The Roots of the Mountain - Chapter 25
OF THE GATE-THING AT BURGSTEAD
But now must he hasten, for the Gate-thing was to be holden two hours before noon; so he betook him speedily to the Hall, and took his shield and did on a goodly helm and girt his sword to his side, for men must needs go to all folk-motes with their weapons and clad in war-gear. Thus he went forth to the Gate with many others, and there already were many folk assembled in the space aforesaid betwixt the Gate of the Burg and the sheer rocks on the face of which were the steps that led up to the ancient Tower on the height. The Alderman was sitting on the great stone by the Gate-side which was his appointed place, and beside him on the stone bench were the six Wardens of the Burg; but of the six Wardens of the Dale there were but three, for the others had not yet heard tell of the battle or had got the summons to the Thing, since they had been about their business down the Dale.
Face-of-god took his place silently amongst the neighbours, but men made way for him, so that he must needs stand in front, facing his father and the Wardens; and there went up a murmur of expectation round about him, both because the word had gone about that he had a tale of new tidings to tell, and also because men deemed him their best and handiest man, though he was yet so young.
Now the Alderman looked around and beheld a great throng gathered together, and he looked on the shadow of the Gate which the southering sun was casting on the hard white ground of the Thing-stead, and he saw that it had just taken in the standing-stone which was in the midst of the place. On the face of the said stone was carven the image of a fighting man with shield on arm and axe in hand; for it had been set there in old time in memory of the man who had bidden the Folk build the Gate and its wall, and had showed them how to fashion it: for he was a deft house-smith as well as a great warrior; and his name was Iron-hand. So when the Alderman saw that this stone was wholly within the shadow of the Gate he knew that it was the due time for the hallowing-in of the Thing. So he bade one of the wardens who sat beside him and had a great slug-horn slung about him, to rise and set the horn to his mouth.
So that man arose and blew three great blasts that went bellowing about the towers and down the street, and beat back again from the face of the sheer rocks and up them and over into the wild-wood; and the sound of it went on the light west-wind along the lips of the Dale toward the mountain wastes. And many a goodman, when he heard the voice of the horn in the bright spring morning, left spade or axe or plough-stilts, or the foddering of the ewes and their younglings, and turned back home to fetch his sword and helm and hasten to the Thing, though he knew not why it was summoned: and women wending over the meadows, who had not yet heard of the battle in the wood, hearkened and stood still on the green grass or amidst the ripples of the ford, and the threat of coming trouble smote heavy on their hearts, for they knew that great tidings must be towards if a Thing must needs be summoned so close to the Great Folk-mote.
But now the Alderman stood up and spake amidst the silence that followed the last echoes of the horn:
‘Now is hallowed in this Gate-thing of the Burgstead Men and the Men of the Dale, wherein they shall take counsel concerning matters late befallen, that press hard upon them. Let no man break the peace of the Holy Thing, lest he become a man accursed in holy places from the plain up to the mountain, and from the mountain down to the plain; a man not to be cherished of any man of good will, not be holpen with victuals or edge-tool or draught-beast; a man to be sheltered under no roof-tree, and warmed at no hearth of man: so help us the Warrior and the God of the Earth, and Him of the Face, and all the Fathers!’
When he had spoken men clashed their weapons in token of assent; and he sat down again, and there was silence for a space. But presently came thrusting forward a goodman of the Dale, who seemed as if he had come hurriedly to the Thing; for his face was running down with sweat, his wide-rimmed iron cap sat awry over his brow, and he was girt with a rusty sword without a scabbard, and the girdle was ill-braced up about his loins. So he said:
‘I am Red-coat of Waterless of the Lower Dale. Early this morning as I was going afield I met on the way a man akin to me, Fox of Upton to wit, and he told me that men were being summoned to a Gate-thing. So I turned back home, and caught up any weapon that came handy, and here I am, Alderman, asking thee of the tidings which hath driven thee to call this Thing so hard on the Great Folk-mote, for I know them nothing so.’
Then stood up Iron-face the Alderman and said: ‘This is well asked, and soon shall ye be as wise as I am on this matter. Know ye, O men of Burgstead and the Dale, that we had not called this Gate-thing so hard on the Great Folk-mote had not great need been to look into troublous matters. Long have ye dwelt in peace, and it is years on years now since any foeman hath fallen on the Dale: but, as ye will bear in mind, last autumn were there ransackings in the Dale and amidst of the Shepherds after the manner of deeds of war; and it troubleth us that none can say who wrought these ill deeds. Next, but a little while agone, was Wood-grey, a valiant goodman of the Woodlanders, slain close to his own door by evil men. These men we took at first for mere gangrel felons and outcasts from their own folk: though there were some who spoke against that from the beginning.
