Now came Birdalone to herself, and that was but little joy unto her, and she yet lay still on the floor for a while, for she loathed the hour that was to come. Then the life stirred in her, and whereas she would not that her women should find her there, she stood up, and clad herself somewhat more seemly; yet she did on her black raiment; and determined in her mind that nought would she wear save black unadorned while her friends were away.
She betook her now to the chamber where her women were gathered together, and watched them working a while, but spake nought. Then she went her ways into the pleasance, and paced the plashed alley up and down, letting the tears run down from her as they would. Then she turned back into the castle, and went out-a-gates and walked over the meadow a little, and might well have gone further than wisdom would. But the castellan espied her from a window, and came hurrying out after her, and with many prayers for pardon, brought her back again, babbling to her by the way; but not a word might he get from her; and when he came into the hall with her, and, after his wont, knelt down to kiss her hands, she caught them away from him peevishly, and was sorry for it thereafter.
Long she sat in the hall, scarce moving, till she heard one entering from the screen, and lo it was Leonard the chaplain. He came her way, and showed her rueful countenance; and pity of him smote her, and she remembered therewith how they first went out of gates together; and at the thought thereof her tears brake forth again, but she made him a sign with her hand to sit down beside her, and he did so; and when she might for her weeping, she looked kindly on him, and he fell to talk, making as if he noted not her tears and sorrow; but she answered him little, for she had shame to begin the talk concerning the Champions and their Quest, and their departure; yet might she not bring her tongue to make any speech else. But presently he took up the word, and asked her how long a while she deemed they would be away, and she answered, smiling on him for thanks, and having reckoned the days on her fingers: If all go better than well, they may be back in ten days’ time. Said the chaplain: There be longer whiles of waiting in most men’s lives. Yea, she said, but this is the delay at the best; it may be far longer; for how may we tell what haps may be?
Yea, said Leonard, shall we then call it twenty days, or thirty? Forsooth, that may be long for thee; though there be some who must needs endure hope deferred a deal longer. But it may run out longer than even thirty days, thy waiting-tide.
She answered not, and he said: Whenso the time hangs heavy on hand with thee, if thou hast will to fare abroad out of the castle, I shall be ever at hand to guide thee. Indeed, I wot that the castellan will be loth to let thee go; but he is old and straitlaced: and yet withal he wotteth, as do we all, that there is now little peril or none were we to fare a five miles or more, whereas we are as good as at peace for the last five days with all save the Red Knight, and of him we wot that he is gone into another land with as many of his folk as be not needed for the warding of his hold.
I thank thee, said Birdalone, but it is like to be my will not to fare out-a-gates till the Champions come back home. I was glad e’en now when the castellan fetched me in again: to say sooth, fear of peril had just entered my heart when he came up with me.
The priest seemed somewhat chapfallen at her answer. He spake little more, and presently he stood up, made his obeisance, and departed.
Wore that day and the next, and Birdalone fell to talking with her women, whereof were five now left; and four of them were young, the eldest scarce of thirty summers, and the fifth was a woman of sixty, both wise and kind. All these told her somewhat of their own lives when she asked them; and some withal told of folk whom they had known or heard tell of. And well pleased was Birdalone to hear thereof, and learn more of the ways of the world, and quick-witted she was at the lesson, so that she needed not to ask many questions.
Furthermore, she took to her broidering again, and fell to doing a goodly pair of shoon for Atra, since she had worn those borrowed ones somewhat hardly. And the women wondered at her needlework, so marvellous fine as it was, and how that in little space of time were come flowers and trees, and birds and beasts, all lovely; and they said that the faery must have learned her that craft. But she laughed and reddened, and thought of the wood-mother; and, sitting there within the four walls, she longed for the oak-glades, and the wood-lawns, and for the sight of the beasts that dwelt therein.
Again she fell in with Leonard the priest, and he asked her could she read in a book, and when she said nay, he offered to teach her that lore, and she yeasaid that joyously; and thenceforth would she have him with her every day a good while; and an apt scholar she was, and he no ill master, and she learned her A B C speedily.
Now it was the ninth day since the Champions were gone, and all that time she had not been out-a-gates; and after the first two days, had enforced herself to fill up her time with her work as aforesaid: but this last day she might do but little, for she could not but take it for sure that the morrow would be the day of return; nay, even she deemed that they might come in the night-tide; so that when she went to bed, though she was weary, she would wake if she might, so that it was nigh dawn ere she fell asleep.
Some three hours after she woke up, and heard a sound of folk stirring in the house, and the clashing of weapons; and the heart leapt in her, and she said: They are come, they are come! Nevertheless she durst not get out of bed, lest her hope had beguiled her; and she lay awake another hour, and no tidings came to her; and then she wept herself to sleep; and when she awoke once more, she found that she must have wept sleeping, for the pillow beside her face was all wet with the tears.
The sun was high now, and his beams were cast back from the ripple of the lake, and shone wavering on the wall of the chamber, the window whereof gave on to the water. Then came a hand on the latch of the door, and she started, and her heart grieved her; but it was one of the women who opened, and came in, and Birdalone rose up sitting in her bed, and said faintly, for she could scarce speak: Is any tiding toward, Catherine? The maid said: Yes, my lady; for early after sunrise came weaponed men to the gate, and would sell us beeves; and my lord, Sir Aymeris, must needs go forth and chaffer with them, though belike they had been lifting what was neither ours, nor theirs, nor the neighbours’. Maybe Sir Aymeris looked to buy tidings from them as well as beef. Anyhow they departed when they had gotten their money and drunk a cup. And now it is said that the Red Knight hath been hurt in some fray, and keepeth his bed; wherefore the land shall have peace of him awhile. Said Birdalone: I thank thee, good Catherine; I shall lie a little longer; depart now.
The woman went her ways; and when she was gone, Birdalone wept and sobbed, and writhed upon her bed, and found no solace to her grief. But she arose and paced the chamber, and sithence looked out of the window over the empty water, and wept again. Then she said: Yet they may come ere noon, or it may be ere evening, or perchance tomorrow morning. And she stayed her weeping, and was calmer. But still she walked the floor, and whiles looked out of window, and whiles she looked on her limbs, and felt the sleekness of her sides, and she said: O my body! how thou longest!
But at last she clad herself in haste, and went stealthily from the chamber, as if she feared to meet anyone; and she stole up to the tower-top that was nighest, and looked through the door on to the leads, and saw no one there; so she went out, and stood by the battlement, and gazed long over the water, but saw neither boat nor burning mountain coming towards her.
After a while she came down again, and went to the women, and sat working with them a while, and so wore away two hours. Then she sent for the priest and had her lesson of him; and when she had been at it another two hours, she bade him begin and learn her writing; and nought loth he was thereto; forsooth he had been longing to pray her to suffer him learn her, but durst not. For in such teaching needs must he sit full nigh to her, and watch her hands, and her fingers striving to shape the letters; nay, whiles must he touch her hand with his, and hold it. Wherefore now he promised himself a taste of Paradise. Withal he was full meet to learn her, whereas he was one of the best of scribes, and a fair-writer full handy.
So they fell to the lesson, and she became eager thereover, and learned fast, and clave to the work, while his soul was tormented with longing for her. And thus wore a three hours, and then suddenly she looked up wearily from her work, and her trouble was awake, and the longing for her speech-friend, and she gave the priest leave for that day, but suffered him to kiss her hand for wages.
Then she hurried up to the tower-top, when the afternoon was wearing into evening; and abode there a long while looking over the waters, till it began to dusk, and then came down miserably and went to her women.
The next day was like unto this; nought betid, and she wore the hours whiles going up to the tower-top and looking over the lake, whiles broidering amidst her maids, whiles learning her clerk’s work with Sir Leonard, but ever eating her heart out with her longing.
On the third of these days she called the castellan to her for a talk, and asked him what he thought of it, this delay of his lords’ return. Quoth the greyhead: My lady, we may not wonder if they be tarried for a few days; for this is an adventure on which they have gone, and many haps betide in such tales. Now I beseech thee torment not thyself; for the time is not yet come for thee even to doubt that they have miscarried.
His words solaced her much for that time, whereas she saw that he spake but the sooth; so she thanked him, and smiled upon him kindly; and he was ravished thereat, and was for kneeling before her at once and kissing her hands after his wont; but she smiled again and refrained him, and said: Nay, not yet, fair friend; that is for the departure, and I have yet a word to say unto thee: to wit, that I long to go out-a-gates, and it will solace me and give me patience to abide the coming of my friends. For thou must know, Sir Aymeris, that I was reared amidst the woods and the meadows, with the burning of the sun, and the buffets of the wind; and now for lack of some deal of that am I waxing white and faint. And thou wouldst not have me falling sick on thine hands now, wouldst thou?
Nay, surely, lady, said Sir Aymeris; this very day I will ride out with thee; and two score or more of weaponed men shall ride with us for fear of mishaps. Said Birdalone, knitting her brows: Nay, knight, I need not thy men-at-arms; I would fain go free and alone. For hast thou not heard how that the Red Knight is hurt and keepeth his bed? So what peril is there? Said Sir Aymeris: Yea, lady; but the Red Knight is not the only foe, though he be the worst: but it may well be that the story is but feigned, for the said enemy hath many wiles. And look you, kind lady, it is most like that by now he hath heard how in my poor castle is kept a jewel, a pearl of great price, that hath not its like in the world, and will encompass the stealing of it if he may.
