There was an old woman, yet not cripple, who dwelt in a stead beside a great river, which none might cross, either by bridge or ford or ferry. But she dwelt not alone, neither was the house her own: for with her abode a damsel young of years, who was the owner of the said house, but had no kindred, for father and mother and all else had passed away from her. Therefore it is like that the Carline came to dwell with her because she loved the Maiden, and would serve her and do good to her. And no wonder was that, for not only was the Maiden now grown so beauteous that she was the pearl of all beauty, but also she was merry and kind, and loving as might be. So that none that saw her but must love her if they had any good in them.
Now ye will ask, since it was so with her, was there no young man who was drawn into the net of her love. But I must tell you that the stead where these twain dwelt was lonely, and there was but little recourse of folk thither. Yet I say not but that there was more than one young man of the dwellers thereby who thought it better than good to come to the house and sit and talk with her, and would have kissed and caressed her had they durst. But they durst not, for not one of them touched her heart; and though she was kind and friendly with every one of them, there was nought in her words or her mien by which they might anywise deem that she would suffer the toys of love from them. Sooth to say, the Maiden had a love, a fair youth and stalwarth, and a glorious man, and many were the words they had spoken together, but never had her hand touched his hand, nor his lips her lips; because betwixt these two was a river such as are few upon the earth, unbridged, unfordable, unferryable. And few might think that it was anywise like to betide that ever their two bodies should touch each the other; but the Carline, who was somewhat wise in lore, had an inkling that, despite this terrible hedge of water, the twain should one day meet.
Now it is to be said that oftenest the Maiden was patient, and abode the sundering will no ill cheer. But whiles her trouble was over heavy for her, and she would wander forth into the wood or the field, and go weeping and lamenting there; or she would sit in the chamber with the Carline, and cry out aloud on her love to come to her, and on all things on the earth and in the heavens, yea, the Great God himself sitting amongst the Cherubim, to help her, that for once, if once only before she died, she might feel her love's arms about her and his face laid to hers.
Or again, she would, as it were, tell stories of how it would betide that at last they should meet, both grown old, and kiss once, and so walk hand in hand into the Paradise of the Blessed, there to grow young again amidst the undying spring, in the land where weariness is come to nought; and there would she sit and weep, as if there were no ending to the well of her tears.
At such times was the Carline sore grieved for her, and would strive to comfort her by giving her some little inkling of the hope which she, the old woman, had conceived in her heart, that the meeting of the those two should come about whiles they were yet young and lovely; more than that she might not tell the Maiden, lest the might should ebb from her. Thus wore the days between patience and despair, betwixt cheer and lamentation.
At last, when the Maiden was of some eighteen summers, great matters befel that country-side; for on a day came the alien reivers, such as are called the Red Skinners, with intent to rob and carry off all that was not too hot or too heavy for them, and to lay waste and destroy all that they might not bear away. But the folk of the land met them valiantly, and their friends on the other side of the fierce river aforesaid helped them what they might with the shot-battle; and great and grim was the murder, and the stour of the hardest.
Now there were the Maiden and the Carline at their house, and nought easy was the rede for them. The Maiden bade flee to the next stead, which was some four miles thence, but the Carline bade abide, lest they be caught upon the way, which forsooth she deemed was most like to betide if they left the house, and that rede they took at the last. So they sat expecting what should befal them.
For a long while none of the aliens came anear them; but at last, when the battle was at its fiercest, rode up three men leading two unbacked horses, and they were of the mien and in the gear of the Red Skinners; and the Carline stood in the door to meet them, and she spake to them and said: "What will ye warriors? Why are ye not in the battle with your fellows?" Said one: "Because our errand is here and not there: neither are those men our fellows. We be the servants of that goodly merchant who guested here a while ago, and would have bought the maiden within there in all honour, and ye rewarded his good will with scorn, and mocks and japes and scurvy dealing. Wherefore he hath set these reivers on your folk, and hath sent us along with them to look to you. And two-fold is our errand, to bear away the maiden without a price, and to slay thee. Hah! dost thou like it?"
Now the Carline remembered the coming of the said merchant, and how he had cast his love on the Maiden unhonestly and lustfully, and would have lain by her against her will had it not been for the lore of the said Carline, who letted him of his evil will and sent him away shamed.
