So wore away midwinter tidingless. Stone-face spake no more to Face-of-god about the wood and its wights, when he saw that the young man had come back hale and merry, seemed not to crave over-much to go back thither. As for the Bride, she was sad, and more than misdoubted all; but dauntless as she was in matters that try men’s hardihood, she yet lacked heart to ask of Face-of-god what had befallen him since the autumn-tide, or where he was with her. So she put a force upon herself not to look sad or craving when she was in his company, as full oft she was; for he rather sought her than shunned her. For when he saw her thus, he deemed things were changing with her as they had changed with him, and he bethought him of what he had spoken to Bow-may, and deemed that even so he might speak with the Bride when the time came, and that she would not be grieved beyond measure, and all would be well.
Now came on the thaw, and the snow went, and the grass grew all up and down the Dale, and all waters were big. And about this time arose rumours of strange men in the wood, uncouth, vile, and murderous, and many of the feebler sort were made timorous thereby.
But a little before March was born came new tidings from the Woodlanders; to wit: There came on a time to the house of a woodland carle, a worthy goodman well renowned of all, two wayfarers in the first watch of the night; and these men said that they were wending down to the Plain from a far-away dale, Rose-dale to wit, which all men had heard of, and that they had strayed from the way and were exceeding weary, and they craved a meal’s meat and lodging for the night.
This the goodman might nowise gainsay, and he saw no harm in it, wherefore he bade them abide and be merry.
These men, said they who told the tidings, were outlanders, and no man had seen any like them before: they were armed, and bore short bows made of horn, and round targets, and coats-of-fence done over with horn scales; they had crooked swords girt to their sides, and axes of steel forged all in one piece, right good weapons. They were clad in scarlet and had much silver on their raiment and about their weapons, and great rings of the same on their arms; and all this silver seemed brand-new.
Now the Woodland Carle gave them of such things as he had, and was kind and blithe to them: there were in his house besides himself five men of his sons and kindred, and his wife and three daughters and two other maids. So they feasted after the Woodlanders’ fashion, and went to bed a little before midnight. Two hours after, the carle awoke and heard a little stir, and he looked and saw the guests on their feet amidst the hall clad in all their war-gear; and they had betwixt them his two youngest daughters, maids of fifteen and twelve winters, and had bound their hands and done clouts over their mouths, so that they might not cry out; and they were just at point to carry them off. Thereat the goodman, naked as he was, caught up his sword and made at these murder-carles, and or ever they were ware of him he had hewn down one and turned to face the other, who smote at him with his steel axe and gave him a great wound on the shoulder, and therewithal fled out at the open door and forth into the wood.
The Woodlander made no stay to raise the cry (there was no need, for the hall was astir now from end to end, and men getting to their weapons), but ran out after the felon even as he was; and, in spite of his grievous hurt, overran him no long way from the house before he had gotten into the thicket. But the man was nimble and strong, and the goodman unsteady from his wound, and by then the others of the household came up with the hue and cry he had gotten two more sore wounds and was just making an end of throttling the felon with his bare hands. So he fell into their arms fainting from weakness, and for all they could do he died in two hours’ time from that axe-wound in his shoulder, and another on the side of the head, and a knife-thrust in his side; and he was a man of sixty winters.
But the stranger he had slain outright; and the one whom he had smitten in the hall died before the dawn, thrusting all help aside, and making no sound of speech.
When these tidings came to Burgstead they seemed great to men, and to Gold-mane more than all. So he and many others took their weapons and fared up to Wildlake’s Way, and so came to the Woodland Carles. But the Woodlanders had borne out the carcasses of those felons and laid them on the green before Wood-grey’s door (for that was the name of the dead goodman), and they were saying that they would not bury such accursed folk, but would bear them a little way so that they should not be vexed with the stink of them, and cast them into the thicket for the wolf and the wild-cat and the stoat to deal with; and they should lie there, weapons and silver and all; and they deemed it base to strip such wretches, for who would wear their raiment or bear their weapons after them.
There was a great ring of folk round about them when they of Burgstead drew near, and they shouted for joy to see their neighbours, and made way before them. Then the Dalesmen cursed these murderers who had slain so good a man, and they all praised his manliness, whereas he ran out into the night naked and wounded after his foe, and had fallen like his folk of old time.
