When it was morning, and folk were afoot in the house, Hardcastle lay long abed; but when the first meal was on the board, and they were gathered in hall, he came thereto, and sat down and ate without a word and was by seeming as surly as John. But when the boards were taken up, and the women at least, though not the others, I deem, were looking that he should call for his horses and depart, he leaned back in his high-seat and spake slowly and lazily: "This stead of Wethermel is much to my mind; it is a plenteous house and good land, and more plenteous it might be made were I to cast a dyke and wall round about, and have in here a sort of good fellows who should do my bidding, so that we might help ourselves to what we lacked where plenty was to be had. I will think of this hereafter, but at this present, and till winter is done and spring is come, I will say no more of that. And to you folk, even to the big lubber yonder, I will say this, that ye, women and all, shall be free of meat and drink and bed if ye will but be brisk about doing my will, and will serve me featly; but if not, then shall ye pack and be off, and have no worse harm of me. Have ye heard and will ye obey?"
The women were pale and trembled, and the goodman quaked exceedingly, while Surly John stood by grinning. Osberne smiled pleasantly but spake not. He was girt with the sword Boardcleaver and clad in scarlet. As for Stephen, he stood before Hardcastle with a face seeming solemn, save that he squinted fearfully, looking all down along his long nose.
Now came forth the goodman and knelt before the ruffler, and said: "Lord, we will even do thy will: but mightest thou tell us where ye got licence and title to take all our wealth from us and make us thy thralls?" The warrior laughed: "It is fairly asked, goodman, and I will not spare to show thee my title." Therewith he drew forth his sword, a great and heavy blade, and cast it rattling on the board before him and said: "There is my title, goodman; wilt thou ask a better?" The goodman groaned and said: "At least, lord, I pray thee take not all I have, but leave me some little whereby to live, and thereof I will pay somewhat year by year, if the seasons be good."
"My friend," quoth Hardcastle, "by the title that lieth yonder I have gotten thy wealth, and every jot of it might I keep if I would. But see how kind I am to thee and thine. For have I not told you that ye shall live in this house, and eat the sweet and drink the strong and lie warm a-nights, so long as ye do my will?"
"Yea," said the goodman, "but we must needs toil as thralls." "Great fool," said Hardcastle, "what matters that to thee? It is like thou shalt work no harder than erst, or no harder than may be enough to keep me as thy guest. Nay, goodman, wilt thou turn me from thy door and deny me guesting? What sayest thou to that, Fiddlebow, my sharp dear?" said he, handling his sword. Now the goodman crept away, and Surly John says that he wept.
But Osberne came forward as smiling and debonaire as erst, and he said: "Fair sir, one thing I crave of thee to tell me, to wit, is there no other way out of this thraldom, for well thou wottest that no man would be a thrall might he help it?" "Well, my lad," quoth the warrior smiling, for now after his talk with the goodman he was in better humour, "when thou growest older thou wilt find that saw of thine belied manywise, and that many there be who are not loth to be thralls. But as to what way there may be out of this thraldom, I will tell thee the way, as I was about to do with the goodman; though whereas he is but little-hearted, and there is none else fight-worthy in the house, save it were this lubber in front -- Well thou, why art thou skellying, man, as if thou wouldst cast the eyes out of thine head on either side?" Quoth Stephen: "I was grown so afraid of thee, fair sir, that I wotted not where to look, so I thought my eyes would do me least harm if they looked down along my nose." Quoth Hardcastle: "I begin to see how it will go with thee, great lout, that in the first days of my mastership thine hide will pay for thy folly." Stephen squinted none the less, but his whittle was yet in his belt.
Now Hardcastle went on speaking to Osberne and said: "Well now, I will tell thee the way out of this thraldom, as thou wilt call it; and the more to thee, bairn, because thou wilt become my man and wilt be bold and deft, I doubt not; therefore thou shouldst learn early the fashions of great and bold men. Hearken! Ever when I offer to some man a lot that seemeth hard unto him, then I bid him, if it likes him not, to pitch me the hazelled field hard by his house, and we to go thereinto and see what point and edge may say to it; and if he slay me or hurt me so much I must be borne off the field within the four corners, then is he quit, and hath gained mickle glory of my body. Moreover if he may not fight himself, yet will I meet any champion that he may choose to do battle with me. Now this is a good and noble custom of the bold, and hath been seemed so from long time agone. And indeed I deem pity of it that here today the goodman may not fight nor hath found any champion to fight for him. But three days' frist will I give him to find such a champion -- Thou wretch," said he to Stephen, "why wilt thou still skelly at me?"
"Because the champion is found," said Stephen in a snuffling voice.
