The House of the Wolfings - Chapter 22
CHAPTER XXII—OTTER FALLS ON AGAINST HIS WILL
It was with the same imagination working in him belike that the Roman Captain set none to guard the ford on the westward side of Mirkwood-water. The Romans tarried there but a little hour, and then went their ways; but Otter sent a man on a swift horse to watch them, and when they were clean gone for half an hour, he bade his folk to horse, and they departed, all save a handful of the swains and elders, who were left to tell the tidings to Thiodolf when he should come into Mid-mark.
So Otter and his folk crossed the ford, and drew up in good order on the westward bank, and it was then somewhat more than three hours after noon. He had been there but a little while before he noted a stir in the Bearing meadow, and lo, it was the first of Thiodolf’s folk, who had gotten out of the wood and had fallen in with the men whom he had left behind. And these first were the riders of the Bearings, and the Wormings, (for they had out-gone the others who were afoot). It may well be thought how fearful was their anger when they set eyes on the smouldering ashes of the dwellings; nor even when those folk of Otter had told them all they had to tell could some of them refrain them from riding off to the burnt houses to seek for the bodies of their kindred. But when they came there, and amidst the ashes could find no bones, their hearts were lightened, and yet so mad wroth they were, that some could scarce sit their horses, and great tears gushed from the eyes of some, and pattered down like hail-stones, so eager were they to see the blood of the Romans. So they rode back to where they had left their folk talking with them of Otter; and the Bearings were sitting grim upon their horses and somewhat scowling on Otter’s men. Then the foremost of those who had come back from the houses waved his hand toward the ford, but could say nought for a while; but the captain and chief of the Bearings, a grizzled man very big of body, whose name was Arinbiorn, spake to that man and said; “What aileth thee Sweinbiorn the Black? What hast thou seen?”
Said Arinbiorn: “What sawest thou therein, O Sweinbiorn, where sat thy grandsire at the feast? Where were the bones of thy mother lying?”
Arinbiorn’s brow lightened somewhat; but ere he could speak again an ancient thrall of the Galtings spake and said:
“True it is, O warriors of the Bearings, that we might not see any war-thralls being led away by the Romans when they came away from the burning dwellings; and we deem it certain that they crossed the water before the coming of the Romans, and that they are now with the stay-at-homes of the Wolfings in the wild-wood behind the Wolfing dwellings, for we hear tell that the War-duke would not that the Hall-Sun should hold the Hall against the whole Roman host.”
Then Sweinbiorn tossed up his sword into the air and caught it by the hilts as it fell, and cried out: “On, on to the meadow, where these thieves abide us!” Arinbiorn spake no word, but turned his horse and rode down to the ford, and all men followed him; and of the Bearings there were an hundred warriors save one, and of the Wormings eighty and seven.
So rode they over the meadow and into the ford and over it, and Otter’s company stood on the bank to meet them, and shouted to see them; but the others made but little noise as they crossed the water.
So when they were on the western bank Arinbiorn came among them of Otter, and cried out: “Where then is Otter, where is the War-duke, is he alive or dead?”
And the throng opened to him and Otter stood facing him; and Arinbiorn spake and said: “Thou art alive and unhurt, War-duke, when many have been hurt and slain; and methinks thy company is little minished though the kindred of the Bearings lacketh a roof; and its elders and women and children are gone into captivity. What is this? Was it a light thing that gangrel thieves should burn and waste in Mid-mark and depart unhurt, that ye stand here with clean blades and cold bodies?”
Said Otter: “Thou grievest for the hurt of thine House, Arinbiorn; but this at least is good, that though ye have lost the timber of your house ye have not lost its flesh and blood; the shell is gone, but the kernel is saved: for thy folk are by this time in the wood with the Wolfing stay-at-homes, and among these are many who may fight on occasion, so they are safe as for this time: the Romans may not come at them to hurt them.”
Said Arinbiorn: “Had ye time to learn all this, Otter, when ye fled so fast before the Romans, that the father tarried not for the son, nor the son for the father?”
He spoke in a loud voice so that many heard him, and some deemed it evil; for anger and dissension between friends seemed abroad; but some were so eager for battle, that the word of Arinbiorn seemed good to them, and they laughed for pride and anger.
Then Otter answered meekly, for he was a wise man and a bold: “We fled not, Arinbiorn, but as the sword fleeth, when it springeth up from the iron helm to fall on the woollen coat. Are we not now of more avail to you, O men of the Bearings, than our dead corpses would have been?”
