But on the morrow ere the day was old, the guests departed in all contentment each to his own folk, and Osberne and the Wethermel men led them out with blessings.
When they were all gone and the unwonted stir was over, it seemed to Osberne as if he were awaking from a dream, and his heart was in a turmoil of hope and fear, so that he knew not what to do till he was once more at the Bight of the Cloven Knoll. He tarried for nought save to take up the gifts of Eastcheaping, and he had no weapon with him save his bow and arrows wherewith to flit the said gifts across the water, but he was gaily clad in a coat of green, flowered with gold, which he had bought him at Eastcheaping; and a fair and lovely youth he looked, as he strode along at his swiftest toward the trysting-place, his face flushed, his brows a little knit with mingled trouble and joy, his lips parted with his eager breathing. Whiles as he went he said to himself, How many chances and changes there were, and how might he expect to find Elfhild there again? And next, when he had enough afflicted himself with thinking of her sick, or dead, or wedded, his strong heart of a youth threw it off again, and he thought, How could evil such as that befal him, the stalwarth and joyous?
So he fared till he came within sight of the ness, and saw no figure there on the top of it: yet he straightway fell to running, as though he knew she had been waiting for him a long while; but as he ran he kept his eyes down on the ground, so that he might not see her place empty of her. But when he came to his place he lifted up his eyes, and there to his great joy saw her coming up the ness; and when she saw him she uttered a great cry and spread out her arms and reached out to him. But as for him, he might make neither word nor sound a great while, but stood looking on her. Then he said: "Is it well with thee?"
"O yea, yea," she said, "and over-well as now."
"Art thou wedded?" said he.
"Yea," she said, "unto thee."
"O would that we were, would that we were!" said Osberne.
"O!" she said, "be not sad this morning, or wish for aught so that it grieve thee. Bethink thee how dear this moment is, now at last when our eyes behold each other."
"Hast thou come here often to look for me?" said he. She said: "It was the fourteenth of May was a year that we parted; now is this the eighth day of October. That makes five hundred and eleven days: not oftener than that have I come here to look for thee."
So piteous-kind she looked as she spake, that his bosom heaved and his face changed, and he wept. She said: "I wish I had not said that to make thee weep for me, my dear." He spake as his face cleared: "Nay, my dear, it was not all for thee, but for me also; and it was not all for grief, but for love." She said: "With this word thou givest me leave to weep;" and she wept in good sooth.
Then in a while she said: "And now thou wilt sit down, wilt thou not? and tell me all thy tale, and of thy great deeds, some wind whereof hath been blown to us across the Sundering Flood. And sweet it will be to hear thy voice going on and on, and telling me dear things of thyself."
"Even so will I do," said Osberne, "if thou wilt; yet I were fain to hear of thee and how thou hast fared; and thy words would I hear above all things." The voice of him quavered as he spake, and he seemed to find it hard to bring any words out: but his eyes were devouring her as if he could never have enough of looking on her. Forsooth there was cause, so fair she was, and he now come far into his eighteenth year. She was that day clad all in black, without any adornment, and her hair was knit up as a crown about her beauteous head, which sat upon her shoulders as the swan upon the billow: her hair had darkened since the days of her childhood, and was now brown mingled with gold, as though the sun were within it; somewhat low it came down upon her forehead, which was broad and white; her eyes were blue-grey and lustrous, her cheeks a little hollow, but the jaw was truly wrought, and fine and clear, and her chin firm and lovely carven; her lips not very full, but red and lovely, her nose straight and fine. The colour of her clear and sweet, but not blent with much red: rather it was as if the gold of her hair had passed over her face and left some little deal behind there. In all her face was a look half piteous, as though she craved the love of folk; but yet both mirth and swift thought brake through it at whiles, and sober wisdom shaded it into something like sternness. Low-bosomed she was yet, and thin-flanked, and had learned no tricks and graces of movement such as women of towns and great houses use for the beguiling of men. But the dear simpleness of her body in these days when the joy of childhood had left her, and a high heart of good longing was ever before her, was an allurement of love and far beyond any fooling such as that.
Now she said: "How thou lookest on me, dear Osberne, and thy face is somewhat sober; is there aught that thou likest not in me? I will do as thou biddest, and tell all the little there is to tell about me, ere thou tellest me all the mickle thou hast to tell about thee."
He said, and still spake as if the words were somewhat hard to find: "I look upon thee, Elfhild, because I love thee, and because thou hast outgrown thy dearness of a year and a half agone and become a woman, and I see thee so fair and lovely, that I fear for thee and me, that I desire more than is my due, and that never shall we mend our sundering; and that even what I have may be taken from me." She smiled, yet somewhat faintly, and spake: "I call that ill said; yet shalt thou not make me weep thereby, such joy as I have of the love in thy words. But come, sit thou down, and I shall tell thee my tidings."
