Now ere the night was far spent, Dallach arose and said:
‘Kind folk, ye will presently be sleeping; but I bid you keep a good watch, and if ye will be ruled by me, ye will kindle no fire on the morrow, for the smoke riseth thick in the morning air, and is as a beacon. As for me, I shall leave you here to rest, and I myself will fare on mine errand.’
They bade him sleep and rest him after so many toils and hardships, saying that they were not tied to an hour to be back in Burgdale; but he said: ‘Nay, the moon is high, and it is as good as daylight to me, who could find my way even by starlight; and your tarrying here is nowise safe. Moreover, if I could find those folk and bring them part of the way by night and cloud it were well; for if we were taken again, burning quick would be the best death by which we should die. As for me, now am I strong with meat and drink and hope; and when I come to Burgdale there will be time enough for resting and slumber.’
Said Face-of-god: ‘Shall I not wend with thee to see these people and the lairs wherein they hide?’
The man smiled: ‘Nay, earl,’ said he, ‘that shall not be. For wot ye what? If they were to see me in company of a man-at-arms they would deem that I was bringing the foe upon them, and would flee, or mayhappen would fall upon us. For as for me, when I saw thee, thou wert close anigh me, so I knew thee to be no Dusky Man; but they would see the glitter of thine arms from afar, and to them all weaponed men are foemen. Thou, lord, knowest not the heart of a thrall, nor the fear and doubt that is in it. Nay, I myself must cast off these clothes that ye have given me, and fare naked, lest they mistrust me. Only I will take a spear in my hand, and sling a knife round my neck, if ye will give them to me; for if the worst happen, I will not be taken alive.’
Therewith he cast off his raiment, and they gave him the weapons and wished him good speed, and he went his way twixt moonlight and shadow; but the Burgdalers went to sleep when they had set a watch.
Early in the morning they awoke, and the sun was shining and the thrushes singing in the thorn-brake, and all seemed fair and peaceful, and a little haze still hung about the face of the burg over the river. So they went down to the water and washed the night from off them; and thence the most part of them went back to their lair among the thorn-bushes: but four of them went up the dale into the oak-wood to shoot a buck, and five more they sent out to watch their skirts around them; and Face-of-god with old Stone-face went over a ford of the stream, and came on to the lower slope of the burg, and so went up it to the top. Thence they looked about to see if aught were stirring, but they saw little save the waste and the wood, which on the north-east was thick of big trees stretching out a long way. Their own lair was clear to see over its bank and the bushes thereof, and that misliked Face-of-god, lest any foe should climb the burg that day. The morning was clear, and Face-of-god looking north-and-by-west deemed he saw smoke rising into the air over the tree-covered ridges that hid the further distance toward that airt, though further east uphove the black shoulders of the Great that Waste and the snowy peaks behind them. The said smoke was not such as cometh from one great fire, but was like a thin veil staining the pale blue sky, as when men are burning ling on the heath-side and it is seen aloof.
He showed that smoke to Stone-face, who smiled and said:
‘Now will they be lighting the cooking fires in Rose-dale: would I were there with a few hundreds of axes and staves at my back!’
‘Yea,’ said Face-of-god, smiling in his face, ‘but where I pray thee are these elves and wood-wights, that we meet them not? Grim things there are in the woods, and things fair enough also: but meseemeth that the trolls and the elves of thy young years have been frighted away.’
Said Stone-face: ‘Maybe, foster-son; that hath been seen ere now, that when one race of man overrunneth the land inhabited by another, the wights and elves that love the vanquished are seen no more, or get them away far off into the outermost wilds, where few men ever come.’
‘Yea,’ said Face-of-god, ‘that may well be. But deemest thou by that token that we shall be vanquished?’
‘As for us, I know not,’ said Stone-face; ‘but thy friends of Shadowy Vale have been vanquished. Moreover, concerning these felons whom now we are hunting, are we all so sure that they be men? Certain it is, that when I go into battle with them, I shall smite with no more pity than my sword, as if I were smiting things that may not feel the woes of man.’
