Now when he was clear of the Thorp the road took him out of the dale; and when he was on the hill’s brow he saw that the land was of other fashion from that which lay behind him. For the road went straight through a rough waste, no pasture, save for mountain sheep or goats, with a few bushes scattered about it; and beyond this the land rose into a long ridge; and on the ridge was a wood thick with trees, and no break in them. So on he rode, and soon passed that waste, which was dry and parched, and the afternoon sun was hot on it; so he deemed it good to come under the shadow of the thick trees (which at the first were wholly beech trees), for it was now the hottest of the day. There was still a beaten way between the tree-boles, though not overwide, albeit, a highway, since it pierced the wood. So thereby he went at a soft pace for the saving of his horse, and thought but little of all he had been told of the perils of the way, and not a little of the fair maid whom he had left behind at the Thorp.
After a while the thick beech-wood gave out, and he came into a place where great oaks grew, fair and stately, as though some lord’s wood-reeve had taken care that they should not grow over close together, and betwixt them the greensward was fine, unbroken, and flowery. Thereby as he rode he beheld deer, both buck and hart and roe, and other wild things, but for a long while no man.
The afternoon wore and still he rode the oak wood, and deemed it a goodly forest for the greatest king on earth. At last he came to where another road crossed the way he followed, and about the crossway was the ground clearer of trees, while beyond it the trees grew thicker, and there was some underwood of holly and thorn as the ground fell off as towards a little dale.
There Ralph drew rein, because he doubted in his mind which was his right road toward the Burg of the Four Friths; so he got off his horse and abode a little, if perchance any might come by; he looked about him, and noted on the road that crossed his, and the sward about it, the sign of many horses having gone by, and deemed that they had passed but a little while. So he lay on the ground to rest him and let his horse stray about and bite the grass; for the beast loved him and would come at his call or his whistle.
Ralph was drowsy when he lay down, and though he said to himself that he would nowise go to sleep, yet as oft happens, he had no defence to make against sleepiness, and presently his hands relaxed, his head fell aside, and he slept quietly. When he woke up in a little space of time, he knew at once that something had awaked him and that he had not had his sleep out; for in his ears was the trampling of horse-hoofs and the clashing of weapons and loud speech of men. So he leapt up hastily, and while he was yet scarce awake, took to whistling on his horse; but even therewith those men were upon him, and two came up to him and laid hold of him; and when he asked them what they would, they bade him hold his peace.
Now his eyes cleared, and he saw that those men were in goodly war-gear, and bore coats of plate, and cuir-bouilly, or of bright steel; they held long spears and were girt with good swords; there was a pennon with them, green, whereon was done a golden tower, embattled, amidst of four white ways; and the same token bore many of the men on their coats and sleeves. Unto this same pennon he was brought by the two men who had taken him, and under it, on a white horse, sat a Knight bravely armed at all points with the Tower and Four Ways on his green surcoat; and beside him was an ancient man-at-arms, with nought but an oak wreath on his bare head, and his white beard falling low over his coat: but behind these twain a tall young man, also on a white horse and very gaily clad, upheld the pennon. On one side of these three were five men, unarmed, clad in green coats, with a leafless tree done on them in gold: they were stout carles, bearded and fierce-faced: their hands were bound behind their backs and their feet tied together under their horses’ bellies. The company of those about the Knight, Ralph deemed, would number ten score men.
So when those twain stayed Ralph before the Knight, he turned to the old man and said:
“It is of no avail asking this lither lad if he be of them or no: for no will be his answer. But what sayest thou, Oliver?”
The ancient man drew closer to Ralph and looked at him up and down and all about; for those two turned him about as if he had been a joint of flesh on the roasting-jack; and at last he said:
“His beard is sprouting, else might ye have taken him for a maid of theirs, one of those of whom we wot. But to say sooth I seem to know the fashion of his gear, even as Duke Jacob knew Joseph’s tabard. So ask him whence he is, lord, and if he lie, then I bid bind him and lead him away, that we may have a true tale out of him; otherwise let him go and take his chance; for we will not waste the bread of the Good Town on him.”
The Knight looked hard on Ralph, and spake to him somewhat courteously:
“Whence art thou, fair Sir, and what is thy name? for we have many foes in the wildwood.”
Ralph reddened as he answered: “I am of Upmeads beyond the down country; and I pray thee let me be gone on mine errands. It is meet that thou deal with thine own robbers and reivers, but not with me.”
Then cried out one of the bounden men: “Thou liest, lad, we be no robbers.” But he of the Knight’s company who stood by him smote the man on the mouth and said: “Hold thy peace, runagate! Thou shalt give tongue to-morrow when the hangman hath thee under his hands.”
The Knight took no heed of this; but turned to the ancient warrior and said: “Hath he spoken truth so far?”
“Yea, Sir Aymer,” quoth Oliver; “And now meseems I know him better than he knoweth me.”
Therewith he turned to Ralph and said: “How fareth Long Nicholas, my lord?”
Ralph reddened again: “He is well,” said he.
Then said the Knight: “Is the young man of a worthy house, Oliver?”
But ere the elder could speak, Ralph brake in and said: “Old warrior, I bid thee not to tell out my name, as thou lovest Nicholas.”
Old Oliver laughed and said: “Well, Nicholas and I have been friends in a way, as well as foes; and for the sake of the old days his name shall help thee, young lord.” Then he said to his Knight: “Yea, Sir Aymer, he is of a goodly house and an ancient; but thou hearest how he adjureth me. Ye shall let his name alone.”
The Knight looked silently on Ralph for a while; then he said: “Wilt thou wend with us to the Burg of the Four Friths, fair Sir? Wert thou not faring thither? Or what else dost thou in the Wood Perilous?”
Ralph turned it over in his mind; and though he saw no cause why he should not join himself to their company, yet something in his heart forbade him to rise to the fly too eagerly; so he did but say: “I am seeking adventures, fair lord.”
The Knight smiled: “Then mayst thou fill thy budget with them if thou goest with us,” quoth he. Now Ralph did not know how he might gainsay so many men at arms in the long run, though he were scarce willing to go; so he made no haste to answer; and even therewith came a man running, through the wood up from the dale; a long, lean carle, meet for running, with brogues on his feet, and nought else but a shirt; the company parted before him to right and left to let him come to the Knight, as though he had been looked for; and when he was beside him, the Knight leaned down while the carle spake softly to him and all men drew out of ear-shot. And when the carle had given his message the Knight drew himself straight up in his saddle again and lifted up his hand and cried out:
“Oliver! Oliver! lead on the way thou wottest! Spur! spur, all men!”
Therewith he blew one blast from a horn which hung at his saddle-bow; the runner leapt up behind old Oliver, and the whole company went off at a smart trot somewhat south-east, slantwise of the cross-roads, where the wood was nought cumbered with undergrowth; and presently they were all gone to the last horse-tail, and no man took any more note of Ralph.