So they sat down as nigh unto the edge as they might; and Osberne spake no more for that while, but looked and listened, and Elfhild said: "Day by day I have come hither, sometimes sadder and sorrier than at others, whiles with more hope, and whiles with less, whiles also with none at all. Of that thou wottest already or may bethink thee. Of tidings to call tidings the first is that my kinswoman, my mother's sister, has changed her life: she died six months ago, and we brought her to earth by the church of Allhallows the West, hard by the place of the Cloven Mote. Needs must I say that, though she was the last one of my kindred, the loss of her was no very grievous sorrow to me, for ever she had heeded me little and loved me less, though she used me not cruelly when I was little; and her burial was a stately one as for a poor house in the West Dale. Now furthermore, as for the carline who is the only one left to look after me, by my deeming she doth love me, and moreover she hath belike more of a might than were to be looked for of so old and frail-seeming a woman, and that besides here mickle wisdom. Whereof hearken this, which is the second tidings of note I have to tell thee. It is now some two months ago, when summer was waning into autumn, that on an evening just after sunset we were sitting after our wont in our house, which, though it be neither grand nor great, is bigger than we need for us twain. Comes a knock on the door, and the carline goes thereto, and is followed back into the chamber by a tall man, clad neither as one of our country-side nor as a warrior, but in a long black gown with furred edges. He had no weapons save a short sword and a whittle in his girdle; he was not ill-looked, black-bearded and ruddy-faced, and seemed strong-built, a man of about five and forty winters. He hailed us courteously, and asked if he might abide with us till morning, and we naysaid him not, if he might do with such cheer as we might make him. He smiled and said any cheer was better worth to him that the desert as at that time: and he said withal that he had a way-beast without who was as weary as was he; and, says he, there is a pair of saddle-bags on him, which many would not deem overmuch of a burden, if they had not very far to carry it.
"So I went out a-doors with him to see after his nag and saddle-bags; and I led the horse into the same stall where was winter quarters for our two horses; but this was a very big stark beast, grey of colour, such as we have not in this land; and I gave him hay and barley, but the saddle-bags he brought back with him into the chamber. And he kept ever by my side on the way there and back, and looked at me oft in the failing light, though I was but in my sorry old raiment with bare feet, in such guise as thou hast not seen me for years, my dear. Howsoever, I heeded it not at the time, and we both came back into the chamber, where Dame Anna had now lighted the candles. Shortly to say, we put what meat and drink we might before our guest, and he seemed well content therewith; and he was merry with us, and showed himself a man of many words deftly strung together, and spared not to tell us many things about tidings of far and noble countries, and the ways of men both great and small therein. And he said that he was a chapman journeying after gain, and looked to buy wares in the Dale, and therewith he asked us if we had aught to sell him, but Anna laughed and said: 'Fair sir, were ye to buy all this and all that is in it, from groundsell to roofridge, and all our kine and sheep and horses to boot, little would the tide of gold ebb in thy bags yonder.' 'I wot not,' said he; 'who may say what treasure ye have been hoarding here this long while?' He looked on me as he spake, and I reddened and looked down, for in my heart I was thinking of the pipe and the gemmed necklace which the Dwarfs had given me. And yet more than all, of thy gifts, Osberne, which have been so dear to me: for soothly to say, of these matters I had never told Dame Anna, though she knoweth that I go oft to look upon thee here and that I love thee. However, that talk ran off, and presently the chapman got to asking Anna about the matters of the Dale, and the ways of its folk, and amongst other things as to how wealthy they were, and she answered him simply as she could. He asked her also if they loved their bairns and children well, and also if they had any custom thereabout of casting any of their women-children forth, if it happened to be their fortune to have many daughters and little meat, and that especially when the years were bad. But thereat she cried out Haro! and said that such a deed was unheard of, and that when times were bad and there was lack, then hand helped foot and foot hand.
"'Well,' says he, smiling, 'that failed Hamdir's Sons once, and may do others again.' Then he asked withal if it were not true that things had run short in the Dale this last season; and she answered, as was true of this west side of the Dale, where was no man called to war, that so it was. And again that talk dropped. But the carline, methought, looked keenly at him. After a while Anna asked the guest if he had will to go to bed, and he answered, No, he would wake the meat well into his belly. Then she bade me fare to bed, which I did, nought loth, for when all was said, I scarce liked the looks of the man. As for my bed, it was a shut-bed, and opened not out of the chamber wherein we were, but out of an inner one, rather long than wide. There I lay down and went to sleep before long, but deemed I heard no little talk going on betwixt Anna and the guest ere I forgat it all. And moreover Anna came to me and waved her hands over me before I went off sound.
