Once upon a time amidst the mountains and hills and falling streams of a fair land there was a town or thorp in a certain valley. This was well-nigh encompassed by a wall of sheer cliffs; toward the East and the great mountains they drew together till they went near to meet, and left but a narrow path on either side of a stony stream that came rattling down into the Dale: toward the river at that end the hills lowered somewhat, though they still ended in sheer rocks; but up from it, and more especially on the north side, they swelled into great shoulders of land, then dipped a little, and rose again into the sides of huge fells clad with pine-woods, and cleft here and there by deep ghylls: thence again they rose higher and steeper, and ever higher till they drew dark and naked out of the woods to meet the snow-fields and ice-rivers of the high mountains. But that was far away from the pass by the little river into the valley; and the said river was no drain from the snow-fields white and thick with the grinding of the ice, but clear and bright were its waters that came from wells amidst the bare rocky heaths.
The upper end of the valley, where it first began to open out from the pass, was rugged and broken by rocks and ridges of water-borne stones, but presently it smoothed itself into mere grassy swellings and knolls, and at last into a fair and fertile plain swelling up into a green wave, as it were, against the rock-wall which encompassed it on all sides save where the river came gushing out of the strait pass at the east end, and where at the west end it poured itself out of the Dale toward the lowlands and the plain of the great river.
Now the valley was some ten miles of our measure from that place of the rocks and the stone-ridges, to where the faces of the hills drew somewhat anigh to the river again at the west, and then fell aback along the edge of the great plain; like as when ye fare a-sailing past two nesses of a river-mouth, and the main-sea lieth open before you.
Besides the river afore-mentioned, which men called the Weltering Water, there were other waters in the Dale. Near the eastern pass, entangled in the rocky ground was a deep tarn full of cold springs and about two acres in measure, and therefrom ran a stream which fell into the Weltering Water amidst the grassy knolls. Black seemed the waters of that tarn which on one side washed the rocks-wall of the Dale; ugly and aweful it seemed to men, and none knew what lay beneath its waters save black mis-shapen trouts that few cared to bring to net or angle: and it was called the Death-Tarn.
Other waters yet there were: here and there from the hills on both sides, but especially from the south side, came trickles of water that ran in pretty brooks down to the river; and some of these sprang bubbling up amidst the foot-mounds of the sheer-rocks; some had cleft a rugged and strait way through them, and came tumbling down into the Dale at diverse heights from their faces. But on the north side about halfway down the Dale, one stream somewhat bigger than the others, and dealing with softer ground, had cleft for itself a wider way; and the folk had laboured this way wider yet, till they had made them a road running north along the west side of the stream. Sooth to say, except for the strait pass along the river at the eastern end, and the wider pass at the western, they had no other way (save one of which a word anon) out of the Dale but such as mountain goats and bold cragsmen might take; and even of these but few.
This midway stream was called the Wildlake, and the way along it Wildlake’s Way, because it came to them out of the wood, which on that north side stretched away from nigh to the lip of the valley-wall up to the pine woods and the high fells on the east and north, and down to the plain country on the west and south.
Now when the Weltering Water came out of the rocky tangle near the pass, it was turned aside by the ground till it swung right up to the feet of the Southern crags; then it turned and slowly bent round again northward, and at last fairly doubled back on itself before it turned again to run westward; so that when, after its second double, it had come to flowing softly westward under the northern crags, it had cast two thirds of a girdle round about a space of land a little below the grassy knolls and tofts aforesaid; and there in that fair space between the folds of the Weltering Water stood the Thorp whereof the tale hath told.
The men thereof had widened and deepened the Weltering Water about them, and had bridged it over to the plain meads; and athwart the throat of the space left clear by the water they had built them a strong wall though not very high, with a gate amidst and a tower on either side thereof. Moreover, on the face of the cliff which was but a stone’s throw from the gate they had made them stairs and ladders to go up by; and on a knoll nigh the brow had built a watch-tower of stone strong and great, lest war should come into the land from over the hills. That tower was ancient, and therefrom the Thorp had its name and the whole valley also; and it was called Burgstead in Burgdale.
