Next morning tryst was held faithfully, and an hundred and a half were gathered together on Wildlake’s Way; and Face-of-god ordered them into three companies. He made Hall-face leader over the first one, and bade him hold on his way northward, and then to make for Boars-bait and see if he should meet with anything thereabout where the battle had been. Red-coat of Waterless he made captain of the second band; and he had it in charge to wend eastward along the edge of the Dale, and not to go deep into the wood, but to go as far as he might within the time appointed, toward the Mountains. Furthermore, he bade both Hall-face and Red-coat to bring their bands back to Wildlake’s Way by the morrow at sunset, where other goodmen should be come to take the places of their men; and then if he and his company were back again, he would bid them further what to do; but if not, as seemed likely, then Hall-face’s band to go west toward the Shepherd country half a day’s journey, and so back, and Red-coat’s east along the Dale’s lip again for the like time, and then back, so that there might be a constant watch and ward of the Dale kept against the Felons.
All being ordered Gold-mane led his own company north-east through the thick wood, thinking that he might so fare as to come nigh to Silver-dale, or at least to hear tidings thereof. This intent he told to Stone-face, but the old man shook his head and said:
‘Good is this if it may be done; but it is not for everyone to go down to Hell in his lifetime and come back safe with a tale thereof. However, whither thou wilt lead, thither will I follow, though assured death waylayeth us.’
And the old carle was joyous and proud to be on this adventure, and said, that it was good indeed that his foster-son had with him a man well stricken in years, who had both seen many things, and learned many, and had good rede to give to valiant men.
So they went on their ways, and fared very warily when they were gotten beyond those parts of the wood which they knew well. By this time they were strung out in a long line; and they noted their road carefully, blazing the trees on either side when there were trees, and piling up little stone-heaps where the trees failed them. For Stone-face said that oft it befell men amidst the thicket and the waste to be misled by wights that begrudged men their lives, so that they went round and round in a ring which they might not depart from till they died; and no man doubted his word herein.
All day they went, and met no foe, nay, no man at all; nought but the wild things of the wood; and that day the wood changed little about them from mile to mile. There were many thickets across their road which they had to go round about; so that to the crow flying over the tree-tops the journey had not been long to the place where night came upon them, and where they had to make the wood their bedchamber.
That night they lighted no fire, but ate such cold victual as they might carry with them; nor had they shot any venison, since they had with them more than enough; they made little noise or stir therefore and fell asleep when they had set the watch.
On the morrow they arose betimes, and broke their fast and went their ways till noon: by then the wood had thinned somewhat, and there was little underwood betwixt the scrubby oak and ash which were pretty nigh all the trees about: the ground also was broken, and here and there rocky, and they went into and out of rough little dales, most of which had in them a brook of water running west and southwest; and now Face-of-god led his men somewhat more easterly; and still for some while they met no man.
At last, about four hours after noon, when they were going less warily, because they had hitherto come across nothing to hinder them, rising over the brow of a somewhat steep ridge, they saw down in the valley below them a half score of men sitting by the brook-side eating and drinking, their weapons lying beside them, and along with them stood a woman with her hands tied behind her back.
They saw at once that these men were of the Felons, so they that had their bows bent, loosed at them without more ado, while the others ran in upon them with sword and spear. The felons leapt up and ran scattering down the dale, such of them as were not smitten by the shafts; but he who was nighest to the woman, ere he ran, turned and caught up a sword from the ground and thrust it through her, and the next moment fell across the brook with an arrow in his back.
No one of the felons was nimble enough to escape from the fleet-foot hunters of Burgdale, and they were all slain there to the number of eleven.
But when they came back to the woman to tend her, she breathed her last in their hands: she was a young and fair woman, black-haired and dark-eyed. She had on her body a gown of rich web, but nought else: she had been bruised and sore mishandled, and the Burgdale carles wept for pity of her, and for wrath, as they straightened her limbs on the turf of the little valley. They let her lie there a little, whilst they searched round about, lest there should be any other poor soul needing their help, or any felon lurking thereby; but they found nought else save a bundle wherein was another rich gown and divers woman’s gear, and sundry rings and jewels, and therewithal the weapons and war-gear of a knight, delicately wrought after the Westland fashion: these seemed to them to betoken other foul deeds of these murder-carles. So when they had abided a while, they laid the dead woman in mould by the brook-side, and buried with her the other woman’s attire and the knight’s gear, all but his sword and shield, which they had away with them: then they cast the carcasses of the felons into the brake, but brought away their weapons and the silver rings from their arms, which they wore like all the others of them whom they had fallen in with; and so went on their way to the north-east, full of wrath against those dastards of the Earth.