"But when I woke again it seemed to me that I had slept long, but I slipped out of bed and laid hold of my smock to do it on, and even therewith I shrank aback, for there before me, naked in his shirt and holding the door of my shut-bed with one hand and his whittle in the other, was the stranger. But therewithal came Dame Anna and said: 'Heed him not, for as yet he is asleep though his eyes be open. Do on thy raiment speedily, my Elfhild, and come forth with me, and let him wake up by himself.' Even so I did, not rightly understanding her words. But when we were gotten into the garth and the mead Anna told me all, to wit, how that this wretch, after I had gone to sleep, had bidden her a price for me to bear me off safely and wholly with him. And that may easily be done, says he, as I see of thee that thou art wise in wizardry and canst throw the maiden into a sleep which she will not awake from till due time is; for, says he, I want two things, to have her in mine arms to do as I will with, and thereafter to bear her home with me, will she nill she. 'Now,' said Anna, 'I would not wholly gainsay him at once, for I would have my fox safe in my trap; so I hemmed and hawed, and said that he might belike rue his bargain unless he were full sure what it were worth; and to be short, I so egged him on and drew him back, and drew him back and egged him on, that at last he took off his outer raiment, gat his bare whittle in one hand, and laid the other on the door. Now, my dear, I have long known thy door that I may so do that it will do my will in many matters; so when I saw the chapman's hand on the edge thereof, I spake a few words to it and went to bed myself, whereas I wotted that runagate could not move hand from door-board, or foot from floor-board, till the time which I had appointed to him; and thee also I had sent to sleep till the very time when thou didst awaken e'en now.' 'But what shall we do now?' said I. Said Anna: 'We will abide here in the shaw: there is meat on the board for the guest, and his raiment will not be hard to find, and he knows where are his horse and his gear and his saddle-bags. I doubt me he will not be eager to say farewell either to thee or to me; for he is not man enough to take his sword in his fist against even an old carline and a young maiden.' So in the shaw we gat us; as I have told thee, it is at the back of our houses but a furlong off. And there we lay till a little past noon, when we heard a horse going not far off. So we crept to the very edge of the wood and looked forth privily, and presently we saw our chapman riding off west with his saddle-bags and all, and his face was worn and doleful; at that Anna grinned spitefully, nor for my part might I altogether refrain my laughter. But thou dost not laugh, Osberne?" He sprang up and cried out fiercely: "I would I had been there to cleave his skull! Many a better man I have slain for less cause."
Then they were silent a while, and she sat looking on him fondly, till she spake at last: "Sweetheart, art thou angry with me for telling this tale?"
"Nay, nay," he said; "how might I live save thou told me everything that befel thee? Yet I must tell thee that I well-nigh wish I had not heard this one; for there thou dwellest, with none other to ward thee than a carline stricken in years; and though I wot well from all thou hast said of her, and this last tale in special, that she has mickle might in her, yet she cannot be always with thee, nor belike ever thinking of thee. God forbid, sweetheart, that I should speak to thee in the tongue of the courts and the great houses and lords' palaces, whenas for a fashion of talking they say of their lemans, and they not always nor often exceeding fair, that they be jewels beyond all price, whom an host of men were not enough to ward. But this I will say," and he blushed very red at the word, "that thou art so lovely and so dear that thy man, thy love, and the stout and good friends who love him, were not over many for thy guarding even in this lonely place. And with all that I can be of no more use thereto than if I were a wooden man."
She stood up also, and he saw that the tears ran over her cheeks, and he stretched out his arms to her; but she said: "Grieve not too much, my friend; and know, as thou saidst e'en now of thyself, that these tears are not wholly for sorrow of thy grief, but O! so much and so much for joy of thy kindness. And one thing I must tell thee, that if I am alone in my house, I am at least alone with a friend, and one who loves me. And this shall come of it, that now every day I shall come down to the tryst, for the carline will hinder me in no way. But I know that oft thou wilt come to meet me: yet belike often thou wilt not, because I wot how thou hast work to do and things wherein folk call for thee to serve them. So any day if thou come not it shall be well, and if thou come it shall be better."
Now at last he seemed to be learning the full sweetness of her. But she held up her band and said: "Now I bid thee tarry no longer, but fail to and tell me the tale of thy deeds; for soon shall the short autumn day be waning, and the moment of parting shall steal upon us ere we be ware." Even so he did now; but at first, to say sooth, he made but a poor minstrel, so much his mind was turned unto what she had been telling him; but after a while his scaldship quickened him, and he told her much in a manner like life, so that she might see the tidings going on before her. And he held her enwrapped in his tale till the dark and the dusk began to rise up over the earth, and then for that time they parted, and there was to be more of the war of Eastcheaping on the day after tomorrow.
So went Osberne home to Wethermel, and at first it seemed to him as if this first meeting after so long a while had scarce been so good as he had looked for; for both his longing to be close to his love, and the fear which had arisen in him as to the stealing of her, were somewhat of a weight on his heart. But after a little, when he had first been among folk and then alone, all that doubt and trouble melted away in the remembrance of her, as she had been really standing before his eyes, and there was now little pain and much sweetness in the longing wherewith he longed for her.
So on the said day appointed he went to meet her, smiling and happy and fresh as a rose; and she was of like mien, and when they faced each other she smote her palms together as in the old childish time, and cried out: "Ah! now the warrior is all ready, and the minstrel is stuffed full of his tale, and happy shall be the hour." And even so it was.