The Sundering Flood - Chapter 7
OF A NEWCOMER, AND HIS GIFT TO OSBERNE
Now when spring came again, needs must Osberne drive the sheep up to the bents, though he had liefer haunted the riverside, for sore he desired to cross the Flood and find out tidings there. And though he were a child, yet he would by his own choice have fared to seek out the pretty maiden whose hand he had held on the edge of the river that even, but livelihood drave him to look to the sheep now that the spring grass was growing.
So on a certain day when March was wearing towards April he drave his sheep up over the crown of the bent; and there he went with them a way where, the land still rising, the ground was hard and rocky but clean, and the grass sweet for as scanty as it was, growing in little hollows and shelters round about the rocks. Wherefore the sheep were nimble in their feeding, and led him on long, till they and he were come into a little grassy dale with a stream running through it. There they were neither to hold nor to bind, but strayed all up and down the dale and over the crest of the bent thereof, and would not come to his call; and his dog was young and not very wise, and could do little to help him. So he began to think he had best gather what of the sheep he could, and drive them home and fold them, and then come back and hunt for the rest, perhaps with the help of his grandsire; but as the ones he could get at were all close anigh, and he was hot and weary with running hither and thither and holloaing to sheep and dog, he would go down to the stream and drink and rest awhile first. And even so he did, and lay down by the water and drank a long draught; but while he was about it he thought he heard footsteps coming down the hill-side over the greensward.
Howsoever, he had his drink out, and then rose to his knees and looked up, and therewith sprang hastily to his feet, for a tall man was coming on toward him not ten yards from the stream. He was not to say afeard by the sight, yet somewhat startled, for the man was not his grandsire, nor forsooth did he seem to be one of the Dale-dwellers. For he was so clad that he had a grey hawberk on him of fine ringmail, and a scarlet coat thereunder embroidered goodly; a big gold ring was on his left arm, a bright basnet on his head; he was girt with a sword, and bare a bow in his hand, and a quiver hung at his back. He was a goodly man, young by seeming, bright-faced and grey-eyed; his hair was yellow and as fine as silk, and it hung down over his shoulders.
Now Osberne put as good a face on the meeting as he might, and gave the newcomer the sele of the day, and he hailed him again in a clear loud voice, and they stood looking on each other across the stream a while. Then the newcomer laughed pleasantly and said: "Hast thou any name that I may call thee by?"
"I am Osberne of Wethermel," said the youngling. "Aha," said the man, "art thou he that slew the leash of great grey wolves last autumn, who had put two armed men to flight the day before?" Said Osberne, reddening: "Well, what was I to do? There fell a leash of hill-dogs on our sheep, and I made them forbear. Was it a scathe to thee, lord?" The newcomer laughed again: "Nay, my lad," said he, "I love them no more than ye do; they were no dogs of mine. But what doest thou here?"
"Thou seest," said the youngling, "that I am shepherding our sheep; and a many have run from me, and I cannot bring them back to me. So I was going home with those that be left."
"Well," says the man, "we can soon mend that. Rest thou here and abide my coming back again, and I will fetch them for thee."
"With a good will," says Osberne, "and I shall can thee many thanks therefor."
So the man strode on and through the stream, and went his ways up the further bent, and Osberne sat down on a stone and abode him in no little wonder. The man was gone somewhat more than an hour, and then Osberne sees the sheep topping the crest of the bent, and pouring down into the dale, and the newcomer came next driving them down; and when they came to the stream they stood there and moved no more than if they were penned.
Then the newcomer came through them up to Osberne, and said in a kind voice, though it was loud: "What, art thou here yet? I deemed that thou wouldst have run home."
"Why should I have run?" said the lad. "For fear of me," said the other. Said Osberne: "I was somewhat afeard when I first saw thee, and thou with the grey byrny and the gleaming helm; but then I saw that thou wert no ill man, and I feared thee no longer. Withal I was fain to see thee again; for thou art goodly and fair to behold, and I am fain to remember thee."
Said the man: "Even so have others said ere now." "Were they women?" said Osberne. "Thou art brisk and keen, youngling," said the man. "Yes, they were women: but it was long ago." "Yet thou lookest no old man," said Osberne. "I have seen old men: they be nought like to thee."
"Heed thou not that," said the helmed man; "but tell me, how old a man art thou?" Said Osberne: "When this April is three days old I shall be thirteen years old."
Said the man of the waste: "Well, thou art stalwarth for thy years, and that liketh me well, and meseems that we shall be friends hereafter: and when thou art a grown man I shall seem no older to thee; nay we shall be as brothers. Belike I shall see thee again before long; meanwhile, I give the this rede: when thou mayest, seek thou to the side of the Sundering Flood, for meseemeth that there lieth thy weird. Now there is this last word to be said, that I came hither today to see thee, and in token thereof I have brought thee a gift. Canst thou shoot in the bow aught?" Said Osberne: "There is one at home, and my grandsire hath bent it for me at whiles, and taught me how to shoot somewhat; but I am little deft therein."
Then the man betook him the bow which he had in his hand and said: "Here is one that shall make thee deft; for whoso hath this as a gift from me shall hit what he shooteth at if he use my shafts withal, and here be three which I will give thee; and if thou take heed, thou shalt not find them easy to lose, since ever they shall go home. But if ever thou lose two of them, then take the third and go into some waste place where there is neither meadow nor acre, and turn to the north-east and shoot upward toward the heavens, and say this rhyme:
And then shalt thou find the arrows lying at thy feet. Now take the bow and arrows, and drive me thy sheep betwixt us to the top of the bent that looks down on Wethermel."
Then Osberne took the bow and shafts, and he all quivering with joy and delight, and then the two of them together went back across the waste with the sheep before them, and as they went side by side the man said many things, and this at last: "Now that I know thy name, it is like that those wouldst know mine and who I am; but my very name I may not tell thee, for thy tongue has no word for it, but now and when we meet again thou mayst call me Steelhead: and thou shalt know that when we next meet I shall be arrayed all otherwise than now. In that array I deem thou wilt know me, but look to it that thou show no sign thereof before other men; and as to the bow, thou wilt not be eager belike to say of whom thou hadst it. Lo now! we have opened up Wethermel; fare thou well, bold bairn, and forget not my redes."
And therewith he turned about and gat him gone into the waste again, striding hugely; and the lad was sorry to lack him, for he deemed him the goodliest and best man that he had ever met.