So long as the Weltering Water ran straight along by the northern cliffs after it had left Burgstead, betwixt the water and the cliffs was a wide flat way fashioned by man’s hand. Thus was the water again a good defence to the Thorp, for it ran slow and deep there, and there was no other ground betwixt it and the cliffs save that road, which was easy to bar across so that no foemen might pass without battle, and this road was called the Portway. For a long mile the river ran under the northern cliffs, and then turned into the midst of the Dale, and went its way westward a broad stream winding in gentle laps and folds here and there down to the out-gate of the Dale. But the Portway held on still underneath the rock-wall, till the sheer-rocks grew somewhat broken, and were cumbered with certain screes, and at last the wayfarer came upon the break in them, and the ghyll through which ran the Wildlake with Wildlake’s Way beside it, but the Portway still went on all down the Dale and away to the Plain-country.
That road in the ghyll, which was neither wide nor smooth, the wayfarer into the wood must follow, till it lifted itself out of the ghyll, and left the Wildlake coming rattling down by many steps from the east; and now the way went straight north through the woodland, ever mounting higher, (because the whole set of the land was toward the high fells,) but not in any cleft or ghyll. The wood itself thereabout was thick, a blended growth of diverse kinds of trees, but most of oak and ash; light and air enough came through their boughs to suffer the holly and bramble and eglantine and other small wood to grow together into thickets, which no man could pass without hewing a way. But before it is told whereto Wildlake’s Way led, it must be said that on the east side of the ghyll, where it first began just over the Portway, the hill’s brow was clear of wood for a certain space, and there, overlooking all the Dale, was the Mote-stead of the Dalesmen, marked out by a great ring of stones, amidst of which was the mound for the Judges and the Altar of the Gods before it. And this was the holy place of the men of the Dale and of other folk whereof the tale shall now tell.
For when Wildlake’s Way had gone some three miles from the Mote-stead, the trees began to thin, and presently afterwards was a clearing and the dwellings of men, built of timber as may well be thought. These houses were neither rich nor great, nor was the folk a mighty folk, because they were but a few, albeit body by body they were stout carles enough. They had not affinity with the Dalesmen, and did not wed with them, yet it is to be deemed that they were somewhat akin to them. To be short, though they were freemen, yet as regards the Dalesmen were they well-nigh their servants; for they were but poor in goods, and had to lean upon them somewhat. No tillage they had among those high trees; and of beasts nought save some flocks of goats and a few asses. Hunters they were, and charcoal-burners, and therein the deftest of men, and they could shoot well in the bow withal: so they trucked their charcoal and their smoked venison and their peltries with the Dalesmen for wheat and wine and weapons and weed; and the Dalesmen gave them main good pennyworths, as men who had abundance wherewith to uphold their kinsmen, though they were but far-away kin. Stout hands had these Woodlanders and true hearts as any; but they were few-spoken and to those that needed them not somewhat surly of speech and grim of visage: brown-skinned they were, but light-haired; well-eyed, with but little red in their cheeks: their women were not very fair, for they toiled like the men, or more. They were thought to be wiser than most men in foreseeing things to come. They were much given to spells, and songs of wizardry, and were very mindful of the old story-lays, wherein they were far more wordy than in their daily speech. Much skill had they in runes, and were exceeding deft in scoring them on treen bowls, and on staves, and door-posts and roof-beams and standing-beds and such like things. Many a day when the snow was drifting over their roofs, and hanging heavy on the tree-boughs, and the wind was roaring through the trees aloft and rattling about the close thicket, when the boughs were clattering in the wind, and crashing down beneath the weight of the gathering freezing snow, when all beasts and men lay close in their lairs, would they sit long hours about the house-fire with the knife or the gouge in hand, with the timber twixt their knees and the whetstone beside them, hearkening to some tale of old times and the days when their banner was abroad in the world; and they the while wheedling into growth out of the tough wood knots and blossoms and leaves and the images of beasts and warriors and women.
They were called nought save the Woodland-Carles in that day, though time had been when they had borne a nobler name: and their abode was called Carlstead. Shortly, for all they had and all they had not, for all they were and all they were not, they were well-beloved by their friends and feared by their foes.
Now when Wildlake’s Way was gotten to Carlstead, there was an end of it toward the north; though beyond it in a right line the wood was thinner, because of the hewing of the Carles. But the road itself turned west at once and went on through the wood, till some four miles further it first thinned and then ceased altogether, the ground going down-hill all the way: for this was the lower flank of the first great upheaval toward the high mountains. But presently, after the wood was ended, the land broke into swelling downs and winding dales of no great height or depth, with a few scattered trees about the hillsides, mostly thorns or scrubby oaks, gnarled and bent and kept down by the western wind: here and there also were yew-trees, and whiles the hillsides would be grown over with box-wood, but none very great; and often juniper grew abundantly. This then was the country of the Shepherds, who were friends both of the Dalesmen and the Woodlanders. They dwelt not in any fenced town or thorp, but their homesteads were scattered about as was handy for water and shelter. Nevertheless they had their own stronghold; for amidmost of their country, on the highest of a certain down above a bottom where a willowy stream winded, was a great earthwork: the walls thereof were high and clean and overlapping at the entering in, and amidst of it was a deep well of water, so that it was a very defensible place: and thereto would they drive their flocks and herds when war was in the land, for nought but a very great host might win it; and this stronghold they called Greenbury.