‘But thirdly are new tidings again: for three days ago, while some of the folk were hunting peaceably in the Wild-wood and thinking no evil, they were fallen upon of set purpose by a host of men-at-arms, and nought would serve but mere battle for dear life, so that many of our neighbours were hurt, and three slain outright; and now mark this, that those who there fell upon our folk were clad and armed even as the two felons that slew Wood-grey, and moreover were like them in aspect of body. Now stand forth Hall-face my son, and answer to my questions in a loud voice, so that all may hear thee.’
So Hall-face stood forth, clad in gleaming war-gear, with an axe over his shoulder, and seemed a doughty warrior. And Iron-face said to him:
‘Tell me, son, those whom ye met in the wood, and of whom ye brought home two captives, how much like were they to the murder-carles at Wood-grey’s?’
Said Hall-face: ‘As like as peas out of the same cod, and to our eyes all those whom we saw in the wood might have been sons of one father and one mother, so much alike were they.’
‘Yea,’ said the Alderman; ‘now tell me how many by thy deeming fell upon you in the wood?’
Said Hall-face: ‘We deemed that if they were any less than threescore, they were little less.’
‘Great was the odds,’ said the Alderman. ‘Or how many were ye?’
‘One score and seven,’ said Hall-face.
Said the Alderman: ‘And yet ye escaped with life all save those three?’
Hall-face said: ‘I deem that scarce one should have come back alive, had it not been that as we fought came a noise like the howling of wolves, and thereat the foemen turned and fled, and there followed on the fleers tall men clad in sheep-brown raiment, who smote them down as they fled.’
‘Here then is the story, neighbours,’ said the Alderman, ‘and ye may see thereby that if those slayers of Wood-grey were outcast, their band is a great one; but it seemeth rather that they were men of a folk whose craft it is to rob with the armed hand, and to slay the robbed; and that they are now gathering on our borders for war. Yet, moreover, they have foemen in the woods who should be fellows-in-arms of us. How sayest thou, Stone-face? Thou art old, and hast seen many wars in the Dale, and knowest the Wild-wood to its innermost.
‘Alderman,’ said Stone-face, ‘and ye neighbours of the Dale, maybe these foes whom ye have met are not of the race of man, but are trolls and wood-wights. Now if they be trolls it is ill, for then is the world growing worser, and the wood shall be right perilous for those who needs must fare therein. Yet if they be men it is a worse matter; for the trolls would not come out of the waste into the sunlight of the Dale. But these foes, if they be men, are lusting after our fair Dale to eat it up, and it is most like that they are gathering a huge host to fall upon us at home. Such things I have heard of when I was young, and the aspect of the evil men who overran the kindreds of old time, according to all tales and lays that I have heard, is even such as the aspect of those whom we have seen of late. As to those wolves who saved the neighbours and chased their foemen, there is one here who belike knoweth more of all this than we do, and that, O Alderman, is thy son whom I have fostered, Face-of-god to wit. Bid him answer to thy questioning, and tell us what he hath seen and heard of late; then shall we verily know the whole story as far as it can be known.’
Then men pressed round, and were eager to hear what Face-of-god would be saying. But or ever the Alderman could begin to question him, the throng was cloven by new-comers, and these were the men who had been sent to bring home the corpses of the Dusky Men: so they had cast loaded hooks into the Weltering Water, and had dragged up him whom Face-of-god had shoved into the eddy, and who had sunk like a stone just where he fell, and now they were bringing him on a bier along with him who had been slain a-land. They were set down in the place before the Alderman, and men who had not seen them before looked eagerly on them that they might behold the aspect of their foemen; and nought lovely were they to look on; for the drowned man was already bleached and swollen with the water, and the other, his face was all wryed and twisted with that spear-thrust in the mouth.
Then the Alderman said: ‘I would question my son Face-of-god. Let him stand forth!’
And therewith he smiled merrily in his son’s face, for he was standing right in front of him; and he said:
‘Ask of me, Alderman, and I will answer.’
‘Kinsman,’ said Iron-face, ‘look at these two dead men, and tell me, if thou hast seen any such besides those two murder-carles who were slain at Carlstead; or if thou knowest aught of their folk?’