It was hard on sunset when they left the valley of murder, and they went no long way thence before they must needs make stay for the night; and when they had arrayed their sleeping-stead the moon was up, and they saw that before them lay the close wood again, for they had made their lair on the top of a little ridge.
There then they lay, and nought stirred them in the night, and betimes on the morrow they were afoot, and entered the abovesaid thicket, wherein two of them, keen hunters, had been aforetime, but had not gone deep into it. Through this wood they went all day toward the north-east, and met nought but the wild things therein. At last, when it was near sunset, they came out of the thicket into a small plain, or shallow dale rather, with no great trees in it, but thorn-brakes here and there where the ground sank into hollows; a little river ran through the midst of it, and winded round about a height whose face toward the river went down sheer into the water, but away from it sank down in a long slope to where the thick wood began again: and this height or burg looked well-nigh west.
Thitherward they went; but as they were drawing nigh to the river, and were on the top of a bent above a bushy hollow between them and the water, they espied a man standing in the river near the bank, who saw them not, because he was stooping down intent on something in the bank or under it: so they gat them speedily down into the hollow without noise, that they might get some tidings of the man.
Then Face-of-god bade his men abide hidden under the bushes and stole forward quietly up the further bank of the hollow, his target on his arm and his spear poised. When he was behind the last bush on the top of the bent he was within half a spear-cast of the water and the man; so he looked on him and saw that he was quite naked except for a clout about his middle.
Face-of-god saw at once that he was not one of the Dusky Men; he was a black-haired man, but white-skinned, and of fair stature, though not so tall as the Burgdale folk. He was busied in tickling trouts, and just as Face-of-god came out from the bush into the westering sunlight, he threw up a fish on to the bank, and looked up therewithal, and beheld the weaponed man glittering, and uttered a cry, but fled not when he saw the spear poised for casting.
Then Face-of-god spake to him and said: ‘Come hither, Woodsman! we will not harm thee, but we desire speech of thee: and it will not avail thee to flee, since I have bowmen of the best in the hollow yonder.’
The man put forth his hands towards him as if praying him to forbear casting, and looked at him hard, and then came dripping from out the water, and seemed not greatly afeard; for he stooped down and picked up the trouts he had taken, and came towards Face-of-god stringing the last-caught one through the gills on to the withy whereon were the others: and Face-of-god saw that he was a goodly man of some thirty winters.
Then Face-of-god looked on him with friendly eyes and said:
‘Art thou a foemen? or wilt thou be helpful to us?’
He answered in the speech of the kindreds with the hoarse voice of a much weather-beaten man:
‘Thou seest, lord, that I am naked and unarmed.’
‘Yet may’st thou bewray us,’ said Face-of-god. ‘What man art thou?’
Said the man: ‘I am the runaway thrall of evil men; I have fled from Rose-dale and the Dusky Men. Hast thou the heart to hurt me?’
‘We are the foemen of the Dusky Men,’ said Face-of-God; ‘wilt thou help us against them?’
The man knit his brows and said: ‘Yea, if ye will give me your word not to suffer me to fall into their hands alive. But whence art thou, to be so bold?’
Said Face-of-god: ‘We are of Burgdale; and I will swear to thee on the edge of the sword that thou shalt not fall alive into the hands of the Dusky Men.’
‘Of Burgdale have I heard,’ said the man; ‘and in sooth thou seemest not such a man as would bewray a hapless man. But now had I best bring you to some lurking-place where ye shall not be easily found of these devils, who now oft-times scour the woods hereabout.’
Said Face-of-god: ‘Come first and see my fellows; and then if thou thinkest we have need to hide, it is well.’
So the man went side by side with him towards their lair, and as they went Gold-mane noted marks of stripes on his back and sides, and said: ‘Sorely hast thou been mishandled, poor man!’
Then the man turned on him and said somewhat fiercely: ‘Said I not that I had been a thrall of the Dusky Men? how then should I have escaped tormenting and scourging, if I had been with them for but three days?’
As he spake they came about a thorn-bush, and there were the Burgdale men down in the hollow; and the man said: ‘Are these thy fellows? Call to mind that thou hast sworn by the edge of the sword not to hurt me.’
‘Poor man!’ said Face-of-god; ‘these are thy friends, unless thou bewrayest us.’
Then he cried aloud to his folk: ‘Here is now a good hap! this is a runaway thrall of the Dusky Men; of him shall we hear tidings; so cherish him all ye may.’
