The Sundering Flood - Chapter 25
STEPHEN TELLS OF AN ADVENTURE IN THE CAMP OF THE FOEMEN
Thereafter the Baron gathered his men again, and rode abroad divers times in the summer and autumn, and was now gotten warier, so that he gat no great overthrow. Yet was he often met by them of Eastcheaping, and not seldom had the worse. Osberne and his were in the field as oft as any, and gave and took, but ever showed them valiant. Osberne was hurt twice, but not sorely, and ever he waxed in manhood, and was well accounted of by all men; and the Dalesmen began to be well known to them of Deepdale and were a terror to them.
Thus wore summer and autumn, and Osberne saw no face of the hope of getting home to the Dale before spring. The winter came early, and was with much frost and snow, and they of Eastcheaping kept them within their walls perforce, but they held the Yule-feast merrily and with good heart.
When winter was gone and the snow and the floods, and spring was come again, there began again skirmishing and riding; and now one, now the other prevailed; and Osberne fell to learning all the feats of chivalry under Sir Medard. And in one fray he paid his master back for the learning, and somewhat more; for the Knight thrust too far forth amongst the foemen, and was unhorsed and set on by many; and had not Osberne been [nigh], who bestrode him with Boardcleaver in his fist, and thrust and hewed all around till some of theirs came up to help, the good town had lost its captain. So he rehorsed Sir Medard, and somewhat hardly they came forth of the throng, and were not ill beaten that day.
But when May was, the Baron of Deepdale had waxed so mighty that he gathered a great host together, and came therewith against Eastcheaping, so that they had nought to do save draw within their walls: and the Baron sent a herald, and bade thereby yield them, on such terms, over and above paying their truage according to his will, that they should batter down their walls, and take his men into their castle and have his burgreve over them, and moreover that they give over ten of their best to his mercy. This challenge they naysaid in few words, for the town was well victualled and manned. Wherefore on the morrow early the Baron assailed the walls with many men, but gat nothing thereby save loss of good men; and the assault over, Medard and his opened the gates and went forth on the foemen while they were yet in disarray, and won much and lost little.
Thereafter the Baron assailed the walls no more, but cast a dyke around the town and sat down before it; and he had abundance of victual coming in to him from his countryside, so that his men lacked nothing. But whereas his dyke and the towers of earth and timber which he let build thereon were scarce manned so well as they should have been because there was so much of them, the Eastcheapers did not leave them wholly in quiet, but fell on oft and hard, and slew the Baron many men and did him much scathe. And men in the town were in good heart, and said one to the other, that if things went no worse than this they might hold out merrily till winter should break up the leaguer. But in the last of these skirmishes Osberne was hurt sorely, and though he was brought off by his fellows, and lost not Boardcleaver, as well-nigh betid, he must needs keep his bed somewhat more than a month ere he was well healed.
But on a day in September, when he was much amended and was growing strong again, came to him Stephen, whom he had not seen for some days, and seeing that there was no man in the chamber save they two, spake to him and said: "Captain, I would have a word with thee if I might."
Said Osberne: "Speech is free to thee, Stephen." And the Eater said: "I have been out a-gates of late, for I deemed that if I might find adventures it would be for thy health." Said Osberne, laughing: "Yet maybe not for thine, Stephen. I were loth to come to Wethermel without thee." Said Stephen: "At this rate it may be long ere we come to Wethermel." "I would we might hasten the homecoming," said Osberne, knitting his brows, "but I wot not how that may be since the Baron is yet so strong." "Ah, but I have a deeming how it may be done," said Stephen: "but there is peril in it." Osberne stood up and said: "What hast thou been about, runagate?"
"Master," said he, "I will tell thee. Five nights ago I did on raiment of the fashion of them beyond Deepdale, and I had with me a fiddle, and was in the manner of a minstrel, and thou wottest that I am not so evil a gut-scraper, and that I have many tales and old rhymes to hand, though I am no scald as thou art. Well, I got out a-gates a night-tide by the postern on the nook of the south-east tower, the warden whereof is a friend of mine own, and then by night and cloud I contrived it to skirt the dyke and get me about till I came north-west of our north gate, and then somehow I got up over the dyke, which is low there and was not guarded as then, and in a nook I lay still till morning came. And there I let myself be found by one of the warders, and when he kicked me and challenged me, I told him what I would as to myself, and he trowed it, and he brought me to his fellows, who, a five of them, were cooking their breakfast, and they gave me victual and bade me play and sing for their disport, and I did so, and pleased them. Thereafter one of them took me along with him toward the west side of the dyke, and I played and sang; and so, to make a long story short, I worked round the dyke that day till I was come to the south side of the leaguer, and there I lay that night in good entertainment; but on the morrow I went on my way, and before evening I had come back again to the north-west, just where I had started from. There I fell in with the man-at-arms who had kicked me up the morning before, and he fell to speech with me, and showed me many things, and amongst the others the great bastide wherein, said he, the Baron of Deepdale was lodged, and that it was little guarded, which mattered nothing by day, but by night he deemed it something rash of the Baron to suffer so few men of his anigh him.
