The Roots of the Mountain - Chapter 7
FACE-OF-GOD TALKETH WITH THE FRIEND ON THE MOUNTAIN
So now went all men to bed; and Face-to-god’s shut-bed was over against the outer door and toward the lower end of the hall, and on the panel about it hung the weapons and shields of men. Fair was that chamber and roomy, and the man was weary despite his eagerness, so that he went to sleep as soon as his head touched the pillow; but within a while (he deemed about two hours after midnight) he was awaked by the clattering of the weapons against the panel, and the sound of men’s hands taking them down; and when he was fully awake, he heard withal men going up and down the house as if on errands: but he called to mind what the Friend had said to him, and he did not so much as turn himself toward the hall; for he said: ‘Belike these men are outlaws and Wolves of the Holy Places, yet by seeming they are good fellows and nought churlish, nor have I to do with taking up the feud against them. I will abide the morning. Yet meseemeth that she drew me hither: for what cause?’
Therewith he fell asleep again, and dreamed no more. But when he awoke the sun was shining broad upon the hall-floor, and he sat up and listened, but could hear no sound save the moaning of the wind in the pine-boughs and the chatter of the starlings about the gables of the house; and the place seemed so exceeding lonely to him that he was in a manner feared by that loneliness.
Then he arose and clad himself, and went forth into the hall and gazed about him, and at first he deemed indeed that there was no one therein. But at last he looked and beheld the upper gable and there underneath a most goodly hanging was the glorious shape of a woman sitting on a bench covered over with a cloth of gold and silver; and he looked and looked to see if the woman might stir, and if she were alive, and she turned her head toward him, and lo it was the Friend; and his heart rose to his mouth for wonder and fear and desire. For now he doubted whether the other folk were aught save shows and shadows, and she the Goddess who had fashioned them out of nothing for his bewilderment, presently to return to nothing.
Yet whatever he might fear or doubt, he went up the hall towards her till he was quite nigh to her, and there he stood silent, wondering at her beauty and desiring her kindness.
Grey-eyed she was like her brother; but her hair the colour of red wheat: her lips full and red, her chin round, her nose fine and straight. Her hands and all her body fashioned exceeding sweetly and delicately; yet not as if she were an image of which the like might be found if the craftsman were but deft enough to make a perfect thing, but in such a way that there was none like to her for those that had eyes to behold her as she was; and none could ever be made like to her, even by such a master-craftsman as could fashion a body without a blemish.
She was clad in a white smock, whose hems were broidered with gold wire and precious gems of the Mountains, and over that a gown woven of gold and silver: scarce hath the world such another. On her head was a fillet of gold and gems, and there were wondrous gold rings on her arms: her feet lay bare on the dark grey wolf-skin that was stretched before her.
She smiled kindly upon his solemn and troubled face, and her voice sounded strangely familiar to him coming from all that loveliness, as she said: ‘Hail, Face-of-god! here am I left alone, although I deemed last night that I should be gone with the others. Therefore am I fain to show myself to thee in fairer array than yesternight; for though we dwell in the wild-wood, from the solace of folk, yet are we not of thralls’ blood. But come now, I bid thee break thy fast and talk with me a little while; and then shalt thou depart in peace.’
Spake Face-of-god, and his voice trembled as he spake: ‘What art thou? Last night I deemed at whiles once and again that thou wert of the Gods; and now that I behold thee thus, and it is broad daylight, and of those others is no more to be seen than if they had never lived, I cannot but deem that it is even so, and that thou comest from the City that shall never perish. Now if thou be a goddess, I have nought to pray thee, save to slay me speedily if thou hast a mind for my death. But if thou art a woman—’
She broke in: ‘Gold-mane, stay thy prayer and hold thy peace for this time, lest thou repent when repentance availeth not. And this I say because I am none of the Gods nor akin to them, save far off through the generations, as art thou also, and all men of goodly kindred. Now I bid thee eat thy meat, since ’tis ill talking betwixt a full man and a fasting; and I have dight it myself with mine own hands; for Bow-may and the Wood-mother went away with the rest three hours before dawn. Come sit and eat as thou hast a hardy heart; as forsooth thou shouldest do if I were a very goddess. Take heed, friend, lest I take thee for some damsel of the lower Dale arrayed in Earl’s garments.’