So the carles thronged about him and bestirred themselves to help him, and one gave him his surcoat for a kirtle, and another cast a cloak about him; and they brought him meat and drink, such as they had ready to hand: and the man looked as if he scarce believed in all this, but deemed himself to be in a dream. But presently he turned to Face-of-god and said:
‘Now I see so many men and weapons I deem that ye have no need to skulk in caves to-night, though I know of good ones: yet shall ye do well not to light a fire till moon-setting; for the flame ye may lightly hide, but the smoke may be seen from far aloof.’
But they bade him to meat, and he needed no second bidding but ate lustily, and they gave him wine, and he drank a great draught and sighed as for joy. Then he said in a trembling voice, as though he feared a naysay:
‘If ye are from Burgdale ye shall be faring back again presently; and I pray you to take me with you.’
Said Face-of-god: ‘Yea surely, friend, that will we do, and rejoice in thee.’
Then he drank another cup which Warcliff held out to him, and spake again: ‘Yet if ye would abide here till about noon to-morrow, or mayhappen a little later, I would bring other runaways to see you; and them also might ye take with you: ye may think when ye see them that ye shall have small gain of their company; for poor wretched folk they be, like to myself. Yet since ye seek for tidings, herein might they do you more service than I; for amongst them are some who came out of the hapless Dale within this moon; and it is six months since I escaped. Moreover, though they may look spent and outworn now, yet if ye give them a little rest, and feed them well, they shall yet do many a day’s work for you: and I tell you that if ye take them for thralls, and put collars on their necks, and use them no worse than a goodman useth his oxen and his asses, beating them not save when they are idle or at fault, it shall be to them as if they were come to heaven out of hell, and to such goodhap as they have not thought of, save in dreams, for many and many a day. And thus I entreat you to do because ye seem to me to be happy and merciful men, who will not begrudge us this happiness.’
The carles of Burgdale listened eagerly to what he said, and they looked at him with great eyes and marvelled; and their hearts were moved with pity towards him; and Stone-face said:
‘Herein, O War-leader, need I give thee no rede, for thou mayst see clearly that all we deem that we should lose our manhood and become the dastards of the Warrior if we did not abide the coming of these poor men, and take them back to the Dale, and cherish them.’
‘Yea,’ said Wolf of Whitegarth, ‘and great thanks we owe to this man that he biddeth us this: for great will be the gain to us if we become so like the Gods that we may deliver the poor from misery. Now must I needs think how they shall wonder when they come to Burgdale and find out how happy it is to dwell there.’
‘Surely,’ said Face-of-god, ‘thus shall we do, whatever cometh of it. But, friend of the wood, as to thralls, there be none such in the Dale, but therein are all men friends and neighbours, and even so shall ye be.’
And he fell a-musing, when he bethought him of how little he had known of sorrow.
But that man, when he beheld the happy faces of the Burgdalers, and hearkened to their friendly voices, and understood what they said, and he also was become strong with the meat and drink, he bowed his head adown and wept a long while; and they meddled not with him, till he turned again to them and said:
‘Since ye are in arms, and seem to be seeking your foemen, I suppose ye wot that these tyrants and man-quellers will fall upon you in Burgdale ere the summer is well worn.’
‘So much we deem indeed,’ said Face-of-god, ‘but we were fain to hear the certainty of it, and how thou knowest thereof.’
Said the man: ‘It was six moons ago that I fled, as I have told you; and even then it was the common talk amongst our masters that there were fair dales to the south which they would overrun. Man would say to man: We were over many in Silver-dale, and we needed more thralls, because those we had were lessening, and especially the women; now are we more at ease in Rose-dale, though we have sent thralls to Silver-dale; but yet we can bear no more men from thence to eat up our stock from us: let them fare south to the happy dales, and conquer them, and we will go with them and help therein, whether we come back to Rose-dale or no. Such talk did I hear then with mine own ears: but some of those whom I shall bring to you to-morrow shall know better what is doing, since they have fled from Rose-dale but a few days. Moreover, there is a man and a woman who have fled from Silver-dale itself, and are but a month from it, journeying all the time save when they must needs hide; and these say that their masters have got to know the way to Burgdale, and are minded for it before the winter, as I said; and nought else but the ways thither do they desire to know, since they have no fear.’