Said Face-of-god: ‘Yea, even so shall it be with me. But what thinkest thou of these runaways? Shall we have tidings of them, or shall Dallach bring the foe upon us? It was for the sake of that question that I have clomb the burg: and that we might watch the land about us.’
‘Nay,’ said Stone-face, ‘I have seen many men, and I deem of Dallach that he is a true man. I deem we shall soon have tidings of his fellows; and they may have seen the elves and wood-wights: I would fain ask them thereof, and am eager to see them.’
Said Face-of-god: ‘And I somewhat dread to see them, and their rags and their misery and the weals of their stripes. It irked me to see Dallach when he first fell to his meat last night, how he ate like a dog for fear and famine. How shall it be, moreover, when we have them in the Dale, and they fall to the deed of kind there, as they needs must. Will they not bear us evil and thrall-like men?’
‘Maybe,’ said Stone-face, ‘and maybe not; for they have been thralls but for a little while: and I deem that in no long time shall ye see them much bettered by plenteous meat and rest. And after all is said, this Dallach bore him like a valiant man; also it was valiant of him to flee; and of the others may ye say the like. But look you! there are men going down yonder towards our lair: belike those shall be our guests, and there be no Dusky Men amongst them. Come, let us home!’
So Face-of-god looked and beheld from the height of the burg shapes of men grey and colourless creeping toward the lair from sunshine to shadow, like wild creatures shy and fearful of the hunter, or so he deemed of them.
So he turned away, angry and sad of heart, and the twain went down the burg and across the water to their camp, having seen little to tell of from the height.
When they came to their campment there were their folk standing in a ring round about Dallach and the other runaways. They made way for the War-leader and Stone-face, who came amongst them and beheld the Runaways, that they were many more than they looked to see; for they were of carles one score and three, and of women eighteen, all told save Dallach. When they saw those twain come through the ring of men and perceived that they were chieftains, some of them fell down on their knees before them and held out their joined hands to them, and kissed the Burgdalers’ feet and the hems of their garments, while the tears streamed out of their eyes: some stood moving little and staring before them stupidly: and some kept glancing from face to face of the well-liking happy Burgdale carles, though for a while even their faces were sad and downcast at the sight of the poor men: some also kept murmuring one or two words in their country tongue, and Dallach told Face-of-god that these were crying out for victual.
It must be said of these poor folk that they were of divers conditions, and chiefly of three: and first there were seven of Rose-dale and five of Silver-dale late come to the wood (of these Silver-dalers Dallach had told but of two, for the other three were but just come). Of these twelve were seven women, and all, save two of the women, were clad in one scanty kirtle or shirt only; for such was the wont of the Dusky Men with their thralls. They had brought away weapons, and had amongst them six axes and a spear, and a sword, and five knives, and one man had a shield.
Yet though these were clad and armed, yet in some wise were they the worst of all; they were so timorous and cringing, and most of them heavy-eyed and sullen and down-looking. Many of them had been grievously mishandled: one man had had his left hand smitten off; another was docked of three of his toes, and the gristle of his nose slit up; one was halt, and four had been ear-cropped, nor did any lack weals of whipping. Of the Silver-dale new-comers the three men were the worst of all the Runaways, with wild wandering eyes, but sullen also, and cringing if any drew nigh, and would not look anyone in the face, save presently Face-of-god, on whom they were soon fond to fawn, as a dog on his master. But the women who were with them, and who were well-nigh as timorous as the men, were those two gaily-dad ones, and they were soft-handed and white-skinned, save for the last days of weather in the wood; for they had been bed-thralls of the Dusky Men.
