The Sundering Flood - Chapter 34
OSBERNE SORROWS FOR THE LOSS OF ELFHILD
Now some while before men were boun to depart to their own homes, the sound of fresh battle was borne to them on the south-west; so, saving those who must needs go tend the hurt on their way home, they might not tear themselves away from that field of deed; and in special Osberne, who had been busy enough in kenning the dead and wounded of his folk while need was, came back to the verge of the Flood, where so oft he had stood in love and joy, and stood there a long while, scarce moving, with a shaft in his fingers and his bended bow in his fist, his brows knit, his eyes staring out over the western field. It was two hours after noon when the Westdalers turned to stir up the battle again. And then was an hour ere the clamour of the fight came down thither, and two hours yet it endured and was in all men's ears; and then it died away, and the East men began to wander off from the watching-place, wending this way and that, and the autumn day fell to wane, and soon there were none left save Osberne and a half dozen of the men of Wethermel. And one or another of them plucked him by the sleeve and bade him come home with them, since the day was done, and the battle would not quicken again, and the Westdalers had overmuch on their hands to bear them any tidings till the morrow was a new day. At first he heeded them nought, but in the end he turned on them with an angry eye, yet spake mildly, and bade them get them home and eat and sleep. "But leave me here," quoth he, "that I may watch a while lest aught of new befalleth; and I will come to Wethermel when my heart will suffer me." So they departed and left him; and there he stood, till himseemed he had been there a long, long time. Night grew black about him, and silence fell on the cloven plain of the Dale, save that below him the speech of the eddies seemed to grow greater as other voices failed. Then arose the wind, and went through the long grass and talked in the crannies of the rock-wall of the Flood as the waters spake below; and none came anear, nor might he hearken any foot of man, only far-off voices from the steads of a barking dog or crowing cock or lowing cow.
At last, when the night was beginning to change amidst the depth of the darkness, himseemed he heard somewhat drawing anigh and coming up the bent on the western side, and he wotted not but it might be the unshod feed of men, and he lightly asked himself if the ghosts of the dead made any sound with their feet as they trod the puddled earth where a many had trodden before them; and so wild was his heart grown now, that he thought it no great marvel if those that they had laid to earth there should stand up and come before him in the night watches. Then he nocked an arrow on his bow-string and handled his weapon, but could not make up his mind to shoot lest the bow-draft should pierce the quiet and rouse up inextinguishable shrieks and moans; and even therewith, over those paddling feet, he seemed to hear a voice beginning to cry, and he thought within himself: Now, now it is on the way, and presently the air shall be full of it; and will it kindle fire in the air?
But at that point of time the voice sounded louder and was in two or three places, and even amidst its wildness the familiar sound smote to his heart, for it was but the bleating of sheep, and now all the bent over against him was alive with it. And of a sudden he was come to himself and wotted what it was, that it was Elfhild's sheep, and that they had been loosed or thrust out from their folds and had wandered up there in the dark where so oft she had led them before. And now the mere bitterness of grief took the place of his wildness, and he let his bow and arrow drop to earth, and cast himself down on to the trodden ground & buried his face in his hands and moaned, and speedily the images of his life to come and the sorrow he must face passed through his soul, for he knew that she was gone, and either slain or carried away to where he should never hear of her or see her again.
At last, that his grief and wanhope might not rend his heart and slay him then and there, and lest all the deeds whereto he was fated should be spoiled and undone, self-pity fell upon him with the sweet remembrance of his love, and loosed the well of his tears, and he wept and wept, and might not be satiated of his mourning a long while. But when the night was yet dark and no sign of dawn in the sky, and, might he have seen it, the south-west was driving the rack low adown along the earth, he rose up slowly and gat his bow and arrows into his hands, and weakly and stiffly, like a man who hath been long sick, he fell to going along the riverside toward Wethermel, and his feet knew the way though his eyes might see it not. And as he went, with the wind whistling about his ears and the picture of Wethermel before his eyes, he found that life was come again to him, and he was beginning to think about what he should be doing to win some way back to the love that had been rent from him. Ever and anon, forsooth, as he was amidst such thoughts, the tears brake out from his eyes again, but still now he could refrain them better and better after each outburst, and he had no more wildness as erst, as if he were out of the world and drifting he knew not whither or why; but now he knew which was himself, and which was grief and pain.
It was but just the grey of the morning when he crept into the hall at Wethermel, and found his bed and cast himself thereon, and, all undone by weariness, fell asleep at once.
He awoke with the house astir about him, and arose and sat down to eat with the others, and was no harsher of speech than his wont, albeit he looked stark and stern; and to some it seemed as if he had aged ten years since yestermorn, and they deemed that the death of the folk lay heavy on him, as was like to be, and they said as few words to him as might be, for his grief seemed aweful to them. But when they had eaten he bade three of his men come with him down the water to seek tidings of the Westdalers. So they went together, and a little below the Bight of the Cloven Knoll, out of earshot of the Dwarf-folk, they met with others from the lower steads come upon the same errand; and the Westdalers were just come to the water-side with Wulfstan for their spokesman, who forsooth had gotten some scratches from the war-beast, so that his head and his arm were bandaged. Now he spake: "Hail to you, stout-hearts of the East! Ye may deem that we prevailed in the second battle yesterday, or ye would scarce have seen us here this morn. Now the battle was foughten all about the garth and the house of Longryggs, which the strong-thieves had fallen on to waste, but the women-folk of the stead had saved their lives by flight, and the carles thereof were in our company fighting valiantly. So whatever is lost was lost in open battle, wherein two score and six of our best men have changed their lives; but as for the strong-thieves, besides them who fell in your shot-stour, we have buried over seven-score; and the rest are fled away, many of them grievously hurt. Wherefore, friends, we have won a great victory: God and his hallows keep us for any more such!" And it seemed as if the goodman were weeping-ripe, whereof none marvelled. But Osberne spake, and the sound of his own voice seemed strange unto him: "Tell me, goodman, have ye lost nought by the murder of men whenas the strong-thieves fell on some stead?"
"Nay," said Wulfstan, "the thieves have wasted no other stead save Longryggs, whereas, as I have said, the folks escaped the murder, and this little house which is hard hereby of Hartshaw Knolls. There forsooth the two women be missing, but no slain body of carle or quean have we found, nought of slaughter save the slaughter of kine and sheep. And I must tell you that this morning our folk sought all about heedfully, yea, and looked into every thicket and nook of the wood."
"Belike," quoth Osberne, "they will have carried off the two women?" Said Wulfstan: "I fear it may well be so."
Said Osberne: "Well, this loss of two women, whom maybe ye shall find again, is but little: but grievous is the manfall of the battles. Yet not soon meseems shall reivers fall upon West Dale now they have learned the valour of the folk thereof. Heried be the Lord God that the folk yet liveth and shall live!"
He spake measuredly and in a loud voice, so that all heard, and they cheered his speech with deep and strong voice; but they who stood nighest unto Osberne say that his face was stern and very pale as he spake; and it seemed to them that had Boardcleaver been naked on the West side in that stour yet more of the strong-thieves had fallen.
Now they parted, and Osberne and his Wethermelers went home, and the other Eastdalers also, each to his place. But as to the Westdalers, they fell to, and drew away the slain thieves from the field of deed, for that they feared the begrudging of the Dwarfs, and they laid them in earth hard by where they had stood to have that converse with them of the East; and they raised a great howe over them, and it is called Thieves' Howe unto this day. And the tale of the said thieves who were slain by the Eastdalers in the shot-stour is three score and ten and seven.