Laughed Birdalone, and said: But how if the said jewel hath a will, and legs and feet thereto, and is ready to take the peril on her, and will wend out-a-gates if she will? What wilt thou do then, lord? Then, said the castellan, I shall fetch thee back, and, though it be a grief to me, shall have thee borne back perforce if nought else may do. For so the oath sworn to my lords compelleth me.
Again laughed Birdalone, and said: Hearken, whereto cometh all this kneeling and hand-kissing! But bear in mind, fair lord, how once on a time thou wouldst have me out-a-gates, would I, would I not, and now, will I, will I not, thou wouldst keep me within; so have times changed, and mayhappen they may change yet again. But tell me, am I mistress over my women to bid them what I will? Certes, said he, and over all of us. Said she: If then I bade them, some two or three, come with me into the meadows and woods a half day’s journey for our disport, how then? For that once, said Sir Aymeris, I should bid them disobey their lady. Said Birdalone: And how if they disobeyed thee, and obeyed me? Quoth Sir Aymeris: If they bring thee back safe, they may chance to sing to the twiggen fiddle-bow, that they may be warned from such folly; but if they come back without thee, by All-hallows the wind of wrath shall sweep their heads off them!
Birdalone flushed red at his word, and was silent a while; then she said, making cheerful countenance again: Thou art a hard master, lord castellan; but I must needs obey thee. Therefore I will take thy bidding, and ride abroad in such wise that I shall scare the land with an army, since no otherwise may I look on the summer land. But today I will not go, nor tomorrow belike; but some day soon. And in good sooth I thank thee for thy heedful care of me, and wish I were better worth it. Nay, nay, thou shalt not kneel to me, but I to thee: for thou art verily the master.
Therewith she rose from beside him, and knelt down before him and took his hand and kissed it, and went her ways, leaving him ravished with love of her. But now she had no scorn of him, but deemed, as was true, that he was both valiant and trusty and kind, and she thanked him in her heart as well as in words.
Indeed Birdalone longed on any terms to be out-a-gates and to have some joy of the summer; for now she began to see that she might have to abide some while ere her friends should come to her in the Castle of the Quest; and she was angry with herself that her longing was thus wasting her, and she rebuked herself and said: Where is now that Birdalone who let but few days go by without some joyance of the earth and its creatures? she who bore lightly the toil of a thrall, and gibes and mocking and stripes? Surely this is grievous folly, that I should be worsened since I have come to be the friend of gentle ladies, and noble champions, and mighty warriors. Had it not been better to have abided under the witch-wife’s hand? For not every day nor most days did she torment me. But now for many days there has been pain and grief and heart-sickness hour by hour; and every hour have I dreaded the coming of the next hour, till I know not how to bear it.
So she strove with herself, and became of better heart, and set herself strongly to the learning of the clerkly lore; she gathered her wits together, and no longer looked for every day and every hour to bring about the return of the Champions, nor blamed the day and the hour because they failed therein, and in all wise she strove to get through the day unworn by vain longing.
Wherefore, on a day when three whole weeks were gone since the day of departure, she was glad when the castellan came to her and said: Lady, these two days I have had men out to spy the land, and their word goes that nought is stirring which a score of us well-armed might have cause to fear; wherefore tomorrow, if it be thy will, we shall bring thee out-a-gates, and so please thee, shall be in no haste to come back, but may lie out in the wildwood one night, and come back at our leisure on the morrow of tomorrow. How sayest thou of thy pleasure herein?
She thanked him, and yeasaid it eagerly, and next morning they set forth; and Birdalone had with her three of the women, and they had sumpter-beasts with them, and tents for Birdalone and her maids.
So they rode by pleasant ways and fair meadows, and the weather was good, for it was now the first days of July, and all was as lovely as might be; and for that while Birdalone cast off all her cares, and was merry, and of many words and sweet; and all the folk rejoiced thereat, for all loved her in the Castle of the Quest, besides those one or two that loved her overmuch.
Rode they thus a twelve miles or more, and then they came, as their purpose was, to the beginning of a woodland plenteous of venison, and they hunted here, and Birdalone took her part therein, and all praised her woodcraft; albeit because of her went a head or two free that had fallen else, whereas of the carle hunters were some who deemed the body of her better worth looking on than the quarry.
Howsoever, they slew of hind and roe and other wood-cattle what they would, some deal for their supper in the wilderness, some to bear home to the castle. But when night was nigh at hand they made stay in a fair wood-lawn about which ran a clear stream, whereby they pitched the ladies’ tent; and Birdalone and hers went down into the water and washed the weariness off them; and her ladies wondered at the deftness of Birdalone’s swimming; for they bathed in a pool somewhat great into which the stream widened, so that there was space enough for her therein.
By then they were washen and clad goodly in raiment which they had brought on the sumpters, the men had lighted fires and were cooking the venison, and anon there was supper and banquet in the wildwood, with drinking of wine and pleasant talk and the telling of tales and singing of minstrelsy; and so at last, when night was well worn, and out in the open meadows the eastern sky was waxing grey, then Birdalone and her ladies went to bed in their fair tents, and the men-at-arms lay down on the greensward under the bare heaven.
When it was morning and they arose, the day was as fair as yesterday, and folk were even as joyous as they had been then, all but Birdalone, and she was silent and downcast, even when she came forth from the fresh water into the sweetness of the midsummer wood. She had dreamed in the night that she was all alone in the Castle of the Quest, and that her old mistress came to her from out of the Sending Boat to fetch her away, and brought her aboard, and stripped her of her rich garments and sat facing her, drawing ugsome grimaces at her; and she thought she knew that her friends were all dead and gone, and she had none to pity or defend her. Then somehow were they two, the witch and she, amidmost of the Isle of Nothing, and the witch drew close anigh her, and was just going to whisper into her ear something of measureless horror, when she awoke; and the sun was bright outside the shaded whiteness of her tent; the shadows of the leaves were dancing on the ground of it; the morning wind was rustling the tree-boughs, and the ripple of the stream was tinkling hard by. At first was Birdalone joyous that what she had awakened from was but a dream; but presently she felt the burden of her longing, and she said to herself that when they came back to the castle they should find tidings, and that she should know either that her friends were indeed dead, or that they were come back again alive and well. And then she thought within herself, suppose the three Champions and their loves were dead and gone, how would she do with those that were left her, as Sir Aymeris, and Leonard the priest, and her women? and her soul turned with loathing from a life so empty as that would be; and yet she blamed herself that she was so little friendly to these lesser friends, whom forsooth she loved because of her love for the greater ones. So, as abovesaid, she was troubled and silent amongst the joy of the others.
That saw Sir Aymeris the castellan; and when they had broken fast and were getting to horse, he came to her and said: Lady, the day is yet young, and if we fetch a compass by a way that I wot of we shall see places new to thee, and mayhappen somewhat wonderful, and yet come home timely to the castle. Wilt thou?
Birdalone was still somewhat distraught, but she knew not how to naysay him, though at heart she would liefer have gone back to the castle by the shortest way. So folk brought her her palfrey, and they rode their ways, the castellan ever by her side. And by fair ways indeed they went, and so joyous was all about them, that little by little Birdalone’s gladness came back to her, and she made the most of it to be as merry of seeming as she might be.
Now they rode fair and softly by thicket and copse and glade of the woodland, following up the stream aforesaid for the more part, till at last the trees failed them suddenly, and they came forth on to a wide green plain, all unbuilded, so far as their eyes could see, and beyond it the ridges of the hills and blue mountains rising high beyond them.
When Birdalone’s eyes beheld this new thing, of a sudden all care left her, and she dropped her rein, and smote her palms together, and cried out: Oh! but thou art beautiful, O earth, thou art beautiful! Then she sat gazing on it, while the greyhead turned and smiled on her, well pleased of her pleasure.
After a while she said: And might we go nigher? Yea, certes, said he, yet I doubt if thou wilt like it the better, the nigher thou art. Ah! she said, but if I were only amidst it, and a part of it, as once I was of the woodland!
So thitherward they rode over the unharvested mead, and saw hart and hind thereon, and wild kine, and of smaller deer great plenty, but of tame beasts none; and the hills were before them like a wall. But as they drew nigher, they saw where the said wall of the hills was cloven by a valley narrow and steep-sided, that went right athwart the lie of the hills; the said valley was but little grassed, and the bare rocks were crow-black. When they had gone a little further, they could see that the ground near the foot of the hills rose in little knolls and ridges, but these were lower and fewer about the entry into that valley. Also presently they came upon a stream which ran out of the said valley, and Sir Aymeris said that this was the water whereby they had lain last night; albeit here it was little indeed.
Now when they had ridden some five miles over the plain, they came amongst those knolls at the mouth of the valley, and Sir Aymeris led Birdalone up to the top of one of the highest of them, and thence they could look into that dale and see how it winded away up toward the mountains, like to a dismal street; for not only was it but little grassed, but withal there was neither tree nor bush therein. Moreover, scattered all about the bottom of the dale were great stones, which looked as if they had once been set in some kind of order; and that the more whereas they were not black like the rocks of the dale-side, but pale grey of hue, so that they looked even as huge sheep of the giants feeding down the dale.
Then spake Birdalone: Verily, sir knight, thou saidst but sooth that I should see things new and strange. But shall we go a little way into this valley today? Nay, lady, said Sir Aymeris, nor tomorrow, nor any day uncompelled; neither shall we go nigher unto it than now we be. Wherefore not? said Birdalone, for meseemeth it is as the gate of the mountains; and fain were I in the mountains.