Said Face-of-god: ‘Yesterday I saw six others like to these both in array and of body, and three of them I slew, for we were in battle with them early in the morning.’
There was a murmur of joy at this word, since all men took these felons for deadly foemen; but Iron-face said: ‘What meanest thou by “we”?’
‘I and the men who had guested me overnight,’ said Face-of-god, ‘and they slew the other three; or rather a woman of them slew the felons.’
‘Valiant she was; all good go with her hand!’ said the Alderman. ‘But what be these people, and where do they dwell?’
Said Face-of-god: ‘As to what they are, they are of the kindred of the Gods and the Fathers, valiant men, and guest-cherishing: rich have they been, and now are poor: and their poverty cometh of these same felons, who mastered them by numbers not to be withstood. As to where they dwell: when I say the name of their dwelling-place men mock at me, as if I named some valley in the moon: yet came I to Burgdale thence in one day across the mountain-necks led by sure guides, and I tell thee that the name of their abode is Shadowy Vale.’
‘Yea,’ said Iron-face, ‘knoweth any man here of Shadowy Vale, or where it is?’
None answered for a while; but there was an old man who was sitting on the shafts of a wain on the outskirts of the throng, and when he heard this word he asked his neighbour what the Alderman was saying, and he told him. Then said that elder:
‘Give me place; for I have a word to say hereon.’ Therewith he arose, and made his way to the front of the ring of men, and said: ‘Alderman, thou knowest me?’
‘Yea,’ said Iron-face, ‘thou art called the Fiddle, because of thy sweet speech and thy minstrelsy; whereof I mind me well in the time when I was young and thou no longer young.’
‘So it is,’ said the Fiddle. ‘Now hearken! When I was very young I heard of a vale lying far away across the mountain-necks; a vale where the sun shone never in winter and scantily in summer; for my sworn foster-brother, Fight-fain, a bold man and a great hunter, had happened upon it; and on a day in full midsummer he brought me thither; and even now I see the Vale before me as in a picture; a marvellous place, well grassed, treeless, narrow, betwixt great cliff-walls of black stone, with a green river running through it towards a yawning gap and a huge force. Amidst that Vale was a doom-ring of black stones, and nigh thereto a feast-hall well builded of the like stones, over whose door was carven the image of a wolf with red gaping jaws, and within it (for we entered into it) were stone benches on the dais. Thence we came away, and thither again we went in late autumn, and so dusk and cold it was at that season, that we knew not what to call it save the valley of deep shade. But its real name we never knew; for there was no man there to give us a name or tell us any tale thereof; but all was waste there; the wimbrel laughed across its water, the raven croaked from its crags, the eagle screamed over it, and the voices of its waters never ceased; and thus we left it. So the seasons passed, and we went thither no more: for Fight-fain died, and without him wandering over the waste was irksome to me; so never have I seen that valley again, or heard men tell thereof.
‘Now, neighbours, have I told you of a valley which seemeth to be Shadowy Vale; and this is true and no made-up story.’
The Alderman nodded kindly to him, and then said to Face-of-god: ‘Kinsman, is this word according with what thou knowest of Shadowy Vale?’
‘Yea, on all points,’ said Face-of-god; ‘he hath put before me a picture of the valley. And whereas he saith, that in his youth it was waste, this also goeth with my knowledge thereof. For once was it peopled, and then was waste, and now again is it peopled.’
‘Tell us then more of the folk thereof,’ said the Alderman; ‘are they many?’
‘Nay,’ said Face-of-god, ‘they are not. How might they be many, dwelling in that narrow Vale amid the wastes? But they are valiant, both men and women, and strong and well-liking. Once they dwelt in a fair dale called Silver-dale, the name whereof will be to you as a name in a lay; and there were they wealthy and happy. Then fell upon them this murderous Folk, whom they call the Dusky Men; and they fought and were overcome, and many of them were slain, and many enthralled, and the remnant of them escaped through the passes of the mountains and came back to dwell in Shadowy Vale, where their forefathers had dwelt long and long ago; and this overthrow befell them ten years agone. But now their old foemen have broken out from Silver-dale and have taken to scouring the wood seeking prey; so they fall upon these Dusky Men as occasion serves, and slay them without pity, as if they were adders or evil dragons; and indeed they be worse. And these valiant men know for certain that their foemen are now of mind to fall upon this Dale and destroy it, as they have done with others nigher to them. And they will slay our men, and lie with our women against their will, and enthrall our children, and torment all those that lie under their hands till life shall be worse than death to them. Therefore, O Alderman and Wardens, and ye neighbours all, it behoveth you to take counsel what we shall do, and that speedily.’