Hardcastle snorted and his lip-beard bristled, but forth stood Osberne, and he still smiling; and he said: "Thou warrior, three things I offer thee to choose from, and the first is that thou depart hence, thou and thy man; because thou hast not dealt with us as a guest should, but hast smitten me and threatened all of us, and brazened out thy wrong-doing. This is the best way out of thy folly. What sayest thou to it?" But such fury was in the ruffler's heart now, that he had no words for it, but rolled about in the high-seat snorting and blowing. Said Osberne: "I see thou wilt not take this way and that is the worse for thee. Now the next is that we hazel a field and fight therein. Wilt thou have this?" The champion roared out: "Yea, that will I! But in such wise that thou take sword and shield and I a bunch of birch twigs; and if I catch thee not and unbreech thee and whip thee as a grammar-master his scholar, then will I lay down sword and shield forever."
Said Osberne coldly: "Thou seest not that I am girt with a sword, and I tell thee it is a good one. Or wilt thou take Surly John's knife this morning and do as I did with it last night? And I did it for a warning to thee, but belike thou wert drunk and noted it not."
Hardcastle's face fell somewhat, for now he did remember the feat of the knife. But Osberne spake again: "I ask thee, warrior, wilt thou enter the field that I shall hazel for thee?" Quoth the ruffler, but in a lower voice: "I cannot fight with a boy; whether I slay him or am slain I am shamed."
Spake Osberne: "Then depart from the house with as little shame as a ruffler and a churl may have. But if thou wilt neither of these things, then it will befal that I shall draw my blade and fall on thee to slay thee, and make the most of it that here stands by me my man Stephen, a true and fearless carle, with his whittle bare in his hand. And this I may well do, whereas, by thine own telling, thou art not in our house but in thine own."
Hardcastle lifted up his head, for he had hung it down a while, and said in a hoarse voice: "Hazel the field for me then, and I will go therein with thee and slay thee." "That may well be," said Osberne, "-- yet it may not be." Then he bade Stephen to go hazel the field in the flat meadows toward the river: and therewith he bethought him of his friend on the further side of the water, and how it might well be that he should never see her again, but lie slain on the meadow of Wethermel; and he wondered if tidings of the battle would go across the water and come unto her. But amidst his musings the harsh voice of Hardcastle reached his ears: he turned around with a start and heard how the ruffler said to him: "Let me see the sword, lad, wherewith thou wilt fight me." Osberne took the sheathed blade from his girdle and handed it to Hardcastle without a word, and the warrior fell at once to handling the peace-strings, but Osberne cried out: "Nay, warrior, meddle not with the peace-strings, for who knoweth what scathe may come of the baring of the blade within doors?" "Well, well," said Hardcastle, "but the blade must be out presently, and what harm if it be now?" Yet he took his hand from the weapon, and laid it on the board before him.
Osberne looked about him and saw that they two were alone in the hall now, for the others had gone down to look on the hazelling. So he spake quietly and said: "Warrior, is it not so, that thou hast in thine heart some foreboding of what shall befal?" Hardcastle answered nought, and Osberne went on: "I see that so it is, and meseems it were better for thee if this battle were unfought. Lo now, shall we not make peace in such wise that thou abide here this day in all honour holden, and in honour depart tomorrow morn, led out with such good gifts as shall please thee? Thus shalt thou have no shame, and everything untoward betwixt us shall be forgotten." Hardcastle shook his head and said: "Nay, lad, nay, the tale would get about, and shame would presently be on the wing towards me. We must stand within the hazel-garth against each other." Then he spake again, and a somewhat grim smile was on his face: "Awhile agone thou didst threaten to slay me with the help of yonder squinting loon, but now thou standest unarmed before me and I have thy sword under my hand. Hast thou no fear of what I may do to thee, since so it is that forebodings weigh on mine heart?"
"Nay, I am not afraid," said Osberne; "thou mayst be a bad man, yet not so bad as that."
"Sooth it is," said Hardcastle; "but I say again, thou art a valiant lad. Lo now, take thy sword again; but tell me, what armour of defence hast thou for this battle?"
"Nought save my shield," said Osberne; "there is a rusty steel hood stands yonder on the wall, but no byrny have we in the house."
Said Hardcastle: "Well, I may do so much as this for thee, I will leave all my defences here and go down in the hazels with nought but my sword in my fist, and thou shalt have thy shield; but I warn thee that Fiddlebow is a good blade."
Said Osberne, and smiled: "Well I wot that if thou get in but one downright stroke on me, little shall my shield avail me against Fiddlebow. Yet I take thine offer and thank thee for it. But this forthinketh me, that if thou live out this day thou wilt still betake thee to the same insolency and greediness and wrong-doing as thou hast shown yesterday and this morning."
Hardcastle laughed roughly and said: "Well, lad, I deem thou art right; wherefore slay me hardily if thou mayst, and rid the world of me. Yet hearken, of all my deeds I have no shame at all: though folk say some of them were ugly -- let it be."
Therewith came Stephen into the hall, and he did them to wit that the hazels were pitched, and now he squinted no more.