The Roots of the Mountain - Chapter 26
THE ENDING OF THE GATE-THING
But just as the Alderman was on the point of rising to declare the breaking-up of the Thing, there came a stir in the throng and it opened, and a warrior came forth into the innermost of the ring of men, arrayed in goodly glittering War-gear; clad in such wise that a tunicle of precious gold-wrought web covered the hauberk all but the sleeves thereof, and the hem of it beset with blue mountain-stones smote against the ankles and well-nigh touched the feet, shod with sandals gold-embroidered and gemmed. This warrior bore a goodly gilded helm on the head, and held in hand a spear with gold-garlanded shaft, and was girt with a sword whose hilts and scabbard both were adorned with gold and gems: beardless, smooth-cheeked, exceeding fair of face was the warrior, but pale and somewhat haggard-eyed: and those who were nearby beheld and wondered; for they saw that there was come the Bride arrayed for war and battle, as if she were a messenger from the House of the Gods, and the Burg that endureth for ever.
Then she fell to speech in a voice which at first was somewhat hoarse and broken, but cleared as she went on, and she said:
‘There sittest thou, O Alderman of Burgdale! Is Face-of-god thy son anywhere nigh, so that he can hear me?’
But Iron-face wondered at her word, and said: ‘He is beside thee, as he should be.’ For indeed Face-of-god was touching her, shoulder to shoulder. But she looked not to the right hand nor the left, but said:
‘Hearken, Iron-face! Chief of the House of the Face, Alderman of the Dale, and ye also, neighbours and goodmen of the Dale: I am a woman called the Bride, of the House of the Steer, and ye have heard that I have plighted my troth to Face-of-god to wed with him, to love him, and lie in his bed. But it is not so: we are not troth-plight; nor will I wed with him, nor any other, but will wend with you to the war, and play my part therein according to what might is in me; nor will I be worser than the wives of Shadowy Vale.’
Face-of-god heard her words with no change of countenance; but Iron-face reddened over all his face, and stared at her, and knit his brows and said:
‘Maiden, what are these words? What have we done to thee? Have I not been to thee as a father, and loved thee dearly? Is not my son goodly and manly and deft in arms? Hath it not ever been the wont of the House of the Face to wed in the House of the Steer? and in these two Houses there hath never yet been a goodlier man and a lovelier maiden than are ye two. What have we done then?’
‘Ye have done nought against me,’ she said, ‘and all that thou sayest is sooth; yet will I not wed with Face-of-god.’
Yet fiercer waxed the face of the Alderman, and he said in a loud voice:
‘But how if I tell thee that I will speak with thy kindred of the Steer, and thou shalt do after my bidding whether thou wilt or whether thou wilt not?’
‘And how will ye compel me thereto?’ she said. ‘Are there thralls in the Dale? Or will ye make me an outlaw? Who shall heed it? Or I shall betake me to Shadowy Vale and become one of their warrior-maidens.’
Now was the Alderman’s face changing from red to white, and belike he forgat the Thing, and what he was doing there, and he cried out:
‘This is an evil day, and who shall help me? Thou, Face-of-god, what hast thou to say? Wilt thou let this woman go without a word? What hath bewitched thee?’
But never a word spake his son, but stood looking straight forward, cold and calm by seeming. Then turned Iron-face again to the Bride, and said in a softer voice:
‘Tell me, maiden, whom I erst called daughter, what hath befallen, that thou wilt leave my son; thou who wert once so kind and loving to him; whose hand was always seeking his, whose eyes were ever following his; who wouldst go where he bade, and come when he called. What hath betid that ye have cast him out, and flee from our House?’
