We would ride northward and seek what we might till the time for meeting Selred came, working down the river toward the palace from far up stream. Sooner or later thus we should meet with the wheel tracks, and perhaps be able to follow them whither they went into the woodlands from the old stream-side way which Gymbert had at first taken.
Now we were just about to ride off the ancient road into the woods when we heard the muffled sounds of a party coming along the way. For a moment I thought that we were pursued, but then I knew that whoever came was bound in the direction of the palace. The causeway was straight as an arrow, as these old Roman roads will be, but the track men used on its crest was not so. Here and there a great tree had grown from acorn or beech nut, and had set wayfarers aside since it was a sapling, to root up which was no man’s business. So we could not see who came, there being a tree and bushes at a swerve of the way. The horses heard, and pricked up their ears, and told us in their way that more steeds were nearing us.
“Ho!” said Erling suddenly. “Mayhap it is just as well that these good folk should see us in flight eastward. Spur past them, and look not back, master.”
I laughed, and let my horse have his head, and glad enough he was. Round that bend of the track we went at a swinging gallop, and saw a dozen foresters ahead of us, bearing home some deer, left in the woodlands wounded, no doubt, after the great hunt, on ponies. They reined aside in haste as they saw us coming, while their beasts reared and plunged as the thundering hoofs of our horses minded them of liberty; and through the party we went, leaving them shouting abuse of us so long as they could see us. And so long as that was possible we galloped as in dire haste, nor did we draw rein for a good mile.
Then we leaped from the causeway, and went northward through the woodlands, sure that the chase for us would hear from the foresters whither we were heading, and would pass on for many a mile before they found that no other party had seen us. Whereon they would suppose that we had struck southward to pass Worcester by the other road, even as we had said in the hearing of the thrall in the house.
Then I thought that the chase for us was not likely to be kept up long, for it would grow difficult; but Erling shook his head. He had a deadly fear of Quendritha.
Now we rode for all the forenoon in a wide curve, northward and then westward, across the land which the long border wars had ravaged so that we saw no man save once or twice a swineherd. More than once we passed burned farmsteads, over whose piled ruin the creepers were thriving; and all the old tracks were overgrown, and had never a wheel mark on them, save ancient ruts in which the water stood, thick with the growth of duckweed, which told of long disuse.