Child Christopher - Chapter 30
XXX. OF THE FIELD THAT WAS SET IN THE HOLM OF HAZELDALE
Now thither cometh Jack o' the Tofts, and spake to Christopher: "See thou, lad--Lord King, I should say; this looketh not like very present battle, for they be stayed half way down the bent; and lo thou, some half score are coming forth from the throng with a white shield raised aloft. Do we in likewise, for they would talk with us."
"Shall we trust them, father?" said Christopher.
"Trust them we may, son," said Jack; "Gandolf is a violent man, and a lifter of other men's goods, but I deem not so evil of him as that he would bewray troth."
So then they let do a white cloth over a shield and hoist it on a long spear, and straightway they gat to horse, Jack of the Tofts, and Christopher, and Haward of Whiteacre, and Gilbert, and a half score all told; and they rode straight down to the ford, which was just below the tail of the eyot aforesaid, and as they went, they saw the going of the others, who were by now hard on the waterside; and said Jack: "See now, King Christopher, he who rides first in a surcoat of his arms is even the Baron, the black bullet-headed one; and the next to him, the red-head, is his squire and man, Oliver Marson, a stout man, but fierce and grim-hearted. Lo thou, they are taking the water, but they are making for the eyot and not our shore: son mine, this will mean a hazeled field in the long run; but now they will look for us to come to them therein. Yea, now they are aland and have pitched their white shield. And hearken, that is their horn; blow we an answer: ho, noise! set thy lips to the brass."
So then, when one horn had done its song, the other took it up, and all men of both hosts knew well that the horns blew but for truce and parley.
Now come the Toft-folk to the ford, and take the water, which was very shallow on their side, and when they come up on to the eyot, they find the Baron and his folk off their horses, and lying on the green grass, so they also lighted down and stood and hailed the new comers. Then uprose the Lord Gandolf, and greeted the Toft-folk, and said: "Jack of the Tofts, thou ridest many-manned to-day."
"Yea, Lord," said Jack, "and thou also. What is thine errand?"
"Nay," said the Baron, "what is thine? As for mine host here, there came a bird to Brimside and did me to wit that I should be like to need a throng if I came thy way; and sooth was that. Come now, tell us what is toward, thou rank reiver, though I have an inkling thereof; for if this were a mere lifting, thou wouldst not sit still here amidst thy friends of Hazeldale."
"Lord," said Jack o' the Tofts, "thou shalt hear mine errand, and then give heed to what thou wilt do. Look to the bent under the wood, and tell me, dost thou see the blazon of the banner under which be my men?"
"That can I not," said the Lord Gandolf; "but I have seen the banner of Oakenrealm, which beareth the wood-woman with loins garlanded with oak-leaves, look much like to it at such a distance."
Said Jack: "It is not ill guessed. Yonder banner is the King's banner, and beareth on it the woman of Oakenrealm ."
The Lord bent his brows on him, and said: "Forsooth, rank reiver, I wotted not that thou hadst King Rolf for thy guest."
Quoth Jack of the Tofts: "Forsooth, Lord, no such guest as the Earl Marshal Rolf would I have alive in my poor house."
"Well, Jack," said the big Lord, grinning, "arede me the riddle, and then we shall see what is to be done, as thou sayest."
"Lord," said Jack, "dost thou see this young man standing by me?"
"Yea," said the other, "he is big enough that I may see him better than thy banner: if he but make old bones, as is scarce like, since he is of thy flock, he shall one day make a pretty man; he is a gay rider now. What else is he?"
Quoth Jack of the Tofts: "He is my King and thy King, and the all-folk's King, and the King of Oakenrealm: and now, hearken mine errand: it is to make all folk name him King."
Said the Lord: "This minstrel's tale goes with the song the bird sang to me this morning; and therefore am I here thronging--to win thy head, rank reiver, and this young man's head, since it may not better be, and let the others go free for this time. Hah! what sayest thou? and thou, youngling? 'Tis but the stroke of a sword, since thou hast fallen into my hands, and not into the hangman's or the King's."
"Thou must win them first, Lord," said Jack of the Tofts. "Therefore, what sayest thou? Where shall we cast down the white shield and uprear the red?"
