Now Face-of-god, who is also called Gold-mane, rose up to meet the new-comers, and each of them greeted him kindly, and the Bride kissed him on the cheek, and he her in likewise; and he looked kindly on her, and took her hand, and went on up the hall to the dais, following his father and the old man; as for him, he was of the kindred of the House, and was foster-father of Iron-face and of his sons both; and his name was Stone-face: a stark warrior had he been when he was young, and even now he could do a man’s work in the battlefield, and his understanding was as good as that of a man in his prime. So went these and four others up on to the dais and sat down before the thwart-table looking down the hall, for the meat was now on the board; and of the others there were some fifty men and women who were deemed to be of the kindred and sat at the endlong tables.
So then the Alderman stood up and made the sign of the Hammer over the meat, the token of his craft and of his God. Then they fell to with good hearts, for there was enough and to spare of meat and drink. There was bread and flesh (though not Gold-mane’s venison), and leeks and roasted chestnuts of the grove, and red-cheeked apples of the garth, and honey enough of that year’s gathering, and medlars sharp and mellow: moreover, good wine of the western bents went up and down the hall in great gilded copper bowls and in mazers girt and lipped with gold.
But when they were full of meat, and had drunken somewhat, they fell to speech, and Iron-face spake aloud to his son, who had but been speaking softly to the Bride as one playmate to the other: but the Alderman said: ‘Scarce are the wood-deer grown, kinsman, when I must needs eat sheep’s flesh on a Thursday, though my son has lain abroad in the woods all night to hunt for me.’
And therewith he smiled in the young man’s face; but Gold-mane reddened and said: ‘So is it, kinsman, I can hit what I can see; but not what is hidden.’
Iron-face laughed and said: ‘Hast thou been to the Woodland-Carles? are their women fairer than our cousins?’
Face-of-god took up the Bride’s hand in his and kissed it and laid it to his cheek; and then turned to his father and said: ‘Nay, father, I saw not the Wood-carles, nor went to their abode; and on no day do I lust after their women. Moreover, I brought home a roebuck of the fattest; but I was over-late for Kettel, and the flesh was ready for the board by then I came.’
‘Well, son,’ quoth Iron-face, for he was merry, ‘a roebuck is but a little deer for such big men as are thou and I. But I rede thee take the Bride along with thee the next time; and she shall seek whilest thou sleepest, and hit when thou missest.’
Then Face-of-god smiled, but he frowned somewhat also, and he said: ‘Well were that, indeed! But if ye must needs drag a true tale out of me: that roebuck I shot at the very edge of the wood nigh to the Mote-stead as I was coming home: harts had I seen in the wood and its lawns, and boars, and bucks, and loosed not at them: for indeed when I awoke in the morning in that wood-lawn ye wot of, I wandered up and down with my bow unbent. So it was that I fared as if I were seeking something, I know not what, that should fill up something lacking to me, I know not what. Thus I felt in myself even so long as I was underneath the black boughs, and there was none beside me and before me, and none to turn aback to: but when I came out again into the sunshine, and I saw the fair dale, and the happy abode lying before me, and folk abroad in the meads merry in the eventide; then was I full fain of it, and loathed the wood as an empty thing that had nought to give me; and lo you! all that I had been longing for in the wood, was it not in this House and ready to my hand?—and that is good meseemeth.’
Therewith he drank of the cup which the Bride put into his hand after she had kissed the rim, but when he had set it down again he spake once more:
‘And yet now I am sitting honoured and well-beloved in the House of my Fathers, with the holy hearth sparkling and gleaming down there before me; and she that shall bear my children sitting soft and kind by my side, and the bold lads I shall one day lead in battle drinking out of my very cup: now it seems to me that amidst all this, the dark cold wood, wherein abide but the beasts and the Foes of the Gods, is bidding me to it and drawing me thither. Narrow is the Dale and the World is wide; I would it were dawn and daylight, that I might be afoot again.’
