Now this same summer, when King Christopher was of twenty years and two, Rolf the Marshal, sleeping one noontide in the King’s garden at Oakenham, dreamed a dream. For himseemed that there came through the garth-gate a woman fair and tall, and clad in nought but oaken-leaves, who led by the hand an exceeding goodly young man of twenty summers, and his visage like to the last battle-dead King of Oakenrealm when he was a young man. And the said woman led the swain up to the Marshal, who asked in his mind what these two were: and the woman answered his thought and said: “I am the Woman of the Woods, and the Landwight of Oakenrealm; and this lovely lad whose hand I hold is my King and thy King and the King of Oakenrealm. Wake, fool — wake! and look to it what thou wilt do!”
And therewith he woke up crying out, and drew forth his sword. But when he was fully awakened, he was ashamed, and went into the hall, and sat in his high-seat, and strove to think out of his troubled mind; but for all he might do, he fell asleep again; and again in the hall he dreamed as he had dreamed in the garden: and when he awoke from his dream he had no thought in his head but how he might the speediest come to the house of Lord Richard the Lean, and look to the matter of his lord’s son and see him with his eyes, and, if it might be, take some measure with the threat which lay in the lad’s life. Nought he tarried, but set off in an hour’s time with no more company than four men-at-arms and an old squire of his, who was wont to do his bidding without question, whether it were good or evil.
So they went by frith and fell, by wood and fair ways, till in two days’ time they were come by undern within sight of the Castle of the Outer March, and entered into the street of the thorpe aforesaid; and they saw that there were no folk therein and at the house-doors save old carles and carlines scarce wayworthy, and little children who might not go afoot. But from the field anigh the thorpe came the sound of shouting and glad voices, and through the lanes of the houses they saw on the field many people in gay raiment going to and fro, as though there were games and sports toward.
Thereof Lord Rolf heeded nought, but went his ways straight to the Castle, and was brought with all honour into the hall, and thither came Lord Richard the Lean, hastening and half afeard, and did obeisance to him; and there were but a few in the hall, and they stood out of earshot of the two lords.
The Marshal spoke graciously to Lord Richard, and made him sit beside him, and said in a soft voice: “We have come to see thee, Lord, and how the folk do in the Uttermost Marches. Also we would wot how it goes with a lad whom we sent to thee when he was yet a babe, whereas he was some byblow of the late King, our lord and master, and we deemed thee both rich enough and kind enough to breed him into thriving without increasing pride upon him: and, firstly, is the lad yet alive?”
He knitted his brow as he spake, for carefulness of soul; but Lord Richard smiled upon him, though as one somewhat troubled, and answered: “Lord Marshal, I thank thee for visiting this poor house; and I shall tell thee first that the lad lives, and hath thriven marvellously, though he be somewhat unruly, and will abide no correction now these last six years. Sooth to say, there is now no story of his being anywise akin to our late Lord King; though true it is that the folk in this faraway corner of the land call him King Christopher, but only in a manner of jesting. But it is no jest wherein they say that they will gainsay him nought, and that especially the young women. Yet I will say of him that he is wise, and asketh not overmuch; the more is the sorrow of many of the maidens. A fell woodsman he is, and exceeding stark, and as yet heedeth more of valiance than of the love of woman.”
The Marshal looked no less troubled than before at these words; he said: “I would see this young man speedily.”
“So shall it be, Lord,” said Lord Richard. Therewith he called to him a squire, and said: “Go thou down into the thorpe, and bring hither Christopher, for that a great lord is here who would set him to do a deed of woodcraft, such as is more than the wont of men.”
So the squire went his ways, and was gone a little while, and meantime drew nigh to the hall a sound of triumphing songs and shouts, and right up to the hall doors; then entered the squire, and by his side came a tall young man, clad but in a white linen shirt and deerskin brogues, his head crowned with a garland of flowers: him the squire brought up to the lords on the dais, and louted to them, and said: “My lords, I bring you Christopher, and he not overwilling, for now hath he been but just crowned king of the games down yonder; but when the carles and queans there said that they would come with him and bear him company to the hall doors, then, forsooth, he yea-said the coming. It were not unmeet that some shame were done him.”
“Peace, man!” said Lord Richard, “what hath this to do with thee? Seest thou not the Lord Marshal here?” The Lord Rolf sat and gazed on the lad, and scowled on him; but Christopher saw therein nought but the face of a great lord burdened with many cares; so when he had made his obeisance he stood up fearlessly and merrily before them.
Sooth to say, he was full fair to look on: for all his strength, which, as ye shall hear, was mighty, all the fashion of his limbs and his body was light and clean done, and beauteous; and though his skin, where it showed naked, was all tanned with the summer, it was fine and sleek and kindly, every deal thereof: bright-eyed and round-cheeked he was, with full lips and carven chin, and his hair golden brown of hue, and curling crisp about the blossoms of his garland.
So must we say that he was such an youngling as most might have been in the world, had not man’s malice been, and the mischief of grudging and the marring of grasping.
But now spake Lord Rolf: “Sir varlet, they tell me that thou art a mighty hunter, and of mickle guile in woodcraft; wilt thou then hunt somewhat for me, and bring me home a catch seldom seen?”
“Yea, Lord King,” said Christopher, “I will at least do my best, if thou but tell me where to seek the quarry and when.”
“It is well,” said the Marshal, “and to-morrow my squire, whom thou seest yonder, and who hight Simon, shall tell thee where the hunt is up, and thou shalt go with him. But hearken! thou shalt not call me king; for to-day there is no king in Oakenrealm, and I am but Marshal, and Earl of the king that shall be.”
The lad fell a-musing for a minute, and then he said: “Yea, Lord Marshal, I shall do thy will: but meseemeth I have heard some tale of one who was but of late king in Oakenrealm: is it not so, Lord?”
“Stint thy talk, young man,” cried the Marshal in a harsh voice, “and abide to-morrow; who knoweth who shall be king, and whether thou or I shall live to see him.”
But as he spake the words they seemed to his heart like a foretelling of evil, and he turned pale and trembled, and said to Christopher: “Come hither, lad; I will give thee a gift, and then shalt thou depart till to-morrow.” So Christopher drew near to him, and the Marshal pulled off a ring from his finger and set it on the lad’s, and said to him: “Now depart in peace;” and Christopher bent the knee to him and thanked him for the gracious gift of the ruler of Oakenrealm, and then went his ways out of the hall, and the folk without gave a glad cry as he came amongst them.
But by then he was come to the door, Lord Rolf looked on his hand, and saw that, instead of giving the youngling a finger-ring which he had bought of a merchant for a price of five bezants, as he had meant to do, he had given him a ring which the old King had had, whereon was the first letter of his name (Christopher to wit), and a device of a crowned rose, for this ring was a signet of his. Wherefore was the Marshal once more sore troubled, and he arose, and was half minded to run down the hall after Christopher; but he refrained him, and presently smiled to himself, and then fell a-talking to Lord Richard, sweetly and pleasantly.
SO wore the day to evening; but, ere he went to bed, the Lord Rolf had a privy talk, first with Lord Richard, and after with his squire Simon. What followed of that talk ye may hear after.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53