On the road to Greenford nought befell to tell of; they came thither when the sun was at point to set, for they had ridden diligently all day.
As they rode the streets of the good town, they noted of them, that though it was evening wherein folk do much disport them abroad, there were women and children enough in the streets or standing at their doors, but of carles very few, and they for the more part grey-heads.
Now did Arnold bring Birdalone to the town hall, wherein yet sat the deputy of the burgrave, who himself was in the leaguer at the Red Hold; this man, who was old and wise and nothing feeble of body, made much of Birdalone and her folk, and was glad of them when he knew that they had the seal and let-pass of Geoffrey of Lea; wherefore he gave them to eat and drink, and lodged them in his own house, and made them the best of cheer.
But betimes on the morrow did Birdalone send back Arnold and the four men-at-arms, with no tale but that such was her will; and bidding farewell to the said Arnold, she suffered him to kiss her hands, and gave him a ring from off her finger, so that he went on his way rejoicing.
So soon as she saw him and his men well on the road, she went to the old man, the vice-ruler of the town, who was of the aldermen thereof, and did him to wit that she would wage two or three carles who could deal with horses and beasts, and withal handle weapons if need were, to be both as servants and guards for her, as she had errands in that country-side, and belike might well have to go from town to town thereabout. He took her asking kindly, but said it was none so easy to find men who for any wage would fare forth of Greenford at that stour, whereas well-nigh all their fighting-men were lying before the Red Hold as now. Howsoever, ere noontide he brought before her a man of over three score, but yet wayworthy, and two stout young men, his sons, and told her that these men were trusty and would go with her to the world’s end if need were.
She took these men readily, and agreed with them for a good wage; and whereas each one had bow and arrows and short sword, she had but to buy for them jacks, sallets, and bucklers, and they were well armed as for their condition. Withal she bought them three good horses and another sumpter-horse; which last was loaded with sundry wares that she deemed that she needed, and with victual. Then she took leave of the alderman, thanking him much for his good-will, and so departed from Greenford at all adventure, when the day was yet young.
The alderman had asked her whither away, and she had told him that she was boun for Mostwyke first, and thereafter for Shifford-on-the-Strand; whereas she had heard talk of these two towns as being on one and the same highway, and Mostwyke about a score of miles from Greenford; but when she was well out-a-gates she came to a little road on the right hand which turned clean away from Mostwyke, and she took the said road; and when she had followed it some three miles, she asked the old carle whither it led. He looked on her and smiled somewhat, and she on him in turn; and she said: Wonder not, my friend, that I am not clear about my ways, for I shall tell the sooth that I am a damsel adventurous, and am but seeking some place where I may dwell and earn my livelihood till better days come; and this is the whole truth, and thou shalt know it at once, to wit, that I am indeed fleeing, and were fain to hide the footsteps of me, and I bid you three to help me therein. But ye must know that I am fleeing, not from my foes, but from my friends; and, if ye will, as we go by the way, I will tell you all the story of me, and we will be friends while we are together, yea, and thereafter if it may be.
Now she said this because she had looked carefully on these men, and herseemed that they were good men and true, and not dull of wit. Forsooth the old man, who hight Gerard of the Clee, was no weakling, and was nought loathly to look on, and his two sons were goodly and great of fashion, clear-eyed, and well-carven of visage; they hight Robert and Giles.
Now spake old Gerard: Lady, I thank thee heartily of thy much grace unto me; now would I get off my nag and kneel to thee in the highway therefor, but that I see that thou wert fain to make as much way as may be today; wherefore, by thy leave, I will tarry my homaging till we rest our horses by the wayside. She laughed, and praised his wisdom; and the young men looked on her and worshipped her in their hearts. Forsooth, the fellowship of these good and true folk was soft and sweet to her, and soothed the trouble of her spirit. And she enforced herself to talk cheerfully with them, and asked them many things, and learned much of them.
But now went on Gerard to say: Lady, if thou wilt hide thy ways from whomsoever it may be, thou hast happened on no ill way; for though this road be good to ride, it is but a byway through the sheep-walks that folk may drive their wains hereby in the wet season of winter and spring; and for a great way we shall come to but little save the cots of the sheep-carles; scarce a hamlet or two for the space of two days’ riding; and on the third day a little town, hight Upham, where are but few folk save at the midsummer wool-fair, which is now gone by.
Now there is a highway cometh into this road from out of the tilled country and Appleham, a good town, and goeth through it toward the tillage, and the City of the Bridges and the liberties thereof; and all the land is much builded and plentiful; but, if thou wilt, we will not take either highway, but wend over the downland which lieth north-east of Upham, and though it be roadless, yet is it not ill-going, and I know it well and its watering-places, little dales and waters therein all running north-east, wherein be certain little thorps here and there, which shall refresh us mightily. Over that downland we may wend a four days, and then the land will swell up high, and from the end of that high land we shall behold below us a fair land of tillage, well watered and wooded, and much builded; and in the midst thereof a great city with walls and towers, and a great white castle and a minster, and lovely houses a many. In that city mayst thou dwell and earn thy livelihood if thou canst do aught of crafts. And if thou mayst not, then may we find somewhat to swink at for a wage, and so maintain thee and us. But the said city is called the City of the Five Crafts, and the land round about it is the frank thereof; and oftenest, frank and city and all, it is called the Five Crafts all simply. Now what sayest thou hereof, my lady?
She said: I say that we will go thither, and that I thank thee and thy sons of thy good-will, and so may God do to me as I reward you well therefor. But tell me, good Gerard, how it is that thou art so willing to leave kith and kin to follow a gangrel wife along the ways? Said Gerard: Dame, I think that the face and body of thee might lead any man that yet had manhood in him to follow thee, even if he left house and all to go with thee. But as for us, we have no longer a house or gear, whereas they of the Red Hold lifted all my bestial, and burned my house and all that was therein a month ago. Yea, said Birdalone, and how befalleth it, then, that ye are not before the Red Hold to avenge thee? Dame, said he, when the muster was I was deemed somewhat over old, wherefore the sheriff took me not, but suffered my sons also to abide behind to earn a living for me; may God be good to him therefor, and St. Leonard! But as to my kindred, I must tell thee that I am not kinned hereabout, but in a good town hight Utterhay, and that when our alderman sent for me to bring me to thee, I was more than half-minded to get me back thither. Now sooth it is that the best way thither, though it may be indeed the safest rather than the shortest, lies through the Five Crafts; for the road goes thence to Utterhay a three score miles or so, making the longer of it, as it skirteth ever some way off a perilous forest, a place of sore dread and devilish, which hight Evilshaw, on the edge whereof lieth Utterhay, a merry cheaping-stead and a plenteous, and the home of my kindred. Wherefore now is the City of the Five Crafts handy to us; because when thou hast done with us, as I hope it may be long first, then are we others nigh home, and may all simply wend our way thither.
Birdalone thanked him again full heartily; but therewithal as they rode along there seemed to stir in her some memory of the earliest of her days in the witch’s house, and she began to have a longing to betake her to Utterhay and the skirts of Evilshaw.
Thus rode they along and loitered not, though they talked blithely together; and Birdalone wondered to herself that she might so much as hold up her head for bitter thoughts of the days and the longings but late passed away, but so it was, that it was only now and again that they stung her into despair and silence, and for the most part she hearkened to the talk of the old man and the lads about the days of Greenford and the alarms of lifting and unpeace, and the ways of the chapmen and the craftsmen.
An hour after noon they rested in a little dale of the downland where was a pool and three thorn-bushes thereby; and when they had lighted down, the old man knelt before Birdalone and took her hand, and swore himself her man to do her will, whatso it were; and then he stood up and bade his sons do likewise; so they two knelt before her in turn, somewhat shy and abashed, for all that they were such stout, bold fellows, and found it hard to take her hand, and then when they had it in theirs, hard to let it go again.
A score of miles and five they rode that day, and had no roof over them at night save the naked heaven, but to Birdalone that was but little scathe: they made a shift to have some fire by them, and the three men sat long about it that even while Birdalone told them somewhat of her life; and as she told of the House under the Wood and the Great Water, Gerard had some inkling of whereabouts it was; but was nought so sure, because, as abovesaid in this tale, seldom did any from the world of men venture in Evilshaw, or know of the Great Water from its banks that gave unto the forest.
In like wise they rode the next day, and came at eventide to a thorp in a fair little dale of the downland, and there they guested with the shepherd-folk, who wondered much at the beauty of Birdalone, so that at first they scarce durst venture to draw nigh unto her until Gerard and his sons had had some familiar converse with them; then indeed they exceeded in kindness toward them, in their rough upland fashion, but ever found it hard to keep their eyes off Birdalone, and that the more after they had heard the full sweetness of her voice; whereas she sang to them certain songs which she had learned in the Castle of the Quest, though it made her heart sore; but she deemed she must needs pay that kindly folk for their guestful and blithe ways. And thereafter they sang to the pipe and the harp their own downland songs; and this she found strange, that whereas her eyes were dry when she was singing the songs of love of the knighthood, the wildness of the shepherd-music drew the tears from her, would she, would she not. Homelike and dear seemed the green willowy dale to her, and in the night ere she slept, and she lay quiet amidst of the peaceful people, she could not choose but weep again, for pity of the bitter-sweet of her own love, and for pity of the wide world withal, and all the ways of its many folk that lay so new before her.
They made not so much way that they came to the Five Crafts on the fourth day, but lay under the bare heavens in a dale below the big swell of the downland, whereof Gerard spake. But betimes in the morning Birdalone arose and stirred up her men, and they gat to horse, and rode the hill before them till they came on to the crest thereof. Then Birdalone cried aloud with joy to see the lovely land before her, and the white walls and the towers of the great city, whereas Greenford was but small beside it.
So they rode down into the frank, and entered the gates of the city a little after noon, and again was Birdalone in all amaze at the going to and fro in the streets and the thronging of the markets, and the divers folk, as chapmen and men-at-arms, and craftsmen and lords, who used the said city; and to say sooth, somewhat her heart sank within her, and it seemed to her that it would be hard and troublous to have to deal with so much folk, and that they must needs go past her on the right hand and the left without heeding her life.
Howsoever, Gerard, who knew the city, brought her to a fair hostel, where she was well lodged, she and her men. Straightway, then, before she went out into the streets again, she fell to getting together what she had of fine broidered work and of fair script, and to finishing what she had unfinished. And she sent forth Gerard and his sons to find out where was the market for such goods, and if she would have leave to sell the same therein, or anywhere in the town; and Gerard found the hall of the embroiderers, and therein the master of the craft, and he received the carle courteously when he heard that there was fine work come to town, and did him to wit that none in any such craft might have freedom of the market save by leave of the guild of the craft; but, said he, the guilds were open-handed and courteous, and were nowise wont to refuse the said leave, were the work good and true; and he bade Gerard withal tell his mistress that she were best to bring samplings of her work to the Guildhall so soon as she might. So the very next day went Birdalone thither, and found the master a well-looked tall man of some five-and-forty winters, who looked on her from the first as if he deemed it were no ill way of wearing the time. To this man she showed her work, and though he found it not easy to take his eyes off Birdalone herself, yet when he looked at her handiwork, he found it better than very good, and he said to her: Damsel, here is what will be sought for at a great price by the great lords and ladies of the land, and the rich burgesses, and especially by the high prelates; and so much of it as thou hast a mind to do is so much coined gold unto thee; and now I see thee what thou art, I were fain that thou gathered good to thee. But as diligent as thou mayst be, thou hast but one pair of hands, wonderful soothly, and yet but one pair. He broke off at that word, for he was verily staring at her hands, and longing to see more of her arms than the wrists only, so that he scarce knew what he was saying. Then he turned red and said: Soothly I wot that no other hands save thine may do such needlework, or make the draughts for them. But thou wilt need women-servants to help thee, both in dighting the house for thee (for this big old carle here will be scarce meet thereto) and as apprentices to help thee about the work itself; and if thou wilt, I shall seek the best ones out for thee. Moreover I must tell thee, that though I know for sure how that no woman in the world may work such needlework as thine, yet whiles there cometh hither a woman of middle age, a woman worn by troubles, pious, meek, and kind; and by St. Lucia! now I look on thee again, she might be somewhat like unto thee, were she young and fresh-looking and strong as thou art. Now this woman I say, and thereat I marvel, doeth needlework that is somewhat after the manner of thine, and which seemed to us excellent till I had seen thine. Good livelihood she earneth thereby, and is diligent therein; but she hath no heart to get apprentices, or be made one of our guild, both of which were lawful to her as to thee, lovely damsel. But now I shall counsel her to be made of our guild along with thee, if thou wilt have it so, and then may ye both have three apprentices each, and may make in our city a goodly school, so that our guild shall be glorified thereby, for there will be none such work in the world. How sayest thou?
She thanked him much, and yeasaid him, and thought in her heart that such work which would keep her hands and her head both busy, would solace the grief of her heart, and wear away the time, that she might live till hope might peradventure arise in her.
Then said the master: There is one thing else, that is, thy dwelling-place; and if thou wilt I shall hire thee a house in the street of the Broiderers, a goodly one: sooth to say, that same is mine own, so thou mayst deem that I tell thee hereof to mine own gain; and that may be (and he reddened therewith); but there is this in it, that if thou lackest money I shall let thee live therein without price till thou shalt have earned more than enough to pay me.
Birdalone thanked him well, but she did him to wit that she was nowise penniless; and presently she departed well pleased, though she deemed that the said master was well-nigh more friendly than might be looked for. And the next day he came to her in the hostelry, and without more ado brought her to the house in the street of the Broiderers, and she found it fair and well plenished, and so she fell to work to get all things ready.
Now the next week was the day appointed when she should be received into the broiderers’ guild, and the day before came the master aforesaid to see Birdalone. Sooth to say, he had not failed to come to see her every day, on one pretence or another, since the first day they had met, but ever he did to her with all honour and simply. But on this day he brought with him the woman skilful of her hands, to show her unto Birdalone, who received her gladly, and thereafter Master Jacobus left them alone together.
The said woman looked worn and aged indeed, but was not of more than five-and-forty winters even by seeming, after the first look at her; she was somewhat tall and well-knit, her face well shapen, and her hair yet goodly. There was a kind look in the eyes of her, as if she might love anyone with whom she lived that would be kind to her. Meek, or rather over-meek, of mien she was, and it seemed of her that she had been sore scared and oppressed one while or another.
So when Master Jacobus was gone, Birdalone set her down on the settle beside her, and spake to her full sweetly and kindly, and the woman spake little in turn save answering simply to her questions. Birdalone asked where she was kinned, and she answered: In Utterhay. Then said Birdalone: Within these last few days I have heard that town named twice or thrice, and never before, as meseemeth; and yet, hearing the name from thy mouth, it seemeth to stir something in me, as if I had been there one time and longed to be there again. Is there aught in the place whereof folk tell wide about, so that I might have heard it told of and not noted it at the time? Nay, lady, said the dame, save perchance that it is on the verge of a very great and very evil wood, otherwise it was once a merry town and of much resort from the country-side.
Birdalone looked on her, and saw that the tears were coming from her eyes and running down her cheeks as she spake; so she said to her: Why dost thou weep, mother? Is there aught I may do to assuage thy grief? Said the dame: Thou art so kind to me, and thy voice is so dear and sweet, that I cannot choose but weep. Meseems it is because love of thee hath taken mine heart, and therewith is blended memory of past sorrow of mine. Thou askest me if thou mayest do aught to assuage my grief; dear lady, I am not grieved now, that has gone by; nay, now I am more than not grieved, I am made happy, because I am with thee. But since thou art so debonair with me, I will ask thee to do somewhat for me; and that is, to tell me of thy life gone by; I mean, sweet young damsel, of thy life when thou wert a little child.
Then Birdalone kissed her and said: It goes to my heart that thou lovest me; for soon as I set eyes on thee my heart went out to thee; and now belike we shall be dear friends; and that is a thing that shall avail me much, to have a friend who is so much older than I, so that nought can come between us, of the love of men and other griefs. Yea, now, said the dame, smiling somewhat sadly; now do I see the water standing in thine eyes, and thy voice quavers. Is it so, thou lovely kind damsel, that thou hast been grieved by love of a man? Who then may prevail in love if thou prevail not? And she fell to fondling Birdalone’s hand; but Birdalone said: It is over-long to tell of all my life, mother, though I be so young; but now I will do as thou badest me, and tell thee somewhat of my days when I was little.
And therewith she fell to telling her of her days in the House under the Wood, and the witch and her surliness and grimness, and of her love of the wild things, and how she waxed there. And she spake a long while, for the memory of those days seemed to lead her along, as though she verily were alive now in them; and the woman sat before her, gazing on her lovingly, till Birdalone stayed her tale at last and said: Now have I told thee more than enough of a simple matter, and a life that was as that of a wild creature of the woods. Now shalt thou, mother, tell me somewhat of thee, and what was thy grief of Utterhay: for thou shalt find that the telling thereof shall solace thee. Ah! so think young folk, said the woman sadly, because there are many days left for them to hope in. But though the telling of my sorrow be a fresh sorrow to me, yet shalt thou hear it. It is but of the loss of my babe; but she was of all babes the fairest and the sweetest.
Then she fell to telling Birdalone all that concerning the witch at Utterhay and the poor-wife that ye have heard in the beginning of this book, until the time when she left the house to buy meat for the witch; for she herself was the said poor-wife. And then she told how she came back again and found her guest gone and the child withal; and though she had wept for love of Birdalone, she wept not at telling of this grief, but told it as a tale which had befallen some other one. And she said: And so when I had done running up and down like a wild thing, and asking of the neighbours with lack of breath and fierceness of speech who had taken my child away from me; and when I had gone up to the wood and even some way into it, and when I had wandered up and down again, and night was falling, I came back at last again to my poor house so weary with my woe, that I scarce knew what had befallen me. And there upon the board lay the victual and drink which I had brought, and the money which the witch had given unto me; and despite of grief, hunger flamed up in me at the sight, and I threw myself on to it and ate and drank, and so came to myself, that is, to my grief. But the next day I ran about hither and thither, and wearied folk with my asking and my woe; but it was all of none avail. The child was gone away from me. There is little more to tell of me, sweet lady. If I were to live, needs must I take the poor price of my little one, to wit, the witch’s money, and deal with folk for my livelihood; wherefore I bought me cloth and silks, having now the wherewithal, and set to work on broidery, for even then was I a cunning needle-woman. So were God and the saints good to me, and inclined the folk to me, that they were good and piteous, and I lacked not work nor due livelihood; but after a while I wearied of Utterhay, where my dear child should have been running about before my feet; and having by this time gotten a little money together, and being exceeding deft in my craft, I came on hither to live, and, praise be to St. Ursula! I have found it easy to live: and praise be to All-hallows withal that I have found thee, who art so kind and lovely; and thou by seeming of the very age my child should be if she be living: or how old art thou, dear lady?
Birdalone laid her hand on her breast, and she was turned pale, but she said in a low voice: I deem that I am of twenty summers.
Then they both sat silent, till Birdalone might master the fluttering of her heart, and she said: Now meseems I have a memory even earlier than those I told thee erst. A woman took me out of a basket and set me on the back of an ass, and I looked about, and I was in a grassy lawn of the woods; and I saw a squirrel run up a tree-trunk before me, and wind round the tree and hide him; and then I stretched out my hands and cried out to him; and then came the woman unto me, and gave me wood-strawberries to eat out of her hand.
Brake out the poor-wife thereat, pale and trembling: Tell me now, my child, hast thou any memory of what the woman was who set thee on the ass and gave thee the strawberries? Birdalone looked on her, and scanned her face closely, and then shook her head, and said: Nay, it was not thou, mother. Nay, surely; nay, surely, said the woman; but think again. Said Birdalone, speaking slowly: Was it my mistress then? She was a tall woman, somewhat thin and bony, with goodly red hair and white-skinned, but thin-lipped. Quoth the poor-wife: No, no; it is of no use; nought such was she. Then Birdalone looked up and said eagerly: Yea, but it was her other shape belike: therein was she a tall woman, dark-haired, hook-nosed, and hawk-eyed, as if of thirty summers; a stark woman. Hast thou seen such? dost thou remember her?
The woman sprang up and cried out, and was like to have fallen, but Birdalone arose and held her in her arms and comforted her, and set her in her seat again and knelt before her; and presently the poor-wife came to herself and said: My child, thou sayest do I remember her; how shall I ever forget her? she was the thief who stole my child.
Therewith she slid from off her seat, and knelt by Birdalone, and stooped low down on the floor as if the tall maiden were but a little one, and she fell to kissing her and patting her, her face and her hands, and all about; and said, sobbing and yet smiling: Suffer me a little, my child, mine own lovely child! For in good sooth I am thy mother, and it is long since I have seen thee: but hearken, when I come quite to myself I shall pray thee not to leave me yet awhile, and I shall pray thee to love me.
Birdalone clipped and kissed her, and said: I love thee dearly, and never, never shall I leave thee.
Then they stood up, and the mother took Birdalone by the shoulders, and held her a little aloof, and devoured her with her eyes; and she said: Yea, thou hast grown tall, and belike wilt grow no taller: and how fair and lovely thou hast grown; and thou that wert born in a poor man’s house! no wonder that any should covet thee. And I, I wonder if ever I was as fair as thou art; forsooth many called me fair for a little while; and now behold me! Nay, child and darling, let not thy face grow downcast, for now shall I know nought more of fear and grief; and is it not like that I shall grow fairer of flesh, and shapelier, in the happy days we shall dwell together? And therewith she took her to her arms, and it seemed as if she might never have enough of clipping and embracing her; and she would look at Birdalone’s hands and her feet and her arms, and stroke them and caress them; and she wondered at her body, as if she had been a young mother eaten up with the love of her firstborn. And as for Birdalone, she was as glad of her mother as might be; and yet in her heart she wondered if perchance one of the fellowship might stray that way, and be partaker in her joy of this newfound dear friend; and she said, might it be Viridis; but in her inmost heart, though she told it not to herself, she longed that the Black Squire might find her out at last.
Now dwelt Birdalone in rest and peace when she had been taken into the guild along with her mother, and they had taken the due apprentices to them; and they began to gather much of goods to them, for of fine broidery there was little done in the Five Crafts, and none at all that could be put beside their work, either for beauty of the draught of it, or for skill of handiwork. She declared unto all folk how that the poor-wife (who had to name Audrey) was her very mother, from whom she had been stolen in her youngest days; but she told none any tale of how she was stolen. And the twain dwelt together in the greatest loving-kindness; and it was with Audrey as she had forecast, that now her days were happy, and she living in all ease and content, that the goodliness of her youth came back to her, and she became a fair woman as for her years; and therewith it grew to be clear that the two were so much alike one to the other, that all might see that they were mother and daughter.