And he half rose up from his place. But his father bent his brow on him and said: ‘Kinsman, thou hast a long tongue for a half-trained whelp: nor see I whitherward thy mind is wandering, but if it be on the road of a lad’s desire to go further and fare worse. Hearken then, I will offer thee somewhat! Soon shall the West-country merchants be here with their winter truck. How sayest thou? hast thou a mind to fare back with them, and look on the Plain and its Cities, and take and give with the strangers? To whom indeed thou shalt be nothing save a purse with a few lumps of gold in it, or maybe a spear in the stranger’s band on the stricken field, or a bow on the wall of an alien city. This is a craft which thou mayst well learn, since thou shalt be a chieftain; a craft good to learn, however grievous it be in the learning. And I myself have been there; for in my youth I desired sore to look on the world beyond the mountains; so I went, and I filled my belly with the fruit of my own desires, and a bitter meat was that; but now that it has passed through me, and I yet alive, belike I am more of a grown man for having endured its gripe. Even so may it well be with thee, son; so go if thou wilt; and thou shalt go with my blessing, and with gold and wares and wain and spearmen.’
‘Nay,’ said Face-of-god, ‘I thank thee, for it is well offered; but I will not go, for I have no lust for the Plain and its Cities; I love the Dale well, and all that is round about it; therein will I live and die.’
Therewith he fell a-musing; and the Bride looked at him anxiously, but spake not. Sooth to say her heart was sinking, as though she foreboded some new thing, which should thrust itself into their merry life.
But the old man Stone-face took up the word and said:
‘Son Gold-mane, it behoveth me to speak, since belike I know the wild-wood better than most, and have done for these three-score and ten years; to my cost. Now I perceive that thou longest for the wood and the innermost of it; and wot ye what? This longing will at whiles entangle the sons of our chieftains, though this Alderman that now is hath been free therefrom, which is well for him. For, time was this longing came over me, and I went whither it led me: overlong it were to tell of all that befell me because of it, and how my heart bled thereby. So sorry were the tidings that came of it, that now meseemeth my heart should be of stone and not my face, had it not been for the love wherewith I have loved the sons of the kindred. Therefore, son, it were not ill if ye went west away with the merchants this winter, and learned the dealings of the cities, and brought us back tales thereof.’
But Gold-mane cried out somewhat angrily, ‘I tell thee, foster-father, that I have no mind for the cities and their men and their fools and their whores and their runagates. But as for the wood and its wonders, I have done with it, save for hunting there along with others of the Folk. So let thy mind be at ease; and for the rest, I will do what the Alderman commandeth, and whatso my father craveth of me.’
‘And that is well, son,’ said Stone-face, ‘if what ye say come to pass, as sore I misdoubt me it will not. But well it were, well it were! For such things are in the wood, yea and before ye come to its innermost, as may well try the stoutest heart. Therein are Kobbolds, and Wights that love not men, things unto whom the grief of men is as the sound of the fiddle-bow unto us. And there abide the ghosts of those that may not rest; and there wander the dwarfs and the mountain-dwellers, the dealers in marvels, the givers of gifts that destroy Houses; the forgers of the curse that clingeth and the murder that flitteth to and fro. There moreover are the lairs of Wights in the shapes of women, that draw a young man’s heart out of his body, and fill up the empty place with desire never to be satisfied, that they may mock him therewith and waste his manhood and destroy him. Nor say I much of the strong-thieves that dwell there, since thou art a valiant sword; or of them who have been made Wolves of the Holy Places; or of the Murder-Carles, the remnants and off-scourings of wicked and wretched Folks—men who think as much of the life of a man as of the life of a fly. Yet happiest is the man whom they shall tear in pieces, than he who shall live burdened by the curse of the Foes of the Gods.’
