Draw we nigher now to the heart of our tale, and tell how on the east side of the Sundering Flood was erewhile a stead hight Wethermel: a stead more lonely than most even in that Dale, the last house but one, and that was but a cot, toward the mountains at the head of the Dale. It was not ill set down, for its houses stood beneath a low spreading knoll, the broader side whereof was turned to the south-west, and where by consequence was good increase of corn year by year. The said knoll of Wethermel was amidst of the plain of the Dale a mile from the waterside, and all round about it the pasture was good for kine and horses and sheep all to the water's lip on the west and half way up the bent on the east; while towards the crown of the bent was a wood of bushes good for firewood and charcoal, and even beyond the crown of the bent was good sheep-land a long way.
Nevertheless, though its land was fruitful as for that country, yet had Wethermel no great name for luck, and folk who had the choice would liever dwell otherwhere, so that it was hard for the goodman to get men to work there for hire. Many folk deemed that this ill-luck came because the knoll had been of old time a dwelling of the Dwarfs or the Land-wights, and that they grudged it that the children of Adam had supplanted them, and that corn grew on the very roof of their ancient house. But however that might be, there was little thriving there for the most part: and at least it was noted by some, that if there were any good hap, it ever missed one generation, and went not from father to son, but from grandsire to grandson: and even so it was now at the beginning of this tale.
For he who had been master of Wethermel had died a young man, and his wife followed him in a month or two, and there was left in the house but the father and mother of these twain, hale and stout folk, he of fifty winters, she of forty-five; an old woman of seventy, a kinswoman of the house who had fostered the late goodman; and a little lad who had to name Osberne, now twelve winters old, a child strong and bold, tall, bright and beauteous. These four were all the folk of Wethermel, save now and then a hired man who was hard pressed for livelihood would be got to abide there some six months or so. It must be told further that there was no house within ten miles either up or down the water on that side, save the little cot abovesaid nigher to the mountains, and that was four miles up-stream; it hight Burcot, and was somewhat kenspeckle. Withal as to those Cloven Motes, as they were called, which were between the folk on either side, they were holden at a stead seven miles below Wethermel. So that in all wise was it a lonely and scantly-manned abode: and because of this every man on the stead must work somewhat hard and long day by day, and even Osberne the little lad must do his share; and up to this time we tell of, his work was chiefly about the houses, or else it was on the knoll, or round about it, scaring fowl from the corn; weeding the acre-ground, or tending the old horses that fed near the garth; or goose-herding at whiles. Forsooth, the two elders, who loved and treasured the little carle exceedingly, were loth to trust him far out of sight because of his bold heart and wilful spirit; and there were perils in the Dale, and in special at that rough and wild end of thereof, though they came not from weaponed reivers for the more part, though now and again some desperate outcast from the thicker peopled lands had strayed into it; and there was talk from time to time of outlaws who lay out over the mountain-necks, and might not always do to lack a sheep or a neat or a horse. Other perils more of every-day there were for a young child, as the deep and hurrying stream of the Sundering Flood, and the wolves which haunted the bent and the foothills of the mountains; and ever moreover there was the peril from creatures seldom seen, Dwarfs and Land-wights to wit, who, as all tales told, might be well pleased to have away into their realm so fair a child of the sons of Adam as was this Osberne.
Forsooth for the most part the lad kept within bounds, for love's sake rather than fear, though he wotted well that beating abode bound-breaking; but ye may well wot that this quietness might not always be. And one while amongst others he was missing for long, and when his grandsire sought him he found him at last half way between grass and water above the fierce swirling stream of the river; for he had clomb down the sheer rock of the bank, which all along the water is fashioned into staves, as it were organ-pipes, but here and there broken by I wot not what mighty power. There then was my lad in an ingle-nook of the rock, and not able either to go down or come up, till the goodman let a rope down to him and hauled him on to the grass.