Such were the new-comers to the wood. But others had been, like Dallach, months therein; it may be said that there were eighteen of these, carles and queens together. Little raiment they had amongst them, and some were all but stark naked, so that on these might well be seen as on Dallach the marks of old stripes, and of these also were there men who had been shorn of some member or other, and they were all burnt and blackened by the weather of the woodland; yet for all their nakedness, they bore themselves bolder and more manlike than the later comers, nor did they altogether lack weapons taken from their foemen, and most of them had some edge-tool or another. Of these folk were four from Silver-dale, though Dallach knew it not.
Besides these were a half score and one who had been years in the wood instead of months; weather-beaten indeed were these, shaggy and rough-skinned like wild men of kind. Some of them had made themselves skin breeches or clouts, some went stark naked; of weapons of the Dale had they few, but they bore bows of hazel or wych-elm strung with deer-gut, and shafts headed with flint stones; staves also of the same fashion, and great clubs of oak or holly: some of them also had made them targets of skin and willow-twigs, for these were the warriors of the Runaways: they had a few steel knives amongst them, but had mostly learned the craft of using sharp flints for knives: but four of these were women.
Three of these men were of the kindreds of the Wolf from Silver-dale, and had been in the wood for hard upon ten years, and wild as they were, and without hope of meeting their fellows again, they went proudly and boldly amongst the others, overtopping them by the head and more. For the greater part of these men were somewhat short of stature, though by nature strong and stout of body.
It must be told that though Dallach had thus gotten all these many Runaways together, yet had they not been dwelling together as one folk; for they durst not, lest the Dusky Men should hear thereof and fall upon them, but they had kept themselves as best they could in caves and in brakes three together or two, or even faring alone as Dallach did: only as he was a strong and stout-hearted man, he went to and fro and wandered about more than the others, so that he foregathered with most of them and knew them. He said also that he doubted not but that there were more Runaways in the wood, but these were all he could come at. Divers who had fled had died from time to time, and some had been caught and cruelly slain by their masters. They were none of them old; the oldest, said Dallach, scant of forty winters, though many from their aspect might have been old enough.
So Face-of-god looked and beheld all these poor people; and said to himself, that he might well have dreaded that sight. For here was he brought face to face with the Sorrow of the Earth, whereof he had known nought heretofore, save it might be as a tale in a minstrel’s song. And when he thought of the minutes that had made the hours, and the hours that had made the days that these men had passed through, his heart failed him, and he was dumb and might not speak, though he perceived that the men of Burgdale looked for speech from him; but he waved his hand to his folk, and they understood him, for they had heard Dallach say that some of them were crying for victual. So they set to work and dighted for them such meat as they had, and they set them down on the grass and made themselves their carvers and serving-men, and bade them eat what they would of such as there was. Yet, indeed, it grieved the Burgdalers again to note how these folk were driven to eat; for they themselves, though they were merry folk, were exceeding courteous at table, and of great observance of manners: whereas these poor Runaways ate, some of them like hungry dogs, and some hiding their meat as if they feared it should be taken from them, and some cowering over it like falcons, and scarce any with a manlike pleasure in their meal. And, their eating over, the more part of them sat dull and mopish, and as if all things were forgotten for the time present.
Albeit presently Dallach bestirred him and said to Face-of-god: ‘Lord of the Earl-folk, if I might give thee rede, it were best to turn your faces to Burgdale without more tarrying. For we are over-nigh to Rose-dale, being but thus many in company. But when we come to our next resting-place, then shall bring thee to speech with the last-comers from Silver-dale; for there they talk with the tongue of the kindreds; but we of Rose-dale for the more part talk otherwise; though in my house it came down from father to son.’
‘Yea,’ said Face-of-god, gazing still on that unhappy folk, as they sat or lay upon the grass at rest for a little while: but him-seemed as he gazed that some memories of past time stirred in some of them; for some, they hung their heads and the tears stole out of their eyes and rolled down their cheeks. But those older Runaways of Silver-dale were not crouched down like most of the others, but strode up and down like beasts in a den; yet were the tears on the face of one of these. Then Face-of-god constrained himself, and spake to the folk, and said: ‘We are now over-nigh to our foes of Rose-dale to lie here any longer, being too few to fall upon them. We will come hither again with a host when we have duly questioned these men who have sought refuge with us: and let us call yonder height the Burg of the Runaways, and it shall be a landmark for us when we are on the road to Rose-dale.’
