Tells the tale that when the chaplain had departed from Birdalone at the bower in the copse, he went home to the castle sadly enough, because of his love and longing for her, which well he wotted might never be satisfied. Moreover when he was come into the castle again, there fell fear upon him for what might betide her, and he rued it that he had done her will in getting her forth of the castle; and in vain now he set before himself all the reasons for deeming that her peril herein was little or nothing, even as he had laid them before her, and which he then believed in utterly, whereas now himseemed there was an answer to every one of them. So he sighed heavily and went into the chapel, wherein was an altar of St. Leonard; and he knelt thereat, and prayed the saint, as he had erst delivered folk from captivity, now to deliver both him and Birdalone from peril and bonds; but though he was long a-praying and made many words, it lightened his heart little or nothing; so that when he rose up again, that if anything evil happened to this pearl of women, he wished heartily that some one might take his life and he be done with it.
Now was the house astir, and the chaplain came from out the chapel, and thinking all things over, he thought he would go straight to Sir Aymeris and make a clean breast of it, so that weaponed men might be sent at once to seek Birdalone. And he said to himself: What matter if he slay me or cast me into prison, if Birdalone be lost?
So he went his ways to the highest tower, which looked landward and hight the Open Eye, deeming to find Sir Aymeris; but when he got to the topmost, he found neither captain nor carle there: wherefore he stayed a little and looked forth betwixt the battlements, if perchance there were some wild chance of seeing Birdalone’s coming home again; but his keen eyes beheld nothing more than he looked to see, as sheep and neat, and the field-folk of thereabouts. So he turned away and went by the swale toward the next tallest tower, which looked lakewards, and was called Hearts’ Hope; and as he went he fell to framing in his mind the words which he should say to the castellan.
Thus came he, haggard and hapless, on the leads of the tower, which were nought small; and there gathered together in a knot, and all gazing eagerly out over the lake, he found a dozen of men-at-arms and the castellan amongst them. They took no heed of him as he came up, though he stumbled as he crossed the threshold and came clattering over the lead floor, and he saw at once that there was something unwonted toward; but he had but one thought in his mind, to wit, the rescuing of Birdalone.
He went up now behind where the castellan was leaning over the battlement, and pulled his skirt, and when Sir Aymeris turned round, he said: Lord, I have a word for thine ear. But the old knight did but half turn round, and then spake peevishly: Tush, man! another time! seest thou not I have got no eyes for aught save what we see on the lake? Yea, but what then? said the priest. There cometh a boat, said Sir Aymeris, not looking back at him, and our thought is that therein be our lords.
When the priest heard that word, it was to him as if hell had opened underneath his feet; and he had no might to speak for a minute; then he cried out: Sir Aymeris, hearken, I pray thee. But the old knight but thrust him back with his hand, and even therewith one of the men-at-arms cried out: I hear the voice of their horn! Then shouted Sir Aymeris: Where art thou, Noise? Blow, man, blow, if ever thou blewest in all thy life! And therewithal came the blare of the brass, and Sir Aymeris nodded to the trumpeter, who blew blast after blast with all his might, so that the priest might as well have been dumb for any hearing he might get; and all the while to Leonard the minutes seemed hours, and he was well-nigh distraught.
And then when the knight held up his hand for the Noise to stay his blowing, and Leonard strove to speak, the castellan turned on him and said: Peace, Sir Leonard; dost thou not know that now we would listen with our ears to heed if they answer us? Not a word any one man of you, learned or lewd, or ye shall rue it!
Even therewith came clearly the sound of the horn from the water, and again and yet again; and no man spake but the chaplain, who cried out: Hearken, knight, it is of Birdalone. But Sir Aymeris laid his hand on his shoulder and said in an angry whisper: Thou shalt be put downstairs, priest, if thou hold not thy peace.
Leonard drew aback scowling, and went out of the door, and so slowly down the stair, and withdrew him into the cover of the door of the first chamber down from the tower-top, with the mind to waylay Sir Aymeris as he came down; and meanwhile he cursed him for a fool and a dull-wit, and himself yet more, as was but right, for a fool and a licorous traitor.
But he had not tarried there more than a score of minutes, ere he heard a great shout from those up above: They are come! they are come! And next thereafter came all the men clattering down the stair past him, scarce refraining them from shoving each his neighbour on to the next one; Leonard followed on them, and presently arose great shouting and tumult through all the house, and all folk, men and women, hurried flock-meal toward the water-gate, and with them went Leonard perforce; and sick of heart he was, calling to mind the first coming thither of Birdalone.
But now when they came to the water-gate, there verily was the Sending Boat just coming to hand; and in the stern stood the three knights together, all clad in their armour, and before them sat three lovely ladies, clad one in gold, one in green, and one in black: and lo, there was the Quest come home.
Now the prow touched the stones of the stair, and folk were busy to lay hold of it that the wayfarers might land, but Sir Baudoin cried out in a great voice: Let none be so hardy as to touch this ferry, either now or hereafter; for there is peril therein. And therewith he took Aurea by the hand, and led her out of the boat and up the stair, and she all joyous and wondering; and thereafter came Hugh and his darling, and last of all Arthur and Atra, and she alone of the three women looked downcast, and her eyes wandered about the throng that was before them there, as though she sought something, yet feared to see it.
But when they were all standing together on the landing-plain, and the folk were all about them in a ring, Sir Baudoin spake to the castellan and said: Sir Aymeris, thee and other folk I see here, the sight of whom doth me great joy; but where, I pray thee, is the lady, our friend Birdalone, by whom it is that all we are come happily hither? And he looked around with an anxious face; but Arthur was as pale as ashes, yet he spake nought, and Atra let her hand fall away from his.
Then spake the castellan, and said: No harm hath befallen the Lady Birdalone; but whiles she hath been somewhat ailing of late, and it is like that she wotteth not what is toward, and keepeth her chamber now, for it is yet betimes in the morning.
As he spake, came thrusting a man through the throng, eager and pale-faced; who but the chaplain; and he said: He would not let me speak, this fool; I cannot choose my time. Lords, I bear evil tidings and an ugly welcome home. The Lady Birdalone is in peril, and she is not in the castle; I wot not where she is. Ye must send armed men to seek her out.
Thereat fell the silence of woe upon the throng; but Arthur ran forward on the priest with drawn sword, and cried out: I misdoubt me that thou art a traitor; speak! or I will slay thee here and now. If I be a traitor, quoth Leonard, I shall tell thee in little while what ye must do to undo my treason, if there be yet time thereto; so slay me not till ye have heard, and then do what ye will with me.
But Baudoin put Arthur aside, and said: Refrain thee a little, fair brother, else shall words tumble over each other and we shall know nothing clear. Sir Aymeris, bring our dear ladies to the fairest chambers, and do all honour and courtesy to them. And ye, sweetlings, ye will not begrudge us that we go to seek your friend. Thou priest, come with us a little apart, and tell thy tale as shortly as thou mayst, and fear nought; we be not God’s dastards, as the Red Knight and his men.
Viridis wept and kissed her love before all folk, and bade him go and do his best to find her friend, or never come back to her else. Much moved, even to tears, was Aurea withal, and reached her hand to Baudoin, and said: If any man on earth can help us it is thou. Go thou. But Atra wept not, and but said to Arthur: Go thou, it is meet.
Therewith were the ladies brought to fair chambers; but the three knights went with the priest and Sir Aymeris into the solar, and set a guard at the door that their talk should be privy.
It was but five minutes ere the priest had told them all that need was; so they let him abide alone there, though sooth to say there was none of them but had good will to break his neck; and the same rede had all three, that there was nought for it but to go their ways with all speed to the Black Valley of the Greywethers, and follow up the slot of Birdalone if it might yet be found; wherefore they bade saddle their horses straightway; and while that was a-doing they ate a morsel, and bade farewell to their lovelings. And they dight them to go, they three together, with but one squire and a sergeant, who were both of them keen trackers and fell woodsmen. But ere they went, by the rede of Arthur they bade Sir Aymeris to arm a two score of men and ride toward the Red Hold, and beset the ways ‘twixt that and the Castle of the Quest; for one and all they deemed that if any harm befell Birdalone, the Red Knight would be at the bottom of it.
So rode those fellows, and came unto the dale but some four hours after Birdalone had happened on the stranger knight; and they took up the slot of her, but not easily, whereas the ground was hard and stony; howbeit, they found tokens of the knight also, finding here and there what they deemed the footprints of a tall man. And this was grievous to those fellows, since now they could not but deem that somewhat untoward had befallen Birdalone. But they went on making out the slot, and they followed it with much toil until they came to the doom-ring in the head of the dale, whereas Birdalone and the stranger had sat down to meat; but by that time, so toilsome had been their going, it was somewhat more than dusk, and there was nought for it but to abide there night-long. So a while they sat talking, all of them, and the squire and the sergeant aforesaid were not a little timorous of the adventure of making that stead unkenned their sleeping chamber; and to while away the time, their lords made them tell tales such as they knew concerning that place; and both they said that they had never erst come into the dale but a very little way, and said that they had done so then but trusting in their lords’ bidding and the luck of the Quest. Thereafter turned the talk as to what had befallen Birdalone, and the chances of coming on her; and, as folk will in such a plight, they talked the matter over and over again till they were weary and could say no more.
Then they went to sleep, and nought befell them till they awoke in the broad daylight; but they had little inkling of what hour it was, for all the dale was full of thick white mist that came rolling down from the mountains, so that they could scarce see their hands before them, and there they had to tarry still, would they, would they not; and the sergeant fell to telling tales of folk who had been lost in that stony maze; and all of them deemed, more or less, that this was the work either of evil wights, or it might be of the wizardry of the Red Knight; and, to be short, they all deemed that he it was who had wielded it, save the sergeant, who said that the mountain wights were the masters and not the servants of him of the Red Hold.
Thus, then, it betided; but when the said mist had been hanging upon them for some six hours, it rolled up like a curtain, and lo the blue sky and the sun, and the mountains as clear blue as in a picture; and they saw by the sun that it was but a little after high noon.
But as they rejoiced herein, and betook them once more to tracking out the slot of Birdalone and the other, the sky became suddenly overcast, and down from the jaws of the mountain came a storm of wind and rain, and thunder and lightning, so great that they might scarce see each other’s faces, and when it cleared off, in about an hour and a half, and went down the wind to the south-east, the stream was waxen great, and ran brown and furious down the dale, so that it was fordable only here and there; and as for tracking the slot of those twain, there was no need to talk thereof, for the fury of the driving rain had washed all away.
Thus fared they the whole day betwixt fog and clear weather, and they laid them down to rest at night sore disheartened. When the day broke they talked together as to what was best to do; and the sergeant aforesaid spake: Lords, said he, meseemeth I am more at home in the Black Valley than ye be; heed ye not wherefore. Now so it is that if we tarry here till night come we wot not what of evil may betide us, or at the least we do nought. Or if we turn back and go southward out of the dale we shall be safe indeed; but safe should we have been at your house, lords, and should have done no less. But now I shall tell you that, if ye will, lords, I shall guide you to a pass that goeth out of the head of the dale to our right hands, and so turneth the flank of the mountains, and cometh out into the country which lieth about the Red Hold; and meseemeth it is thitherward that we must seek if we would hear any tidings of the lady; for there may we lay in ambush and beset the ways that lead up to the Hold, by which she must have been brought if she hath not been carried through the air. How say ye, lords? Soothly there is peril therein; yet meseemeth peril no more than in our abiding another night in the Black Valley.
Said Arthur: We heed not the peril if there be aught to be done; wherefore let us be stirring straightway. And so said they all. Wherefore they gat to horse, and rode up to the very head of the valley, and the weather was now calm and bright.
But the sergeant brought them to the pass whereof the stranger knight had spoken to Birdalone, which led into the Red Knight’s country, and without more ado they entered it when it was now about three hours after noon. But the way was both steep and rough, so that they had much toil, and went not very far ere night fell upon them, and the moon was not yet up. So when they had stumbled on another two hours, and their horses were much spent and they themselves not a little weary, they laid them down to sleep, after they had eaten such meat as they had with them, in a place where was a little grass for the horses to bite; for all the road hitherto had been mere grim stones and big rocks, walled on either side by stony screes, above which rose steep and beetling crags.
In the dawn they arose again, and made no ado till they were in the saddle, and rode till they came to the crest of the pass, and came out thence after a while on to the swelling flank of a huge mountain (as it might be the side of the mountain of Plinlimmon in Wales), which was grassed and nought craggy, but utterly treeless.
Now the sergeant led them somewhat athwart the said mountain till they began to go down, and saw below them a country of little hills much covered with wood, and in a while, and ere it was noon, they were among the said woods, which were grown mostly with big trees, as oak here and beech there, and the going was good for them.
So came they, three hours after noon, to where was a clearing in the woodland, and a long narrow plain some furlong over lay before them, with a river running along it, and the wood rose on the other side high and thick, so that the said plain looked even as a wide green highway leading from somewhence to somewhither.
At the edge hereof their way-leader, the sergeant, bade draw rein, and said: Lords, we are now in the lands of the Red Hold, and therein is mickle peril and dread to any save stout hearts as ye be; but meseems we are so steaded, that whatever may come out of the Black Valley of the Greywethers to the Red Hold, ye now may scarce miss. Yonder along this plain to the north lies the way to the said Hold, and any man coming from the head of the valley is sure to come by the way we have come, and will pass us not many yards at the worst from where we now be. On the other hand, if any come to the Hold from the mouth of the Black Valley, then along this green road must they needs pass under your very eyes. Lastly, if we do what we are come to do, to wit, to deliver the lady from the Red Knight, then, the deed done, we have to take the green road southward, and ride it for a league and then turn east, and we shall have our heads turned toward the Castle of the Quest, and shall speedily fall in with Sir Aymeris and our men who be guarding the out-gates of the Red Knight’s country toward our house. So now, by my rede, ye shall lay in covert here and abide a while what may befall; if nought come hereby ere two hours be lacking of sunset, then may we seek further.
They all yeasaid this, and gat off their horses, and lay quiet on the grass, not even speaking save softly. And when they had abided thus scarce an hour’s space, the squire, who was a man of very fine ear, held up his hand as though to bid utter silence, and all hearkened eagerly. Presently he said: Hear ye not? Said Arthur: Meseemeth I hear a faint tinkle as of a sheep-bell. Said the squire: ’Tis the clashing of swords down the plain to the south, and meseemeth ’tis but of two: ride we thither?
