The Wood Beyond the World - Chapter 28
OF THE NEW GOD OF THE BEARS
At last the old man said: “My children, ye shall now come with me unto the Doom-ring of our folk, the Bears of the Southern Dales, and deliver to them your errand; and I beseech you to have pity upon your own bodies, as I have pity on them; on thine especially, Maiden, so fair and bright a creature as thou art; for so it is, that if ye deal us out light and lying words after the manner of dastards, ye shall miss the worship and glory of wending away amidst of the flames, a gift to the God and a hope to the people, and shall be passed by the rods of the folk, until ye faint and fail amongst them, and then shall ye be thrust down into the flow at the Dale’s End, and a stone-laden hurdle cast upon you, that we may thenceforth forget your folly.”
The Maid now looked full into his eyes, and Walter deemed that the old man shrank before her; but she said: “Thou art old and wise, O great man of the Bears, yet nought I need to learn of thee. Now lead us on our way to the Stead of the Errands.”
So the elder brought them along to the Doom-ring at the eastern end of the Dale; and it was now all peopled with those huge men, weaponed after their fashion, and standing up, so that the grey stones thereof but showed a little over their heads. But amidmost of the said Ring was a big stone, fashioned as a chair, whereon sat a very old man, long-hoary and white-bearded, and on either side of him stood a great-limbed woman clad in war-gear, holding, each of them, a long spear, and with a flint-bladed knife in the girdle; and there were no other women in all the Mote.
Then the elder led those twain into the midst of the Mote, and there bade them go up on to a wide, flat-topped stone, six feet above the ground, just over against the ancient chieftain; and they mounted it by a rough stair, and stood there before that folk; Walter in his array of the outward world, which had been fair enough, of crimson cloth and silk, and white linen, but was now travel-stained and worn; and the Maid with nought upon her, save the smock wherein she had fled from the Golden House of the Wood beyond the World, decked with the faded flowers which she had wreathed about her yesterday. Nevertheless, so it was, that those big men eyed her intently, and with somewhat of worship.
Now did Walter, according to her bidding, sink down on his knees beside her, and drawing his sword, hold it before him, as if to keep all interlopers aloof from the Maid. And there was silence in the Mote, and all eyes were fixed on those twain.
At last the old chief arose and spake: “Ye men, here are come a man and a woman, we know not whence; whereas they have given word to our folk who first met them, that they would tell their errand to none save the Mote of the People; which it was their due to do, if they were minded to risk it. For either they be aliens without an errand hither, save, it may be, to beguile us, in which case they shall presently die an evil death; or they have come amongst us that we may give them to the God with flint-edge and fire; or they have a message to us from some folk or other, on the issue of which lieth life or death. Now shall ye hear what they have to say concerning themselves and their faring hither. But, meseemeth, it shall be the woman who is the chief and hath the word in her mouth; for, lo you! the man kneeleth at her feet, as one who would serve and worship her. Speak out then, woman, and let our warriors hear thee.”
Then the Maid lifted up her voice, and spake out clear and shrilling, like to a flute of the best of the minstrels: “Ye men of the Children of the Bear, I would ask you a question, and let the chieftain who sitteth before me answer it.”
The old man nodded his head, and she went on: “Tell me, Children of the Bear, how long a time is worn since ye saw the God of your worship made manifest in the body of a woman!”
Said the elder: “Many winters have worn since my father’s father was a child, and saw the very God in the bodily form of a woman.”
Then she said again: “Did ye rejoice at her coming, and would ye rejoice if once more she came amongst you?”
“Yea,” said the old chieftain, “for she gave us gifts, and learned us lore, and came to us in no terrible shape, but as a young woman as goodly as thou.”
Then said the Maid: “Now, then, is the day of your gladness come; for the old body is dead, and I am the new body of your God, come amongst you for your welfare.”
