The Sundering Flood - Chapter 12
OF A GUEST CALLED WAYWEARER
Now hereafter all went the same way, that from time to time they met on either side the Sundering Flood, save that Osberne came not ever in his fair-dyed raiment, but was mostly clad in russet; but on Elfhild's birthday he was clad in his best. Otherwise nought befel to tell of. Whiles either of the children were ailing, whiles Elfhild was kept at home by her kinswomen, and so they failed each other, but never by their own will. The one who came to the trysting-place and missed the other was sore grieved, and in special Osberne, whose child's heart swelled nigh to bursting with sorrow mingled with wrath, and at such times the Sundering Flood seemed to him like the coils of a deadly serpent which was strangling the life out of him, and he would wend home in all despair.
So wore the days through spring and summer and early autumn, and at Wethermel all went smoothly, and the goodman there was better pleased than ever with his new man, who, if he ate two men's victuals, did three men's work; as for Osberne, he loved Stephen dearly, and Stephen for his part was for ever doing something for his disport, and in two ways in special. For first he was, like Elfhild, stuffed with all kinds of tales and histories, and oft when they were out a-shepherding he would tell these to Osberne day-long; and not unseldom when the tale was underway the lad would cry out: "Fair is thy tale, but I have heard it before, only it is different thus and thus." And in sooth, he had heard it from Elfhild. The other matter was that Stephen was a smith exceeding deft, and learned the craft to Osberne, so that by the end of the year he bade fair to be a good smith himself. Moreover, whiles would Stephen take a scrap of iron and a little deal of silver, as a silver penny or florin, from out of his hoard, and would fashion it into an ouch or chain or arm-ring, so quaintly and finely that it was a joy to look on. And every one of those things would Stephen give to Osberne with a friendly grin, and Osberne took them with a joyful heart because now he had a new thing to give to Elfhild, and each one he shot across the river unto her the soonest that he might. But whiles, when his heart was full, Osberne would say to the smith: "Thou givest me so much, and doest so well by me, that I know not how ever I am to make it good to thee." And Stephen would say: "Fear not, master, the time will come when thou mayst do such good to me as shall pay for all at once."
Now befel tidings on a day of the beginning of October; for the wind, which had been high and blustering all day, grew greater and greater by then candles were lighted in the hall, till it was blowing a great gale from the south-west, which seemed like to lift the house-roof. Then befel a knocking on the house-door, and Stephen went thereto and opened it, & came back with a man all dripping & towzelled with the storm. He was a tall man, yellow-haired, and goodly both of face and body, but his face much hidden with a beard untrimmed, and never a shoe had he to his foot: yet was he bold and free of mien despite his poor attire. He carried some long thing under his arm wrapped up in cloth which was bound about with twine and sealed every here and there with yellow wax.
The goodman started up when he came in, and made as if he would have the newcomer put out, and he muttered: "We keep no house for the harbouring of runagates." Yet he looked at Osberne withal, for he was now grown so masterful that nought was done in the house without him; and the lad stood up straightway and came to the newcomer and bade him welcome from out the storm. Then he took him by the hand and led him up to the hearth, and spake to his grandam: "Goodwife, this our guest has been in rough weather without, and ere he sits down to meat with us, it were well to take him into the inner chamber and wash his feet, and find him dry raiment." The goodwife looked kindly on the guest and bade him come with her, and he went; but ere his back was turned, Osberne looked on him and caught a glance of his eye, and therewith he was sure that despite his rags and wretchedness this was his friend Steelhead. In a while he came back into the hall, clad and shod as well as might be done in a hurry, and Osberne led him into his own seat at the board, and gave him to drink; and Stephen withal served him with all care, so that he was in an hospitable house, save that the goodman cast somewhat grudging glances on him, but whereas he might not gainsay all the rest of his household, there was little scathe therein.
But when the guest sat down, he took that long bundle and gave it into Osberne's hands, and said: "Thou art so friendly to a gangrel man, that I make bold to ask this grace of thee also, to wit that thou wilt heed this bundle, and let none other touch it, and give it back to me tomorrow morning ere I depart." Osberne yeasaid to that, and took the bundle and laid it at his bed-head. And therewith the meat was brought in, and the meal was merry; for now the guest seemed so noble-looking a man and so cheerful of countenance and so debonair, that none save the goodman thought any longer of his rags wherewith he had come into the hall out of the storm. But even the goodman was better with him presently, when he saw that though he ate and drank like a tall man, he needed no such abundance for the filling of his maw as did Stephen.
Ere they began drinking the guest said: "I may as well tell you folks my name, since ye are so good to me, and have not asked for it, and ye must know that I am called Waywearer, and that I wish increase of good unto this house."
Then the cup went round and they drank late into the night, and when they had drunk the voidee cup, Osberne led the newcomer to the guest-chamber, and kissed him with good-night, but made no show of knowing who he was.