Quoth Baudoin: Nay, not by my rede; for if we can hear them they can hear us; let us quietly edge along afoot somewhat nigher their way, ever keeping the cover of the wood betwixt us and the open plain. Now then to it; and let each man keep his weapons ready.
Even so did they, and spread out in a line as they went, in such wise that there was some six paces betwixt each man of them, and they went softly forward; Baudoin went first, Hugh second, then Arthur; then the squire and the sergeant last of all.
Now when they had gone but a quarter of an hour, the squire caught up with Arthur, and spake to him softly, and said: The voice of the swords has been silent now a while, and I heard a voice crying out e’en now, a woman’s voice. And now again I could well-nigh deem that I hear horse-hoofs.
Arthur nodded to him, and they went but a little further ere he said: Lo, lo! ’tis the time of the eyes now! Here come folk. And therewithal they stayed them. For the wood turned somewhat here, so as to hide all but a little of the plain, and round the wood neb the new-comers hove in sight, and were close on them at once, so that they might see them clearly, to wit, a knight weaponed, clad all in red, a very big man, riding on a great bay horse, and behind him a woman going afoot in very piteous plight; for she was tethered to the horse’s crupper by a thong that bound her wrists together, so that she had but just room left ‘twixt her and the horse that she might walk, and round about her neck was hung a man’s head newly hewn off.
This sight they all saw at once, and were out of the wood in a trice with weapons aloft, for they knew both the man and the woman, that they were the Red Knight and Birdalone.
So swift and sudden had they been, that he had no time either to spur or even to draw his sword; but he had a heavy steel axe in his hand as the first man came up to him, which was the tall Baudoin; and therewith he smote down on Baudoin so fierce and huge a stroke, that came on him betwixt neck and shoulder, that all gave way before it, and the Golden Knight fell to earth all carven and stark dead: but even therewith fell Hugh, the squire, and the sergeant on the Red Knight; for Arthur had run to Birdalone and sheared her loose from her tether. The sergeant smote him on the right arm with a maul, so that the axe fell to the ground; the squire’s sword came on the side of his head, and, as it was cast back beneath the stroke, Hugh thrust his sword through the throat of him, and down he fell unto the earth and was dead in less than a minute.
Then gathered the others round about Baudoin, and saw at once that he was dead; and Birdalone came thrusting through the press of them, and knelt down beside him, and when she saw her friend so piteously dight, she wept and wailed over him as one who might not be comforted; and Hugh stood over her and let his tears fall down upon the dead man; and withal the squire and the sergeant did not refrain their lamentations, for sore beloved was Sir Baudoin the Golden Knight.
But Arthur spake dry-eyed, though there was grief in his countenance, and he said: Fellows, and thou, lady, let us lament afterwards, but now is time for us to get us gone hence as speedily as may be. Yet I will ask, doth any know whose is this head that the slain tyrant here had hung about the lady’s neck? May the fiends curse him therefor!
Said the sergeant: Yea, lords, that wot I; this is the head of the Red Knight’s captain and head man, Sir Thomas of Estcliffe; one of the hardiest of knights he was while he was alive, as ye surely wot, lords; neither, as I have heard say, was he as cruel a tyrant as his lord that lieth there ready for the ravens.
Now had Birdalone arisen and was standing facing Arthur; her face was pale and full of anguish, and she was dabbled with blood from the dead man’s neck; but there was nought of shame in her face as she stood there and spoke: O my living friends, who have but now saved me, ye and my dead friends, from what shame and death I know not, the tale of this woeful hap is over long to tell if there be peril at hand, and I scarce alive from dread and sorrow; but shortly thus it is: This man, whose head here lieth, entrapped me as I foolishly wandered in the Black Valley, and afterwards delivered me, and was leading me to your castle, my friends, when this other one, his master, the tyrant of the Red Hold, came upon him, and fell upon him and slew him as a traitor, and dighted me as ye saw. And woe’s me! I am the fool whose folly has slain your friend and mine. Wherefore I am not worthy of your fellowship, and ye shall cast me forth of it; or to slay me were better.
So she spake, gazing earnestly on Arthur; and so troubled and grieved, that she might well have died but for her woodland breeding, and the toil of the days she had won through in the House under the Wood.
But Hugh spake gently to her and said: Keep up thine heart yet, maiden; for the hand of Fate it is that led thee, and none doeth grievously amiss but if he mean wrong-doing in his heart; and we know thee for true; and thou hast been our helper, and brought our lovelings unto us to make us happy.
But she brake out weeping afresh, and said: O no, no! it is but woe and weariness I have brought unto my friends; and to myself woe and weariness yet more.
And she looked piteously into Arthur’s face, and hard and stern it seemed unto her; and she writhed and wrung her hands for anguish. But he spake and said: This will we look into when we be safe behind our walls, and see what she hath done amiss and what not amiss. But now is there but one thing to do, and that is to get us speedily on our way to the Castle of the Quest, and bind our fellow’s body on his horse that he also may ride with us, and the lady shall ride the horse of the accursed thief. Then they turned to go toward their horses; but therewith Birdalone smote her foot against the slain knight’s head, and shrank aback from it, and pointed down toward it and spake no word; and Hugh said: Friends, the lady is right, this at least we will cover with earth. Do ye go fetch hither our horses, since we be on the road, and I will do here what need is meanwhile.
So they went on that errand, and then Hugh and Birdalone between them dug a hole with the swords and laid the head of the captain of the Red Knight therein. And forsooth, somewhat would Birdalone have wept for him had she had a tear to spare.
Then they fell to and bound the dead Baudoin on the Red Knight’s mighty bay steed, so that no time might be wasted; and when that was done, and the others had not come back with their horses, Hugh took Birdalone’s hand and led her down to the stream and washed the gore off her bosom, and she washed her face and her hands and let him lead her back again in such wise that now she could hearken to the words of comfort he spake to her, and piteous kind he seemed unto her; so that at last she plucked up heart, and asked him how Viridis did. Quoth he: They be all safe at home in the castle, and Viridis is well and loveth thee well. And Aurea was well, woe worth the while for her now! As for Atra, she has not been so glad as the other twain, I wot not wherefore.
Even as he spake were the others come up with the horses, and Arthur nodded yeasay when he saw what had been done with Baudoin dead; and so they gat to horse, and Birdalone it was that rode Baudoin’s steed. Then they went their ways, crossing the river into the wood; and the sergeant was ever way-leader, but the squire led the horse which bore the sorrowful burden of the dead Knight of the Quest.
Now they had gone but some three hours, riding dreary and nigh speechless all of them, ere they began to know the land they were in, and that they were coming to the place where they might look presently to fall in with Sir Aymeris and his company; and even so the meeting betid, that they saw men standing and going about their horses beside a little wood, and knew them presently for their folk, who mounted at once and spurred forward to meet them, spears aloft. Speedily then was the joy of those abiders turned into sorrow, nor may the grief of Sir Aymeris be told, so great it was; and Birdalone looked on and saw the mourning and lamentation of the warriors, and eked was her anguish of mind; and she beheld Arthur the Black Squire, how he sat still upon his horse with a hard and dreary countenance, and looked on those mourners almost as if he contemned them. But Sir Aymeris came up to Birdalone, and knelt before her and kissed her hand, and said: If my heart might rejoice in aught, as some day it will, it would rejoice in seeing thee safe and sound, lady; here at least is gain to set beside the loss.
She thanked him, but looked askance toward Arthur, who said: If that be gain, yet is there more, for the Red Knight lieth in the green plain for a supper to the wolf and the crow. Vengeance there hath been, and belike more yet may come. But now, if ye have lamented as much as ye deem befitteth warriors, let us tarry here no longer; for even yet meseemeth shall we be safer behind walls, now that our chief and captain is slain, I scarce know in what quarrel.
None naysaid it, so they all rode forth together, and the sergeant and the squire and Sir Hugh told of their tale what they might to Sir Aymeris and the others; but Arthur held his peace, and rode aloof from Birdalone, whereas Sir Aymeris and Hugh rode on either side of her, and did not spare to comfort her what they might.
They rode straight on, and made no stay for nightfall, and thus came home to the Castle of the Quest before the day was full; and woeful was their entry as they went in the dawn underneath the gate of the said castle, and soon was the whole house astir and lamenting.
As for Birdalone, when she got down from her horse in the gateway, and was stiff and weary of body, and all dazed and confused of mind, there was but little life in her; nor could she so much as think of the new day and Aurea’s awakening, but crept up unto her own chamber, so long as it seemed since she had left it, though it was but a little while; and she cast herself upon the bed and fell asleep whether she would or not, and so forgat her much sorrow and her little hope.
When she woke again, she had slept the night away, and it was broad day, and for a moment she lay wondering what was the burden upon her; but presently she called it all to mind, and deemed it were well might she forget it all again. Anon she became aware of someone moving about the chamber, and she looked about unhappily; and lo! a woman, fair and dainty, clad all in green, and it was Viridis that had come there. But when she saw Birdalone stirring, she came up to her and kissed her sweetly and kindly, and wept over her, so that Birdalone might nowise refrain her tears. But when she might cease weeping, she said to Viridis: Tell me, art thou weeping for thy friend who is lost, and who shall be thy friend no more; or thy friend whom thou hast found? Said Viridis: Forsooth I have wept for Baudoin plenteously, and he is worthy of it, for he was valiant and true and kind. Said Birdalone: True is that; but I meant not my question so; but rather I would ask thee if thou weepest because thine heart must needs cast me away, or because thou hast found me again? Quoth Viridis: Whoso may be dead, or whoso alive, but if it were Hugh, my loveling, I were rejoiced beyond measure to find thee, my friend. And again she kissed her as one who was glad and kind. But for new rest of soul and for joy, Birdalone fell a-weeping afresh.
Again she spake: And what mind have the others about me? For thou art but one, though the dearest, save . . . And would they punish me for my fault and folly that has slain the best man in the world? If the punishment be short of putting me forth of their fellowship, I were fain thereof.
Viridis laughed: Forsooth, she said, they have much to punish thee for! whereas it was by thy doing and thy valiance that we all came together again and the Quest was accomplished. Nay, but tell me, said Birdalone, what do they say of me, each one of them?
Viridis reddened; she said: Hugh, my mate, saith all good of thee; though no one of carl-folk may be sorrier of the loss of his fellow. Aurea layeth not the death of her man upon thee; and she saith: When the fountain of tears is dried up in me, I will see her and comfort her, as she me. Atra saith: she saith but little, yet she saith: So is it fated. I had done belike no better, but worse than she.
Now turned Birdalone red and then pale again, and she said, but in a quavering voice: And the Black Squire, Arthur, what sayeth he? Said Viridis: He sayeth nought of thee, but that he would hear all the tale of what befell thee in the Black Valley. Sweet friend, said Birdalone, I pray thee of thy kindness and sweetness that thou go unto him presently and bring him in hither, and then I will tell him all; and he and thou and I together.
Viridis said: There is this to be said, that when a man loveth a woman he coveteth her, to have her all wholly to himself, and hard and evil he groweth for the time that he misdoubteth her whom he loveth. And I will tell thee that this man is jealous lest thou wert never so little kind to the slain stranger knight whose head the tyrant hung about thee. Furthermore, I fear there is no help for it that thou wilt undo the happiness of one of us, that is Atra; yet were it better that that befell later than sooner. And if Sir Arthur come in here to thee, and hath thy tale with none beside save me, meseems the poor Atra will feel a bitter smart because of it. Were it not better that we all meet presently in the solar, and that there thou tell thy tale to us all? and thereafter shall we tell the tale of our deliverance and our coming hither. And thus doing, it will seem less like to the breaking up of our fellowship.
Said Birdalone: It will be hard for me to tell my tale before Atra and before him. Might it not be that thou hearken to it here and now, and tell it to the others hereafter? Nay, nay, said Viridis, I am not a proper minstrel to take the word out of thy mouth. Never shall I be able to tell it so that they shall trow it as if they had seen it all. Besides, when all is told, then shall we be more bound together again. I pray thee, and I pray thee, sweet, do so much for me as to tell thy tale to the fellowship of us. And if it be hard to thee, look upon it as my share of the punishment which is due to thee for falling into that mishap.
Smiled Birdalone ruefully, and said: So be it; and may the share of the others be as light as thine, sister. Yet soothly were I liefer that my body and my skin should pay the forfeit. But now, since I must needs do this, the sooner is the better meseemeth.
In a little half hour, said Viridis, will I bring what is left of our fellowship into the solar to hearken thee. So come thou there unto us when thou art clad. And hear thou! be not too meek and humble, and bow thyself to us in fear of our sorrow. For whereas thou didst speak of our punishing thee, there will be one there whom thou mayst easily punish to thy pleasure; forsooth, friend, I rue that so it is; but since it will not better be, what may I do but wish thee happy and him also.
Therewith she turned and went out of the chamber, and Birdalone, left to herself, felt a secret joy in her soul that she might not master, despite the sorrow of her friends, whatever it might be.
Now Viridis did as she said, and brought them all in to the solar; there was none lacking save Baudoin, and they sat silently in a half ring, till the door opened and Birdalone came in to them, clad all simply in but a black coat; and she made obeisance to them, and stood there with her head bent down as if they were her judges, for so in sooth she deemed them. Then Hugh bade her sit down amongst them; but she said: Nay, I will not sit amongst you till ye have heard my story, and ye have told me that I am yet of your fellowship. None said aught; Atra looked straight before her, and her eyes met not Birdalone’s eyes; Arthur looked down on the ground; but Hugh and Viridis looked kindly on Birdalone, and to Viridis’ eyes the tears were come.
Then spake Birdalone and said: I am here as one that hath done amiss; but I will tell you, so that ye may not think worse of me than ye should, that when ye were gone, ye Champions, and the time wore long that ye came not again, it lay heavy on my heart, and hope waned and fear waxed, and my soul so grieved my body that I thought to fall sick thereof, and I knew that it would be ill for you to come home hither and find me sick; so that I longed sore to do somewhat which should make me whole again. Then weird would that I should hear all the tale of the Black Valley of the Greywethers, and of how therein is whiles granted fulfilment of desire; and methought how well it were if I might seek the adventure there and accomplish it. Thereof, doubtless, hath the chaplain, Sir Leonard, told you; but this furthermore would I say, that his doing herein was nought; all was done by my doing and by my bidding, and he might not choose but do it. Wherefore I do pray you all earnestly that ye keep no grudge against him, but pardon him all. Tell me, then, will ye do thus much?
