At last, when it was some six weeks from the time of that felony, and Osberne was on his legs again, and had gone to and fro in the wood nigh to the hermit's cell, now he began to think he must get him home to the House of Longshaw, and thence away to the Dale with a trusty guide; and the hermit would not say him nay, whereas his strength was but just come back to him.
On a time he went abroad from the cell, and was girt to Boardcleaver lest he should come across aught ill; he went somewhat further than he had been wont, till the day was beginning to draw toward sunset. It was now the latter end of May, and the leafy boughs were at their fairest; the sky was bright and blue, and the birds were singing in heavenly choir, and he scarce thought it good to go back speedily to the dark cell. So he went on a little further and a little further, till he was ware in the glade before him [of one] whom, as she drew nigher to him, he saw to be a seemly dame as for her years, straight and tall; neither was she clad in rags, but in a comely black gown and white coif. Nevertheless, as 't is said, Once bit, twice shy, so it was with him, and he was for giving her the go-by. But she would not have it so, and she greeted him and said: "Hail to thee, noble; whence art thou last?" Her voice was clear and good, and now as he looked in her face he deemed he saw no evil in it, but goodwill rather. But he said: "Hail to thee, dame; I am last from a sick-bed, where guile and felony laid me."
"Well," said she, "but there is something else than guile and felony in the world, is there not?"
"I know not," said he shortly.
"I have seen somewhat else, if only once," she said. "I have seen truth and good-faith and constancy and hope without reward; and five years have worn no whit of that away."
"Hah," said he; "was it a man, a warrior? Meseems I know one such, were it not for the hope."
"Nay," said she, "it is a woman."
"And what like is she to look on?" said he. She answered: "If thou wilt come with me, she is no great way hence abiding my home-coming." Said Osberne: "But what or who is it she is true to? or for whom doth she long, hoping against hope? Is it father, brother, son, sister, or what?" Said the carline: "It is her troth-plight man; and verily I, as well as she, deem that he is worthy of it; or was, when she saw him."
Osberne laughed, and said: "Good dame, if this be so, what profit were it to me to see her? I am not her troth-plight man, and if it be as thou sayest, I shall be unto her as one of the trees of the wood." "There will be this profit," said the carline, "that thou wilt set eyes on one of the fairest creatures that God ever made." "Small profit therein," said Osberne, laughing again, "if I set eyes on her beauty and am ensnared thereby; then maybe shall be another tale for this woodland. For belike thou deemest me old, but I am a young man, only I am haggard with the battle between life and death as I lay wounded yonder." Therewith he pulled aback his hood, and the carline came close up to him and looked him hard in the face, but said nothing. Then he said: "Dame, to be short with thee, I have walked into the trap once, and will not again, if I may help it. Now I know not what thou art; for all I know thou mayst be a bit of bait of my foes, or even a sending from evil things. Nor hast thou said any word why specially I should come with thee."
She was still standing close to him, and now she laid her hand on his breast and said: "This I say as a last word, and thou must take it how thou wilt. If thou dost not come with me now, thou shalt rue it only once, to wit, all thy life long."
He looked on her and knit his brows, and said at last: "Well it is little to throw away the end of my life, and there may be some tidings or tracks of tidings to be found. I will go with thee, dame. Only this time," he muttered, "let there be no coming to life again."
"Thou art wise," said the carline; "let us lose no time." So they set off, and up and down by rough and smooth, till the wood was quite dark, and the stars were overhead when they came to a clearing, and sweet was the peace of the May night. At last they saw before them a glimmer of light, which as they wound about became presently a little window, yellow-litten, and casting its light upon a space of greensward and a little tinkling brook.
So came they to a little cot, seemly enough thatched with reed from the woodland meres. Osberne made up toward the door, but the carline put forth her hand and thrust him back, and said: "Not yet; abide where thou art a minute;" and straightway fell to going withershins round the house. This she did three times, while Osberne gat his anlace bare in his hand.