Lady, said the castellan, overmuch perilous it were to ride the valley, which, as thou sayest, is the very gate of the mountains. For the said dale, which hight the Black Valley of the Greywethers, hath a bad name for the haunting of unmanlike wights, against which even our men-at-arms might make no defence. And if any might escape them, and win through the gates and up into the mountains, I wot not if suchlike devils and things unkent be there in the mountain-land, but of a sooth there be fierce and wild men, like enough to devils, who know no peace, and slay whatsoever cometh unto them, but if they themselves be slain of them.
Well, said Birdalone, then today, at least, we go not into the dale; but knowest thou any tales of these wild places? Many have I heard, said he, but I am an ill minstrel and should spoil them in the telling. Ask them of Sir Leonard our priest, he knoweth of them better than others, and hath a tongue duly shapen for telling them.
Birdalone answered nought thereto; she but turned her horse’s head and rode down the knoll; and so they came unto their company, and all went their ways toward the Castle of the Quest.
Nought befell them on their way home; but the nigher they came to the castle the more pensive waxed Birdalone, and, though she hid it, when they were come to the gate she scarce had her wit; for it was as if she thought to have one rushing out and crying: Tidings, tidings! they are come.
Nowise it so befell; they were no more come than was the Day of Doom. And a little after they were within gates; it was night, and Birdalone crept wearily up to her chamber, and gat to bed, and so tired was she that she fell asleep at once and dreamed not.
On the morrow was Birdalone heavier of heart than ever yet, and wearier for tidings; and she wondered how she could have been so joyous that day in the wildwood. Yet she thought much of the Valley of the Greywethers, and that solaced her somewhat after a while, so sore she longed to go thither; and, as ’tis said, one nail knocks out the other. So that morning, when she had had her lesson of priest Leonard, she spake thereof to him, and told him what Sir Aymeris had said concerning his knowledge thereof; and she asked him what he knew.
I have been there, said he. She started at that word and said: Did aught of evil befall thee?
Nay, said he, but a great fear and dread hung about me; and ’tis said that they try their luck overmuch who go thither twice.
Birdalone said: Tell me now of the tales that be told of that valley. Quoth Leonard: They be many; but the main of them is this: that those Greywethers be giants of yore agone, or landwights, carles, and queans, who have been turned into stone by I wot not what deed; but that whiles they come alive again, and can walk and talk as erst they did; and that if any man may be so bold as to abide the time of their awakening, and in the first moment of their change may frame words that crave the fulfilment of his desire, and if therewith he be both wise and constant, then shall he have his desire fulfilled of these wights, and bear his life back again from out the dale. And thus must he speak and no otherwise: O Earth, thou and thy first children, I crave of you such and such a thing, whatsoever it may be. And if he speak more than this, then is he undone. He shall answer no question of them; and if they threaten him he shall not pray them mercy, nor quail before their uplifted weapons; nor, to be short, shall he heed them more than if they still were stones unchanged. Moreover, when he hath said his say, then shall these wights throng about him and offer him gold and gems, and all the wealth of the earth; and if that be not enough, they shall bring him the goodliest of women, with nought lacking in her shape, but lacking all raiment, so that he shall see her as she is verily shapen. But whoso shall take any one of all these gifts is lost for ever, and shall become one of that Stony People; and whoso naysayeth them all until the cock crow, and abideth steady by his one craving, shall win fulfilment thereof, and, as some say, all those gifts aforesaid; for that the Stony People may not abide the day to take them back again.
He was silent therewith, and nought spake Birdalone, but looked down on the ground, and longing encompassed her soul. Then the priest spake again: This were a fair adventure, lady, for a hapless one, but for the happy it were a fool’s errand. She answered not, and they parted for that time.
But the next week, there being yet no tidings come to hand, Birdalone prayed the castellan to take her out-a-gates again, that she might once more behold the mountains, and the gates thereof; and he yeasaid her asking, and went with her, well accompanied, as before; but this time, by Birdalone’s will, they rode straight to the plain aforesaid, and again she looked into that dale of the Greywethers from the knoll. Somewhat belated they were, so that they might not get back to the castle before dusk, wherefore again they lay out in the wildwood, but there lacked somewhat of the triumph and joyance which they had had that other day. They came back to the castle on the morrow somewhat after noon, and found no news there; nor, to say sooth, did Birdalone look for any; and her heart was heavy.
Now had the time so worn that the season was in the first days of August, and weariness and heartsickness increased on Birdalone again, and she began to look pined and pale. Yet when she spake of the tarrying of the Champions both to the castellan and Sir Leonard the priest (who was the wiser man of the two), each said the same thing, to wit, that it was no marvel if they were not yet come, seeing whatlike the adventure was; and neither of those two seemed in anywise to have lost hope.
Thrice in these last days did Birdalone go out-a-gates with Sir Aymeris and his company; and the last of the three times the journey was to the knoll that looked into the Black Valley; but now was Birdalone’s pleasure of the sight of it afar off marred by her longing to be amidst thereof; yet she did not show that she was irked by the refraining of her desire to enter therein, and they turned, and came home safely to the castle.
On the morrow she sat with Sir Leonard the priest over the writing lesson, and she let it be long, and oft he touched her hand, so that the sweetness of unfulfilled desire went deep to his heart.
At last Birdalone looked up and said: Friend, I would ask thee if thou seest any peril in my entering the Black Valley of the Greywethers by daylight if I leave it by daylight? Alone? quoth he. Yea, she said, alone. He pondered a little, and then said: Sooth to say I deem the peril little in the valley itself, if thou be not overcome by terror there. Yea, for my part I am not all so sure that thou shalt see the wonder of the Stony Folk coming alive; for ’tis not said that they quicken save on certain nights, and chiefly on Midsummer Night; unless it be that the trier of the adventure is some one fated above others thereto; as forsooth thou mayst be. And as for peril of evil men, there are few who be like to be as venturesome as thou or I. They durst not enter that black street, save sore need compel them. But forsooth, going thither, and coming back again, some peril there may be therein. And yet for weeks past there has been no word of any unpeace; and the Red Knight it is said for certain is not riding.
Birdalone was silent a while; then she said: Fair and kind friend, I am eating my heart out in longing for the coming back of my friends, and it is like, that unless I take to some remedy, I shall fall sick thereby, and then when they come back there shall be in me but sorry cheer for them. Now the remedy I know, and it is that I betake me alone to this adventure of the Black Valley; for meseemeth that I shall gain health and strength by my going thither. Wherefore, to be short, if thou wilt help me, I will go tomorrow. What sayest thou, wilt thou help me?
He turned very red and spake: Lady, why shouldest thou go, as thy name is, birdalone? Thou hast called me just now thy kind friend, so kind as it was of thee; now therefore why should not thy friend go with thee?
Kindly indeed she smiled on him, but shook her head: I call thee trusty and dear friend again, said she; but what I would do I must do myself. Moreover to what end shouldst thou go? If I fall in with ghosts, a score of men would help me nought; and if I happen on weaponed men who would do me scathe, of what avail were one man against them? And look thou, Sir Leonard, there is this avail in thine abiding behind; if I come not back in two days’ space, or three at the most, thou wilt wot that I have fared amiss, and then mayst thou let it be known whither I went, and men will seek me and deliver me maybe.
Therewith she stayed her words suddenly, and turned very pale, and laid her hand on her bosom, and said faintly: But O my heart, my heart! If they should come while I am away! And she seemed like to swoon.
Leonard was afraid thereat, and knew not what to do; but presently the colour came into her face again, and in a little while she smiled, and said: Seest thou not, friend, how weak I am gotten to be, and that I must now beyond doubt have the remedy? Wilt thou not help me do it?
Yea verily, said he; but in what wise wilt thou have it? He spake as a man distraught and redeless; but she smiled on him pleasantly, and said: Now by this time shouldst thou have devised what was to do, and spared me the pain thereof. Two things I need of thee: the first and most, to be put out of the castle privily betimes in the morning when nought is stirring; the second, to have my palfrey awaiting me somewhat anigh the gate, so that I may not have to go afoot: for I am become soft and feeble with all this house-life.
Leonard seemed to wake up with that word, and said: I have the key of the priest’s door of the chapel, and the postern beyond it; that shall be thine out-gate, lady. I will come and scratch at thy chamber-door much betimes, and I will see to it that thy palfrey is bestowed in the bower wherein thou didst rest the first night thou camest amongst us. She said: I trust thee, friend. And she thanked him sweetly, and then rose up and fell to pacing the hall up and down. Leonard hung about watching her a while, she nought forbidding him, for her thoughts were elsewhere, and she had forgotten him; and at last he went his ways to set about doing what she would.
Dawn was but just beginning when Birdalone awoke, and though she had not heard Leonard at the door, she sprang out of bed and clad herself, doing on her black gown; and she had a scrip with some bread therein, and a sharp knife at her girdle. Then even as she had done she heard the priest’s nail on the door, and she turned thereto; but as she went, her eye caught her bow and quiver of arrows where they hung on the wall, so she took the bow in her hand and slung the quiver over her shoulder ere she opened the door and found Leonard standing there. Neither of them spake aught, but they stole downstairs, and so to the chapel and out by the priest’s door and the postern in the wall-nook, and were presently out in the fresh morning air; and Birdalone was joyous and lightfoot, and scarce felt the earth beneath her soles for pleasure of her hope, whereas she deemed she had a thing to crave of the Stony Folk, if they should come alive before her. Fain were she, if she might withal, to give a joy to some other; so that when they were gone but a little way from the castle she reached out her hand to Leonard and took his, and said: Hand in hand we walked when first I went this way, and I deemed thee kind and friendly then, and even so hast thou been sithence.