Gerard and his two sons she maintained yet as her men; and not only were they of much use to her in fetching and carrying, but also true it is that her beauty was so manifest, that she whiles needed a stout lad weaponed at her back when she was in the streets or amidst the throng of the market; and many were they, and whiles of the highest, who craved love of her, some with honour, and some with lack of it.
Of these, forsooth, were but two that anywise troubled her; and the most trouble was this, that she might not fail to see that the love of her had entered into the hearts of the two Gerardsons, Robert and Giles; so that times were when she deemed she must even send them away, but when it came to the point she had not the heart thereto; though none other remedy there seemed, so sorely as their souls were wounded by longing for her. It is not to be said that they ever spake to her thereof, or wittingly wearied her with signs of love; but they could not so easily cover it up but that it was ever before her eyes. But she suffered it all for friendship’s sake and for their true service, and in all friendliness did what she might to solace their grief. Forsooth so good and true she found that father-kind, and the young men so goodly and kind, that she said to herself, had she not another man lying in her heart, she might well have chosen one of those twain for her very speech-friend and true lover.
The second wooer that troubled her was the master, Jacobus, who, when but three months were worn of her dwelling in her house, did all openly crave her love and offer her marriage, he being a man unwedded. Sore was her heart that she must needs gainsay him, so kind and courteous as he had been to her at their first coming together; though this indeed is sooth, that straightway, so soon as he saw her, he fell into the captivity of her love. Howsoever, gainsay him she needs must, and he took the naysay so hardly that he was scarce like a man before her, and wept and prayed and lamented many times over, till she wearied of it, and well-nigh fell to loathing him. So that it came to this at last, that one day she spake to him and said that she might no longer bear it, but must seek another house and leave his. There then was the to-do, for he fell on his knees before her, and kissed her feet, would she, would she not, and cried out in his grief, till at last for pure weariness of his folly she gave way unto him, and said that she would still abide there; whereon he rose up from her and went away with all the grief run off him for that time, and as glad a man to look on as you might see on a summer’s day.
But the next morning he came unto her again, and she thinking all was begun afresh, made him no glad countenance; but he stood up before her and spake friendly, and said how that she was in the right of it, and that if they both dwelt in one house together they were like to have but a weary time of it, both she and he. But, said he, I will not that thou shouldst depart out of this house, for a goodly one it is, and full meet for thee; it is for me to depart, and not for thee. I tell thee, forsooth, that I had from the first meant this house as a gift from me to thee. And therewith he drew from his pouch a scroll, which was a deed of gift of the said house, duly sealed and attested, and he gave it into her hands; but she was sore moved thereat, and at the demeanour of him that morning, and she let the scroll fall to the floor and wept for pity of him, and reached out both her hands, and he kissed them, and then her lips also, and sithence he sat down beside her. But she said: Alas! that thou wilt give me what I may not take, and wouldst have of me what I may not give.
But now he waxed hotter, and said: This once I command thee to do my will, and take my gift. It will be nought to my gain if thou take it not; for I may not live in this house when thou art gone from it; and I swear by All-hallows that I will not let any have it to hire, nor will I sell it, since thou hast made it holy by dwelling therein.
Yet was she sore moved by his generous fashion, and she said: I will take thy gift then, and live here in honour of thee and thy friendship; for well I wot thou hadst no mind to buy me with thy gift.
So she spake, and he stood up stark and stern, and so departed, and kissed her not again; though meseems she would have suffered him had he offered it. Nay, belike had he at that moment pressed his wooing somewhat masterfully, it is not so sure but she might have yeasaid it, and suffered him to wed her and lead her to bed; though it would have gone ill both with him and with her thereafter.
Thenceforth dwelt Birdalone with her mother and her maidens and her men in that house, and it became famous in the Five Crafts because of her beauty and her wisdom, which minished not, but waxed day by day; but therewithal as the time wore, waxed her longing and sadness. But all this she hid in her own heart, and was debonair to all about her, and so good to poor folk that none had a word save of blessing on her beauty and her wisdom.
Thus dwelt Birdalone in the Five Crafts in such rest and peace as her heart would let her; and dear and good friends she had about her; her mother first, whose love and desire for love of her made all things soft and dear unto her. Gerard and the Gerardsons were next, who were ever faithful and true unto her, and deft both of hand and of mind, so that they wrought many things for her avail. Then came the master, Jacobus, who held himself unwedded for her sake, and though he no longer dwelt in the same house with her, might scarce endure to miss the sight of her for two days running: a dear friend she deemed him, as forsooth he was, though whiles he tormented and wearied her, and belike had wearied her more, but for the sorrow which lay on her own heart, whereof it came that she might not think of any man as of one who might be a lover, and so felt safe even with so kind a friend and so stubborn in his love as was this one. Moreover he never again craved love of her in so many words, but only in his goings and comings so did, that it was clear how he had her, and the love of her, ever in his heart.
Wore thus a five years; and then came a sickness on the city, and many died thereof; and the said sickness entered into Birdalone’s house, and slew Audrey her mother, but spared all else therein. Thereby at the first was Birdalone so overwhelmed that she might heed nought, neither her craft nor her friends, nor the days to come on the earth for her. And moreover when she came more to herself, which was not for many days, and asked why her friend Jacobus had not been to see her the last days, she was told that he also was dead of the pestilence; and she sorrowed for him sorely, for she loved him much, though not in the way he would.
And now did the city and land of the Five Crafts begin to look unfriendly to Birdalone, and she fell to thinking that she must needs depart thence, as she well might do, whereas she had foison of goods: and at first it was in her mind to go with Gerard and his sons unto Utterhay; but then she deemed the thought of her mother, and how she would be ever thinking of the loss and the gain, and the loss once more stood in the way; and she turned one thing and another over in her mind, and might not face it.
On a night, as she slept, came to her dreams of her days in the House under the Wood (as very seldom betid), and the witch-wife was speaking to her in friendly fashion (as for her) and blaming her for fleeing away, and was taunting her with the failure of her love, and therewith telling her how fair a man and lovesome was the Black Squire, and what a loss she had of him; and Birdalone was hearkening and weeping for tenderness’ sake, while the witch was unto her neither fearful nor irksome, and forsooth nought save a mouthpiece for words that both grieved Birdalone and yet were an eager pleasure unto her. But in the midst thereof, and ere the dream had time to change, Birdalone awoke, and it was an early morning of later spring, and the sky was clear blue and the sun shining bright, and the birds singing in the garden of the house, and in the street was the sound of the early market-folk passing through the street with their wares; and all was fresh and lovely.
She awoke sobbing, and the pillow was wet with her tears, and yet she felt as if something strange and joyous were going to betide her, and for joy of the love of life the heart beat fast in her bosom.
She arose all darling naked as she was, and went to the window and looked out on the beauty of the spring, while the sound of the market-wains brought to her mind the thought of the meads, and the streams of the river, and the woodsides beyond the city; and she fell a-longing for them, as a while she knelt on the window-seat, half dreaming and asleep again, till the sun came round that way, and its beams fell upon her bosom and her arms; and she stood up and looked on the fairness of her body, and a great desire took hold of her heart that it might be loved as it deserved by him whom she desired. And thus she stood there till she became ashamed, and hastened to do on her raiment; but even as she was about it, it came upon her that what she had will to do was to seek to the Castle of the Quest, and find out where was her love if there he were not, and so to seek him the world over till she found him. And such a flood of joy possessed her when she thought this, and so eager to begone she was, that she deemed every minute wasted till she were on the road.
Nevertheless, in a while, when her mind was steadied, she knew that she had somewhat to do ere she might be gone, and that here, as oft, it would be more haste less speed.
So she abode a little, and then came into her hall duly dight, and found Gerard and his sons there to serve her; and she brake her fast, and bade them sit by her at table, as oft she did; and she spake to them of this and that, and Gerard answered lightly again; but the two Gerardsons looked at one another, as though they would speak and ask a question from time to time, but forbore because they durst not. But Gerard looked on them, and deemed he wotted what was in their minds; so at last he spake: Our lady, both I, and meseemeth my sons also, deem that there is some tidings toward which are great unto thee; for thine eyes sparkle, and the red burns in thy cheeks, and thine hands may not be quiet, nor thy feet abide in one place; wherefore I see that thou hast something in thy mind which strives to be forth of it. Now thou wilt pardon us, our dear lady, that we ask concerning this, because it is in our love for thee that we speak, lest there be some change toward which shall be a grief to some of us.
My men, said Birdalone, flushing red, sooth it is that there is a change at hand, and I shall tell you straightway what it is. Years ago I told you that I was fleeing from my friends; now the change hath betid that I would seek them again; and needs must I leave the Five Crafts behind to do so. And moreover there is this ill word to be said, which I will say at once, to wit, that when I am but a little way gone from the Five Crafts I must wend the other deal of my journey birdalone, as my name is.
All those three sat silent and aghast at that word, and the young men grew pale; but after a while spake Gerard: Our lady most well-beloved, this word which thou hast spoken, to wit, that thou needest us no longer, I have looked to hear any time this five years; and praise be to the saints that it hath come late and not soon. Now there is no more to be said but that thou tell us what is thy will that we should do.
Birdalone hung her head awhile for sorrow of sundering from these men; then she looked up and said: It seemeth, my friends, as if ye deem I have done you a wrong in sundering our fellowship; but all I may say hereon is to pray you to pardon me, that I needs must go alone on my quest. And now what I would have you do, is first of all to fetch hither a notary and scrivener, that he may draw up a deed of gift to you, Gerard and Gerardsons, of this house and all that is therein, saving what money I may need for my journey, and gifts such as I shall bid you to be given to my workwomen. Ye must needs yeasay this, or ye are forsworn of your behest to do my will. But furthermore, I will have you to let the workwomen of mine (and the head one ruling) to hire the aforesaid house, if so they will; for now are they skilled, and may well earn good livelihood by the work. But the next work is simple; it is to furnish for me the array of a young man, with such armour as I may easily bear, to dight me for my road. Forsooth ye wot that not unseldom do women use the custom of going arrayed like men, when they would journey with hidden head; and ye may happen upon such gear as hath been made for such a woman rather than any man; but thou shalt get me also a short bow and a quiver of arrows, for verily these be my proper weapons that I can deal with deftly. Now my last command is that, when all is done, maybe tomorrow, or maybe the next day, ye bring me out of the city and the frank of the Five Crafts, and bring me somewhat on my way over the downs, for loth am I to part from you ere needs must. Then they knelt before her and kissed her hands, and they were full of grief; but they saw that so it had to be.
Thereafter Gerard spake with his sons apart, and in a while came to Birdalone, and said: Our lady, we will do your will in all wise; but we shall tell thee, that the Five Crafts will look but strange to us when thou art gone, and that we have a mind to betake us to Utterhay and the land of our kindred. Wherefore we pray thee to give this house that hath been so dear to us unto thy workwoman and her mates; for we need it not, nor the hire thereof, but shall do well enough with what money or good thou mayst give us. Is this according to thy will, or have I spoken rashly?
She said: Ye are good and ungreedy, and I bless you for it; be it as ye will; and this the more, as I were fain that ye go to Utterhay; for whiles I have deemed that I myself am drawn thitherward, wherefore it may be that we shall meet again in that place.
And when she had so spoken, she might not refrain her tears; and the Gerardsons turned away, for they were ashamed, both that they should see her weep, or she them. But at last she called to them and said: Now make we the speediest end we may of this, for sorry work is the tarrying of farewell; so I pray you, my friends, to go about the work I have bidden you.
So all was done as she would, and the day after the morrow was Birdalone abiding the coming of Gerard and his sons with the horses; and despite of the sundering of friends and the perils that belike lay before her, the world seemed fair to her, and life beginning anew. And she made no doubt that she would soon be at the Castle of the Quest, and there find all things much as she had left them; and there at least would be the welcome of her dear friend Viridis.
Presently were the horses come with Gerard and his sons, and Birdalone gat to horse amongst them. She was armed in a light hauberk, and over it a long and loose surcoat that came down beneath the knee of her; and a sallet she had upon her head, wide but light, so that not very much of her face was to be seen. She had made up her mind to this tale upon the road, when she was among folk, that she was under a vow not to do off her helm for a seven days’ space. Withal she had covered up the lovely shapeliness of her legs with long boots of deer-leather, and her surcoat was wide-sleeved; she was well hidden, and whereas she was a tall and strong woman, she might well pass for a young man, slender and fair-faced. She was girt with a good sword, and Gerard had gotten her a strong horseman’s bow and a quiver full of arrows, wherewith, as aforesaid, she knew well how to deal; wherefore she was by no means without defence.
So they went their ways through the streets and out-a-gates; and it must be said, that were not Birdalone’s thoughts turned toward the Castle of the Quest, and what she should meet there, her heart had been somewhat sore at leaving the city which had cherished her so well these years past; nay, as it was, the shadow of the southern gate, as she past thereunder, smote somewhat cold upon her, and she silently bade farewell to the City of the Five Crafts with some sorrow, though with no fear.
Forth they rode then through the frank and up on to the shepherd country, and whereas their horses were of the best, and they had no sumpter-beast with them till they came to Upham, where they must needs have victual, they made but five days of it to the place where the road turned aside from the country of Mostwyke. There then they drew rein, and Birdalone lighted down from her horse, and they all, and they lay upon the grass and ate and drank together.
But when they were done, spake Birdalone and said: Dear friends, this is the hour and the place when we must needs part; for ye shall go back again to Five Crafts, and do what I have bidden of you, and do your will, and wend your ways with your livelihood unto Utterhay. But as for me, I must go my ways first unto Greenford, and thence to seek my friends from whom erst I was fleeing when ye first became my friends. Now perchance ye will say that I have taken you up in my need, and cast you aside at my pleasure; but I may only say that there be at present two deals of my life, and of one of them have ye been partakers, and of the other ye may not be. Forsooth that is a grief unto me, as I suppose unto you is it a greater one. But unto me also were it heavier but that my heart tells me it shall not ever be so; for as I said to you some days agone, I have a hope that we shall yet meet again, be it in Utterhay or in some other place. And now I pray you to pardon me wherein I may have done amiss unto you, and begrudge it not that there be others, who indeed were first-comers in regard to you, and whom I love better than you; for of your truth and your good-will and loving-kindness will I bear witness wheresoever I may be.
Then spake Gerard: Do ye speak, my sons; for I have no grudge against her, nor aught to bewail me as to her, save, it may be, that I am now so well on in years that it may well befall that I shall not live till the time of the meeting in Utterhay. But I will pray thee this, dear lady, that if thou come to the place where I lie dead thou wilt kiss my burial-stone, and sing due masses for me. Nay, she said, but this is the worst shall betide betwixt us.
Then spake Robert Gerardson: I am not deft of speech, but this parting makes me bold to say this: that from the time when first I set eyes on thee I have loved thee in such wise that never mayst thou love me as much as I love thee, if thou hast anywhere, as I deem thou hast, a lover of thy body, whom thou lovest. Now I have seen that for a long while thou hast known this, and hast ever because of it been as meek and kind with me as thou mightest be. And this hath partly grieved me the more, because it hath eked my longing for thee; and yet it hath comforted me the more, because it hath made me deem better of thee, and deem thee worthier of worship and holier; therefore have thou all my blessing for it. And now I know that thou sunderest from us that thou mayst go seek thy very bodily lover; and I say, that if the sundering had been for any lighter cause, grieved at heart should I have been; but since it is even so, once more I bless thee, and ever shall I be happy in the thought of thee; and if ever we meet again, still shalt thou find me as now I am in heart and in soul.
She turned to him, not dry-eyed, and said: I know that what thou sayest is sooth; and thou hast guessed right as to my goings; and I take thy blessing with love and joy.
Then were they silent; but Giles Gerardson was struggling with words, for he was slow to speech; at last he said: I say much as saith my brother: but see thou, our lady, how ill it had gone if thou hadst loved one of us with an equal love; woe worth the strife then! But now I will crave this of thee, that thou kiss me on the lips, now whenas we part; and again, that thou wilt do as much when first we meet again hereafter. And I tell thee right out, that if thou gainsay this, I shall deem it unfriendly in thee, and that those lovely words which thou didst speak e’en now were but words alone, and that thou art not as true as I have deemed thee.
She laughed amidst her tears, and said: Dear lad, doom me not till I have been found guilty! I shall nowise naysay thee this, for I love thee, and now and ever shalt thou be unto me as a brother, thou and Robert also; for even so have ye done by me. But thou wottest, dear lad, that whiles and again must sister sunder from brother, and even so it has to be now.
Then they sat silent all four; and thereafter Birdalone arose and did off her sallet, and kissed and embraced Gerard and his sons, and bade them farewell, and she and the young men wept. Then she armed herself and gat to horse, and went her ways towards Greenford, having nought with her but the raiment and arms that her body bore, and her horse, and some gold pieces and gems in a little pouch. So rode she; and the others turned back sadly toward the Five Crafts.
Now came Birdalone riding into Greenford an hour before sunset on a day of the latter end of May; and she had no doubt but to go straight to the hostelry, and that the less as she had not abided there before, as hath been told. To them that served her she told the tale of her vow, that she might not do off her sallet that seven days; and some trowed her, and some deemed her a woman, but whereas she seemed by her raiment to be of condition none meddled with her. Moreover, as she told her intent to ride on betimes in the morning, it mattered the less unto them: withal she gave out that she came from foreign parts, as sooth it was.
In the evening she sat in the hall, and with her were three chapmen travelling with their wares, and two good men of the town sitting; and they were talking together, and were courteous and blithe, and amidst their talk they threw many a glance at the slim and fair young squire, as Birdalone seemed, and were fain to speak unto him, but refrained them for courtesy’s sake. For her part, Birdalone longed sore to ask them somewhat of the Castle of the Quest, but the words clave to her throat for very fear; and she sat restless and ill at ease. However at last said a townsman to a chapman: Art thou for the Red Hold, Master Peter, when thou art done here? Birdalone turned very pale at that word; and Master Peter spake: Yea, surely, neighbour, if the folk leave aught in my packs for others to buy. He spake in a jovial voice, as if he were merry, and the others all laughed together, as though they were well pleased and in good contentment. And now, deemed Birdalone, would be her time to speak if she would learn aught; so she constrained herself at last, and spake, though in a quavering voice: Meseems then, masters, this good town is thriving as now? This I ask because I am a stranger in these parts this long while, and now I am come back hither fain were I to find the land in good peace; for I may chance to take up my abode hereby.
The goodmen turned to her and smiled kindly when they heard the sweetness of her voice; and one of them said: Sir of the sallet, ye shall be content with the peace in this land, and the thriving of its folk; the very villeins hereabout live as well as franklins in most lands, and the yeomen and vavassours are clad as if they were knights of a good lord’s household. Forsooth their houses are both goodly and easy to enter; and well is that, whereas there lacks never good meat and drink on the board therein. And moreover their women are for ever seeking whatso is fair and goodly, whatso is far-fetched and dear-bought, whereof we chapmen also thrive, as thou mayst well deem. Ah! it is a goodly land now!
The others nodded and smiled. But Birdalone spake, hardening her heart thereto for very need: Belike then there is a change of days here, for when I last knew of the land there was little peace therein. And that will not be so long agone, said a townsman, smiling, for I doubt we should see no grey hair in thine head if thy sallet were off it. Birdalone reddened: It will be some five years agone, said she. Yea, yea, said the townsman, we were beginning to end the unpeace then, and it was the darkest hour before the dawn; for five years agone we and the good knights of the Castle of the Quest were lying before the walls of the Red Hold. Forsooth we cleared out that den of devils then and there. What betid unto it after ye won it? said Birdalone, and she trembled withal. Said the townsman: Heard ye never of the Black Squire, a very valiant knight, since thou sayest that thou hast known this country-side? She bowed a yeasay, for this time she found it hard to speak.
Well, said the townsman, we held garrison in the Red Hold for some three months, and thereafter we craved of him to come and be our captain therein; for, even after the Hold was won, there was yet a sort of runagates that haunted the country-side, men who had no craft save lifting and slaying. And forsooth we knew this Lord Arthur for the keenest and deftest of men-at-arms; so he yeasaid our asking, and did all he might herein, and forsooth that was all there was to do; for he was ever in the saddle, and at the work. Forsooth he was not a merry man, save when he was at his busiest; and little he spake in hall or chamber, else had he been better beloved. But at least by no man better might the land have been served.
There was silence a little, and Birdalone waxed deadly pale; then she strove with herself and said: Thou sayest he was and he was; is he dead then? Said the townsman: Not to our knowledge. When he had brought the land into good peace, which is some three years and a half agone, he went his ways from the Red Hold all alone, and we saw him no more. But some folk deem that he hath entered into religion.
Birdalone’s heart sickened, and she thought to herself that now all was to begin again; yet she felt that the worst was over since he was not dead, and she was able to think what she should do. So she said: Mayhappen he hath gone back to the Castle of the Quest? Nay, nay, said the townsman, that may not be; for waste is that house now; there is none dwelleth there, save, it may be, now and again a wandering carle or carline abideth there a day or two. Said Birdalone: How hath that befallen? or where is gone Sir Hugh, the Green Knight? Said the townsman: We knew the Green Knight well; frank and free and joyous was he; all men loved him; and his lady and speech-friend, none ever saw a lovelier, and as kind as was he. But we might not keep them with us; they are gone into their own country. Sir Hugh left the Castle of the Quest some three months after the Black Squire came to us for captain, and he gave over the castle to Sir Geoffrey of Lea, an old and wise man of war. But not many months thereafter we heard that he also had departed, leaving it ungarnished of men; and we deem that the cause thereof is that something uncouth is seen and heard therein, which folk may not endure. Is it not so, my masters?
They all yeasaid that, and the talk went on to other matters. As for Birdalone, though her hope to come amongst friends was so utterly overthrown, yet she saw not what to do save to go her ways to the Castle of the Quest, and see if perchance she might find any tidings there. And she said to herself, that if the worst came to the worst, she would herself dwell there as an hermit of love; or, maybe, to face those uncouth things and see if any tidings might be compelled out of them.
She arose betimes on the morrow, and was out of Greenford so soon as the gates were open, and at first made all speed that she might toward the Castle of the Quest; and nothing hindered her, for the land was verily in good peace, and she might have come there if she would before sunset, for all whom she met furthered her. But as the day waned her courage waned with it, so that at last she stayed some six miles short of the house, and craved shelter at a yeoman’s stead there, which was granted her with all kindness; and they made much of her, and she told them her vow of the sallet, and they deemed nought save that she was a young man.