These Shepherd-Folk were strong and tall like the Woodlanders, for they were partly of the same blood, but burnt they were both ruddy and brown: they were of more words than the Woodlanders but yet not many-worded. They knew well all those old story-lays, (and this partly by the minstrelsy of the Woodlanders,) but they had scant skill in wizardry, and would send for the Woodlanders, both men and women, to do whatso they needed therein. They were very hale and long-lived, whereas they dwelt in clear bright air, and they mostly went light-clad even in the winter, so strong and merry were they. They wedded with the Woodlanders and the Dalesmen both; at least certain houses of them did so. They grew no corn; nought but a few pot-herbs, but had their meal of the Dalesmen; and in the summer they drave some of their milch-kine into the Dale for the abundance of grass there; whereas their own hills and bents and winding valleys were not plenteously watered, except here and there as in the bottom under Greenbury. No swine they had, and but few horses, but of sheep very many, and of the best both for their flesh and their wool. Yet were they nought so deft craftsmen at the loom as were the Dalesmen, and their women were not very eager at the weaving, though they loathed not the spindle and rock. Shortly, they were merry folk well-beloved of the Dalesmen, quick to wrath, though it abode not long with them; not very curious in their houses and halls, which were but little, and were decked mostly with the handiwork of the Woodland-Carles their guests; who when they were abiding with them, would oft stand long hours nose to beam, scoring and nicking and hammering, answering no word spoken to them but with aye or no, desiring nought save the endurance of the daylight. Moreover, this shepherd-folk heeded not gay raiment over-much, but commonly went clad in white woollen or sheep-brown weed.
But beyond this shepherd-folk were more downs and more, scantily peopled, and that after a while by folk with whom they had no kinship or affinity, and who were at whiles their foes. Yet was there no enduring enmity between them; and ever after war and battle came peace; and all blood-wites were duly paid and no long feud followed: nor were the Dalesmen and the Woodlanders always in these wars, though at whiles they were. Thus then it fared with these people.
But now that we have told of the folks with whom the Dalesmen had kinship, affinity, and friendship, tell we of their chief abode, Burgstead to wit, and of its fashion. As hath been told, it lay upon the land made nigh into an isle by the folds of the Weltering Water towards the uppermost end of the Dale; and it was warded by the deep water, and by the wall aforesaid with its towers. Now the Dale at its widest, to wit where Wildlake fell into it, was but nine furlongs over, but at Burgstead it was far narrower; so that betwixt the wall and the wandering stream there was but a space of fifty acres, and therein lay Burgstead in a space of the shape of a sword-pommel: and the houses of the kinships lay about it, amidst of gardens and orchards, but little ordered into streets and lanes, save that a way went clean through everything from the tower-warded gate to the bridge over the Water, which was warded by two other towers on its hither side.
As to the houses, they were some bigger, some smaller, as the housemates needed. Some were old, but not very old, save two only, and some quite new, but of these there were not many: they were all built fairly of stone and lime, with much fair and curious carved work of knots and beasts and men round about the doors; or whiles a wale of such-like work all along the house-front. For as deft as were the Woodlanders with knife and gouge on the oaken beams, even so deft were the Dalesmen with mallet and chisel on the face of the hewn stone; and this was a great pastime about the Thorp. Within these houses had but a hall and solar, with shut-beds out from the hall on one side or two, with whatso of kitchen and buttery and out-bower men deemed handy. Many men dwelt in each house, either kinsfolk, or such as were joined to the kindred.
Near to the gate of Burgstead in that street aforesaid and facing east was the biggest house of the Thorp; it was one of the two abovesaid which were older than any other. Its door-posts and the lintel of the door were carved with knots and twining stems fairer than other houses of that stead; and on the wall beside the door carved over many stones was an image wrought in the likeness of a man with a wide face, which was terrible to behold, although it smiled: he bore a bent bow in his hand with an arrow fitted to its string, and about the head of him was a ring of rays like the beams of the sun, and at his feet was a dragon, which had crept, as it were, from amidst of the blossomed knots of the door-post wherewith the tail of him was yet entwined. And this head with the ring of rays about it was wrought into the adornment of that house, both within and without, in many other places, but on never another house of the Dale; and it was called the House of the Face. Thereof hath the tale much to tell hereafter, but as now it goeth on to tell of the ways of life of the Dalesmen.