Said Hugh: Let him be pardoned, if he can take pardon. But Arthur spake not, and Birdalone looked on him anxiously, and her face was moved, and it was with her throat as if she had swallowed something down. Then she spake again, and fell to tell them all that had betid to her when she went to the Black Valley, even as is hereafore writ, hiding nought that had been done and said; and freely she told it, without fear or shame, and with such clearness and sweetness of words that no one of them doubted her aught; and Arthur lifted up his head, and once and again his eyes met hers, and there was nought of hardness in them, though they turned away at once.
So at last fell Birdalone to telling what betid after they two, the stranger knight and she, left the valley of the force and fell to riding the wildwood with their heads turned toward the Castle of the Quest; and she said:
When we turned into the wood away from the said valley it lacked some four hours of noon; and we rode till noon was, and rested by a stream-side and ate, for we knew no cause wherefore we should hasten overmuch; but my fellow the strange knight was downcast and heavy, and some might have called him sullen. But I strove to make him of better cheer, and spake to him kindly, as to one who of an enemy had become a friend; but he answered me: Lady, it availeth not; I grieve that I am no better company than thou seest me, and I have striven to be merrier; but apart from all that I wot and that thou wottest which should make me of evil cheer, there is now a weight upon my heart which I cannot lift, such as never have I felt erst. So by thy leave we will to horse at once, that we may the speedier come to the Castle of the Quest and Sir Aymeris’ prison.
So I arose, but smiled on him and said: Hold up thine heart, friend! for thee shall be no prison at the Castle of the Quest, but the fair welcome of friends. He said nought, and mended not his cheer; and in this plight we gat to horse and rode on for some three hours more, till we came out of the thick forest into a long clearing, which went like a wide highway of greensward between the thicket, and it seemed as if the hand of man had cleared that said green road. Thereto we had come, following a little river which came out on to the clearing with us, and then, turning, ran well-nigh amidst it toward the north.
Now when we were come thither, and were betwixt the thicket and the water’s edge, we drew rein, and it seemed to me as fair a stead as might be in the woodland, and I looked thereon well pleased and with a happy heart. But the knight said: Lady, art thou not exceeding weary? Nay, said I, not in any wise. Said he: It is strange then, for so weary am I, that I must in any case get off my horse and lay me down on the grass here, or I shall drop from the saddle. And therewith he lighted down and stood by me a little, as to help me off my horse; but I said to him: Knight, I pray thee, even if ye be weary, to struggle forward a little, lest we be in peril here. In peril? quoth he; yea, that might be if the Red Knight knew of our whereabouts; but how should that be? He spoke this heavily, as one scarce awake; and then he said: I pray thee pardon me, lady, but for nought may I hold my head up; suffer me to sleep but a little, and then will I arise and lead thee straight to thy journey’s end. Therewithal he laid him down on the grass and was presently asleep, and I sat down by him all dismayed. At first, indeed, I doubted some treachery in him, for how might I trust him wholly after all that had come and gone? but when I saw that there was no feigning in his sleep, I set that doubt aside, and knew not what to make of it.
Thus passed an hour, and from time to time I shook him and strove to waken him, but it was all in vain; so I knew none other rede than to abide his awakening; for I knew not the way to take toward this castle; and, moreover, though he were a knight, and armed, yet might it be perilous for him if he were left there alone and unguarded; so I abode.
But now came new tidings. Methought I heard the sound of the tinkling of weapons and armour; the green highway so turned that a wood neb about an hundred yards to the north hid it from my sight, so that a man might have drawn somewhat near to us without being seen, came he on the hither side of the river. So I stood up hastily, and strung my bow, and took a shaft in my fingers, and no sooner was it done than there came a rider round about the aforesaid wood neb. He was all-armed and had a red surcoat, and rode a great shining bay horse. I kept my eye upon him while I stirred the sleeping knight with my foot, and cried to him to wake, but he scarce moved, and but uttered words without sense.
Now the new-comer drew rein for a moment when he saw us, and then moved on a little toward me, but I nocked a shaft and pointed it at him, and cried out to him to stay. Then I heard a great rattling laugh come from him, and he shouted: Nay, do thou stay, fair wood-wife, and I will risk thy shafts to come at thee. But why doth not the sluggard at thy feet rise up and stand before me, if he be thy loveling? Or is he dead? His voice was harsh and big, and I feared him sore; and it was as much because of fear as of hardihood, that I drew and loosed straightway; and doubtless it was because of fear that I saw my shaft fly an inch or so over his right shoulder. I heard his rattling laugh again, and saw him bend forward as he spurred; I knew that time lacked for drawing another shaft, so I caught up my skirts and ran all I might; but swift-foot as I be, it availed me nought, for I was cumbered with my gown, and moreover I was confused with not knowing whither to run, since I wotted that in the water the horse would do better than I.
So he was up with me in a twinkling, and reached out his hand and caught hold of me by the hair, and tugged me to him as he reined back his horse. Then he laughed again and said: Forsooth she will look better when she is no longer reddened and roughened with fleeing; and, by Red Peter! what limbs she hath. Then he let me loose and got off his horse, and shoved me on before him till we came to where the Black One lay still sleeping heavily. Then the Red Knight stood against me, and looked hard into my face; and I saw how huge a man he was, and how a lock of bright red hair came out from under his sallet. His eyes were green and fierce underneath shaggy red eyebrows; terrible he was to look on.
Now he spake fiercely and roughly, and as though he had something against me: Tell me, thou, who thou art and who this is? I answered nought, for fear had frozen my speech. He stamped his foot on the ground and cried: Hah! art thou gone dumb? Speak! thou wert best! I said, all quaking: My name is Birdalone; I belong to no one; I have no kindred: as for this man, I know not his name. He said: Comest thou from the Castle of the Quest? Art thou the whore of those lily-and-rose champions there? My heart was hot with anger in spite of my dread, but I spake: I came from the Castle of the Quest. He said: And this man (therewith he turned about and spurned him in the side), where didst thou happen upon him? Again I was silent, and he roared out at me: So thou wilt not answer! Beware, or I may see how to compel the speech of thee. Now answer me this: Was it in the Black Valley of the Greywethers that ye two came together? Again I knew not how to answer, lest I might do a wrong to him who had repented him of the wrong he had done me. But the Red Knight burst out a-laughing and said: It shall be remembered against thee, first, that thou didst let fly a shaft at me; second, that thou didst run from me; and thirdly, that thou hast been slack in answering my questions. But all this scathes me nought; first, because thy shaft missed me; second, because thy legs failed thee (though they were fair to look on, running); and third, because all thou canst tell me I know without thine answering. Now thee will I tell that this is Friday, and that ye two first met in the Black Valley on Tuesday; now I will ask this last question, and thou mayst answer it or not as thou wilt; for presently I shall wake this brisk and stirring knight, and I deem that he will tell me the truth of this if of nought else. Tell me, thou whore of the Questing Champions, where and how many times thou hast lain in this good knight’s arms since last Tuesday? Nowhere and never, quoth I. Thou liest, I doubt thee, said the Red Knight; howsoever, let us see what this doughty one will say. Hah! thou deemest he shall be hard to wake up, dost thou not! Well, I shall see to that. He who giveth sleep may take it away again.
Therewith he went up to the Black One and stooped adown over his head, and spake some words over him, but so softly that I heard not their import; and straightway the sleeper rose up so suddenly that he wellnigh smote against the Red Knight. He stood awhile staggering, and blinking at the other one, but somehow got his sword drawn forth, and the Red Knight hindered him nought therein, but spake anon when the other was come to himself somewhat: The sele of the day to thee, Sir Thomas, True Thomas! Fair is thy bed, and most fair thy bedfellow.
The Black Knight drew aback from him and was now come awake, wherefore he stood on his guard, but said nought. Then said the Red Knight: Sir Thomas, I have been asking this fair lady a question, but her memory faileth her and she may not answer it; perchance thou mayst do better. Tell me where and how many times hast thou bedded her betwixt last Tuesday and this? Nowhere and never, cried Sir Thomas, knitting his brows and handling his sword. Hah, said the Red Knight, an echo of her speech is this. Lo, the tale ye have made up betwixt you. But at least, having done mine errand, though meseemeth somewhat leisurely, and having gotten the woman for me, thou art now bringing her on to the Red Hold, whatever thou hast done with her on the road? I am not, said my fellow, I am leading her away from the Red Hold. Pity of thee, quoth the other, that thou hast fallen in with me, and thou but half-armed. And he raised aloft his sword; but presently sank it again, and let the point rest on the earth.
Then he spoke again, not mockingly as erst: A word before we end it, Thomas: thou hast hitherto done well by me, as I by thee. I say thou hast gotten this woman, and I doubt not that at first thou hadst the mind to bring her to me unminished; but then thou wert overcome by her beauty, as forsooth I know thee woman-mad, and thou hadst meant to keep her for thyself, as forsooth I marvel not. But in thy love-making thou hast not bethought thee that keep her to thyself thou mayst not while I am above ground, save thou bewray me, and join thee to my foemen and thine. Because I am such a man, that what I desire that will I have. For this reason, when I misdoubted me of thee for thy much-tarrying, I cast the sleep over thee, and have caught thee. For what wilt thou do? Doubt it not, that if our swords meet, I shall pay thee for trying to take my bedthrall from me by taking from thee no more than thy life. But now will I forgive thee all if thou wilt ride home quietly with me and this damsel-errant to the Red Hold, and let her be mine and not thine so long as I will; and then afterwards, if thou wilt, she shall be thine as long as thou wilt. Now behold, both this chance and thy life is a mere gift of me to thee, for otherwise thou shalt have neither damsel nor life.
Yea, yea, said my friend, I know what thou wouldest: I have been no unhandy devil to thee this long while, and thou wouldst fain keep me still; but now I will be devil no longer, on this earth at least, but will die and take my luck of it. And do thou, God, see to the saving of this damsel, since thou hast taken the matter out of my hands. Farewell, dear maiden!
Scarce was the word out of his mouth ere his sword was in the air, and he smote so fierce and straight that he beat down the huge man’s blade, and, ere he could master it again, smote the Red Knight so heavily on the crest that he fell to his knees; and the heart rose in me, for I deemed that he might yet prevail; and in as ’twere a flash I bethought me of the knife at my girdlestead, and drew it and ran to the Red Knight, and tore aside his mail hood with one hand and thrust the knife into his shoulder with the other; but so mighty was he that he heeded nought the hurt, but swept his sword back-handed at the Black Knight’s unarmed leg, and smote him so sore a wound that down he fell clattering. Then arose the Red Knight, and thrust me from him with the left hand, and strode over my fellow-farer and thrust his sword through his throat. Then he turned to me, and spake in a braying voice as if a harsh horn were blown:
Abide thou; if thou takest one step I will slay thee at once. So he went and sat down on a bank a little way from the dead man, and wiped his sword on the grass and laid it beside him, and so sat pondering a while. Thereafter he called me to him, and bade me stand in face of him with my hands clasped before me. Then he spake to me: Thou art my thrall and my having, since I had thus doomed it no few days ago; and thou art now in my hands for me to do with as I will. Now instead of being meek and obedient to me thou hast rebelled against me, shot an arrow at me, run from me, denied answer to my questions, and thrust a knife into me. To be short, thou hast made thyself my foe. Furthermore, it is by thy doing that I have lost a right good servant and a trusty fellow, and one that I loved; it is thou that hast slain him. Now have I been pondering what I shall do with thee. I said: If I have deserved the death, then make an end and slay me presently; but bring me not to thine house, I pray thee. I pray by the mother that bore thee!
Quoth he: Hold thy peace, it is not what thou deservest that I am looking to, but what shall pleasure me. Now hearken; I say that thou hast made thee my foe, and I have overcome thee; thou art my runaway thrall, and I have caught thee. As my foe I might slay thee in any evil way it might like me; as my thrall I might well chastise thee as sharply and as bitterly as I would. But it is not my pleasure to slay thee, rather I will bring thee to the Red Hold, and there see what we may make of thee; whereas I cannot but deem that in thee is the making of somewhat more than a thrall; and if not, then a thrall must thou needs be. Again as to the chastising of thee, that also I forgive thee since I have gotten the hope aforesaid. Yet forsooth some shame must I do thee to pay thee back for the love that was betwixt thee and the slain man. I will ponder what it shall be; but take heed that whatsoever it shall be, it will not avail thee to pray me to forego it, though thy speech be as fair and sweet as thy body.
Therewith he was silent a while, and I stood there not daring to move, and my heart was so downcast that all the sweetness of life seemed departed. Yet I withheld lamentations or prayers, thinking within myself, who knows what occasion may be between this and the Red Hold for my escaping; let me keep myself alive for that if it may be.
Presently he arose and took his sword, and went up to the slain man’s body and smote the head from off it. Then he went to the two horses of Sir Thomas and of me, and took from them such gear of girths and thongs as he would, and therewith he dight me as ye saw, doing a girth about my middle and making me fast to a line wherewith to hold me in tow. And then he did that other thing which sickens my very soul to tell of, to wit, that he took the slain man’s head and tied a lace thereto, and hung it about my neck; and as he did so, he said: This jewel shalt thou thyself bear to mine house; and there belike shall we lay it in earth, since the man was my trusty fellow. Lo now, this is all the ill I shall do thee till it be tried of what avail thou art. This is a shaming to thee and not a torment, for I will ride a foot’s-pace, and the green way is both soft and smooth; wherefore fear not that I shall throw thee down or drag thee along. And tomorrow thy shame shall be gone and we shall see what is to betide.
Lo, friends, this is the last word he spake ere he was slain, and the ending of my tale; for we had gone thus but a little way ere ye brake out of the wood upon us; and then befell the death of one friend, and the doubt, maybe, of the others, and all the grief and sorrow that I shall never be quit of unless ye forgive me where I have done amiss, and help me in the days to come. And she spread out her hands before them, and bowed her head, and the tears fell from her eyes on to the floor.
Viridis wept at Birdalone’s weeping, and Aurea for her own sorrow, which this other sorrow stirred. Atra wept not, but her face was sadder than weeping.
But Arthur spake and said: Herein hath been the hand of Weird, and hath been heavy on us; but no blame have we to lay on our sister Birdalone, nor hath she done light-mindedly by us; though maybe she erred in not trusting to the good-hap of the Quest to bring us back in due time: and all that she saith do we trow as if it were written in the Holy Gospel. They all yeasaid this, and called on her to come amongst them; but she thought of little at first save the joy of hearing the sweetness of those words as Arthur spake them; wherefore she hung back a little, and thought shame of it that she might not give more heed to the others of them. Then came Viridis and took her by the hand and led her to Sir Hugh, and Birdalone knelt down before him and took his hand to kiss it, but he put both hands about her face and kissed her kindly and merrily on the lips. Then she knelt before Aurea, and was hapless before her; but Aurea kissed her, and bade her be of better cheer, albeit the words came coldly from her mouth. Next she came to Arthur, and knelt before him and took his hand and kissed it, and thanked him kindly for his kind words, looking into his face meanwhile; and she saw that it was pale and troubled now, and she longed to be alone with him that she might ask him wherefore.