Belike he was a little cowed by the peril, and the beating he got for putting his folk in such fear; but though he was somewhat moved by his grandam's tears and lamentations over him, and no less by the old carline's bewailing for his days that he would so surely shorten, yet this was not by a many the last time he strayed from the stead away into peril. On a time he was missing again nightlong, but in the morning came into the house blithe and merry, but exceeding hungry, and when the good man asked him where he had been and bade him whipping-cheer, he said that he cared little if beaten were he, so merry a time he had had; for he had gone a long way up the Dale, and about twilight (this was in mid-May) had fallen in with a merry lad somewhat bigger than himself, who had shown him many merry plays, and at last had brought him to his house, "which is not builded of stone and turf, like to ours," saith he, "but is in a hole in the rock; and there we wore away the night, and there was no one there but we two, and again he showed me more strange plays, which were wondrous; but some did frighten me."
Then his grandsire asked him what like those plays were. Said Osberne: "He took a stone and stroked it, and mumbled, and it turned into a mouse, and played with us nought afraid a while; but presently it grew much bigger, till it was bigger than a hare; and great game meseemed that was, till on a sudden it stood on its hind-legs, and lo it was become a little child, and O, but so much littler than I; and then it ran away from us into the dark, squealing the while like a mouse behind the panel, only louder. Well, thereafter, my playmate took a big knife, and said: 'Now, drudgling, I shall show thee a good game indeed.' And so he did, for he set the edge of the said knife against his neck, and off came his head; but there came no blood, nor did he tumble down, but took up his head and stuck it on again, and then he stood crowing like our big red cock. Then he said: 'Poultry, cockerel, now I will do the like by thee.' And he came to me with the knife; but I was afraid, and gat hold of his hand and had the knife from him; and then I wrestled with him and gave him a fall; but I must needs let him get up again presently, whereas he grew stronger under my hand; then he thrust me from him and laughed exceeding much, and said: 'Here is a champion come into my house forsooth! Well, I will leave thine head on thy shoulders, for belike I might not be able to stick it on again, which were a pity of thee, for a champion shalt thou verily be in the days to come.' After this all his play with me was to sit down and bid me hearken; and then he took out a little pipe, and put it to his mouth, and made music out of it, which was both sweet and merry. And then he left that, and fell to telling me tales about the woods where big trees grow, and how his kindred had used to dwell therein, and fashioned most fair things in smith's work of gold and silver and iron; and all this liked me well; and he said: 'I tell thee that one day thou shalt have a sword of my father's father's fashioning, and that will be an old one, for they both were long-lived.' And as he spake I deemed that he was not like a child any more, but a little, little old man, white-haired and wrinkle-faced, but without a beard, and his hair shone like glass. And then -- I went to sleep, and when I woke up again it was morning, and I looked around and there was no one with me. So I arose and came home to you, and I am safe and sound if thou beat me not, kinsman."
Now ye may judge if his fore-elders were not scared by the lad's tale, for they knew that he had fallen in with one of the Dwarf-kin, and his grandam caught him up and hugged him and kissed him well favouredly; and the carline, whose name was Bridget, followed on the like road; and then she said: "See you, kinsmen, if it be not my doing that the blessed bairn has come back to us. Tell us, sweetheart, what thou hast round thy neck under thy shirt." Osberne laughed. Said he: "Thou didst hang on me a morsel of parchment with signs drawn thereon, and it is done in a silk bag. Fear not, foster-mother, but that I will wear it yet, since thou makest such to-do over it."
"Ah! the kind lad thou art, my dear," said the carline. "I will tell you, kinsmen, that I had that said parchment from our priest, and it is strong neckguard against all evil things, for on it is scored the Holy Rood, and thereon are the names of the three Holy Kings, and other writing withal which I may not read, for it is clerks' Latin." And again the two women made much of the little lad, while the goodman stood by grumbling and grunting; but this time did Osberne escape his beating, though he was promised a drubbing which should give him much to think on if he went that way again; and the women prayed and besought him to be obedient to the goodman herein.
But one thing he had not told his kinsfolk, to wit, that the Dwarf had given him for a gift that same knife wherewith he had played the game of heads-off, and a fair sheath went with it, and he had done him to wit that most like luck would go with it. Wherefore little Osberne had the said knife hidden under his raiment, along with the parchment whereon was scored the Holy Rood and the good words of wisdom written.