The Sundering Flood - Chapter 24
A SKIRMISH WITH THE BARON OF DEEPDALE IN THE MARSHES
Now I have nought to do to write a chronicle of the good town of Eastcheaping, or a history of this war of them of the town with the Baron of Deepdale, or else a long tale I might make of it. So here follows all that shall be told of the said war.
In somewhat less than a month from their coming to Eastcheaping they had sure news that the Baron was on the way to the town with a great company of knights and men-at-arms; and thereafter it was known that he was riding with a light heart and little heed. Wherefore Sir Medard turned the matter over in his mind, and, whereas if any one knew well the roads and the fields about Eastcheaping, he, Sir Medard, knew them better, he deemed he might give this great lord a brush by the way. So he rode out a-gates with but a small company of men-at-arms, five score to wit, all in white armour, and rides with them along the causeway. But early in the night, ere he had set out, he had bidden a twelve score footmen make their way quietly in knots of five and ten and thereabout to a certain place fifteen miles as the highway led from Eastcheaping, where the said causeway, craftily made, went high raised over a marish place much beset with willow and alder, an evil place for the going of heavily-laded horses. But of these same footmen, some half had bows, and the rest spears and swords; all the Dalesmen went with these, and Osberne was the captain of the whole company, but with him was an old grey-beard, a sergeant tried in many wars, and a guileful man therein, and to him and Osberne Sir Medard showed what should be done.
So now the Baron and his came riding along the causeway, ten hundreds of men in all, lightly and in merry fashion, for they had said that they would go knock at the door of Eastcheaping and see what the carles were about there; and it was hard on noon. And first came riding an hundred or so of tall men well armed in white armour, their basnets new tinned; and they came to a certain place where on either side was abundance of thick alder bush and the ground soft between, and there was the causeway wider by a spear-length than its wont for some two score yards. Well, this hundred passed by on their way, but when they were clean out of sight, and the next company not yet come, up rise a half dozen of men from out the alders on either side, and come on to the causeway: they are clad in homespun coats and hoods, though if any had looked closely he had seen hawberks and steel hoods under the cloth. These men lay some things down on the causeway in the very midst between the narrows, and then get them back into the marsh again.
No sooner are they gone but there comes the sounds of weaponed men going, and presently there is the head of a much bigger company coming on to the wide space betwixt the narrows, three hundreds of men at least. They were armed and mounted as well as they might be, but kept not very good order. When the first of them came to the place where the marsh-lurkers had been, they found lying athwart the causeway, one on each side, two dead porkers, two dead dogs, two hares, and in the very midst a fox, these also dead. The first men wonder at this, and get off their horses and handle the carcasses; then they call others to look at them; and some deem this the work of dwarfs or fairies or such like; and others say this is a sign or token of the up-country folk to rise upon them, and that they had best send men a-foot to search the marsh; and others that they should send tidings to the rearward folk. And some say one thing, some another, and all the while their fellows are thronging into the wide place till they are all crowded together, and not a third part of them know what has befallen, and deem that something has gone amiss; and the rearward fall to drawing their swords and crying out, To it, to it! Slay, Slay! Deepdale, Deepdale! till scarce a man knew his right hand from his left.
But amidst all this turmoil a great voice (and it was Stephen the Eater) cried out from the marsh at the right hand: "Go back, ye swine, to Deepdale." Then another sang out from the north: "If ye can, ye dead dogs." Then Stephen again: "This time ye must run like hares." "Learn lore of the fox next time, if ye can," cried the northern voice. And even therewith was the twanging of bowstrings from ether side, and the whistle of shafts and spears, for the foemen were near enough, and men and horses fell huddling on the causeway, and the shafts rained on without abatement, and the Deepdale riders were in sorry case indeed; and many of them were good knights well tried in the wars.