As for Atra, she arose as Birdalone came before her, and cast her arms about her neck, and wept and sobbed upon her bosom, and then went hurrying from out the solar and into the hall, and walked to and fro there a while until the passion that tore her was lulled somewhat, and she might show her face to them calm and friendly once more. And as she entered Arthur was speaking, and he said:
To you, ladies, I tell what we of the castle wot better than well, that our dear friend hath escaped so heavy a fate in escaping the Red Hold, that it were unmeet for us to murmur at our loss in our fellow; for a warrior’s life, which is ever in peril of death, is nought over heavy a ransom for such a friend, and so dear and lovely, from such a long and evil death. Whereas ye must wot that the said Hold hath this long while been a very treasure-house of woes and a coffer of lamentations; for merciless was the tyrant thereof, and merciless all his folk. Now another time, when ye are stronger in heart than now ye be, I may tell you tales thereof closer and more nicely of those who did his will; as of his innermost band of men-at-arms, called the Millers; and of his fellow-worker in wizardry and venoms, called the Apothecary; and the three hags, called the Furies; and the three young women, called the Graces; and his hounds that love man’s flesh; and the like tales, as evil as nightmares turned into deeds of the day. But now and here will I say this, that when we have done the obsequies of our dear fellow, it were good that we follow up the battle so valiantly begun by him. I mean that the Quest of our ladies being now accomplished, we should turn what is left of the fellowship into a war against the Red Hold and its evil things; and that so soon as the relics of Baudoin are laid in earth, we gather force and go thither in arms to live or die in the quarrel, and so sweeten the earth, as did the men of ancient days when they slew the dragons and the giants, and the children of hell, and the sons of Cain.
His cheek flushed as he spoke, and he looked around till his eyes fell on Birdalone, and he saw that her face also glowed and her eyes gleamed; but Viridis, her heart sank so that she paled, and her lips trembled.
But Aurea spake and said: I thank thee for thy word, Black Squire, and I know that my man shall rejoice in Paradise when he knoweth of it, and thereof shall I tell him tomorrow when the mass is said for him.
And Atra said: Good is the word, and we look to it that the deed shall be better yet. Thus hath the evil arisen that shall destroy the evil, as oft hath been when the valiant have been grieved, and the joy of the true-hearted hath been stolen from them; then the hand doth the doughty deed and the heart hath ease, and solaced is sorrow.
They looked on her and wondered, for she spake with her head upraised and her eyes glittering, as she had been one of the wise women of yore agone. And Birdalone feared her, though she loved her.
Lastly spake Hugh, and said: Brother, this is well thought of indeed, and I marvel that I did not prevent thee; and I am thine to live and die with thee. And the adventure is nought unlikely; for if we have lost a captain they have lost their head devil, and their head little devil; moreover, the good men of Greenford shall join them to us, and that shall make us strong, whereas they have men enough, and those stout men-at-arms; and artificers they have to make us engines, and do other wisdom; and therewithal money to buy or to wage what they will. Wherefore, to my mind, we were best to make no tarrying, but send out the messengers for the hosting straightway.
Straightway, said the Black Squire; and let us go now and find Sir Aymeris. So they arose both and went their ways, and left the women there alone, and were gone a good while.
Meanwhile of their absence, Viridis sat sad and silent and downcast, though she wept not, for her gladness, which erst had been so great, seemed now reft from her; and no merrier was Aurea, as might have been looked for. But Atra came quietly unto Birdalone, and said softly: I have a word for thee if thou wilt come forth with me into the hall. Birdalone’s heart failed her somewhat, but she suffered Atra to take her hand, and they went into the hall together, and Atra brought her into a shot-window, and they sat down together side by side and were silent awhile. Spake Atra then, trembling and reddening: Birdalone, knowest thou what thought, what hope, was in my heart when I spake so proudly and rashly e’en now? Birdalone kept silence, and trembled as the other did. This it was, said Atra: he will go to this battle valiantly, he may fall there, and that were better; for then is life to begin anew: and what is there to do with these dregs of life? Said Birdalone, with flushed face: If he die he shall die goodly, and if he live he shall live goodly. Yea, yea, said Atra; forsooth thou art a happy woman! Dost thou hate me? said Birdalone. Said Atra: Proud is thy word, but I hate thee not. Nay, e’en now, when I spake thus boastfully, I thought: When he hath died as a doughty knight should, then, when life begins again, Birdalone and I shall be friends and sisters, and we two will talk together oft and call him to mind, and the kindness of him, and how he loved us. Woe’s me! that was when he was there sitting beside me and I could see him and his kindness; and then it was as if I could give him away; but now he is gone and I may not see him, it is clear to me that I have no part or lot in him, and I call back my thought and my word, and now it is: O that he may live! O thou happy woman, that shall be glad whether he liveth or dieth!
Said Birdalone: And now thou hatest me, dost thou not, and we are foes? Atra answered not, nor spake for a while; then she said: Hard and bitter is it, and I know not what to turn to. I have seen once and again, on the wall of the Minorites’ church at Greenford, a fair picture of the Blessed, and they walking in the meads of Paradise, clad in like raiment, men and women; their heads flower-crowned, their feet naked in the harmless blossomed grass; hand in hand they walk, with all wrath passed for ever, all desire changed into loving-kindness, all the anguish of forgiveness forgotten. And underneath the picture is it writ:
Bitter winter, burning summer, never more shall waste and wear; Blossom of the rose undying brings undying springtide there.
O for the hope of it, that I might hope it! O for the days to be and the assuaging of sorrow: I speak the word, and the hope springeth; the word is spoken, and there abideth desire barren of hope! And she bowed down her head and wept bitterly; and Birdalone called to mind her kindness of the past and wept for her, she also.
After a while Atra lifted up her head, and thus she spake: I hate thee not, Birdalone; nor doth one say such things to a foe. Yea, furthermore, I will crave somewhat of thee. If ever there come a time when thou mayst do something for me, thou wilt know it belike without my telling thee. In that day and in that hour I bid thee remember how we stood together erst at the stair-foot of the Wailing Tower in the Isle of Increase Unsought, and thou naked and fearful and quaking, and what I did to thee that tide to comfort thee and help and save thee. And then when thou hast called it to mind, do thou for me what thou canst do. Wilt thou promise this? Yea, yea, said Birdalone; and with all the better will, that oft and over again have I called it to mind. Wherefore I behight thee to let me serve thee if I may whenso the occasion cometh, even if it be to my own pain and grief; for this I know thou meanest.
See thou to this then, said Atra coldly; and thou shalt be the better for it in the long run belike: for thou art a happy woman.
She arose as she spake, and said: Hist! here come the lords from the murder-council; and lo, now that he cometh, my heart groweth evil toward thee again, and well-nigh biddeth me wish that thou wert naked and helpless before me again. Lo my unhap! that he should mark my face that it shows as if I were fain to do thee a mischief. And nought of that would I do; for how should it avail me, and thou my fellow and the faithful messenger of the Quest?
Now little of her last words did Birdalone meet, as into the hall came Hugh and Arthur; and though she strove to sober her mind and think of her she-friend and her unhappiness, yet she could not choose but to be full of joy in her inmost heart now she knew without doubt that she was so well-beloved of her beloved: and she deemed that Atra was in the right indeed to call her a happy woman.
So now they all went into the solar together, and sat them down with the two others; and Hugh did them to wit, how they had ordered all the matter of the messengers who were to summon the knights and chiefs of thereabouts, and the aldermen of Greenford, to meet at the Castle of the Quest, that they might set afoot the hosting to go against the Red Hold.
When this was said, and there had been silence a while, Birdalone took up the word, and spake meekly and sweetly, saying: Dear friends, how it fared with you on the isle from the time of my leaving you, and how with you, true knights, from the time of your departure, I both were fain to know for the tale’s sake, and also I would take the telling thereof as a sign of your forgiveness of my transgression; so I would crave the same of you but if it weary you overmuch.
All they yeasaid her kindly, and Hugh spake and said: By your leave, fellows, I will tell in few words what betid us on our way to the Isle of Increase Unsought, and then shall Viridis take up the tale from the time that Birdalone left the said isle in the witch’s ferry. None said aught against it, and Hugh went on: Short is my tale of the journey: We came to the Isle of Nothing on the morrow’s morn of our departure, and being warned of thee, Birdalone, we abode there but a little while to rest us from the boat, and went nowhither from the strand, and so went on our way in a three hours’ space.
Thence again we took the water, and came to the Isle of Kings, and that was in the middle of the night: we beheld the dead long and heedfully when the morning came, and departed again before noon, and came to the Isle of Queens a little after nightfall. The next morning we deemed we needs must go see the images of those ladies, lest aught might have befell since thou wert there which might be of import to the Quest, but all was unchanged, and we came away while the day was yet young.
We made the Isle of the Young and the Old about sunset that day, and the boy and the girl came down to the strand to behold us and wonder at us, and we sported with them merrily a while; and then they brought us to the house of the old man, who received us courteously and gave us to eat and drink. Forsooth, when the night was somewhat spent, he brought out strong drink to us, and took it somewhat amiss that we drank not overmuch thereof, as forsooth he did, and so fell asleep. Before he was drunk we asked him many questions about the isle and its customs, but he knew nought to tell us of them. Of thee also we asked, sister, but he had no memory of thee.
On the morrow he fared down with us to our ferry, and made many prayers to us to take him along with us; for here, said he, is neither lordship nor fair lady; and if here I abide, soon shall I come to mine ending day, and sore I yearn for joyance and a long term to my years. Now we durst not take him aboard lest we should fare amiss with the wight of the Sending Boat; so we naysaid him courteously, thanked him for his guesting, and gave him gifts, to wit, a finger gold ring and an ouch of gold, so he turned away from us somewhat downcast as we deemed; but ere we had given the word to the Sending Boat we heard him singing merrily in a high cracked voice as he went on his way.
Now on this last day betid somewhat of new tidings; for scarce was this isle out of sight behind, ere we saw a boat come sailing toward us from the north-east, and it came on swiftly with a blue ripple of the lake behind it. Thereat we marvelled, and yet more when we saw that its sail was striped of gold and green and black; next then were we betwixt fear and joy when, as it drew nigher, we saw three women in the said boat, clad in gold, green, and black; and it came so nigh unto us at last, that we could see their faces that they were verily those of our lovelings; and each reached out her arms to us and called on us for help, each by our name: and there we were, oarless, sailless, at the mercy of our unkenned ferry. Then would Baudoin and I have leapt overboard to swim to our loves at all adventure; but Sir Arthur here stayed us, and bade us think of it, that we were now nearing the Witch-land, and if we might not look to be beset with guiles and gins to keep us from winning to our journey’s end; wherefore we forbore, though in all wretchedness, and the gay boat ran down the wind away from us, and the breeze and the ripple passed away with it, and the lake lay under the hot sun as smooth as glass; and on we went, weary-hearted.
Came again another sail out of the north-east, when the sun was getting low, and speedily it drew nigh, but this time it was no small boat or barge, but a tall ship with great sails, and goodly-towered she was and shield-hung, and the basnets gleamed and the spears glittered from her castle-tops and bulwarks, and the sound of her horns came down the wind as she neared us. We two handled our weapons and did on our basnets, but Arthur there, he sat still, and said: Not over-wise is the witch, that she lets loose on us two sendings in one day so like unto each other. Hah, said Baudoin, be we wary though; they are going to shoot. And sure enough we saw a line of bowmen in all the castles and even along, and a horn blew, and then forth flew the shafts, but whither we knew not, for none came anywhere anigh us; and Arthur laughed and said: A fair shot into the clouds; but, by our Lady! if none shot better in our country, I would bear no armour for their shafts. But we two were confused and knew not what to think.
The great ship flew past us on the wind as the barge had done, but when she was about half a mile aloof we saw her canvass fall to shivering and her yards swaying round, and Arthur cried out: St. Nicholas! the play beginneth again! she is coming about!
Even so it was, and presently she was bearing on us, and was ere long so close aboard that we could see her every spar and rope, and her folk all gathered to the windward, knights, sergeants, archers, and mariners, to gaze at us and mock us; and huge and devilish laughter arose from amongst them as she ploughed the water so close beside us, that one might well-nigh have cast a morsel of bread aboard her; for clear it was presently that she had no mind to run us down.
Spake Arthur then: There will be a fresh play presently, my mates, but ye sit fast, for meseemeth this show is no more perilous than the other, though it be bigger.
Scarce were the words out of his mouth, ere there was a stir amongst the men gathered in the waist, and lo, amidst a knot of big and fierce mariners, three women standing, pale, with flying hair, and their hands bound behind them, and one was clad in gold and another in green and the third in black; and their faces were as the faces of Aurea and Viridis and Atra.
Then there came forth from that ship a huge cruel roar blent with mocking laughter that shamed our very hearts, and those evil things in the form of mariners took hold of each one of the ladies and cast them overboard into the gulf of the waters, first Aurea, next Viridis, and then Atra; and we two stood up with our useless swords brandished and would have leapt over into the deep, but that Arthur arose also and took hold of an arm of each of us and stayed us, and said: Nay, then, if ye go, take me with you, and let all the Quest sink down into the deep, and let our lovelings pine in captivity, and Birdalone lose all her friends in one swoop, and we be known hereafter as the fools of lovers, the unstable.
So we sat us down, but huge shrieking laughter rose up unblended from the keel of the evil thing, and then they let her go down the wind, and she went her way with flashing of arms, and streaming of banners and pennons, and blowing of horns, and the sun was setting over the wide water.
But Arthur spake: Cheer up, brethren! see ye not how this proud witch is also but an eyeless fool to send us such a show, and the second time in one day to show us the images of our dearlings, who hours ago flitted past us in the stripe-sailed boat? Where, then, did they of the ship meet with them? Nay, lords, let not the anguish of love steal all your wits.
We saw we had been fools to be so overcast by guile, and yet were we exceeding ill at ease, and over-long the time seemed unto us until we should be come to the Isle of Increase Unsought, and find our lovelings there.