He was dumbfoundered at first for joy of the touch of her hand and the sweetness of her words; but presently he spake to her confused and stammering, and praised her that she had thought to take her bow and arrows; for, said he, that they might stand her in stead for defence or for getting of food, or for an excuse for wending the woods. She nodded yeasay unto him, and bade him again to bide three days for her, and if she came not again in that time, to make a clean breast of it to Sir Aymeris.
Yea, said the priest, and then . . . Why, what then? He can but shove me out by the shoulders, and then I can seek to the little house of canons that is at Gate Cross on the road to Greenford.
Ah, my friend! said Birdalone, how we women think of nothing at all but ourselves! And wilt thou be thrust out of thine home for helping me herein? Why did I not look to my palfrey myself? And the keys I might have stolen from thee, always with thy good will. But now I see that I have done thee a hurt.
Said Sir Leonard: Lady, a priest hath a home wheresoever is an house of religion. There is no harm done, save Sir Aymeris bethink him of hanging me over the battlements; as I doubt he will not with a priest. Moreover, I pray thee believe, that wert thou gone from the castle, house and home were none for me there. And he looked upon her piteously, as if he were beseeching.
But she knew not what to say, and hung her head adown; and presently they were come to the bower in the copse, which this time was a stable for Birdalone’s palfrey instead of a chamber for herself. So Leonard went in and fetched out the comely beast; and Birdalone stood with him just in the cover of the copse waiting to put her foot in the stirrup; but she might not but abide to look upon the priest, who stood there as if he were striving with his words.
So she said: Now is need of haste to be gone. Yet one word, my friend: Is there aught betwixt us wherein I have done thee wrong? If so it be, I pray thee to say out what it is; for it may be (though I think it not) thou shalt not see me again from henceforth.
He caught his breath, as if he had much ado to refrain the sobbing; but he mastered it, and said: Lady and dear friend, if I see thee not again, I heed not what shall befall me. Thou hast done me no wrong. There is this only betwixt us, that I love thee, and thou lovest not me.
She looked on him sweetly and pitifully, and said: I may not choose but understand thy word, to wit, that thy love for me is the desire of a man toward a woman; and that is unhappy; for I love thee indeed, but not as a woman loveth a man. It is best to say thus much to thee downright. But I feel in my heart that when I have said it, it is as much as to say that I cannot help thee, and therefore am I sorry indeed.
He stood before her abashed, but he said at last: Now art thou so sweet, and so kind, and so true, that I must perforce love thee yet more; and this maketh me bold to say that thou mayst help me a little, or so meseemeth. How so? said Birdalone. Quoth he: If thou wouldst suffer me to kiss thy face this once. She shook her head, and spake: How may it avail thee, when it is for once, and once only, as forsooth it must be? Yet it is thy choice, not mine, and I will not naysay thee.
And therewith she put up her face to him, and he kissed her cheek without touching her otherwise, and then he kissed her mouth; and she knew that he was both timorous and sad, and she was ashamed to look on him, or to speak to him any more, lest she should behold him ashamed; so she but said: Farewell, friend, till tomorrow at least.
And therewith her foot was in the stirrup, and anon she sat in the saddle, and her palfrey was ambling briskly on the way she would.
Little is to tell of Birdalone’s journey unto the knoll above the Black Valley of the Greywethers. It was about noon when she came there, and had met but few folk on the way, and those few were husbandmen, or carlines, or maidens wending afield betimes not far from the Castle of the Quest.
Now she sat on her horse and looked down into the dale and its stony people once more, and saw nought stirring save three ravens who, not far off, were flapping about from stone to stone of the Greywethers, and croaking loud to each other as if some tidings were toward. She watched their play for a little, and then gat off her horse, and sat down on the grass of the knoll, and drew forth her victual, and ate and drank; for she deemed it happier to eat and drink there than in the very jaws of the Black Valley.
Soon was her dinner done, and then she got to her saddle again, and rode slowly down to the little stream, and along it toward the valley and the gates of the mountains, which she had been fain to pass through; but now, as had happed with her that morning when she was boun for the Sending Boat, somewhat she hung back from the adventure, and when she lacked but some five score yards from the very dale itself, she lighted down again, and let her way-beast bite the grass, while she sat down and watched the rippling water.
In a while she drew off shoon and hosen, and stood in the shallow ripple, and bathed her hands and face withal, and stooped up-stream and drank from the hollow of her hands, and so stepped ashore and was waxen hardier; then she strung her bow and looked to the shafts in her quiver, and did on her foot-gear, and mounted once more, and so rode a brisk amble right on into the dale, and was soon come amongst the Greywethers; and she saw that they were a many, and that all the bottom of the dale was besprinkled with them on either side of the stream, and some stood in the very stream itself, the ground whereof was black even as the rest of the valley, although the water ran over it as clear as glass.
As for the dale, now she was fairly within it, she could see but a little way up it, for it winded much, and at first away from her left hand, and the sides of it went up in somewhat steep screes on either side, which were topped with mere upright staves and burgs of black rock; and these were specially big and outthrusting on the right hand of her; and but a furlong ahead of where she was, one of these burgs thrust out past the scree and came down sheer into the dale, and straitened it so much that there was but little way save by the stream itself, which ran swift indeed, but not deep, even there where it was straitened by the sheer rocks.
But up the dale would she go, whatever was before her; and now she told herself her very purpose, as forsooth she scarce had heretofore; to wit, that she would abide in the dale the night over and see what should betide, and if those wights should chance to come alive, then she looked to have valiance enough to face them and crave the fulfilment of her desire.
So she took the water and rode the stream till she was past the said sheer rock, and then the valley widened again, and presently was wider than it was in the beginning; and here again were the Greywethers grown many more and closer together, and, as she deemed, were set in rings round about one very big one, which, forsooth, was somewhat in the shape of a man sitting down with his hands laid on his knees.
Birdalone reined up for a minute, and looked about her, and then went up on to the grass, and rode straight to the said big stone, and there lighted down from off her horse again, and stood by the stone and pondered. Presently she deemed that she saw something dark moving just beyond the stone, but if it were so, it was gone in a twinkling; nevertheless she stood affrighted, and stared before her long, and saw no more, but yet for a while durst not move hand nor foot.
At last her courage came again, and she thought: Yet how if this great chieftain be inwardly stirring and will come awake? Shall I say the word now, lest hereafter it be of no avail? Therewith she stretched out her right hand and laid it on the stone, and spake aloud: O Earth, thou and thy first children, I crave of you that he may come back now at once and loving me. And her voice sounded strange and unkent to her in that solitude, and she rued it that she had spoken.
Came new tidings therewithal; for the moment after she had spoken, a tall man drew out from behind the big stone, and stood before her; and at first it was in her mind that this was the very chieftain come alive for her, and for terror she was like to swoon this time; but he spake nought a while, but looked on her eagerly and curiously.
She came to herself presently, so much that she could see him clearly, and was now growing more shamefast than afraid, when she saw beyond doubt that the man was of the sons of Adam; but what with her shame that was now, and her fear that had been, she yet had no might to move, but stood there pale and trembling like a leaf, and might scarce keep her feet.
Now the new-comer bowed before her smiling, and said: I ask thy pardon, fair damsel (or indeed I should say fairest damsel), that I have scared thee. But sooth to say I beheld thee coming riding, and even from a little aloof I could see that nought which might befall could ever make it up to me for not seeing thee close at hand and hearing thee speak. Wherefore I hid myself behind the king’s stone here; and no harm is done thereby I trow; for now I see that the colour is coming into thy cheeks again, and thy fear is gone. And as for me, thou hast not fled away from me, as thou wouldst have done had I not hidden and come on thee suddenly; and then thou being horsed and I unhorsed, thou wouldst have escaped me, whereas now thou art within reach of my hand. Then he smiled, and said: Furthermore, thou hast told so little of thy secret to this stony king here, that I am little the wiser for thy word, and thou the little more betrayed. Only this I will say, that if He loveth thee not, He is more of a fool than I be.
He reached out his hand to hers, but she drew it aback, and grew yet more ashamed, and could find no word for him. His voice was soft and full, and he spake deftly, but she was not content with it for its kindness, as she had been with all the other men whom she had met since she left the House under the Wood, and she durst not trust her hand to him.
As for his aspect, she saw that he was tall and well-knit, and goodly of fashion; dark-haired, with long hazel eyes, smooth-cheeked and bright-skinned; his nose long, and a little bent over at the end, and coming down close to his lips, which were full and red; his face was hairless save for a little lip-beard. He was so clad, that he had no helm on his head, but a little hat with a broad gold piece in the front thereof; he was girt to a long sword, and had an anlace also in his belt, and Birdalone saw the rings of a fine hauberk at his collar and knees; otherwise he was not armed. Over his hauberk he wore a black surcoat, without device of any kind, and his foot and leg gear were of the same hue; wherefore may we call him the Black Knight. Sooth to say, for all his soft speech, she feared him and rued the meeting of him.
