It was three days thereafter that Gold-mane, leading an ass, went along the highway to fetch home certain fleeces which were needed for the house from a stead a little west of Wildlake; but he had gone scant half a mile ere he fell in with a throng of folk going to Burgstead. They were of the Shepherds; they had weapons with them, and some were clad in coats of fence. They went along making a great noise, for they were all talking each to each at the same time, and seemed very hot and eager about some matter. When they saw Gold-mane anigh, they stopped, and the throng opened as if to let him into their midmost; so he mingled with them, and they stood in a ring about him and an old man more ill-favoured than it was the wont of the Dalesmen to be.
For he was long, stooping, gaunt and spindle-shanked, his hands big and crippled with gout: his cheeks were red after an old man’s fashion, covered with a crimson network like a pippin; his lips thin and not well hiding his few teeth; his nose long like a snipe’s neb. In short, a shame and a laughing-stock to the Folk, and a man whom the kindreds had in small esteem, and that for good reasons.
Face-of-god knew him at once for a notable close-fist and starve-all fool of the Shepherds; and his name was now become Penny-thumb the Lean, whatever it might once have been.
So Face-of-god greeted all men, and they him again; and he said: ‘What aileth you, neighbours? Your weapons, are bare, but I see not that they be bloody. What is it, goodman Penny-thumb?’
Penny-thumb did but groan for all answer; but a stout carle who stood by with a broad grin on his face answered and said:
‘Face-of-god, evil tidings be abroad; the strong-thieves of the wood are astir; and some deem that the wood-wights be helping them.’
‘Yea, and what is the deed they have done?’ said Gold-mane.
Said the carle: ‘Thou knowest Penny-thumb’s abode?’
‘Yea surely,’ said Face-of-god; ‘fair are the water-meadows about it; great gain of cheese can be gotten thence.’
‘Hast thou been within the house?’ said the carle.
‘Nay,’ said Gold-mane.
Then spake Penny-thumb: ‘Within is scant gear: we gather for others to scatter; we make meat for others’ mouths.’
The carle laughed: ‘Sooth is that,’ said he, ‘that there is little gear therein now; for the strong-thieves have voided both hall and bower and byre.’
‘And when was that?’ said Face-of-god.
‘The night before last night,’ said the carle, ‘the door was smitten on, and when none answered it was broken down.’
‘Yea,’ quoth Penny-thumb, ‘a host entered, and they in arms.’
‘No host was within,’ said the carle, ‘nought but Penny-thumb and his sister and his sister’s son, and three carles that work for him; and one of them, Rusty to wit, was the worst man of the hill-country. These then the host whereof the goodman telleth bound, but without doing them any scathe; and they ransacked the house, and took away much gear; yet left some.’
‘Thou liest,’ said Penny-thumb; ‘they took little and left none.’
Thereat all men laughed, for this seemed to them good game, and another man said: ‘Well, neighbour Penny-thumb, if it was so little, thou hast done unneighbourly in giving us such a heap of trouble about it.’
And they laughed again, but the first carle said: ‘True it is, goodman, that thou wert exceeding eager to raise the hue and cry after that little when we happed upon thee and thy housemates bound in your chairs yesterday morning. Well, Alderman’s son, short is the tale to tell: we could not fail to follow the gear, and the slot led us into the wood, and ill is the going there for us shepherds, who are used to the bare downs, save Rusty, who was a good woodsman and lifted the slot for us; so he outwent us all, and ran out of sight of us, so presently we came upon him dead-slain, with the manslayer’s spear in his breast. What then could we do but turn back again, for now was the wood blind now Rusty was dead, and we knew not whither to follow the fray; and the man himself was but little loss: so back we turned, and told goodman Penny-thumb of all this, for we had left him alone in his hall lamenting his gear; so we bided to-day’s morn, and have come out now, with our neighbour and the spear, and the dead corpse of Rusty. Stand aside, neighbours, and let the Alderman’s son see it.’
They did so, and there was the corpse of a thin-faced tall wiry man, somewhat foxy of aspect, lying on a hand-bier covered with black cloth.
‘Yea, Face-of-god,’ said the carle, ‘he is not good to see now he is dead, yet alive was he worser: but, look you, though the man was no good man, yet was he of our people, and the feud is with us; so we would see the Alderman, and do him to wit of the tidings, that he may call the neighbours together to seek a blood-wite for Rusty and atonement for the ransacking. Or what sayest thou?’
‘Have ye the spear that ye found in Rusty?’ quoth Gold-mane.
‘Yea verily,’ said the carle. ‘Hither with it, neighbours; give it to the Alderman’s son.’
