CHAPTER I ~ BIRDALONE RIDES TO GREENFORD AND THERE TAKES LEAVE OF ARNOLD AND HIS MEN
Birdalone Rides to Greenford and There Takes Leave of Arnold and His Men
On the road to Greenford nought befell to tell of; they came thither when the sun was at point to set, for they had ridden diligently all day.
As they rode the streets of the good town, they noted of them, that though it was evening wherein folk do much disport them abroad, there were women and children enough in the streets or standing at their doors, but of carles very few, and they for the more part grey-heads.
Now did Arnold bring Birdalone to the town hall, wherein yet sat the deputy of the burgrave, who himself was in the leaguer at the Red Hold; this man, who was old and wise and nothing feeble of body, made much of Birdalone and her folk, and was glad of them when he knew that they had the seal and let-pass of Geoffrey of Lea; wherefore he gave them to eat and drink, and lodged them in his own house, and made them the best of cheer.
But betimes on the morrow did Birdalone send back Arnold and the four men-at-arms, with no tale but that such was her will; and bidding farewell to the said Arnold, she suffered him to kiss her hands, and gave him a ring from off her finger, so that he went on his way rejoicing.
So soon as she saw him and his men well on the road, she went to the old man, the vice-ruler of the town, who was of the aldermen thereof, and did him to wit that she would wage two or three carles who could deal with horses and beasts, and withal handle weapons if need were, to be both as servants and guards for her, as she had errands in that country-side, and belike might well have to go from town to town thereabout. He took her asking kindly, but said it was none so easy to find men who for any wage would fare forth of Greenford at that stour, whereas well-nigh all their fighting-men were lying before the Red Hold as now. Howsoever, ere noontide he brought before her a man of over three score, but yet wayworthy, and two stout young men, his sons, and told her that these men were trusty and would go with her to the world’s end if need were.
She took these men readily, and agreed with them for a good wage; and whereas each one had bow and arrows and short sword, she had but to buy for them jacks, sallets, and bucklers, and they were well armed as for their condition. Withal she bought them three good horses and another sumpter-horse; which last was loaded with sundry wares that she deemed that she needed, and with victual. Then she took leave of the alderman, thanking him much for his good-will, and so departed from Greenford at all adventure, when the day was yet young.
The alderman had asked her whither away, and she had told him that she was boun for Mostwyke first, and thereafter for Shifford-on-the-Strand; whereas she had heard talk of these two towns as being on one and the same highway, and Mostwyke about a score of miles from Greenford; but when she was well out-a-gates she came to a little road on the right hand which turned clean away from Mostwyke, and she took the said road; and when she had followed it some three miles, she asked the old carle whither it led. He looked on her and smiled somewhat, and she on him in turn; and she said: Wonder not, my friend, that I am not clear about my ways, for I shall tell the sooth that I am a damsel adventurous, and am but seeking some place where I may dwell and earn my livelihood till better days come; and this is the whole truth, and thou shalt know it at once, to wit, that I am indeed fleeing, and were fain to hide the footsteps of me, and I bid you three to help me therein. But ye must know that I am fleeing, not from my foes, but from my friends; and, if ye will, as we go by the way, I will tell you all the story of me, and we will be friends while we are together, yea, and thereafter if it may be.
Now she said this because she had looked carefully on these men, and herseemed that they were good men and true, and not dull of wit. Forsooth the old man, who hight Gerard of the Clee, was no weakling, and was nought loathly to look on, and his two sons were goodly and great of fashion, clear-eyed, and well-carven of visage; they hight Robert and Giles.
Now spake old Gerard: Lady, I thank thee heartily of thy much grace unto me; now would I get off my nag and kneel to thee in the highway therefor, but that I see that thou wert fain to make as much way as may be today; wherefore, by thy leave, I will tarry my homaging till we rest our horses by the wayside. She laughed, and praised his wisdom; and the young men looked on her and worshipped her in their hearts. Forsooth, the fellowship of these good and true folk was soft and sweet to her, and soothed the trouble of her spirit. And she enforced herself to talk cheerfully with them, and asked them many things, and learned much of them.
But now went on Gerard to say: Lady, if thou wilt hide thy ways from whomsoever it may be, thou hast happened on no ill way; for though this road be good to ride, it is but a byway through the sheep-walks that folk may drive their wains hereby in the wet season of winter and spring; and for a great way we shall come to but little save the cots of the sheep-carles; scarce a hamlet or two for the space of two days’ riding; and on the third day a little town, hight Upham, where are but few folk save at the midsummer wool-fair, which is now gone by.
Now there is a highway cometh into this road from out of the tilled country and Appleham, a good town, and goeth through it toward the tillage, and the City of the Bridges and the liberties thereof; and all the land is much builded and plentiful; but, if thou wilt, we will not take either highway, but wend over the downland which lieth north-east of Upham, and though it be roadless, yet is it not ill-going, and I know it well and its watering-places, little dales and waters therein all running north-east, wherein be certain little thorps here and there, which shall refresh us mightily. Over that downland we may wend a four days, and then the land will swell up high, and from the end of that high land we shall behold below us a fair land of tillage, well watered and wooded, and much builded; and in the midst thereof a great city with walls and towers, and a great white castle and a minster, and lovely houses a many. In that city mayst thou dwell and earn thy livelihood if thou canst do aught of crafts. And if thou mayst not, then may we find somewhat to swink at for a wage, and so maintain thee and us. But the said city is called the City of the Five Crafts, and the land round about it is the frank thereof; and oftenest, frank and city and all, it is called the Five Crafts all simply. Now what sayest thou hereof, my lady?
She said: I say that we will go thither, and that I thank thee and thy sons of thy good-will, and so may God do to me as I reward you well therefor. But tell me, good Gerard, how it is that thou art so willing to leave kith and kin to follow a gangrel wife along the ways? Said Gerard: Dame, I think that the face and body of thee might lead any man that yet had manhood in him to follow thee, even if he left house and all to go with thee. But as for us, we have no longer a house or gear, whereas they of the Red Hold lifted all my bestial, and burned my house and all that was therein a month ago. Yea, said Birdalone, and how befalleth it, then, that ye are not before the Red Hold to avenge thee? Dame, said he, when the muster was I was deemed somewhat over old, wherefore the sheriff took me not, but suffered my sons also to abide behind to earn a living for me; may God be good to him therefor, and St. Leonard! But as to my kindred, I must tell thee that I am not kinned hereabout, but in a good town hight Utterhay, and that when our alderman sent for me to bring me to thee, I was more than half-minded to get me back thither. Now sooth it is that the best way thither, though it may be indeed the safest rather than the shortest, lies through the Five Crafts; for the road goes thence to Utterhay a three score miles or so, making the longer of it, as it skirteth ever some way off a perilous forest, a place of sore dread and devilish, which hight Evilshaw, on the edge whereof lieth Utterhay, a merry cheaping-stead and a plenteous, and the home of my kindred. Wherefore now is the City of the Five Crafts handy to us; because when thou hast done with us, as I hope it may be long first, then are we others nigh home, and may all simply wend our way thither.
Birdalone thanked him again full heartily; but therewithal as they rode along there seemed to stir in her some memory of the earliest of her days in the witch’s house, and she began to have a longing to betake her to Utterhay and the skirts of Evilshaw.