Now he spake to her again: I see that thou art wroth with me, lady; but mayhappen it is not so ill that I have happened on thee; for this dale hath a bad name for more than one thing, and is scarce meet for damsels to wander in. But now since thou hast a weaponed man with thee, and thou, by All-hallows! not utterly unarmed, thou mayst well go up the valley and see something more thereof. So come now, mount thine horse again, and I will lead him for thee.
Now Birdalone found speech and said: Knight, for such thou seemest to me, I deem now that I have no need to fare further in this dale, but I will get me into the saddle and turn my horse’s head outward again, giving thee good day first and thanking thee for thy courtesy. And therewith she turned to get to her palfrey, but sore trembling the while; but he followed her and said, with brow somewhat knitted: Nay, lady, I have left my horse somewhat further up, and I must go back to fetch him, that we may wend out of the dale together. For I will not suffer thee to flee from me and fall into the hands of evil wights, be they ghosts or living men, and that the less since I have heard the speech in thy mouth, as of honey and cream and roses. Therefore if thou go out of the dale, I shall go with thee afoot, leading thine horse. And look to it if it be courteous to unhorse a knight, who is ready to be thy servant. Moreover, since thou hast come to this dale of wonder, and mayst leave it safely, pity it were that thou shouldst see nought thereof, for strange is it forsooth, and belike thou shalt never seek thither again. Wherefore I crave of thee, once more, to mount thine horse and let me lead thee up the dale.
He spake these last words rather as one giving a command than making a prayer, and Birdalone feared him now sorely. Forsooth she had her bended bow in hand; but let alone that the knight was over-near to her that she might get a shaft out of her quiver and nock it, ere he should run in on her, and let alone also that he was byrnied, she scarce deemed that it behoved her to slay or wound the man because she would be quit of him. Wherefore angrily, and with a flushed face, she answered him: So shall it be then, Sir Knight; or rather so must it be, since thou compellest me.
He laughed and said: Nay, now thou art angry. I compel thee not, I but say that it will not do for thee to compel me to leave thee. Go which way thou wilt, up the dale, or down it and out of it; it is all one unto me, so long as I am with thee. Forsooth, damsel, I have said harder words to ladies who have done my pleasure and not deemed themselves compelled.
She paled but answered nought; then she mounted her palfrey, and the knight went to her bridle-rein without more words, and so led her on up the valley by the easiest way amongst the Greywethers.
As they went, the knight fell a-talking to Birdalone, and that without any of the covert jeering which he had used erewhile; and he showed her places in the dale, as caverns under the burgs, and little eyots in the stream, and certain stones amongst the Greywethers whereof stories ran; and how this and the other one had fared in dealings with the land-wights, and how one had perished, and another had been made happy, and so forth. Withal he told of the mountain-folk, and in especial how they of the plains, when he was scarce more than a boy, had met them in battle in that same dale, and how fierce the fight was; whereas the mountain-men were fighting for a life of desires accomplished, which hitherto had been but a dream unto them; and the men of the plain fought for dear life itself, and for all that made it aught save death in life. Wherefore up and down the dale they fought, at first in ordered ranks and then in knots, and lastly sword to sword and man to man, till there was no foot of grass or black sand there which had not its shower of blood; and the stream was choked with the dead, and ran red out of the dale; till at last well-nigh all the host of the mountain-men was fallen, and scarce less of the folk of the plains, but these men held the field and had the victory.
All this he told her deftly and well, and though he said not so right out, yet let her wot that, youth as he was, he was of the battle; and his voice was clear and good, and Birdalone’s wrath ran off her, and she hearkened his tale, and even asked him a question here and there; and so courteous was this Black Knight now become, that Birdalone began to think that she had fallen short of courtesy to him, because of her fear and the weariness of the waiting which so oppressed her; and that shamed and irked her, for she would fain be of all courtesy. Wherefore now she deemed that perchance she had erred in deeming him an evil man; and she looked on him from time to time, and deemed him goodly of fashion; she thought his eyes were deep, and his face sober and fair of aspect, but that his nose turned down at the end, and was over thin at the bridge, and moreover his lips looked over-sweet and licorous.
Now when the knight was silent of his tales, Birdalone fell to asking him questions sweetly concerning this Stony People which was all about them; and he told her all he knew, soberly enough at first, yet indeed ended by mocking them somewhat, but mocked not at her any more. At last he said: Fair lady, that thou hast not come here all for nought I partly know by those words which I heard come from thy mouth at the King’s Stone; wherefore I marvelled indeed when I heard thee say that thou wouldst go straight out of the dale; for I had deemed thee desirous of trying the adventure of waking this Stony People a-night-tide. Forsooth was this thy mind when thou soughtest hither to the dale?
She reddened at his word, and yeasaid him shortly. Then said he: Is it not thy mind still? Sir, said she, as now I have got to fear it. Yea? and that is strange, said he, for thou wouldst have waked the dale alone; and now thou art no longer alone, but hast me to watch and ward thy waking, thou art more afeard.
She looked on his face steadily, to wot if there were no half-hidden smile therein; but herseemed that he spake in all soberness; and she had nought to say to him save this: Sir, I am now become afraid of the waking. And he said no more thereof.
Now they went thus, and Birdalone not without pleasure, since her fear of the knight was minished, some three hours up the dale, and still were the Greywethers everywhere about them, so that there were well-nigh as many hours as miles in their wending.
At last they seemed to be drawing nigh to the head of the dale, and the burgs and the rocks were before them all round it as a wall, though yet about a mile aloof at the further end; and this end it was wider than elsewhere.
Came they then to a level space of greensward clear of the grey stones, which were drawn all around it in ordered rings, so that it was as some doom-ring of an ancient people; and within the said space Birdalone beheld a great black horse tethered and cropping the grass. The knight led her into the ring, and said: Now are we come home for the present, my lady, and if it please thee to light down we shall presently eat and drink, and sithence talk a little. And he drew nigh to help her off her horse, but she suffered him not, and lighted down of herself; but if she suffered not his hand, his eyes she must needs suffer, as he gazed greedily on the trimness of her feet and legs in her sliding from her horse.
Howsoever, he took her hand, and led her to a little mound on the other side of the ring, and bade her sit down there, and so did she, and from under the nighest of the stones he drew forth a pair of saddle-bags, and took victual and wine thence, and they ate and drank together like old companions. And now Birdalone told herself that the knight was frank and friendly; yet forsooth she wotted that her heart scarce trowed what it feigned, and that she yet feared him.
When they had dined, and had sat a while talking, the knight said: I will ask thee once more wherefore thou must needs depart from this dale leaving the Greywethers unwaked? Yet this must I tell thee first, that this ring at the dale’s end is the only one due place where the Greywethers can be rightly waked, and that there be few who wot this. Wilt thou not tell me then what is in thy mind?
Birdalone gazed down on the ground a while; then she lifted up her head and looked on the Black Knight, and said: Sir Knight, we have been brought so close together today, and as meseemeth I am so wholly in thy power, that I will tell thee the very truth as it is. My mind it was to wake the dale here to-night, and take what might befall me. And well indeed might I fear the adventure, which few, meseemeth, would not fear. But so strong is my longing for that which I would crave of these wights, that it overmastered my fear, and my purpose held when I entered the dale. Then I met thee; and here again is the truth, take it how thou wilt, that presently I feared thee, and yet I fear thee; for I have noted thee closely all this while, and have seen of thee, that thou art over heedful of my poor body, and wouldst have it for thine own if thou mightest. And there is this in thee also, as I deem, though thou thyself mayst not know it, that thou wouldst have thy pleasure of me whether it pleasure me or grieve me; and this thy pleasure must I needs gainsay; for though thou mayest hereafter become my friend, yet are there other friends of mine, who be such, that my grief would mar any pleasure they might have. Hast thou heard and understood?
She looked on his face steadily as she spake, and saw that it flushed, and darkened, and scowled, and that his hands were clenched, and his teeth set hard together. And again she spake: Sir, thou shalt know that beside these shot-weapons, I have a thing here in my girdle that may serve either against thee or against me, if need drive me thereto; wherefore I will pray thee to forbear. Forsooth, thou shalt presently happen on other women, who shall be better unto thee than I can be.
By then Birdalone had spoken the word, the knight’s face had cleared, and he laughed aloud and said: As to thy last words, therein at least thou liest, my lady. But for the rest, I see that it must all be as thou wiliest. Yea, if such be thy will, we shall presently to horse and ride down the dale again, and at the end thereof I shall leave thee to go home alone at thy will. She said: For that I can thee thanks with all my heart. But why hast thou not asked me of whence I am, and whither I would go home?
Again he laughed and said: Because I know already. I have had more than two or three tales from them who have seen thee, or spoken unto others who have seen thee, how the gay Champions of the Castle of the Quest had fished up a wondrous pearl of price from out of the Great Water; and when I set eyes on thy beauty, I knew that the said pearl could be nowhere else than under mine eyes.
Let that pass, she said, and blushed not; but now tell me the truth as I have told thee, why thou art so instant with me to wake the Greywethers to-night? He kept silence a while, and, as she looked on him, she thought she saw confusion in his face; but at last he said: Thou wert wrong in saying that I heeded not thy pleasure, and solace, and welfare. Meseemed, and yet doth, that it might be to thine avail to wake the Greywethers to-night; and never again mayst thou have a chance of the waking, as erst I said. I say I wish thee to have fulfilment of thy craving. Nor hast thou aught to fear of them, seeing that it is but dastards and fools that they undo.