"Hot art thou, head, heart, and hand, rank reiver," said the Lord; "bide a while." So he sat silent a little; then he said: "Thou seest, Jack of the Tofts, that now thou hast thrust the torch into the tow; if I go back to King Rolf without the heads of you twain, I am like to pay for it with mine own. Therefore hearken. If we buckle together in fight presently, it is most like that I shall come to my above, but thou art so wily and stout that it is not unlike that thou, and perchance this luckless youngling, may slip through my fingers into the wood; and then it will avail me little with the King that I have slain a few score nameless wolf-heads. So, look you! here is a fair field hazelled by God; let us two use it to-day, and fight to the death here; and then if thou win me, smite off my head, and let my men fight it out afterwards, as best they may without me, and 'tis like they will be beaten then. But if I win thee, then I win this youngling withal, and bear back both heads to my Lord King, after I have scattered thy wolf-heads and slain as many as I will; which shall surely befall, if thou be slain first."
Then cried out Jack of the Tofts: "Hail to thy word, stout-heart! this is well offered, and I take it for myself and my Lord King here." And all that stood by and heard gave a glad sound with their voices, and their armour rattled and rang as man turned to man to praise their captains.
But now spake Christopher: "Lord of Brimside, it is nought wondrous though thou set me aside as of no account, whereas thou deemest me no king or king's kindred; but thou, Lord Earl, who wert once Jack of the Tofts, I marvel at thee, that thou hast forgotten thy King so soon. Ye twain shall now wot that this is my quarrel, and that none but I shall take this battle upon him.
"Thou servant of Rolf, the traitor and murderer, hearken! I say that I am King of Oakenrealm, and the very son of King Christopher the Old; and that will I maintain with my body against every gainsayer. Thou Lord of Brimside, wilt thou gainsay it? Then I say thou liest, and lo here, my glove!" And he cast it down before the Lord.
Again was there good rumour, and that from either side of the bystanders; but Jack of the Tofts stood up silent and stiff, and the Baron of Brimside laughed, and said: "Well, swain, if thou art weary of life, so let it be, as for me; but how sayest thou, Jack of the Tofts? Art thou content to give thine head away in this fashion, whereas thou wottest that I shall presently slay this king of thine?"
Said Jack: "The King of Oakenrealm must rule me as well as others of his liege-men: he must fight if he will, and be slain if he will." Then suddenly he fell a-laughing, and beat his hand on his thigh till the armour rattled again, and then he cried out: "Lord Gandolf, Lord Gandolf, have a care, I bid thee! Where wilt thou please to be buried, Lord?"
Said the other: "I wot not what thou wilt mean by thy fooling, rank reiver. But here I take up this youngling's glove; and on his head be his fate! Now as to this battle. My will is, that we two champions be all alone and afoot on the eyot. How say ye?"
"Even so be it," said Jack; "but I say that half a score on each side shall be standing on their own bank to see the play, and the rest of the host come no nigher than now we are."
"I yea-say it," said the Baron; "and now do thou, rank reiver, go back to thy fellowship and tell them what we have areded, and do thou, Oliver Marson, do so much for our folk; and bid them wot this, that if any of them break the troth, he shall lose nought more than his life for that same."
Therewith all went ashore to either bank, save the Baron of Brimside and Christopher. And the Baron laid him down on the ground and fell to whistling the tune of a merry Yule dance; but as for Christopher, he looked on his foeman, and deemed he had seldom seen so big and stalwarth a man; and withal he was of ripe age, and had seen some forty winters. Then he also cast himself down on the grass, and fell into a kind of dream, as he watched a pair of wagtails that came chirping up from the sandy spit below the eyot; till suddenly great shouting broke out, first from his own bent, and then from the foemen's, and Christopher knew that the folk on either side had just heard of the battle that was to be on the holm. The Baron arose at the sound and looked to his own men, whence were now coming that half-score who were to look on the battle from the bank; but Christopher stirred not, but lay quietly amongst the flowers of the grass, till he heard the splash of horse-hoofs in the ford, and there presently was come Jack of the Tofts bearing basnet and shield for his lord. And he got off his horse and spake to Christopher: "If I may not fight for thee, my son and King, yet at least it is the right of thine Earl to play the squire to thee: but a word before thy basnet is over thine ears; the man yonder is well-nigh a giant for stature and strength; yet I think thou mayest deal with him, and be none the sorer when thou liest down to-night. To be short, this is it: when thou hast got a stroke in upon him, and he falters, then give him no time, but fly at him in thy wild-cat manner and show what-like thews thou hast under thy smooth skin; now thine helm, lad. So art thou dight; and something tells me thou shalt do it off in victory."