Now he took up his abode there; and presently he took to going day after day along a certain path, which was just well within the borders of the Wood. And there he would walk well-nigh all day, sometimes going further, sometimes stopping short and going to and fro, and this became known to all men, and such times he was unarmed, save that he was girt with Boardcleaver under his gown.
Now on the thirteenth day of his sojourn he walked this path, and had gone somewhat further than usual, and was beginning to think of turning back, when there came a man toward him from the Wood and hailed him, and he took his greeting. The man was clad in black, and had a buckler at his back and sword and dagger by his side, a white sallet on his head: a long-nosed, dark-haired man, beardless and thin-lipped, whose eyes came somewhat too near to each other each side of his head. He looked as if he might be some chapman's servant.
Osberne looked for him to pass by him, and stood a little aside; but the man stopped and said: "O famous warrior, might a carle of no worth speak with thee a few words this noon?"
"Why not?" said Osberne, smiling, for never might he bring himself to the fashion of great men to be rough and short with common folk. Said the newcomer: "Thou art far from the host today, and hast no angry look on thee, wherefore I shall risk thy wrath by saying that thou lookest somewhat less than gleeful, great warrior." Said Osberne: "I have a trouble on me, and I have been forced to let many men know thereof."
"Wilt thou tell me thereof?" said the newcomer; "maybe I shall be the last to whom thou shalt tell it."
Osberne looked on him a while doubtfully and anxiously; at last he said: "This it is. Five years ago a maiden was stolen from me, and I have sought her since in many places, and have heard no word concerning her of any avail." Said the carle: "Dost thou remember the battle in the square by the carfax of the great City, and how there was a man before thy mighty hand who cried out to spare his life, for that he could tell thee of the said maiden; and thereon thou wert about to give him peace, but ere thou couldest take him to thy mercy he was slain by one of the carle-weavers?"
"Yea," said Osberne, "I remember it."
"Now," said the carle, "I shall make no mystery of it, but shall tell thee at once that that same man was the brother of the master whom now I serve. And I have an errand from him unto thee, and he saith that what his brother knew, he knows, and somewhat more; and thy maiden is yet alive, and that he can tell thee how to find her surely if thou wilt. And he is not far hence."
Osberne looked somewhat wildly, and he caught the carle by the hand and cried out: "Good fellow, bring me to him at once and I will well reward thee." "Nay," said the carle, "but there comes something before that; my master is a chapman, and liveth by selling, not by giving; and he will take of thee two hundred nobles before thou hast his tale. Thou and I may call that weregild for the slaying of his brother." "Yea," said Osberne, "but I carry not two hundred nobles in my pouch."
"Well then," said the carle, "I will be here tomorrow or the day after if thou wilt." "O nay, nay," said Osberne, "but abide thou here, and I will go up to the castle and fetch the gold." "So be it," said the carle; and he sat him down by the way-side, and pulled out victuals and wine from his scrip and fell to dining.
But Osberne put forth all his swiftness of foot, and was speedily in his lodging, and came to his treasury and took forth the gold and set it in a bag, and hastened back again, and found the carle where he had left him. "Thou art swift-foot indeed," said the carle, "but belike thou shalt not often again run so fast as thou hast e'en now. But thou art breathed; wilt thou not sit down a while till thou come round?" "No," said Osberne shortly, "I will on at once." "Well then," said the carle with a grin, "suffer me to carry thy bag." "Take it," said Osberne, and reached it out to him. The carle handled the bag and said: "Plump are the nobles, lord, if there be but two hundred herein." "There is more in it," said Osberne, "for there is the gift for thee. But lead thou on straightway." So the carle led on, and they went by divers woodland paths for some two hours, and then they heard the sound of a little water falling. Quoth the carle: "It is down in this ghyll that my master promised to abide me." And therewith he began to go down the side of a ghyll well bushed and treed, and somewhat steep, and Osberne followed him. When they got to the bottom there was a fair space of flat greensward underneath a little force of the water; but no man awaited them.
"Where is thy master, good fellow?" said Osberne. "He will scarce be far," said the carle; "I will call him." And therewith he set two fingers to his mouth and whistled shrilly.
Now Osberne was all beswinked with his run to and fro the castle and his two hours' walk thereafter, and he was sore athirst, so he went down on his knees to drink of the clear little pool beneath the force. And now, what with the failing day and the tall trees well-nigh meeting overhead, it was dusk in the ghyll; and moreover as Osberne drank (and he was in no hurry about it) with his face to the force and his back to the length of the ghyll, the tinkling and splashing of the force deafened his ears to any sound but a somewhat big one. So he drank and thought no evil; but of a sudden he felt a sharp pain in his left side, and ere he could say that he knew he had been smitten, another and another, and he rolled over on the greensward and lay still, and there stood above him three men, the carle-messenger to wit and another of like sort, and a third clad in white armour.
"The end of the Red Lad!" quoth the messenger. "Nay," said the other carle, "draw thy sword and smite the head from him, lord; make sure of him." The knight half-drew his sword from the scabbard; but then stayed his hand and said in a quavering voice: "Nay, nay! let us begone. Dost thou not see? There is one sitting by him!" "It is a bush in the dusk," said the other; "give me thy sword." But the knight for all answer ran swiftly down the ghyll, and they two that were left shrank and trembled, for there verily sat one by the wounded man in a scarlet kirtle, as they deemed, and a bright steel basnet. So they ran also after their master, and all three fell to climbing the side of the ghyll.
Now about a mile thence was a certain hermitage in a clearing of the wood, and when the night was growing dark the door was smitten on, and when the hermit opened, there was before him a tall noble-looking man in scarlet kirtle and bright steel basnet, bearing in his arms another man dead or grievously hurt. And the tall man said: "Canst thou leechdom?"
"Yea," said the hermit, "therein have I been well learned."
"See here then, here is a man grievously hurt, but he is not dead. Now I have done all I might for him, for by my craft have I staunched his blood; but I wot that he needeth long leechdom to be made whole. Now I may not come under thy roof, so take him of me, and lay him on thy bed and look to him, and do thy best: for if thou heal him thou shalt thrive, and if thou heal him not thou shalt dwindle." "Fair sir," said the hermit, "I need neither promise nor threat, for God's love and Allhallows' I will heal him if it may be."
So he took Osberne from Steelhead's arms, and being a stark and big man got him on to the bed and did off his raiment. Then he searched his grievous hurts according to leechcraft, and presently looked up from the wounded man and said: "Since this man is not yet dead, I deem not his hurts deadly, and I think to heal him with the help of the Holy Saints." Said Steelhead: "Thou hast in thy mouth, my friend, a deal of holiness that I know nought of. But I thank thee, and if thou heal my friend verily I will call thee Holy. Now shall I depart, but tomorrow forenoon I shall come here again and learn tidings of him."
"Go in peace, and God and Allhallows keep thee," said the hermit.
"Well, well," said Steelhead, "we will not contend about it, but I look to it to keep myself." And therewith he strode off into the night.
Then lay Osberne between life and death a long while; but after a time he began to mend, and came to his right mind, and remembered the felon-strokes in the ghyll; but of Steelhead's being there he knew nothing, for Steelhead had charged the hermit to say no word of it to Osberne. The hermit was a good and kind man and a well-learned leech, and after a while Osberne began to mend speedily. And he would have amended speedier, but he was sick at heart that his sudden hope had so failed him, and said within himself that now all hope was gone. Albeit the Dale and Wethermel drew him to them without ceasing.