But now she muttered something under her breath, and looked on those men, and made signs with her fingers, and then spake aloud: "Slay me speedily then, whiles ye are about it; for I take no great keep of life." The men handled their weapons, but nothing came of it, and they sat in their saddles staring at the Carline as if they were mazed. And even therewith ran the Maiden forth from the house, and cast her arms about the Carline, and cried out: "Nay, nay! but ye shall not slay her! for as my mother hath she been, and none other have I had save her. But I pray you by your salvation to take this my mother with you, for I cannot do to be without her; and if I miss her, then shall I be of little use, miserable and forlorn, to that lord of yours that ye tell of so goodly."
The old woman kissed her and embraced her, and then turned to those men and laughed in their faces; and they seemed presently as if awaking out of slumber, and one said: "Well, this may be; I see not why we should not slay thee there as well as here; and since the damsel would have it so, we will have thee along with us, and let the maiden settle it with our lord whether he will be wheedled by her or not. But come, to horse both of you! for time presses."
So the two women were set a-horseback, and they men rode with a good pace out of the Dale toward the fells at the back thereof; and if at any time the women thought of turning rein and riding off, they had but to look at the men, how they were horsed, for their way-beasts were mighty strong steeds of good race, but the women were set on everyday nags, such as be seen on any highway.
After a while they came on to the broken ground at the foot of the fells, and all must needs ride slower; and then the Carline came sidling up to the Maiden, and saw how wan and woebegone was her face, and asked what ailed her; and she answered faintly at first, and then clearer and louder: "It is because I am thinking of him and his woe; and I wot well that now, so soon as the battle is over, there shall he stand yet and look over the Flood on to the field of deed, as if he were seeking after me dead among the corpses of the foe. And tomorrow he shall come down to the water's edge while the dead yet lie there, and stand looking to see if I be not coming to meet him, as now I have been wont so many years. And the morrow of that morrow will he come, yea, and many a morrow, till his heart shall be outworn with longing and grief, and he will go away out of the Dale to escape from his sorrow, and shall nowise escape it. Ah, and how shall I know whither he will wend, or the place of the shifting dwelling of his wanderings? And I, and I, I wend away from him."
Sore grieved was the Carline at her grief, and she said: "O my child, I pray thee keep up a good heart within thee, lest thou die of sorrow, and endure not the chances of the meeting. Who knows whether thou be wending away from him? Nay, to my mind thou art wending toward him, and he to thee; for never had ye come together hadst thou abided in thine old home and he in his."
But the Maiden wept. But therewith rode along by them one of the men, and smote the Carline on the shoulders with his spear-staff, and bade her hold her peace, and not go on like a crazy hen.
So they rode their ways till they had passed the straiter part of the pass that led through the fells, and there night began to fall on them (it was April-tide in those days); so the men-at-arms chose a place where was grass and water and three thick thorn-bushes, and made their harbour there. They took some pains to dight a shelter for the Maiden by spreading cloths betwixt a thorn and their spears stuck into the ground, but to the Carline, as was like, they gave no heed. But she laid her down peaceably within call of her dear fosterling, muttering as her head fell back: Here at any rate it is over-soon; let us get out of the mountains first. So they slept, yea, even the Maiden amidst her grief, so weary as she was. And when morning was they fared on, after a short tarrying for breakfast, whereof they gave of the best they had to the Maiden, but nought at all to the Carline. Nevertheless, when her fosterling fed her kindly from her abundance they naysaid it not.
This day is nought to tell of: toward sunset they came out of the mountains into a very fair green plain, wherein were neat and sheep a many; but though there were not a few houses of the herdsmen about, they made not for any of them, but took harbour in a little copse by a stream-side, and supped of such meat as they had; save that the two of them rode out into the plain and drove back with them a milch-cow, which they milked then and there for the Maiden's behoof.
The next day they rode across the plain, and here and there fell in with some of the herdsmen by the way; but small greeting passed betwixt them, and the country-folk seemed well pleased that the men-at-arms had little to say to them. Before evening was they rode off the plain and into a land of little hills and streams, with green meadows for the most part, but here and there a little tillage, and a good many houses, yet these but the cots of husbandmen. This day they rode long and late, yea, till it had been dark night but for the rising of the moon upon them. At last said one of the men to another: "We shall not do it tonight; let us rest, and come in fresh a morning-tide." So again that night they had the shelter of the trees and fields, but on the morrow betimes they were up and rode forward.