Now was the night come, and we fell asleep, but belike were not often all asleep at once; and at last it was, when we felt the dawn drawing near, though, the moon being down, it was the darkest of the summer night, that we were all three awake, when all of a sudden we heard just astern the rushing of the water, as though some keel were cleaving it, and dimly in the dark we saw a sail as of a boat overhauling us. Close at hand there rang out a lamentable cry: O, are ye there, fellows of the Quest? O, help me, friends! save me and deliver me, who am snatched away to be cast into the hands of my mistress that was. Help me, Baudoin, Hugh, Arthur! Help! help!
Then all we knew the voice of Birdalone, and Arthur leapt up, and would have been overboard in a trice had not we two held him, and he fought and cursed us well-favouredly, there is no nay thereto; and meanwhile the wailing voice of thee, my sister, died out in the distance, and the east grew grey, and dawn was come.
Then spake Baudoin: Arthur, my brother, dost thou not mark that this also was of the same sort of show as those two others, and thou who wert so wise before? It is but beguilings to bring the Quest to nought; wherefore call to mind thy manhood and thy much wisdom!
And we admonished him and rebuked him till he became quiet and wise again, but was sad and downcast and silent. But the Sending Boat sped on through the dawning, and when it was light we saw that we had the Isle of Increase close aboard, and we ran ashore there just as the sun was rising. Fain were we then to get out of the boat and feel earth under our feet. We took all our hards out of the boat, and hid away under the roots of an old thorn a little mail wherein was your raiment, my ladies, which ye had lent to Birdalone; then we did on our armour, and advised us of whereabout on the isle we were, and we saw the orchards and gardens before us, and the great fair house above all, even as ye told us of them, Birdalone.
Next, then, without more ado, we went our ways up through the orchard and the gardens, and when we were well-nigh at the end of them, and in face of those many steps ye spake of, we saw at the foot of them a tall woman clad in red scarlet, standing as if she abode our coming. When we drew nigh we saw that she was strong-looking, well-knit, white-skinned, yellow-haired, and blue-eyed, and might have been called a fair woman, as to her shaping, save that her face was heavy, yet hard-looking, with thin lips and somewhat flagging cheeks, a face stupid, but proud and cruel.
She hailed us as we came up, and said: Men-at-arms, ye be welcome to our house, and I bid you to eat and drink and abide here.
Then we louted before her, and bade her Hail; and Baudoin said: Lady, thy bidding will we take; yet have we an errand to declare ere we break bread with thee, lest when it is told we be not so welcome as ye tell us now. What is it? said she. Said Baudoin: This man here is called the Green Knight, and this the Black Squire, and I am the Golden Knight; and now will we ask thee if this isle be called the Isle of Increase Unsought? Even so have I called it, quoth she, wherefore I deem none other will dare call it otherwise. It is well, quoth Baudoin; but we have heard say that hereto had strayed three dear friends of ours, three maidens, who hight Viridis, the friend of the Green Knight, and Atra, who is the Black Squire’s, and Aurea, who is mine own friend, so we have come to take them home with us, since they have been so long away from their land and their loves. Now if they be thy friends thou wilt perchance let them go for love’s sake and the eking of friendship; but if they be thy captives, then are we well willing to pay thee ransom, not according to their worth, for no treasure heaped up might come nigh it, but according to thy desire, lady.
Laughed the proud lady scornfully and said: Big are thy words, Sir Knight: if I had these maidens in my keeping I would give them unto you for nothing, and deem that I had the best of the bargain. But here are they not. True it is that I had here three thralls who were hight as thou hast said; but a while ago, not many days, they transgressed against me till I chastised them; and then was I weary of them and would be quit of them; for I need no servants here, whereas I myself am enough for myself. Wherefore I sent them away across the water to my sister, who dwells in a fair place hight the House under the Wood; for she needeth servants, because the earth there yieldeth nought save to the tiller and the herdsman and the hunter, while here all cometh unsought. With her may ye deal, for what I know, and buy the maidens whom ye prize so high; though belike ye may have to give her other servants in their place. For, indeed, a while ago her thrall fled from her and left her half undone, and it is said that she came hither in her shamelessness: but I know not; if she did, she slipped through my fingers, or else I would have made her rue her impudence. Now meseemeth, Sir Knights, here is enough of so small and foolish a matter; and again I pray you to enter my poor house, and take meat and drink along with me, for ye be none the less welcome because of your errand, though it be a foolish one.
Now would Sir Baudoin have answered wrathfully, but Arthur plucked at his skirt, and he yeasaid the lady’s bidding, though somewhat ungraciously; but that she heeded nought; she took Sir Baudoin by the hand and led him up the stately perron, and thence came we into a pillared hall, as fair as might be. And there on the dais was a table dight with dainty meats and drinks, and the lady bade us thereto, and we sat to it.
Thereat was the lady buxom and merry: Baudoin scowled across the board; I was wary and silent; but Arthur was as blithe with the lady as she with him; nor did I altogether marvel thereat, since I knew him wise of wit.
But when we were done with the meal, the lady stood up and said: Now, Sir Knights, I will give you leave; but this house is as your own to roam through all its chambers and pleasure you with its wonders and goodliness; and when ye are weary of the house, then is the orchard and the garden free to you, and all the isle wheresoever ye will go. And here in this hall is meat and drink for you whenso ye will; but if ye would see me again today, then shall ye meet me where ye first happened on me e’en now, at the foot of the great perron.
Then she laid her hand on Arthur’s shoulder, and said: Thy big friend may search out every nook in this house, and every bush in the whole island, and if he find there the maidens he spake of, one or all of them, then are they a gift from me unto him.
Therewith she turned, and went out of the hall by a door in the side thereof; and now already meseemed that though the woman was hateful and thick-hearted and cruel, yet she was become fairer, or seemed so, than when we first came on her; and for my part I pondered on what it might grow to, and fear of her came into my soul.
Now spake Baudoin: Fellows, let us get out into the garden at least; for this place is evil, and meseems it smells and tastes of tears and blood, and that evil wights that hate the life of men are lurking in the nooks thereof. And lo, our very she-friend that was so kind and simple and dainty with us, there is, as it were, the image of the dear maiden standing trembling and naked before the stupid malice of this lump of flesh. So spake he, Birdalone.
But I said to Arthur in a soft voice: And when shall we slay her? Said he: Not until we have gotten from her all that may be gotten; and that is the living bodies of our friends. But come we forth.
So did we, and came down to the orchard and did off our helms, and lay down under a big apple-tree which was clear of cover all round about, and so fell to our redes; and I asked Arthur what he deemed of the story of our loves having been carried to the House under the Wood, and if it might not be tried seeking thither; but he laughed and said: Never would she have told us thereof had it been sooth: doubtless our friends are here on this isle, but, as I deem, not in the house, else had not the witch left all the house free for us to search into. Yea, said I, but how if they be in her prison? Said he: It is not hard to find out which is the prison of so dainty a house as is yonder; and when we had found it, soon should we have hit upon a way to break it, since we be three, and stout fellows enough. Nay, I deem that the lovelings be stowed away in some corner of the isle without the house, and that mayhappen we shall find them there; and yet I trow not before we have made guile meet guile, and overcome the sorceress. But come now, let us be doing, and begin to quarter this little land as the kestrel doth the water-meadow; and leave we our armour, lest we weary us, for we shall have no need for hard strokes.
We hung up there on the tree helm and shield and hauberk, and all our defences, and went our ways quartering the isle; and the work was toilsome, but we rested not till the time was come to keep tryst with the lady; and all that while we found no sign of the darling ones: and the isle was everywhere a meadow as fair as a garden, with little copses of sweet-growing trees here and there, and goodly brooks of water, but no tillage anywhere: wild things, as hart and buck and roe, we came upon, and smaller deer withal, but all unhurtful to man; but of herding was no token.
Came we then back to that lordly perron, and there, at the foot thereof, stood the witch-wife, and received us joyously; clad was she all gloriously in red scarlet broidered and begemmed; her arms bare and her feet sandalled, and her yellow hair hanging down from under its garland; and certainly it was so that she had grown fairer, and was sleek and white and well-shapen, and well-haired; yet by all that, the visage of her was little bettered, and unto me she was loathsome.
Now the feast went much as the earlier meal had done; and Baudoin was surly and Arthur blithe and buxom; and nought befell to tell of, save that dishes and meats, and flasks and cups, and all things came upon the board as if they were borne thereon by folk unseen; and thereat we wondered not much, considering in what wonder-house we were. But the lady-witch looked on us and smiled, and said: Knights, ye marvel at the manner of our service, but call to mind that we told you this morning that we were enough for Ourselves, and we have so dight our days here that whoso is our friend on this Isle of Increase shall lack nothing. Fear not, therefore, to see aught ugly in our servants as now unseen, if their shapes were made manifest unto you.
All things were we heedful to note at this banquet; but when it was over, then came music into the hall from folk unseen, but not as if the musicians were a many, only belike some three or four. And thereat the lady spake, saying: Knights, ye may deem our minstrels but few, but such is our mind that we love not our music overloud, and for the most part only three sing or play unto us at one time.
Thereafter the lady brought us to fair chambers, and we slept there in all ease, and we arose on the morrow and found the lady still blithe with us; yet I noted this, that she seemed to deal with Arthur as if she saw him now for the first time, and much he seemed to be to her liking.
Again we fared forth, and were no less diligent in searching the isle than erst, and found nought; and all went that day as before.
On the morrow (that is, the third day) the witch seemed to have somewhat more memory of Arthur than erst, and even yet more liking of him, so that she reached out her hand for him to kiss, which needs must he do, despite his loathing of her.
When we had lain under the apple-tree a little while, Baudoin spake and said: Yesterday and the day before we searched the open land and found nought; now today let us search the house, and if we find nought, then at least it shall lie behind us. We yeasaid it, and presently went back, and from chamber to chamber, and all was fair and goodly as might be, and we marvelled what would betide to it when the witch was undone and her sorcery come to an end.
To the Wailing Tower we came, and up the stairs, and found the door open of the prison-chamber, and all there as thou hast told us, Birdalone; only we opened the great coffer, whence thou didst refrain thee, and found it full of hideous gear truly, as fetters and chains, and whips and rods, and evil tools of the tormentors, and cursed it all and came away; and Arthur said: Lo you, this stupid one! How eager is she to bid us what to do, and to tell us that our ladies are not in this evil house, since she leaveth all open to us. Yet we went about the house without, and counted the windows heedfully to see that we had missed no chamber, and found nought amiss; and then we went in again and sought as low down as we might, to see if perchance some dungeon there were underground, but found nought save a very goodly undercroft below the great hall, which was little less fair than that which was above it. So came the evening and the banquet, and the end of that day; but the witch-wife led Arthur by the hand to the board, and afterwards to the chamber ere we slept.
On the fourth day and the fifth it was no otherwise than erst; and when I fared to bed I felt confused in my head and sick of heart.
The night of the next day (the sixth), as we went to our chambers, and the witch-wife and Arthur hand-inhand, she stayed him a while, and spake eagerly to him in a soft voice; and as he came up to me afterwards he said: To-night I have escaped it, but there will not be escape for long. From what? said I. He said: From bedding her; for now it has come to this, that presently we must slay her at once and have no knowledge of our sweetlings, or I must do her will.
In such wise passed four more days, and it was the twelfth morning of our sojourn there, and we went forth on our search of every mead and every covert of the isle, and all day we found nought to our purpose; but as it grew toward sunset, and there grew great clouds in the eastern ort, piled up and copper-coloured, we came over a bent on to a little green dale watered by a clear brook, and as we looked down into it we saw something shine amongst its trees; so we hastened toward that gleam, and lo, amidst the dale, with the brook running through it, a strange garth we saw. For there was a pavilion done of timber and board, and gaily painted and gilded, and out from that house was, as it were, a great cage of thin gilded bars, both walls and roof, just so wide apart as no one full-grown, carl or quean, could thrust through.
Thitherward then ran we, shouting, for we saw at once that in the said cage were three women whose aspect was that of our sweetlings, and presently we were standing by the said herse, reaching our hands out to them to come to us and tell us their tale, and that we would deliver them. But they stood together in the midst of the said cage, and though they gazed piteously on us thence, and reached out their hands to us, they neither spake nor came to the herse to us; so we deemed that they were bewitched, and our joy was dashed.
Then we went all about the cage and the pavilion to find ingate, and found it not; and then the three of us together strove with the bars of the herse, and shook and swayed them, but it was all to no purpose.
Moreover, while we were at this work the sun seemed to go out, and there came a heavy black mist rolling into the dale, and wrapped us about so that we saw not each other’s faces, and the bars of the herse were gone from our hands as we stood there. Then came rain and thunder and lightning on to the black night, and by the glare of the lightning we could see the leaves and grass of the dale, but neither herse nor house nor woman. So we abode there in the dark night, and the storm all bewildered us, till the rain and clouds drew off and it was calm fair starlight again, but clean gone was the golden cage and they that stood therein; and we turned sadly, and went our ways toward the witch-house.
On the way said Arthur: Brethren, this meseemeth is but a-going on with the shows which were played us on the water as we came hither; but whether she doth this but for to mock and torment us, or that she would beguile us into deeming that our friends are verily here, I wot not; but tomorrow, meseemeth, I shall can to tell you.
Now came we to the perron of the house, and there stood the witch-wife under the stars to meet us. And when she saw us, she took hold of Arthur by the hand and the arm to caress him, and found that he and we were drenched with the rain and the storm, as might well be deemed; then she bade us up to our chambers to do on raiment which she had dight for us, and we went thither, and found our garments rich and dainty indeed; but when we came down into the hall where the witch abode us, we saw that Arthur’s raiment was far the richest and daintiest. But the witch ran to him and cast her arms about him, and clipped and kissed him before the others, and he suffered it. So sped the feast again.
But when they went to bed, the said witch took Arthur’s hand and spake a word unto him, and led him away, and he went with her as one nought loth; but we twain were afraid lest she should destroy him when she had had her will of him. Wherefore we waked through the more part of the night with our swords ready to hand.
But when we were clad in the morn he came unto us, he also clad, and was downcast and shamefaced indeed, but safe and sound; and he said: Speak no word about our matter till we be out in the open air, for I fear all things about us.