She flushed red beneath her helm and said:
‘There is war in the land, and I have seen it coming, and that things shall change around us. I have looked about me and seen men happy and women content, and children weary for mere mirth and joy. And I have thought, in a day, or two days or three, all this shall be changed, and the women shall be, some anxious and wearied with waiting, some casting all hope away; and the men, some shall come back to the garth no more, and some shall come back maimed and useless, and there shall be loss of friends and fellows, and mirth departed, and dull days and empty hours, and the children wandering about marvelling at the sorrow of the house. All this I saw before me, and grief and pain and wounding and death; and I said: Shall I be any better than the worst of the folk that loveth me? Nay, this shall never be; and since I have learned to be deft with mine hands in all the play of war, and that I am as strong as many a man, and as hardy-hearted as any, I will give myself to the Warrior and the God of the Face; and the battle-field shall be my home, and the after-grief of the fight my banquet and holiday, that I may bear the burden of my people, in the battle and out of it; and know every sorrow that the Dale hath; and cast aside as a grievous and ugly thing the bed of the warrior that the maiden desires, and the toying of lips and hands and soft words of desire, and all the joy that dwelleth in the Castle of Love and the Garden thereof; while the world outside is sick and sorry, and the fields lie waste and the harvest burneth. Even so have I sworn, even so will I do.’
Her eyes glittered and her cheek was flushed, and her voice was clear and ringing now; and when she ended there arose a murmur of praise from the men round about her. But Iron-face said coldly:
‘These are great words; but I know not what they mean. If thou wilt to the field and fight among the carles (and that I would not naysay, for it hath oft been done and praised aforetime), why shouldest thou not go side by side with Face-of-god and as his plighted maiden?’
The light which the sweetness of speech had brought into her face had died out of it now, and she looked weary and hapless as she answered him slowly:
‘I will not wed with Face-of-god, but will fare afield as a virgin of war, as I have sworn to the Warrior.’
Then waxed Iron-face exceeding wroth, and he rose up before all men and cried loudly and fiercely:
‘There is some lie abroad, that windeth about us as the gossamers in the lanes of an autumn morning.’
And therewith he strode up to Face-of-god as though he had nought to do with the Thing; and he stood before him and cried out at him while all men wondered:
‘Thou! what hast thou done to turn this maiden’s heart to stone? Who is it that is devising guile with thee to throw aside this worthy wedding in a worthy House, with whom our sons are ever wont to wed? Speak, tell the tale!’
But Face-of-god held his peace and stood calm and proud before all men.
Then the blood mounted to Iron-face’s head, and he forgat folk and kindred and the war to come, and he cried so that all the place rang with the words of his anger:
‘Thou dastard! I see thee now; it is thou that hast done this, and not the maiden; and now thou hast made her bear a double burden, and set her on to speak for thee, whilst thou standest by saying nought, and wilt take no scruple’s weight of her shame upon thee!’
But his son spake never a word, and Iron-face cried: ‘Out on thee! I know thee now, and why thou wouldest not to the West-land last winter. I am no fool; I know thee. Where hast thou hidden the stranger woman?’
Therewith he drew forth his sword and hove it aloft as if to hew down Face-of-god, who spake not nor flinched nor raised a hand from his side. But the Bride threw herself in front of Gold-mane, while there arose an angry cry of ‘The Peace of the Holy Thing! Peace-breaking, peace-breaking!’ and some cried, ‘For the War-leader, the War-leader!’ and as men could for the press they drew forth their swords, and there was tumult and noise all over the Thing-stead.
But Stone-face caught hold of the Alderman’s right arm and dragged down the sword, and the big carle, Red-coat of Waterless, came up behind him and cast his arms about his middle and drew him back; and presently he looked around him, and slowly sheathed his sword, and went back to his place and sat him down; and in a little while the noise abated and swords were sheathed, and men waxed quiet again, and the Alderman arose and said in a loud voice, but in the wonted way of the head man of the Thing:
‘Here hath been trouble in the Holy Thing; a violent man hath troubled it, and drawn sword on a neighbour; will the neighbours give the dooming hereof into the hands of the Alderman?’
Now all knew Iron-face, and they cried out, ‘That will we.’ So he spake again:
‘I doom the troubler of the Peace of the Holy Thing to pay a fine, to wit double the blood-wite that would be duly paid for a full-grown freeman of the kindreds.’
Then the cry went up and men yeasaid his doom, and all said that it was well and fairly doomed; and Iron-face sat still.
But Stone-face stood forth and said:
‘Here have been wild words in the air; and dreams have taken shape and come amongst us, and have bewitched us, so that friends and kin have wrangled. And meseemeth that this is through the wizardry of these felons, who, even dead as they are, have cast spells over us. Good it were to cast them into the Death Tarn, and then to get to our work; for there is much to do.’