So the spear came into his hand, and he looked at it and said:
‘This is no spear of the smiths’ work of the Dale, as my father will tell you. We take but little keep of the forging of spearheads here, so that they be well-tempered and made so as to ride well on the shaft; but this head, daintily is it wrought, the blood-trench as clean and trim as though it were an Earl’s sword. See you withal this inlaying of runes on the steel? It is done with no tin or copper, but with very silver; and these bands about the shaft be of silver also. It is a fair weapon, and the owner hath a loss of it greater than his gain in the slaying of Rusty; and he will have left it in the wound so that he might be known hereafter, and that he might be said not to have murdered Rusty but to have slain him. Or how think ye?’
They all said that this seemed like to be; but that if the man who had slain Rusty were one of the ransackers they might have a blood-wite of him, if they could find him. Gold-mane said that so it was, and therewithal he gave the shepherds good-speed and went on his way.
But they came to Burgstead and found the Alderman, and in due time was a Court held, and a finding uttered, and outlawry given forth for the manslaying and the ransacking against certain men unknown. As for the spear, it was laid up in the House of the Face.
But Face-of-god pondered these matters in his mind, for such ransackings there had been none of in late years; and he said to himself that his friends of the Mountain must have other folk, of which the Dalesmen knew nought, whose gear they could lift, or how could they live in that place. And he marvelled that they should risk drawing the Dalesmen’s wrath upon them; whereas they of the Dale were strong men not easily daunted, albeit peaceable enough if not stirred to wrath. For in good sooth he had no doubt concerning that spear, whose it was and whence it came: for that very weapon had been leaning against the panel of his shut-bed the night he slept on the Mountain, and all the other spears that he saw there were more or less of the same fashion, and adorned with silver.
Albeit all that he knew, and all that he thought of, he kept in his own heart and said nothing of it.
So wore the autumn into early winter; and the Westland merchants came in due time, and departed without Face-of-god, though his father made him that offer one last time. He went to and fro about his work in the Dale, and seemed to most men’s eyes nought changed from what he had been. But the Bride noted that he saw her less often than his wont was, and abode with her a lesser space when he met her; and she could not think what this might mean; nor had she heart to ask him thereof, though she was sorry and grieved, but rather withdrew her company from him somewhat; and when she perceived that he noted it not, and made no question of it, then was she the sorrier.
But the first winter-snow came on with a great storm of wind from the north-east, so that no man stirred abroad who was not compelled thereto, and those who went abroad risked life and limb thereby. Next morning all was calm again, and the snow was deep, but it did not endure long, for the wind shifted to the southwest and the thaw came, and three days after, when folk could fare easily again up and down the Dale, came tidings to Burgstead and the Alderman from the Lower Dale, how a house called Greentofts had been ransacked there, and none knew by whom. Now the goodman of Greentofts was little loved of the neighbours: he was grasping and overbearing, and had often cowed others out of their due: he was very cross-grained, both at home and abroad: his wife had fled from his hand, neither did his sons find it good to abide with him: therewithal he was wealthy of goods, a strong man and a deft man-at-arms. When his sons and his wife departed from him, and none other of the Dalesmen cared to abide with him, he went down into the Plain, and got thence men to be with him for hire, men who were not well seen to in their own land. These to the number of twelve abode with him, and did his bidding whenso it pleased them. Two more had he had who had been slain by good men of the Dale for their masterful ways; and no blood-wite had been paid for them, because of their ill-doings, though they had not been made outlaws. This man of Greentofts was called Harts-bane after his father, who was a great hunter.
Now the full tidings of the ransacking were these: The storm began two hours before sunset, and an hour thereafter, when it was quite dark, for without none could see because the wind was at its height and the drift of the snow was hard and full, the hall-door flew open; and at first men thought it had been the wind, until they saw in the dimness (for all lights but the fire on the hearth had been quenched) certain things tumbling in which at first they deemed were wolves; but when they took swords and staves against them, lo they were met by swords and axes, and they saw that the seeming wolves were men with wolf-skins drawn over them. So the new-comers cowed them that they threw down their weapons, and were bound in their places; but when they were bound, and had had time to note who the ransackers were, they saw that there were but six of them all told, who had cowed and bound Harts-bane and his twelve masterful men; and this they deemed a great shaming to them, as might well be.
So then the stead was ransacked, and those wolves took away what they would, and went their ways through the fierce storm, and none could tell whether they had lived or died in it; but at least neither the men nor their prey were seen again; nor did they leave any slot, for next morning the snow lay deep over everything.
No doubt had Gold-mane but that these ransackers were his friends of the Mountain; but he held his peace, abiding till the winter should be over.