The Roots of the Mountain - Chapter 11
MEN MAKE OATH AT BURGSTEAD ON THE HOLY BOAR
A week after the ransacking at Greentofts the snow and the winter came on in earnest, and all the Dale lay in snow, and men went on skids when they fared up and down the Dale or on the Mountain.
All was now tidingless till Yule over, and in Burgstead was there feasting and joyance enough; and especially at the House of the Face was high-tide holden, and the Alderman and his sons and Stone-face and all the kindred and all their men sat in glorious attire within the hall; and many others were there of the best of the kindreds of Burgstead who had been bidden.
Face-of-god sat between his father and Stone-face; and he looked up and down the tables and the hall and saw not the Bride, and his heart misgave him because she was not there, and he wondered what had befallen and if she were sick of sorrow.
But Iron-face beheld him how he gazed about, and he laughed; for he was exceeding merry that night and fared as a young man. Then he said to his son: ‘Whom seekest thou, son? is there someone lacking?’
Face-of-god reddened as one who lies unused to it, and said:
‘Yea, kinsman, so it is that I was seeking the Bride my kinswoman.’
‘Nay,’ said Iron-face, ‘call her not kinswoman: therein is ill-luck, lest it seem that thou art to wed one too nigh thine own blood. Call her the Bride only: to thee and to me the name is good. Well, son, desirest thou sorely to see her?’
‘Yea, yea, surely,’ said Face-of-god; but his eyes went all about the hall still, as though his mind strayed from the place and that home of his.
Said Iron-face: ‘Have patience, son, thou shalt see her anon, and that in such guise as shall please thee.’
Therewithal came the maidens with the ewers of wine, and they filled all horns and beakers, and then stood by the endlong tables on either side laughing and talking with the carles and the older women; and the hall was a fair sight to see, for the many candles burned bright and the fire on the hearth flared up, and those maids were clad in fair raiment, and there was none of them but was comely, and some were fair, and some very fair: the walls also were hung with goodly pictured cloths, and the image of the God of the Face looked down smiling terribly from the gable-end above the high-seat.
Thus as they sat they heard the sound of a horn winded close outside the hall door, and the door was smitten on. Then rose Iron-face smiling merrily, and cried out:
‘Enter ye, whether ye be friends or foes: for if ye be foemen, yet shall ye keep the holy peace of Yule, unless ye be the foes of all kindreds and nations, and then shall we slay you.’
Thereat some who knew what was toward laughed; but Gold-mane, who had been away from Burgstead some days past, marvelled and knit his brows, and let his right hand fall on his sword-hilt. For this folk, who were of merry ways, were wont to deal diversely with the Yule-tide customs in the manner of shows; and he knew not that this was one of them.
Now was the Outer door thrown open, and there entered seven men, whereof two were all-armed in bright war-gear, and two bore slug-horns, and two bore up somewhat on a dish covered over with a piece of rich cloth, and the seventh stood before them all wrapped up in a dark fur mantle.
Thus they stood a moment; and when he saw their number, back to Gold-mane’s heart came the thought of those folk on the Mountain: for indeed he was somewhat out of himself for doubt and longing, else would he have deemed that all this was but a Yule-tide play.
Now the men with the slug-horns set them to their mouths and blew a long blast; while the first of the new-comers set hand to the clasps of the fur cloak and let it fall to the ground, and lo! a woman exceeding beauteous, clad in glistering raiment of gold and fine web; her hair wreathed with bay, and in her hand a naked sword with goodly-wrought golden hilt and polished blue-gleaming blade.
Face-of-god started up in his sear, and stared like a man new-wakened from a strange dream: because for one moment he deemed verily that it was the Woman of the Mountain arrayed as he had last seen her, and he cried aloud ‘The Friend, the Friend!’
His father brake out into loud laughter thereat, and clapped his son on the shoulder and said: ‘Yea, yea, lad, thou mayst well say the Friend; for this is thine old playmate whom thou hast been looking round the hall for, arrayed this eve in such fashion as is meet for her goodliness and her worthiness. Yea, this is the Friend indeed!’
Then waxed Face-of-god as red as blood for shame, and he sat him down in his place again: for now he wotted what was toward, and saw that this fair woman was the Bride.
