The Sundering Flood - Chapter 3
WOLVES HARRY THE FLOCK
Now these matters, and other strayings and misdoings of the youngling, befel before the time whereof I now tell, when he was, as aforesaid, passed of twelve years; and it was in latter autumn, when the nights are lengthening. At this time there was a hired man dwelling with them, whose work it was to drive the sheep afield, either up on to the eastern bents or away off down to the water, so as they might not eat the grass of the kine from them. But Osberne, both of his own will and at the bidding of the goodman, went off afield with this man John and helped him to keep the sheep from straying over-far. Now one day at evening, somewhat later than he was wont, when, as it chanced, Osberne had not fared with him, back comes John from the bents, and he looked scared and pale, and he tells the tale that as the light began to fail up there, three huge wolves fell upon the sheep, and slew sundry of them, and it was easy to be seen of him that he had held no very close battle with the wolves, but had stood aloof till they had done their supper, and then gathered what he could of the sheep without going over-near the field of deed. The goodman berated him for his cowardice, and seemed to begrudge him his victuals somewhat that night, whereas, what with them who the wolves had slain, and them who had perchance fled away, the flock was seventeen wethers short. John excused himself what he might, and said that he had no weapon, nought save his shepherd's staff, and that the wolves had slain his dog in the first stour: but while he spake, Osberne, who sat by, deemed him somewhat stark and tall to be so little-hearted.
However, the next day the goodman and John must needs go up to the bent to see if they might find aught alive of the sheep that were missing, and each of them bore a shield and short spear, that they might make head against the wolves if that host should fall on them in the middle of the [day]. Meantime Osberne, by the goodman's bidding, drives the flock down toward the water, nothing loth, for ever the wondrous stream seemed to draw the lad to it. And a fair day he had of it, wandering amidst the sheep and being friendly with them, whiles drawing out his knife to look thereon, as oft he did when he was alone; and forsooth it was a goodly weapon, carven with quaintnesses about the heft, the blade inlaid with runes done in gold, and the sheath of silver. Whiles also he stood on the river's lip and looked across the water which was there in most places as big as the Thames is at Reading, but sometimes narrower. But there was nought stirring within eyeshot on the further bank that day, save the fowl, and a bull that came running along and lowing as he went on some errand, whatever it might be, for he was not followed of any men. So he came back with the flock before dark all safe; neither had he gone far from the stead, for so he was bidden of by his grandsire.
A little after comes in the goodman with John, neither of them in very sweet temper; they had seen nought of the sheep save the hide and bones of a half score, but the wolves they had not failed to see; they had come to the same place as the last night, and seemed by no means afraid of the man-host with its spears and shields, wherefore these last had turned their backs and run from them stoutly, and now sat together glowering on each other, and casting now and again a gibe each at each. But they were at one in this, that the wolves were huge and fierce beyond measure, and such as any man might fear. But at last John spake and said: "Well, master, it is as they say down the Dale, that this no lucky house; meseems ye are beset with no common wolves, but with skin-changers who have taken the shape of wolves, whether they be Land-wights or Dwarfs, or ride-a-nights of the outlaws."
At that word waxed the master wood-wrath, as was his wont if any spake of the luck of Wethermel; and he forgot his fear in his anger, and said: "Hearken the fool-talk of him! Thou hadst not the heart for all thine inches to go forward before thy master, and a man on the downward side of years; and now thou must needs make up fairy tales to cover they cowardice." Said John, grinning, "Keep thy head, master; for sooth it is that thou wert the first to run, and wert the first through the door."
"Thou liest," said the goodman; "but this I tell thee, that whosoever was afraid then, thou shalt be afraid now." And he rose up and smote his man upon the face so that he fell to the ground, and John leapt up and would have smitten his master again; but even therewith comes in the goodwife, and Bridget with her, bearing in the supper smoking hot, and something seemed to hold John back from his blow, and he sat down, surly enough but silent. Then said the goodwife: "What is to do here? Hast thou run against the settle-end, John, that thy cheek is red and blue?"
Laughed the youngling thereat, and a word came into his mouth, and he sang:
Hereat all laughed, but the two men somewhat from one side of their mouths. And the goodman said: "See thou to it, kinsman, lest stripes be thy song-pay." But Osberne laughed from a fair and merry face and sang again:
And therewith he fell to his meat and ate stoutly, and to the women it seemed that their little kinsman had the makings of a champion in him, and his staves they loved dearly in their hearts, and they smiled upon him kindly; and he looked from one to the other and quoth he:
As for the goodman, now that the meat was getting into him, the wrath was running off, and he thought within himself that presently he should have good avail of his grandson.