Then the Burgdalers bade the Runaways courteously and kindly to arise and take the road with them; and by that time were their men all come in; and four of them had venison with them, which was needful, if they were to eat that night or the morrow, as the guests had eaten them to the bone.
So they tarried no more, but set out on the homeward way; and Face-of-god bade Dallach walk beside him, and asked him such concerning Rose-dale and its Dusky Men. Dallach told him that these were not so many as they were masterful, not being above eight hundreds of men, all fighting-men. As to women, they had none of their own race, but lay with the Daleswomen at their will, and begat children of them; and all or most of the said children favoured the race of their begetters. Of the men-children they reared most, but the women-children they slew at once; for they valued not women of their own blood: but besides the women of the Dale, they would go at whiles in bands to the edges of the Plain and beguile wayfarers, and bring back with them thence women to be their bed-thralls; albeit some of these were bought with a price from the Westland men.
As to the number of the folk of Rose-dale, its own folk, he said they would number some five thousand souls, one with another; of whom some thousand might be fit to bear arms if they had the heart thereto, as they had none. Yet being closely questioned, he deemed that they might fall on their masters from behind, if battle were joined.
He said that the folk of Rose-dale had been a goodly folk before they were enthralled, and peaceable with one another, but that now it was a sport of the Dusky Men to set a match between their thralls to fight it out with sword and buckler or otherwise; and the vanquished man, if he were not sore hurt, they would scourge, or shear some member from him, or even slay him outright, if the match between the owners were so made. And many other sad and grievous tales he told to Face-of-god, more than need be told again; so that the War-leader went along sorry and angry, with his teeth set, and his hand on the sword-hilt.
Thus they went till night fell on them, and they could scarce see the signs they had made on their outward journey. Then they made stay in a little valley, having set a watch duly; and since they were by this time far from Rose-dale, and were a great company as regarded scattered bands of the foe, they lighted their fires and cooked their venison, and made good cheer to the Runaways, and so went to sleep in the wild-wood.
When morning was come they gat them at once to the road; and if the Burgdalers were eager to be out of the wood, their eagerness was as nought to the eagerness of the Runaways, most of whom could not be easy now, and deemed every minute lost unless they were wending on to the Dale; so that this day they were willing to get over the more ground, whereas they had not set out on their road till afternoon yesterday.
Howsoever, they rested at noontide, and Face-of-god bade Dallach bring him to speech with others of the Runaways, and first that he might talk with those three men of the kindreds who had fled from Silver-dale in early days. So Dallach brought them to him; but he found that though they spake the tongue, they were so few-spoken from wildness and loneliness, at least at first, that nought could come from them that was not dragged from them.
These men said that they had been in the wood more than nine years, so that they knew but little of the conditions of the Dale in that present day. However, as to what Dallach had said concerning the Dusky Men, they strengthened his words; and they said that the Dusky Men took no delight save in beholding torments and misery, and that they doubted if they were men or trolls. They said that since they had dwelt in the wood they had slain not a few of the foemen, waylaying them as occasion served, but that in this warfare they had lost two of their fellows. When Face-of-god asked them of their deeming of the numbers of the Dusky Men, they said that before those bands had broken into Rose-dale, they counted them, as far as they could call to mind, at about three thousand men, all warriors; and that somewhat less than one thousand had gone up into Rose-dale, and some had died, and many had been cast away in the wild-wood, their fellows knew not how. Yet had not their numbers in Silver-dale diminished; because two years after they (the speakers) had fled, came three more Dusky Companies or Tribes into Silver-dale, and each of these tribes was of three long hundreds; and with their coming had the cruelty and misery much increased in the Dale, so that the thralls began to die fast; and that drave the Dusky Men beyond the borders of Silver-dale, so that they fell upon Rose-dale. When asked how many of the kindreds might yet be abiding in Silver-dale, their faces clouded, and they seemed exceeding wroth, and answered, that they would willingly hope that most of those that had not been slain at the time of the overthrow were now dead, yet indeed they feared there were yet some alive, and mayhappen not a few women.
