The Well at World's End 1-13
CHAPTER 13: THE STREETS OF THE BURG OF THE FOUR FRITHS
He went about the streets and found them all much like to the one which they had entered by the north gate; he saw no poor or wretched houses, and none very big as of great lords; they were well and stoutly builded, but as aforesaid not much adorned either with carven work or painting: there were folk enough in the streets, and now Ralph, as was like to be, looked specially at the women, and thought many of them little better-favoured than the men, being both dark and low; neither were they gaily clad, though their raiment, like the houses, was stout and well wrought. But here and there he came on a woman taller and whiter than the others, as though she were of another blood; all such of these as he saw were clad otherwise than the darker women: their heads uncoifed, uncovered save for some garland or silken band: their gowns yellow like wheat-straw, but gaily embroidered; sleeveless withal and short, scarce reaching to the ancles, and whiles so thin that they were rather clad with the embroidery than the cloth; shoes they had not, but sandals bound on their naked feet with white thongs, and each bore an iron ring about her right arm.
The more part of the men wore weapons at their sides and had staves in hand, and were clad in short jerkins brown or blue of colour, and looked ready for battle if any moment should call them thereto; but among them were men of different favour and stature from these, taller for the most part, unarmed, and clad in long gowns of fair colours with cloths of thin and gay-coloured web twisted about their heads. These he took for merchants, as they were oftenest standing in and about the booths and shops, whereof there were some in all the streets, though the market for victuals and such like he found over for that day, and but scantily peopled.
Out of one of these markets, which was the fish and fowl market, he came into a long street that led him down to a gate right over against that whereby he had entered the Burg; and as he came thereto he saw that there was a wide way clear of all houses inside of the wall, so that men-at-arms might go freely from one part to the other; and he had also noted that a wide way led from each ort out of the great place, and each ended not but in a gate. But as to any castle in the town, he saw none; and when he asked a burgher thereof, the carle laughed in his face, and said to him that the whole Burg, houses and all, was a castle, and that it would turn out to be none of the easiest to win. And forsooth Ralph himself was much of that mind.
Now he was just within the south gate when he held this talk, and there were many folk thereby already, and more flocking thereto; so he stood there to see what should betide; and anon he heard great blowing of horns and trumpets all along the wall, and, as he deemed, other horns answered from without; and so it was; for soon the withoutward horns grew louder, and the folk fell back on either side of the way, and next the gates were thrown wide open (which before had been shut save for a wicket) and thereafter came the first of a company of men-at-arms, foot-men, with bills some, and some with bows, and all-armed knights and sergeants a-horseback.
So streamed in these weaponed men till Ralph saw that it was a great host that was entering the Burg; and his heart rose within him, so warrior-like they were of men and array, though no big men of their bodies; and many of them bore signs of battle about them, both in the battering of their armour and the rending of their raiment, and the clouts tied about the wounds on their bodies.
After a while among the warriors came herds of neat and flocks of sheep and strings of horses, of the spoil which the host had lifted; and then wains filled, some with weapons and war gear, and some with bales of goods and household stuff. Last came captives, some going afoot and some for weariness borne in wains; for all these war-taken thralls were women and women-children; of males there was not so much as a little lad. Of the women many seemed fair to Ralph despite their grief and travel; and as he looked on them he deemed that they must be of the kindred and nation of the fair white women he had seen in the streets; though they were not clad like those, but diversely.
So Ralph gazed on this pageant till all had passed, and he was weary with the heat and the dust and the confused clamour of shouting and laughter and talking; and whereas most of the folk followed after the host and their spoil, the streets of the town there about were soon left empty and peaceful. So he turned into a street narrower than most, that went east from the South Gate and was much shaded from the afternoon sun, and went slowly down it, meaning to come about the inside of the wall till he should hit the East Gate, and so into the Great Place when the folk should have gone their ways home.
He saw no folk in the street save here and there an old woman sitting at the door of her house, and maybe a young child with her. As he came to where the street turned somewhat, even such a carline was sitting on a clean white door-step on the sunny side, somewhat shaded by a tall rose-laurel tree in a great tub, and she sang as she sat spinning, and Ralph stayed to listen in his idle mood, and he heard how she sang in a dry, harsh voice:
Even as her song ended came one of those fair yellow-gowned damsels round the corner of the street, bearing in her hand a light basket full of flowers: and she lifted up her head and beheld Ralph there; then she went slowly and dropped her eyelids, and it was pleasant to Ralph to behold her; for she was as fair as need be. Her corn-coloured gown was dainty and thin, and but for its silver embroidery had hidden her limbs but little; the rosiness of her ancles showed amidst her white sandal-thongs, and there were silver rings and gold on her arms along with the iron ring.
Now she lifted up her eyes and looked shyly at Ralph, and he smiled at her well-pleased, and deemed it would be good to hear her voice; so he went up to her and greeted her, and she seemed to take his greeting well, though she glanced swiftly at the carline in the doorway.
Said Ralph: “Fair maiden, I am a stranger in this town, and have seen things I do not wholly understand; now wilt thou tell me before l ask the next question, who will be those war-taken thralls whom even now I saw brought into the Burg by the host? of what nation be they, and of what kindred?”
Straightway was the damsel all changed; she left her dainty tricks, and drew herself up straight and stiff. She looked at him in the eyes, flushing red, and with knit brows, a moment, and then passed by him with swift and firm feet as one both angry and ashamed.
But the carline who had beheld the two with a grin on her wrinkled face changed aspect also, and cried out fiercely after the damsel, and said: “What! dost thou flee from the fair young man, and he so kind and soft with thee, thou jade? Yea, I suppose thou dost fetch and carry for some mistress who is young and a fool, and who has not yet learned how to deal with the daughters of thine accursed folk. Ah! if I had but money to buy some one of you, and a good one, she should do something else for me than showing her fairness to young men; and I would pay her for her long legs and her white skin, till she should curse her fate that she had not been born little and dark-skinned and free, and with heels un-bloodied with the blood of her back.”
Thus she went on, though the damsel was long out of ear-shot of her curses; and Ralph tarried not to get away from her spiteful babble, which he now partly understood; and that all those yellow-clad damsels were thralls to the folk of the Burg; and belike were of the kindred of those captives late-taken whom he had seen amidst the host at its entering into the Burg.
So he wandered away thence thinking on what he should do till the sun was set, and he had come into the open space underneath the walls, and had gone along it till he came to the East Gate: there he looked around him a little and found people flowing back from the Great Place, whereto they had gathered to see the host mustered and the spoil blessed; then he went on still under the wall, and noted not that here and there a man turned about to look upon him curiously, for he was deep in thought, concerning the things which he had seen and heard of, and pondered much what might have befallen his brethren since they sundered at the Want-way nigh to the High House of Upmeads. Withal the chief thing that he desired was to get him away from the Burg, for he felt himself unfree therein; and he said to himself that if he were forced to dwell among this folk, that he had better never have stolen himself away from his father and mother; and whiles even he thought that he would do his best on the morrow to get him back home to Upmeads again. But then when he thought of how his life would go in his old home, there seemed to him a lack, and when he questioned himself as to what that lack was, straightway he seemed to see that Lady of the Wildwood standing before the men-at-arms in her scanty raiment the minute before his life was at adventure because of them. And in sooth he smiled to himself then with a beating heart, as he told himself that above all things he desired to see that Lady, whatever she might be, and that he would follow his adventure to the end until he met her.
Amidst these thoughts he came unto the North Gate, whereby he had first entered the Burg, and by then it was as dark as the summer night would be; so he woke up from his dream, as it were, and took his way briskly back to the Flower de Luce.