Arinbiorn answered not, but his face waxed red, as if he were struggling with a weight hard to lift: then said Otter:
“But when will Thiodolf and the main battle be with us?”
Arinbiorn answered calmly: “Maybe in a little hour from now, or somewhat more.”
Said Otter: “My rede is that we abide him here, and when we are all met and well ordered together, fall on the Romans at once: for then shall we be more than they; whereas now we are far fewer, and moreover we shall have to set on them in their ground of vantage.”
Arinbiorn answered nothing; but an old man of the Bearings, one Thorbiorn, came up and spake:
“Warriors, here are we talking and taking counsel, though this is no Hallowed Thing to bid us what we shall do, and what we shall forbear; and to talk thus is less like warriors than old women wrangling over the why and wherefore of a broken crock. Let the War-duke rule here, as is but meet and right. Yet if I might speak and not break the peace of the Goths, then would I say this, that it might be better for us to fall on these Romans at once before they have cast up a dike about them, as Fox telleth is their wont, and that even in an hour they may do much.”
As he spake there was a murmur of assent about him, but Otter spake sharply, for he was grieved.
“Thorbiorn, thou art old, and shouldest not be void of prudence. Now it had been better for thee to have been in the wood to-day to order the women and the swains according to thine ancient wisdom than to egg on my young warriors to fare unwarily. Here will I abide Thiodolf.”
Then Thorbiorn reddened and was wroth; but Arinbiorn spake:
“What is this to-do? Let the War-duke rule as is but right: but I am now become a man of Thiodolf’s company; and he bade me haste on before to help all I might. Do thou as thou wilt, Otter: for Thiodolf shall be here in an hour’s space, and if much diking shall be done in an hour, yet little slaying, forsooth, shall be done, and that especially if the foe is all armed and slayeth women and children. Yea if the Bearing women be all slain, yet shall not Tyr make us new ones out of the stones of the waste to wed with the Galtings and the fish-eating Houses?—this is easy to be done forsooth. Yea, easier than fighting the Romans and overcoming them!”
And he was very wrath, and turned away; and again there was a murmur and a hum about him. But while these had been speaking aloud, Sweinbiorn had been talking softly to some of the younger men, and now he shook his naked sword in the air and spake aloud and sang:
Therewith he waved his sword over his head, and made as if he would spur onward. But Arinbiorn thrust through the press and outwent him and cried out:
“None goeth before Arinbiorn the Old when the battle is pitched in the meadows of the kindred. Come, ye sons of the Bear, ye children of the Worm! And come ye, whosoever hath a will to see stout men die!”
Then on he rode nor looked behind him, and the riders of the Bearings and the Wormings drew themselves out of the throng, and followed him, and rode clattering over the meadow towards Wolfstead. A few of the others rode with them, and yet but a few. For they remembered the holy Folk-mote and the oath of the War-duke, and how they had chosen Otter to be their leader. Howbeit, man looked askance at man, as if in shame to be left behind.
But Otter bethought him in the flash of a moment, “If these men ride alone, they shall die and do nothing; and if we ride with them it may be that we shall overthrow the Romans, and if we be vanquished, it shall go hard but we shall slay many of them, so that it shall be the easier for Thiodolf to deal with them.”
Then he spake hastily, and bade certain men abide at the ford for a guard; then he drew his sword and rode to the front of his folk, and cried out aloud to them:
“Now at last has come the time to die, and let them of the Markmen who live hereafter lay us in howe. Set on, Sons of Tyr, and give not your lives away, but let them be dearly earned of our foemen.”
Then all shouted loudly and gladly; nor were they otherwise than exceeding glad; for now had they forgotten all other joys of life save the joy of fighting for the kindred and the days to be.
So Otter led them forth, and when he heard the whole company clattering and thundering on the earth behind him and felt their might enter into him, his brow cleared, and the anxious lines in the face of the old man smoothed themselves out, and as he rode along the soul so stirred within him that he sang out aloud:
Many men perceived that he sang, and saw that he was merry, howbeit few heard his very words, and yet all were glad of him.
Fast they rode, being wishful to catch up with the Bearings and the Wormings, and soon they came anigh them, and they, hearing the thunder of the horse-hoofs, looked and saw that it was the company of Otter, and so slacked their speed till they were all joined together with joyous shouting and laughter. So then they ordered the ranks anew and so set forward in great joy without haste or turmoil toward Wolfstead and the Romans. For now the bitterness of their fury and the sourness of their abiding wrath were turned into the mere joy of battle; even as the clear red and sweet wine comes of the ugly ferment and rough trouble of the must.