The Roots of the Mountain - Chapter 17
THE TOKEN COMETH FROM THE MOUNTAIN
The next day wore away tidingless; and the day after Face-of-god arose betimes; for it was the first day of his watch, and he was at the Maiden Ward before the time appointed on a very fair and bright morning, and he went to and fro on that place, and had no tidings. So he came away somewhat cast down, and said within himself: ‘Is it but a lie and a mocking when all is said?’
On the morrow he went thither again, and the morn was wild and stormy with drift of rain, and low clouds hurrying over the earth, though for the sunrise they lifted a little in the east, and the sun came up over the passes, amidst the red and angry rack of clouds. This morn also gave him no tidings of the token, and he was wroth and perturbed in spirit: but towards evening he said:
‘It is well: ten days she gave me, so that she might be able to send without fail on one of them; she will not fail me.’
So again on the morrow he was there betimes, and the morn was windy as on the day before, but the clouds higher and of better promise for the day. Face-of-god walked to and fro on the Maiden Ward, and as he turned toward Burgstead for the tenth time, he heard, as he deemed, a bow-string twang afar off, and even therewith came a shaft flying heavily like a winged bird, which smote a great standing stone on the other side of the way, where of old some chieftain had been buried, and fell to earth at its foot. He went up to it and handled it, and saw that there was a piece of thin parchment wrapped about it, which indeed he was eager to unwrap at once, but forebore; because he was on the highway, and people were already astir, and even then passed by him a goodman of the Dale with a man of his going afield together, and they gave him the sele of the day. So he went along the highway a little till he came to a place where was a footbridge over into the meadow. He crossed thereby and went swiftly till he reached a rising ground grown over with hazel-trees; there he sat down among the rabbit-holes, the primrose and wild-garlic blooming about him, and three blackbirds answering one another from the edges of the coppice. Straightway when he had looked and seen none coming he broke the threads that were wound about the scroll and the arrow, and unrolled the parchment; and there was writing thereon in black ink of small letters, but very fair, and this is what he read therein:
Come thou to the Mountain Hall by the path which thou knowest of, on the morrow of the day whereon thou readest this. Rise betimes and come armed, for there are other men than we in the wood; to whom thy death should be a gain. When thou art come to the Hall, thou shalt find no man therein; but a great hound only, tied to a bench nigh the dais. Call him by his name, Sure-foot to wit, and give him to eat from the meat upon the board, and give him water to drink. If the day is then far spent, as it is like to be, abide thou with the hound in the hall through the night, and eat of what thou shalt find there; but see that the hound fares not abroad till the morrow’s morn: then lead him out and bring him to the north-east corner of the Hall, and he shall lift the slot for thee that leadeth to the Shadowy Yale. Follow him and all good go with thee.
Now when he had read this, earth seemed fair indeed about him, and he scarce knew whither to turn or what to do to make the most of his joy. He presently went back to Burgstead and into the House of the Face, where all men were astir now, and the day was clearing. He hid the shaft under his kirtle, for he would not that any should see it; so he went to his shut-bed and laid it up in his chest, wherein he kept his chiefest treasures; but the writing on the scroll he set in his bosom and so hid it. He went joyfully and proudly, as one who knoweth more tidings and better than those around him. But Stone-face beheld him, and said ‘Foster-son, thou art happy. Is it that the spring-tide is in thy blood, and maketh thee blithe with all things, or hast thou some new tidings? Nay, I would not have an answer out of thee; but here is good rede: when next thou goest into the wood, it were nought so ill for thee to have a valiant old carle by thy side; one that loveth thee, and would die for thee if need were; one who might watch when thou wert seeking. Or else beware! for there are evil things abroad in the Wood, and moreover the brethren of those two felons who were slain at Carlstead.’
Then Gold-mane constrained himself to answer the old carle softly; and he thanked him kindly for his offer, and said that so it should be before long. So the talk between them fell, and Stone-face went away somewhat well-pleased.