She departed early in the morning with their God-speed, and while the day was yet young came into the meadows before the castle, and saw the towers thereof rising up before her: then she checked her horse, and rode on no faster than a foot’s pace; yet as slow as she might ride, needs must she get to the gate while the day was yet young.
So came Birdalone by that bower wherein she had slept that first night she came to the castle; and she reined up to look on it; and as she sat there gazing, came a man out from it clad as a man of religion; and her heart beat quick, and she was like to fall from her horse, for there came into her mind what the townsman had said, that the Black Squire had gone into religion. But the hermit came towards her with a cup of water in his hand, and he cast his hood aback from him, and she saw at once that it was Leonard the priest, and though it was not the friend whom she sought, yet was she glad that it was a friend; but he came and stood by her, and said: Hail, wayfarer! wilt thou drink of our well and rest thee a while? So she took the cup and drank of the water, looking kindly on him, while he wondered at the beauty of her hand, and misdoubted him. Then she gave him back the cup and lighted down off her horse, and took the sallet from her head, and spake: I may not pass by a friend without a word; think if thou hast not seen me before?
Then he knew her, and might not refrain him, but cast his arms about her and kissed her, weeping; and she said: It is sweet to me to find a friend after what I have been told of yonder house. Yea, said he, and art thou going up thither? Certes, said she, and why not? Said he: They are gone, and all gone! How and whither? said she. But I must full certainly go thither at once; I will go afoot with thee; do thou tether my horse till thou comest back.
He said: But wilt not thou come back? I know not, she said: I know nought save that I would go thither; let it be enough that I suffer thee to go with me, and on the way thou shalt tell me what thou canst of the tale.
Then went Leonard and tethered the horse, and they went together afoot to the gate; and Birdalone told what she had heard of Arthur and Hugh; and Leonard said: This is true, and there is not much else to be said. When the Black Squire came back from the leaguer of the Red Hold, and had heard before of thy departure, he was heavy of mood and few-spoken, and wandered about as one who might find no rest; yet was he not stern with Atra, who for her part was no less heavy-hearted: soothly a sad company we were, and it was somewhat better when my Lord Arthur went his ways from us; and indeed eager he was to be gone; and it could be seen of him that he was fain of the toil and peril which they of Greenford offered him. Then in some four months spake my lord Hugh that he also would be gone to a place where were both a land and folk that would look friendly on him; so he went with my lady Viridis and my lady Aurea, and they had Atra also with them; and me also they would have had, but my heart failed me to leave the place where I had been so glad and so sorry with thee; death had been better; wherefore in yonder bower as in an hermitage I serve God and abide my time. But though I wot nought of where is gone the Black Squire, I know whereto those four are gone, and it is but a seven days’ ride hence, and the land is goodly and peaceable, and if they be not dead, most like they be there yet. How sayest thou then, thou dearest and kindest, wilt thou thither to them? For if so, I may well lead thee thither.
Birdalone shook her head. Nay, she said, I deem that I am drawn elsewhither, but soon I shall tell thee. Lo now the gate. But ere we enter, tell me of Sir Geoffrey of Lea, and why it was that they might not abide the uncouth things, or if there were any such. Spake Leonard: Things uncouth there were, and I was called upon to lay them, and I did as biddeth Holy Church in all wise, but prevailed not against them, and still were they seen and heard, till folk might endure it no longer.
And what like were these things? said Birdalone, and are they yet seen and heard? Said Leonard: Strange it is, but last night I went into the great hall where they mostly betid, and laid me down there, as whiles I do, for I fear them not, and would see if they yet appear; but all night came nothing at all. As to the likeness of them . . . Then he stopped, but said presently: Hard it is to tell thee of them, but needs must I. There be two of these things; and one is an image of a tall woman of middle-age, red-haired, white-skinned, and meagre, and whiles she has a twiggen rod in her hand, and whiles a naked short sword, and whiles nought at all. But the voice of her is cursing and blaspheming and ill-saying.
Said Birdalone: This is then a fetch of my witch-mistress of whom I told thee erst, and the image of her; what is the other? Said Leonard: I were fain not to tell thee. Yet needs must thou, said Birdalone. Dear lady, said Leonard, the other is an image of thee, and even most like unto thee; but whiles clad in a scanty grey coat and barefoot, and whiles clad in a fair green gown goodly broidered, and broidered shoon; and whiles all mother-naked.
And what voice cometh from mine image? said Birdalone, smiling, yet somewhat pale withal. Said Leonard: One while a voice of sweet singing, as of a bird in the brake, and that is when thou art clad; and again, when thou art naked, a voice of shrieking and wailing, as of one enduring torments.
Spake Birdalone: And when did these wonders begin? Said he: Not till after Sir Hugh and thy she-friends were gone hence.
Pondered Birdalone a little; then she said: I see herein the malice of my witch-mistress; she would not send these fetches while Hugh was here, lest he should turn to seeking me with all his might. But when they departed, she would have the castle waste, and then she sent them, wotting that thereby she would rid her of Sir Geoffrey of Lea; while, on the other hand, I was nought so much unto him that he would spend all his life seeking me. But now I deem I know so much of her that I may bid thee to look on her as dead if these fetches come not again within a little while. Then mayst thou send and do Sir Geoffrey to wit thereof, and belike he will come back again; and fain were I thereof for it will be merrier if the Castle of the Quest be dwelt in once more.
Yea, verily, said Leonard; but far merrier yet wert thou to dwell there. Nay, she said, but now I see that it is not fated for me. Let us go in, for I would get to what I would do.
So therewith they passed under the shadow of the archway, and Birdalone stayed not but went straightway into the hall, and through it; and the priest, who lagged somewhat behind her speedy feet, cried out unto her: Whither wilt thou? what chamber wilt thou visit first? But she stayed not, and spake to him over her shoulder as she went: Follow me if thou wilt; I have but one place only to come to ere I leave the Castle of the Quest, save I must needs turn back on my footsteps.
Then Leonard came up with her, and she went her ways out of the hall, and out on to the waterswale of the castle, and so to the little haven of the water-gate. There Birdalone looked about her eagerly; then she turned to Leonard and pointed with her finger and said: Lo thou! there yet lieth my ferry of old time, the Sending Boat; now wot I wherefore I was drawn hither. And her eyes glittered and her body quivered as she spake.
Yea forsooth, said Leonard, there it lieth; who of all folk in the castle had durst to touch it? But what hath it to do with thee, O kindest lady?
Friend, she said, if this day weareth, and I am yet within these walls, then meseemeth there must I abide for evermore; and there perchance shall I meet that seeming of myself, maybe for this night, maybe for ever, till I die here in this castle void of all that I love, and I over-young for it, friend. And I know now that there is hope within me; for I bethink me of a dear friend over yonder water of whom I have never told any, nor will tell thee now, save this, that she is the wisdom of my life.
Wherefore now I will try this ferry and wot if the wight thereof will yet obey the voice of the speaker of the spell, who has shed of her blood to pay therefor. Put not forth a hand therefore nor speak a word to let me, but take this farewell of me, with my pity and such love as I may give thee, and let me go, and think kindly of me.
Then she went up to him, and laid her hands upon his shoulders, and kissed him, and turned about without more ado and stepped into the boat; then she sat down and stripped her arm of its sleeve, and drew forth a knife and let blood of her arm, and then arose and smeared stem and stern therewith, and then sat down with her face to the stern and sang:
The red raven-wine now Hast thou drunk, stern and bow; Wake then and awake And the Northward way take: The way of the Wenders forth over the flood, For the will of the Senders is blent with the blood.
Then she abode a little, while Leonard stood staring on her speechless with grief and blinded with his bitter tears, till the boat began to move under her, and presently glided out of the little haven into the wide lake; then she turned her face back unto him and waved her hand, and he knelt down and blessed her, weeping. And so she vanished away from before him.
Now it was scarce noon when she departed, and the dark night came upon her in the midst of the water; and she fell asleep in the boat ere the night had grown very old, and woke up in the morning, not exceeding early, maybe about six o’clock; then she looked ahead and thought presently to see the ill-favoured blotch of the Isle of Nothing on the bosom of the blue waters, whereas it was a fair and cloudless morning of latter May. Sure enough she saw land ahead, and it lay low down on the water, but she deemed from the first that it was green of hue, and as she neared it she saw that it was verily as green as emerald. Thereat she was a little troubled, because she thought that mayhappen the Sending Boat had gone astray, and that if the wight thereof were not wending the old road, maybe he was not making for the old haven. For now indeed she told herself right out that her will was to go back again to the House under the Wood, and see what might betide there, and if she and the wood-mother together might not overcome the witch.
But whatever might happen nought could she do but sit in her place and wend as the Sending Boat would; and in an hour’s space she was right under the lee of the land, and she saw that it was shapen even as the Isle of Nothing had been aforetime. But this made her wonder, that now the grass grew thick down to the lip of the water, and all about from the water up were many little slim trees, and some of them with the May-tide blossom yet on them, as though it were a fair and great orchard that she was nearing; and moreover, beyond all that she saw the thatched roofs of houses rising up.
Presently then the Sending Boat had brought her to the land, and she stepped ashore, but was wary, and gat her bow bent and set an arrow thereto she began to go up from the water. Yet she thought within herself, it will be nought ill if I be come amongst folk, so long as they be peaceful, or else how might I live the journey out to all the isles and so home to the House under the Wood?
So she turned her face to where she had seen those roofs, which now she saw no longer because of the thick leaves of the little trees, and so went along a narrow path, which grew to be more and more closely beset with trees, and were now no longer apple and pear and quince and medlar, but a young-grown thicket of woodland trees, as oak and hornbeam and beech and holly.
At last as she went she heard voices before her, so she stole warily to the edge of the copse, finger on shaft; and presently could see clear of the saplings and out on to a wide space of greensward, beyond which was a homestead of many houses and bowers, like unto that of a good yeoman in peaceful lands, save that the main building was longer, though it were low. But amidst the said greensward was a goodly flock of sheep that had been but of late washed for the shearing, and along with the sheep four folk, two carles and two queans, all of them in their first youth, not one by seeming of over a score and two of summers. These folk were clad but simply, man and woman, in short coats of white woollen (but the women’s coats a little longer than the men’s), without shoon or hosen; they had garlands of green leaves on their heads, and were wholly unarmed, save that one of the men bore an ashen wand in his hand. As for their bodies, they were goodly of fashion, tanned indeed by the sun’s burning, but all sweet of flesh were they, shapely and trim, clean-made, and light and slim.
Birdalone’s heart yearned toward them, and she stepped straightway from out of the cover of the coppice, and the sun flamed from her sallet and glittered in the rings of her hauberk, so that the folk might not fail to see her; the sheep fled bundling from her past their keepers, who stood firm, but seemed somewhat scared, and moved not toward Birdalone. She gave them the sele of the day and stood still herself; but the man with the ash-wand said: Hail, thou man; but we would have thee come no nearer a while, though thy voice be sweet: for we know what things they be which thou bearest, and that thou art a warrior. Wilt thou hurt us?
Birdalone laughed as sweetly as the blackbird sings, and she did off her sallet and shook the plenteous hair down over her, and then drew forth her sword and dagger and cast them to earth, and laid her bow and quiver of arrows upon them, and said: Now will I come to you, or ye shall come to me, whereas I am unweaponed, and no warrior, but a woman, and ye are four to one, and two of you carles; wherefore now ye may bind me or slay me if you will; but in any case I pray you first to give me a mouthful of meat.
When she had done her speech, she went up to the fairest of the women and kissed her; but the two carles made no more ado but came to Birdalone and kissed her one after other, and that as men who needed nought to compel them therein, and each thereafter took a hand of her and held it and caressed it. But the other woman had run into the house as soon as Birdalone spoke, and came back again with a treen bowl full of milk and a little loaf, not white but brown; and there blundered about her legs as she came a little lad of some three winters old, naked and brown, who was shy of the gleaming new-comer, and hid him behind the woman one while, and the other while came forth to see the new thing. But the woman said: Dear woman, here is for thee some of the ewes’ milk, and a bite of bread, and a little deal of cheese; the said milk is yet warm, so that it is not yet clottered; but if thou wilt come with us thou mayest speedily drink cows’ milk, and we be now at point to go milk them.
Birdalone thanked her with a heart full of content, and was not ill-pleased to get her hands free from the two carles; so she sat down and ate her breakfast while they talked with her, and told her of diverse work of theirs; as to how their trees were waxing, and new tillage they had done the past spring, and how it befell to the kine and the goats; of their children also they spake, and how there were already four thereof, and one of the women, the meat-bringer, already quickened with child once more. So that ere we die, quoth the carle who was speaking, we look to see many grandchildren, and shall have some stout carles and queans here. And by that time will some of the trees be well grown, so that we may fell timber and make us some keel that will wend the lake, and help us a-fishing; or we may go to other lands; or whiles folk may come to us, even as thou hast, thou dear-handed, sweet-voiced woman. But wilt thou abide here ever?
Yea, said the other, but that is looking forward a long while, that building of ships. What is nearer and well to think of is, that these apple and pear trees be so well fruited, small as they be, that this harvest we shall be able to make us cider and perry; yea, and no little deal thereof. But art thou minded to abide with us ever? That were dear to us; and belike thou wouldest bear us children, thou also.
Then spake the meat-fetching woman and laughed withal: Nay, thou also lookest aloof a pretty deal; whereas what is now to do is to go milk the kine, and to take this guest with us, so that she may drink somewhat better than ewes’ milk though the cider be not ready to hand. But tell me, our dear guest, art thou verily going to abide with us a long while? that were sweet to us, and we will do all we may to pleasure thee.
Nay, said Birdalone, it will no better be but that I depart on the morrow; and all thanks do I give you for your kindness.
The woman kissed her, and she arose, and all they went together to the milking of the kine some half mile inland; and they passed through much of orchard, and some deal of tillage, wherein the wheat was already growing high; and so came they to a wide meadow through which ran a little stream, and therein was a goodly herd of kine. So they fell to the milking, and made Birdalone drink of the sweet cows’ milk, and then went and lay down under the shade of the little young trees, and talked and were merry together. But the men were both of them somewhat willing at first to kiss Birdalone and toy with her, but when she let them know that she desired it not they refrained them without grudging.
All this while of their talk they asked Birdalone nought of whence and whither, and she would not ask them, lest it might stir their asking, and then she would have to tell them some deal of her story; and telling it was now become unto her somewhat weary work.
In a while they arose all, and the men and one woman went their ways to deal with the acre-land, but the meat-fetcher went back with Birdalone into the house; and she showed her all that was therein, which was for the more part, forsooth, the four babes aforesaid. The others came back in the eventide, bearing with them foison of blue hare-bells, and telling joyously how they had found them anigh the coppice edge in such a place: and thereafter they were merry, and sang and talked the evening away, and showed Birdalone at last to a fair little chamber wherein was a bed of dry grass, where she lay down and slept in all content.
On the morrow Birdalone arose betimes, and would not tarry despite all the kindness of that folk and the change which had come over the Isle of Nothing; so the friends saw her down to the boat all together, and bore down with them a deal of bread and cheese and late apples of the last year, for her provision on the road, and a pail of milk withal; and men and women they kissed her at departure, and the meat-fetcher said: If by any means thou mayst find a keel which will carry thee hither, at some time, I would thou wouldst come; for even if thou be old, and we passed away, yet here shall be our children or our grandchildren to welcome thee; and we will tell them the tale of thee that they remember it and long for thee.
Then Birdalone kissed her again, and made much of her, and so stepped into the boat, and fell to her sacrifice to the wight thereof; and those others stared at her and wondered, and spake nought unto her till she was gone gliding over the face of the waters; but as they walked back to the house, they spake amongst themselves that this must be some goddess (for of Holy Church they knew nought) who had come to visit them in her loveliness; and in after times, when this folk waxed a many, and tilled all the isle and made ships and spread to other lands and became great, they yet had a memory of Birdalone as their own very lady and goddess, who had come from the fertile and wise lands to bless them, when first they began to engender on that isle, and had broken bread with them, and slept under their roof, and then departed in a wonderful fashion, as might be looked for of a goddess.
But as for Birdalone, she came not back ever, nor saw that folk again, and now she sped over the water toward the Isle of Kings.
Birdalone came ashore at the said isle at the day-dawn, and saw but little change in the isle when it grew light, and still the castle stood looking down awfully on to the meadows. But when she had set foot on the land, she handled her bow lest the worst might befall, and looked about her, deeming that this time she would not go her ways to the dread show that was arrayed in the castle, if forsooth those dead folk yet abode there.
So now as she looked across the meadow, she saw one with light and fluttering raiment come forth from the trees, and look toward her whereas she stood flashing and gleaming in the sun like an image of the God of Love turned warrior. Now Birdalone deemed for sure that this was a woman; she saw her come a little nigher to her, and then stand looking at her under the sharp of her hand; then she turned about and ran back to the brake whence she came; and presently Birdalone heard the sound of voices coming thence, and in a little while thereafter came forth from the said brake a rout of women (one score and two as they were told thereafter) and walked over the meadow straight unto her. She stood where she was, so as to be nigh unto her ferry in case they willed her unpeace; for though they were weaponless by seeming, they were a many.
When they were come near they stood about her in a half ring, whispering and laughing each to each. Birdalone saw that they were all young, and that none of them might be called ungoodly, and some were full fair. They were bright and fine of array. Most bore gold and gems on fingers and neck and arms; they were clad in light, or it may be said wanton raiment of diverse colours, which had only this of their fashion in common, that they none of them hid over-much of their bare bodies; for either the silk slipped from the shoulder of her, or danced away from her flank; and she whose feet were shod, spared not to show knee and some deal of thigh; and she whose gown reached unsheared from neck to heel, wore it of a web so thin and fine that it hid but little betwixt heel and neck.
Birdalone stood gazing on them and wondering, and she had a mind to think that they were some show sent by her old mistress the witch for her undoing, and she loosened her sword in its sheath and nocked an arrow.
But then ran forward two of the damsels and knelt before her, and each took an hand of her and fell to kissing it, and she felt their hands that they were firm and their lips that they were soft and warm, and they were doubtless alive and real. Then spake one of them and said: Hail our lord! How can words say how we rejoice in thy coming this happy morn! Now do all we give ourselves to thee as thy slaves to do as thou wilt with. Yet we pray thee be merciful to us and our longings.
Therewith all the sort of them knelt down on the grass before Birdalone and joined their hands as praying to her. And Birdalone was full ill at ease, and wotted not where she was. But she said: Hail! and good days and fulfilment of wishes unto you, fair damsels! But tell me, is this the Isle of Kings, as I deemed; for strange it is for me to see ye womenfolk here?
Said she who had spoken afore: Yea verily this is the Isle of Kings; but long ago are the kings dead, and yet they sit dead in the great hall of the castle yonder, as thou mayst see if thou, who art a man and a valiant warrior, durst follow up yon mountain path thereto; but we, weak women and little-hearted, durst not go anigh it; and we tremble when whiles a-nights cometh down thence the sound of clashing swords and clattering shields, and the cries of men in battle. But, praise be to the God of Love, nought cometh down from thence unto us. Therefore do we live peaceful lives and pleasant here, lacking nought but thee, lord; and lo now thou hast come unto us, and we are happy in our inmost hearts.
Now was Birdalone perplexed and knew not what to do; but at last she said: Gentle maidens, I pray you pardon me, but I must depart straightway; for I have an errand, and life or death lieth on it. In all else than my abiding here may ye have your will.
Therewith did she move a little way toward her ferry; but forthwith all they brake out weeping and wailing and lamenting, and some of them came up to Birdalone and cast themselves down before her, and clasped her knees, and took hold of her skirts, and besought her piteously to abide with them. But she put them aside as well as she might, and stepped aboard the Sending Boat, and stood amidst it waiting on their departure; but they went not, and stood along on the lip of the land crying out and beseeching with much clamour.
Then Birdalone waxed somewhat wrath at their noise and tumult, and she drew forth her knife and bared her arm and let blood from it. But when they saw the whiteness and roundness of it, and how fine and sleek it was, straightway they changed their tune, and cried out: A woman, a woman, a fool of a woman! and they laughed in scorn and mockery. And the speaker of them said: Now there is but one thing for thee to do, and that is to come forth from thy boat and strip off thy stolen raiment, and we shall make thee as fine as ourselves, and thou shalt come with us, and with us abide the coming of our lord. Nay, thou art so fair and lovely, that thou shalt be the Lady and Queen of us, and we will do after thy commands, and thou mayst chastise us if we fail therein. But now if thou wilt not come forth of the boat uncompelled, we shall pluck thee forth of it.
And therewith she set her foot on the gunwale of the boat, and two or three others did the like. But now had Birdalone her sword naked in her hand, and she waxed as red as blood, and cried out: Forbear I bid you! Yea verily I am a woman; but I will not take this offer either, whereas I have an errand, as I told you. And so stern it is, that if ye now let my departure I will not spare to smite with this sword whoso first cometh aboard my ferry, and though I be not a man, yet shall ye find that in this matter I shall be little worse, whereas I am armed and ye be naked.
Then they drew back and stood gibing and jeering at her; but she heeded it no whit, but reddened stem and stern of the Sending Boat, and sang her spell, and forth glided the ferry, while the damsels stood and stared astonished. As for Birdalone, as she sped on her way she might not refrain her laughter. Thus she wended the wet highway.
It was not yet daybreak when Birdalone came ashore again, and the moon was down, and it was dark; wherefore she durst not go up on the land, but lay down in the ferry and fell asleep there. When she woke again it was broad daylight, the sun was up, and a little ripple was running over the face of the water. She stepped ashore straightway, and looked up the land and to the right hand and the left, and saw at once that it was indeed the Isle of Queens, and the house stood trim and lovely as of old time; then she longed somewhat to tread the green meadow a little, for yet young was the day, and she saw nought stirring save the throstle and a few small beasts. However, she said to herself that she would go nowhere nigh to the goodly house wherein abode those images of death. Yet her body longed so sore for the springtide freshness of the grass, and was so bewooed of the flowery scent thereof, that though she durst not go unarmed, she did off her footgear and went stealing softly barefoot and with naked legs over the embroidered greensward, saying aloud to herself: If run for the ferry I needs must, lighter shall I run so dight.
Nonetheless, she had gone but a little way ere a terror took hold of her, though she saw no child of Adam anigh, and she turned and ran back swiftly to her old place and sat down under a twisted oak-tree hard by the Sending Boat, and abode there panting and quaking, and scarce daring to look up from the grass for a while. Then her heart came back to her, and she laughed, and said to herself: I am a fool, for I need fear nought on this Isle of Queens save women like myself.