There was again a murmur, as of men nothing daunted, but intent on taking some way through the coming trouble. But no man said aught till the Alderman spake:
‘When didst thou first happen upon this Earl-folk, son?’
‘Late last autumn,’ said Face-of-god.
Said Iron-face: ‘Then mightest thou have told us of this tale before.’
‘Yea,’ said his son, ‘but I knew it not, or but little of it, till two days agone. In the autumn I wandered in the woodland, and on the fell I happened on a few of this folk dwelling in a booth by the pine-wood; and they were kind and guest-fain with me, and gave me meat and drink and lodging, and bade me come to Shadowy Vale in the spring, when I should know more of them. And that was I fain of; for they are wise and goodly men. But I deemed no more of those that I saw there save as men who had been outlawed by their own folk for deeds that were unlawful belike, but not shameful, and were biding their time of return, and were living as they might meanwhile. But of the whole Folk and their foemen knew I no more than ye did, till two days agone, when I met them again in Shadowy Vale. Also I think before long ye shall see their chieftain in Burgstead, for he hath a word for us. Lastly, my mind it is that those brown-clad men who helped Hall-face and his company in the wood were nought but men of this Earl-kin seeking their foemen; for indeed they told me that they had come upon a battle in the woodland wherein they had slain their foemen. Now have I told you all that ye need to know concerning these matters.’
Again was there silence as Iron-face sat pondering a question for his son; then a goodman of the Upper Dale, Gritgarth to wit, spake and said:
‘Gold-mane mine, tell us how many is this folk; I mean their fighting-men?’
‘Well asked, neighbour,’ said Iron-face.
Said Face-of-god: ‘Their fighting-men of full age may be five score; but besides that there shall be some two or three score of women that will fight, whoever says them nay; and many of these are little worse in the field than men; or no worse, for they shoot well in the bow. Moreover, there will be a full score of swains not yet twenty winters old whom ye may not hinder to fight if anything is a-doing.’
‘This is no great host,’ said the Alderman; ‘yet if they deem there is little to lose by fighting, and nought to gain by sitting still, they may go far in winning their desire; and that more especially if they may draw into their quarrel some other valiant Folk more in number than they be. I marvel not, though, they were kind to thee, son Gold-mane, if they knew who thou wert.’
‘They knew it,’ said Face-of-god.
‘Neighbours,’ said the Alderman, ‘have ye any rede hereon, and aught to say to back your rede?’
Then spake the Fiddle: ‘As ye know and may see, I am now very old, and, as the word goes, unmeet for battle: yet might I get me to the field, either on mine own legs or on the legs of some four-foot beast, I would strike, if it were but one stroke, on these pests of the earth. And, Alderman, meseemeth we shall do amiss if we bid not the Earl-folk of Shadowy Vale to be our fellows in arms in this adventure. For look you, how few soever they be, they will be sure to know the ways of our foemen, and the mountain passes, and the surest and nighest roads across the necks and the mires of the waste; and though they be not a host, yet shall they be worth a host to us?’
When men heard his words they shouted for joy of them; for hatred of the Dusky Men who should so mar their happy life in the Dale was growing up in them, and the more that hatred waxed, the more waxed their love of those valiant ones.
Now Red-coat of Waterless spake again: he was a big man, both tall and broad, ruddy-faced and red-haired, some forty winters old. He said:
‘Life hath been well with us of the Lower Dale, and we deem that we have much to lose in losing it. Yet ill would the bargain be to buy life with thralldom: we have been over-merry hitherto for that. Therefore I say, to battle! And as to these men, these well-wishers of Face-of-god, if they also are minded for battle with our foes, we were fools indeed if we did not join them to our company, were they but one score instead of six.’
Men shouted again, and they said that Red-coat had spoken well. Then one after other the goodmen of the Dale came and gave their word for fellowship in arms with the Men of Shadowy Vale, if there were such as Face-of-god had said, which they doubted not; and amongst them that spake were Fox of Nethertown, and Warwell, and Gritgarth, and Bearswain, and Warcliff, and Hart of Highcliff, and Worm of Willowholm, and Bullsbane, and Highneb of the Marsh: all these were stout men-at-arms and men of good counsel.