But Stone-face from the other side looked keenly on him.
Then blew the horns again, and the Bride stepped daintily up the hall, and the sweet odour of her raiment went from her about the fire-warmed dwelling, and her beauty moved all hearts with love. So stood she at the high-table; and those two who bore the burden set it down thereon and drew off the covering, and lo! there was the Holy Boar of Yule on which men were wont to make oath of deeds that they would do in the coming year, according to the custom of their forefathers. Then the Bride laid the goodly sword beside the dish, and then went round the table and sat down betwixt Face-of-god and Stone-face, and turned kindly to Gold-mane, and was glad; for now was his fair face as its wont was to be. He in turn smiled upon her, for she was fair and kind and his fellow for many a day.
Now the men-at-arms stood each side the Boar, and out from them on each side stood the two hornsmen: then these blew up again, whereon the Alderman stood up and cried:
‘Ye sons of the brave who have any deed that ye may be desirous of doing, come up, come lay your hand on the sword, and the point of the sword to the Holy Beast, and swear the oath that lieth on your hearts.’
Therewith he sat down, and there strode a man up the hall, strong-built and sturdy, but short of stature; black-haired, red-bearded, and ruddy-faced: and he stood on the dais, and took up the sword and laid its point on the Boar, and said:
‘I am Bristler, son of Brightling, a man of the Shepherds. Here by the Holy Boar I swear to follow up the ransackers of Penny-thumb and the slayers of Rusty. And I take this feud upon me, although they be no good men, because I am of the kin and it falleth to me, since others forbear; and when the Court was hallowed hereon I was away out of the Dale and the Downs. So help me the Warrior, and the God of the Earth.’
Then the Alderman nodded his head to him kindly, and reached him out a cup of wine, and as he drank there went up a rumour of praise from the hall; and men said that his oath was manly and that he was like to keep it; for he was a good man-at-arms and a stout heart.
Then came up three men of the Shepherds and two of the Dale and swore to help Bristler in his feud, and men thought it well sworn.
After that came a braggart, a man very gay of his raiment, and swore with many words that if he lived the year through he would be a captain over the men of the Plain, and would come back again with many gifts for his friends in the Dale. This men deemed foolishly sworn, for they knew the man; so they jeered at him and laughed as he went back to his place ashamed.
Then swore three others oaths not hard to be kept, and men laughed and were merry.
At last uprose the Alderman, and said: ‘Kinsmen, and good fellows, good days and peaceable are in the Dale as now; and of such days little is the story, and little it availeth to swear a deed of derring-do: yet three things I swear by this Beast; and first to gainsay no man’s asking if I may perform it; and next to set right above law and mercy above custom; and lastly, if the days change and war cometh to us or we go to meet it, I will be no backwarder in the onset than three fathoms behind the foremost. So help me the Warrior, and the God of the Face and the Holy Earth!’
Therewith he sat down, and all men shouted for joy of him, and said that it was most like that he would keep his oath.
Last of all uprose Face-of-god and took up the sword and looked at it; and so bright was the blade that he saw in it the image of the golden braveries which the Bride bore, and even some broken image of her face. Then he handled the hilt and laid the point on the Boar, and cried:
‘Hereby I swear to wed the fairest woman of the Earth before the year is worn to an end; and that whether the Dalesmen gainsay me or the men beyond the Dale. So help me the Warrior, and the God of the Face and the Holy Earth!’
Therewith he sat down; and once more men shouted for the love of him and of the Bride, and they said he had sworn well and like a chieftain.
But the Bride noted him that neither were his eyes nor his voice like to their wont as he swore, for she knew him well; and thereat was she ill at ease, for now whatever was new in him was to her a threat of evil to come.
Stone-face also noted him, and he knew the young man better than all others save the Bride, and he saw withal that she was ill-pleased, and he said to himself: ‘I will speak to my fosterling to-morrow if I may find him alone.’
So came the swearing to an end, and they fell to on their meat and feasted on the Boar of Atonement after they had duly given the Gods their due share, and the wine went about the hall and men were merry till they drank the parting cup and fared to rest in the shut-beds, and whereso else they might in the Hall and the House, for there were many men there.