William Morris Archive


All day long one standing on the Speech-hill of the Wolfings might have seen men in their war-array streaming along the side of Mirkwood-water, on both sides thereof; and the last comers from the Nether-mark came hastening all they might; for they would not be late at the trysting-place.  But these were of a kindred called the Laxings, who bore a salmon on their banner; and they were somewhat few in number, for they had but of late years become a House of the Markmen.  Their banner-wain was drawn by white horses, fleet and strong, and they were no great band, for they had but few thralls with them, and all, free men and thralls, were a-horseback; so they rode by hastily with their banner-wain, their few munition-wains following as they might.

Now tells the tale of the men-at-arms of the Wolfings and the Beamings, that soon they fell in with the Elking host, which was journeying but leisurely, so that the Wolfings might catch up with them: they were a very great kindred, the most numerous of all Mid-mark, and at this time they had affinity with the Wolfings.  But old men of the House remembered how they had heard their grandsires and very old men tell that there had been a time when the Elking House had been established by men from out of the Wolfing kindred, and how they had wandered away from the Mark in the days when it had been first settled, and had abided aloof for many generations of men; and so at last had come back again to the Mark, and had taken up their habitation at a place in Mid-mark where was dwelling but a remnant of a House called the Thyrings, who had once been exceeding mighty, but had by that time almost utterly perished in a great sickness which befel in those days.  So then these two Houses, the wanderers come back and the remnant left by the sickness of the Gods, made one House together, and increased and throve after their coming together, and wedded with the Wolfings, and became a very great House.

Gallant and glorious was their array now, as they marched along with their banner of the Elk, which was drawn by the very beasts themselves tamed to draught to that end through many generations; they were fatter and sleeker than their wild-wood brethren, but not so mighty.

So were the men of the three kindreds somewhat mingled together on the way.  The Wolfings were the tallest and the biggest made; but of those dark-haired men aforesaid, were there fewest amongst the Beamings, and most among the Elkings, as though they had drawn to them more men of alien blood during their wanderings aforesaid.  So they talked together and made each other good cheer, as is the wont of companions in arms on the eve of battle; and the talk ran, as may be deemed, on that journey and what was likely to come of it: and spake an Elking warrior to a Wolfing by whom he rode:

“O Wolfkettle, hath the Hall-Sun had any foresight of the day of battle?”

“Nay,” said the other, “when she lighted the farewell candle, she bade us come back again, and spoke of the day of our return; but that methinks, as thou and I would talk of it, thinking what would be likely to befal.  Since we are a great host of valiant men, and these Welshmen {2} most valiant, and as the rumour runneth bigger-bodied men than the Hun-folk, and so well ordered as never folk have been.  So then if we overthrow them we shall come back again; and if they overthrow us, the remnant of us shall fall back before them till we come to our habitations; for it is not to be looked for that they will fall in upon our rear and prevent us, since we have the thicket of the wild-wood on our flanks.”

“Sooth is that,” said the Elking; “and as to the mightiness of this folk and their customs, ye may gather somewhat from the songs which our House yet singeth, and which ye have heard wide about in the Mark; for this is the same folk of which a many of them tell, making up that story-lay which is called the South-Welsh Lay; which telleth how we have met this folk in times past when we were in fellowship with a folk of the Welsh of like customs to ourselves: for we of the Elkings were then but a feeble folk.  So we marched with this folk of the Kymry and met the men of the cities, and whiles we overthrew and whiles were overthrown, but at last in a great battle were overthrown with so great a slaughter, that the red blood rose over the wheels of the wains, and the city-folk fainted with the work of the slaughter, as men who mow a match in the meadows when the swathes are dry and heavy and the afternoon of midsummer is hot; and there they stood and stared on the field of the slain, and knew not whether they were in Home or Hell, so fierce the fight had been.”

Therewith a man of the Beamings, who was riding on the other side of the Elking, reached out over his horse’s neck and said:

“Yea friend, but is there not some telling of a tale concerning how ye and your fellowship took the great city of the Welshmen of the South, and dwelt there long.”

“Yea,” said the Elking, “Hearken how it is told in the South-Welsh Lay:

   “‘Have ye not heard
   Of the ways of Weird?
   How the folk fared forth
   Far away from the North?
   And as light as one wendeth
   Whereas the wood endeth,
   When of nought is our need,
   And none telleth our deed,
So Rodgeir unwearied and Reidfari wan
The town where none tarried the shield-shaking man.
All lonely the street there, and void was the way
And nought hindered our feet but the dead men that lay
Under shield in the lanes of the houses heavens-high,
All the ring-bearing swains that abode there to die.’