So when we had gone forth and were under the apple-tree once more, spake Arthur: Now, lords, am I shamed for ever, for I have become the leman of this evil creature; but I pray ye not to mock me; and that the more as the same lot may happen on you both, or either; for I can see for sure that the wretch will weary of me and desire one of you two. Let it pass. Somewhat have I found out from her, but not much; first, that she has forgotten her first lie, to wit, how she sent our ladies to the sister-witch; for I told her of the golden cage, and how we had missed it in the storm; and she said: Though I deem it a folly that ye should seek these thralls, yet would I help you if I might, since ye are now become my dear friends. Though, forsooth, when ye meet them I deem that ye will find them sore changed to you. For, as I told you, they fled away from me, after I had chastised them for a treason, into the hidden places of the isle, whereas they had no keel to sail away hence. And I cared not to follow them, as I myself am queen and lady of all things here, and am enough for myself, save when love constraineth me, dear lord. Now, my rede is that ye seek the golden cage again and yet again, because I deem that these thralls have somehow learned some wisdom, and they have enchanted the said cage for a defence against me, from whom they might not hide as they did from you; for of me have they stolen their wizardry, and I am their mistress therein.
This, therefore, is the new lie of her, and my rede is that we heed it nought. For my mind is that she it is that hath made the appearance of the cage and the women therein, and that she hath our poor friends somewhere underneath her hand.
Now this we deemed most like; yet whereas we had nought to do with the time, which, now that we had searched the isle throughly, hung heavy on hand, we deemed it good to go to the dale of the golden cage again, though we looked not to find the cage there any more. But this betid, that we found the little dale easily enough, and there stood the cage as we had seen it yesterday, but nought was there within its bright bars save the grass and the flowers, and the water of the brook a-running.
We loitered about that place a while, and went back to the house in due time; and to shorten the tale, I shall tell that for many days it betid that we went every day to seek the golden cage, but after the first three days we saw it no more.
Now began sadness and weariness to overcome us as the days and weeks wore, and belike the witch-wife noted it that we were worse company than heretofore.
And now on a day Arthur bade us note that the said witch was growing weary of him, and he bade me look to it; for, said he, she is turning her face toward thee, brother. My heart burned with rage at that word; I said nought, but made up my mind that I would try to bring the matter to an end.
That same night befell what Arthur had threatened; for the feast being done in the evening, the witch drew me aside while the music was a-playing, and caressed my hand and my shoulder, and said: I am yet wondering at you Champions, that ye must needs follow after those three wretched thralls, whom never will ye find, for they. need ye not, but will flee from you if ye have sight of them, as they did that other day; and therein they are scarce in the wrong, whereas they may well think that if ye find them they should fall into my hands; for easily may I take them any day that I will, and then I have a case against them, and may lawfully chastise them according to the law that has been given unto me; and then shall they be in grievous plight. Wherefore the rede We give unto you three now is the rede of friendliness that ye make yourselves happy in Our Island, and then will We do everything We may for your pleasure and delight; and if ye will that We make Ourselves even fairer than now We be, that may be done, and shall be a reward unto you for your yielding and obedience. And if ye will women thralls for your pleasure, that also may be gotten for you; for We be not wholly without power in these waters, though We have no keel or ferry upon them. And now, thou fair lad, We give thee this last word: Ye Champions have been dwelling in Our house a long while, and that while have ever striven to thwart Us. We now counsel you to make an end of it, and it shall be better for you.
She seemed to my eyes prouder and stupider than ever erst, despite her golden hair and white skin and lovely limbs; and I said to myself that now must we destroy the evil of that house even if we died for it, or else we were all undone; withal I saw somewhat of truth thrusting up through her much lying, and I deemed, even as Arthur did, that she had our friends under her band somewhere.
Nought else betid that night; but on the morrow we went forth and strayed on till we were come into the southernmost quarter of the isle, and not very far from the water we came upon a wood or big thicket which was new to us. So we entered it, and as we went and noted the wild things of the wood going hither and thither, we espied afar off the shape of a man going amidst the thicket; wherefore we went warily towards him, lest he should see us and flee from us; and when we drew a little nigher we saw it was a woman, though she was clad as a hunter, with legs naked to above the knee. She had a quiver at her back and a bow in her hand, and her coat was black of hue. Belike now she heard our going amongst the dry leaves, for she turned her face to us, and lo! it was the face of Atra.
When she saw us, she gave a shrill cry, and fell to running at her swiftest away from us, and we followed all we might, but we could not over-run her, though we kept her in sight ever, till we had run all through the wood, and before us was the sheer side of a rocky hill and the mouth of a cave therein, and by the said mouth who should there be but Aurea and Viridis, as we thought, clad in gold and in green, but the fashion of their raiment not otherwise than Atra’s. Their bows were bended and they had shafts in their hands, and as we came out of the thicket into the open lawn before the cave, Viridis nocked a shaft and aimed at us and drew, and the shaft flew over my head; therewith mocking laughter came from them, and they ran into the cave. Speedily we ran up to it, but when we came home thither, there was the sheer hillside, but never a cave nor an opening.
Dismayed were we thereat; but more dismayed had we been but that we deemed that all this was but a cheat and a painted show put upon us by the witch to back up her lying. Nevertheless we fared the next day to seek the wood and the cave in the sheer rock, but nowise might we find either wood or cave.
Now it was the night of the day hereafter, as we went to our chambers, that the witch-wife took me by the hand and led me apart, and said me many soft things of her accursed lust, whereof I will not say one again. But the upshot of it all was that she would bring me to her chamber and her bed. And whereas I was determined what to do, and had my war-sword by my side, I naysaid her not, but made her good countenance. And when we came to her chamber, which was full gloriously dight, and fragrant as with the scent of the roses and lilies of mid-June, she bade me to lie in her bed of gold and ivory and she would be with me anon. So I unclad myself and laid me down, but I drew forth my sword, and laid the ancient naked blade betwixt my side and her place.
Anon she cometh back again unclad, and would step into the bed; but she saw the sword and said: What is this, Champion? Said I: These edges are the token of sundering between us, for there is a spell on me, that with no woman may I deal, save with mine only love, but I shall do her mortal scathe; so beware by the token of the grey edges of battle. She drew aback, and was as a spiteful and angry cat, and there was no loveliness in her; and she said: Thou liest, and thou hatest me; see thou to it, both for thyself and thy loveling. And she turned about and strode out of the chamber; but I arose and clad myself in haste, and took my naked sword in my hand. But before I went, I looked around, and espied an ambry fashioned in the wall of the bed-lane, and the door was half open; and the said ambry was wrought of the daintiest, all of gold and pearl and gems; and I said to myself: Herein is some treasure, and this is a tide of war. So I opened the ambry, and within it was even more gloriously wrought than without; and there was nought therein, save a little flask of crystal done about with bands of gold set with great and goodly gems. So I took the said flask and went my ways hastily to my own chamber, and there I looked at the said flask and took out the stopple; and there was a liquor therein, white like to water, but of a spicy smell, sweet, fresh, and enheartening. So I yet thought this was some great treasure, and that much hung upon it, could I find out unto what use it might be put. And I said: To-morrow we will put it to the proof. Then I put the said flask under my pillow, and laid my sword by my side and slept, and was not ill-content so far.
But on the morrow, when I met my fellows, they asked me how I had sped, and I told them, Well, and that we would talk the matter over under our tree of counsel. So we went down into the hall, where we met the witch-lady; and I looked for it that she would be angry and fierce with me; but it went far otherwise; for she was blithe and buxom, and abounding in endearments more than I could away with. But this I noted, that her eyes wandered, and her speech faltered at whiles, and ever she seemed to be seeking somewhat; and withal that her caressing hands were seeking if they could aught stowed away in the bosom of my coat. But all was nought, for as we came to the door of the hall I gave Baudoin the flask to guard until we should come to our apple-tree of rede. Wherefore the she-wolf went red and white by turns, and fumed, and fretted her bedizenments with unrestful hands, and when she should let us go our ways, she lingered and looked back oft, and was loth to depart ere she had gotten what she lacked, and that, forsooth, was the said flasket.
But when we were without the house, I bade our fellows go with me to another place than the wonted apple-tree of rede, and they understood my word, and I led them to a little grassy plain without the orchard, where was no covert for a wide space about it, nought but the one linden-tree under which now we sat. There I told them all the tale of the last night and of the flasket, and put before them all that was in my mind to do that evening at the banquet, and they both of them yeasaid it. But what it was, that shall ye hear anon when we carried the matter through; but I bade Baudoin still carry the flasket till the evening.
Thereafter we spake of other matters; but soon we had good cause to rejoice that we had not talked our talk under the apple-tree (whereas I doubted not that the witch would spy upon us there), for not long had we been at our talk ere, looking that way, we saw the evil creature by the hedge of the orchard and gazing over at us.
We arose then, and came to her as if nought had happened; and she bade us walk the garden with her, and we yeasaid it, and went with her, and paced about amidst the flowers and lay on the blossomed grass. Forsooth, both to her and to us the time hung heavy on hand. And meseemed that the sleekness and fairness of her body was worsened since yesterday, and she was pale and haggard, and her eyes were wandering and afraid.
Now she bade us come a little further into the garden and eat a morsel at noon; and we arose, and she brought us to where were vines trellised all about and overhead, so that it was like a fair green cloister; and there was a board laid and spread with many dainties of meat and drink. And she bade us sit. Verily we had but little stomach to that dinner; and I said to myself, Poison! poison! and even so my fellows deemed, as afterwards they told me. And I saw Baudoin loosen his sword in the sheath, and I knew that his mind was to smite at once if he saw aught amiss. And I, who sat next to the witch, laid my hand on a little dagger which I wore at my girdle. She also saw this, and turned as pale as death, and sat trembling before us; and whatso we ate or drank at that board under the rustling vine-leaves, she gave unto us with her own hand; and then we wotted full surely that she had meant our deaths there and then, but was cowed by the fierce eyes of Baudoin and the threat of my hand.
Withal it seemed that she might not bear it to sit there long amongst us. She rose up and smiled on us as ghastly as a corpse, and gave us leave, and went hurrying into the house. And right glad we were to be at rest from her. Yet as we ourselves durst not go far away from the house, lest some new thing might happen, neither could she leave us quite alone, but thrice again that afternoon at some turn of the garden, or orchard, or meadow, we came upon her wan face and eyes full of all hate and staring pride, and she enforced her to smile upon us, and turned away with some idle word.
At last the sun began to sink, and we went to the perron of the house, and found her standing to meet us in her wonted way. But when we came up she gave no hand to any one of us but went up the stairs before us, and we followed with no word spoken.
There was the hall with the lordly service on the board, and the wax-candles lighted all about, and the great vault of stone fair and stately over it. We went to the dais and the board and sat down, the witch-wife in her gold and ivory chair at the board’s end, and I at her right hand and looking down the hall, my two fellows facing me, with their backs to the clear of the hall.
There we sat, and the meats and drinks were before us as dainty as ever erst; but we put forth no hand to them, but sat staring at each other for some two minutes it might be, and the witch looked from one to the other of us, and quaked that her hands shook like palsy.
Then I rose up and put my hand to my bosom (for Baudoin had given me the flasket ere we came to the perron): I spake in a loud voice, and it sounded wild and hard in the goodly hall: My lady, I said, thou art looking but pale now, and sick and downcast. Drink now to me out of this precious flasket, and thou shalt be whole and well.
And therewith I held the flasket aloft; but her face changed horribly; she sprang up in her chair and reached out her arm to clutch at the flasket, screaming like an eagle therewith. But I thrust her back into the chair with my left hand; and therewith arose Baudoin and Arthur, and caught her by the shoulders, and bound her fast to the chair with cords that they had gotten thereto. But when she got her breath she yelled out: Ah, now shall all tumble together, my proudful house and I under it! Loose me, traitors! loose me, fools! and give me one draught of the water of might, and then shall I tell you all, and ye shall go free with your thralls if ye will. Ah! ye will not loose me? ye will not? Well then, at least ye, the fools, shall be under it, and they also, the she-traitors, the scourged and tormented fools that might not save themselves from me. O loose me! loose me! thou in whose arms I have lain so many a night, and give me to drink of the proud water of might!
So she yelled; and now had all the fairness gone from her body: flaggy and yellow were her limbs, and she looked all over as her face, a lump of stupid and cruel pride, and her words lost meaning and changed into mere bestial howling. But for me, since she so desired that water, I knew that it was good for us to drink, and I took out the stopple and drank, and it was as if fire ran through all my veins, and I felt my strength three-folded straightway, and most wondrous clear was my sight grown therewith; and I raised my eyes now and looked down the hall, and lo, there was Aurea, chained by the ankle to the third pillar from the dais; and over against her, Viridis; and next, to the fourth pillar, Atra. Then I cried in a loud voice that rang through the witch’s hall: Lo what I see! And I ran round the head of the board, and thrust and dragged Baudoin and Arthur along with me, crying out: Come, come! they are found! they are here! And I came to my sweetling, and found her clad but in her white smock, which was flecked with blood all about, and her face was wan and pined, and the tears began to run when she saw me, but no word came from her lips though the kissing of them was sweet.
Then I turned about to my two fellows, and they stood bewildered, not knowing what was toward; and I came to them and made them drink of the flasket, and their eyes were opened and the strength of giants came to them, and they ran each to his sweetling; but Baudoin, before ever he kissed Aurea, caught hold of the chain that bound her to the pillar, and by main force dragged it out. Wise was that, meseemed, for words were again come into the witch’s howls, and I heard her: Ah, long may ye be playing with the chains, long! for now the house rumbleth toward its fall. Ah, the bitches are loose! Woe’s me! to die alone! And once more she howled wordless, as both I and Arthur had our loves in our arms, and fell to following Baudoin out on to the perron and down into the fresh fragrant garden wherein now was the moon beginning to cast shadows.
Stood we then aloof from the house, and the rumbling whereof the evil hag had howled waxed into a thunder, and under our very eyes the great white walls and gold-adorned roofs fell together, and a great cloud of dust rose under the clear moonlit sky.
We looked and wondered, and our loves also, but no word they spake; but ere the other two had time to grieve thereat, I gave Viridis to drink of the water of might, and she fell to sweet speech straightway, of such sort and such wise as I will not tell you. Then I did the same by Aurea and Atra, and forthwith the speech flowed from them to their friends.
Full happy were we then in the early night-season, for the water of might gave them strength also, as to us, and healed all the stripes and wounds their bodies had suffered of the foul witch, and made their eyes bright, and their cheeks full and firm, and their lips most sweet, and their hands strong and delicious.
Now when we had stood gazing toward the melting of the beauteous palace for a little, we took our darlings in our arms again, whereas the chains would have hindered their walking, and went down to the lip of the water whereas lay the Sending Boat, so that we might be anigh our ferry in case of need; for we knew not what might betide the isle now its mistress had perished. Then we fell to and sawed off the chains from the dear ankles with our swords, and took Birdalone’s lendings from the mail. And Aurea had her gown again, and Viridis her smock, and my green surcoat over it, and Atra wore the battle-coat of the Black Squire. As for their bare feet (for Atra would not have hers dight prouder than her sisters’), we so clad them with kisses that they were not ill-covered belike.
