The Sundering Flood - Chapter 53
STRANGERS COME TO WETHERMEL
Now turns the tale to Wethermel, and tells how that on the morrow of Midsummer, five years to the day since Osberne had bidden them farewell, the folk once more sat without-doors about the porch in the cool of the evening; neither was there any missing of the settled folk of those to whom he had said farewell. For all had thriven there that while. There sat the goodman, more chieftain-like than of old; there sat the goodwife, as kind as ever, and scarce could she be kinder; there sat Bridget, not much aged in the five years; for ever she deemed it a certain thing that her nursling would come back to her. Lastly, there sat Stephen the Eater, wise of aspect and thoughtful, as if he were awaiting something that should happen which should change much in him; and there were the carles and the queans (with some few children amongst them who had not been there five years ago) who had been familiar to Osberne ere he left the Dale for warfare. It was growing late now, and the twilight was creeping up under a cloudless sky, when those folk saw newcomers wending the lane betwixt the outbowers, and making straight for the house-porch. They were but three, and as they drew nigh it could be seen that they were hooded and cloaked despite the warm night; and one was tall and seemed a stalwarth man, and another was jimp and went daintily, as if it were a young woman, and the third, who forsooth had her face but little hidden, seemed a carline of some three score years and ten.
None of the folk stirred save Stephen the Eater, who rose up as if to welcome the guests; and the tall man spake in a strange high voice that seemed as if it came from the back of his head: "May we three wayfarers be here tonight? For we saw this stead from afar, and it seemed a plenteous house, and we deem it guest-kind." Quoth Stephen: "A free and fair welcome to you; ye shall eat of our dish, and drink of our cup, and lie as the best of us do. Ho, ye folk! now were we best within doors; for our guests shall be both weary and hungry belike."
So into the hall they wended, and the three were shown to a good place amidmost thereof, so that all might see them; and there they sat, the tall man innnermost, nighest to the dais, the young woman by him and the carline outermost. Then came in the meat, which was both plenteous and good, and when all were fulfilled the drink was brought in, and the tall man arose and called a health on Wethermel, and that it might thrive ever. But some men thought that, as he lifted his hand to put the cup to his lips, a gleam of something bright came from under his wayfarer's cloak. And Stephen the Eater called a health on the wayfarers; and then one drank to one thing, one to another, and men waxed merry and gleeful.
But at last rose up Stephen the Eater and spake: "Meat and drink and lodging is free without price to every comer to Wethermel, and most oft, as here it is, our good will goes with it; yet meseemeth that since these friends of ours come belike from the outlands and countries where is more tidings than mostly befalleth here, it might please them to make us their debtors by saying us some lay, or telling us some tale; for we be not bustled to drink the voidee cup now, these nights of Midsummer, when night and day hold each other's hands throughout the twenty-four hours."
Then rose up the tall, high-voiced man and said: "It is my will that each one of we three should say something, be it long or short, to make the folk of Wethermel glad. For they have treated us wayfarers as though we were lords and kings, and their words go to their hearts. Now I will that thou, mother, begin, and that I make an end of this saying."
Then he sat down, and the carline said: "I am all the more willing to this, as meseemeth I can tell you a tale such as ye have never heard the like of, and which will move every heart of you. And yet I must pray your patience, as belike it may be somewhat long for a tale of one night's hall-glee: and on this night must the tale be begun and ended. Hearken then!"