The Sundering Flood - Chapter 45
THE RED LAD SCATTERS THE HOST OF THE BARONS
So wore the seasons into winter, and all was tidingless at Longshaw.
Long were it indeed to tell the whole tale of the warfare of the House of Longshaw, even for those years while Osberne abode with Sir Godrick. For the Knight was not only a fearless heart in the field and of all deftness in the handling of weapons, but he was also the wisest of host-leaders of his day and his land, so that with him to lead them an hundred was as good as five hundred, take one time with another. But of all this warfare must only so much be told as is needful to understand the story of Osberne and his friend of the west side of the Sundering Flood.
But first it must be said that Osberne throughout that autumn and winter spared not to question every wight whom he deemed anywise likely to have heard aught of Elfhild; and heavy and grievous became the words of his questioning, and ever his heart sickened before the answer came. But of one man he gat an answer that was not mere naysay, to wit, that months ago (and it must have been when Osberne first met Sir Godrick at Eastcheaping) he and two fellows were journeying on the other side of the Sundering Flood, but much higher up, and they came across a thrall-cheapener who said that he had a choice piece of goods if he could but get a price for it, and thereon showed them a damsel as fair as an image, and she was like to what Osberne had told of her. And then the thrall-cheapener said that he had bought her of the Red Skinners, who had borne her off from a countryside far and far away, but somewhere anigh the Sundering Flood. That man said that they bought her not of the carle, whereas the price was high and it was not much in their way of business.
Now this story was told a little after Yule, and the chapman who told it was going back again presently through the Wood and across the Flood, since the season was mild; and Osberne asked would he take him with him, in case he might hit upon anything in those parts. The chapman was nought loth, as may be deemed, to have such a doughty champion to his fellow farer; so Osberne asked leave of his lord, who would not gainsay him since nought was stirring, but bade him take three good men of his friends with him. So they went, and crossed the Flood a few days before Candlemass; and when they were on the other side they fell to asking questions at the houses of religion and of the chapmen whom they met there. Also they gat them into castles and great houses where many servants are wont to be, and not a few bought at a price; and there they used both tongue and eyes. Thus fared they a twenty days' journey up the water, keeping ever somewhat nigh; but woe worth, if they gat them no great scathe (though they had some rough passages forsooth, which time suffereth us not to tell of), yet also they gat no good, and were no nearer to hearing a true word of Elfhild than ever.
So back comes Osberne, cast down and somewhat moody, but straightway finds tidings that drive all other things out of his head for a while. It was a little after Marymass that he comes home to Longshaw, and hears tell how war, and big war, has arisen. For the Barons who lay mostly to the east and north of Longshaw (though some help they had from the west and the south) both hated Sir Godrick sorely because he withheld them from the worst deeds of tyranny, and also, though they owed not service to the King of the Great City or the Porte thereof, yet were they somewhat under their power; at least each one of them was. These then had met together and made a great league, and had sworn the undoing of Sir Godrick and the House of Longshaw for ever. And all the world knew that they were but the catspaw of the King and the City and the tyrannous Porte, though neither of them would let themselves be seen therein.
Now Godrick sends for Osberne, and talks long with him, and the end of that talk is that he sends him on the errand to go seek the hosting of them of the Barons' League who dwelt furthest north, and to fall on them as fast and fierce as he may, so as to break up the said hosting, so that he may not have these men on his flank when he marches against the main host, which he will do with all speed. All of which he deems may be done, because he wotteth that the Barons deem of him that he will abide their coming to Longshaw, and that when they have shut him up there, they shall then have the open help of all the strength of the King and the Porte.