It was a bright spring afternoon in that clearing of the Wood, and they looked at the two dead men closely; and Gold-mane, who had been somewhat silent and moody till then, became merry and wordy; for he beheld the men and saw that they were utterly strange to him: they were short of stature, crooked-legged, long-armed, very strong for their size: with small blue eyes, snubbed-nosed, wide-mouthed, thin-lipped, very swarthy of skin, exceeding foul of favour. He and all others wondered who they were, and whence they came, for never had they seen their like; and the Woodlanders, who often guested outlanders strayed from the way of divers kindreds and nations, said also that none such had they ever seen. But Stone-face, who stood by Gold-mane, shook his head and quoth he:
‘The Wild-wood holdeth many marvels, and these be of them: the spawn of evil wights quickeneth therein, and at other whiles it melteth away again like the snow; so may it be with these carcasses.’
And some of the older folk of the Woodlanders who stood by hearkened what he said, and deemed his words wise, for they remembered their ancient lore and many a tale of old time.
Thereafter they of Burgstead went into Wood-grey’s hall, or as many of them as might, for it was but a poor place and not right great. There they saw the goodman laid on the dais in all his war-gear, under the last tie-beam of his hall, whereon was carved amidst much goodly work of knots and flowers and twining stems the image of the Wolf of the Waste, his jaws open and gaping: the wife and daughters of the goodman and other women of the folk stood about the bier singing some old song in a low voice, and some sobbing therewithal, for the man was much beloved: and much people of the Woodlanders was in the hall, and it was somewhat dusk within.
So the Burgstead men greeted that folk kindly and humbly, and again they fell to praising the dead man, saying how his deed should long be remembered in the Dale and wide about; and they called him a fearless man and of great worth. And the women hearkened, and ceased their crooning and their sobbing, and stood up proudly and raised their heads with gleaming eyes; and as the words of the Burgstead men ended, they lifted up their voices and sang loudly and clearly, standing together in a row, ten of them, on the dais of that poor hall, facing the gable and the wolf-adorned tie-beam, heeding nought as they sang what was about or behind them.
And this is some of what they sang:
Why sit ye bare in the spinning-room?
Why weave ye naked at the loom?
Bare and white as the moon we be,
That the Earth and the drifting night may see.
Now what is the worst of all your work?
What curse amidst the web shall lurk?
The worst of the work our hands shall win
Is wrack and ruin round the kin.
Shall the woollen yarn and the flaxen thread
Be gear for living men or dead?
The woollen yarn and the flaxen thread
Shall flare ‘twixt living men and dead.
O what is the ending of your day?
When shall ye rise and wend away?
Our day shall end to-morrow morn,
When we hear the voice of the battle-horn.
Where first shall eyes of men behold
This weaving of the moonlight cold?
There where the alien host abides
The gathering on the Mountain-sides.
How long aloft shall the fair web fly
When the bows are bent and the spears draw nigh?
From eve to morn and morn till eve
Aloft shall fly the work we weave.
What then is this, the web ye win?
What wood-beast waxeth stark therein?
We weave the Wolf and the gift of war
From the men that were to the men that are.
So sang they: and much were all men moved at their singing, and there was none but called to mind the old days of the Fathers, and the years when their banner went wide in the world.
But the Woodlanders feasted them of Burgstead what they might, and then went the Dalesmen back to their houses; but on the morrow’s morrow they fared thither again, and Wood-grey was laid in mound amidst a great assemblage of the Folk.
Many men said that there was no doubt that those two felons were of the company of those who had ransacked the steads of Penny-thumb and Harts-bane; and so at first deemed Bristler the son of Brightling: but after a while, when he had had time to think of it, he changed his mind; for he said that such men as these would have slain first and ransacked afterwards: and some who loved neither Penny-thumb nor Harts-bane said that they would not have been at the pains to choose for ransacking the two worst men about the Dale, whose loss was no loss to any but themselves.
As for Gold-mane he knew not what to think, except that his friends of the Mountain had had nought to do with it.
So wore the days awhile.