The Sundering Flood - Chapter 14
THE GIFTS OF STEELHEAD
Now by then it was high noon, and the sun very hot, and as they lay on the grass after this converse the lad looked on the water, and he was besweated, and longed for the bright pools of the stream after the manner of boys; and he said at last: "I were fain to take to the water this hot noon, if it please thee."
"It is well thought of, lad," said Steelhead, "and that the more, as I must needs see thee naked if I am to strengthen thee as I am minded to do." So they did off their raiment, both of them, and went into the biggest of the pools hard by; and if Steelhead were a noble-looking man clad, far nobler was he to look on naked, for he was both big and well shapen, so that better might not be. As for Osberne, there looked but little of him when he was unclad, as is the fashion of lads to be lank, yet for his age he was full well shapen. So Steelhead came out of the water presently, and clad himself, while Osberne yet played a while. Then Steelhead called the lad to him all naked as he was, and said: "Stand thou before me, youngling, and I will give thee a gift which shall go well with Boardcleaver." And the lad stood still before him, and Steelhead laid his hands on the head of him first, and let them abide there a while; then he passed his hands over the shoulders and arms of the boy, and his legs and thighs and breast, and all over his body; and therewith he said: "In our days and the olden time it was the wont of fathers to bless their children in this wise; but for thee, thy father is dead, and thy nighest kinsman is little-hearted and somewhat of a churl. Thus then have I done to thee to take the place of a father to thee, I who am of the warriors of while agone. And I think it will avail thee; and it is borne in upon me that before very long thou wilt need this avail, if thou art to live and do the deeds I would have thee. Now it is done, so cover thee in thy raiment and rest a while; and then I will depart and leave thee to the might which I have given thee, and the valiance which hath grown up in thine heart."
So they lay down on the greensward and rested; and Osberne had fetched along with him cakes and cheese and a keg of good drink, and they took their bever there in all content. But for that time Steelhead spake no more of his folk and the old days, but about the fowl and fish and other wild things that haunted that clough, and of shooting in the bow and so forth. Then they arose and went to their horses, and Steelhead said to Osberne: "How is it with the might of thy body, lad? Canst thou do better in wielding of Boardcleaver?" So the youngling stretched himself and took the sword by the hilts and shook it and waved it about, and tossed it in the air and caught it again, and said: "Seest thou, master? Meseems my might is so much eked, that I deem I could swim the stream of the Sundering Flood and overcome it." Quoth the hillman, laughing: "Yea, and we know that that would please the well; but let it be, my son, I bid thee; for no race of folk who have ever dwelt in the Dale from the beginning of the world have ever won across the Sundering Flood. So now we depart for this present; but as for this way-beast I ride, thy grandsire shall lose nothing and gain much by him; for I took him but to pleasure thee, and I shall send him back to Wethermel ere many days are past. Farewell, my son!"
So he kissed the youngling, and rode away south across the stream and over the other side of the clough. Osberne stood beside his horse, looking after him and the way he had taken, and then mounted and rode his way homeward, somewhat downcast at first for the missing of this new father. But after a while, what for his new gift and his freshly-gained might, and the pride and pleasure of life, he became all joyous again, as though the earth were new made for him.
Ye may well think that the very next time (which indeed was on the morrow) that Osberne went to the Bight of the Cloven Knoll, he went girt with Boardcleaver, and showed it to his friend; and she looked somewhat sober at the sight of it, and said: "I pray thee, Osberne, draw it not forth from the sheath." "In nowise may I draw it," said he, "for I am told never to draw it till I have my foe before me; for ever it will have a life betwixt the coming forth from the sheath and its going back again." "I fear me," she said, "that thou wilt have to draw it often, so that many a tale will be told of it, and perhaps at last the death of thee." And therewith she put her hands up to her face and wept. But he comforted her with kind words, till the tears were gone.
Then she looked at him long and lovingly, and said at last: "I know not how it is, but thou seemest to me changed and grown less like a child, as though some new might had come to thee. Now I may not ask thee who has done this to thee, and given thee the sword, for if thou mightest thou wouldst have told me. But tell me this, hast thou all this from a friend or a foe?" He said: "Dost thou indeed see that I may not tell thee who is the giver; but I may tell thee that it is a friend. But art thou not glad of my gain?" She smiled and said: "I should be glad, and would be if I might; but somehow meseemeth that thou growest older quicker than I do, and that it is ill for me, for it will sunder us more than even now we be sundered."
And again he had to comfort her with sweet words; and he shot across to her an ouch which Stephen had given him that morning, so soon she was herself again, and sat and told him a tale of old times; and they parted happily, and Osberne gat him home to Wethermel. But he had scarce been at home a minute or two when there came one riding to the door, a young man scarlet-clad and gay, and his horse was dight with the goodliest of saddles and bridles, and the bit of silver, but for all that, both Osberne and Stephen, who was standing in the door, knew the horse for their own nag, on whom Waywearer had ridden off the yestermorn.
Now the lad cries out: "Is this the stead of Wethermel?" "Yea," said Osberne; "what wouldst thou?" "I would see the goodman," says the swain. "He is yet afield," said Osberne, "but if thou wilt come in and have the bite and the sup thou mayst abide him, for he will not be long."
"I may not," said the swain, "for time fails me; so I will say to thee what I was to say to him, which is no long spell, to wit that Waywearer sendeth home the horse the goodman lent him, and bids him keep the gear on him in his memory." Therewith is he off the horse in a twinkling and out through the garth gate, and away so swiftly that they lost sight of him in a moment. Stephen laughed and said to Osberne: "Waywearer is nowise debt-tough; now will our goodman be glad tonight. But see thou! Look to the nag's shoes! If ever I saw silver to know it, they be shod therewith." And so it was as he said, and the silver nigh an inch thick.
Soon cometh home the goodman, and they tell him the tidings, and he grows wondrous glad, and says that luck has come to Wethermel at last. But thereafter they found that horse much bettered, so that he was the best nag in all the Wethermel pastures.