She laughed therewith, and leaned toward him and put forth her hand to him, and he took it and caressed it; and the exceeding beauty of her body and of the raiment which was as it were a part of her and her loveliness, made her laughter and her friendly words strange to him, as if one did not belong to the other; as in a dream it might be. Nevertheless he did as she bade him, and sat at the board and ate, while she leaned forward on the arm of her chair and spake to him in friendly wise. And he wondered as she spake that she knew so much of him and his: and he kept saying to himself: ‘She drew me hither; wherefore did she so?’
But she said: ‘Gold-mane, how fareth thy father the Alderman? is he as good a wright as ever?’
He told her: Yea, that ever was his hammer on the iron, the copper, and the gold, and that no wright in the Dale was as deft as he.
Said she: ‘Would he not have had thee seek to the Cities, to see the ways of the outer world?’
‘Yea,’ said he.
She said: ‘Thou wert wise to naysay that offer; thou shalt have enough to do in the Dale and round about it in twelve months’ time.’
‘Art thou foresighted?’ said he.
‘Folk have called me so,’ she said, ‘but I wot not. But thy brother Hall-face, how fareth he?’
‘Well;’ said he, ‘to my deeming he is the Sword of our House, and the Warrior of the Dale, if the days were ready for him.’
‘And Stone-face, that stark ancient,’ she said, ‘doth he still love the Folk of the Dale, and hate all other folks?’
‘Nay,’ he said, ‘I know not that, but I know that he loveth as, and above all me and my father.’
Again she spake: ‘How fareth the Bride, the fair maid to whom thou art affianced?’
As she spake, it was to him as if his heart was stricken cold; but he put a force upon himself, and neither reddened nor whitened, nor changed countenance in any way; so he answered:
‘She was well the eve of yesterday.’ Then he remembered what she was, and her beauty and valour, and he constrained himself to say: ‘Each day she groweth fairer; there is no man’s son and no daughter of woman that does not love her; yea, the very beasts of field and fold love her.’
The Friend looked at him steadily and spake no word, but a red flush mounted to her cheeks and brow and changed her face; and he marvelled thereat; for still he misdoubted that she was a Goddess. But it passed away in a moment, and she smiled and said:
‘Guest, thou seemest to wonder that I know concerning thee and the Dale and thy kindred. But now shalt thou wot that I have been in the Dale once and again, and my brother oftener still; and that I have seen thee before yesterday.’
‘That is marvellous,’ quoth he, ‘for sure am I that I have not seen thee.’
‘Yet thou hast seen me,’ she said; ‘yet not altogether as I am now;’ and therewith she smiled on him friendly.
‘How is this?’ said he; ‘art thou a skin-changer?’
‘Yea, in a fashion,’ she said. ‘Hearken! dost thou perchance remember a day of last summer when there was a market holden in Burgstead; and there stood in the way over against the House of the Face a tall old carle who was trucking deer-skins for diverse gear; and with him was a queen, tall and dark-skinned, somewhat well-liking, her hair bound up in a white coif so that none of it could be seen; by the token that she had a large stone of mountain blue set in silver stuck in the said coif?’
As she spoke she set her hand to her bosom and drew something from it, and held forth her hand to Gold-mane, and lo amidst the palm the great blue stone set in silver.
‘Wondrous as a dream is this,’ said Face-of-god, ‘for these twain I remember well, and what followed.’
She said: ‘I will tell thee that. There came a man of the Shepherd-Folk, drunk or foolish, or both, who began to chaffer with the big carle; but ever on the queen were his eyes set, and presently he put forth his hand to her to clip her, whereon the big carle hove up his fist and smote him, so that he fell to earth noseling. Then ran the folk together to hale off the stranger and help the shepherd, and it was like that the stranger should be mishandled. Then there thrust through the press a young man with yellow hair and grey eyes, who cried out, “Fellows, let be! The stranger had the right of it; this is no matter to make a quarrel or a court case of. Let the market go on! This man and maid are true folk.” So when the folk heard the young man and his bidding, they forebore and let the carle and the queen be, and the shepherd went his ways little hurt. Now then, who was this young man?’
Quoth Gold-mane: ‘It was even I, and meseemeth it was no great deed to do.’