And now was Face-of-god become wary; and he would not draw men’s eyes and speech on him; so he went afield with Hall-face to deal with the lambs and the ewes, and did like other men. No less wary was he in the hall that even, and neither spake much nor little; and when his father spake to him concerning the Bride, and made game of him as a somewhat sluggish groom, he did not change countenance, but answered lightly what came to hand.
On the morrow ere the earliest dawn he was afoot, and he clad himself and did on his hauberk, his father’s work, which was fine-wrought and a stout defence, and reached down to his knees; and over that he did on a goodly green kirtle well embroidered: he girt his war-sword to his side, and it was the work of his father’s father, and a very good sword: its name was Dale-warden. He did a good helm on his head, and slung a targe at his back, and took two spears in his hand, short but strong-shafted and well-steeled. Thus arrayed he left Burgstead before the dawn, and came to Wildlake’s Way and betook him to the Woodland. He made no stop or stay on the path, but ate his meat standing by an oak-tree close by the half-blind track. When he came to the little wood-lawn, where was the toft of the ancient house, he looked all round about him, for he deemed that a likely place for those ugly wood-wights to set on him; but nought befell him, though he stooped and drank of the woodland rill warily enough. So he passed on; and there were other places also where he fared warily, because they seemed like to hold lurking felons; though forsooth the whole wood might well serve their turn. But no evil befell him, and at last, when it yet lacked an hour to sunset, he came to the wood-lawn where Wild-wearer had made his onset that other eve.
He went straight up to the house, his heart beating, and he scarce believing but that he should find the Friend abiding him there: but when he pushed the door it gave way before him at once, and he entered and found no man therein, and the walls stripped bare and no shield or weapon hanging on the panels. But the hound he saw tied to a bench nigh the dais, and the bristles on the beast’s neck arose, and he snarled on Face-of-god, and strained on his leathern leash. Then Face-of-god went up to him and called him by his name, Sure-foot, and gave him his hand to lick, and he brought him water, and fed him with flesh from the meat on the board; so the beast became friendly and wagged his tail and whined and slobbered his hand.
Then he went all about the house, and saw and heard no living thing therein save the mice in the panels and Sure-foot. So he came back to the dais, and sat him down at the board and ate his fill, and thought concerning his case. And it came into his mind that the Woman of the Mountain had some deed for him to do which would try his manliness and exalt his fame; and his heart rose high and he was glad, and he saw himself sitting beside her on the dais of a very fair hall beloved and honoured of all the folk, and none had aught to say against him or owed him any grudge. Thus he pleased himself in thinking of the good days to come, sitting there till the hall grew dusk and dark and the night-wind moaned about it.
Then after a while he arose and raked together the brands on the hearth, and made light in the hall and looked to the door. And he found there were bolts and bars thereto, so he shot the bolts and drew the bars into their places and made all as sure as might be. Then he brought Sure-foot down from the dais, and tied him up so that he might lie down athwart the door, and then lay down his hauberk with his naked sword ready to his hand, and slept long while.
When he awoke it was darker than when he had lain him for the moon had set; yet he deemed that the day was at point of breaking. So he fetched water and washed the night off him, and saw a little glimmer of the dawn. Then he ate somewhat of the meat on the board, and did on his helm and his other gear, and unbarred the door, and led Sure-foot without, and brought him to the north-east corner of the house, and in a little while he lifted the slot and they departed, the man and the hound, just as broke dawn from over the mountains.
Sure-foot led right into the heart of the pine-wood, and it was dark enough therein, with nought but a feeble glimmer for some while, and long was the way therethrough; but in two hours’ space was there something of a break, and they came to the shore of a dark deep tarn on whose windless and green waters the daylight shone fully. The hound skirted the water, and led on unchecked till the trees began to grow smaller and the air colder for all that the sun was higher; for they had been going up and up all the way.
