Now wore away the days of March, and all was peaceable, but no tidings came from Sir Mark, nor forsooth was any looked for so early. The Blue Knight had left but three score of men-at-arms at Brookside, under an ancient knight who had won his spurs with hard fighting and was as wise of war as may be, but whose strength was worn away somewhat. But this seemed of little import, as none looked for any war, save it might be the riding of a band of strong-thieves, who would scarce try the tall ramparts of Brookside, or had been speedily thrust aside had they so done. Yet did the seneschal look well to his gates, which were shut save for a few hours midmost of the day, and kept good watch and ward day-long and night-long. And few people were suffered to enter the Castle, save the neighbours who were well known, or now and again a wandering chapman; but such an one was ever put out a-gates before sunset: and no one of these even made a show of giving any news of the country of the war. But midmost of April came some news, such as it was, to wit that the Barons’ League had driven him of Longshaw out of the field by the mere terror of their host and the wind of its banners, and he had shut himself up in Longshaw, whereto they were drawing speedily, and that the King of the City of the Sundering Flood had brought his host into the field to help the Barons. But when the Castle-folk heard this they doubted not but that the Lord of Longshaw was undone, and they were exceeding joyous thereof. But the Maiden, though she might hope the more to see her friend come back whole and sound, was unmerry at the tidings, she could scarce tell for why; neither did the Carline blame her therefore.
But again, almost in the face of May, chapmen more than two or three brought tidings, to wit that all was done: Longshaw taken and ruined, the warriors thereof slain or scattered, and Sir Godrick brought to the heading-block in the King’s City. Now great indeed was the joy in Brookside, and great joy and feast they made; and the Lady of the Castle sat at the high-table, clad in golden garments, at a glorious banquet which was held every night of the octave of the day when they had first heard these good tidings. But when the Carline saw the sadness of the Maiden because of it, she said to her: “Nay, nay, my child, put on a good countenance and up with thine heart. For every tale is good till the next one is told; and I must tell thee that these last two who had one in their mouths, the chapman and the canon to wit, I questioned them closely, first the two together, and then each one by himself, and methought I could see that they knew little more about it than we do, and were but carrying about empty hearsay, ever making the most of what they deemed we and they would like the best to hear. I would rather they had told us once more of the Aunturs of King Arthur and Sir Gawain.”
The Maiden smiled at her word, and her heart was lightened, for it pleased her nought to think that this good Knight, Sir Godrick, whom her friend had so bepraised to her, should have been overcome and led to death by his foemen. Now after this they gat no tidings of any account till May was well on; and then none at all a long while, till at last June was come, and folk about the Castle were getting fearful, lest something untoward had befallen.
At last, on a hot and dry afternoon of June, when the Carline and the Maiden were together and had gotten leave to be without the gate, they saw a horseman come riding from the wood on the other side of the gate, with his head turned toward the Castle, and then another, and then two more. And as they drew nigher, they could see that these were gaunt and tattered and in evil array, and they rode very slowly. And those two beheld them, and saw that no more came, and they wondered what they were. But at last, when they were close on the bridge, they saw only too well by the rags of their array and by the faces of two of them, whom they knew, that these were men-at-arms of Brookside. And the women stood still astonied and wist not what to do; and the men also drew up to them and then abode, and one, he whom they knew the best, spake to them in a harsh voice and said: “God knows we have striven hard to save our lives this long while past, that there might be one or two left to tell the tale; but now it is not so sure but that up there they will slay us for coming home alive. But we heed not, for we be foul like beasts and hungry like beasts and weary like beasts. Let the beasts pass who were once men of Brookside.”
“Poor men,” said the Maiden kindly, “ye need not wound your lips by telling me the tale, for I know it, to wit the others are all slain and perished, and that your lord fell with all valiance in the heat of the battle. O woe is me for my friend!” And she wept.
But the man stared at her wildly, as if he were astonied to hear the unused sweetness of her voice. But she said: “Come now, and let me lead thee to thy fellows; maybe they will be astir now.” So she put her hand on his bridle to lead him, and he followed without naysay, and the others after him. And they passed in under the gate; and by this time there were a score of more folk in the court, for they had seen the riding of men from the walls or windows. But lo, now the Maiden, when she looked about for the Carline, might see her nowhere. But even therewith came one man and another thronging about those runaways, and some crying out, Tell all, tell at once! and blubbering outright, bearded men though they were; and some standing stockstill and staring straight before them in the extremity of their overthrow. And amidst of all this the Maiden was shoved aside and swept out of the way, till presently she felt a hand laid on her shoulder, and found it was the Carline, who spake: “Come out now amidst all this hubbub ere some one think of it to shut the gates. Come speedily.” And they came outside the gate, and found none there, but two horses, and saddle-bags and a pack upon each. And the Carline said: “Mount now, and we will go as thy dead friend bade us; for none may stay us now, and these horses are our very own. Now will we ride away, tonight it may be as far as the Grey Sisters, but tomorrow further.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11