Then some gat off their horses and entered the marsh, and found no better hap there, for they were speedily slain by axe and sword of the Eastcheapers; or they squattered in the mire and yielded them to whomsoever was before them, of whom Stephen gat a good knight full-armed. But Osberne was otherwhere. For some of the Baron's men spared not to turn their backs and ride all they might rearward; but they went but a little way into the narrows ere they saw steel before them, and there across the causeway stood the company of the Dalesmen, even such as were not with the bowmen. Desperately they drave at them; but it was all for nought, for the first four fell, they and their horses, before the long spears of the Dalesmen, and the others were cumbered with the wounded and the slain, so that they might not come on a-horseback. Howbeit, some dismounted and fell on sword in hand. Then forth from the ranks of the Dalesmen came a slim warrior in a long hawberk and bright basnet and a shield on his arm, and he put his hand to his left side and drew, and it was as if a beam of fell blue flame flashed in the sun; and he cried out: "For the Dale! For the Dale! Hasten, fellows, and follow on, for Boardcleaver crieth for a life." And therewith he entered among the Deepdale folk and smote right and left, and with each stroke hewed a man, and they fell back before him; and then the Dalesmen were by his side instead of the foes, and still he went forward and men fell before him, and still came on the spears of the Dalesmen; and now all they of Deepdale, whether a-foot or on horseback, turn and flee away toward the place of the first slaughter.
Then Osberne cried to his men: "Off the causeway now, all ye Dalesmen; these ye shall not chase, they shall fall in with chasing enough anon; and now must the causeway be clear of all but foemen if I know aught of Sir Medard's mind. Ye have done well." Therewith he gat him quietly from off the causeway, and all they followed; they went but a little way, and then about on the tussocks around the alder bushes, and turned toward the causeway and awaited new tidings.
Speedily they befel; for anon they heard a confused noise of crying and shouting and thundering of horse-hoofs, and clattering of weapons and war-gear, and then burst out from a corner of the causeway all the throng of fleers, spurring all they might, weaponless, many of them jostling and shoving each other, so that every now and then man and horse fell over into the marsh and wallowed there, till the Dalesmen came up and gave them choice of death or rendering. And came great cries of Eastcheaping! For the Porte! and A Medard, a Medard! and the riders of Eastcheaping came thrusting amongst the fleers, and with the first of the chasers was Medard himself bareheaded, so that all might know him, and after him his banner of a Tower and an Eagle sitting therein; and then came the banner of the good town, to wit, three Wool-packs on a red ground; and then the rest of the riders. And all that went by in a minute or two, and thereafter came the bowmen, all bemired with the marish waters, but talking high and singing for joy. Said Osberne: "Come we now, fellows, and join ourselves to these, for they will not run away like to the horses. Now belike has Sir Medard done the business, so we may follow him fair and softly." "He may have yet somewhat to do," quoth a man who was of that country; "for in a while this marish ends and the causeway comes out on to fair and soft meadows, and there we may look yet again to come on the Baron and his." "Sooth is that," quote the sergeant from amongst the bowmen on the causeway; "yet is not the good Knight so harebrained as not to abide ere he falls on, save he see no defence in what is left of the Baron's array. Ye shall see; but come thou up, Master Osberne, with thy Dalesmen, and let us get on to the said sunny meads out of this frog-city."
So Osberne and his Dalesmen scrambled up, and they all went on together at a pretty pace; and Osberne had not yet sheathed Boardcleaver, but bore him on his shoulder all bloody as he was.
So in an half hour they saw the hard meads before them, and then they set up a shout and ran all together, for they heard the noise of battle, and saw some confused running and riding, and knew not what it might mean. So on they ran till they had come up on to the crown of a long but low ridge whence they might see the whole plain, and straightway they set up the whoop of victory. Forsooth what they beheld was the two banners of Sir Medard and the Porte following on the last of the fleers, and beyond them the whole host of the Baron flowing away as men discomfited; so they rested to catch their breath on the top of the ridge, and of all of them that went out from Eastcheaping the night before there was not one man lacking. Then they set off again toward the battle, their weapons on their shoulders and their horns blowing; and they went speedily, and presently they saw that Sir Medard and his had slacked in the chase and were standing together about the banners with their faces to the foe. Wherefore they also went slower, and they met together with many glad cries; and then Osberne came to Sir Medard and hailed him joyfully, and therewith thrust Boardcleaver back into the sheath and said: "Meseemeth, Captain, that the battle is done. But [how] came their whole host to flee away?" Said Sir Medard: "We drave the rout along the causeway, and they, when they came on to the hard meadow, might not stay them; and the rest, who saw them coming on the spur and our banners in the chase, knew not how many or how few were following on them, and they turned also, deeming they were safest at home. And so now we will gather the spoil together and wend fair and softly back to Eastcheaping."
Even so they did, and great spoil they gathered, and all the footmen gat them horses and rode with the others; so that they all came back safe to the good town before sunset. Thus ended the first riding of the Baron of Deepdale.