had adventures, and have lost rather than won; but at least I am a free man, and have spent but little gold on my loss.”
“That is well,” said Richard, “but whence gat ye any gold for spending?” Ralph smiled, but sadly, for he called to mind the glad setting forth and the kind face of dame Katherine his gossip, and he said: “Clement Chapman deemed it not unmeet to stake somewhat on my luck, therefore I am no pauper.”
“Well,” said Blaise, “if thou hast no great errand elsewhere, thou mightest ride with us, brother. I have had good hap in these days, though scarce kingly or knightly, for I have been buying and selling: what matter? few know Upmeads and its kings to wite me with fouling a fair name. Richard, go fetch a horse hither for Lord Ralph’s riding, and we will tarry no longer.” So Richard trotted on, and while they abode him, Ralph asked after his brethren, and Blaise told him that he had seen or heard naught of them. Then Ralph asked of whither away, and Blaise told him to Whitwall, where was much recourse of merchants from many lands, and a noble market.
Back then cometh Richard leading a good horse while Ralph was pondering his matter, and thinking that at such a town he might well hear tidings concerning the Well at the World’s End.
Now Ralph mounts, and they all ride away together. On the way, partly for brotherhood’s sake, partly that he might not be questioned overmuch himself, Ralph asked Blaise to tell him more of his farings; and Blaise said, that when he had left Upmeads he had ridden with Richard up and down and round about, till he came to a rich town which had just been taken in war, and that the Companions who had conquered it were looking for chapmen to cheapen their booty, and that he was the first or nearly the first to come who had will and money to buy, and the Companions, who were eager to depart, had sold him thieves’ penny-worths, so that his share of the Upmeads’ treasure had gone far; and thence he had gone to another good town where he had the best of markets for his newly cheapened wares, and had brought more there, such as he deemed handy to sell, and so had gone on from town to town, and had ever thriven, and had got much wealth: and so at last having heard tell of Whitwall as better for chaffer than all he had yet seen, he and other chapmen had armed them, and waged men-at-arms to defend them, and so tried the adventure of the wildwoods, and come safe through.
Then at last came the question to Ralph concerning his adventures, and he enforced himself to speak, and told all as truly as he might, without telling of the Lady and her woeful ending.
Thus they gave and took in talk, and Ralph did what he might to seem like other folk, that he might nurse his grief in his own heart as far asunder from other men as might be.
So they rode on till it was even, and came to Whitwall before the shutting of the gates and rode into the street, and found it a fair and great town, well defensible, with high and new walls, and men-at-arms good store to garnish them.
Ralph rode with his brother to the hostel of the chapmen, and there they were well lodged.