The Sundering Flood - Chapter 62
THEY FALL IN WITH THE THREE CHAPMAN
Now when the next day was, the Lady of Brookside sent a half score of men-at-arms to the House of the Grey Sisters, and bade them give up to them the Carline and the Maiden, if they had them there. But the Sisters said that they had come to them indeed the night before and had slept in their house, but had gone on early in the morning; and when the men asked what road they had taken, they said they had gone north, and were minded for the uplands and the mountains. So the men-at-arms made no delay, but turned and rode the northern [way] diligently, and put their horses to it all they might; and they rode all that day and part of the next; but rode they fast or rode they slow, it was all one, for they came across neither hide nor hair of those twain, and so must needs come back empty-handed to Brookside. And when they told the Lady hereof, she fell into a cold rage, and cursed those twain for their folly and thanklessness, and said now that they had missed all the good which she had in her heart to do them since they had been such close friends to her dear son, late murdered. But however that might be, the Carline and the Maiden never saw Brookside again.
Sooth to say, it was by no means north that these twain rode, but as near south as might be. The Sisters were good to them, and gave them each a gown such as their lay-sisters wore, for they said that so arrayed they would be the less meddled with. Therewithal the Prioress gave them a writing under her seal, praying all religious houses to help them wheresoever they came, whereas they were holy women and of good life. And the twain thanked them and blessed them, and made an oblation each one of them, of a fine ruby from off that necklace of gems aforesaid.
Now they rode through a peaceable country, not ill-peopled, for two weeks or more, and gat good guesting, whiles at some houses of nuns, whiles at a good yeoman's, and ever were folk good to them; and nought befel them to tell of, save that once they were chased by riders, but overwent them and came under the shelter of a good old knight's castle, who drave off the thieves, and gave them a good guesting, but was of somewhat heavy cheer, whereas his son, who had gone to the wars, had been taken captive by the Lord of Longshaw, and was not yet come back again.
After this they came into worser lands, rocky and barren, but made their way through somehow, whereas the Carline was deft at snaring small deer, as coneys and the like, and so they lived and got forward on their way.
But on a day toward sunset, as they had just turned about a corner of the road, they came upon a fellowship of a half score men who were at their supper on the green grass just before them. Two of these gat straight to their horses and rode toward the dames, who, seeing that their horses were well-nigh spent, and not knowing which side to turn to, stood still and abode the newcomers, who were nought but courteous to them, and bade them to eat with them. The twain yeasaid it perforce, and were well treated by the travelers, who said they were merchants on the road to the peopled parts that lay beyond the mountains; and even so it seemed by their packs and bundles of goods. Albeit, ere they lay down to sleep, the Maiden whispered to the Carline: "Mother, I fear me that we have fallen amongst thieves: and this seems like the tale of the felons who first stole me, with no kind and dear knight at hand to buy me out of servitude." "Yea, my sweet," said the Carline, "the hay smelleth of that weed; but fear thou not, for I will deliver thee if so it be." So when the morning was, and the day was bright, those merchants drew about the Carline and the Maiden; and there were three masters there, and two of them young men not ill-liking.
Now the Carline speaks to the elder of the three, and thanks him for the meat and drink and company, and says withal that they will now be gone, as time presses them. Says the chapman: "Nay, Carline, not so fast; how shall ye go safer than with us, ten weaponed men to wit? And safe thou shouldst go, dame, whereas thou bearest with thee so great a treasure." Said the third and youngest of the chapmen: "Go with us ye needs must till we have seen thy damsel safely set in good hands: or what do ye with her?" Said the Maiden: "O my masters, this is my fostermother, and to say sooth the only mother that I have known; it is with all my will that I go where she leadeth, I pray you let her do her will." And she was sore moved, and wept.
"Let-a-be, child," said the Carline, caressing her; "if these lords are fain to be our guides and guards, let us thank them kindly for it and go with them joyfully." The chapmen looked keenly on her, but could see nought amiss in her way of speech; so they trowed in her, and went about their matters arraying them for departure, and right joyous they seemed of the adventure. As for the Maiden, she yet wept; and when the Carline got to talk to her apart, as was easy amidst all the bustle, the sweetling said amidst her tears: "O my mother, I know not how to bear it, that now after all is done I am to be a thrall, and sold to someone, I know not who. And I shall be hidden away from the quest and the quest from me, so that I shall never see my love again. And even now who knows how sorely he longeth for me!"
"Nay, my sweetling," said the Carline, "hold up thine heart; no thraldom shall befal thee from these men, for I shall most surely deliver thee; but let them first bring us safe toward the edge of the mountains, and [we will] take their false guesting the while for what it is worth, and trust me I shall watch them all the while." So the Maiden stayed her weeping, but was shy and timid these days, and her loathing of these thieves of folk's bodies and souls made her downcast.
Two nights after, when they were resting at the day's end, the Carline (she hidden in the brake) came across the three men contending together in speech, and the words of the elder ending his talk she just caught: "Two thousand nobles at the least would the Lord James pay down for her; he hath none like her in the house." "Nor will have ever," said the second man. "And for my part I will not give her up for my share of a two thousand nobles." Spake the third thereon, and he was the stoutest-built and the gallantest-looked of the three: "Thou wilt not, thou! What sayest thou to me then? The beginning and the end of it is that I will take her to myself alone and sell her to none." "Yea, yea," said the elder, jeering, "and what shall we do?" "Thou shalt give her to me for a price," said the youngest. "Nay, but to me," said the second: "every one of thy pieces can I cover with a piece." "Now," said the elder, "we get on swimmingly; since, forsooth, I know not where either thou or he shall get all that gold from. Wherefore now the best thing ye two may do at this present is to fall both upon me, and slay me; and after that ye two can try it out betwixt yourselves, and he who is left can go back to our carles, who will straightway slay him when they have found the other two corpses. How say ye, my masters, is this a good game to play?"
They sat looking surlily on him, but said nought. Then he said: "Since this is come above ground, which to say sooth I looked for, as ye are two such brisk lads, and the woman such a pearl of beauty, I bid you this way to take: let us bring her down into the peopled parts in peace and good fellowship, and then go all three before a priest and take God's Body at his hands, and pray it may choke us and rot us if we take her not straight to the Lord James and sell her unto him for the best penny we may, and share all alike, even as the honest and merry merchants we be. Ha, what say ye now?" Belike they saw that there was nothing else to be said, but as moody they were as moody might be. And to say sooth, the Carline deemed that, had it not been for the serving men that would be left over, she might well leave them to slay themselves. But now they went back to their folk, and the Carline followed them in a little while.