Then fell a great silence on the Mote, till the old man spake and said: “What shall I say and live? For if thou be verily the God, and I threaten thee, wilt thou not destroy me? But thou hast spoken a great word with a sweet mouth, and hast taken the burden of blood on thy lily hands; and if the Children of the Bear be befooled of light liars, how shall they put the shame off them? Therefore I say, show to us a token; and if thou be the God, this shall be easy to thee; and if thou show it not, then is thy falsehood manifest, and thou shalt dree the weird. For we shall deliver thee into the hands of these women here, who shall thrust thee down into the flow which is hereby, after they have wearied themselves with whipping thee. But thy man that kneeleth at thy feet shall we give to the true God, and he shall go to her by the road of the flint and the fire. Hast thou heard? Then give to us the sign and the token.”
She changed countenance no whit at his word; but her eyes were the brighter, and her cheek the fresher and her feet moved a little, as if they were growing glad before the dance; and she looked out over the Mote, and spake in her clear voice: “Old man, thou needest not to fear for thy words. Forsooth it is not me whom thou threatenest with stripes and a foul death, but some light fool and liar, who is not here. Now hearken! I wot well that ye would have somewhat of me, to wit, that I should send you rain to end this drought, which otherwise seemeth like to lie long upon you: but this rain, I must go into the mountains of the south to fetch it you; therefore shall certain of your warriors bring me on my way, with this my man, up to the great pass of the said mountains, and we shall set out thitherward this very day.”
She was silent a while, and all looked on her, but none spake or moved, so that they seemed as images of stone amongst the stones.
Then she spake again and said: “Some would say, men of the Bear, that this were a sign and a token great enough; but I know you, and how stubborn and perverse of heart ye be; and how that the gift not yet within your hand is no gift to you; and the wonder ye see not, your hearts trow not. Therefore look ye upon me as here I stand, I who have come from the fairer country and the greenwood of the lands, and see if I bear not the summer with me, and the heart that maketh increase and the hand that giveth.”
Lo then! as she spake, the faded flowers that hung about her gathered life and grew fresh again; the woodbine round her neck and her sleek shoulders knit itself together and embraced her freshly, and cast its scent about her face. The lilies that girded her loins lifted up their heads, and the gold of their tassels fell upon her; the eyebright grew clean blue again upon her smock; the eglantine found its blooms again, and then began to shed the leaves thereof upon her feet; the meadow-sweet wreathed amongst it made clear the sweetness of her legs, and the mouse-ear studded her raiment as with gems. There she stood amidst of the blossoms, like a great orient pearl against the fretwork of the goldsmiths, and the breeze that came up the valley from behind bore the sweetness of her fragrance all over the Man-mote.
Then, indeed, the Bears stood up, and shouted and cried, and smote on their shields, and tossed their spears aloft. Then the elder rose from his seat, and came up humbly to where she stood, and prayed her to say what she would have done; while the others drew about in knots, but durst not come very nigh to her. She answered the ancient chief, and said, that she would depart presently toward the mountains, whereby she might send them the rain which they lacked, and that thence she would away to the southward for a while; but that they should hear of her, or, it might be, see her, before they who were now of middle age should be gone to their fathers.
Then the old man besought her that they might make her a litter of fragrant green boughs, and so bear her away toward the mountain pass amidst a triumph of the whole folk. But she leapt lightly down from the stone, and walked to and fro on the greensward, while it seemed of her that her feet scarce touched the grass; and she spake to the ancient chief where he still kneeled in worship of her, and said “Nay; deemest thou of me that I need bearing by men’s hands, or that I shall tire at all when I am doing my will, and I, the very heart of the year’s increase? So it is, that the going of my feet over your pastures shall make them to thrive, both this year and the coming years: surely will I go afoot.”
So they worshipped her the more, and blessed her; and then first of all they brought meat, the daintiest they might, both for her and for Walter. But they would not look on the Maid whiles she ate, or suffer Walter to behold her the while. Afterwards, when they had eaten, some twenty men, weaponed after their fashion, made them ready to wend with the Maiden up into the mountains, and anon they set out thitherward all together. Howbeit, the huge men held them ever somewhat aloof from the Maid; and when they came to the resting-place for that night, where was no house, for it was up amongst the foot-hills before the mountains, then it was a wonder to see how carefully they built up a sleeping-place for her, and tilted it over with their skin-cloaks, and how they watched nightlong about her. But Walter they let sleep peacefully on the grass, a little way aloof from the watchers round the Maid.