He broke off his speech, and Birdalone yet looked on him, and after a little he said: Thou drawest the truth out of me; for moreover I would have thee with me longer than thou wouldst be if we but rode together down the water and out of the dale, and thou to fare away alone.
Birdalone spake in a while, and that while he gazed upon her eagerly; she said: I shall now tell thee that I shall abide the adventure of the waking to-night, whatever befall. And I, said he, will so do that thou mayst fear me the less; for I will unarm me when the night cometh, and thou thyself shalt keep mine hauberk and sword and anlace.
She said: It is well; I will take that, lest desire overmaster thee.
They spake no more of it at that time, and it was now five hours after noon. Birdalone arose, for she found it hard to sit still and abide nightfall: she went without the two first rings of the Greywethers, which were set in more open order beyond that, and she looked all about her, to the black rocks on either side, and to the great black wall at the dale’s ending, and the blue mountains aloof beyond it; then down toward the plain of the dale came her eyes, and she looked through the tangle of the grey stones. Now she seemed to be looking more intently upon some one thing; with that she called to her the Black Knight, who was hanging about watching her, and she said to him: Fair sir, art thou clear-seeing and far-seeing? I am not thought to be purblind, quoth he. Then Birdalone reached out her hand and pointed and said: Canst thou see aught which thou didst not look to see, there, up the dale as I point? Said he: All too clear I see the hand and the wrist of thee, and that blinds me to aught else. I pray thee fool not, she said, but look heedfully, and thou mayst see what I see, and then tell me what it means. Though forsooth I am exceeding in far sight.
He looked under the sharp of his hand heedfully, then he turned unto her and said: By All-hallows! there is in thee every excellency! Thou art right; I see a bay horse up there feeding on the bites of grass amongst the Greywethers. Look again! she said; what else canst thou see? Is there aught anigh to the bay horse which is like to the gleam and glitter of metal. Christ! said he, once more thou art right. There be weaponed men in the dale. Tarry not, I beseech thee, but get to horse forthright, and I will do no less.
There goeth the waking of the dale for this time, said Birdalone, laughing. But art thou not in haste, fair sir? may not these be friends?
The knight laid his hand upon her shoulder, and thrust her on toward her palfrey, and spake fiercely, but not loud: Thee I pray not to fool now! There is not a minute to spare. If thou deemest me evil, as I think thou dost, there are worser than I, I tell thee, there are worser. But we will talk of it when we be in the saddle, and clear of this accursed dale.
Birdalone knew not what to do save obey him, so she lightly gat into her saddle, and followed him, for he was mounted in a twinkling, and riding on. He led out of the ring, and fell to threading the maze of the Greywethers, keeping ever toward the steep side of the dale, which was on that hand that looked toward the Castle of the Quest, that is to say, the eastern bent. Birdalone wondered at this leading, and when she was come up with the knight she spake to him breathlessly, and said: But, fair sir, why wend we not down the dale? He answered: First, lady, because we must hide us from them straightway; and next because they be more than we, many more, and their horses be fresh, while thine at least is somewhat spent; and if they were to spur down the dale in chase, they would soon be upon us; for think not that I would escape and leave thee behind.
Said Birdalone: But thou knowest them, then, what they be? since thou wottest of their numbers and their riding. Hearken now! Upon thy soul and thy salvation, be they more friends unto thee than unto me?
He said, as be rode on a little slower than erst: Upon my soul and my salvation I swear it, that the men yonder be of the worst unfriends to thee that may be in the world. And now, lady, I promise thee that I will unravel thee the riddle, and tell thee the whole truth of these haps, whatsoever may come of my words, when we be in a safer place than this; and meantime I beseech thee to trust in me thus far, as to believe that I am leading thee out of the very worst peril that might befall thee. Nay, thou must needs trust me; for I tell thee, that though I now love thee better than all the world and all that is in it, I would slay thee here in this dale rather than suffer thee to fall into the hands of these men.
Birdalone heard him with a sick heart; but such passion went with his words that she believed what he said; and she spake softly: Sir, I will trust thee thus far; but I beseech thee to have pity upon a poor maiden who hath had but little pity shown unto her until these latter days; and then: O woe’s me, to have fallen out of the kindness and love once more!
The Black Knight spake to her in a little while, and said: What pity I can to thee, that I will. Once more I tell thee, that if thou but knew it thou wouldst thank me indeed for what I have done for thee in this hour; and henceforth I will do and forbear with thee to the uttermost that love will suffer me. But lo thou! here are we safe for this present; but we must nowise tarry.
Birdalone looked and saw that they were come to the wall of the dale, and that there it went down sheer to the plain thereof, and that before them was a cleft that narrowed speedily, and over which the rocks well-nigh met, so that it was indeed almost a cave. They rode into it straightway, and when that they had gone but a little, and because it had winded somewhat, they could but see the main valley as a star of light behind them, then it narrowed no more, but was as a dismal street of the straitest, whiles lighter and whiles darker, according as the rocks roofed it in overhead or drew away from it. Long they rode, and whiles came trickles of water from out the rocks on one hand or the other; and now and again they met a stream which covered all the ground of the pass from side to side for the depth of a foot or more. Great rocks also were strewn over their path every here and there, so that whiles must they needs dismount and toil afoot over the rugged stones; and in most places the way was toilsome and difficult. The knight spake little to Birdalone, save to tell her of the way, and warn her where it was perilous; and she, for her part, was silent, partly for fear of the strange man, or, it might be, even for hatred of him, who had thus brought her into such sore trouble, and partly for grief. For, with all torment of sorrow, she kept turning over and over in her mind whether her friends had yet come home to the Castle of the Quest, and whether they would go seek her to deliver her. And such shame took hold of her when she thought of their grief and confusion of soul when they should come home and find her gone, that she set her mind to asking if it had not been better had she never met them. Yet in good sooth her mind would not shape the thought, howsoever she bade it.
At last, when they had been going a long while, it might be some six hours, and it had long been night in the world without, but moon-lit, and they had rested but seldom, and then but for short whiles, the knight drew rein and spake to Birdalone, and asked her was she not weary. O yea, she said; I was at point to pray thee suffer me to get off and lie down on the bare rock. To say sooth, I am now too weary to think of any peril, or what thou art, or whither we be going. He said: By my deeming we be now half through this mountain highway, and belike there is little peril in our resting; for I think not that any one of them knoweth of this pass, or would dare it if he did; and they doubtless came into the dale by the upper pass, which is strait enough, but light and open.
As he spoke, Birdalone bowed forward on her horse’s neck, and would have fallen but that he stayed her. Then he lifted her off her horse, and laid her down in the seemliest place he might find; and the pass there was much widened, and such light as there was in the outer world came down freely into it, though it were but of the moon and the stars; and the ground was rather sandy than rocky. So he dight Birdalone’s bed as well as he might, and did off his surcoat and laid it over her; and then stood aloof, and gazed on her; and he muttered: It is an evil chance; yet the pleasure of it, the pleasure of it! Yea, said he again, she might well be wearied; I myself am ready to drop, and I am not the least tough of the band. And therewith he laid him down on the further side of the pass, and fell asleep straightway.
When the morning was come down into the straitness of their secret road, Birdalone opened her eyes and saw the Black Knight busy over dighting their horses: so she arose and thrust her grief back into her heart, and gave her fellow-farer the sele of the day, and he brought her victual, and they ate a morsel, and gat to horse thereafter and departed; and the way became smoother, and it was lighter overhead everywhere now, and the rocks never again met overhead athwart the way; and it seemed to Birdalone that now they were wending somewhat downward.
The knight was courteous unto Birdalone, and no longer for the present thrust his love upon her, so that now she had some solace of his fellowship, though he was but few-spoken to her.
It was betimes when they arose, and they rode all the morning till it was noon, which they might well wot of, because the way was much wider, and the cliff-walls of the pass much lower, so that the sun shone in upon them and cheered them.
Now the Black Knight drew rein and said: Shall we rest, lady, and eat? And thereafter, if thou wilt, I shall tell thee my tale. Or rather, if thou wilt suffer me, I shall speak first and eat afterwards, or else the morsel might stick in my throat. Knight, said Birdalone, smiling, I hope thou hast no lie to swallow down before the meat. Nay, lady, said he; no lie that is of moment at least.
So they lighted down, and Birdalone sat on the wayside under a birch-bush that came thrusting out from the rock, and the knight stood before her, hanging his head, as though he were one accused who would plead his cause; and he began:
Lady, I must tell thee first of all, that today I have done as an unfaithful servant and a traitor to my lord. Said Birdalone simply: Shall I tell thee the truth, and say that from the first I seemed to see in thee that thou wert scarce trusty? He said: Well, that mind I saw in thee, and it went to my heart that thou shouldest think it, and that it should be no less than true. But now I must tell thee, that it is for thy sake that I have been untrusty to my lord. How so? said she. Quoth he: Heardest thou ever of the Red Knight? Yea, said Birdalone, I have heard of him ever as a tyrant and oppressor. Then she grew pale, and said: Art thou he? Nay, said the knight, I am but a kinsman of his, and his best-trusted man; nor have I failed him ever till yesterday.