All men yeasaid that; and Forkbeard of Lea went with those who had borne the corpses thither to cast them into the black pool.
But the Fiddle spake and said:
‘Stone-face sayeth sooth. O Alderman, thou art no young man, yet am I old enough to be thy father; so will I give thee a rede, and say this: Face-of-god thy son is no liar or dastard or beguiler, but he is a young man and exceeding goodly of fashion, well-spoken and kind; so that few women may look on him and hear him without desiring his kindness and love, and to such men as this many things happen. Moreover, he hath now become our captain, and is a deft warrior with his hands, and as I deem, a sober and careful leader of men; therefore we need him and his courage and his skill of leading. So rage not against him as if he had done an ill deed not to be forgiven—whatever he hath done, whereof we know not—for life is long before him, and most like we shall still have to thank him for many good deeds towards us. As for the maiden, she is both lovely and wise. She hath a sorrow at her heart, and we deem that we know what it is. Yet hath she not lied when she said that she would bear the burden of the griefs of the people. Even so shall she do; and whether she will, or whether she will not, that shall heal her own griefs. For to-morrow is a new day. Therefore, if thou do after my rede, thou wilt not meddle betwixt these twain, but wilt remember all that we have to do, and that war is coming upon us. And when that is over, we shall turn round and behold each other, and see that we are not wholly what we were before; and then shall that which were hard to forgive, be forgotten, and that which is remembered be easy to forgive.’
So he spake; and Iron-face sat still and put his left hand to his beard as one who pondereth; but the Bride looked in the face of the old man the Fiddle, and then she turned and looked at Gold-mane, and her face softened, and she stood before the Alderman, and bent down before him and held out both her hands to him the palms upward. Then she said: ‘Thou hast been wroth with me, and I marvel not; for thy hope, and the hope which we all had, hath deceived thee. But kind indeed hast thou been to me ere now: therefore I pray thee take it not amiss if I call to thy mind the oath which thou swearedst on the Holy Boar last Yule, that thou wouldst not gainsay the prayer of any man if thou couldest perform it; therefore I bid thee naysay not mine: and that is, that thou wilt ask me no more about this matter, but wilt suffer me to fare afield like any swain of the Dale, and to deal so with my folk that they shall not hinder me. Also I pray thee that thou wilt put no shame upon Face-of-god my playmate and my kinsman, nor show thine anger to him openly, even if for a little while thy love for him be abated. No more than this will I ask of thee.’
All men who heard her were moved to the heart by her kindness and the sweetness of her voice, which was like to the robin singing suddenly on a frosty morning of early winter. But as for Gold-mane, his heart was smitten sorely by it, and her sorrow and her friendliness grieved him out of measure.
But Iron-face answered after a little while, speaking slowly and hoarsely, and with the shame yet clinging to him of a man who has been wroth and has speedily let his wrath run off him. So he said:
‘It is well, my daughter. I have no will to forswear myself; nor hast thou asked me a thing which is over-hard. Yet indeed I would that to-day were yesterday, or that many days were worn away.’
Then he stood up and cried in a loud voice over the throng:
‘Let none forget the muster; but hold him ready against the time that the Warden shall come to him. Let all men obey the War-leader, Face-of-god, without question or delay. As to the fine of the peace-breaker, it shall be laid on the altar of the God at the Great Folk-mote. Herewith is the Thing broken up.’
Then all men shouted and clashed their weapons, and so sundered, and went about their business.
And the talk of men it was that the breaking of the troth-plight between those twain was ill; for they loved Face-of-god, and as for the Bride they deemed her the Dearest of the kindreds and the Jewel of the Folk, and as if she were the fairest and the kindest of all the Gods. Neither did the wrath of Iron-face mislike any; but they said he had done well and manly both to be wroth and to let his wrath run off him. As to the war which was to come, they kept a good heart about it, and deemed it as a game to be played, wherein they might show themselves deft and valiant, and so get back to their merry life again.
So wore the day through afternoon to even and night.