‘Yea,’ she said, ‘and the big carle was my brother, and the tall queen, it was myself.’
‘How then,’ said he, ‘for she was as dark-skinned as a dwarf, and thou so bright and fair?’
She said: ‘Well, if the woods are good for nothing else, yet are they good for the growing of herbs, and I know the craft of simpling; and with one of these herbs had I stained my skin and my brother’s also. And it showed the darker beneath the white coif.’
‘Yea,’ said he, ‘but why must ye needs fare in feigned shapes? Ye would have been welcome guests in the Dale howsoever ye had come.’
‘I may not tell thee hereof as now,’ said she.
Said Gold-mane: ‘Yet thou mayst belike tell me wherefore was that thy brother desired to slay me yesterday, if he knew me, who I was.’
‘Gold-mane,’ she said, ‘thou art not slain, so little story need be made of that: for the rest, belike he knew thee not at that moment. So it falls with us, that we look to see foes rather than friends in the wild-woods. Many uncouth things are therein. Moreover, I must tell thee of my brother that whiles he is as the stalled bull late let loose, and nothing is good to him save battle and onset; and then is he blind and knows not friend from foe.’ Said Face-of-god: ‘Thou hast asked of me and mine; wilt thou not tell me of thee and thine?’
‘Nay,’ she said, ‘not as now; thou must betake thee to the way. Whither wert thou wending when thou happenedst upon us?’
He said: ‘I know not; I was seeking something, but I knew not what— meseemeth that now I have found it.’
‘Art thou for the great mountains seeking gems?’ she said. ‘Yet go not thither to-day: for who knoweth what thou shalt meet there that shall be thy foe?’
He said: ‘Nay, nay; I have nought to do but to abide here as long as I may, looking upon thee and hearkening to thy voice.’
Her eyes were upon his, but yet she did not seem to see him, and for a while she answered not; and still he wondered that mere words should come from so fair a thing; for whether she moved foot, or hand, or knee, or turned this way or that, each time she stirred it was a caress to his very heart.
He spake again: ‘May I not abide here a while? What scathe may be in that?’
‘It is not so,’ she said; ‘thou must depart, and that straightway: lo, there lieth thy spear which the Wood-mother hath brought in from the waste. Take thy gear to thee and wend thy ways. Have patience! I will lead thee to the place where we first met and there give thee farewell.’
Therewith she arose and he also perforce, and when they came to the doorway she stepped across the threshold and then turned back and gave him her hand and so led him forth, the sun flashing back from her golden raiment. Together they went over the short grey grass of that hillside till they came to the place where he had arisen from that wrestle with her brother. There she stayed him and said:
‘This is the place; here must we part.’
But his heart failed him and he faltered in his speech as he said:
‘When shall I see thee again? Wilt thou slay me if I seek to thee hither once more?’
‘Hearken,’ she said, ‘autumn is now a-dying into winter: let winter and its snows go past: nor seek to me hither; for me thou should’st not find, but thy death thou mightest well fall in with; and I would not that thou shouldest die. When winter is gone, and spring is on the land, if thou hast not forgotten us thou shalt meet us again. Yet shalt thou go further than this Woodland Hall. In Shadowy Vale shalt thou seek to me then, and there will I talk with thee.’
‘And where,’ said he, ‘is Shadowy Vale? for thereof have I never heard tell.’
She said: ‘The token when it cometh to thee shall show thee thereof and the way thither. Art thou a babbler, Gold-mane?’
He said: ‘I have won no prize for babbling hitherto.’
She said: ‘If thou listest to babble concerning what hath befallen thee on the Mountain, so do, and repent it once only, that is, thy life long.’
‘Why should I say any word thereof?’ said he. ‘Dost thou not know the sweetness of such a tale untold?’
He spake as one who is somewhat wrathful, and she answered humbly and kindly:
‘Well is that. Bide thou the token that shall lead thee to Shadowy Vale. Farewell now.’
She drew her hand from his, and turned and went her ways swiftly to the house: he could not choose but gaze on her as she went glittering-bright and fair in that grey place of the mountains, till the dark doorway swallowed up her beauty. Then he turned away and took the path through the pine-woods, muttering to himself as he went:
‘What thing have I done now that hitherto I had not done? What manner of man am I to-day other than the man I was yesterday?’