The housemaster looked on his son as the old carle spake, and a cloud gathered on his face a while; and when Stone-face had made an end he spake:
‘This is long and evil talk for the end of a merry day, O fosterer! Wilt thou not drink a draught, O Redesman, and then stand up and set thy fiddle-bow a-dancing, and cause it draw some fair words after it? For my cousin’s face hath grown sadder than a young maid’s should be, and my son’s eyes gleam with thoughts that are far away from us and abroad in the wild-wood seeking marvels.’
Then arose a man of middle-age from the top of the endlong bench on the east side of the hall: a man tall, thin and scant-haired, with a nose like an eagle’s neb: he reached out his hand for the bowl, and when they had given to him he handled it, and raised it aloft and cried:
‘Here I drink a double health to Face-of-god and the Bride, and the love that lieth between them, and the love betwixt them twain and us.’
He drank therewith, and the wine went up and down the hall, and all men drank, both carles and queens, with shouting and great joy. Then Redesman put down the cup (for it had come into his hands again), and reached his hand to the wall behind him, and took down his fiddle hanging there in its case, and drew it out and fell to tuning it, while the hall grew silent to hearken: then he handled the bow and laid it on the strings till they wailed and chuckled sweetly, and when the song was well awake and stirring briskly, then he lifted up his voice and sang:
The Minstrel saith:
‘O why on this morning, ye maids, are ye tripping
Aloof from the meadows yet fresh with the dew,
Where under the west wind the river is lipping
The fragrance of mint, the white blooms and the blue?
For rough is the Portway where panting ye wander;
On your feet and your gown-hems the dust lieth dun;
Come trip through the grass and the meadow-sweet yonder,
And forget neath the willows the sword of the sun.
The Maidens answer:
Though fair are the moon-daisies down by the river,
And soft is the grass and the white clover sweet;
Though twixt us and the rock-wall the hot glare doth quiver,
And the dust of the wheel-way is dun on our feet;
Yet here on the way shall we walk on this morning
Though the sun burneth here, and sweet, cool is the mead;
For here when in old days the Burg gave its warning,
Stood stark under weapons the doughty of deed.
Here came on the aliens their proud words a-crying,
And here on our threshold they stumbled and fell;
Here silent at even the steel-clad were lying,
And here were our mothers the story to tell.
Here then on the morn of the eve of the wedding
We pray to the Mighty that we too may bear
Such war-walls for warding of orchard and steading,
That the new days be merry as old days were dear.’
Therewith he made an end, and shouts and glad cries arose all about the hall; and an old man arose and cried: ‘A cup to the memory of the Mighty of the Day of the Warding of the Ways.’ For you must know this song told of a custom of the Folk, held in memory of a time of bygone battle, wherein they had overthrown a great host of aliens on the Portway betwixt the river and the cliffs, two furlongs from the gate of Burgstead. So now two weeks before Midsummer those maidens who were presently to be wedded went early in the morning to that place clad in very fair raiment, swords girt to their sides and spears in their hands, and abode there on the highway from morn till even as though they were a guard to it. And they made merry there, singing songs and telling tales of times past: and at the sunsetting their grooms came to fetch them away to the Feast of the Eve of the Wedding.
While the song was a-singing Face-of-god took the Bride’s hand in his and caressed it, and was soft and blithe with her; and she reddened and trembled for pleasure, and called to mind wedding feasts that had been, and fair brides that she had seen thereat, and she forgot her fears and her heart was at peace again.
And Iron-face looked well-pleased on the two from time to time, and smiled, but forbore words to them.
But up and down the hall men talked with one another about things long ago betid: for their hearts were high and they desired deeds; but in that fair Dale so happy were the years from day to day that there was but little to tell of. So deepened the night and waned, and Gold-mane and the Bride still talked sweetly together, and at whiles kindly to the others; and by seeming he had clean forgotten the wood and its wonders.
Then at last the Alderman called for the cup of good-night, and men drank thereof and went their ways to bed.