So at last after a six hours’ journey they came clean out of the pine-wood, and before them lay the black wilderness of the bare mountains, and beyond them, looking quite near now, the great ice-peaks, the wall of the world. It was but an hour short of noon by this time, and the high sun shone down on a barren boggy moss which lay betwixt them and the rocky waste. Sure-foot made no stay, but threaded the ways that went betwixt the quagmires, and in another hour led Face-of-god into a winding valley blinded by great rocks, and everywhere stony and rough, with a trickle of water running amidst of it. The hound fared on up the dale to where the water was bridged by a great fallen stone, and so over it and up a steep bent on the further side, on to a marvellously rough mountain-neck, whiles mere black sand cumbered with scattered rocks and stones, whiles beset with mires grown over with the cottony mire-grass; here and there a little scanty grass growing; otherwhere nought but dwarf willow ever dying ever growing, mingled with moss or red-blossomed sengreen; and all blending together into mere desolation.
Few living things they saw there; up on the neck a few sheep were grazing the scanty grass, but there was none to tend them; yet Face-of-god deemed the sight of them good, for there must be men anigh who owned them. For the rest, the whimbrel laughed across the mires; high up in heaven a great eagle was hanging; once and again a grey fox leapt up before them, and the heath-fowl whirred up from under Face-of-god’s feet. A raven who was sitting croaking on a rock in that first dale stirred uneasily on his perch as he saw them, and when they were passed flapped his wings and flew after them croaking still.
Now they fared over that neck somewhat east, making but slow way because the ground was so broken and rocky; and in another hour’s space Sure-foot led down-hill due east to where the stony neck sank into another desolate miry heath still falling toward the east, but whose further side was walled by a rampart of crags cleft at their tops into marvellous-shapes, coal-black, ungrassed and unmossed. Thitherward the hound led straight, and Gold-mane followed wondering: as he drew near them he saw that they were not very high, the tallest peak scant fifty feet from the face of the heath.
They made their way through the scattered rocks at the foot of these crags, till, just where the rock-wall seemed the closest, the way through the stones turned into a path going through it skew-wise; and it was now so clear a path that belike it had been bettered by men’s hands. Down thereby Face-of-god followed the hound, deeming that he was come to the gates of the Shadowy Vale, and the path went down steeply and swiftly. But when he had gone down a while, the rocks on his right hand sank lower for a space, so that he could look over and see what lay beneath.
There lay below him a long narrow vale quite plain at the bottom, walled on the further side as on the hither by sheer rocks of black stone. The plain was grown over with grass, but he could see no tree therein: a deep river, dark and green, ran through the vale, sometimes through its midmost, sometimes lapping the further rock-wall: and he thought indeed that on many a day in the year the sun would never shine on that valley.
Thus much he saw, and then the rocks rose again and shut it from his sight; and at last they drew so close together over head that he was in a way going through a cave with little daylight coming from above, and in the end he was in a cave indeed and mere darkness: but with the last feeble glimmer of light he thought he saw carved on a smooth space of the living rock at his left hand the image of a wolf.
This cave lasted but a little way, and soon the hound and the man were going once more between sheer black rocks, and the path grew steeper yet and was cut into steps. At last there was a sharp turn, and they stood on the top of a long stony scree, down which Sure-foot bounded eagerly, giving tongue as he went; but Face-of-god stood still and looked, for now the whole Dale lay open before him.
That river ran from north to south, and at the south end the cliffs drew so close to it that looking thence no outgate could be seen; but at the north end there was as it were a dreary street of rocks, the river flowing amidmost and leaving little foothold on either side, somewhat as it was with the pass leading from the mountains into Burgdale.
Amidmost of the Dale a little toward the north end he saw a doom-ring of black stones, and hard by it an ancient hall builded of the same black stone both wall and roof, and thitherward was Sure-foot now running. Face-of-god looked up and down the Dale and could see no break in the wall of sheer rock: toward the southern end he saw a few booths and cots built roughly of stone and thatched with turf; thereabout he saw a few folk moving about, the most of whom seemed to be women and children; there were some sheep and lambs near these cots, and a herd of fifty or so of somewhat goodly mountain-kine were feeding higher up the valley. He could look down into the river from where he stood, and he saw that it ran between rocky banks going straight down from the face of the meadow, which was rather high above the water, so that it seemed little likely that the water should rise over its banks, either in summer or winter; and in summer was it like to be highest, because the vale was so near to the high mountains and their snows.