In Burgstead was no Mote-hall or Town-house or Church, such as we wot of in these days; and their market-place was wheresoever any might choose to pitch a booth: but for the most part this was done in the wide street betwixt the gate and the bridge. As to a meeting-place, were there any small matters between man and man, these would the Alderman or one of the Wardens deal with, sitting in Court with the neighbours on the wide space just outside the Gate: but if it were to do with greater matters, such as great manslayings and blood-wites, or the making of war or ending of it, or the choosing of the Alderman and the Wardens, such matters must be put off to the Folk-mote, which could but be held in the place aforesaid where was the Doom-ring and the Altar of the Gods; and at that Folk-mote both the Shepherd-Folk and the Woodland-Carles foregathered with the Dalesmen, and duly said their say. There also they held their great casts and made offerings to the Gods for the Fruitfulness of the Year, the ingathering of the increase, and in Memory of their Forefathers. Natheless at Yule-tide also they feasted from house to house to be glad with the rest of Midwinter, and many a cup drank at those feasts to the memory of the fathers, and the days when the world was wider to them, and their banners fared far afield.
But besides these dwellings of men in the field between the wall and the water, there were homesteads up and down the Dale whereso men found it easy and pleasant to dwell: their halls were built of much the same fashion as those within the Thorp; but many had a high garth-wall cast about them, so that they might make a stout defence in their own houses if war came into the Dale.
As to their work afield; in many places the Dale was fair with growth of trees, and especially were there long groves of sweet chestnut standing on the grass, of the fruit whereof the folk had much gain. Also on the south side nigh to the western end was a wood or two of yew-trees very great and old, whence they gat them bow-staves, for the Dalesmen also shot well in the bow. Much wheat and rye they raised in the Dale, and especially at the nether end thereof. Apples and pears and cherries and plums they had in plenty; of which trees, some grew about the borders of the acres, some in the gardens of the Thorp and the homesteads. On the slopes that had grown from the breaking down here and there of the Northern cliffs, and which faced the South and the Sun’s burning, were rows of goodly vines, whereof the folk made them enough and to spare of strong wine both white and red.
As to their beasts; swine they had a many, but not many sheep, since herein they trusted to their trucking with their friends the Shepherds; they had horses, and yet but a few, for they were stout in going afoot; and, had they a journey to make with women big with babes, or with children or outworn elders, they would yoke their oxen to their wains, and go fair and softly whither they would. But the said oxen and all their neat were exceeding big and fair, far other than the little beasts of the Shepherd-Folk; they were either dun of colour, or white with black horns (and those very great) and black tail-tufts and ear-tips. Asses they had, and mules for the paths of the mountains to the east; geese and hens enough, and dogs not a few, great hounds stronger than wolves, sharp-nosed, long-jawed, dun of colour, shag-haired.
As to their wares; they were very deft weavers of wool and flax, and made a shift to dye the thrums in fair colours; since both woad and madder came to them good cheap by means of the merchants of the plain country, and of greening weeds was abundance at hand. Good smiths they were in all the metals: they washed somewhat of gold out of the sands of the Weltering Water, and copper and tin they fetched from the rocks of the eastern mountains; but of silver they saw little, and iron they must buy of the merchants of the plain, who came to them twice in the year, to wit in the spring and the late autumn just before the snows. Their wares they bought with wool spun and in the fleece, and fine cloth, and skins of wine and young neat both steers and heifers, and wrought copper bowls, and gold and copper by weight, for they had no stamped money. And they guested these merchants well, for they loved them, because of the tales they told them of the Plain and its cities, and the manslayings therein, and the fall of Kings and Dukes, and the uprising of Captains.
Thus then lived this folk in much plenty and ease of life, though not delicately nor desiring things out of measure. They wrought with their hands and wearied themselves; and they rested from their toil and feasted and were merry: to-morrow was not a burden to them, nor yesterday a thing which they would fain forget: life shamed them not, nor did death make them afraid.
As for the Dale wherein they dwelt, it was indeed most fair and lovely, and they deemed it the Blessing of the Earth, and they trod its flowery grass beside its rippled streams amidst its green tree-boughs proudly and joyfully with goodly bodies and merry hearts.