So gat we aboard our ferry, and did blood-offering to the wight thereof, and so sped merrily and lovingly over the wide lake back on our homeward road. And we said: This hath the dear Birdalone done for us.
And now, my Viridis, I will that thou fill up the tale by telling to Birdalone, as ye told us, how it fared with you three and the evil one from the time that ye sped Birdalone on her way till the moment when mine eyes first beheld you made fast to the pillars of the palace which has crumbled into dust.
Viridis took up the word without more ado, and said: I will do my best herein, and ye, sisters, must set me right if I err. When we had seen the last of you, dear Birdalone, that early morning, we turned back again to the house as speedily and as covertly as we might, lest the witch might espy our disarray and question us thereover. Then we went to the wonder-coffer, and gat thereout raiment for that which we had given away, which was easy for us to do, whereas the witch-mistress was so slothful that she had given to us the words of might wherewith to compel the coffer to yield, so that we might do all the service thereof, and she not to move hand or foot in the matter. So when we were clad, and the time was come, we went into the hall, by no means well assured of our mistress.
When we came before her, she looked on us in surly wise, as her wont was, and said nought for a while; she stared on us and knit her brows, as if she strove to call to mind something that ran to and fro in her memory; and I noted that, and for my part I trembled before her. But she spake at last: Meseemeth as if there is a woman in the isle besides you three; some misdoer that I was minded to punish. Tell me, you! was there not a naked one who came into this hall a while ago, one whom I threatened with pining? Atra, who was the boldest of us, bowed the knee before her, and said: Nay, our lady, since when do stranger women come naked into thine hall, and dare thee there?
Said the witch: Yet have I an image of a naked woman standing down there before me; and if I have it in mine eye, so should ye. Tell me therefore, and beware, for We are not bidden to hold Our hand from you if We take you in misdeeds.
If I quaked before, now much more I quaked, till my legs well-nigh failed me for fear; but Atra said: Great lady, this image will belike be of that one whom a while ago ye had stripped and tied to a pillar here, and tormented while ye feasted.
The lady looked on her hard, and again seemed striving to gather up the thrums of some memory, and then her face became smooth again, and she spake lightly: All that may well be; so do ye go about your due service, and trouble Our rest here no longer; for We love not to look on folk who be not wholly Our own to pine or to spare, to slay or let live, as We will; and We would that the winds and the waves would send Us some such now; for it is like to living all alone to have but such as you with Us, and none to cower before Us and entreat Us of mercy. So begone, I bid you.
Thus for that time were we saved from the witch’s cruelty; but our time came before long. The days wore heavily, nor kept we count of them lest we should lose heart for the weariness of waiting. But on a day as we stood on the steps of the perron and served my lady with dainties, of a hot afternoon, came two great white doves a-flying, who pitched down right before our mistress’s feet; and each had a gold ring about his neck, and a scroll tied thereto, and the witch bade us take the doves and take off the scrolls and give them unto her; and she looked on the gold rings which the doves bore, and for a moment on the scrolls, and then she said: Take ye the doves and cherish them, lest We have need of them; take also the two scrolls and keep them till tomorrow morning, and then give them into Our hands. And look ye to this, that if ye give them not unto Us it will be treason against Us, and We shall have a case against you, and your bodies will be Ours.
Then she rose up slowly, and bade me to her that she might lean upon my shoulder and be helped upstairs, so slothful a beast as she was; and as we went up I heard her say softly to herself: Weary on it, now must I drink a sup of the Water of Might, that I may remember and do and desire. But dear is my sister, and without doubt she hath matters of import to tell me by these doves.
So when we were together alone I told the others hereof, and we talked it over; and they deemed the tidings ill, even as I did; for we might not doubt but that the doves were a sending from the witch-sister who dwelt at the House under the Wood; and sore we misdoubted that they were sped to our mistress to tell her of thee, Birdalone, and mayhappen of the Quest, so wise as we knew she was. As to the two scrolls, forsooth, they were open, and not sealed; but when we looked on them we could make nought of it; for though they were writ fairly in Latin script, so that we read them, yet of the words no whit might we understand, so we feared the worst. But what might we do? we had but two choices, either to cast ourselves into the water, or abide what should befall; and this last one we chose because of the hope of deliverance.
Next morning, therefore, we came before our mistress in the hall, and we found her pacing up and down before the dais; though her wont was at that hour to be sitting in her throne of gold and ivory, lying back on the cushions half asleep.
So Atra went up to her, and knelt before her and gave her the scrolls, and she looked on her grimly, and smiled evilly, and said: Kneel there yet; and ye others kneel also, till I see what befitteth you. So did we, and indeed I was fain to kneel, for I might scarce stand up for terror; and all of us, our hearts died within us.
But the witch read those scrolls to herself, sitting in her throne, and spake not a long while; then she said: Come hither, and grovel before Us, and hearken! Even so we did; and she said again: Our sister, who hath been so kind unto you, and saved you from so many pains, here telleth Us, by the message of the two doves, that ye have betrayed Us and her, and have stolen her thrall and her Sending Boat, and sent her an errand for Our destruction; and therewith she delivereth you into Our hands, and ye are Ours henceforward; nor is it to be thought that ye may escape Us. Now, for your treason, some would slay you outright here and now, but We will be merciful, and let you live, and do no more than chastise you sharply now; and thereafter shall ye be Our very thralls to do as We will with: thereafter, that is to say, when they whom ye have sent Our sister’s thrall to fetch have come hither (as belike I may scarce stay them), and I have foiled them and used them, and sent them away empty. Now I tell you, that meanwhile of their coming shall ye suffer such things as We will; and when they be here We will not forbid you to be anigh them; but We shall see that there will be little joy to you in that nighness. Yea, ye shall know now to what market ye have brought your wares, and what the price of treason is therein.
Verily then we suffered at her hand what she would, whereof it would shame me to tell more as at this present; and thereafter did she chain us to those three pillars of the hall whereas ye found us chained; and we were fed as dogs be, and served as dogs, but we endured all for the sake of hope; and when we durst, and deemed the witch would not hear us, we spake together and enheartened each other.
But on the fourth day of our torment came the witch to us, and gave us to drink a certain red water from out of a leaden flasket; and when I drank I deemed it was poison, and was glad, if gladness might be in me at such a tide; and when I had drunk I felt an icy chill go through all my body, and all things swam before my eyes, and deadly sickness came over me. But that passed away from me presently, and I felt helpless and yet not feeble; all sounds heard I clearer than ever yet in my life; also I saw the hall, every arch and pillar and fret, and the gleam on the pavement from the bright sun that might not enter; and the witch I saw walking up and down the hall by the dais; but my sisters I saw not when I looked across to their pillars. Moreover, I might not see myself when I reached out my hand or my foot, though I saw the chain which made my ankle fast to the pillar; and withal, when I set my hand on my face, or any other part of my body, or what else I might touch, I felt there what I looked to feel, were it flesh or linen, or the cold iron of my fetter, or the polished face of the marble pillar.
Now I knew scarce if I were alive or dead, or if I were but beginning to be dead; but there came upon me the desire of life, and I strove to cry out to the sisters, but though I formed the words in my mouth, and did with my throat as when one cries out aloud, yet no sound of a voice came from me, and more helpless did I feel than erst.
But even therewith I saw the witch come toward me, and therewith all my body felt such fear of her that I knew I was not dead. Then she came before me and said: O shadow of a thrall, whom none can see but them unto whom wisdom hath given eyes to see wonders withal, now have I tidings for thee and thy sisters, to wit, that your lovers and seekers are at hand; and presently I shall bring them into this hall, and they shall be so nigh unto you that ye might touch them if I did not forbid it; but they shall not see you, but shall wonder where I have hidden you, and shall go seeking you today and many days, and shall find you not at all. So make ye the most of the sight of them, for in them henceforward ye have no other part or lot.
Therewith she spat out at me, and went over to my sisters, and said words of like import to those which she had said unto me. And presently she went out of the hall; and not long afterwards I heard voices speaking on the perron, and knew one for the voice of the witch, and the other for the voice of my lord Baudoin; and then again wore a little while, and I saw the witch come through the great door of the hall leading Sir Arthur by the hand, as if she were his dear friend, and Baudoin and Hugh, my man, following them. And the said witch was clad full fair, and had laid by her sloth and stupid pride, as meseemed; and her limbs were grown rounder and sleeker, and her skin fairer, so that to them that knew her not she might well seem to be a goodly woman.
Now they sat to meat as my man hath told you, and then departed from the hall, and the witch also. But after a while she came back again and loosed us, and grimly bade us go with her, and needs must we, though we could not so much as see our own feet upon the floor. And she set us to tasks about the house, and stood by while we toiled for her, and mocked us not without stripes, and in all ways was as rough and cruel and hard with us as she had been smooth and debonair to our lords; but after noon she brought us back and chained us to our pillars again. And when the evening came and the banquet was, it was we who were the unseen players of the string-play; and we might play no other melody than what the witch bade us; else belike, could we have held converse, we might have played such tunes as would have smitten the hearts of our loves, and told them that we were anigh. To make a short story of it, thus did she day by day, and no comfort or converse might we sisters have of each other, or of aught else save the sight of our beloved ones, and a glimmer of hope therewith. And, forsooth, for as grievously as my heart was wrung by the yearning of me for my love, yet was it a joy unto me to think that he went there desiring me, and that whom he desired was not the poor wretched creature chained there in her nakedness, with her body spoiled by torment and misery, but the glad maiden whom he had so often called fair and lovesome.
So passed the days, and at last hope had grown so pale and wan, that she was no more to be seen by us than we were by our lords; and now it seemed to me that death was coming, so feeble and wretched as I grew. But the witch would not let us die, but sustained us from time to time with some little draughts of a witch-drink that revived us.
So wore the time till that evening, when came hope together with the fulfilment of hope, so that one minute we durst hope for deliverance, and the next we were delivered.
Nor is there more to tell, Birdalone, my dear, save that we came safely to the Isle of the Young and the Old in the full morning-tide; and as our ferry drew nigh the green shore, there were the two younglings whereof thou didst tell us awaiting our landing, and when we stepped ashore they came to us bearing cakes and fruit in a fair basket, and they made much of us and we of them. And so we came to the old man, who was exceeding fain of us, and grand and courteous, till he became a little drunk, and then he was somewhat over-kind to us women. Nevertheless, there in that pleasant isle we rested us for three days, that we might somewhat calm and refresh our spirits with what was small and of little account. And when we departed, the old man followed us down to the strand, and lamented our departure, as he had done with our lords erewhile; only this time yet greater was his lamentation, and needs must we kiss him, each one of us, or never had he been done. So he turned up landward, bewailing the miss of us, but presently, before we had seen the last of him, was cheerful again and singing.
So we went on our way; and we also, we maidens, in our turn, saw those woeful images of the Isle of Queens and the Isle of Kings; and we came to the Isle of Nothing, and abode warily by our ferry, and so came away safe, and thus, as thou wottest, home to the castle to hear evil tidings of thee. Now is this all my tale.
Birdalone sat shyly and hushed when all was done; and then all they did somewhat to comfort her, each after their own fashion; and now sorrow for the slain man was made softer and sweeter for them, whereas they had to lose not two fellows, but one only. Yet, despite of all, trouble and care was on Birdalone’s soul betwixt the joy of loving and being beloved, and the pain and fear of robbing a friend of her love. For Atra’s face, which she might not hate, and scarce might love, was a threat to her day by day.
Now within a few days was the body of Baudoin laid in earth in the chapel of the castle; and in the solemnest of fashions was the burial done. When it was over, the two knights and Sir Aymeris turned them heartily to dighting the war against the Red Hold, and less than a month thereafter was the hosting at the Castle of the Quest, and if the host were not very many (for it went not above sixteen hundreds of men all told), yet the men were of the choicest, both of knights and sergeants and archers. There then they held a mote without the castle, whereas Arthur the Black Squire was chosen for captain, and in three days they were to depart for the Red Hold.
Now this while Birdalone had seen but little of Arthur, who was ever busy about many matters, and never had she had any privy talk with him, though sore she longed for it; yet indeed it was more by her will than his that so it was. But when it was come to the very last day before the departure, she said that she must needs see him before he went, and he perchance never to come back again. So when men were quiet after dinner she went into the hall and found him there, pacing up and down the floor. For indeed she had sent a word to him by Leonard the priest that he should be there.
So she went up to him, and all simply she took him by the hand and led him into a shot-window and set him down by her; and he, all trembling for love and fear of her, might not forbear, but kissed her face and her mouth many times; and she grew as hot as fire, and somewhat she wept.
Then she spake after a while: Dear friend, I had it in my mind to say to thee many things that meseems were sage, but now neither will the thought of them come into my mind, nor the words into my mouth. And this is a short hour. And therewith she fell to kissing him, till he was well-nigh beside himself betwixt desire and joy and the grief of departure, and the hardness of the case.
But at last she forbore and said: Will it not be when thou art gone tomorrow as it was when ye were away upon the Quest, and I knew not how to bear myself, so heavy lay all the world and its doings and its fashion upon me? It will be hard to me, he said; evil and grim will be the days. She said: And yet, even now in these last days, when I see thee oft, every day my soul is worn with grief, and I know not what to do with myself. I shall come back, he said, and bear my love with me, and then belike we shall seek some remedy. She was silent a while, and then she said: Meanwhile of thy coming, and I see thee not at all for many days, how will it be with my grief then? Quoth he: More than enough of grief no soul may bear; for either death comes, or else some dullness of the pain, and then by little and little the pain weareth. Then she said: And how would it be if thou come not back and I see thee never again, or if when thou come back thou find me not, for that I be either dead or gone away out of thy reach? He said: I know not how it would be. When thou sayest thou shalt die, dost thou wholly believe it in thy sense or thy body otherwise than Holy Church would? I will tell thee, she said, that now I am sitting by thee and seeing thy face and hearing thy voice, it is that only which I believe in; for I may think of nought else of either grief or joy. Yea, when I wept e’en now, it was not for sorrow that I wept, but for I cannot rightly tell what. And she took his hand and looked fondly upon him.
