On the morrow Ralph got his men together betimes and rode out a-gates, and was little afraid that any should meddle with him within the town or anigh it, and even so it turned out. But Michael rode in the company new clad, and with his head and face all hidden in a wide sallet. As for Ralph and Ursula, they were exceeding glad, and now that their heads were turned to the last great mountains, it seemed to them that they were verily going home, and they longed for the night, that they might be alone together, and talk of all these matters in each others’ arms.
When they were out a-gates, they rode for two miles along the highway, heedlessly enough by seeming, and then, as Michael bade, turned suddenly into a deep and narrow lane, and forth on, as it led betwixt hazelled banks and coppices of small wood, skirting the side of the hills, so that it was late in the afternoon before they came into the Highway again, which was the only road leading into the passes of the mountains. Then said Michael that now by all likelihood they had beguiled the waylayers for that time; so they went on merrily till half the night was worn, when they shifted for lodging in a little oak-wood by the wayside. There they lay not long, but were afoot betimes in the morning, and rode swiftly daylong, and lay down at night on the wayside with the less dread because they were come so far without hurt.
But on the third day, somewhat after noon, when they were come up above the tilled upland and the land was rough and the ways steep, there lay before them a dark wood swallowing up the road. Thereabout Ralph deemed that he saw weapons glittering ahead, but was not sure, for as clear-sighted as he was. So he stayed his band, and had Ursula into the rearward, and bade all men look to their weapons, and then they went forward heedfully and in good order, and presently not only Ralph, but all of them could see men standing in the jaws of the pass with the wood on either side of them, and though at first they doubted if these were aught but mere strong-thieves, such as any wayfarers might come on, they had gone but a little further when Michael knew them for the riders of Cheaping Knowe. “Yea,” said the Sage of Swevenham, “it is clear how it has been: when they found that we came not that first morning, they had an inkling of what had befallen, and went forward toward the mountains, and not back to Cheaping Knowe, and thus outwent us while we were fetching that compass to give them the go-by: wherefore I deem that some great man is with them, else had they gone back to town for new orders.”
“Well,” said Ralph, “then will they be too many for us; so now will I ride ahead and see if we may have peace.” Said the Sage, “Yea, but be wary, for thou hast to do with the guileful.”
Then Ralph rode on alone till he was come within hail of those waylayers. Then he thrust his sword into the sheath, and cried out: “Will any of the warriors in the wood speak with me; for I am the captain of the wayfarers?”
Then rode out from those men a very tall man, and two with him, one on either side, and he threw back the sallet from his face, and said: “Wayfarer, all we have weapons in our hands, and we so many that thou and thine will be in regard of us as the pips to the apple. Wherefore, yield ye!” Quoth Ralph: “Unto whom then shall I yield me?” Said the other: “To the men of the King of Cheaping Knowe.” Then spake Ralph: “What will ye do with us when we are yolden? Shall we not pay ransom and go our ways?” “Yea,” said the tall man, “and this is the ransom: that ye give up into my hands my dastard who hath bewrayed me, and the woman who wendeth in your company.”
Ralph laughed; for by this time he knew the voice of the King, yea, and the face of him under his sallet. So he cried back in answer, and in such wise as if the words came rather from his luck than from his youth: “Ho, Sir King! beware beware! lest thou tremble when thou seest the bare blade of the Friend of the Well more than thou trembledst erst, when the blade was hidden in the sheath before the throne of thine hall.”
But the King cried out in a loud harsh voice. “Thou, young man, beware thou! and try not thy luck overmuch. We are as many as these trees, and thou canst not prevail over us. Go thy ways free, and leave me what thou canst not help leaving.”
“Yea, fool,” cried Ralph, “and what wilt thou do with these two?”
Said the King: “The traitor I will flay, and the woman I will bed.”
Scarce were the words out of his mouth ere Ralph gave forth a great cry and drew his sword, set spurs to his horse, and gallopped on up the road with all his band at his back for they had drawn anigh amidst this talk. But or ever they came on the foemen, they heard a great confused cry of onset mingled with affright, and lo! the King threw up his arms, and fell forward on his horse’s neck with a great arrow through his throat.
