The Sundering Flood - Chapter 26
THEY BRING THE BARON INTO EASTCHEAPING
So on the morrow just before midnight came Osberne and Stephen and the four others to the postern above-said. Osberne and the four were clad, over their armour, in frocks and hoods of up-country fashion; but Stephen was in his minstrel's raiment, save that he bore no fiddle, and had a heavy short-sword girt to him under his cotehardy. The night was moonless, but there was little cloud, so that there was a glimmer of starlight. As they opened the door, came forth from the ingle a tall man, unarmed as it seemed, and clad as a gangrel carle, and Stephen without more ado stretched out his long arm and caught him by the breast of his coat. The man stirred not nor strove, but said softly: "Dost thou not know me, Stephen the Eater? I come to see the child of Wethermel; he shall know me by the token of the Imposition of Hands. And I am come to help him and all you." That heard Osberne and spake softly to the others: "This is a friend and a stout-heart; he shall be of all avail to us."
"Speak not," said Stephen, "but hold we on, and go crouching till we be under the lee of the dyke." Even so did they, and Stephen led the way, but Osberne came next and Steelhead with him; they spake not together, but Osberne felt the stronger for having him beside him, and his heart was full of joy.
So they clomb the dyke, and as they topped it they saw a weaponed man on his feet betwixt them and the sky. Stephen stood up straightway and fell a-whistling a merry tune, but softly enough, while he made a sign to the others to fetch a compass and go creeping past this man. So they did, while Stephen and the warder walked toward one another; but so soon as they met, the warder knew his friend, and hailed him and said: "Well, minstrel, thou art back again pretty soon; what is toward, man?" Said Stephen: "Sooth to say, I went not all the way home; for it came into my mind that maybe the Baron might call for me again; and when it rains florins I am fain to have my hat under the spout." Said the warder: "Thou art come in time, for the Baron is somewhat ailing, and whiles he sleeps not well a-nights; it was but last night when it was so, and he sends for me and asks me of thee, and biddeth me fetch thee; and St. Peter! the uproar when I told him that thou wert gone; and it was hardly that I escaped a whipcord supper. Howsoever, his wrath ran off him in a little, and then he bade me look out for thee, and if I find thee I am to bring thee to him at any hour of day or night wherein the armour is off him: wherefore, see thou, in happy hour art thou come. So abide me till I go and fetch a fellow to keep my watch, and then will I go on with thee to my lord."
"Wait a while," said Stephen; "to say sooth I have hereby an old carle, my uncle, and his son, a young swain, and both they are good at song, and the older man a very poke stuffed full of old tales: how were it if I brought them along?"
"It were good," said the warder, "for it shall, see thou, make a change of disport for our lord, and that will please him the more. So go now, bring up hither thy kinsmen, and I will see to my watch and we will meet here straightway."
So then Stephen went to his folk, who were creeping nigher and nigher the Great Bastide, and were as now in broken ground somewhat bushed, a good lurking-place to wit. There he finds them, and bids the four abide their coming back with their prey, which now he nowise doubted of, and takes Steelhead and Osberne along with him, and brings them to the warder; who laughed when he saw Steelhead, for he went for that time all bent and bowed, and, as he deemed by what he could see under the dim sky, ragged and wretched. Said he: "Minstrel, thou wert scarce in luck to happen on this rag of a kinsman of thine. Hast thou no better, man?" Said Stephen, grinning in the dark: "Abide till ye have proved him. Trust me, he hath something better than sour curds in his belly." "Well," said the warder, "let-a-be! As for the young man, he seems like enough. Now then, fellow, for a pull at the florin-tree."
So they went, the four of them, toward the Great Bastide, and none hindered them, deeming that they were of the service of the Baron. Even at the door of the Baron's lodging the warder (there was but one and a chamberlain) nodded friendly to the soldier and let them pass unquestioned. They entered the chamber, wherein now was no man, as the Baron would have it whenas he listed to sleep. The soldier went forward on tip-toe, but Stephen trod heavily, and Steelhead laughed aloud, and went straight up to the great man's bedhead, and fared to pass his hand over his face from his forehead to his chin, just touching him, but the sleeping man waked not. As for Osberne, he stood betwixt the door and the soldier, and drew his sword forth from under his carter's frock, but it was not Boardcleaver, for he had left him at home. The soldier looked from one to another, and stared astonished at their demeanour. Straightway then he had both Stephen and Osberne on him at once: nor had he any senses nor might to strive with them, who stripped his coat off over his head, gagged him, and tied him hand and foot. By then they had done this, Steelhead had taken up the naked Baron and set some of the warder's raiment on him, and done on him the said warder's coat and sallet over all; and there stood the man of worship, waked up now, as it seemed, but looked before him as if he saw naught, even as a man who walks in sleep. Stephen the meantime unstrung his fiddle and began to play a slow sweet tune thereon, and let his big but melodious voice go with it, and thus they brought the lordship of Deepdale to the door, and still he seemed of no avail, save to walk on as Steelhead would have him.
So out they fared, and none hindered them any more than when they went in; and they came to the bushed ground where lay the four townsmen and stirred them, and so went on all seven with their new fellow the Baron, who still walked on like a man in his sleep.
They made a compass about the warder who had taken the place of Stephen's friend, so that he might not challenge them, and came fair and softly to the dyke, and thereafter to the postern. There Stephen knocked after the manner appointed, and the door opened and showed the passage all full of armed men. But Stephen cried out: "All's well, friend Dickon, and there shall be no sally out tonight, only take us in, and bring me and Captain Osberne to Sir Medard, for we have somewhat to show him."
So they gat them into the town, they and their new guest; but ere the door was shut, Steelhead took Osberne by the skirt and drew him a little aside and said: "Lad of Wethermel, in all ways thou hast shown thy valiance, and I am glad of thee. Now I have come from the hill-sides and the crannies of the rocks to look upon thee, and I must get me back at once; for within a builded town I may not be. But I can see that it will not be long till we meet in the mountains. So I tell thee, when thou deemest thy need and thy grief to be as great as it may be, hie thee to the little dale where first we met, and call on me by the token of the bow I gave thee then, and presently thou shalt have tidings: now farewell."
"Yea, but hold," said Osberne, "wilt thou not enter, even if it be to go forth at once by another gate with much company? Else wilt thou be tangled amongst all these foemen."
"Trouble not thyself about me," said Steelhead; "it shall not be hard for me to go where I will in despite of any foeman."