The Sundering Flood - Chapter 21
WARRIORS FROM EASTCHEAPING RIDE INTO THE DALE
So the summer wears with nought to tell of, and autumn and winter in like manner, and spring was come again, and it was hard on two years since those twain had first met, and Osberne was fifteen years old and Elfhild but a month and a half less, and still they met happily as aforetime. Wethermel throve in all wise this while, and there was deep peace on the Eastern Dale, and never had the edges of Boardcleaver looked on the light of day since the fall of Hardcastle.
But in early May of this year came riders into the Dale, friends, though they rode all-armed, to wit the men-at-arms of Eastcheaping, even such as Osberne had seen riding down from the Castle the last time of his going thither; and the errand they came on was this, that war and strife were at hand for the good town, for the Baron of Deepdale had sent the Porte his challenge for some matter of truage, wherein the town deemed it had a clear right, and seeing that it was nought feeble, it had a settled mind to fight it out. Wherefore it had sent a knight of its service and a company of men-at-arms to see what help its friends of the Dale would give it at the pinch: for it was well known that the dalesmen were stalwarth carles if need were, both a-foot and on horseback, though they were no stirrers up of strife.
With this errand on hand came the men into the Dale, and the very first stead they came to was Wethermel, for it lay first on their road. And now was Wethermel a well-manned stead, for besides Stephen the Eater, there were twelve carles defensible dwelling there, whereof five were sons of men of estate.
So when the said men-at-arms rode into the garth of a bright May evening, and they all glittering like so many heaps of sunlit ice, all folk came out a-doors, and Osberne stood before them all, clad in scarlet raiment, for Nicholas the goodman hung back somewhat, as was his wont when he deemed he saw peril at hand. Then Osberne hailed the newcomers, and asked no questions of them, and made no words save to welcome them and bid them in; and they got off their horses and entered the house, one score and five all told. And there they unarmed them, and all service was done them, and then meat and drink were set on the board and all folk fared to supper, and it was soon seen that both sides were friendly and sweet together. And Osberne set the Knight who was their captain at his right hand, and they talked merrily together. But when supper was done the Knight spake unto Osberne and Nicholas and said: "Sirs, is it free for me to tell out our errand into the Dale?" Osberne answered: "We should not have asked it, fair sir, if ye had not offered to tell it, but would rather have prayed ye to drink a cup or two; but so it is that we be eager to hear your tale, whereas we see that ye are of our friends of Eastcheaping." Then the Knight began, and told them of their quarrel from point to point, and the right they deemed they had therein. And from time to time Osberne put in a question when he would have the matter made clearer to him, and the Knight deemed his questions handy and wise. And at last he said: "Now so it is, neighbours, that we ask help of you; and the help we need is not so much of money or beasts or weapons as of the bodies and souls of stark & stout-hearted men. What say ye, who be here, have ye will to ward your cheaping and the place where we have done good to each other, or will ye let all go down the wind as for you?"
"Fair sir," said Osberne, "we will first ask you one question: Ye bid us to ride to battle with you in your quarrel; but do ye bid and command us this service as of right, or do ye crave our help as neighbours, and because there is love and dealings betwixt us? And this I ask because we dalesmen deem that we be free men, owing no service to any lord, or earl, or king."
Said the Knight: "We claim no service of you of right or by custom, but crave your help as bold and free neighbours who for love's sake may be fain of helping friends in need."
Spake Osberne: "Then there is no more to be said but this, that there is one who will ride with you, and that is my own self. And though I be but a lad I have a stroke of work in me, as some hereby can witness; and if thou wilt, I will ride down the Dale with you and give you my furtherance with the goodmen there. But as for these good fellows -- which of you will ride with this Knight against the good town's foemen and ours?" They all cried aye to this and rose up and shouted. But Osberne said: "Well, lads, but someone must be left behind to look to the goodman and the women, and husband field and fold. I will take with me but six and Stephen the Eater, my man." And he named them one after the other.
Who were joyous now save the Knight and his men-at-arms, and they all drank a cup to the young master; but sooth to say, some of them wondered how so young a lad would bear him in the fight. But others said, Let-a-be, no man so well beloved as this shall be a dastard.
So merry were they in the hall and drank a bout, but not for long, whereas the captain would not have his men so drunk that they might not ride fast and far upon the morrow. So the voidee cup was drunk, and Osberne led the Knight to his bed and gave him good-night. But ere he was asleep came Stephen to his bedside and asked was he fain of a tale; and the Knight yeasaid it; so Stephen told much about the Dale and its folk, and about the Dwarfs and the Land-wights. And at last he fell to talk about his master, the young one, and told much of him and his valiancy and kindness and prowess; and he told at length all the tale how Hardcastle had sped at his hands. And the captain marvelled and said: "I am in luck to see this lad and be his fellow then; for such marvels come not to hand more than once or twice in a ten score years, and this is one of them."