Yet she sat there a little while longer without stirring; then she stood up and looked keenly around, and, as aforesaid, exceeding far-sighted she was; but still she saw neither man nor maid nor suckling child.
Then her eyes sought the lips of the lake, and rested on a little bight some stone’s throw ahead of the Sending Boat, where, a little back from the water, slim willows made a veil betwixt the water of the meadow; and she looked, and saw how pleasant a place it were for a one to stand and look on the ripple just left, while the water dripped from the clear body on to the grass. And her bare feet fell to telling her clad sides of the sweet coolness of the water, and waited for no naysay, but lightly bore her toward the willowy bight. And when she was there, she did off her sallet and ungirt her, and laid her sword on the grass, and did off her surcoat and hauberk, and so was a woman again in one white coat above her smock. Then she looked heedfully betwixt the willow-boughs, and saw no more than before, nought but a little whitethorn brake, now white indeed with blossom, some fifty yards landward from where she stood. So she laughed, and did off her other raiment, and slid swiftly into the water, that embraced her body in all its fresh kindness; and as for Birdalone, she rewarded it well for its past toil by sporting and swimming to her full.
Then she came forth from the water, and clad herself in no great haste, and did on her hauberk and sallet and sword, and so went back to her place, and sat down and began to do on her foot-gear.
But as she looked up from her work a moment, lo! a tall man coming toward her, and just about the willows whereby she had bathed. Her heart beat quick and her face changed, yet she hastened, and was shod and stood up in knightly array by then he stayed his steps some five paces from her, and gave her the sele of the day in courteous wise; and she strove to think that he had not seen her, or at least noted her otherwise dight; yet her heart misgave her.
He was a grizzled-haired man of over fifty summers by seeming, but goodly enough and well-knit; he was clad in a green coat more than a little worn, but made after the fashion of knighthood; he had nought on his head but an oak-chaplet, and no weapons but a short sword by his side and a stout staff in his hand.
She gave back his greeting in a quavering voice; and he said: Welcome again, young man. Art thou come to dwell with us? Truly thou art trim now, but ere some few months thine attire will be not so much fairer than ours, and thine hauberk will be rusted, for here be no joyous tiltings nor deeds of arms, and no kind ladies to give the award of honour, so that if we fight amongst ourselves it will be because we have fallen out, and spitefully. Yet (and he laughed, mockingly, as she thought) thou mayst bring us luck, and draw some fair damsels unto us, for that is what we await in this isle, which is barren of their fair bodies, despite of its deceitful name.
Thereat Birdalone reddened, deeming that he divined her womanhood, but she enforced her to speak hardily, and as manly as she might, and said: Yea, fair sir, and if I be the God of Love, as thou deemest, and not merely a poor squire (Louis Delahaye, at thy service), how many damsels shall I send thee if there must needs be one to each man of you? Quoth he: Thou must make up the tale to a score or more, or some of us must lack. Sooth to say, at this time thou needest not haste overmuch for all the tale, whereas there is but one other of the company near at hand, a mere foolish young man; the others are gone to the leeward side of the isle, to fetch us venison and fish, both of which are more plenty there than here; wherefore are we two somewhat lonesome in this stead, all the more as we be over-nigh to the sorcery in the great house, which we durst not enter; for though nought cometh out thence down unto us, yet hear we a-night-tides, first songs, and then cries and shrieking, come out therefrom.
Then he stayed his speech, and drew a little nigher to Birdalone, and then grinned, and said: Forsooth we can spare him, we twain. And he looked on her hard, and the colour came into her cheeks, and she laughed uneasily, as a dainty lady when she heareth some unmeet tale.
But again the old carle drew nigher to her, and said: Thou seemest to have a good bow and store of arrows; if thou wouldst lend them to me for a little, and come with me into the wood hard by, I might shoot thee some venison with little toil to thee; whereas, forsooth, thou lookest scarce like one who is meet for over-much toil. Again she reddened, and spake nought this time; and he said: Deem not there be no deer this end of the isle because I said that the others were gone to fetch home venison; only the deer be tamer there and more, and we have but evil shooting-gear, whereas thou art well found therein. Wilt thou not come? we shall have merry feast after the hunt.
Now had Birdalone come to her wits again, and she answered like a merry youth, with a flavour of mockery in her speech: Fair sir, thou shalt not deem that I need much help in slaying the dun deer; for I do thee to wit that I shoot not ill in the bow; neither am I heavy-footed. But I will not hunt in your park today, for I have an errand which calleth me away, so that I shall depart hence presently. Besides, wise elder, there is thine errand to see to; and if I be the God of Love, as thou sayest, I must not keep thee and thy valiant fellows languishing mateless; so with thy leave I will now depart, that I may send you a score of fair damsels for your company.
And she turned about and made a step toward her boat; but the carle drew nearer, laughing; and he said: Truly sayest thou that thou art not heavy-footed, for never saw I feet lighter or fairer than glided over the meadow e’en now; nor a fairer body than came like rosy-tinted pearl fresh out of the water while I lay hidden in yonder thorn-brake that while. Wherefore trouble not thyself to bring any more damsels than thyself, fairest Goddess of Love, for thou art enough for me.
And therewith he ran forward, and stretched out a hand to her; but in that nick of time had she her sword naked in her hand, and the carle drew back before the glitter thereof, and cried out: Ho, ho! is it to be battle, my mistress? Deemest thou that thou wilt slay me as lightly as the dun deer, and thou with thy bow unstrung at thy back? Now shall I show thee a trick of fence; but fear not that I shall hurt thee to spoil thee.
He advanced on her with his staff aloft, and her heart failed her, and she quaked, and lightly he beat down her guard and did the sword out of her hand; and again he turned on her to take her, but she sprang aside and ran from him, but ran landward perforce, as he was betwixt her and the boat; and he followed heavily, and had nought to do in the race.
But she had not gone a two-score yards ere she heard a great shout, and another man came running over the meadow; a slim young man was this, and worse of attire than the old carle, for so tattered was his raiment that he was half naked; but he was goodly of fashion, fresh-coloured and black-haired. Birdalone stayed her feet when she saw him, for though she doubted not to outrun him, yet whither should she run, since her ferry was behind her?
So the young man came up to her, and the old carle met him all panting, and the young man said: How now, Antony! what battle is this? and wherefore art thou chasing this fair knight? And thou, fair sir, why fleest thou this grey dastard?
Said Antony: Thou art but a young fool, Otter, this is no man, but a woman, and I have taken her, and she is mine.
Well, said Otter, I say she is as much mine as thine; nay, more, if she will give herself unto me. But if she will not, she shall go whither she will in thy despite. Or art thou a woman?
Yea, yea, said Birdalone; and I pray thee, by thy mother’s head, suffer me to depart; for heavy and full of need is the errand that I am about.
Go thou shalt then, said Otter; lead back to thy place, and I will walk with thee. So did they: and Birdalone went beside the young man quaking; but he put out no hand unto her; and sooth to say, she deemed that she had seldom seen so fair a young man, but it were Arthur or Hugh.
Now he, as Antony, was girt with a short sword, but he let it be in its sheath; and as they went, Antony drew his blade again, and hove it up to smite Otter, but as it befell Birdalone saw him, and turned round sharp upon him and gat hold of his wrist, and therewith Otter turned also, and caught the old carle by the nape as he turned away, and put a foot before his and shoved mightily, so that he went noseling to the earth.
Then turned Otter about again, laughing, and he said to Birdalone: By Saint Giles! thou art well-nigh too valiant for a woman, and I would that we two might be together; and then between us we might achieve the adventure of the dead ladies up yonder. She hung her head, and said: Fair sir, it may not anywise be; yet I thank thee, I thank thee.
So came they to the water-side and the Sending Boat, and Birdalone stayed her feet there, and the young man said: What is this keel, that seemeth unto me as if it were a ferry for malefactors wending to a death of torment, so grey and bleared and water-logged and sun-bleached as it is, and smeared over with stains of I know not what?
Said Birdalone: Such as it is, it is my ferry over the water to where I would be. Strange! said Otter; to my mind it is like to our fortunes on this isle, we who were once knights and merry squires and are now as gangrel men, and of ill conditions, thinking of nought save our first desires, even those which we share with the wolf and the kite.
She said: But art thou of evil conditions, thou who hast just delivered me from trouble? He smiled grimly: Damsel, said he, I have not delivered thee yet from me, though I have from him. But tell me, art thou a sorceress? Not a black one, said Birdalone; but I will tell thee at once that I have been bred by a witch most mighty, and some deal of lore have I learned. And therewith she told him of the Sending Boat, and how she would have to speed it on the way.
He looked on her a little and then turned away, and saw her sword lying on the grass; so he went to it and picked it up and brought it to her, and said: Thou mayst yet need this keen friend. So she took it and thrust it back into the scabbard, quaking somewhat because of him; so feeble and frail as she felt before him. Then he said: If thou deemest thou hast somewhat to reward me for, I have a boon to ask of thee, and granting that, we shall be quits again. Yea, she said faintly, and what is the boon? He said: Art thou pressed to depart now, this minute? Nay, said Birdalone, not for an hour if there be no peril here from other men, and . . . and . . . And if I be true to thee and will let thee go? said he, laughing; hah! is that not thy word? fear not, I swear by thine eyes that thou shalt depart whenso thou wilt. Now then, the boon I crave is, that thou wilt sit down here beside me and tell me the tale of thy life that has been. Said she: It wearies me to think thereof; yet hast thou a right to crave somewhat of me, and this is not hard to grant.
And she sat down by him; but he said: Do this also for me, take off thine headpiece, since now that we know thee for a woman it serveth thee nought. So did she, and began her tale straightway, and told him all thereof, save as to the wood-wife, and he sat hearkening and watching her face; and when she had made an end, he said: Now shall I ask none other boon of thee, though I long sore for it; but best it is that we sunder straightway, else maybe I might yet be for hindering thee.
Therewith he stood up, and Birdalone also, and he looked on her eagerly, and said: I am now to bid thee farewell, and it is most like that I shall never see thee again, wherefore I will ask thee yet to let one thing come from thy mouth; for I deem thee the dearest of all women I have ever seen. What shall I say? said Birdalone, smiling on him kindly; must thou needs put the word in my mouth? Thou hast been friendly with me here when need was to me of friendliness; wherefore I say, I would I might see thee again, and thou better bestead than now thou art.
The young man’s face brightened, and he said: Spake I not that thou wert the dearest of all? This was even the word I would have put in thy mouth. But now see thou, one goeth on from one thing to another, and I must now ask thee, is there aught which thou hast a mind to give me ere I depart, some keepsake which I durst not ask for?
She flushed red and said: I will with a good heart give thee my bow and arrows for a keepsake; whereas the old carle told me that ye be ill furnished of shooting-gear.
And she would have taken her bow from her back, but he laughed aloud, and said: Nay, nay, I will not have that; for there be those who gird them to a sword and know not how to use it, but few will cumber their shoulders with bow and quiver who cannot shoot therewith; I deem it like that thou art a fell bowman. Keep thy bow therefore, and if thou wilt go without any other gift, even so be it.
And he made as if he would turn away; but she put forth both her hands and took his in them, and lifted up her face and kissed him kindly, and then turned away to her ferry; while Otter stood still and said in a merry voice: Now is it better than well, for thou art in all ways what I would have thee, and there is nought like unto thee. And therewith he turned away and departed ere Birdalone had stepped into the Sending Boat, and she blushing like a rose the while. Then she did due sacrifice to the wight of the witch-ferry, and sped on her way without any hindrance.
Midst all this had worn some hours, but yet it was barely noon; wherefore it was yet dark by then Birdalone made the Isle of the Young and the Old; so she stepped out of the boat, and lay down on the grass and abode the dawn sleeping. And she awoke with the clatter of shrill voices, and she rose up and looked, and lo a multitude of children all about her, both men and women children, and, as it seemed, from five years old upward to fifteen. They cried and crowed merrily when they saw her stand up, and pressed on her to see her the nearer and to touch her hands or her raiment. They were but little clad, and the younger ones not at all, but were goodly younglings and merry. So great was the noise they raised, that loud were the thunder which had not been hushed thereby; and Birdalone stood looking on them, smiling, and knew not what to do. Anon she turned to a tall thin lad of some fifteen winters, and said unto him: Wilt thou now take me unto the house, and the place where dwelleth the old man? Quoth he: I neither know of an old man, nor rightly what it means, the word. Am not I old enough for thee? I am the oldest of these here. But belike thou art hungry; wherefore if thou come to the place where we sleep a-nights, and where we shelter us from the storm and the rain when need is, I will give thee to eat; for we have both bread and milk and cheese, and raisins of the sun.
So he took her hand and led her along, and asked her by the way concerning her armour and weapons, and of the fashion of battle, and she told him thereof what she would.
Thus came they to the place where erst had been the cot under the ruin of the great ancient house; but now was gone all that ruin and the great grey walls, though the cot was left; and all about it were low bowers built of small wood and thatched undeftly. But the lad smiled when he saw it, as if the sight thereof made him happy; and he said: All these have we made since I have dwelt here, and no other home have I known.
And he led her into the cot, and set her down to eat and to drink, and through the open door she could see the children swarming, and they that were nighest thrusting each other this way and that to catch a sight of her.
Now she said: Fair child, how gattest thou this victual if there be no older folk to help you? Said he: We dig the ground and sow it, and the wheat comes up, and we reap it in harvest, and make bread of it; and we have goats and kine, and we milk them, and turn the milk with a little blue flower, which is fair to see. And there are in this isle little hills where the grapes grow plenty; and some we eat and some we dry for store. Lo thou, such be our ways for victual. But tell me, said he, thou sayest old, and I know not the word; art thou old? She laughed: Not very, said she, yet older than thou.
Said the lad: Thou art fair and dear to look on, and thy voice is sweet; wilt thou not abide with us, and teach us what it is to be old? Nay, said she, I may not, for I have an errand which driveth me on; wherefore I must be gone within this hour.
Forsooth, she was growing eager now to be done with her journey and come to the House under the Wood, whatever should befall her there. Moreover she deemed it would not be restful to her to abide among all these restless children, with their ceaseless crying and yelping: if rest she might, she would rest, she deemed, in the Isle of Increase Unsought, if there were no ill things abiding there.
Wherefore now she arose, when she had sat hearkening the sound of the lad’s prattle for a while, for as to the sense thereof she might not heed it over-much. The youngling would not leave her, but led her, holding her hand, down to her ferry again; she kissed him in thanks for his meat, and he reddened thereat but said nought. All the whole rout of little ones had followed her down to the water, and now they stood, as thick as bees on a honeycomb, on the bank, to watch her departure. But if they were keen to see her doings before, how much keener were they when it came to the baring of her arm and the smearing of the Sending Boat. To be short, so keen were they, and pushed and shoved each other so sturdily, that more than one or two fell into the water, and Birdalone was frighted lest they should drown; but they swam like ducks, and got on to the land when they would, which was not so very soon, for some of them hung unto the gunwale of the boat, and hove their faces up to look over into it, and left not hold till the ferry was fairly under weigh and beginning to quicken its speed.
So left Birdalone the isle, and nought befell her on the way to the Isle of Increase Unsought.
It was as before that Birdalone came to the shore of the isle while it was yet night; but the wizard keel was so loathsome to her, that she stepped out of it and laid her down on the land for what was left of the night; yet hard she found her bed, and neither grassy nor flowery.
For all that, she slept, for she was weary, and it was broad day and not very early when she awoke. She stood up trembling, for she foreboded evil, so near as she was to the dwelling of her old mistress; and she looked up to where in time past was the fair and wicked house, and saw that all was changed indeed; for no longer was the isle goodly with meadow and orchard and garden, but was waste and bare, and nought grew on it save thin and wiry grass, already seeding even ere June was born, and here and there hard and ugly herbs, with scarce aught that might be called a flower amongst them. Trees there were yet, but the most of them stark dead, and the best dying fast. No beasts she saw, nor fowl; nothing but lizards and beetles, and now and again a dry grey adder coiled up about a sun-burned stone. But of great carrion flies, green and blue, were there a many, and whiles they buzzed about her head till she sickened with loathing of them. All this she found on her way as she went up toward the place where erst was the great perron. But when she came to the top there was no sign either of the stairs or the house, or aught that ever was builded; there was nought but the bare bent top, ungrassed, parched by wind, scorched by sun, washed by rain.
She wandered about the isle, to places where she had not been herself, but which she deemed she might have known by the telling of the Green Knight’s tale, had there been no change since those days; but now was all changed, and the whole isle was a mere waste, and withal poisonous of aspect to her mind, as if many corpses lay underneath the wretched stones of it. Nevertheless, though it seemed so evil unto Birdalone, she lingered on it, wandering about till she was to-wearied, for she had no will to depart at such time as she would be like to come to her old abiding-place by night and cloud; wherefore she dallied with the time, and came not back to the haven of her ferry till it was nigh sunset, and the westering sun was in her eyes when she came there; and she said to herself that this was the cause why she might not see the Sending Boat.
So she cleared her eyes and looked on the thin grass awhile, and then down over the edge of the land, and still she saw not her boat. She turned pale, and a pang of anguish went to her heart; but she walked a little east, deeming that perchance she had erred as to the place of the haven on that dull and empty shore; but yet there was no boat. Then she turned back wild with terror, and sought where erst she had missed it, and found neither boat nor the world’s end. And she deemed that there might be some devilish malice of the wight of the Sending Boat, to torment her with fear, and she walked along the land’s edge up and down, and down and up, further each time, and still there was no boat.
Then she stood still and strove to think, and might not, nor might she do aught, but spread abroad her hands and moaned in her agony; for now indeed she felt herself in the trap; and she said that all her past life of hope and desire and love and honour was all for nought, and that she was but born to die miserably in that foul ruin of an isle envenomed with the memories of bygone cruelty and shame.
But in a little while she came somewhat to herself, and she said: At least this hideous land shall not mock my dying anguish; I will give myself to the water and let it do with me as it will.
Therewith she cast off her helm and hauberk first, and her weapons, and her pouch with the treasure that could buy nought for her now, and thereafter all her raiment, till she was as naked as when she first came aland there that other time. Again she moaned, and put up her hand to her bosom and felt a little gold box lying there betwixt the fragrant hills of her breasts, which hung to a thin golden thread about her neck; and a thought came into her mind, and she stooped adown and drew from her pouch flint and fire-steel, and then opened the said golden box and drew thence the tress which Habundia the wood-wife had given to her those years agone, and all trembling she drew two hairs from it, as erst she did on the Isle of Nothing, and struck fire and kindled tinder and burnt the said hairs, and then hung the golden box with the tress therein about her neck again; and she said: O wood-mother, if only thou couldst know of me and see me, thou wouldst help me!
Thereafter she sought along the bank for bread which she had taken from her store that morning, and she found it, and compelled herself to eat of it for the strengthening of her body, and then she stood and abode tidings; and by then the sun had just sunk below the rim of the lake, and the stars began to twinkle, for the night was cloudless, and exceeding fair, and very warm.
No visible token came to her, but her heart grew stronger, and she seemed to see herself yet alive and in hope on the other side of the water; and she said: Who wotteth what Weird may do, or where the waters may bear me? and there is no swimmer stronger than I.
So then without more ado Birdalone slipped into the water, which lay before her as calm and plain as a great sheet of glass, and fell to rowing with her arms and her legs as though she were but swimming from Green Eyot to the mainland, as so oft she had done in the other days.
On swam Birdalone, not as one who had a mind to drown her for the forgetting of troubles, but both strongly and wisely; and she turned over on to her back, and looked on the stars above her, and steered herself by them thitherward whereas she deemed was the land under the wood. When she had been gone from the evil isle for an hour or so, there rose a fair little wind behind her, which helped her forward, but scarce raised the water more than a little ripple.
Still she swam on, and it was some three hours she began to weary, and then she floated on her back and let the wind and water have its way with her; and now the night was as dark as it would be ere dawn.
Thus it went for another hour, that whiles she swam on and whiles she floated; and now her heart began to fail her, and the great water was no longer unto her a wet highway, but a terrible gulf over which she hung fainting.
Nevertheless she did not give up doing what she might: she floated supine a long while, and then, when she had gathered a little strength, turned over again and struck out, still steering her by the stars. But she had scarce made three strokes ere her arms met something hard and rough; and at first in her forlornness she deemed she had happened on some dread water monster, and for terror of it she sank down into the deep, but came up presently blinded and breathless, and spread abroad her arms, and again they came on the thing aforesaid, and this time found that it was nought alive, but the bole of a tree sitting high out of the water. So she clomb up on to it with what might she had left, and sat her down, and saw in the dim light that it was big, and that there was a fork betwixt two limbs reaching up into the air, and she thrust herself in between these two limbs and embraced one of them, so that she might scarce tumble off; and a great content and happiness came over her that she had thus escaped from the death of the deep; but therewithal weariness overcame her, and she slept, whether she would or not; and the bole went on over the waters no slower than might have been looked for, whether it were by the pushing on of the south wind, or by the hand of Weird that would not have her die.
Long she slumbered, for when she awoke it was broad day and the sun was shining high in the heavens, and she cleared her eyes and looked around, and saw before her the land, but yet blue in the offing. And the tree-bole was yet speeding on towards the shore, as if it were being drawn there by some bidding of might.
Now indeed grew Birdalone happy, and she thought if any had helped her it must have been the wood-mother once again; and she said to herself that she should soon meet with that helper; nor heeded she that she was naked and unfurnished of any goods, whereas she deemed indeed that it was but to ask and have of her friend.
For a while indeed she knew not whither she was wending, and if her face were verily turned toward the land under the wood; but as the morning wore the blue distance began to grow green, and then she saw that a great wood was indeed before her, and thereafter, as it cleared yet more, she knew the land she was nearing for the meadows of the House under the Wood, and it was not long thence ere she saw clear and close Green Eyot and Rocky Eyot, though the house was yet hidden from her by the green shores of the first of those two isles.
Shortly to tell it, her tree-bole floated with her past the outer ness of Green Eyot, and came ashore in that same sandy bight where erst she was wonted to make her body ready for the water. She stepped ashore all glad to feel the firm warm sand underneath her foot-soles, and as one drunk with joy she was when the tall flowery grass of the latter May was caressing her legs as they shook the seed-dust off the bents, and smote the fragrance out of the blossoms; and she might scarce at first lift her eyes from their familiar loveliness. Glad she was indeed, but exceeding worn and weary with the long voyage, and all the longing and fear and hope which had encompassed her that while. She lifted up her eyes but once, and saw the witch’s house standing where it was wont, but no shape of man moving about it; then she turned aside to a little brake of thorn and eglantine in the meadow hard by, and laid her down on the grass in the shade thereof, and almost before her head touched the ground she fell asleep, and slept there long and peacefully.
