Chapters 17-18 Summary
Crispin begs the stranger to let go of his arm. The stranger sneers and says that bread is never free. He demands to know whether Crispin is a runaway serf—in other words, a criminal. Crispin admits that he is but adds that he had to run because he was declared a wolf's head because of a crime he never committed. When the stranger questions him further, Crispin admits that he is an orphan with no known relatives.
After a moment’s consideration, the stranger lets go of Crispin’s arm—but he also stands in the doorway to prevent the boy from running away. The stranger explains that, under English law, any free man can claim a serf who lacks a master. Crispin stammers that he does not want a master, but the stranger scoffs and says that nobody in the world gets to be free. He claims Crispin for himself and offers a choice: Crispin must either be a good servant or return to his hometown to accept his death sentence.
Overwhelmed and afraid, Crispin begins to cry. The stranger asks if he saw the dead man hanging at the crossroads. When Crispin says yes, the stranger explains what was written on the sign on the man’s body. The man rebelled against his master by refusing to hand over a bag of wool he owed in taxes. He only wanted to sell the wool to feed his child, who was sick and starving, but it did not matter. His lord hung him and left his body as a warning for others. The stranger asks if Crispin wants to come to the same fate. Naturally Crispin wants nothing of the sort, and he begs for mercy.
The stranger is not ready to show mercy yet. Holding Crispin at knifepoint, he makes the boy swear a holy oath of servitude. Unable to flee and too weak to fight, Crispin stammers out the words the man tells him to say. In essence, he swears to be the stranger’s servant for the rest of his life. When the oath is finished, Crispin is firmly convinced that God will strike him dead if he ever breaks the vow. He collapses to the floor in tears, hardly able to believe that he escaped servitude only to enter into it again so soon.
The stranger watches the boy's grief stoically. “Now you are mine,” he says, and he throws Crispin a piece of bread.