Last of all the Alderman spake and said:
‘As to the war, that must we needs meet if all be sooth that we have heard, and I doubt it not.
‘Now therefore let us look to it like wise men while time yet serves. Ye shall know that the muster of the Dalesmen will bring under shield eight long hundreds of men well-armed, and of the Shepherd-Folk four hundreds, and of the Woodlanders two hundreds; and this is a goodly host if it be well ordered and wisely led. Now am I your Alderman and your Doomster, and I can heave up a sword as well as another maybe, nor do I think that I shall blench in the battle; yet I misdoubt me that I am no leader or orderer of men-of-war: therefore ye will do wisely to choose a wiser man-at-arms than I be for your War-leader; and if at the Great Folk-mote, when all the Houses and Kindreds are gathered, men yeasay your choosing, then let him abide; but if they naysay it, let him give place to another. For time presses. Will ye so choose?’
‘Yea, yea!’ cried all men.
‘Good is that, neighbours,’ said the Alderman. ‘Whom will ye have for War-leader? Consider well.’
Short was their rede, for every man opened his mouth and cried out ‘Face-of-god!’ Then said the Alderman:
‘The man is young and untried; yet though he is so near akin to me, I will say that ye will do wisely to take him; for he is both deft of his hands and brisk; and moreover, of this matter he knoweth more than all we together. Now therefore I declare him your War-leader till the time of the Great Folk-mote.’
Then all men shouted with great glee and clashed their weapons; but some few put their heads together and spake apart a little while, and then one of them, Red-coat of Waterless to wit, came forward and said: ‘Alderman, some of us deem it good that Stone-face, the old man wise in war and in the ways of the Wood, should be named as a counsellor to the War-leader; and Hall-face, a very brisk and strong young man, to be his right hand and sword-bearer.’
‘Good is that,’ said Iron-face. ‘Neighbours, will ye have it so?’ This also they yeasaid without delay, and the Alderman declared Stone-face and Hall-face the helpers of Face-of-god in this business. Then he said:
‘If any hath aught to say concerning what is best to be done at once, it were good that he said it now before all and not to murmur and grudge hereafter.’
None spake save the Fiddle, who said: ‘Alderman and War-leader, one thing would I say: that if these foemen are anywise akin to those overrunners of the Folks of whom the tales went in my youth (for I also as well as Stone-face mind me well of those tales concerning them), it shall not avail us to sit still and await their onset. For then may they not be withstood, when they have gathered head and burst out and over the folk that have been happy, even as the waters that overtop a dyke and cover with their muddy ruin the deep green grass and the flower-buds of spring. Therefore my rede is, as soon as may be to go seek these folk in the woodland and wheresoever else they may be wandering. What sayest thou, Face-of-god?’
‘My rede is as thine,’ said he; ‘and to begin with, I do now call upon ten tens of good men to meet me in arms at the beginning of Wildlake’s Way to-morrow morning at daybreak; and I bid my brother Hall-face to summon such as are most meet thereto. For this I deem good, that we scour the wood daily at present till we hear fresh tidings from them of Shadowy Vale, who are nigher than we to the foemen. Now, neighbours, are ye ready to meet me?’
Then all shouted, ‘Yea, we will go, we will go!’
Said the Alderman: ‘Now have we made provision for the war in that which is nearest to our hands. Yet have we to deal with the matter of the fellowship with the Folk whom Face-of-god hath seen. This is a matter for thee, son, at least till the Great Folk-mote is holden. Tell me then, shall we send a messenger to Shadowy Vale to speak with this folk, or shall we abide the chieftain’s coming?’
‘By my rede,’ said Face-of-god, ‘we shall abide his coming: for first, though I might well make my way thither, I doubt if I could give any the bearings, so that he could come there without me; and belike I am needed at home, since I am become War-leader. Moreover, when your messenger cometh to Shadowy Vale, he may well chance to find neither the chieftain there, nor the best of his men; for whiles are they here, and whiles there, as they wend following after the Dusky Men.’
‘It is well, son,’ said the Alderman, ‘let it be as thou sayest: soothly this matter must needs be brought before the Great Folk-mote. Now will I ask if any other hath any word to say, or any rede to give before this Gate-thing sundereth?’
But no man came forward, and all men seemed well content and of good heart; and it was now well past noontide.