Ralph drave on sword in hand, crying out, “Home, home to Upmeads!” and anon was amidst of the foe smiting on either hand. His men followed, shouting: “Ho, for the Friend of the Well!” And amongst the foemen, who were indeed very many, was huge dismay, so that they made but a sorry defence before the band of the wayfarers, who knew not what to make of it, till they noted that arrows and casting-spears were coming out of the wood on either side, which smote none of them, but many of the foemen. Short was the tale, for in a few minutes there were no men of the foe together save those that were fleeing down the road to Cheaping Knowe.
Ralph would not suffer his men to follow the chase, for he wotted not with whom he might have to deal besides the King’s men. He drew his men together and looked round for Ursula, and saw that the Sage had brought her up anigh him, and there she sat a-horseback, pale and panting with the fear of death and joy of deliverance.
Now Ralph cried out from his saddle in a loud voice, and said: “Ho ye of the arrows of the wood! ye have saved me from my foemen; where be ye, and what be ye?” Came a loud voice from out of the wood on the right hand: “Children, tell the warrior whose sons ye be!” Straightway brake out a huge bellowing on either side of the road, as though the wood were all full of great neat.
Then cried out Ralph: “If ye be of the kindred of the Bull, ye will belike be my friends rather than my foes. Or have ye heard tell of Ralph of Upmeads? Now let your captain come forth and speak with me.”
Scarce were the words out of his mouth ere a man came leaping forth from out the wood, and stood before Ralph in the twilight of the boughs, and Ralph noted of him that he was clad pretty much like to Bull Shockhead of past time, save that he had a great bull’s head for a helm (which afterwards Ralph found out was of iron and leather) and a great gold ring on his arm.
Then Ralph thrust his sword back into the sheath, and his folk handled their weapons peaceably, while Ralph hailed the new-comer as Lord or Duke of the Bulls.
“Belike,” quoth the said chieftain, “thou wouldst wish to show me some token, whereby we may wot that thou art that Friend of the Well and of our kinsman concerning whom he sent us a message.”
Then Ralph bethought him of the pouch with the knot of grass therein which Bull Shockhead had given him at Goldburg; so he drew it out, and gave it into the hand of the chieftain, who no sooner caught a glimpse thereof than he said: “Verily our brother’s hand hath met thine when he gave thee this. Yet forsooth, now that I look on thee, I may say that scarce did I need token to tell me that thou wert the very man. For I can see thee, that thou art of great honour and worship, and thou didst ride boldly against the foemen when thou knewest not that we had waylaid thy waylayers. Now I wot that there is no need to ask thee whether thou wouldst get thee out of our mountains by the shortest road, yet wilt thou make it little longer, and somewhat safer, if ye will suffer us to lead thee by way of our dwelling.” So Ralph yeasaid his bidding without more words.
As they spake thus together the road both above and below was become black with weaponed men, and some of Ralph’s band looked on one another, as though they doubted their new friends somewhat. But the Sage of Swevenham spoke to them and bade them fear nought. “For,” said he, “so far as we go, who are now their friends, there is no guile in these men.” The Bull captain heard him and said: “Thou sayest sooth, old man; and I shall tell thee that scarce had a band like thine come safe through the mountains, save by great good luck, without the leave of us; for the fool with the crown that lieth there dead had of late days so stirred up the Folks of the Fells through his grimness and cruelty that we have been minded to stop everything bigger than a cur-dog that might seek to pass by us, for at least so long as yonder rascal should live. But ye be welcome; so now let us to the road, for the day weareth.”
So the tribesmen gat them into order, and their Duke went on the left side of Ralph, while Ursula rode on his right hand. The Duke and all his men were afoot, but they went easily and swiftly, as wolves trot. As for the slain of the waylayers, of whom there were some threescore, the Bull captain would do nought but let them lie on the road. “For,” said he, “there be wolves and lynxes enough in the wood, and the ravens of the uplands, and the kites shall soon scent the carrion. They shall have burial soon enough. Neither will we meddle with it; nay, not so much as to hang the felon King’s head at thy saddle-bow, lord.”
By sunset they were out of the wood and on the side of a rough fell, so they went no further, but lighted fires at the edge of the thicket, and made merry round about them, singing their songs concerning the deeds of their folk, and jesting withal, but not foully; and they roasted venison of hart and hind at the fires, and they had with them wine, the more part whereof they had found in the slain King’s carriages, and they made great feast to the wayfarers, and were exceeding fain of them; after their fashion, whereas if a man were their friend he could scarce be enough their friend, and if he were their foe, they could never be fierce enough with him.