By then must they get on foot again, and so the talk fell between them; but when they made stay for the night, after they had done their meat, Face-of-god prayed Dallach bring to him some of the latest-come folk from Silver-dale, and he brought to him the man and the woman who had been in the Dale within that moon. As to the man, if those of the Earl-folk had been few-spoken from fierceness and wildness, he was no less so from mere dulness and weariness of misery; but the woman’s tongue went glibly enough, and it seemed to pleasure her to talk about her past miseries. As aforesaid, she was better clad than most of those of Rose-dale, and indeed might be called gaily clad, and where her raiment was befouled or rent, it was from the roughness of the wood and its weather, and not from the thralldom. She was a young and fair woman, black-haired and grey-eyed. She had washed herself that day in a woodland stream which they had crossed on the road, and had arrayed her garments as trimly as she might, and had plucked some fumitory, wherewith she had made a garland for her head. She sat down on the grass in front of Face-of-god, while the man her mate stood leaning against a tree and looked on her greedily. The Burgdale carles drew near to her to hearken her story, and looked kindly on the twain. She smiled on them, but especially on Face-of-god, and said:
‘Thou hast sent for me, lord, and I wot well thou wouldst hear my tale shortly, for it would be long to tell if I were to tell it fully, and bring into it all that I have endured, which has been bitter enough, for all that ye see me smooth of skin and well-liking of body. I have been the bed-thrall of one of the chieftains of the Dusky Men, at whose house many of their great men would assemble, so that ye may ask me whatso ye will; as I have heard much talk and may call it to mind. Now if ye ask me whether I have fled because of the shame that I, a free woman come of free folk, should be a mere thrall in the bed of the foes of my kin, and with no price paid for me, I must needs say it is not so; since over long have we of the Dale been thralls to be ashamed of such a matter. And again, if ye deem that I have fled because I have been burdened with grievous toil and been driven thereto by the whip, ye may look on my hands and my body and ye will see that I have toiled little therewith: nor again did I flee because I could not endure a few stripes now and again; for such usage do thralls look for, even when they are delicately kept for the sake of the fairness of their bodies, and this they may well endure; yea also, and the mere fear of death by torment now and again. But before me lay death both assured and horrible; so I took mine own counsel, and told none for fear of bewrayal, save him who guarded me; and that was this man; who fled not from fear, but from love of me, and to him I have given all that I might give. So we got out of the house and down the Dale by night and cloud, and hid for one whole day in the Dale itself, where I trembled and feared, so that I deemed I should die of fear; but this man was well pleased with my company, and with the lack of toil and beating even for the day. And in the night again we fled and reached the wild-wood before dawn, and well-nigh fell into the hands of those who were hunting us, and had outgone us the day before, as we lay hid. Well, what is to say? They saw us not, else had we not been here, but scattered piece-meal over the land. This carle knew the passes of the wood, because he had followed his master therein, who was a great hunter in the wastes, contrary to the wont of these men, and he had lain a night on the burg yonder; therefore he brought me thither, because he knew that thereabout was plenty of prey easy to take, and he had a bow with him; and there we fell in with others of our folk who had fled before, and with Dallach; who e’en now told us what was hard to believe, that there was a fair young man like one of the Gods leading a band of goodly warriors, and seeking for us to bring us into a peaceful and happy land; and this man would not have gone with him because he feared that he might fall into thralldom of other folk, who would take me away from him; but for me, I said I would go in any case, for I was weary of the wood and its roughness and toil, and that if I had a new master he would scarcely be worse than my old one was at his best, and him I could endure. So I went, and glad and glad I am, whatever ye will do with me. And now will I answer whatso ye may ask of me.’