Now Osberne heard and understood all, and the men are all ready for him, a thousand and three hundred by tale; so he makes no delay and leads them by ways unkenned so diligently that he breaks forth on them before they be duly ordered, though they be all out in the fields drawing together. Shortly to say it, his thirteen hundred men are more by a great deal than their six thousand, and they scatter them to the winds so that they can never come together again, and all their munitions of war and matters for feeding and wending are destroyed. Then turns the Red Lad and wendeth, not back again to Longshaw, but thither whereas he wots the great battle shall be, and on the very eve thereof he rideth into Sir Godrick's camp; and such an outcry of joy there was when he bears in the taken banners and such spoil as was not over-heavy to ride with, as that no man there was of Sir Godrick's but he knew full surely that the victory would be theirs on the morrow. As for Osberne, all men praised him, and the good Knight embraced him before all the host and the leaders thereof, and said, "Here is one shall lead you when I am slain."
Even so it went. Of a sooth stiff was the stour, for the Barons and theirs were hardy men and of great prowess, and were three to Sir Godrick's one. But they knew that they should not have the help they looked for, for they had seen, ere the battle was joined, those taken banners, and the others had mocked them and bade them come across to serve under such and such a banner. So it was not long ere a many of them fell a-thinking: What do we to perish here, when at our backs are those so mighty castles and strengths of ours? Let us draw away little by little and get behind our walls, and there gather force again little by little. But soon they found that they would have no such leave to depart but as broken men fleeing at all adventure, for their foemen had entered too far in to them, and had cleft their array in many places. And their banners where thrown down and their captains unheeded, and at last there was no face of them against the foe; nought but heaps of huddled men, who knew not where to turn or whom to smite at: and the overthrow might be no greater, for at noon-tide there was no host left that at matins had been as great and goodly an host as ever was seen in those parts.
And now was the purpose of the King and the Porte broken, and they must sit still and do nothing; nay, have got to be well content if the Small Crafts take not the occasion to rise against them. But to say sooth these knew their own opportunity and took it, as ye shall find hereafter.
That great battle was fully foughten on the first of May, and ere a half month was fully worn the Barons' League sent a herald to Longshaw praying for peace; but Sir Godrick straightway sent back answer that he would grant the Barons peace when they had delivered up all their strengths into his hands, then and not before. Such answer the herald bore back. But their proud stomachs had not yet come down so far, and they but sent back their defiance renewed: for they though that, though there were not strong enough to meet Longshaw in the field, yet they might hold their strengths in despite of it, and so dally out the time until the King and the Porte were strong enough to come to their help. Now was this put to the test; for straightway, when Sir Godrick had their answer, he rose up and led a host against the castle of the greatest of these Barons, and took it in ten days, after much loss of his men. Then went he against the next greatest and took that, with less pain. And meanwhile the Red Lad to the north, and another captain to the south, had the business of riding here and there and making nought of any gathering if they heard of the beginnings thereof. And this they did, with much labour and no little battle; but thoroughly they did it, so as Sir Godrick might carry on his sieges of the strongholds without let or hindrance, so that before the winter came he had all he wanted, and most of the Barons captive at Longshaw. As to the strongholds, into some he put his own men, and some he threw down.
So noble Yule they kept at Longshaw that year, with all those great men feasting at the table. But a day or two after Yule came a herald riding through the snow (for that season was hard), on behalf of the Barons' League, what was left of it, craving for peace, and Sir Godrick said that peace they might have if they would, or not as they would, but the terms were that he should keep what he had got, but ransom his captives duly; or else they might dwell at Longshaw all their lives long if they would. Now there was no help for it but such terms they must take, and be glad that it was no worse.
So peace was made, and all was quiet till after Marymass. Osberne had somewhat of a mind to get him into the Wood, and seek through the strengths and other houses that were scattered about in the Wood itself, and the edge thereof toward the Sundering Flood; but partly he was sick at heart of for ever asking questions to which came evermore but one answer, and partly there was very much work come to his hand that he might scarce turn over to another, of visiting the captured strongholds, and seeing to the men-at-arms therein and their captains, and suchlike matters; for now he was closer to the rede and mind of Sir Godrick than any other.