It was some while after noon when she wakened, and the sun was shining bright and hot. Somewhat she felt the burden of fear upon her, even before she was fully come to herself, and knew not what it was that she feared; but when she called to mind that it was even the meeting with her old mistress, her flesh quaked indeed with the memory of bygone anguish, but valiantly she arose and faced the dwelling of the witch despite her naked helplessness. As she went she looked up unto it, and saw no smoke coming from the chimney, but marvelled little thereat since it was not yet cooking-time and the weather hot. She drew nigher, and saw someone sitting on the bench without the door whereas the witch was wonted; and her heart beat quick, for she saw presently that it was none other than her mistress. Moreover, near to her stood three of the milch-kine lowing uneasily and as in reproach, even as such beasts use when their udders be full and they desire to be milked.
Birdalone stayed a minute, and her legs nigh failed her for fear, and then because of the very fear she hastened on till she came within ten paces of the said witch; and sore she missed her bow and arrows, and the cutting blade of her feigned squirehood, lest the carline should arise and come raging and shrieking at her.
Then spake Birdalone in no feeble voice, and said: Dame, I am come back unto thee, as thou seest, in even such plight as I fled from thee; and I have a mind to dwell in this land: what sayest thou? The witch neither moved nor spake at her word; and the kine, who had held silence when she first came up, and had turned from her, fell to their peevish lowing again.
Birdalone drew a step nigher, and said: Dost thou hear me, dame, or art thou exceeding wroth with me, and art pondering what vengeance thou wilt take on me? Still no answer came from the carline, and the kine kept on lowing now and again. Once more Birdalone drew nigher, and spake loudly and said: Tell me at least, is it peace between us or unpeace?
But now when she looked she saw that the eyes of the witch were open and staring, and her lips white, and her hands hard writhen; and she cried out and said: Is she dead? or will she waken presently and beat me? surely she is dead. And she put forth her hand and touched her face, and it was stone-cold; and she found that she was dead beyond any question.
Then was a great weight lifted off her heart, and she turned about and looked on the meadows and up to the trees of the wood and down to the rippling stream before her, and fair and sweet and joyous were they gotten unto her; and she looked at the kine who were drawing up towards her, and she laughed merrily, and went to the out-house hard by and took forth a milking-pail and a stool and fell to milking them one after the other, and the beasts went off down the meadow lowing in a changed voice, for joy to wit, this time. But Birdalone knelt down and drank a long draught of the sweet warm milk, and then arose and went swiftly into the house, and saw nought changed or worsened so far as she could see. There was her own bed in the corner, and the mistress’s, greater and much fairer, over against it; and the hutch by the door wherein the victual was kept: she opened it now, and found three loaves there on the shelf, and a meal-tub down below, and she took a loaf and broke it and fell to eating it as she walked about the chamber. There was her bow standing in a nook beside the hutch, and the quiver of arrows hanging on the wall above it. There was the settle lying athwart from the hearth; and she smiled, and fitted her wrists to the back of the carven bear which made its elbow, whereto the witch was wont to tie them when she chastised her.
Then she went to the coffers that stood against the wall behind it, and threw up the lid of one of them, and found therein a smock or two of her own, yellowed by the lapse of time, and her old grey coat, ragged as it was when last she wore it, and now somewhat moth-eaten withal; and she drew forth both smocks and coat and laid them on the settle. Then she opened another coffer, and therein were gay and gaudy gowns and gear of the witch’s wear; but lying amongst them, as if the witch had worn them also, her green gown and shoon which her own hands had broidered. But she said: Nay, ye have been in ill company, I will wear you not, though ye be goodly, at least not till ye have been fumigated and hallowed for me.
Therewith she turned back to the settle and did on her her old smock and her ragged grey coat, and said: To-day at least will these be good enough for today’s work. And she knit her brow withal, and walked with a firm step out-a-doors and stood a while gazing on the dead corpse of her enemy; and she thought how that here was that which once was so great a thing unto her for the shaping of her life-days, and which so oft came to her waking thoughts after she had escaped from her hands, (though, as aforesaid, she seldom dreamed of her a-night-time), and moreover an hour ago she yet feared it so sore that she scarce might stand for the fear of it; and now it was nought but a carven log unto her.
But she told herself that the work was to be done; so she dragged the body away thence, and across the brook, and a little way into the meadow, and then she went back and fetched mattock and spade from the outhouse, where she knew they lay, and so fell to digging a grave for the corpse of her dead terror. But howso hard she might toil, she was not through with the work ere night began to fall on her, and she had no mind to go on with her digging by night. Wherefore she went back into the house, and lighted candles, whereof was no lack, and made her supper of the bread and the milk; and then sat pondering on her life that had been till the passion arose in her bosom, and the tears burst out, and long she wept for desire of others and pity for herself. Then she went to the bed she had been erst wont to, and laid her down and fell asleep.
And her mistress walked not, nor meddled with her peace; nor did Birdalone so much as dream of her, but of her mother and Master Jacobus in the fair city of the Five Crafts; and in her sleep she wept for thinking of them.
When morning was, Birdalone awoke, and felt a weight upon her heart, and called to mind the task which lay before her. So she arose and clad herself, and went straight to the grave begun, and toiled hard till she had digged it out deep, and sithence she dragged the witch thereinto and heaped the earth upon her. Then she bathed her in the nighest pool of the brook, and went back into the house and made her breakfast on the bread and milk, and it was then about mid-morning. Thereafter she went about the house, and saw to the baking of bread, and so out to the meadow to see to the kine and the goats, and then stored the milk for making butter and cheese, and did in all wise as if she were to dwell long in that stead; but thereafter she rested her body, whiles her thought went wide about. But she said to herself that she would not go up to the Oak of Tryst to meet the wood-mother that day, but would abide the night, in case aught befell that she should tell her.
But when the sun was getting low she roused herself and went out, and walked about the meadow, and hearkened to the birds’ song, and watched the kine and the goats as they fed down the pasture; and now a soft content came over her, that all this was free unto her to hold in peace, and to take her pleasure in, as much as one lone child of Adam might do.
At last she wandered down to the sandy bight of the lake and stood gazing on Green Eyot, where the osiers and willows were grown wild and long in all these years, and she said that she would swim over to it on the morrow. But now her feet took her eastward thence toward the haven of the Sending Boat amongst the alders; for in her heart she would fain know if there were any tidings for her.
So she went softly along the path by the water, where she had sped so swiftly that last time, and came at last to the creek-side, and looked down on to the water somewhat timorously. There then she saw what she deemed was the very boat itself lying as she had known it; but when she looked again she saw that it lay from stem to stern all loose staves with the water betwixt, and the thwarts and ribs all sundered and undone, so that never again might it float upon the waves. Then she said in a soft voice: Art thou dead then, as thy mistress is dead? was it not so that thou wert at the point of death, and she also, when thou failedst me at the Isle of Increase Unsought? No voice came to her as she spake; and she said again: Must I then bury thee as I have buried thy mistress? Nay, that will I not until thou compellest me; belike in a short while little of the staves of thee shall be left now that the life is out of thee. Let thy ghost and hers foregather if ye will.
As she spake the last word, she saw a stir about the stern which lay furthest in up the creek, and while she quaked with failing heart, lo! a big serpent, mouldy and hairy, grey and brown-flecked, came forth from under the stern and went into the water and up the bank and so into the dusk of the alder-wood. Birdalone stood awhile pale and heartsick for fear, and when her feet felt life in them, she turned and stole away back again into the merry green mead and the low beams of the sun, pondering whether this evil creature were the fetch of the wight who drave the ferry under the blood of the sender.
So she hastened back again to the house, and lit a fire on the hearth, and fell to cooking her somewhat of grout to her supper; and she watched the fire, thinking withal: Now if some poor soul be abroad, they may see the smoke and seek hither, and I may comfort them with food and shelter and converse; or when night darkens, they may see the litten windows and come to me; wherefore shall the fire burn yet and the candles be lighted, for as warm as is the evening, even as if it were Yule-tide and the snow deep without, and the wind howling in the woodland trees. And therewith she wept for longing of them that she loved.
But in a little she dried her tears, and reproached herself for her much softness; and she ate her supper when she had lighted a candle (for it was now dark), and again sat looking at the hearth, till she said: Now am I getting soft again, and who knows but my softness may tempt the ghosts to come in to me. I will give my hands somewhat to do.
Therewith her eye caught sight of the rents and rags of her old grey gown, and she smiled somewhat ruefully as she called to mind her gallant knight’s array, which lay now on the shore of the evil and ruined isle; and her goodly attire of the days of the Five Crafts; and the rich raiment wherein her friends of the Castle of the Quest had clad her. Then she arose and sought needle and thread and some remnants of green cloth, and did off the ragged coat and fell to patching and mending it, and so sat at her work in smock-sewing till the night was old and she was weary and sleep overcame her, and she lay down in her bed and slept dreamlessly till the sun was high next morning.
Now Birdalone arose and bathed her and broke her fast, and then went about her work with the beasts and the dairy; but all that time seemed long to her till she had bow in hand and quiver on back, and was wending her way to the Oak of Tryst; and swift were her feet and her heart beat quick with hope of pleasure.
Forsooth no long tarrying had she, for scarce had she set her down beneath the oak, ere the wood-mother came forth from the thicket even as the first time when Birdalone saw her, and presently she had her arms about Birdalone and was kissing and clipping her. Then they sat down together in the shade of the great tree, and the wood-mother made much of her friend with few words and those but simple, while Birdalone wept for joy.
At last spake Birdalone: Wood-mother, my dear, I look in thy face, and I see thee that thou art nowise changed, so that thou callest to my mind the Birdalone that met thee here when she was straying from the House of Captivity like to a bird with a string to its leg.
Habundia smiled on her and said: So it is that now thou lookest older than I. Rounder and fuller is thy body, and thy limbs greater and fairer, and thy flesh sleeker; lovelier art thou in all wise, and such as I have thought of thee during these years, save that thy face is grown wiser and sadder than might be looked for. Mother, she said, I am grown older than I should be by the tale of the years, for I have had joy and grief, and grief and joy, and grief again; and now that the years have worn, the grief abideth and the joy hath departed, save this joy of thee and the day of the meeting I have so often thought of.
Said the wood-wife: Were I to hear the story of thee, I deem it most like that I would fain buy thy joy with thy grief, both that which has been and that which is to come. And now I will ask thee right out to tell me all thy tale, as much as thou canst; and all thou canst tell to me, who am thine other self: and I wot moreover that thou hast not told of me to any whom thou hast met in the world since we were last together: is it not so? In faith and in troth so it is, said Birdalone. Said Habundia, after she had looked hard on Birdalone a while: Now there is this I find in thee, that though thou callest me wood-mother still, thou art not my daughter as thou wert erewhile, nor I thy mother; and I know not whether to be glad or sorry thereof, since thou art even as much my friend as ever thou wert. But much do I rejoice herein that thou hast not told any one soul of me.
Said Birdalone: I must tell thee that part of the tale I shall tell thee is how I have found my mother in the flesh, and loved her sorely; and then I lost her again, for she is dead.
Quoth the wood-wife, smiling on her lovingly: Then should I be even more thy mother than erst I was: there will be something else in thy tale, sweetling.
Then Birdalone flushed very red, and she smiled piteously in Habundia’s face; but then she put up her hands to hide the change therein which the anguish of longing wrought, and her shoulders shook and her bosom heaved, and she wept bitterly; but the wood-wife still looked on her smiling, and said softly at last: Yea, how sweet it were to be grieved with thy pain.
But in a while Birdalone grew calm again and the very smile blossomed out in her face, and they kissed together. Then Habundia rose up and looked on her, and said at last and laughed out withal: One thing I must needs say, that thou hast not fetched thee raiment of price from the knighthood and the kings’ houses; or have I not seen thy grey coat of old time, while thou wert living amidst the witch’s cruelty? Yea forsooth, said Birdalone; thou needest not to ask this. Verily not, said Habundia, nor why thou art not clad in the fair green gown which thou didst broider; for whiles I have seen the witch flaunting it on the wooden ugly body of her, and thou wouldst not wear it after she had cursed it with her foulness. Is it not so? Yea, it is even so, said Birdalone; dost thou love me the less therefor? Habundia laughed again: Were I a man of Adam’s sons, said she, I might make thee many words on the seemliness of thy short coat, and the kindness of it, that it will be for ever slipping off one or other of thy shoulders. But now am I at least enough thy mother, and thou art dwelling even so much in my house, that the next time we meet (and that shall be tomorrow) I shall fetch thee raiment which shall make us forget that thou camest back again to this land as naked as thou didst depart thence.
Birdalone reddened and hung down her head, but the wood-mother sat down beside her and kissed her and said: But now forget all save thy tale, and tell all as closely as thou mayest, for I would lose nought thereof. Yea, said Birdalone; and where shall I begin? Said Habundia: I know nought thereof save the beginning, that thou fledst away naked and escaped the witch; and the ending, to wit, that the Sending Boat failed thee at the last of the Wonder Isles, and that thou calledst on me not wholly in vain, whereas the witch was dead, and therefore there was nought to stay me from sending thee one of my trees and the wight thereof (whom belike I may show to thee one day) to save thee from the bottom of the deep water.
At that word Birdalone threw herself on the wood-wife and clipped and kissed her, and thanked her for the helping with all the dearest words she might. But the wood-mother laughed for joy, and stroked her cheeks and said: Now I deem thee my daughter again, whereas thou thankest me with such sweet passion for doing to thee as a kind mother needs must without any thought thereof. And I bid thee, my dear, never again to go so far from me as that I may not easily help thee and comfort thee from out of my realm wherein I am mighty. And now tell me all in thy dear speech.
Therewith Birdalone began her story without more ado, even as ye have heard it afore. Yea and many more things than we can set down did she tell, for full filled she was with the wisdom of the wood. And between whiles the wood-mother fed her with dainty meat and drink, such as Birdalone had never erst tasted the like of. And by then she had got so far as her flight from the Isle of Increase Unsought, the sun was set and the twilight begun. And the wood-wife said: Now shalt thou go home to thine house; and have no fear of witch or evil thing, for I am not far from thee and will watch over thee. Sweet is thy tale, my daughter, and dear are thy she-friends; and if ever it may be that I may do them any pleasure, fain were I; and that especially to thy Viridis, who meseemeth is both sweet and wise even as thou thyself art. Nay, dost thou begrudge my loving her? Nay, nay, said Birdalone, laughing; but I rejoice in it. And hereafter when I tell thee how sorely they paid for helping me, I will bid thee to love them yet more than now thou dost. Therewith they parted, and Birdalone came to her house; and on the way she made as it were a feigned tale in mockery of her old trouble, that there would be the witch-mistress awaiting her to whip her. So that when she came to the door she was half frighted with her own mock, lest the witch might now at last have taken to walking.
But all was quiet when she entered with the last of the twilight, and she rested that night in all peace, as in the best of her days in the Five Crafts.
Next morning Birdalone tarried about the house as little a while as she might, and then went hastening up to the wood; and when she came within sight of the Trysting Tree, lo! there was Habundia before her, and the hands of her busy turning over goodly raiment, so that it was well-nigh as if the days had gone back to the time of the Captivity, and the sitter under the oak was Birdalone herself dealing with her half-finished gown.
Joyously they met and embraced each other, and then spake the wood-wife: Now, thou darling of the world, I have been no worse than my word, and if thou durst wear web of the Faery thou shalt presently be clad as goodly as ever thou wert down there amongst the knighthood; and then thy tale, my dear, and, if it may be, the wisdom of the barren wood-wife set thereto.
And therewith she laid on Birdalone’s outstretched arms the raiment she had brought with her, and it was as if the sunbeam had thrust through the close leafage of the oak, and made its shadow nought a space about Birdalone, so gleamed and glowed in shifty brightness the broidery of the gown; and Birdalone let it fall to earth, and passed over her hands and arms the fine smock sewed in yellow and white silk, so that the web thereof seemed of mingled cream and curd; and she looked on the shoon that lay beside the gown, that were done so nicely and finely that the work was as the feather-robe of a beauteous bird, whereof one scarce can say whether it be bright or grey, thousand-hued or all simple of colour. Birdalone quivered for joy of the fair things, and crowed in her speech as she knelt before Habundia to thank her: then in a twinkling had she done off her beggar’s raiment, and then the smock clung about her darling nakedness, and next the gown was shimmering all over her, and the golden girdle embraced her loins as though it loved them worthily; and Birdalone looked to the wood round about her and laughed, while Habundia lay in her place and smiled upon her with gentle loving-kindness.
But in a little while was Birdalone sobered; for the thought of how fair she should look to the eyes of her beloved when she was shown unto him on the day of days, thrust her light and eager pleasure aside; and she took up her shoes from the ground (for she had not done them on), and sat down beside the wood-wife and fell a-toying with the marvel of them; and thus without more ado began her tale again, whereas she had left it last even, when she had told of how the Sending Boat was speeding her over the waters toward the Isle of the Young and the Old.
Long they sat there that day, and until the sun was down, and by then had Birdalone little to tell of her story, for she was gotten therein to the days of the Five Crafts. Many times had she wept and turned to Habundia for solace as she told, not without shame, but without any covering up, all the tale of her love for Arthur the Black Squire, and how she was surprised by the love of him, and of his wisdom and grace and loveliness. And the wood-mother was ever as sweet and kind unto her as could be; yet might another than a lover have seen that much of all this was strange unto her, and she looked upon Birdalone as a child who has broken her toy, and is hard to comfort for the loss of it, though there be a many more in the world. But when it grew dusk as aforesaid, and it was time to part, she spake to Birdalone, and said: True it is, my child, that thou hast lived long in these six years time; neither do I wonder at the increase of thy beauty, and the majesty thereof; for fair is the life thou hast lived, although thou hast been grieved and tormented by it at whiles. And now I know what it is for which thou longest; and herein again will I play the mother unto thee, and seek about to fetch thee that thou wouldst have; so be not over-anxious or troubled; and thou mayest be good herein, as my fair child should be; for this I have noted in thee, that Love is not so tyrannous a master but that his servants may whiles think of other matters, and so solace their souls, that they may live despite of all.
Now was Birdalone arisen, and stood before her friend confused and blushing. But Habundia put her two hands on her shoulders and kissed her, and said: Go home now and sleep, and come again tomorrow and let us hear the last of thy tale; and when that is done, maybe I shall be able to do something for thine avail.
So they parted, and on the morrow Birdalone came again and told the remnant of her story, which was not so long now that the Black Squire was out of it. And when she had done, Habundia kept silence awhile, and then she said: One thing I will tell thee, that whereas erewhile it was but seldom indeed that any son of Adam might be seen in the woodland here, of late, that is, within the last three years, there be many such amongst us; and to our deeming they be evil beasts, more pitiless and greedy than any bear; and but that we have nought to do with them, for they fear us and flee from us, we should have destroyed them one and all. And now that I have heard all thy story, it seemeth unto me not so unlike but these may be the remnants of the bands of the Red Hold, and that they have drifted hither fleeing before the might of thy friends of the knighthood. Wherefore now, trust me that I will look into this, but I must needs be away from here for a little; so hold thy soul in patience though hear thou nought of me, and dwell quietly at home for seven days’ space, and then come hither and find me, farewell now, my child!
So they kissed and departed; and Birdalone went home to the house, and wore the days thereafter doing what was needful about the stead, and wandering through the meadows, and swimming the waters about Green Eyot; and the days were not unrestful unto her.
But when it was the sixth day since those two had met, Birdalone arose in the morning and stood in the door of the house, and she looked toward the bent which went up to the wood and saw one coming down it, and knew it for Habundia clad in her huntress’ raiment and bearing something over the left arm, for her bow was in her right hand. So Birdalone ran to meet her, and embraced and kissed her, and was merry over her, and said: Dear mother, thou farest far from thy fastness today. Said Habundia: There is nought in the meadows now save the neat and the goats and thou; of none of that folk am I afraid. But mayhappen thou shalt be afraid to come with me into the depths of the wildwood, for thither would I lead thee. I will be afraid of nought with thee beside me, said Birdalone. But come now and look upon the house that I have won for me. And she took her hand and led her along; and the wood-wife said no more till they were across the brook and standing by the porch.
Then said Birdalone: Thou hast a green gown over thine arm; is that also for me? Yea, certes, said Habundia; the old rag which thou hast on thee, and which thou lovest so sore, is not fine enough for my company; and the glitter-gown I gave thee may be too fine for the thorns and the briars, and moreover thou mayst be over-easily seen if thou bear that broidered sunshine mid the boughs. Wherefore go in now and do on this other coat, though the faery have made it, and then come out to me with thy bow and thy quiver, and I shall find thee sandal-shoon and girdle withal.
Nay, wood-mother, said Birdalone, hallow my house by entering it, and eat a morsel with me and drink the wine of the horned folk ere we go our ways.
Habundia shook her head and knit her brows somewhat as she looked hard on the house; then she said: I know not, Adam’s daughter; I have little to do with houses, and doubt if a house be safe for me. And this one that the witch builded! and belike she buried some human being at one of its four corners. Tell me, fair child, sawest thou ever here at night-tide the shape of a youngling crowned with a garland straying about the house?
Nay, never at all, said Birdalone. Said the wood-wife: Then maybe thou hast hallowed it with the wisdom and love of thee, and I may venture; and moreover I note that it is all builded of trees and the grass of the earth; and thou art free to use them by my leave. But if aught befall of my coming under thy roof, heed it not too much, but think, whatsoever my aspect may be, I am thy wood-mother and wisdom-mother that loveth thee. And I bid thee also wish with all thy might that my aspect may not change to thee. Also, if I eat, thou wert best not to sign the meat as Adam’s sons are wont. Lead in then; for now am I grown wilful, and will enter whatever betide.
Birdalone marvelled at those words, but she fell to wishing strongly that her friend might not lose her lovely youthful shape either then or ever, and she took her hand, which trembled somewhat, and led her over the threshold; and when they were under the roof herseemed that the wood-mother dwindled in a wondrous way, though her face was as sweet and her limbs as shapely as ever; and she laughed shrilly yet sweetly, and spake in a thin clear voice: Birdalone, my dear, wish strongly, wish strongly! though thou shalt see nothing worse of me than this. And she was scarce three feet high, but as pretty as a picture.
Thereat indeed was Birdalone affrighted, but she wished all she might, and stooped down to kiss this little creature; and therewith again the wood-wife seemed to wax again as great and tall as ever she was, and her voice came full and strong again, as she laughed and said: Now is it all over for this time, and I see how well thou lovest me; and I pray thee love me no less for this wonder thou hast seen in me. But now it were better that I never go under a roof again. And she took her arms about Birdalone and clipped her lovingly; and glad was Birdalone to feel her so strong and solid again.