She laid her limbs together daintily and looked fondly on Face-of-god, and the carle scowled at her somewhat at first, but presently, as he watched her, his face smoothed itself out of its wrinkles.
But Face-of-god pondered a little while, and then asked the woman if she had heard any words to remember of late days concerning the affairs of the Dusky Men and their intent; and he said:
‘I pray thee, sister, be truthful in thine answer, for somewhat lieth on it.’
She said: ‘How could I speak aught but the sooth to thee, O lovely lord? The last word spoken hereof I mind me well: for my master had been mishandling me, and I was sullen to him after the smart, and he mocked and jeered me, and said: Ye women deem we cannot do without you, but ye are fools, and know nothing; we are going to conquer a new land where the women are plenty, and far fairer than ye be; and we shall leave you to fare afield like the other thralls, or work in the digging of silver; and belike ye wot what that meaneth. Also he said that they would leave us to the new tribe of their folk, far wilder than they, whom they looked for in the Dale in about a moon’s wearing; so that they needs must seek to other lands. Also this same talk would we hear whenever it pleased any of them to mock us their bed-thralls. Now, my sweet lord, this is nought but the very sooth.’
Again spake Face-of-god after a while:
‘Tell me, sister, hast thou heard of any of the Dusky Men being slain in the wood?’
‘Yea,’ she said, and turned pale therewith and caught her breath as one choking; but said in a little while:
‘This alone was it hard for me to tell thee amongst all the I griefs I have borne, whereof I might have told thee many tales, and will do one day if thou wilt suffer it; but fear makes this hard for me. For in very sooth this was the cause of my fleeing, that my master was brought in slain by an arrow in the wood; and he was to be borne to bale and burned in three days’ wearing; and we three bed-thralls of his, and three of the best of the men-thralls, were to be burned quick on his bale-fire after sore torments; therefore I fled, and hid a knife in my bosom, that I might not be taken alive; but sweet was life to me, and belike I should not have smitten myself.’
And she wept sore for pity of herself before them all. But Face-of-god said:
‘Knowest thou, sister, by whom the man was slain?’
‘Nay,’ she said, still sobbing; ‘but I heard nought thereof, nor had I noted it in my terror. The death of others, who were slain before him, and the loss of many, we knew not how, made them more bitterly cruel with us.’
And again was she weeping; but Face-of-god said kindly to her: ‘Weep no more, sister, for now shall all thy troubles be over; I feel in my heart that we shall overcome these felons, and make an end of them, and there then is Burgdale for thee in its length and breadth, or thine own Dale to dwell in freely.’
‘Nay,’ she said, ‘never will I go back thither!’ and she turned round to him and kissed his feet, and then arose and turned a little toward her mate; and the carle caught her by the hand and led her away, and seemed glad so to do.
So once again they fell asleep in the woods, and again the next morning fared on their way early that they might come into Burgdale before nightfall. When they stayed a while at noontide and ate, Face-of-god again had talk with the Runaways, and this time with those of Rose-dale, and he heard much the same story from them that he had heard before, told in divers ways, till his heart was sick with the hearing of it.
On this last day Face-of-god led his men well athwart the wood, so that he hit Wildlake’s Way without coming to Carl-stead; and he came down into the Dale some four hours after noon on a bright day of latter March. At the ingate to the Dale he found watches set, the men whereof told him that the tidings were not right great. Hall-face’s company had fallen in with a band of the Felons three score in number in the oak-wood nigh to Boars-bait, and had slain some and chased the rest, since they found it hard to follow them home as they ran for the tangled thicket: of the Burgdalers had two been slain and five hurt in this battle.
As for Red-coat’s company, they had fallen in with no foemen.