The Sundering Flood - Chapter 32
FOEMEN AMONG THE WEST DALERS
But when the spring was worn into April there fell new tidings: for on a morning early came Stephen the Eater hurrying into the hall at Wethermel and cried aloud: "Bows, bows! Come afield all ye of this hall, and thou chiefly Osberne the Captain!"
Out then tumbled the stout men of Wethermel from shut-bed and hutch, and were presently armed, and Osberne was in his byrny and steel hood straightway, his bow in his hand and his quiver at his back.
They gathered about him and Stephen amidst of the hall, and then Osberne asks what is toward. "Great matter enough," says Stephen. "Yet how is to help therein? There is unpeace in the Dale, but it has fallen on the Westerlings."
Quoth Osberne, short and sharp: "Ye, Otter, Simon, Longdeer, Alison, take horse and ride straightway down the Dale and round to every stead, and bid men gather to the side of the Flood with bows and sling-spears and shot-weapons of all kinds, and that they stand not in knots and clumps, but drawn out in line, and space enough between each shooter. Bid them to leave not a shaft at home -- we may speedily make more -- but not to loose once till they have marked their man. Now hasten ye four! But ye others come after me at once, for we will go afoot for the saving of time and the steadying of the shooting."
So they went toward the water, a dozen men all told, and all had bows and good store of shafts. And as they went, Osberne spake to those about him and said: "Spread out, and make little show of force, and show not your bows to the foemen, so that they may contemn us and venture the nearer to the bank. But shoot not till they defy us, lest we smite a peaceful man." Now they were presently nigh enough to see the going of men on the further shore, and they were all riders. It was clear to see that they were aliens, men upon big horses clad in outlandish armour with bright steel headpieces; they bore long spears with light shafts, and a many of them had short horseman's bows and quivers at their backs along with their targes.
Now as the men of Wethermel drew up to the water's edge, a knot of the said aliens, about a score, came to them shouting and yelling, and there were within sight scattered about the fields some two hundreds in all. When they reined up by the Flood-side one of them, who seemed by the gold on his armour and weapons to be a chief, hove his spear aloft and brandished it, and fell to crying out in what seemed to be words; but since they knew not his Latin they gat no meaning from them, but he spake in a masterful and threatening voice. Then by Osberne's bidding, Stephen, who stood anigh him, drew a white clout from his scrip, made it fast to his spear and held it aloft, to show that they would have parley. But for all answer the chieftain and his brake out a-laughing; and then the chieftain gat his spear by the midmost, and made as if he would cast at them; but the Flood there was overwide for spear-shot. Then one of his folk unslung his shortbow and nocked a shaft, and turned to the chief as if asking leave, and the chief nodded him yeasay. Quoth Osberne hastily: "Stephen, cover thee! It will be thou. Then if he looses, we loose, for this is a foeman."
Even therewith the shaft flew, and Stephen turned it with his shield. Then the Wethermelers set up a shout and bent their bows, and Osberne loosed first, and the shaft smote the chieftain in the eye, and he fell dead off his horse: Stephen also put a shaft into the man who had shot at him, and three others of them fell withal at the first loose, besides three that were hurt. And the aliens liked the Wethermel breakfast so ill, that they turned their backs to the river at once and scuttled away into the field out of shot, yet not before they had lost two more men and three horses.
Osberne stayed his men there a little while to see if the foe would bring up others to go on with the game; but the aliens were over-wily for that, as it seemed; for they but gathered together, and turning all their heads down-dale fared on in one body.
As yet the Dalesmen had seen nought of any onset of their neighbours of the West, and sore troubled was Osberne when he fell to thinking that, as the robbers were wending, they must needs chop upon Hartshaw Knolls; so the best he could hope was that Elfhild might flee from her house to some other, or even, it might be, hide her in the wood, which she knew so inwardly.
Meanwhile he bade his men go quietly down-stream on the river's edge. Saith he: "If aught is to be done from this side, we shall presently have the folk from the lower steads drifting into us, and we should make a good band were it not for yonder wet dyke which the thieves have gotten them for a defence."
