Early on the morrow Gold-mane arose and clad himself and went out-a-doors and over the trodden snow on to the bridge over the Weltering Water, and there betook himself into one of the coins of safety built over the up-stream piles; there he leaned against the wall and turned his face to the Thorp, and fell to pondering on his case. And first he thought about his oath, and how that he had sworn to wed the Mountain Woman, although his kindred and her kindred should gainsay him, yea and herself also. Great seemed that oath to him, yet at that moment he wished he had made it greater, and made all the kindred, yea and the Bride herself, sure of the meaning of the words of it: and he deemed himself a dastard that he had not done so. Then he looked round him and beheld the winter, and he fell into mere longing that the spring were come and the token from the Mountain. Things seemed too hard for him to deal with, and he between a mighty folk and two wayward women; and he went nigh to wish that he had taken his father’s offer and gone down to the Cities; and even had he met his bane: well were that! And, as young folk will, he set to work making a picture of his deeds there, had he been there. He showed himself the stricken fight in the plain, and the press, and the struggle, and the breaking of the serried band, and himself amidst the ring of foemen doing most valiantly, and falling there at last, his shield o’er-heavy with the weight of foemen’s spears for a man to uphold it. Then the victory of his folk and the lamentation and praise over the slain man of the Mountain Dales, and the burial of the valiant warrior, the praising weeping folk meeting him at the City-gate, laid stark and cold in his arms on the gold-hung garlanded bier.
There ended his dream, and he laughed aloud and said: ‘I am a fool! All this were good and sweet if I should see it myself; and forsooth that is how I am thinking of it, as if I still alive should see myself dead and famous!’
Then he turned a little and looked at the houses of the Thorp lying dark about the snowy ways under the starlit heavens of the winter morning: dark they were indeed and grey, save where here and there the half-burned Yule-fire reddened the windows of a hall, or where, as in one place, the candle of some early waker shone white in a chamber window. There was scarce a man astir, he deemed, and no sound reached him save the crowing of the cocks muffled by their houses, and a faint sound of beasts in the byres.
Thus he stood a while, his thoughts wandering now, till presently he heard footsteps coming his way down the street and turned toward them, and lo it was the old man Stone-face. He had seen Gold-mane go out, and had risen and followed him that he might talk with him apart. Gold-mane greeted him kindly, though, sooth to say, he was but half content to see him; since he doubted, what was verily the case, that his foster-father would give him many words, counselling him to refrain from going to the wood, and this was loathsome to him; but he spake and said:
‘Meseems, father, that the eastern sky is brightening toward dawn.’
‘Yea,’ quoth Stone-face.
‘It will be light in an hour,’ said Face-of-god.
‘Even so,’ said Stone-face.
‘And a fair day for the morrow of Yule,’ said the swain.
‘Yea,’ said Stone-face, ‘and what wilt thou do with the fair day? Wilt thou to the wood?’
‘Maybe, father,’ said Gold-mane; ‘Hall-face and some of the swains are talking of elks up the fells which may be trapped in the drifts, and if they go a-hunting them, I may go in their company.’
‘Ah, son,’ quoth Stone-face, ‘thou wilt look to see other kind of beasts than elks. Things may ye fall in with there who may not be impounded in the snow like to elks, but can go light-foot on the top of the soft drift from one place to another.’
Said Gold-mane: ‘Father, fear me not; I shall either refrain me from the wood, or if I go, I shall go to hunt the wood-deer with other hunters. But since thou hast come to me, tell me more about the wood, for thy tales thereof are fair.’
‘Yea,’ said Stone-face, ‘fair tales of foul things, as oft it befalleth in the world. Hearken now! if thou deemest that what thou seekest shall come readier to thine hand because of the winter and the snow, thou errest. For the wights that waylay the bodies and souls of the mighty in the wild-wood heed such matters nothing; yea and at Yule-tide are they most abroad, and most armed for the fray. Even such an one have I seen time agone, when the snow was deep and the wind was rough; and it was in the likeness of a woman clad in such raiment as the Bride bore last night, and she trod the snow light-foot in thin raiment where it would scarce bear the skids of a deft snow-runner. Even so she stood before me; the icy wind blew her raiment round about her, and drifted the hair from her garlanded head toward me, and she as fair and fresh as in the midsummer days. Up the fell she fared, sweetest of all things to look on, and beckoned on me to follow; on me, the Warrior, the Stout-heart; and I followed, and between us grief was born; but I it was that fostered that child and not she. Always when she would be, was she merry and lovely; and even so is she now, for she is of those that be long-lived. And I wot that thou hast seen even such an one!’
‘Tell me more of thy tales, foster-father,’ said Gold-mane, ‘and fear not for me!’
‘Ah, son,’ he said, ‘mayst thou have no such tales to tell to those that shall be young when thou art old. Yet hearken! We sat in the hall together and there was no third; and methought that the birds sang and the flowers bloomed, and sweet was their savour, though it was midwinter. A rose-wreath was on her head; grapes were on the board, and fair unwrinkled summer apples on the day that we feasted together. When was the feast? sayst thou. Long ago. What was the hall, thou sayest, wherein ye feasted? I know not if it were on the earth or under it, or if we rode the clouds that even. But on the morrow what was there but the stark wood and the drift of the snow, and the iron wind howling through the branches, and a lonely man, a wanderer rising from the ground. A wanderer through the wood and up the fell, and up the high mountain, and up and up to the edges of the ice-river and the green caves of the ice-hills. A wanderer in spring, in summer, autumn and winter, with an empty heart and a burning never-satisfied desire; who hath seen in the uncouth places many an evil unmanly shape, many a foul hag and changing ugly semblance; who hath suffered hunger and thirst and wounding and fever, and hath seen many things, but hath never again seen that fair woman, or that lovely feast-hall.
‘All praise and honour to the House of the Face, and the bounteous valiant men thereof! and the like praise and honour to the fair women whom they wed of the valiant and goodly House of the Steer!’
‘Even so say I,’ quoth Gold-mane calmly; ‘but now wend we aback to the House, for it is morning indeed, and folk will be stirring there.’
So they turned from the bridge together; and Stone-face was kind and fatherly, and was telling his foster-son many wise things concerning the life of a chieftain, and the giving-out of dooms and the gathering for battle; to all which talk Face-of-god seemed to hearken gladly, but indeed hearkened not at all; for verily his eyes were beholding that snowy waste, and the fair woman upon it; even such an one as Stone-face had told of.