"Now while we spake together thus there was a stir about us, and we and others rose up from the grass where we were lying, and lo it was the Baron who was come amongst us, so we all did him reverence. He was a dark man, rather little than big, but wiry and hard-bitten; keen and eager of face, yet was there something lordly about his bearing. As luck would have it he came straight to where we stood together, and stayed to look upon me as something unwonted to him, for I was wholly unarmed, save for a little knife in my girdle; and I was clad in a black gown and a cotehardy of green sprigged with tinsel, and had my fiddle and bow at my back. We louted low before him, and he spake to my friend: 'Is this big fellow a minstrel?' 'Yea, lord,' said the other. Said the Baron: 'Looking at his inches, 't is a pity of him that he hath not jack and sallet and a spear over his shoulder. How sayest thou, carle; what if I were to set thee in the forefront of the press amongst the very knighthood?' 'Noble lord,' quoth I, 'I fear me that if I came within push of spear thou wouldst presently see me running, so long are my legs. I am a big man, so please you great lord, but I have the heart of a hare in me.' He looked upon me somewhat grimly, then he said: 'Meseems thou hast a fox's tongue in thee, carle, and I promise thee I have half a mind to it to hand the over to the provost-marshal's folk, to see what they could make of whipping thee. Thou man-at-arms, hast thou heard him lay his bow over the strings?' 'Yea, lord,' said the man; 'he playeth not ill for an uplander.' 'Let him try it now before us, and do it well withal if he would save the skin of his back.' Speedily I had my fiddle in my hand, and fell to, and if I played not my best, I played at least something better than my worst. And when I had done, the Baron said: 'Friend, how many such tunes canst thou play? and canst thou sing aught?' 'It would not be so easy to tell up the tunes I can play, lord,' said I; 'and sing I can withal, after a fashion.' Said the Baron to the man-at-arms: 'Bring thou this man to my lodging tonight some two hours before midnight, and he shall play and sing to us, and if we be not sleep-eager he shall tell us some old tale also; and I will reward him. And thou, I shall not make thee a man-at-arms this time, though trust me, I misdoubt thy hare-heart. There is no such look in thine eyes.' And he turned away and left us. So we wore the night merrily enough till the time appointed, what with minstrelsy and some deal of good wine.
"To the Baron's lodgings I went, which was not right great, but hung goodly with arras of Troy. And I had the luck to please the lord; for I both played and sang somewhat near my best. And he bade give me a handful of silver pennies, though I must needs share them with my soldier friend, unto whom the lord forgat to give aught, and bade me come the next night at the same time, which I did, after I had spent the day looking into everything about that side of the leaguer. But when I came forth with my friend from the lord's lodging that second night (and I the richer therefor), I did him to wit that the next morning early I should take my soles out of the leaguer and make for my own country, whatever might happen, so that no so many questions might be asked if I were missed on the morrow, as belike I was. Well the end of this long story is, that a little before midnight I crept away and over the dyke and came to the postern and my friend, who let me into the town, and here I am safe and sound. Now, Captain, canst thou tell me why I took so much trouble in my disport, with no little peril withal?"
Now for some time Osberne had been walking to and fro as he hearkened to the tale, and now he turned about sharply to Stephen and said: "Yea, I know; thou wilt mean it in a day or two that we should go, we two, by night and cloud to the Great Bastide and carry off the Baron of Deepdale, that we may give him guesting in the good town."
Stephen smote his palms together and said: "Wise art thou, child of Wethermel; but not so wise as I be. We shall go, we two, but not alone, but have with us four stout fellows, and of wisdom enough, not Dalesmen, for too simple are they and lack guile. To say sooth I have chosen them already, and told them how we fare, and they are all agog for it."
"Well," said Osberne, "and when shall it be? Of a sooth thou lettest no grass grow under thy feet. But hast thou told any one else?" Said Stephen: "Tomorrow night is the time appointed, and I have bidden my friend the warder of the postern to hold ready a score of men well-armed against the hour we are to be looked for to knock at the door with our guest, if so be that we should need them, but I have not told him what we are about. Well now, what sayest thou? Have I done anything to amend thine health?" "Thou hast made me whole and well, friend," said Osberne; "and now I think we shall soon look upon Wethermel, and I shall never be sick or sorry again."
The Eater smiled, and they fell to talking of other matters as folk came into the chamber to them; and all that came in wondered to see the captain looking so much mended in health.