At last the carline came to him, and spake softly to him in his ear: "All is free now, Dalesman, come thou!" And she took him by the hand and opened the door, and lo, a little hall like many another cot, but clean and sweet and comely. Now Osberne had pulled his hood about his face again, and looked round; for as often happens when one enters a chamber, the child of Adam therein is the last thing one sees. Then he drew back a little, and stood there trembling. For what was in the chamber besides the simple plenishing was a maiden who stood up to receive them; tall she was and slender, clad in a dark blue gown; her hair dark red and plenteous, her eyes grey, her chin round and lovely, her cheeks a little hollow, and in the hollow of them entreaty and all enticement: she stood looking shyly at the newcomer, of whose face she might see but little. The carline seemed to note neither her nor Osberne, but cried out in a cheerful voice: "Now, child, if I be somewhat later than I was looked for, yet I have brought the gift of a guest, seest thou; a good knight who hath of late been brought to death's door by felon's deed, but is now grown whole and fight-worthy again. So let us bestir us to get him meat and drink and all that he needeth."
So they fell to, while Osberne stood where he had first come in; and he scarce knew where he was, but looked down on the floor, as though the Sundering Flood of the Dales rolled betwixt him and the maiden; for indeed when his eyes first fell upon her he knew that it was Elfhild. Now the two women had not been long at dighting the supper ere there came a rough knock on the door, and straightway the latch was lifted and in strode three men-at-arms; two in jack and sallet with bucklers and sword and dagger, the third a knight clad in white armour with a white surcoat. This stirred Osberne out of his dream, and he sat down on a stool nearer in than he had been. The Knight cried out: "Ho, dame, I see thou hast one guest, and now here be three more for thee; we have stabled our horses in thy shed already, so thou hast nought to do save getting us our supper: dispatch I bid thee. And now who is this tall carle sitting there?"
Osberne knew them at once as they came in, that they were the three felons who had smitten him in the ghyll. He answered nought, and kept his hood about his face. "Roger," quoth the knight, "and thou, Simon, cannot ye get an answer from the lither loon?" Roger lifted up his foot and kicked Osberne roughly, and Simon laid hold of his hood to pull it off him, but found it held tight enough; and Osberne spake in gruff and hollow voice: "I am a living man, ye were best to let me be."
Then had there been battle at once, but even therewith comes in Elfhild bearing a pewter measure of wine and beakers withal, and the newcomers stood staring at her beauty, silent for a minute. Then the Knight did off his basnet and spake in a loose, licorous voice: "The liquor we hoped for, but not the cup-bearer; and so it is, that I would liefer have the cup-bearer than the cup. Fair maid, will not a kiss go before the pouring out? or never shall I have heart to drink." And he rose up and went toward the maiden, who stood confused and trembling, and turned pale. But Osberne had risen also, and with a quick turn had thrust between the White Knight and Elfhild, and now stood with his back to her, facing the felons.
"What, cur!" cried the White Knight: "shall we have thee out and flay thy back with our stirrup-leather?" Said Osberne, speaking slowly: "That is the third question too much thou hast asked in the last few minutes. Lo thou!" And he shook his hood from his face, and had Boardcleaver bare in his hand straightway. Then those three set up a quavering cry of, The Red Lad! the Red Lad! and ran bundling out of the cot; but Boardcleaver was swifter than they. One of the serving-men lost his head just outside the threshold; the Knight stumbled at the brook and fell, and never rose again. The messenger strove hard for the thicket, but the moon was up now, and it was but a few strides of the swift runner of the Dale ere Boardcleaver had taken his life.
The two women stood looking toward the open door the while, and the maiden said faintly and in a quavering voice: "Mother what is it? what has befallen? Tell me, what am I to do?" "Hush, my dear," said the carline, "hush; it is but a minute's waiting after all these years." Even therewith came a firm footstep to the door, and Osberne stepped quietly over the threshold, bareheaded now, and went straight to Elfhild; and she looked on him and the scared look went out of her face, and nought but the sweetness of joyful love was there. And he cried out: "O my sweet, where now is the Sundering Flood?" And there they were in each other's arms, as though the long years had never been.