He kept silence a while, and then said: This is the true tale: that we have had tidings of thee and of thy ridings abroad with that old fool, Sir Aymeris, and how thou hadst been twice to look into the Black Valley. This I say hath the Red One heard, and the heart of him was touched by the mere hearsay of thee; and moreover ’tis blessed bread to him the doing of any grief to the knights of Quest Castle; wherefore he hath sent me to hang about the dale, to lay hands on thee if I might for; he knew being wise, that thou wouldst hanker after it; and moreover he let one of his wise women sit out in spells on thee. So I espied, and happened on thee all alone; and mine errand it was, since I came upon thee thus, to draw thee till I had thee safe at home in the Red Hold. Forsooth I began mine errand duly, and fell to beguiling thee, so that thou mayst well have seen the traitor in me. But then, and then my heart failed me, because I fell, not to desiring thee as coveting my master’s chattel, but to loving thee and longing for thee as my fellow and speech-friend. And I said to myself: Into the Red Hold she shall not go if I may hinder it.
Birdalone was very pale, but she refrained her from grief and fear, and said: But those horsed and weaponed men up the dale, who were they? He said: I will not lie now, not even a little; they came into the dale by that upper pass whereof I told thee; they were of our men; I brought them. I was never all alone in the dale; I was to have fetched thee to them, so that thou mightest not see a rout of folk and flee away; and then would we all have gone home together by the upper pass. But we two must have gone on unto them in the dale’s head, whereas for all that I could say I might not bring them down into that doom-ring where we ate and talked yesterday. We two have been valianter than thou mayst have deemed, to have done the deed of dining there; for all men fear it. But as for me, I have been there more than twice or thrice, and thence have I wandered, and found this pass wherein now we be; concerning which I have held my tongue, deeming that it might one day serve my turn; as it hath done now abundantly, since it hath been a refuge unto thee.
Yea, but whither are we going now? said Birdalone; is it perchance to the Red Hold? Nay, never, said the knight, so help me God and All-hallows!
Whither then? said Birdalone; tell me, that I may at least trust thee, even though I owe thee for all the pain and grief which thou hast wrought me. He reddened and said: Wait a while; I bring thee to no ill place; there shall no harm befall thee. And he fretted and fumed, and was confused of speech and look, and then he said: When we come there I shall belike crave a boon of thee.
O, but I crave a boon of thee here and now, said Birdalone. Wipe away thine offence to me and take me back to my friends and the Castle of the Quest! So mayst thou yet be dear unto me, though maybe not wholly as thou wouldst have it. And she reached out her two hands toward him.
His breast heaved, and he seemed nigh to weeping; but he said: Nay, lady, ask me not here and now, but there and tomorrow. But again I swear to thee by thine hands that to the Red Hold I will not bring thee, nor suffer thee to be brought, if I may hinder it; nay, not though I give my life therefor.
Birdalone was silent awhile; then she said: And what shall befall me if I come to the Red Hold? What is the Red Knight, and what would he do with me? Said he: The Red Knight is terrible and fierce and wise; and I fear him, I. He held his peace, and said: I must needs say it, that to thee he would have been as Death and the Devil. He would have bedded thee first. She broke in: Nay, never! and flushed very red. But the knight went on: And after, I wot not; that were according to his mood. And as to thy never, lady, thou wottest not the like of him or of the folk he hath about him. Such as thou? she said angrily. Nay, he said, far worse than me; men who fare little afield, and are not sweetened by adventures and war-perils; and women worser yet; and far worser were they dealing with a woman. She was silent again awhile, and paled once more; then her colour came back to her, and she held out her hand to him and said kindly: Thou being what thou art, I thank thee for thy dealings with me; and now until tomorrow, when I shall ask thee of that again, I am friends with thee; so come now, and let us eat and drink together.
He took her hand and kissed it, and then came and sat down meekly beside her, and they ate and drank in that wild place as though they had been friends of long acquaintance.
When they had made an end of their meal, they gat to horse again and rode on their ways; and every mile now was their road the easier, the pass wider, and its walls lower and now also more broken; till at last they began to go down hill swiftly, and after a little their road seemed to be swallowed in a great thicket of hornbeam and holly; but the knight rode on and entered the said thicket, and ever found some way amidst the branches, though they were presently in the very thick of the trees, and saw no daylight between the trunks for well-nigh an hour, whereas the wood was thick and tangled, and they had to thread their way betwixt its mazes.
At last the wood began to grow thinner before them, and the white light to show between the trunks; and Birdalone deemed that she heard the sound of falling water, and presently was sure thereof; and the knight spake to her: Patience, my lady; now are we near home for today. She nodded kindly to him, and therewith they rode on to open ground, and were on the side of a steep bent, broken on their right hands into a sheer cliff as Birdalone saw when the knight led her to the edge and bade her look over. Then she saw down into a fair dale lying far below them, through the which ran a little river, clear and swift, but not riotous, after it had fallen over a force at the upper end of the dale, and made the sound of water which she had heard. The said dale was so, that whatsoever was on the other side thereof was hidden by tall and great trees, that stood close together some twenty yards aloof from the stream, and betwixt them and it was fair greensward with a few bushes and thorn-trees thereon.
Quoth the knight: Down there shall we rest till tomorrow, if it please thee, lady; and since the sun will set in an hour, we were best on our way at once. It pleases me well, said Birdalone, and I long to tread the turf by the river-side, for I am weary as weary may be of the saddle and the pass.
So down the bent they rode, and it was but a little ere they had ridden it to an end, and had met the river as it swept round the cliff-wall of the valley; and they rode through it, and came on to the pleasant greensward aforesaid under the trees; and in a bight of the wood was a bower builded of turf and thatched with reed; and there, by the bidding of the knight, they alighted; and the knight said: This is thine house for to-night, my lady; and thou mayest lie there in all safety after thou hast supped, and mayst have my weapons by thy side if thou wilt, while I lie under the trees yonder. And if thou wilt bathe thee in the cool water, to comfort thee after the long ride and the weariness, I swear by thy hand that I will take myself out of eye-shot and abide aloof till thou call me.
Said Birdalone, smiling somewhat: Fair sir, I will not have my watch and ward unarmed; keep thou thy weapons; and thou wilt not forget, perchance, that I am not wholly unarmed, whereas I have my bow and arrows and my knife here. And as to my bathing, I will take thee at thy word, and bid thee go aloof a while now at once; for I will go down to the water; and if thou spy upon me, then will it be thy shame and not mine.
The knight went his ways therewith, and Birdalone went down to the water and unclad her; but ere she stepped into the river, she laid her bow and three shafts on the lip thereof. Then she took the water, and disported her merrily therein; and now, forsooth, she was nowise downcast, for she said to herself, this man is not all evil and he lovest me well, and I look for it that tomorrow he will bring me on my way toward the Castle of the Quest, for mere love of me; and then shall he be a dear friend to me, and I will comfort him what I can for as long as we both live.
So she came out of the water and clad her, and then called aloud for the knight, and he came speedily unto her, as if he had been not exceeding far away, though he swore with a great oath that he had nowise espied her. She answered him nought, and they went side by side to the bower; and there the knight dight the victual, and they sat together and ate their meat like old friends; and Birdalone asked the knight concerning this valley and the bower, if he had known it for long, and he answered: Yea, lady, I was but a stripling when I first happened on the dale; and I deem that few know thereof save me; at least none of our flock knoweth thereof, and I am fain thereof, and keep them unknowing, for if my lord were to hear of my having a haunt privy unto me he would like it but ill.
Birdalone turned pale when she heard him speak of his lord; for fear of the Red Knight had entered into her soul, so that now the flesh crept upon her bones. But she enforced her to smile, and said: Yea, and what would he do to thee were he ill-content with thy ways? Forsooth, lady, said he, if he could spare me he would make an end of me in some miserable way; nay, if he were exceeding ill-content, he would do as much for me whether he could spare me or not; otherwise he would watch his occasion, and so grieve me that what he did would go to my very heart. Woe’s me! said Birdalone, thou servest an evil master. The knight answered not, and Birdalone went on speaking earnestly: It is a shame to thee to follow this fiend; why dost thou not sunder thee from him, and become wholly an honest man? Said he gruffly: It is of no use talking of this, I may not; to boot, I fear him. Then did Birdalone hold her peace, and the knight said: Thou dost not know; when I part from thee I must needs go straight to him, and then must that befall which will befall. Speak we no more of these matters.
Birdalone flushed with hope and joy as he spake thus, for she took him to mean that he would lead her, on the morrow, on her way to the Castle of the Quest. But the knight spake in a voice grown cheerful again: As to this bower, lady, the tale thereof is soon told; for with mine own hands I builded it some fifteen years ago; and I have come to this place time and again when my heart was overmuch oppressed with black burdens of evil and turmoil, and have whiles prevailed against the evil, and whiles not. Mayst thou prevail this time, then! said she. He answered her not, but presently fell to talking with her of other matters, and the two were frank and friendly together, till the August night grew dark about them; and then spake Birdalone: Now would I rest, for I can no longer keep mine eyes open. Abide aloof from me tomorrow morning till I call to thee, as thou didst this evening; and then, before we eat together again, thou shalt tell me what thou wilt do with me. He stood up to depart, and she reached out her hand to him in the glimmer, and he saw it, but said: Nay, if I take thine hand, I shall take thine whole body. And therewith he departed, and she laid her down in her smock alone, and slept anon, and was dreamless and forgetting everything till the sun was up in the morning.
Birdalone awoke when the sun came into the bower to her, and stood up at once, and went down to the river and washed the night off her; and then, when she was clad, called on the knight to come to her; and he came, looking downcast and troubled; so that Birdalone thought within herself: It is well, he will do my will.