Then they sat to the board and ate a simple meal of bread and cheese and wood-berries, and drank milk withal; and the wood-mother was merry, and the smiles danced over her face as she looked on Birdalone with all loving-kindness, so that Birdalone wondered what was toward; but so light-hearted and happy she grew, that she deemed it might be nought save good.
But when they had eaten, then Birdalone did off her old coat, which she said was meet enough for her daily toil, and did on the fair green hunting-gown and the sandal-shoon, and girt her with the fair girdle which Habundia had fetched her, and drew up the laps of her gown therethrough till her legs were all free of the skirts. And Habundia looked on her, and laughed and said: Now are these white and smooth legs as bad as the gleam-gown for the lying hid; but it may no better be, and thou must draw thy skirts down and stumble, if needs must be, when we come to the ambushment.
Birdalone reddened as she laughed at the word, and took down her bow and hung her quiver at her back and thrust her sharp knife into her girdle, and forth they went both of them, and were presently past the bent which went up from the meadows and in amongst Habundia’s trees.
Now as they went their ways lightly through the wood, spake Habundia and said: Birdalone, my child, fair is the gold ring with the sapphire stone that the third finger of thy right hand beareth; seldom have I seen so fair a stone as that deep blue one; hangeth any tale thereby? Said Birdalone: Did I not tell thee thereof, wood-mother, how that my beloved who is lost gave it unto me the very last time I saw him, woe worth the while? Nay, said Habundia, I mind not the tale. But deemest thou he would know it again if he saw it? Yea, surely, said Birdalone, hanging her head; for when first he gave it, the gift was not to me, but to another woman. And she held her peace, and went on with hanging head and all the glee faded out of her a while.
At last she turned to Habundia, and said: I have now bethought me to ask thee whither we be going and on what errand; for at first I was so glad at heart, I know not why, and it was so merry to be wending the wood with thee freely, that I had no thought in me as to whither and wherefore. But now wilt thou tell me?
Said the wood-wife: How if I were to tell thee we were going a-hunting? Birdalone said: Then I should ask thee what like the quarry were. And suppose it were men? said the wood-wife. Birdalone turned somewhat pale. My mother, she said, if we be going against some of those men of the Red Bands, I am not happy over it. I am no warrior, and fear strokes. Said Habundia, laughing: Yet art thou a fell archer; and thou mayest shoot from an ambush of the thick leaves, since June is in today. But neither would I slay or hurt any man, said Birdalone, but it were to save me from present death.
Habundia looked on her with a sly smile and said: Well maybe though we take cover and get within wind of our quarry thou shalt not need to speed an arrow to him. Have patience therefore. For this is a strange beast which I have marked down; he is not ill to look on, and his voice, which we may well hearken, for whiles he singeth, is rather sweet than surly. What meanest thou, mother? said Birdalone, growing red and then paler yet; what man is it? since thy calling him a beast is a jest, is it not?
Nay, said Habundia, I neither name him nor know him; only I deem him by no means to be one of the Red Band. For the rest, he may be a man in a beast’s skin, or a beast in a man’s skin, for aught I know; whereas he seems, so far as I have seen him, to be not wholly man-like or wholly beast-like. But now let us hold our peace of him till we be come nigher to his haunt.
So they went on their way, and Birdalone said but little, while the wood-wife was of many words and gay. They made all diligence, for Birdalone was not soon wearied, and moreover as now she was anxious and eager to see what would befall, which she might not but deem would be something great.
They went without stay till past noon, when they were come to a little shady dale wherethrough ran a clear stream; there they rested and bathed them, and thereafter sat under the boughs and ate the dainty meat which the wood-wife provided, howsoever she came by it; and when they had rested a while, the wood-wife turned the talk once more unto Arthur the Black Squire, and would have Birdalone tell her all nicely what manner of man he was; and Birdalone was nothing loth thereto; for had she her will she had talked of him day-long.
Now they go on again, no less speedily than before, and rest but little, until it was hard on an hour before sunset. And now Habundia began to go warily, as if they were come anigh to their journey’s end and the thing that they sought. They were come by now to a long bent of the forest well grown with big-boled oak-trees, not very close together, so that short fine greensward was all underneath them; and Habundia went heedfully from bole to bole, as if she would be ready to cover herself if need were; and Birdalone went after her, and was now flushed of face, and her eyes glittered, and her heart beat fast, and her legs trembled under her, as she went running from tree to tree.
So came they nigh to the crown of the bent, and before them were the oak-trees sparser and smaller as they went down the further side, which seemed by their sudden shortening to be steeper than the hither side; and betwixt them showed the topmost of thorn and whitebeam and logwood, intertwined with eglantine and honeysuckle and the new shoots of the traveller’s joy. There the wood-wife put forth her hand to bid Birdalone stay, who came up to her friend and stood before her eager and quivering: and anon came the sound of a man’s voice singing, though they could hear no words in it as yet amidst the rustle of the trees and the tumult of song which the blackbirds and throstles raised in the dale below them.
Then spake the wood-wife softly: Hearken, we are right and the time is good, our beast is giving tongue: now below us is the bent-side steep, and goeth down into a very little dale with a clear stream running amidst; and therein is the very lair of the thing that we are hunting. Wherefore now let us slip warily down between the bushes till we get close to the bottom, and then belike we shall see the very creature quite close, and we shall then consider and think what we shall do with him.
Birdalone had no voice wherewith to answer her, but she stole quietly along by her side till they came to the bank of the dale and plunged into the thicket that flourished there, and fell to threading it, making them as small as might be. But ere they had gone but a little way the wordless song of what was below had ceased, and they heard the sweet tingle of the string-play, and the wood-wife stayed her to hearken, and the smiles went rippling over her face and she beat time with her fingers; but Birdalone, she stared wildly before her, and would have scrambled down the bank straightway at all hazards, for that string-play was a melody of the Castle of the Quest, but Habundia withheld her by the arm. And then suddenly the music died, and there came up a voice of wailing and lamenting, and Birdalone put her hands and held the palms tight against her ears, and was at point to cry out aloud herself; but Habundia drew a hand of her down and whispered into her ear: Child, child, make thyself strong and forbear, and then perchance joy may come to thee; hold thy peace and come softly along with me!
So Birdalone forbore, and strove with her passion, though the sobs rent her bosom for a while; and by then the loud lamenting waned and was done, and the sound of sobbing came up from below, as it had been an echo of Birdalone’s grief.
Then Habundia drew her on again till they saw the level of the dale and its stream piecemeal betwixt the leaves, and they had a glimpse of a man on the hither side of the stream; and again they went lower, till they were well-nigh on a level with the greensward of the dale; and as Birdalone knelt with head bent low, and her hands covering her eyes, the wood-wife put away from before her the thick leaves of a hazel-bush, and whispering said: Child, child! look forth now and see what is before thee, and see if thou knowest him, or if he be strange to thee, and thy mother hath done nought for thee when all is said.
Birdalone looked up, pale and wild-eyed, and into the dale, and saw a man sitting on the grass by the stream-side with his head bowed down on to his knees and his face covered with his hands; he was clad but in two or three deerskins hung about him, with a strip of skin for a girdle, wherein was thrust a short sword; his brown hair hung down long and shaggy over his face. Close by his side lay a little harp, and further off a short spear roughly hefted with an ash-staff. He was beating the earth with his feet and writhing him about over them. And Birdalone looked, and her breath well-nigh failed her. For presently he sat more quietly, and lifted up his head, and she saw his face that it was Arthur, her beloved; and now she durst not move lest he should spring up and flee away; and the mingled pain and longing within her was sweet indeed, but well-nigh deadly.
Now his hand sought round to his harp, and he took it in his arms and fondled it as it were, and his fingers went among the strings, and anon the voice of it came forth, and it was nought changed from the last time it spake, and Birdalone hearkened breathlessly, till the melody died again and Arthur looked about him and raised his face as a dog when it fares to howl.
Then Birdalone gave a great cry, and leapt forth out of the thicket and stood on the greensward with nought betwixt them two, and she stretched out her arms to her beloved and cried out: O! no, no, no! do it not, I beseech thee, lest I deem that thou art all changed, and that the man and the dear heart beloved of thee has gone out of thee and left thee but a beast in a man’s shape!
He leapt up as she spake, and thrust forward his head and looked fierce at her, and cried out: What! art thou come again? This is the second time I have seen thee, thou image of her that hath tormented me so long; of her that left me in my most need and hid herself away from me. Hah! a man, sayest thou? Did I not strive with it, and hold my manhood so long as I might; and at last it might no longer be, and I became a beast and a man-slayer? But what avails it to talk with thee, since thou art but the image of her that hath wasted my life. Yet perchance of the image I may make an end since I may not lay hand on the very destroyer herself; and, woe’s me, how I loved her! yea, and do still; but not thee, O false image!
And forthwith he drew the blade from his girdle and sprang forward at Birdalone; and she cowered and cringed, but moved not else. But therewithal the wood-wife came leaping through the bushes, and she nocked an arrow on her bended bow, and threatened him therewith, and cried out: Thou man-beast, I will slay thee if thou hurt my child and my dear; so forbear! Nay, I tell thee more, unless thou make her as glad at the sight of thee as I meant her to be, I will in the long run slay thee; so look to it.
He laughed and said: What! there is another image of the love that wasted me, is there! Nay, but by the Hallows, this new-comer is the first one, and the one who chattered at me is the second. Or is it this, that all women now have the semblance of the evil one that has undone me, and there is nought else left?
And he stood staring at Birdalone and moved not a while; and she stood with her hands before her face cringing before him. Then he raised his arm and cast the weapon far into the bushes of the bank-side, and then came forward and stood before Birdalone, and drew down her hands from her face and stared in the eyes of her, holding her by the two arms; and he said: Thou hast forgotten now, belike, how fair a life we two might have lived if thou hadst not fled from me and spoiled me.
And thou! by the looks of thee, for thou art sleek and fair, though this moment thou art pale for fear of me, thou hast lived a happy life through all these years, with many a merry thing to think of: and dost thou deem that my life was happy, or that I thought of any merry thing, or of anything save my sorrow? Dost thou doubt it? go ask the good spears of Greenford, or the Riders of the Red Hold, and the field of the slaughter! If there was little joy there, less was there elsewhere.
He left go of her therewith and stood trembling before her, and she bowed down and put palm to palm and held them out to him as one who prays; and she knew not what she did.
Then he cried out with a lamentable cry and said: O woe’s me! for I have frighted her and scared the wit out of her, so that she knows not who I am nor what I would; and I would pray to her and beseech her to pity me, and not depart from me again or mock me with images of herself.
Then he went down on his knees to her, and he also joined his hands to pray to her; but it seemed as if she was stricken to stone, so wholly she moved not. But for him, he sank his forehead to earth, and then he rolled over and his limbs stretched out, and his head turned aside and blood gushed out from his mouth. But Birdalone shrieked out and cast herself on his body, and cried: I have found him, and he is dead! he is dead, and I have slain him, because I was a timorous fool and feared him; and he was coming to his right mind and knew me for what I was!
But Habundia came and stood over them, and drew up Birdalone, and said: Nay, nay, be comforted! for now he is thus, and the strength is gone out of him for a while, we may deal with him. Abide, and I will fetch the blood-staunching herb and the sleepy herb, and then we will heal him, and he will come to his right mind and be a man again.
Therewith she hastened away and was gone but a little; and meanwhile Birdalone knelt down by her love and wiped the blood from him, and caressed his sword-hardened hands and moaned over him. But when the wood-wife came back she put Birdalone aside once more, and knelt down by the squire and raised his head, and laid the blood-stauncher to his mouth and his heart, and muttered words over him, while Birdalone looked over her shoulder with her pale face; then the she-leech fetched water from the stream in a cup which she drew from her wallet, and she washed his face, and he came somewhat to himself, so that she might give him drink of the water; and yet more he came to himself. So then she took the sleepy herb and bruised it in her hands and put in his mouth and again said words over him, and presently his head fell back and his eyes closed and he slept peacefully.
She stood up then and turned to Birdalone and said: Now, my child, have we done all that we may do, save that we shall bring him to a place where the dew and the sun shall not torment him and sicken him; for he shall lie thus till the sun comes up tomorrow, or longer; and fear nor, for when he awaketh he shall be in his right mind, and shall know thee and love thee. This I swear to thee by the earth and the sun and the woodland.
Said Birdalone, trembling yet: O mother, but may I kiss him and caress him? Yea, surely, said the wood-mother, smiling in her face, but be not too long over it, for lo! the last of the sun, and it were better that he be under cover ere the twilight falls.
Birdalone knelt down by her love quietly at that word, and fell to kissing him softly, and laid her cheek to his, and called him gentle names such as none can tell again without shame, till the wood-wife laid her hand on her shoulder and said kindly and sweetly: Rise up now, for thou must make it enough for this present; thou shalt have time enough hereafter for more and much more.
So Birdalone arose and said: How shall we bear him to his place? Shall I not take him by the shoulders and thou by the legs? For I am stronger than thou after all these years.
Laughed the wood-wife: Nay, little one, said she; thou knowest me not utterly as yet. Thou shalt not bear him at all, nor any part of him; I am strong enough for more than that; see thou! And she stooped down and took him up in her arms as if he were a little child, and stepped off lightly with him; but looked back over her shoulder and said to Birdalone: But thou mayest walk by me and hold a hand of him as we go, though it will hinder me somewhat; but I know thine heart and would pleasure thee, my child.
Birdalone ran up to her and thanked her and kissed her, and took Arthur’s left hand, while Habundia bore him on down the dale and out of it, and still along the stream till they came to a place where it was narrow on either side thereof, and a sheer rock came down so near to the water that there was but a strip of greensward three yards wide betwixt water and rock; and in the face of the rock was a cave wide enough for a man to enter by stooping somewhat. Therein the wood-wife lightly bore Arthur, and Birdalone followed; and they found the cave dry and roomy within; there was a bed therein of dry heather and bracken, and thereon Habundia laid her burden, and said: Now, my child, there is nought to do but abide till he comes to himself again, which may be some time tomorrow; and be of good cheer, for he will come to his right self, but he will be weak and humble; but I shall have meat and drink ready for him. Now if thou wilt be ruled by me, thou wilt keep out of the way when he awakens; moreover, be thou not scared if I meet his awakening with another shape than that which thou hast known of me; for sure it is that it will trouble his wits over-much if again he seeth the two of us alike. But fear not; for thy sake, my child, I will take no ugly shape, though it may well be less beauteous than thine.
I will do what thou wilt, mother, said Birdalone, for I see that thou art helping me all thou mayest; yet I beseech thee let me sit by him till the time of his awakening draweth nigh.
The wood-wife smiled and nodded yeasay on her, and they sat down, both of them, beside the sleeping man, and the day died into the night as they sat hearkening to the ripple of the brook and the song of the nightingales.
When the morrow came, there yet lay Arthur sleeping peacefully, and Birdalone awoke from the slumber which had at last fallen on her, and looked about her and saw not Habundia in the cave; so she arose and bent over Arthur and kissed him, and so went forth and stood in the door and looked about her. And she was still dim-eyed with her just departed slumber and the brightness of the morning sunlight, and she scarce knew whether it were a part of a dream, or a sight that was verily before her, that she seemed to see one coming across the brook toward her, stepping heedfully from stone to stone thereof: a woman stricken in years, but slim and trim and upright, clad in a gown of green cloth, with a tippet of some white fur. When she was come on to the greensward she spake to Birdalone in a sweet voice, but thin with eld, and gave her the sele of the day; and Birdalone was somewhat afraid to see a newcomer, but she greeted her, drawing back a little from her shyly. But the old woman said: What maketh thee here, my daughter? Dost thou not know that this is my land and my house, and that I am said not to be unmighty in these woods?
I pray thee pardon me if I have done amiss, said Birdalone; but here have I a sick friend, a young man, and I would pray thee suffer him to abide here in this cave a little longer; for there hath been also another friend, a woman, but she hath gone out while I slept, belike to gather simples, for she is wise in leechcraft, and is tending the sick man. I pray thee humbly to suffer us lest we lose our friend.
As she spake, she heard the carline chuckle softly, and at last she said: Why, Birdalone, my dear, dost thou not know me after all these years? Look on me again, look! and thou shalt see that I am not so much changed from what thou sawest me last night. I am still thine image, my dear, only I was the image of what thou wert, and now I the image of what thou shalt be when two score years and ten of happy life have worn for thee. Tell me, am I now aught like to thy mother in the flesh?
How hast thou frighted me, mother, said Birdalone; I thought that my friend had forsaken me, and that perchance the new-comer was another witch like unto the old one, and that I was never to be at rest and happy. But as to my mother in the flesh, nay, thou art not now wholly like unto her; and sooth to say I shall be fainer when thou hast thine own shape of me young back again, for I love thee not so much as now thou art.
The wood-wife laughed: Well, she said, thou shalt not see over-much of me in this shape; and that the less because of something I shall now tell thee, to wit, that I have been thinking the matter over, and I would have thee leave us twain together alone before the young man awaketh. I would have thee get thee home and abide him there; it shall not be long I promise thee; and this also, that he shall come home to thee sound in body and whole in limb.
Birdalone’s countenance fell, and she said: Why this second mind, mother? why, I pray thee? Said Habundia: I fear for thy love lest he be not strong enough to open his eyes upon thy face; but after he hath been a day in the woods, and I have spoken to him diversely and cheered him with the hope of meeting thee, he may well be strong enough to seek thee for a mile’s length, and find thine house first and then thee. So now wilt thou obey me? Nay, if thou must needs weep, I will be gone into the thicket till thou hast done, thou wilful! Birdalone smiled through her tears, and said: I pray thee pardon my wilfulness, mother, and I will depart without turning back into the cave. Nay, said Habundia, there is no need for so much haste as that: I will in now, and do my leechdoms with the sick man. But do thou go across the stream, thou barefoot, and thou wilt find on the other side, by the foot of the quicken-tree yonder, honeycombs and white bread and a bicker of wild goats’ milk. Bathe thee then if thou wilt, and bring those matters over hither; and then shalt thou go in and kiss thy mate’s sick face with thy fresh one, and thereafter shall we sit here by the ripple of the water and break our fast; and lastly, thou shalt go in and kiss again and then take to the road. But tell me, deemest thou surely that thou canst find it again? Yea, surely, mother, said Birdalone; I am wood-woman enough for that; and now I will do all thy will. And therewith she stepped out lightly on to the greensward and sought up the stream till she found a smooth-grounded pool meet for her bath, and when that was done, she fetched the victual and came back to the wood-wife; then they two sat down together, and ate and drank while the water rippled at their feet. But when they were done, Birdalone gat her into the cave again, and kissed the sleeping man fondly, and came forth lightly and stood a moment before the wood-wife, and said: Tell me this at least, mother, when shall he be there? To-morrow quoth the wood-wife; and, for my part, I would keep thee within doors and abide him there, lest there be trouble; for he may not yet be as strong as the strongest. Birdalone hung down her head and answered not, but said presently: Farewell, wood-mother, and be thou blessed. Then she took up her bow and betook her lightly to the woodland way, and the wood-wife stood looking at her till the thicket had hidden her, and then turned back and went into the cave.
She stood over Arthur for a minute or two, and then stooped down and whispered a word in his ear, and presently he stirred on the bed and half opened his eyes, but straightway turned on his side, as if to gather sleep to him, but she took him by the shoulder and said in a clear voice: Nay, knight, nay; hast thou not slept enough? is there nought for thee to do? He sat up in the bed and rubbed his eyes, and his face was come to its wholesome colour, and his eyes looked out quietly and calmly as he looked about the cave and saw the wood-wife standing by him; and he spake in a voice which was somewhat weak, but wherein was no passion of rage or woodness: Where am I then? and who art thou, dame? She said: Thou art in a cave of the woodland, and I am for one thing thy leech, and meseemeth thou desirest to eat and to drink. He smiled and nodded his head; and she fetched him the milk, and he drank a long draught, and sighed thereafter, as one who is pleased; and she smiled on him, and fetched him the bread and the honey, and he ate and drank again, and then lay down and fell fast asleep. And she suffered his slumber for two hours or so, and then awoke him again; and again he asked where he was and what was she, but she said as before. And said she: The next thing thou hast to do is to arise, as thou well mayest, and take this raiment, which is fair and clean, and go wash thee in the brook and come back to me; and then we will talk, and thou shalt tell me of how it was with thee, and peradventure I may tell thee somewhat of how it shall be with thee. As she spoke she went to a coffer which stood in a nook of the cave, and drew forth from it a shirt and hosen and shoon, and a surcoat and hood of fine black cloth, and a gilded girdle and a fair sword, red-sheathed, and said: These may serve thy turn for the present, so take them and don them, and thou shalt look like a squire at least, if not a knight.
So he arose as one in a dream and went out; but as he passed by her she saw something gleaming on his breast, and noted that it was Birdalone’s fair sapphire ring which hung about his neck; so she smiled, and said under her breath: Crafty is my dear daughter! But that shall save me some words at least. And she abided his return.
Anon he cometh back clad in the fair raiment, with the sword by his side; and the wood-wife smote her palms together and cried out: Now indeed thou art fair and well-liking, and a fair lady might well take pleasure in beholding thee.
But his brow was knit, and he looked sullen and angry, and he said: What is all this play? and where gattest thou this ring which I found e’en now about my neck? And who art thou, and why have I been brought hither?
His eyes looked fiercely on her as he spake, holding out his palm with the ring lying thereon. But the wood-wife answered: Many questions, fair youth! but I will tell thee: the play is for thine healing and pleasure, whereas both sick hast thou been and sorry. As to the ring, it is thou hast got it and not I. But I will tell thee this, that I have seen it on the finger of a fair damsel who haunteth the woodland not far hence. As to what I am, that were a long tale to tell if I told it all; but believe this meanwhile, that I am the lady and mistress of hereabouts, and am not without power over my folk and my land. And as to why thou wert brought hither, I brought thee because I had no better house handy for a sick man to lie in.
Then Arthur stood a long while considering the ring that lay on his palm, and at last he put his hand on the wood-wife’s shoulder, and looked into her face beseechingly, and said: O mother, if thou be mighty be merciful withal, and have pity on me! Thou callest me a youth, and so I may be in regard to thee; but I tell thee it is five long years and there hath been no other thought in my heart but what was loathsome to me, and it hath worn and wasted my youth, so that it waneth and withereth and is nought. O, if thou be mighty, bring me to her that I may see her at least one time before I die. And therewith he fell down on his knees before her, and kissed the hem of her gown, and wept. But she drew him up and looked on him with the merry countenance of a kind old woman, and said: Nay, nay, I am not so hard to be won to thy helping that thou needest pray so sore and weep: here need we tarry no longer, and if thou wilt come with me we shall go seek the damsel who bore this ring, though how it should come to thee why should I know? Neither do I know if the said ring-bearer be the one woman whom thou needest. But I will tell thee at once that she is a dear friend of mine.