But presently she looked on his hand, and said: And now meseemeth that we twain are grown to be such close friends that I may ask thee what I will, and thou be neither angry, nor wonder thereat. I see on thy finger here the ring that I brought with me from the Isle of Increase, and which thereafter thou hadst of me when I gave thee back also the shoon which were lent unto me. Tell me how thou hadst it back from Atra, as I suppose thou gavest it unto her. But how now art thou angry? for I see the blood come up in thy face. Nay, beloved, said he, I am not angry, but whenso I hear of Atra, or think of her closely, shame comes on me and confusion, and maybe fear. But now will I answer thee. For even in those hours which we wore on the Isle of the Young and the Old, when all we should have been so happy together, she divined somewhat of my case, or indeed, why do I not say it out, all thereof. And she spake to me such words (for she is both tender and wise and strong of heart) that I cowered before her and her grief and pain; and she gave me back the said ring, which forsooth I gave to her in the Sending Boat in the first hour that the Isle of Increase lay astern of us. And I wear it now as a token of my grief for her grief. See now, love, since I have answered thee this question without anger or amaze, thou needest not fear to ask me any other; for this of all things lies closest to my heart.
Birdalone drooped her head, and she spake in a low voice: Lo now! the shadow of parting and the shadow of death could not come between our present joy; but this shadow of the third one cometh between us and is present between us. Woe’s me! how little did I think of this when thou wert away and I was sick of longing for the sight of thee, and deemed that that would heal it all.
He spake not, but took her hand and held it; and presently she looked up again and said: Thou art good, and wilt not be angry if I ask thee something else; this it is: Why wert thou so grim with me that other day when ye found me in that evil plight in tow of the Red Tyrant, so that I deemed that thou of all others hadst cast me off? That was worse to me than the witch’s stripes, and I kept thinking to myself: How simple was my trouble once, and now how tangled and weary!
Then he might not refrain him, but threw himself upon her, and clipped her and kissed her all he might, and she felt all the sweetness of love, and lacked nought of kindness and love to him. And thereafter they sat still awhile, and he said, as if her question had but that moment left her lips: This, forsooth, was the cause that I looked grim on thee: first, that from the time I first saw thee and heard thy tale, and of thy deeds, I had deemed thee wise above the wisdom of women. But this going forth of thee to the Black Valley, whereof came the slaying of Baudoin, seemed unto me a mere folly, till again I had heard thy tale of that also; and then the tale and thy speech overcame me. But again, though I was grieved and disappointed hereat, belike that had passed from me speedily, but then there was this also which would not let my soul rest, to wit, that I feared concerning that slain knight whose head the Red One had hung about thy neck; for how else, methought, might he have been so wroth with him and thee; and meseemed, moreover, that thou wert kind in thine heart to the dead man, even when we were come to thee; and then, seest thou, my desire for thee and the trouble of Baudoin’s slaying, and the black trouble aforesaid. Lo now, I have told thee this. When wilt thou cease to be angry with me?
She said: I ceased to be grieved with thine anger when thine anger died; yet strange, meseemeth, that thou shouldst trust me so little when thou lovest me so much!
And she leaned against him and caressed him gently, and again was he at point to take her in his arms, when lo! the sound of men coming unto the screen of the hall; so then those two stood up and went to meet them, and there was the speech of their sundering done. Yet belike for a little while both those twain were happy.
On the morrow, when the day was yet young, the knights were ready for departure, and in the very gate they bade farewell to the ladies, who kissed them kindly one and all, and Viridis wept sore; and Atra constrained herself to do even as the others did; but pale she was and quaking when she kissed Arthur and watched him get a-horseback.
But the knights bade their ladies be of good cheer, for that they would send them tidings of how they sped every seven days at least, whereas it was no long way thence to the Red Hold, save there were battle on the road, and they deemed their host which should beset the Hold would be enough to clear all the ways behind it. For that same cause withal they had Sir Aymeris with them, nor left a many men behind them, and they under the rule of three squires, whereof two were but young, and the third, who was made the captain of the castle, was an old and wise man of war, who had to name Geoffrey of Lea. There, withal, was the priest Sir Leonard, who went about now much hushed and abashed, and seemed to fear to give a word to Birdalone; albeit she deemed of him that his thoughts of her were the same as erst they had been.
So now when the knights were departed, and all the host was gone out of sight, it was heavy time indeed in the Castle of the Quest till they should hear tidings of them again. Both Aurea and Atra kept much to themselves, and did I know not what to wear away the time; for now it was not to be looked for that they should venture out-a-gates. But as for Viridis, she waxed of better cheer after a while, but whatever betid she would not sunder herself from Birdalone; nay, not for an hour; and Birdalone took all her kindness kindly, though forsooth it was somewhat of a pain unto her; it shall be told wherefore ere long.
Withal, as if to wear the time, Birdalone betook her diligently to her needlework, and fell to the cunningest of broidery; so that Viridis and the others wondered at her, for when they were done it seemed indeed that the flowers and creatures and knots had grown of themselves upon the cloth, such wondrous work it was.
Moreover, to his great joy, the very first day of the departure of the host she called Sir Leonard unto her, and prayed to go on again with the learning her fair scribe-craft; and therein also was she diligent hours of every day; and Viridis would sit beside her wondering at the deftness of her fingers, and crying out for joy as the page grew fair and well-learned under them.
Thus wore a week, and at the end thereof came a messenger from the host and told how they had come before the Red Hold and had summoned them thereof to yield, which they had utterly denied to do, but defied the host; wherefore the host had now beset the Hold, and more folk were daily flocking unto them; but that the said Hold would be hard to win by plain assault, whereas it was both strong and well-manned; but few of the host had been slain or hurt as yet, and of the chieftains not one.
Right glad were they of the castle because of these tidings; though, forsooth, the men-at-arms knew well enough that the time would soon come when some fierce assault would be made, and then, forsooth, would be sore peril of life and limb unto the chieftains.
Again wore a week, and once more came the messenger, and did them of the castle to wit that there had been nought more done at the Red Hold, save skirmishing at the barriers, wherein few were hurt on either side; and also that the engines for battering the walls were now well-nigh all dight, and they would begin to play upon the Hold, and in especial one which hight Wall-wolf, which had been set up by the crafts of Greenford.
This tidings also was deemed good by all, save it might be by Atra, who, as Birdalone deemed, pined and fretted herself at the delay, and would fain that, one way or other, all were over. Atra spake but little to Birdalone, but watched her closely now; oft would she gaze on her wistfully, as if she would that Birdalone would speak unto her; and Birdalone noted that, but she might not pluck up heart thereto.
Wore a third week, and again came the messenger, and told how three days ago, whenas Wall-wolf had sorely battered one of the great towers which hight the Poison-jar, and overthrown a pan of the wall there beside, they had tried an assault on the breach, and hard had been the battle there, and in the end, after fierce give and take, they of the Hold had done so valiantly that they had thrust back the assailants, and that in the hottest brunt the Black Squire had been hurt in the shoulder by a spear-thrust, but not very grievously; but withal that he sent, in so many words, forbidding the ladies to make any account of so small a matter. And, quoth the sergeant, most like my lord will wear his armour in four days’ time; also now we have reared another great slinger, which we call Stone-fretter, and soon, without doubt, we shall be standing victorious within that den of thieves.
Now though these tidings were not so altogether ill, yet were those ladies sore troubled thereby, and especially Atra, who swooned outright when she had heard the last word thereof.
As for Birdalone, she made as little semblance of her trouble as she might, but when all was quiet again she went to find Viridis, and brought her to her chamber and spake to her, saying: Viridis, my sister, thou hast been piteous kind unto me from the first minute that thou sawest me naked and helpless, and fleeing from evil unto worse evil; nowise mightest thou have done better by me hadst thou been verily my sister of blood; and I know it that thou wouldst be loth to part from me.
Viridis wept and said: Why dost thou speak of parting from me, when thou knowest it would break my heart?
Said Birdalone: To say it as short as may be, because the parting must now come to pass. Viridis waxed pale and then red, and she stamped her foot and said: It is unkind of thee to grieve me thus, and thou doest wrong herein.
Hearken, dear sister, said Birdalone: thou knowest, for thou thyself wast the first to tell me thereof, that I am the supplanter in our fellowship, and that I have undone Atra’s hope. This I did not of mine own will, but it came unto me; yet of mine own will I can do the best I may to amend it; and this is the best, that I depart hence before the Red Hold is taken and my lords come back; for if they come back and I see my lord Arthur, so fair and beauteous as he is, before me, never shall I be able to go away from him. And lo thou, I have promised Atra by all the kindness she did me when we were come to the Wailing Tower, and I naked and quaking and half-dead with terror, that if occasion served I would do my utmost to help her, even if it were to my own grief. Now behold this that now is, is the occasion, and there will not be another; for when my love comes home hither and beholdeth me, think thou how all the desire which has been gathering in his heart this while will blossom and break forth toward me; and mayhappen he will make but little semblance of it before other folk, for proud and high of heart is he; but he will seek occasion to find me alone, and then shall I be with him as the lark in the talons of the sparrow-hawk, and he will do his pleasure of me, and that with all the good-will of my heart. And then shall I be forsworn to Atra, and she will hate me, as now she doth not, and then is all the fellowship riven, and that by my deed.
Yet was Viridis wrath, and she said: Meseemeth this is fool’s talk. Will not the fellowship be all the more riven if thou depart and we see thee no more?
O nay, said Birdalone; for when I am gone thy love shall be no less for me, though as now thou art angry; and Atra will love me for that I shall have held to my promise to mine own scathe; and thy man and Aurea will lay it to me that I have done valiantly and knightly. And Arthur, how can he choose but love me; and maybe we shall yet meet again.
And therewithal she did at last bow down her head and fall to weeping, and Viridis was moved by her tears and fell to kissing and caressing her.
After a little Birdalone lifted up her head and spake again: Moreover, how can I dare to abide him? didst thou not see how grim he was to me when they delivered me and brought me back? and he with his own lips told me so much, that it was because he doubted that I had done amiss; and now if I do amiss again, even if it be at his bidding, will it not be so that he will speedily weary of me, and curse me and cast me off? What sayest thou, Viridis mine?
What is to say, said Viridis, save that thou hast broken my heart? But thou mayst heal it if thou wilt take thy words back, and tell me that thou wilt not sunder thee from us.
But Birdalone brake out weeping and lamenting aloud, and she cried out: Nay, nay, it may not be; I must depart, and Atra hath smitten me amidst of my friends. And Viridis knew not what to say or to do.
At last came Birdalone to herself again, and she looked sweetly on Viridis and smiled on her from out her tears, and said: Thou seest, sister, how little a loss thou wilt have of me, a mere wild woman. And now nought availeth either me or thee but I must begone, and that speedily. Let it be tomorrow then. And when the messenger comes at the end of this week, send word by him of what I have done; and look thou to it but both our lords will praise me for the deed.
Said Viridis: But whither wilt thou, or what wilt thou do? To Greenford first, said Birdalone, and after whither the Good Lord shall lead me; and as for what I will do, I am now deft in two crafts, script and broidery to wit; and, wheresoever I be, folk shall pay me to work herein for them, whereby I shall earn my bread. Hearken also, my sister, canst thou give me any deal of money? for though I wot little of such matters, yet I wot that I shall need the same. And I ask this whereas, as e’en now I said, I deem our lords shall praise my deed, and that, therefore, they would not that I should depart hence as an outcast, wherefore they shall not begrudge it to me. Moreover, for the same cause I would thee speak to the old squire Geoffrey of Lea, and tell him that I have an errand to Greenford, and crave of him that he lend me one of the two younglings, Arnold or Anselm, and two or three men-at-arms to bring me safely thither; since now, forsooth, I need no more adventures on the road.
She smiled as she spake; and now all the passion of anguish seemed to have left her for that while; but Viridis cast her arms about her neck and wept upon her bosom, and said: Woe’s me! for I see that thou wilt go whatsoever I may say or do; I strove to be angry with thee, but I might not, and now I see that thou constrainest me as thou dost all else. I will go now straightway and do thine errand.
Thus then they parted for that time; but it was not till the day after the morrow that Birdalone was alboun. Viridis told of her departure both to Aurea and Atra; and Aurea lamented it, but would not do aught to stay her; for she was waxen weary and listless since the death of her man. As for Atra, she spake but little concerning it, but to Viridis praised Birdalone’s valiance and kindness. Yet unto herself she said: Verily she understood my word that I spake to her about the occasion of her helping. Yet woe’s me! for she shall carry his love with her whithersoever she wendeth; and a happy woman is she.
But when Geoffrey the squire knew that the ladies, all three, were at one with Birdalone as to her departure, he doubted nothing, but bade Arnold, his mate, take four good men with him, and bring the Lady Birdalone unto Greenford and do her bidding there. Albeit, he deemed no less but they would bring her back again.
On the morrow morn, then, Birdalone spake farewell both to Aurea and Atra; but as for Viridis, she sent her word that she had no heart thereto, and yet she sent her a word of comfort, to wit, that she deemed that they would one day meet again. Aurea, in her parting words, part praised her, part chid her; saying that she did well and kindly and valiantly, as her wont was. Yet, said she, when all is said, thou mightest have abided this tangle and trouble, which at the worst had not been so evil as death between us. Yea, sister, said Birdalone, but might not death have come of my abiding?
As she spake, in came Atra, with her head somewhat drooped, meek and humble, her cheeks red, her hands trembling; and she said: Wilt thou take now my word of farewell and blessing, and the kiss of peace betwixt us, and bear away the memory of our kindness together?
Birdalone stood up proud and straight, and was somewhat pale as she suffered Atra to kiss her cheeks and mouth, and said: Now hast thou forgiven me that weird dragged me in betwixt thy love and thy goodhap; and I have forgiven thee that I am led away by weird into the waste and the wilderness of love. Farewell. Therewith she went her way to the gate, and the others followed her not.
Without abode her Arnold and the four men-at-arms, and her palfrey and a sumpter-horse bearing two goodly coffers, wherein Viridis had let load raiment and other havings for her; and Arnold came up to her smiling, and said: My lady Viridis hath given me a pouch wherein is money to bear for thee to Greenford and hand over to thee there when we be safe; and she hath bidden me to be in all wise obedient unto thee, lady, which needed not, whereas now and from hence forth am I by mine own will thy very servant to do thy pleasure always and everywhere.
She thanked him and smiled on him kindly, so that his heart beat fast for joy and love of her; and therewith she gat into the saddle and they rode their ways together, and Birdalone looked back never till the Castle of the Quest was shut from their eyes by the nesses of the little hills.
Here ends the Fifth Part of the Water of the Wondrous Isles, which is called The Tale of the Quest’s Ending, and begins the Sixth Part of the said tale, which is called The Days of Absence.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58