She stood before him, and gave him the sele of the day, and he looked on her sorrowfully. Then she said: Now is come the time when I am to ask thee to take me back to the Castle of the Quest and my own people. He was not hasty to answer her, and she spake again: This must thou do, or else take me to the Red Hold and deliver me to the tyrant there; and I have heard it from thine own mouth that will be nought else than casting me into shame and torment and death. And I deem thou canst not do it. Nay, she said, staying the words that were coming from his mouth, I wot that thou canst do it if thine heart can suffer it; for thou art stronger than I, and thou mayst break my bow, and wrest this knife out of mine hand; and thou canst bind me and make me fast to the saddle, and so lead my helpless body into thraldom and death. But thou hast said that thou lovest me, and I believe thee herein. Therefore I know that thou canst not will to do this.
He answered in his surly voice: Thou art right, lady, I cannot. Nay, hearken thou this time. I have been turning over night-long what thou didst say about leaving my lord, that is, betraying him, for it comes to that; and now I have made up my mind to do it, and I will betray him for thy sake. Wherefore there is a third way to take which thou hast not seen; we will ride out of this dale in an hour’s time, and I will bring thee to them who are only less the mortal foes of the Red Knight than are thy fellows of the Quest, to wit, to the captain and burgesses of the good town of Greenford by the Water; and I will do them to wit that I have rescued thee from the hands of the Red Knight, and am become his foe; and will show them all his incomings and outgoings, and every whit of rede, and entrap him, so that he fall into their hands. Now, though were I to be taken in battle by them, I should be speedily brought to the halter, or may be to the bale-fire (for we be wizards all in the Red Hold); yet with this word in my mouth, if they trow in it, I shall be made their captain, and presently their master. Trow in my tale they will, if thou bear me out therein, and they will honour thee, and suffer thee to give thyself to me in marriage; and then I know thee, and myself also, and that ere long we shall be both mighty and wealthy and beloved, and fair will be the days before us.
His voice had grown softer as he spake, and toward the end of his words he faltered, and at last brake out a-weeping, and cast himself wordless on the grass before her.
She was pale, and her brow was knitted, and her face quivered; but she spake coldly to him and said: This way I cannot take; and I wonder at thee that thou hast shown it unto me, for thyself thou knowest that I cannot go with thee. I will go nowhere hence save to the Castle of the Quest. If thou wilt not lead me thereto, or put me on the road, I ask thee straight, Wilt thou stay me if I go seek the way thither myself?
He rose up from the ground with a pale face full of anger as well as grief, and caught her by the wrists and said, scowling the while: Tell me now which of them it is; is it the stupid oaf Baudoin, or the light fool Hugh, or the dull pedant Arthur? But it matters not; for I know, and all the country-side knows, that they be vowed, each man of them, to his own woman; and if they find not the women themselves, such dolts they are, that they will ever be worshipping the mere shadows of them, and turn away from flesh and blood, were it the fairest in the world, as thou art, as thou art.
She shrank away from him what she might, but he still held her wrists; then she spake in a quivering voice, her very lips pale with fear and wrath: It is well seen that thou art a man of the Red Knight; and belike thou wouldst do with me as he would. But one thing I crave of thee, if there is any grain of mercy in thee, that thou wilt draw thy sword and thrust me through; thou mayst leave thine hold of me to get at the blade, I will not stir from where I stand. O! to think that I deemed thee well-nigh a true man.
He dropped her hands now and stood aloof from her, staring at her, and presently cast himself on the ground, rolling about and tearing at the grass. She looked on him a moment or two, and then stepped forward and stooped to him, and touched his shoulder and said: Rise up, I bid thee, and be a man and not a wild beast.
So in a while he arose, and stood before her hang-dog-like; then she looked on him pitifully, and said: Fair sir and valiant knight, thou hast gone out of thy mind for a while, and thus hast thou shamed both me and thyself; and now thou wert best forget it, and therewithal my last words to thee.
Therewith she held out her hand to him, and he went on his knees and took it, sobbing, and kissed it. But she said, and smiled on him: Now I see that thou wilt do what I prayed of thee, and lead me hence and put me on the road to the Castle of the Quest. He said: I will lead thee to the Castle of the Quest.
Said Birdalone: Then shall it be as I promised, that I will be thy dear friend while both we live. And now, if thou canst, be a little merrier, and come and sit with me, and let us eat our meat, for I hunger.
He smiled, but woefully, and presently they sat down to their meat; and he strove to be somewhat merry of mood, and to eat as one at a feast; but whiles his heart failed him, and he set his teeth and tore at the grass, and his face was fierce and terrible to look on; but Birdalone made as if she heeded it nought, and was blithe and debonair with him. And when they had done their meat he sat looking at her a while, and at last he said: Lady, dost thou deem that, when all is said, I have done somewhat for thee since first we met the day before yesterday at the lower end of the Black Valley? Yea, she said, as erst I spake, all things considered I deem that thou hast done much. And now, said he, I am to do more yet; for I am to lead thee to where henceforth I shall have no more part or lot in thee than if thou wert in heaven and I in hell. I pray thee say not so, said Birdalone; have I not said that I will be thy friend? Lady, said the knight, I wot well that according to the sweetness of thine heart wilt thou do what thou canst do. And therewith he was silent a while and she also.
Then he said: I would ask thee a grace if I durst. Ask it, said she, and I will grant it if I may; I have gainsaid thee enough meseemeth.
Lady, he said, I will ask this as a reward of the way-leader, to wit, that thou abide with me here in this dale, in all honour holden, till tomorrow morning; and let this place, which has helped me aforetime, be hallowed by thy dwelling here; and I, I shall have had one happy day at least, if never another. Canst thou grant me this? If thou canst not, we will depart in an hour.
Her countenance fell at his word, and she was silent a while; for sore she longed to be speedily whereas her friends should find her if they came back to the castle. But she thought within herself how wild and fierce the man was, and doubted if he might not go stark mad on her hands and destroy her if she thwarted overmuch; and, moreover, frankly she pitied him, and would do what she might to ease his pain and solace his grief of heart. Wherefore she cleared her face of its trouble and let it be vexed no longer, but smiled upon the knight and said: Fair sir, this meseemeth but a little thing for me to do, and I grant it thee with a good will, and this shall now be the first day of the friendship if so thou wilt take it; and may it solace thee.
Who then was gleeful but the knight, and strange it was to see all his sorrow run off him; and he became glad and gamesome as a youth, and yet withal exceeding courteous and kind with her, as though he were serving a mighty queen.
So then they wore the day together in all good fellowship; and first they went up the dale together and right to the foot of that great force, where the stream came thundering down from the sheer rocks; and long Birdalone stood to look thereon, and much she marvelled at it, for no such thing had she seen before.
Thereafter they went afoot into the wood behind the green bower, and when they had gone some way therein for their pleasure, they fell to seeking venison for their dinner; and the knight took Birdalone’s bow and shafts to strike the quarry withal, but he would have her gird his sword to her, that she might not be weaponless. So they gat them a roe and came back therewith to the bower, and the knight dight it and cooked it, and again they ate in fellowship and kindness; and Birdalone had been to the river and fetched thence store of blue-flowered mouse-ear, and of meadow-sweet, whereof was still some left from the early days of summer, and had made her garlands for her head and her loins; and the knight sat and worshipped her, yet he would not so much as touch her hand, sorely as he hungered for the beauty of her body.
Next, when dinner was done, and they lay in the shadow of the trees, and hearkened the moor-hen crying from the water, and the moaning of the wood-doves in the high trees, she turned to him and bade him tell her somewhat of the tale of his life and deeds; but he said: Nay, lady, I pray thee pardon me, for little have I to tell thee that is good, and I would not have thee know of me aught worse than thou knowest of me already. Rather be thou kind to me, and tell me of thy days that have been, wherein I know full surely shall be nought but good.
She smiled and blushed, but without more ado fell to telling him of her life in the House under the Wood, and spared not even to tell him somewhat of the wood-mother. And he said no word to her thereover, save thanks and praises for the kindness of her story.
At last the day wore to its ending, and then the knight’s grief strode over him again, and he was moody and few-spoken; and Birdalone was blithe with him still, and would have solaced his grief; but he said: Let it be; as for thee, thou shalt be happy tomorrow, but this happy day of mine is well-nigh worn, and it is as the wearing of my life. And the dark night came, and he bade her good-night sorrowfully, and departed to his lair in the wood. Birdalone lay in the bower, and might not sleep a long while for her joy of the morrow, which should bring her back to the Castle of the Quest.
But when morning was, and the sun was but just risen, Birdalone awoke, and stood up and did on her raiment, and called her servant the knight, and he came at once leading the two horses, and said: Now go we to the Castle of the Quest. And he was sober and sorrowful, but nought fierce or wild.
So Birdalone thanked him kindly and praised him, and he changed countenance no whit therefor.
Then they mounted and set forth, and the knight led straight into the wood, and by roads that he wotted of, so that they went nowise slowly for wenders through the thick woodland. Thus went they on their way together, he sorry and she glad.
But now leaves the tale to tell of Birdalone and the knight on whom she happened in the Black Valley of the Greywethers, and turns to the Castle of the Quest and the folk thereof, and what they did in this while and thereafter.
Here ends the Fourth Part of the Water of the Wondrous Isles, which is called Of the Days of Abiding, and the Fifth Part now begins, which is called The Tale of the Quest’s Ending.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53