Then Arthur threw his arms about her, and kissed her cheeks and blessed her, while she laughed on him and said: Nay, fair sir, if thou wilt do so much with the withered branch, what wilt thou with the blossom of the tree? And he was abashed before her, but hope made his heart to dance.
So the wood-wife took up her bow, slung her quiver at her back, and girt her short sword to her, and then led him forth, and so into the thicket out of the dale and forth into the oaken bent, and lightly she led him thereafter through the woodland.
As they went Habundia said to Arthur: Now shalt thou talk and tell for the shortening of the way, and let us know somewhat of thy story. But first I must tell thee, for thou mayest not know it, so witless as then thou wast, that yesterday we found thee down in the dale yonder, playing the string-play sweetly indeed, but otherwise dight like a half beast more than a man, so that we wondered at thee and pitied thee.
Arthur knit his brows as if he strove with some memory and might not master it; then he said: Thou sayest We, who then was the other? Said Habundia: I had a dear friend with me. Quoth he: And did she pity me also? Yea, said the wood-wife, else scarce had she been a friend to me. O let us on swiftly, said Arthur, so long as the time may be! And they quickened their pace and ate up the way speedily.
Presently spake the wood-wife again: Now for the tale of thee, fair sir; yet will I shorten it somewhat by telling thee that I know thy name, that thou art Arthur the Black Squire of the Castle of the Quest. He stared at that word, and said: How knewest thou this? how couldst thou guess it, who hast never seen me erst? A friend told me, said she; too long it were as now to tell thee thereof. Rather do thou tell me how thou didst fare when ye found thy friend gone from the castle that time ye came home from the winning of the Red Hold.
Arthur stared astonished, and said: What is it? Dost thou verily know my love? or art thou a sorceress and knowest somewhat of me by spell-work? I am somewhat more than a sorceress, may-happen, said the wood-wife; but heed it not, since I am thy friend today, but tell me what I ask, that I may have all the tale of thee; it will serve for the shortening of the way. Said Arthur: And who but I needeth it as short as may be? so stand we not loitering here, and I will talk as we wend on speedily.
On they sped therefore, and said Arthur: How did I fare? as one stunned, mother, and knew not what had happened; and when I heard their babble of how she had done wrong here and right there, I was driven half mad by it, so that I hastened back to the Red Hold, and became the captain of Greenford, to hunt down their scattered foemen; for I said to myself that needs must I rage and slay, and that were worser amongst my friends than mine unfriends. What then? that business came to an end; though all the ill men were not slain, but all were driven away from the parts of Greenford; and sooth to say they durst not come anywhere nigh where they heard of me. Then became each day like every other, and the thought of my hope and my despair ate mine heart out, and I was of no avail unto any. Now it so happened, amidst my many battles and chases, I had hunted the bands of the Red Hold into the northwest marches of the woodland; and I noted that even they, howsoever hard bestead, and the worst of men to boot, would scarce at the first be driven into the thickets thereof, though at last, whether or no they have made covenant with the devils, there I know not, they have betaken them to the depths of the wood and have borne off women from the dwellings and got children on them, and are like to breed an evil folk. That then I noted that this Evilshaw was a dwelling loathed and desert, and little like it was that any would meddle with me there. Three years had worn since I was cast away at the Castle of the Quest by her that loved me, who must needs sacrifice both her and me to the busy devil of folly; and I also deemed that if I sought for her I should not find her; and yet more forsooth, that if I found her she would be as hard unto me as when she fled from me. And as for me, I was gotten hard and crabbed, and no man, if his heart would let him, would have aught to say to me. So I gat me away from the Red Hold, as I had from the Castle of the Quest, and I gave out that I would enter into religion, and forbade any man to follow me. Neither did any desire it. First of all I set me down at the very outskirts of the woodland, and raised me a bower there, rude and ill-shapen. Few folk came anigh me, and yet some few, charcoal-burners, and hunters of the edges of the wood, and suchlike. These deemed me a holy man, whereas I was but surly. Somewhat also they feared me, whereas in some of their huntings or goings and comings after prey I had put forth all my strength, eked out by the lore of knighthood, which was strange to them. One man there was of them who was fashioned of the minstrel craft by nature, and who forgathered with me specially, till we became friends, and he was a solace to me, with his tales and his songs of a rougher people than I had been wont to deal with. But when I had been in that place for two years he died of a sickness, and I was left lonely, and my soreness of heart fell upon me till I scarce knew what next I should do. So I fared away yet deeper into the wildwood, taking with me the harp which my friend had given me before he died. It was summer, and I wandered about ever deeper into the wood, until belike I had scarce been able to win out of it if I had tried. At last, when the autumn came, I built myself again some sort of a bower in a clearing of the wood wherein was water, and the resort of plenteous venison.
What befell next? My mind is not over-clear concerning it all, for I was now becoming more of a beast than a man. But this I know, that some men of the bands whom I had chased happened on me. They knew me not for their old foeman, but of their kind it was to torment and slay any man whom they might lightly overcome. Yet was not the battle so over-light but that I slew and hurt divers of them ere they got me under and stripped me and bound my hands and tormented me, after the manner that the devils shall do with them when they shall go to their reward. Yet somehow I lived, though they deemed me dead, and I crawled away thence when they were gone; and somehow I was healed of my body, but I was confused of my wit thereafter, and now can call to mind but little of what befell me as I strayed from place to place, save that I remember I was hapless and heart-sore ever: and also meseemeth that I saw visions at whiles, and those who had been in my life before these things, their images would come before me to mock me as I sat singing whiles and whiles playing the string-play (for my harp I bore ever with me); and whiles I bewailed me, and called for help on them that would not or might not help me. And now I may not even tell the years of my abiding in the desert, how many they be. But I pray thee let us on more swiftly yet.
Said the wood-wife: Thou hast told me but little of thy life, Black Squire, but it is enough maybe; and I see that thou mayst not tell me more because thou hast thy mind set on what may betide thee when this day is over. But thou must know that thou hast come into the wood of Evilshaw, wherein, besides those savage men who quelled thee and their like, there be uncouth things no few, and wights that be not of the race of Adam; wherefore no great marvel is it that thou sawest visions, and images of them that were not by thee. Yea, said he, but one vision had I that confused and overcame me more than all others, and meseemeth that came to me not long ago. For first I saw the shape of her that my soul desireth ever, and it wept and lamented for me; and then for a little I seemed as if I were coming forth from my confusion of wit; when lo! there issued from the thicket another image of my beloved and blamed me and threatened me. God wot good cause there was of the blame. But tell me, mother, since thou callest thyself wise, what may this portend?
The wood-wife laughed: Since I am wise, said she, I will foretell thee good days. And now we will talk no more of thee or thy love or thy sorrow, but since thou wilt so fiercely devour the way, I will tell thee a tale or two of this wood and its wights to save us from over-much weariness.
So did she, talking and telling as they went; and she went on a pace before him, and howsoever long or hardly he might stride he might not overgo her. And so fast they went, that they were within a little way of the Oak of Tryst a good while before the sun had set, though they had set out from the cave three hours after the hour when Birdalone and the wood-wife had left the House under the Wood on the yesterday. They had come to a steep rock that rose up from a water’s side, and the wood-wife bade stay, whether Arthur would or no, and she made him eat and drink, bringing the victual and wine from out of a cleft in the said rock. And she held him there till the night was come and there was a glimmer of the rising moon in the east, and he was ill at ease and restless; but still she held him there till the moon rose high and shone upon them, and the shadows of the oak-boughs lay black all around.
Then she bade him arise, and let him on to the Oak of Tryst, yea and somewhat beyond it toward the great water. Then she spake to him: Black Squire, I am now come home, and will lead thee no further; I was deeming that we should have slept in the wood a good way from this, and then would I have brought thee on thy way tomorrow morning; but the eagerness of thine heart hath made thy feet so speedy, that we be here somewhat rathe, and yet I am not ill-pleased therewith. Then she turned him about and said: Look down the bent and tell me what thou seest. He said: I see the boles of goodly trees, and betwixt them the gleaming of a great water. She said: Go thitherward then while the moon is yet at her brightest, and thou shalt presently come to wide meads lying along the water, and a stream running through them. Enter then into the meads and look about thee, and thou shalt see a little house (there is none other nigh) standing just across the said stream; go up thither boldly and crave guesting from whomsoever thou shalt find there, and maybe things shall go after thy mind. More than this I may not do for thee. Farewell then, and if thou wilt thou mayst meet me again; that is to say, that which is verily me: but it is like that this shape which hath been striding on with thee daylong thou shalt not see any more.
He looked on her wondering, for she seemed to grow goodly and stately before his eyes. But even as he stretched forth his hand to take hers, she turned about suddenly and fared into the wood out of his sight, wending full as swiftly as might have been looked for. Then he drew his sword and turned his face from the wood, and went down toward the water.
So came Arthur into the meadows, and went eagerly but warily over the dewy grass. And here and there a cow rose before him and went bundling down the mead a little way, and the owls cried out from behind him, and a fox barked from the thicket’s edge. Then he found himself on the stream-side, and he stayed and looked from side to side, and lo! on the other side of the stream a little house that looked familiar to him as a yeoman’s dwelling in the builded lands, and the thatch thereon shone under the moon and its windows were yellow with candle-light; and so homely it seemed to him, that he thrust his sword into the sheath and lightly crossed the brook, and came to the door and laid his hand upon the latch and lifted it and shoved the door, and all was open before him.
His eyes, coming from the night, dazzled with the bright light of the candles, but he saw a fair woman rising up in her place, and he said: May a traveller in the woodland be welcome here to-night, dealing with all in all honour?
But the woman came toward him holding out her two hands, and ere he could cry out that he knew her, she had thrown herself upon him, and had cast her arms about him and was kissing his face, and murmuring: O welcome indeed! welcome, welcome, and welcome! And so sore did his past grief and his desire move him, that he was weak before her, and held down his hands and let her do. And both those were breathless with wonder and joy and longing; and they stood aloof a little in a while and looked on each other, she with heaving bosom and streaming eyes, and he with arms stretched forth and lips that strove with his heart’s words and might not utter them; but once more she gave herself to him, and he took her in his arms strongly now, so that she was frail and weak before him, and he laid his cheek to her cheek and his lips to her lips, and kissed her eyes and her shoulders and murmured over her. And then again they stood apart, and she took him by the hand and led him to the settle, and set him down by her, and herself by him; and a while they said nought. Then she spake as one who had come to herself and was calm, though her heart was aflame for love: Tell me, love, when thine hand was on the latch didst thou look to find me here in this house? for thine hand it was that waked me; I heard not thy foot before the threshold, for I was weary and slumbering. Alas! that I lost the sound of thy feet! He spake, and his voice sounded false unto him, as if it came from another’s mouth: I wot not; the woman that led me nearby seemed to bid me hope. Then he said: Nay, the sooth is that I should have died if I had not found thee here; I have been sick so long with hoping.
Again were they silent till she said: I would that I had heard thee crossing the brook. But the wood-wife bade me look for thee no earlier than tomorrow; else had I time enough; and I would have made the house trim with the new green boughs, and dighted our bed with rose blooms; and I would have done on me my shining gown that the wood-wife gave me. For indeed she was but clad in her scanty smock and nought else.
But he laid his head on her bosom and kissed her all about, and said: Nay, my own love, it is well, it is better. And she murmured over him: O friend, my dear, think not that I had will to hide me from thee. All that is here of me is thine, and thine, and thine.
And she took his hand and they arose together, and she said: O friend, I fled from thee once and left thee lonely of me because I deemed need drave me to it; and I feared the strife of friends, and confusion and tangle. Now if thou wilt avenge thee on me thou mayest, for I am in thy power. Yet will I ask thee what need will drive thee to leave me lonely?
He said: The need of death. But she said: Mayhappen we shall lie together then, as here to-night we shall lie.
On the morrow it was sweet times betwixt those twain, and what was hard and fierce of their love they seemed to have put behind them. A dear joy it was to Birdalone that day to busy herself about the housekeeping, and to provide whatsoever seemed now, or had seemed to her in her early days, to be dainties of their meadow and woodland husbandry, as cream and junkets and wood-fruit and honey, and fine bread made for that very occasion.
Withal she was careful as a mother with a child that he should not over-weary himself with the sun of the early summer, but rather to follow the brook up into the wood and lie adown in the flecked shadow and rest him wholly, as if there were nought for him to do but to take in rest all that was done for his service, both by the earth and by the hands and nimble feet of Birdalone. And as she was wilful in other ways of her cherishing, so also in this, that for nought in that daylight would she go anywise disarrayed, nay not so much as to go barefoot, though he prayed her thereof sorely, and told her that fairer and sweeter she was in her smock alone than in any other raiment. For in the morning she went in her woodland green let down to her heels, and when the day wore towards evening, and the wind came cool from over the Great Water, then she did on her wonder-raiment which the wood-wife had given her, and led Arthur over the meadows here and there, and went gleaming by the side of the black-clad man along the water’s lip. And they looked forth on to Green Eyot and Rock Eyot, and stood by the shallow bight where she had bathed those times; and they went along to the dismal creek where the Sending Boat was wont to lie, and where yet lay the scattered staves of it; and then along the meadow-land they went from end to end, resting oft on the flowery grass, till the dews began to fall and the moon cast shadows on the greensward. Then home they fared to the house; and again on the way must Birdalone feign for their disport that the witch was come back again, and was awaiting her to play the tyrant with her; and Arthur fell in with her game, and kissed her and clipped her, and then drew his sword and said: By All-hallows I shall smite off her head if she but lay a finger on thee.
So they played like two happy children till they came to the door of the house, and Birdalone shoved it open, and they two looked in together and saw nought worse therein save the strange shadows that the moon cast from the settle on to the floor. Then Birdalone drew in her love, and went about lighting the candles and quickening a little cooking fire on the hearth, till the yellow light chased the moon away from the bed of their desire.
Again next day was their life such as it had been the day before; and as they lay in cool shadow of a great oak, Birdalone fell to telling Arthur all the whole story of her dealings with the wood-wife, and how that she had so loved her and holpen her, that through her love and her help she had escaped the witch and her snares, who would have turned her into a half-devil for the undoing of manfolk. And how that the said wood-wife had never appeared to her but as an image and double of herself, save on the time when she played the leech to him. Then she told him how all had gone when the wood-wife had sought him out for the fulfilment of their love, and of the dreadful day when they had come upon him out of his wit and but little manlike.
Then she asked, would he, within the next day or two, that they should go see the wood-wife together and thank her for her help, and bring him within the ring of her love and guarding; and he yeasaid it with a good will.
After this she would have him tell her of how things had gone with him since that evil day when he had come home from the Castle of the Quest and found her gone. So he told her somewhat, and of his dole and misery, and his dealings with the foemen of Greenford; but yet scantly, and as one compelled; and at last he said:
Dear love, since thou art cossetting me with all solace of caresses, I pray thee remember my trouble and grief, how sore they were, and do with me as with a sick man getting well, as I wot surely thou wouldest do; and do thou that which is at this present the softest and merriest to me, and that forsooth is, that thou shouldest talk and tell, and I should hearken the sweetness of the music, and only here and there put in a word to rest thee and make thy tale the sweeter.
She laughed with love on him, and without more ado fell to telling everything she might think of, concerning her days in the House of Captivity, both when she was but a bairn, and when she was grown to be a young woman; and long was she about the tale, nor was it all done in one day; and a multitude of things she told him which are not set down in this book.
In the evening when they were going again to and fro the meads, it was other talk they fell on, to wit, of their fellows of the Quest, both of Sir Hugh and the three lovely ladies: and now was Arthur nought but kind when he spake of Atra, nor spake Birdalone otherwise; but she said: I shall now say a hard word, yet must thou bear it, my loveling, since we twain are now become one, and have but one joy together and one sorrow. Deemest thou that Atra is yet alive? Sooth it is, said Arthur, it may well be that I have slain her. And what may we do by her if ever we fall in with her alive? said Birdalone. I wot not, said Arthur; some would say that we have done penance for our fault, both thou and I; and what other penance may we do, save sundering from each other? And by God above I will not. By thine head and thine hands I will not, said Birdalone.
So said they; but therewith their eyes told tales of the fair eve and the lovely meadows, and the house, the shrine of the dear white bed no less sweet to them than erst; but then presently Birdalone stayed her love, and took her arms about him, and each felt the sweetness of the other’s body, and joy blossomed anew in their hearts. Then fell Arthur to telling of the deeds and the kindness of Baudoin, whom never again they should see on the earth; and they turned back home to the house, and on the way spake Birdalone: This is what I would we should do: whereas I have sought thee and thou me, and we have found each other, whereas ye sought me when I went astray in the Black Valley of the Greywethers, and before, when ye three sought your own loves, now I would that we should seek our fellows and have joy in them, and thole sorrow with them as in days gone by.
Spake Arthur: Dear is the rest with thee in this wilderness; yet were it a deed of fame, and would bring about a day of joy, might we find our friends again, and knit up the links of the fellowship once more. But thou the wise and valiant! belike thou hast in thine head some device whereby this might be set about.
Birdalone said: Simple is my device, to wit, that we ask one who is wiser than I. Let us tarry not, but go tomorrow and see the wood-wife and talk with her concerning it. Then she smiled upon him and said: But when thou seest her, wilt thou be aghast if she come before us in my shape of what I was five years agone, or six?
Nay, nay, he said, thou art not so terrible as that; not very far do I run from thee now. And therewith they kissed and embraced, and so entered the House of Love.
When the morrow was they arose and went their ways toward the wood, and Birdalone in her hunter’s coat, quiver at back and bow in hand. They came to the Oak of Tryst, and Birdalone was at point to call on the wood-wife by the burning of a hair of hers, when she came lightly from out the thicket, clad as Birdalone, and her very image. She stood before them with a glad countenance, and said: Welcome to the seekers and finders. But Arthur stepped forth and knelt before her, and took her right hand and kissed it, and said: Here I swear allegiance to thee, O Lady of the Woods, to do thy will in all things, and give thee thanks from my heart more than my tongue can say.
Quoth the wood-wife: I take thine allegiance, fair young man, and mine help shalt thou have henceforward. Then she smiled and her eyes danced for merriment, and she said: Yet thy thanks meseemeth for this while are more due to the wise carline who brought thee through the woods two days ago, and only left thee when the way was easy and clear to thee.
Lady, said Arthur, I know now how great is thy might, and that thou canst take more shapes than this only; and humbly I thank thee that for us thou hast taken the shape that I love the best of all on the earth.
Said the wood-wife: Stand up, Black Squire, and consider a little what thou wouldst have me do for thee, while I have speech with mine image yonder. And therewith she came up to Birdalone, and drew her a little apart, and fell to stroking her cheeks and patting her hands and diversely caressing her, and she said to her: How now, my child, have I done for thee what I promised, and art thou wholly happy now? O yea, said Birdalone; if nought else befell us in this life but to dwell together betwixt the woodland and the water, and to see thee oft, full happy should we be.
Nevertheless, said Habundia, art thou not come hither to ask somewhat of me, that ye may be happier? So it is, wise mother, said Birdalone; grudge not against me therefor, for more than one thing drives me thereto. I will not grudge, said the wood-wife; but now I will ask thy mate if he has thought what it is that he will have of me. And she turned to Arthur, who came forth and said: Lady, I have heard thee, and herein would we have thee help us: There were erst six fellows of us, three caries and three queans, to whom was added this sweetling here; but one of them, to wit the Golden Knight, was slain, and for the rest . . . Yea, I know, said the wood-wife; my child here hath told me all; and now ye wot not where they are or if they be yet alive, all or any of them. Now is it not so that ye would seek these friends, if it were but to greet them but once, and that ye would ask of the wise wood-wife help to find them? Is there any more of the tale? Nay, lady, said Arthur.
Said she: Well then, that help shall ye have, were it but for the sake of that little Viridis whereof my child hath told me. Wherefore abide tidings of me for a fourteen days, and seek not to me ere then; and meantime fear not, nor doubt me, for many messengers I have, and ever may I do somewhat if the end of the tale is to be told in these woodlands: and I deem these friends will not be hard to draw hither, for it is most like that they be thinking of you and longing for you, as ye for them. And now I will depart on my business, which is yours, and do ye be happy today in the woodland, and tomorrow in the meadows and by the water; and let no trouble weigh down your happy days.
Therewith she flitted away from them, when she had kissed them both. But when she was gone they fared away together deep into the wood, and were exceeding merry disporting them, and on their return they gat them venison for their meat, and so came back to the House of Love when the moon was up and shining brightly.
Wore the days thenceforth merrily; and one day it was delight in the wide meads, and another they went a long way west along the water-side, and so into another meadow-plain, smaller than their home — plain, which Birdalone had never erst come into; and three eyots lay off it, green and tree-beset, whereto they swam out together. Then they went into the wood thereby in the heat of the afternoon, and so wore the day, that they deemed themselves belated, and lay there under a thorn-bush the night through.
Another day Birdalone took her mate over on to Green Eyot and Rock Eyot, and showed him all the places she was used to haunt. And they had their fishing-gear with them, and angled off the eyots a good part of the day, and had good catch, and swam back therewith merrily. And Birdalone laughed, and said that it seemed to her as if once again she were ransoming her skin of the witch-wife by that noble catch.
Divers times also they fared into the wood, and thrice they lay out the night there in some woodlawn where was water; and on one of these times it happed that Arthur awoke in the grey dawn, and lay open-eyed but not moving for a little; and therewith he deemed he saw the gleam of war-gear in the thicket. So he kept as still as he might, but gat his sword out of its sheath without noise, and then leapt up suddenly, and sprang thitherward whereas he had seen that token, and again saw armour gleam and heard some man crashing through the underwood, for all was gone in one moment. So he woke up Birdalone, and they bended their bows both of them, and searched the thicket thereabouts heedfully, arrow on string, but found nought fiercer than a great sow and her farrow. So came the full day, and they gat them back to their meadows and their house; but thereafter were they warier in going about the woodland.
