It was as Ursula had deemed, and they made for Higham by the shortest road, so that they came before the gate a little before sunset: to the very gate they came not; for there were strong barriers before it, and men-at-arms within them, as though they were looking for an onfall. And amongst these were bowmen who bended their bows on Ralph and his company. So Ralph stayed his men, and rode up to the barriers with Richard and Stephen a-Hurst, all three of them bare-headed with their swords in the sheaths; and Stephen moreover bearing a white cloth on a truncheon. Then a knight of the town, very bravely armed, came forth from the barriers and went up to Ralph, and said: “Fair sir, art thou a knight?” “Yea,” said Ralph. Said the knight, “Who be ye?” “I hight Ralph of Upmeads,” said Ralph, “and these be my men: and we pray thee for guesting in the town of my Lord Abbot to-night, and leave to depart to-morrow betimes.”
“O unhappy young man,” said the knight, “meseems these men be not so much thine as thou art theirs; for they are of the Dry Tree, and bear their token openly. Wilt thou then lodge thy company of strong-thieves with honest men?”
Stephen a-Hurst laughed roughly at this word, but Ralph said mildly: “These men are indeed of the Dry Tree, but they are my men and under my rule, and they be riding on my errands, which be lawful.”
The knight was silent a while and then he said: “Well, it may be so; but into this town they come not, for the tale of them is over long for honest men to hearken to.”
Even as he spake, a man-at-arms somewhat evilly armed shoved through the barriers, thrusting aback certain of his fellows, and, coming up to Ralph, stood staring up into his face with the tears starting into his eyes. Ralph looked a moment, and then reached down his arms to embrace him, and kissed his face; for lo! it was his own brother Hugh. Withal he whispered in his ear: “Get thee behind us, Hugh, if thou wilt come with us, lad.” So Hugh passed on quietly toward the band, while Ralph turned to the knight again, who said to him, “Who is that man?” “He is mine own brother,” said Ralph. “Be he the brother of whom he will,” said the knight, “he was none the less our sworn man. Ye fools,” said he, turning toward the men in the barrier, “why did ye not slay him?” “He slipped out,” said they, “before we wotted what he was about.” Said the knight, “Where were your bows, then?”
Said a man: “They were pressing so hard on the barrier, that we could not draw a bowstring. Besides, how might we shoot him without hitting thee, belike?”
The knight turned toward Ralph, grown wroth and surly, and that the more he saw Stephen and Richard grinning; he said: “Fair sir, ye have strengthened the old saw that saith, Tell me what thy friends are, and I will tell thee what thou art. Thou hast stolen our man with not a word on it.”
“Fair sir,” said Ralph, “meseemeth thou makest more words than enough about it. Shall I buy my brother of thee, then? I have a good few pieces in my pouch.” The captain shook his head angrily.
“Well,” said Ralph, “how can I please thee, fair sir?”
Quoth the knight: “Thou canst please me best by turning thy horses’ heads away from Higham, all the sort of you.” He stepped back toward the barriers, and then came forward again, and said: “Look you, man-at-arms, I warn thee that I trust thee not, and deem that thou liest. Now have I mind to issue out and fall upon you: for ye shall be evil guests in my Lord Abbot’s lands.”
Now at last Ralph waxed somewhat wroth, and he said: “Come out then, if you will, and we shall meet you man for man; there is yet light on this lily lea, and we will do so much for thee, churl though thou be.”
But as he spoke, came the sounds of horns, and lo, over the bent showed the points of spears, and then all those five-score of the Dry Tree whom the captain had sent after Ralph came pouring down the bent. The knight looked on them under the sharp of his hand, till he saw the Dry Tree on their coats also, and then he turned and gat him hastily into the barriers; and when he was amongst his own men he fell to roaring out a defiance to Ralph, and a bolt flew forth, and two or three shafts, but hurt no one. Richard and Stephen drew their swords, but Ralph cried out: “Come away, friends, tarry not to bicker with these fools, who are afraid of they know not what: it is but lying under the naked heaven to-night instead of under the rafters, but we have all lodged thus a many times: and we shall be nigher to our journey’s end to-morrow when we wake up.”
Therewith he turned his horse with Richard and Stephen and came to his own men. There was much laughter and jeering at the Abbot’s men amidst of the Dry Tree, both of those who had ridden with Ralph, and the new-comers; but they arrayed them to ride further in good order, and presently were skirting the walls of Higham out of bow-shot, and making for the Down country by the clear of the moon. The sergeants had gotten a horse for Hugh, and by Ralph’s bidding he rode beside him as they went their ways, and the two brethren talked together lovingly.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53