So they fared on, and now and again some man of the lifters turned somewhat toward them to look on their demeanour, and whiles one would speed an arrow to them, but did no harm; at last, as they began to draw nigh the narrows above the Bight of the Cloven Knoll, a whole sort of the foemen came riverwards, but somewhat more than half held on the straight way down the Dale. Even therewith came to join the Wethermelers a many of the folk from the downward steads, stout fellows all, and well armed with shot-weapons.
And now there was nought for it but on both sides men were drifting toward the Bight of the Cloven Knoll, nor needeth words to tell of the anguish of Osberne's heart and the fierce wrath of his spirit. When the aliens, who were thronging to the river-bank, saw how narrow the stream was growing, they set up a whoop and drew closer to the Eastdalers, and the more part of them got off their horses and marched along foot by foot with them, and they were now within shot of each other, so that the foemen stayed at whiles and shot them a shaft; and now they hurt divers of the Dalesmen, but Osberne would not suffer them to shoot back as yet.
So came they within sight of the Dwarfs' cave, and there were not a few of the Dalesmen who feared the place even in the turmoil of battle; and some deemed it might be unlucky to them; but others said that most like Osberne's good luck would prevail over the evil will of the Dwarf-kind.
So when Osberne came to the trysting-place, he and his were fully two score men, and they of the stoutest; and he stood before them all on the very place where his feet had so often stayed for the comforting of his heart and the caressing of his love: there he stood, handling a heavy cast-spear.
Even therewith the aliens poured on to the ness, howling like dogs, and on to Elfhild's very standing-place. Before all his men came a chieftain of them, clad in armour wrought gaudily and decked all with gold and silver, and with a great red horse-tail streaming from his helm. He hove up his hand and poised a great spear, but in that nick of time Osberne cast his weapon suddenly, with a fierce shout, and all about him and behind him he heard the loose of the Dalesmen's bows. Sooth to say, as he cast, he almost looked to see all that turmoil clear away as a dream, and that he should see Elfhild falling with the spear in her breast. But nought it befel: the gold-decked chieftain took the spear under his arm, and he and his spear fell over clashing and clattering down into the gulfs of the green water, and many of the strong-thieves fell before the shaft-storm of the Dalesmen; but therewith the foemen shot also, and some of the Dalesmen were slain and divers hurt, but that abated their hearts no jot. But Osberne took twelve shafts from out his quiver and nocked them one after the other, and every time he loosed a man's life went away on the arrow-point; but bitter was his wrath and his grief that he might not slay them all and deliver his love. Many a shaft smote him, but the more part of them fell off scatheless from the rings of Hardcastle's loom. Now were many of the thieves slain; yet so fierce and eager were they, that the more part would not draw aback, nay, some were so hungry for that cruel slaughter of them that they heeded not the sundering of the Flood, but rushed on as if there were nought between them, and fell over into the boil of waters and were lost in the bottomless depths.
So fared the battle, and the ranks of the Dalesmen began to thin; but Osberne had no thought of going back a foot's length, and his men were so valiant that they deemed nought evil save the sundering of the Flood. Osberne was hurt in three places, but not sorely; but Stephen bore a shaft in his side, yet he stood upon his feet and shot no less valiantly than erst.
But now all of a sudden the raging throng before them had some new goings-on in it and began to sidle landward, and therewithal beyond them rose a great shout, and therein the Eastdalers knew the voice of their kinsmen, and they shouted all together in answer as they plied the bow, and the strong-thieves turned about and ran yelling and cursing toward the landward and the south-west, for the Westdalers were upon them with spear and axe and sword.
That was the end of the shot-stour, and the aliens came never again that tide under the shafts of the Eastdalers. But betwixt the kenning of their dead and the tending of their hurt folk, they stood gazing out anxiously over the field, if they might but see how the battle of handy-strokes had gone, and by seeming right hard it had been; but in a while they saw the aliens thrust back and edging away towards their horses, which they had left standing out of bow-shot not far from the Bight of the Cloven Knoll. The Westdalers were following on, smiting great strokes, but not so as to be mingled up with them; nor did they seem as if they would will to hinder them if they should get on their horses and ride away; and even they did so presently, and the Dalesmen saw them never again.