“Tells the Lay, that none abode the Goths and their fellowship, but such as were mighty enough to fall before them, and the rest, both man and woman, fled away before our folk and before the folk of the Kymry, and left their town for us to dwell in; as saith the Lay:

   “‘Glistening of gold
   Did men’s eyen behold;
   Shook the pale sword
   O’er the unspoken word,
   No man drew nigh us
   With weapon to try us,
   For the Welsh-wrought shield
   Lay low on the field.
By man’s hand unbuilded all seemed there to be,
The walls ruddy gilded, the pearls of the sea:
Yea all things were dead there save pillar and wall,
But they lived and they said us the song of the hall;
The dear hall left to perish by men of the land,
For the Goth-folk to cherish with gold gaining hand.’

“See ye how the Lay tells that the hall was bolder than the men, who fled from it, and left all for our fellowship to deal with in the days gone by?”

Said the Wolfing man:

“And as it was once, so shall it be again.  Maybe we shall go far on this journey, and see at least one of the garths of the Southlands, even those which they call cities.  For I have heard it said that they have more cities than one only, and that so great are their kindreds, that each liveth in a garth full of mighty houses, with a wall of stone and lime around it; and that in every one of these garths lieth wealth untold heaped up.  And wherefore should not all this fall to the Markmen and their valiancy?”

Said the Elking:

“As to their many cities and the wealth of them, that is sooth; but as to each city being the habitation of each kindred, it is otherwise: for rather it may be said of them that they have forgotten kindred, and have none, nor do they heed whom they wed, and great is the confusion amongst them.  And mighty men among them ordain where they shall dwell, and what shall be their meat, and how long they shall labour after they are weary, and in all wise what manner of life shall be amongst them; and though they be called free men who suffer this, yet may no house or kindred gainsay this rule and order.  In sooth they are a people mighty, but unhappy.”

Said Wolfkettle:

“And hast thou learned all this from the ancient story lays, O Hiarandi?  For some of them I know, though not all, and therein have I noted nothing of all this.  Is there some new minstrel arisen in thine House of a memory excelling all those that have gone before?  If that be so, I bid him to the Roof of the Wolfings as soon as may be; for we lack new tales.”

“Nay,” said Hiarandi, “This that I tell thee is not a tale of past days, but a tale of to-day.  For there came to us a man from out of the wild-wood, and prayed us peace, and we gave it him; and he told us that he was of a House of the Gael, and that his House had been in a great battle against these Welshmen, whom he calleth the Romans; and that he was taken in the battle, and sold as a thrall in one of their garths; and howbeit, it was not their master-garth, yet there he learned of their customs: and sore was the lesson!  Hard was his life amongst them, for their thralls be not so well entreated as their draught-beasts, so many do they take in battle; for they are a mighty folk; and these thralls and those aforesaid unhappy freemen do all tilling and herding and all deeds of craftsmanship: and above these are men whom they call masters and lords who do nought, nay not so much as smithy their own edge-weapons, but linger out their days in their dwellings and out of their dwellings, lying about in the sun or the hall-cinders, like cur-dogs who have fallen away from kind.

“So this man made a shift to flee away from out of that garth, since it was not far from the great river; and being a valiant man, and young and mighty of body, he escaped all perils and came to us through the Mirkwood.  But we saw that he was no liar, and had been very evilly handled, for upon his body was the mark of many a stripe, and of the shackles that had been soldered on to his limbs; also it was more than one of these accursed people whom he had slain when he fled.  So he became our guest and we loved him, and he dwelt among us and yet dwelleth, for we have taken him into our House.  But yesterday he was sick and might not ride with us; but may be he will follow on and catch up with us in a day or two.  And if he come not, then will I bring him over to the Wolfings when the battle is done.”

Then laughed the Beaming man, and spake:

“How then if ye come not back, nor Wolfkettle, nor the Welsh Guest, nor I myself?  Meseemeth no one of these Southland Cities shall we behold, and no more of the Southlanders than their war-array.”

“These are evil words,” said Wolfkettle, “though such an outcome must be thought on.  But why deemest thou this?”

Said the Beaming: “There is no Hall-Sun sitting under our Roof at home to tell true tales concerning the Kindred every day.  Yet forsooth from time to time is a word said in our Folk-hall for good or for evil; and who can choose but hearken thereto?  And yestereve was a woeful word spoken, and that by a man-child of ten winters.”

Said the Elking: “Now that thou hast told us thus much, thou must tell us more, yea, all the word which was spoken; else belike we shall deem of it as worse than it was.”

