The Sundering Flood - Chapter 10
OSBERNE AND ELFHILD HOLD CONVERSE TOGETHER
So when she was rested she fell to speech again: "Dear lad, this was the first gift, and I could not but deem that some one had heard me make my moan unseen and had given me that good gift. So what must I do but try it again, and one day I went down into the cave and fell to bewailing me that I had nought to deck me with, neither of gold nor silver, as other maidens had, for in sooth I had seen them with such things. And when I had done, I went forth on to the ledge, and this time I trod cautiously lest I should kick the dainty thing into the water, and lo, there lay this pretty thing." And she drew forth from her bosom a necklace of gold and gems; gold and emerald, gold and sapphire, gold and ruby; and it flashed in the sun, and Osberne thought it a fair toy indeed, but knew not that scarce a queen had got aught so fair in her treasure. "Ye may wot well that I dare not show either this or the pipe to my aunts, who would have taken them away from me and cried horror at them; for oft would they cry out at the evil things that dwelt in the ness and all the ills they brought on the children of men. So I play on the pipe when none are by, and I deck myself sitting in the sun with this fair necklace. Look thou, lad, for it is a joy to show me unto thee so decked." And she did back her raiment from her thin neck, and it was white as snow under the woolen, and she did on the necklace, and Osberne thought indeed that it sat well there, and that her head and neck looked grand and graithly.
Then she said: "One other gift I gat from these cave-folk, if there be such in the cave. On a day I was ailing, and could scarce hold up my head for weariness and sickness; so I stole down hither and clomb with all trouble and peril down to the cave, and fell to bewailing my sickness, and scarce had I done ere I felt exceeding drowsy, and so laid me down on the floor of the cave and fell asleep there, feeling sick no longer even then. And when I awoke, after some three hours as I deemed, there was nought amiss with me, and I climbed up to grass again strong and merry, and making nought of the climb. And even so have I done once and again, and never have the good folk failed me herein. Hast thou ever had dealings with such-like creatures?"
Osberne answered, and told her of his meeting with the Dwarf that time, and held up to her the whittle he had got, and flashed it in the sun; and then he was about to tell her of Steelhead. But he remembered that he was scarce free to tell any one of him, so he held his peace thereof; but he said: "Meseemeth, maiden, that thou art not without might, such friends as thou hast. But tell me, what canst thou do beside the shepherding?" She said: "I can spin and weave, and bake the bread and make the butter, and grind meal at the quern; but the last is hard work, and I would not do it uncompelled, nor forsooth the indoor work either, for nought but the shepherding is to my mind. But now tell me, what canst thou do?" He said: "Meseems I cannot keep my sheep together so well as thou; but last autumn I learned how to slay wolves that would tear the sheep."
She rose up as if to look at him the better, and strained her hands together hard, and gazed eagerly at him. He saw that she was wondering at him and praising him, so he said lightly: "It is no so great a matter as some think; what is most needed is a good heart and a quick eye. Thus I slew the three of them."
"O," she said, "now I know that thou art that fair child and champion of whom I have heard tell, that thy deed was a wonder; and now thou art so kind that thou wilt wear the day talking to a poor and feeble maiden."
Said he: "I do that because it is my will and it pleases me to see thee and talk to thee, for thou art good to look at and dear."
Then she said: "But what else canst thou do, Champion?" Said he: "Of late I am thought to be somewhat deft at shooting in the bow, so that whatso I aim at, that I hit. Thus I am not like to lack for meat." "Yea," she said, "but that is wonderful; and besides, now canst thou shoot at the wolves from afar without their being able to come at thee to bite thee. But now it is hard to get thee to tell of thy prowess, and I must ask after every deal. Tell me of something else." Quoth he: "At home they deem me somewhat of a scald, so that I can smithy out staves." She clapped her hands together and cried: "Now that is good indeed, since thou canst also slay wolves. But how sweet it would be for me to have thee making a stave before me now. Wouldst thou?"
"I wot not," he said, laughing; "but let me try." So he sat down and fell to conning his rhymes, while she stood looking on from across the water. At last he stood up and sang:
Then his song dropped down, and they stood looking silently at each other, and tears ran over the little maiden's cheeks. But she spake first and said: "Most lovely is thy lay, and there is this in it, that I see thou hast made it while thou wert sitting there, for it is all about thee and me, and how thou lovest me and I thee. And full surely I know that thou wilt one day be a great and mighty man. Yet this I find strange in thy song almost to foolishness, that thou speakest in it as I were a woman grown, and thou a grown man, whereas we be both children. And look, heed it, what sunders us, this mighty Flood, which hath been from the beginning and shall be to the end."
He answered not a while, and then he said: "I might not help it; the words came into my mouth, and meseems they be better said than unsaid. Look to it if I do not soon some deed such as bairns be not used to doing." "That I deem is like to be," she said, "yet it shall be a long time ere folk shall call us man and woman. But now, fair child, I must needs go homeward, and thou must let me go or I shall be called in question." "Yea," said Osberne, "yet I would give thee a gift if I might, but I know not what to give thee save it were my Dwarf-wrought whittle." She laughed and said: "That were a gift for a man but not for me; keep it, dear and kind lad. I for my part were fain of giving thee somewhat: but as for my pipe, I fear me that I could never throw it across the water. I would I might reach thee with my gold and gem necklace, but I fear for it lest the Sundering Flood devour it. What shall I do then?"
"Nought at all, dear maiden," said the lad, "I would no wise take thy pipe from thee, which saveth thee from blame and beating; and as to thy necklace, that is woman's gear even as the whittle is man's. Keep it safe till thou art become a great lady."
"Well," she said, "now, let me go; it almost seems to me as I might not till thou hast given me leave."
"Yea," said he; "but first, when shall I come to see thee again, and thou me? Shall it be tomorrow?" "O nay," she said, "it may not be, lest they take note of me if I come down here over often. Let it be after three days first: and then the next time it must be longer." Quoth Osberne: "Let the next time take care of itself; but I will come in three days. Now I bid thee depart, and I will go home; but I would kiss thee were it not for the Sundering Flood." "That is kind and dear of thee," said the maiden. "Farewell, and forget me not in three days, since thou hast sung that song to me." "I shall not forget so soon," said he. "Farewell!"
She turned about and ran down the ness with the pipe in her hand, and Osberne heard the sweet voice of the pipe thereafter, and the bleating of the sheep and the paddling of their hoofs as they all ran toward her, and he went his ways home with all that in his ears, and was well content with his day's work; and he deemed that he understood the rede which Steelhead had given him. Withal he had an inkling that Stephen the Eater was somehow his friend in more special way than he was to the rest of the household; so he came home to Wethermel in good case.