In all joyance then wore the days till the fifteenth, and in the morning early they went their ways to the Oak of Tryst, and had no need to call Habundia to them, for presently she came forth out of the thicket, with her gown gathered up into her girdle and bow in hand. But she cast it down and ran up to Birdalone, and kissed her and clipped her, and then she took a hand of Arthur and a hand of Birdalone, and held them both and said: My child, and thou dear knight, have ye still a longing to fall in with those friends of yours, and to run all risk of whatsoever contention and strife there may be betwixt you thereafter? Yea, certes, said Arthur; and even so said Birdalone. Well is that then, said the wood-wife; but now and for this time, ere I help you, I shall put a price upon my help, and this is the price, that ye swear to me never wholly to sunder from me; that once in the year at least, as long as ye be alive and wayworthy, ye come into the Forest of Evilshaw, and summon me by the burning of a hair of mine, that we may meet and be merry for a while, and part with the hope of meeting once more at least. And if ye will not pay the price, go in peace, and ye shall yet have my help in all other matters that may seem good unto you, but not in this of joining your fellowship together. How sayest thou, Birdalone, my child? How sayest thou, Black Squire, whom, as meseemeth, I have delivered from a fate worse than death, and have brought out of wretchedness into bliss?
Spake Birdalone: Had I dared, I would have bidden thee to swear to me even such an oath, to wit, that thou wouldst never wholly sunder thee from me. How then may I not swear this that thou biddest me, and that with all joy and trustiness?
Spake Arthur: Lady, had I no will to swear oath for thy sake, yet with a good will would I swear it for my true-love’s sake who loveth thee. Yet verily of mine own will would I swear it joyfully, were it for nought else save to pleasure thee, who hast done so kindly by me, and hath given me back my manhood and my love, which else I had miserably lost.
Spake the wood-wife: It is well again. Join hands then, and swear as I have bidden you by the love ye bear each other.
Even so they did, and then the wood-wife kissed them both and said: Now do I deem you earth’s very children and mine, and this desire of yours is good, and it shall be done if I may bring it about; yet therein the valiance and wisdom of you both may well be tried. For this have I found out by my messengers and others, that your friends are alive, all of them; and they have thought of you in their inmost hearts, and have long determined that they must needs go seek you if they are to live lives happy and worthy. Furthermore, their quest hath drawn them hither to Evilshaw (nor say I that I have been nothing therein), and they are even now in the wood. But ye shall know that peril encompasses them; for they fare but a few, and of those few be there two traitors who are minded to deliver them to the men of the Red Company, unto whom three women as fair as your she-friends were a prize indeed. Wherefore the Red Folk are dogging them, and will fall upon them when they find the occasion. But I shall see to it that the occasion shall be in time and place where they shall not be unholpen. Now what ye have to do for your parts, is to waylay the waylayers, and keep watch and ward anigh the road they must needs take, and to fall on when need is. But this again I shall see to, that your onset fail not.
But now ye may say: Since thou art mighty, why shouldst not thou thyself take our friends out of the hands of these accursed, as thou couldst well do, and we to take no part therein? My friends, this might indeed well be; but thou, Birdalone, hast told me the whole tale, and how that there be wrongs to be forgiven which cannot be made right, and past kindness to be quickened again, and coldness to be kindled into love, and estrangement into familiar friendship; and meseems that the sight of your bodies and your hands made manifest to the eyes of them may do somewhat herein. Yet if otherwise ye think, then so let it be, and go ye back to the House under the Wood, and in three days’ time I will bring you your friends all safe and sound.
Now they both said that they would not for aught that they should have no hand in the deliverance of them; so the wood-wife said: Come with me, and I shall lead you to the place of your ambush.
Then all they went on together, and fared a long way west, and toward the place where erst they two had found Arthur; and at last, two hours before sunset, they came to where was a glade or way between the thickets, which was as it were a little beaten by the goings of man-folk. And the wood-wife did them to wit, that the evil folk aforesaid had so used it and beaten it, that it might just look as if folk were wont to pass that way, whereas it was not very far from their chiefest haunt and stronghold. A little on the north side of this half-blind way, and some ten yards through the thicket, the ground fell away into a little dale, the bottom whereof was plain and well grassed, and watered by a brook.
Thither the wood-wife brought the twain; and when they all stood together on the brook-side, she said to them: Dear friends, this is your woodland house for this time, and I rede you go not forth of it, lest ye happen upon any of those evil men; for nought have ye to fear from any save them. Here amidst these big stones, which make, see ye, as it were a cavern, have I stowed victual for you; and armour therewithal, because, though both of you are in a manner armed, yet who knoweth where a shaft drawn at a venture may reach.
And from the said stones she drew forth two very fair armours, helm and hauberk, and leg and arm wards; and they were all of green, and shone but little, but were fashioned as no smith of man-folk could have done the like.
This is thine, Sir Arthur, said the wood-wife, and thou wilt wear it like as it were silk; and this thine, my child, and thou art strong enough to bear such light gear. And I charge you both to do on this gear presently, nor do it off till ye have achieved the adventure. And now this is the last word: here is a horn of oliphant which thou shalt wear about thy neck, Birdalone; and if thou be sore bestead, or thy heart faileth thee, blow in it, yet not before the onfall; and then, whether thou blow much or little, thou shalt be well holpen.
Now be not downcast if nought befall to-night or tomorrow, or even the day after; but if the third day be tidingless, then at sunset burn a hair of my head, Birdalone, and I will come to you. And now farewell! for I have yet to do in this matter.
With that she kissed Birdalone fondly and embraced Arthur, and went her way; and those twain abode in the dale, and slept and watched by turns, and all was tidingless till the morrow’s dawn; neither was there aught to tell of on that day and the night that ended it.
Light was growing on the dawn of the next day, and the colours of things could be seen, when Birdalone, who was holding this last watch of the night, stood still and hearkened, deeming that she could hear some noise that was neither the morning wind in the tree-boughs nor the going of the wild things anear them in the wood.
So she did off her helm to hear the better, and stood thus a little; then she turned about and stooped down to Arthur, who was yet sleeping, and put forth a hand to rouse him. But or ever she touched him, broke forth a sound of big and rough voices and laughter, and amidst it two shrieks as of women.
Arthur heard it, and was on his feet in a moment, and helmed, and he caught up his bended bow and cast on the quiver (for Birdalone was already weaponed), and without more words they went forth swiftly up the bank and through the thicket till they were looking on the half-blind way, but under cover, and there was nothing before them as yet.
There they stayed and hearkened keenly. There were no more shrieks of women, nor heard they any weapon clash, but the talking and laughter of men went on; and at last they heard a huge and grim whoop of many men together; and then thereafter was less sound of talking, but came the jingle as of arms and harness; and Arthur whispered in Birdalone’s ear: Stand close! they have gotten to horse, and will be coming our way. Nock an arrow. And even so did he.
Therewith they heard clearly the riding of men, and in less than five minutes’ space they saw three big weaponed men riding together, clad in red surcoats, and they were so nigh that they heard the words of their speech. One said to the other: How long shall the knight hold out, think ye? Oh, a week maybe, said the other. Meseems it was scathe that we stayed not a while to pine him, said the first man. Nay, said the second, we be over-heavy laden with bed-gear to tarry. And they all laughed thereat, and so went on out of hearing.
But then came four on together, whereof one, a gaunt, oldish man, was saying: It is not so much how long we shall be getting there, but what shall betide when we get there. For this is not like lifting a herd of neat, whereof sharing is easy, but with this naked-skinned, two-legged cattle, which forsooth ye can eat and yet have, there may well be strife over the sharing. And look to it if it hath not begun already: we must needs dismount three of our best men that these white-skinned bitches forsooth may each have a horse to herself, or else would they be fighting as to which should have a damsel of them before him on the saddle: curse the fools!
Laughed out they who were about him, and one young man cast a jeer at him the meaning whereof they might not catch, and again they laughed; and that deal passed on. And next came a bigger rout, a half score or so, and they also laughing and jeering; but amidst them, plain to see riding a-straddle, their ankles twisted together under the horses’ bellies, their hands bound behind them, first Atra, black-clad as erst; then Aurea, in a gown of wheat-colour; then Viridis, green-clad. Atra rode upright, and looking straight before her; Aurea hung her head all she might, and her long red hair fell about her face; but Viridis had swooned, and was held up in the saddle by one of the caitiffs on each side of her. They were but little disarrayed, save that some felon had torn the bosom of Viridis’ gown, and dragged down the cloth so that her left shoulder was bare.
Arthur looked, and drew at the caitiff who went afoot beside Atra, and Birdalone at him who went by Viridis, for she wotted whitherward Arthur’s shaft would be turned. The loose of the two bows made but one sound; both men fell stark dead, and the others huddled together a moment, and then ran toward the thicket on either hand, and they who ran north, two of them saw not Arthur, because of his green armour, ere they felt the death which lay in his sword. And then he brake out amidst them, and there were three of them on him, yet for no long while, whereas their weapons bit not on the armour of the Faery, and his woodland blade sheared leather and ring-mail to the flesh and the bone: mighty were his strokes, and presently all three were wallowing on the earth.
Even therewith the seven who had passed on had turned back and were come on him a-horse-back; and hard had it gone with him, despite of his might and his valour and the trustiness of Habundia’s mail. But meanwhile Birdalone had run to Viridis, who had fallen a dead weight aside of her horse, and lay half hanging by the bonds of her ankles. Birdalone swiftly cut the cords both of her feet and her hands, and drew her off her horse as best she might, and laid her down on the grass; and then ran to Arthur sword aloft, just as his new battle was at point to begin.
But as she ran it came into her mind in a twinkling that her sword would be but weak, and the horn hung about her neck. Then she stayed her feet, and set the horn to her lips and blew; and the oliphant gave forth a long singing note which was strange to hear. But while it was yet at her lips one of the caitiffs was upon her, and he cried out: Hah the witch, the accursed green witch! and fetched her a great stroke from his saddle, and smote her on the helm; and though his sword bit not on that good head-burg, she fell to the ground unwitting.
Yet was not the wood-wife’s promise unavailing, for even while the voice of the horn was in the air, the way and thickets were alive with men-at-arms, green-clad as those twain, who straightway fell on the caitiffs, and with Arthur to help, left not one of them alive. Then went some to Viridis, and raised her up, and so dealt with her that she came to herself again; and the like they did by Birdalone, and she stood, and looked about confusedly, but yet saw this, that they had gotten the victory. Some went withal to Aurea, and cut her bonds and took her off her horse and set her on the ground; and she was all bewildered, and knew not where she was.
But Arthur, when he saw Birdalone on her feet, and unhurt by seeming, went to Atra, and cut her bonds and loosed her, and set her on the earth, all without a word, and then stood before her shyly. Came the colour back into her face therewith, and she flushed red, for she knew him despite his outlandish green war-harness, and she reached out her hand to him, and he knelt before her and took her hand and kissed it. But she bent over him till her face was anigh his, and he lifted up his face and kissed her mouth. And she drew aback a little, but yet looked on him earnestly, and said: Thou hast saved my life, not from death indeed, but from a loathsome hell; I may well thank thee for that. And O, if my thanks might be fruitful to thee! And her bosom heaved, and the sobs came, and the tears began to run down her cheeks. And he hung his head before her. But in a while she left weeping, and turned about her face and looked round the field of deed; and she said: Who is yonder slim green warrior who hath even now knelt down by Viridis? Is it not a woman? Arthur reddened: Yea, said he; it is Birdalone. Thy love? she said. He said swiftly: Yea, and thy friend, and this time thy deliverer. So it is, she said. It is five years since I beheld her. My heart yearns for her; I shall rejoice at the meeting of us.
She was silent, and he also a while; then she said: But why tarry we here in idle talk when he is yet bound, and in torment of body and soul; he the valiant, and the kind and the dear brother? Come, tarry for no question. And she stepped out swiftly along the green road going westward, and Arthur beside her; and as they went by Viridis, lo! Aurea had wandered unto them, and now was Birdalone unhelmed and kissing and comforting her. Then cried out Atra: Keep up thine heart, Viridis! for now we go to fetch thee thy man safe and sound.
So they went but a little way on the green road ere they came to Sir Hugh bound hard and fast to a tree-bole, and he naked in his shirt, and hard by lay the bodies of two stout carles with their throats cut; for these honest men and the two felons who had betrayed them were all the following wherewith the Green Knight had entered Evilshaw. And as it fell, the traitors had been set to watch while the others slept; and sleeping the caitiffs found them, and slew the said men-at-arms at once, but bound Hugh to a tree that he might be the longer a-dying; since none looked for any but their own folk to pass by that way. All this they heard afterwards of Hugh.
But now the said Hugh heard men going, and he opened his eyes, and saw Atra and a man-at-arms with her; and he cried out: Hah, what is this now, sister? a rescue? Yea, she said, and look thou on the face of the rescuer; and there is another hard by, and she is a woman.
Therewith was Arthur on him and cutting his bonds, and when he was loose they fell into each other’s arms, and Hugh spake: Now then at last doth life begin for me as I willed it! And hast thou my sweet she-fellow, Birdalone, with thee? Yea, said Arthur. How good is that! said Hugh. And yet, if it might but be that Baudoin were yet alive for us to seek! Then he laughed and said: These be but sorry garments wherewith to wend along with dear and fair ladies, brother! Nay, said Arthur, that may soon be amended, for yonder, where sword met sword, lieth raiment abundantly on the grass. Fie on it! said Hugh, laughing; shall I do on me the raiment of those lousy traitors? Not I, by the rood! Thou must seek further for my array, dear lad! So they all laughed, and were glad to laugh together. But Atra said: It is easier even than that, for thine own fair garments and weapons shall we find if we seek them. Sooth to say there was none left to bear them off, save it were this man, or Birdalone his mate.
With that word she looked kindly on Arthur, and again they laughed all three; though forsooth they were well-nigh weeping-ripe; one for joy, and that was Hugh; one for memory of the days gone by; and one for the bitterness of love that should never be rewarded; albeit dear even unto her was the meeting of friends and the glory of forgiveness and the end of enmity.
Now came they back to where were the three others, and Viridis was quite come to herself and ran to meet her man, and he took her in his arms and caressed her sweetly; and then he turned to Birdalone, and spared no sign of friendly love to her; and Arthur, for his part, did so much for Aurea and Viridis. No long tale there was between them for that while, for they would busk them to be gone. But first they dug a grave for those two poor men who had been slain by the felons, and prayed for them. As for the caitiffs who lay slain there, one score and two of them, they left them for the wolves to devour, and the tearing of the kites and crows; nor meddled they with any of their gear or weapons. But they speedily found Hugh’s raiment, and his pouch, wherein was money good store; and they found also rings and ouches and girdles, which had been torn from the damsels in the first rage of their taking.
First though, when they had gathered together such horses as they needed, and let the rest run wild, Birdalone brought her she-friends down into the dale, and did them to bathe in a pool of the stream, and tended them as if she were their tire-woman, so that they were mightily refreshed; and she made garlands for them of the woodland flowers, as eglantine and honeysuckle; and herself, she bathed her, and did not on her battle-gear again, but clad her body in her woman’s array.
Then she brought forth victual and wine from Habundia’s store, and set it out on the stream-side; and thereafter she went up the bent to the green way and fetched down Hugh and Arthur, and brought them to the ladies, and bade them note how trim and lovely they were gotten again, and again it could scarce be but that kisses and caresses were toward; and in all content and love they took their breakfast, though bitter-sweet unto Atra had been the holding of her hand by Arthur and the kissing of her cheek, albeit not for worlds had she foregone it.
So there they abode merrily for some three hours, whereas the day was yet young; and they asked and told each other much, so that the whole tale, both of the seekers from the world and of the seekers from the water-side, came out little by little. Now of the last ye have heard what there is to tell, but for the others Viridis took up the tale, as erst she did with the dealings of the Knights of the Quest in the Isle of Increase Unsought; and it seemed by her tale that Hugh and the ladies, though they were living happily and prosperously in the land of the Green Mountains, wherein Hugh had wealth enow, yet the thought both of Arthur and of Birdalone would not out of their minds, and often it was that they thought of them, not as friends think of friends of whom they are content to know that they are yet alive and most-like thriving, but as friends think of friends whose absence cuts a shard out of their lives, so that they long to see them day by day. Wherefore it came to this at last, after much talk hereof, that Hugh left his possessions and his children (for he had two women-bairns born of Viridis) in the keeping of trusty folk, and took with him Viridis his wife, and Aurea and Atra, and they set out to seek those twain the world over till they should find them. And first by the rede of Atra they fared to Greenford, and there tarried a month, and sought tidings of many, and heard a word here and there whereby they deemed that Birdalone had passed therethrough some little time before. So they went thence to the Castle of the Quest, and found it in such plight as ye have heard, and it went sore to their hearts to behold it and to be there. But therewithal they happed upon Leonard the priest, and he was rejoiced beyond measure to see them, and told them all that ye have heard concerning Birdalone’s coming thither and departing thence; and he told them therewith about those hauntings and sendings in the hall of the castle, and that they came to an end the very day that Birdalone departed thence in the Sending Boat. Yet for the last three days there had been visions therein; but being questioned he was loth to tell thereof, so they forbore him a while.
At these tidings they were sore moved, and they talked the matter over betwixt themselves (and Leonard also was in their redes), and they must needs deem that either Birdalone was cast away, or that she had come to her old dwelling, the House under the Wood, and belike had fallen into the hands of the witch once more, and thereat were they sore downcast; and yet somewhat it was, that they had heard sure tidings of her; though meanwhile of Arthur had they heard nought.
While they talked this over, Atra, who had been somewhat silent, spake and said: Here are we brought to a stop with the first tidings which we have heard, whereas we know no manner of wending the Great Water. This seemeth evil, but let us not be cast down, or die redeless. Ye have heard of what sayeth Sir Leonard of these hauntings in the hall, and how that they have come back again, wherefore why should we not sleep in the hall this night, those of us at least who have not so much fear as not to note them well, to see if we may draw any avail from them? How say ye? For my part I will try the adventure, whatever may come of it.
Now they all yeasaid it, though Aurea was somewhat timorous, albeit she would not be parted from the others; so when night came there they made their beds and lay down; and the end of it was, that a little before midnight Atra waked the others, and did them to wit that by her deeming something was toward; and presently they were all four as wide awake as ever they were in their lives; and next, without any sound that was strange, there came the image of a woman on to the dais, clad in green like to an huntress of ancient days, her feet sandalled, her skirts gathered up into her girdle, so that her legs were naked; she had a quiver at her back, and a great bow in her hand.
Now to all of them save Atra this appearance seemed to be the image of Birdalone; but she told her fellows afterwards, that to her it seemed not to be altogether Birdalone, but rather some other one most like unto her, as it were her twin-sister.
Gazed the image kindly and sweetly on them, so that they beheld it without fear; and it seemed to them that it gave forth speech; yet not so much that the sound of words was in the air about and smote their ears, as that the sense of words reached the minds of them. And this was the tale of it: Ye, who are seeking the lost, have done well to come hither, and now shall ye do well to wend the straightest way to the dwelling of the wildwood, and that is by way of the western verge of Evilshaw the forest. Greenford is on the way. Way-leaders ye shall get; be wise, yet not prudent, and take them, though they be evil, and your luck may well avail.
Therewith the image vanished away as it had come, and Leonard, who with the others took the appearance for an image of Birdalone, said that it was such as he had seen it the three last days. So they lay not down again, but departed for Greenford without tarrying, and rode the other end of the short night through till they came to Greenford. But Leonard would not with them; and Hugh behight him, if he lived and did well, to come back somehow to the Castle of the Quest, and so redo it that it should be no longer desolate. So to Greenford they came, and spared not to do folk to wit that they would ride a pilgrimage in Evilshaw, and were fain of way-leaders; and there they dwelt a day or two, and many would let them of that journey, which, said they, was rather deadly than perilous only. But on the third day came to Sir Hugh two stout carles well weaponed, who said that they knew well all the ways that led to Evilshaw, and the ways that went therethrough, and they offered themselves for a wage to Sir Hugh. Now these said carles were not over fair of favour, but seemed somewhat of ribalds, nor would Sir Hugh have taken them to service in his house at home; but he called to mind that it were more prudence than wisdom to spoil his journey and lose the occasion of finding his dear friends for the hasty judgment of a man’s face and demeanour, wherefore he waged these two men, and they set out for the western edges of Evilshaw.
Many towns and thorps they passed through, and everywhere, when men knew whither they were bound, they letted them all they might in words; but little heed they paid thereto, whereas they were all fixed in their rede that nought was to be done save the finding of their friends, and that their life-days were spoiled if they found them not. And moreover, each one of them, but especially Atra and Viridis, had dreams of the night from time to time, wherein they seemed to see the green-clad woman, were she Birdalone or another, beckoning and bidding them to enter the Wood of Evilshaw.
As to those two way-leaders withal, whether it were that they got used to their faces, or that their ways and manners were nought uncourteous or fierce, they doubted them less and less as time wore; all save Viridis, whose flesh crept when they drew anigh her, as will betide one who comes across an evil-looking creeping thing. As for Atra, she now began to heed little the things about her, as if her heart were wholly set on the end of the journey.
But now at last were they come so far that they had no choice but to use the said way-leaders, for they were gotten to the edge of Evilshaw. So they entered it, and those two led them by half-blind ways and paths amongst the thickets, and fumbled never with the road.
Five days they went thus, and on the fifth evening they lay down to sleep in the wood, and it was the turn of those two hirelings to keep watch and ward, and they woke not the next morn save with the hands of the Red Felons at their throats, so that Hugh was bound, and his two trusty men who came with him from the Green Mountains were slain before a stroke might be struck.
This was the end of Viridis’ tale, save that she told how that it was she that had uttered those two shrieks which Arthur and Birdalone had heard from the thicket; and that she had so done when the two false way-leaders laid hold of her to drag her away from her man, who stood there before her bound to a tree that he might perish there, whereon the two caitiffs had smitten her into unwit that they might have no more of her cries.
Now when all this had been told, and they had abided awhile in the fair little dale, and had said many kind endearing words of friendship, they went up on the green way again, and took what of the horses they needed and trussed their goods thereon (and Birdalone would not leave that brave armour which Habundia had given her), and they dight others for their home-riding, and the rest they turned loose into the woods, and so rode their ways, Birdalone going ever with Atra, and Arthur by Aurea; but Viridis must needs have Hugh within reach of her hand all the way.
Good speed they made, so that ere the night had fallen on them, though the sun was set, they ‘had come to the House under the Wood; and there again was joy and wondering of the new-comers, and merry feasting on such simple victuals as were there, and good-night and rest in all contentment in the house where erst had Birdalone tholed so many griefs and fears.
Here ends the Sixth Part of the Water of the Wondrous Isles, which is called The Days of Absence, and begins the Seventh Part, which is called The Days of Returning.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53