By then was night come, and though the moon was high in heaven, and lighted all that waste, the Burgdalers must needs light a fire for cooking their meat, whatsoever that woodsman might say; moreover, the night was cold and somewhat frosty. A little before they had come to that place they had shot a fat buck and some smaller deer, but of other meat they had no great store, though there was wine enough. So they lit their fire in the thickest of the thorn-bush to hide it all they might, and thereat they cooked their venison and the trouts which the runaway had taken, and they fell to, and ate and drank and were merry, making much of that poor man till him-seemed he was gotten into the company of the kindest of the Gods.
But when they were full, Face-of-god spake to him, and asked him his name; and he named himself Dallach; but said he: ‘Lord, this is according to the naming of men in Rose-dale before we were enthralled: but now what names have thralls? Also I am not altogether of the blood of them of Rose-dale, but of better and more warrior-like kin.’
Said Face-of-god: ‘Thou hast named Silver-dale; knowest thou it?’
Dallach answered: ‘I have never seen it. It is far hence; in a week’s journey, making all diligence, and not being forced to hide and skulk like those runaways, ye shall come to the mouth thereof lying west, where its rock-walls fall off toward the plain.’
‘But,’ said Face-of-god, ‘is there no other way into that Dale?’
‘Nay, none that folk wot of,’ said Dallach, ‘except to bold cragsmen with their lives in their hands.’
‘Knowest thou aught of the affairs of Silver-dale?’ said Face-of-god.
Said Dallach: ‘Somewhat I know: we wot that but a few years ago there was a valiant folk dwelling therein, who were lords of the whole dale, and that they were vanquished by the Dusky Men: but whether they were all slain and enthralled we wot not; but we deem it otherwise. As for me it is of their blood that I am partly come; for my father’s father came thence to settle in Rose-dale, and wedded a woman of the Dale, who was my father’s mother.’
‘When was it that ye fell under the Dusky Men?’ said Face-of-god.
Said Dallach: ‘It was five years ago. They came into the Dale a great company, all in arms.’
‘Was there battle betwixt you?’ said Face-of-god.
‘Alas! not so,’ said Dallach. ‘We were a happy folk there; but soft and delicate: for the Dale is exceeding fertile, and beareth wealth in abundance, both corn and oil and wine and fruit, and of beasts for man’s service the best that may be. Would that there had been battle, and that I had died therein with those that had a heart to fight; and even so saith now every man, yea, every woman in the Dale. But it was not so when the elders met in our Council-House on the day when the Dusky Men bade us pay them tribute and give them houses to dwell in and lands to live by. Then had we weapons in our hands, but no hearts to use them.’
‘What befell then?’ said the goodman of Whitegarth.
Said Dallach: ‘Look ye to it, lords, that it befall not in Burgdale! We gave them all they asked for, and deemed we had much left. What befell, sayst thou? We sat quiet; we went about our work in fear and trembling, for grim and hideous were they to look on. At first they meddled not much with us, save to take from our houses what they would of meat and drink, or raiment, or plenishing. And all this we deemed we might bear, and that we needed no more than to toil a little more each day so as to win somewhat more of wealth. But soon we found that it would not be so; for they had no mind to till the teeming earth or work in the acres we had given them, or to sit at the loom, or hammer in the stithy, or do any manlike work; it was we that must do all that for their behoof, and it was altogether for them that we laboured, and nought for ourselves; and our bodies were only so much our own as they were needful to be kept alive for labour. Herein were our tasks harder than the toil of any mules or asses, save for the younger and goodlier of the women, whom they would keep fair and delicate to be their bed-thralls.
‘Yet not even so were our bodies safe from their malice: for these men were not only tyrants, but fools and madmen. Let alone that there were few days without stripes and torments to satiate their fury or their pleasure, so that in all streets and nigh any house might you hear wailing and screaming and groaning; but moreover, though a wise man would not willingly slay his own thrall any more than his own horse or ox, yet did these men so wax in folly and malice, that they would often hew at man or woman as they met them in the way from mere grimness of soul; and if they slew them it was well. Thereof indeed came quarrels enough betwixt master and master, for they are much given to man-slaying amongst themselves: but what profit to us thereof? Nay, if the dead man were a chieftain, then woe betide the thralls! for thereof must many an one be slain on his grave-mound to serve him on the hell-road. To be short: we have heard of men who be fierce, and men who be grim; but these we may scarce believe us to be men at all, but trolls rather; and ill will it be if their race waxeth in the world.’
The Burgdale men hearkened with all their ears, and wondered that such things could befall; and they rejoiced at the work that lay before them, and their hearts rose high at the thought of battle in that behalf, and the fame that should come of it. As for the runaway, they made so much of him that the man marvelled; for they dealt with him like a woman cherishing a son, and knew not how to be kind enough to him.