Said the Beaming: “Thus it was; this little lad brake out weeping yestereve, when the Hall was full and feasting; and he wailed, and roared out, as children do, and would not be pacified, and when he was asked why he made that to do, he said: ‘Well away!  Raven hath promised to make me a clay horse and to bake it in the kiln with the pots next week; and now he goeth to the war, and he shall never come back, and never shall my horse be made.’  Thereat we all laughed as ye may well deem.  But the lad made a sour countenance on us and said, ‘why do ye laugh? look yonder, what see ye?’  ‘Nay,’ said one, ‘nought but the Feast-hall wall and the hangings of the High-tide thereon.’  Then said the lad sobbing: ‘Ye see ill: further afield see I: I see a little plain, on a hill top, and fells beyond it far bigger than our speech-hill: and there on the plain lieth Raven as white as parchment; and none hath such hue save the dead.’  Then said Raven, (and he was a young man, and was standing thereby).  ‘And well is that, swain, to die in harness!  Yet hold up thine heart; here is Gunbert who shall come back and bake thine horse for thee.’  ‘Nay never more,’ quoth the child, ‘For I see his pale head lying at Raven’s feet; but his body with the green gold-broidered kirtle I see not.’  Then was the laughter stilled, and man after man drew near to the child, and questioned him, and asked, ‘dost thou see me?’ ‘dost thou see me?’  And he failed to see but few of those that asked him.  Therefore now meseemeth that not many of us shall see the cities of the South, and those few belike shall look on their own shackles therewithal.”

“Nay,” said Hiarandi, “What is all this? heard ye ever of a company of fighting men that fared afield, and found the foe, and came back home leaving none behind them?”

Said the Beaming: “Yet seldom have I heard a child foretell the death of warriors.  I tell thee that hadst thou been there, thou wouldst have thought of it as if the world were coming to an end.”

“Well,” said Wolfkettle, “let it be as it may!  Yet at least I will not be led away from the field by the foemen.  Oft may a man be hindered of victory, but never of death if he willeth it.”

Therewith he handled a knife that hung about his neck, and went on to say: “But indeed, I do much marvel that no word came into the mouth of the Hall-Sun yestereven or this morning, but such as any woman of the kindred might say.”

Therewith fell their talk awhile, and as they rode they came to where the wood drew nigher to the river, and thus the Mid-mark had an end; for there was no House had a dwelling in the Mid-mark higher up the water than the Elkings, save one only, not right great, who mostly fared to war along with the Elkings: and this was the Oselings, whose banner bore the image of the Wood-ousel, the black bird with the yellow neb; and they had just fallen into the company of the greater House.

So now Mid-mark was over and past, and the serried trees of the wood came down like a wall but a little way from the lip of the water; and scattered trees, mostly quicken-trees grew here and there on the very water side.  But Mirkwood-water ran deep swift and narrow between high clean-cloven banks, so that none could dream of fording, and not so many of swimming its dark green dangerous waters.  And the day wore on towards evening and the glory of the western sky was unseen because of the wall of high trees.  And still the host made on, and because of the narrowness of the space between river and wood it was strung out longer and looked a very great company of men.  And moreover the men of the eastern-lying part of Mid-mark, were now marching thick and close on the other side of the river but a little way from the Wolfings and their fellows; for nothing but the narrow river sundered them.

So night fell, and the stars shone, and the moon rose, and yet the Wolfings and their fellows stayed not, since they wotted that behind them followed a many of the men of the Mark, both the Mid and the Nether, and they would by no means hinder their march.

So wended the Markmen between wood and stream on either side of Mirkwood-water, till now at last the night grew deep and the moon set, and it was hard on midnight, and they had kindled many torches to light them on either side of the water.  So whereas they had come to a place where the trees gave back somewhat from the river, which was well-grassed for their horses and neat, and was called Baitmead, the companies on the western side made stay there till morning.  And they drew the wains right up to the thick of the wood, and all men turned aside into the mead from the beaten road, so that those who were following after might hold on their way if so they would.  There then they appointed watchers of the night, while the rest of them lay upon the sward by the side of the trees, and slept through the short summer night.

The tale tells not that any man dreamed of the fight to come in such wise that there was much to tell of his dream on the morrow; many dreamed of no fight or faring to war, but of matters little, and often laughable, mere mingled memories of bygone time that had no waking wits to marshal them.

But that man of the Beamings dreamed that he was at home watching a potter, a man of the thralls of the House working at his wheel, and fashioning bowls and ewers: and he had a mind to take of his clay and fashion a horse for the lad that had bemoaned the promise of his toy.  And he tried long and failed to fashion anything; for the clay fell to pieces in his hands; till at last it held together and grew suddenly, not into an image of a horse, but of the Great Yule Boar, the similitude of the Holy Beast of Frey.  So he laughed in his sleep and was glad, and leaped up and drew his sword with his clay-stained hands that he might wave it over the Earth Boar, and swear a great oath of a doughty deed.  And therewith he found himself standing on his feet indeed, just awakened in the cold dawn, and holding by his right hand to an ash-sapling that grew beside him.  So he laughed again, and laid him down, and leaned back and slept his sleep out till the sun and the voices of his fellows stirring awakened him.

Continue to Chapter 7

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