The Story of the Glittering Plain - Chapter 6
OF A DWELLING OF MAN ON THE ISLE OF RANSOM
When he awoke again the sun shone on him, and the morning was calm and windless. He sat up and looked about him, but could see no signs of Fox save the lair wherein he had lain. So he arose to his feet and sought for him about the crannies of the rocks, and found him not; and he shouted for him, and had no answer. Then he said, “Belike he has gone down to the boat to put a thing in, or take a thing out.” So he went his ways to the stair down into the water-cave, and he called on Fox from the top of the stair, and had no answer.
So he went down that long stair with a misgiving in his heart, and when he came to the last step there was neither man nor boat, nor aught else save the water and the living rock. Then was he exceeding wroth, for he knew that he had been beguiled, and he was in an evil case, left alone on an Isle that he knew not, a waste and desolate land, where it seemed most like he should die of famine.
He wasted no breath or might now in crying out for Fox, or seeking him; for he said to himself: “I might well have known that he was false and a liar, whereas he could scarce refrain his joy at my folly and his guile. Now is it for me to strive for life against death.”
Then he turned and went slowly up the stair, and came out on to the open face of that Isle, and he saw that it was waste indeed, and dreadful: a wilderness of black sand and stones and ice-borne rocks, with here and there a little grass growing in the hollows, and here and there a dreary mire where the white-tufted rushes shook in the wind, and here and there stretches of moss blended with red-blossomed sengreen; and otherwhere nought but the wind-bitten creeping willow clinging to the black sand, with a white bleached stick and a leaf or two, and again a stick and a leaf. In the offing looking landward were great mountains, some very great and snow-capped, some bare to the tops; and all that was far away, save the snow, was deep-blue in the sunny morning. But about him on the heath were scattered rocks like the reef beneath which he had slept the last night, and peaks, and hammers, and knolls of uncouth shapes.
Then he went to the edge of the cliffs and looked down on the sea which lay wrinkled and rippling on toward the shore far below him, and long he gazed thereon and all about, but could see neither ship nor sail, nor aught else save the washing of waves and the hovering of sea fowl.
Then he said: “Were it not well if I were to seek that house-master of whom Fox spake? Might he not flit me at least to the Land of the Glittering Plain? Woe is me! now am I of that woful company, and I also must needs cry out, Where is the land? Where is the land?”
Therewith he turned toward the reef above their lair, but as he went he thought and said: “Nay, but was not this Stead a lie like the rest of Fox’s tale? and am I not alone in this sea-girt wilderness? Yea, and even that image of my Beloved which I saw in the dream, perchance that also was a mere beguiling; for now I see that the Puny Fox was in all ways wiser than is meet and comely.” Yet again he said: “At least I will seek on, and find out whether there be another man dwelling on this hapless Isle, and then the worst of it will be battle with him, and death by point and edge rather than by hunger; or at the best we may become friends and fellows and deliver each other.” Therewith he came to the reef, and with much ado climbed to the topmost of its rocks and looked down thence landward: and betwixt him and the mountains, and by seeming not very far off, he saw smoke arising: but no house he saw, nor any other token of a dwelling. So he came down from the stone and turned his back upon the sea and went toward that smoke with his sword in its sheath, and his spear over his shoulder. Rough and toilsome was the way: three little dales he crossed amidst the mountain necks, each one narrow and bare, with a stream of water amidst, running seaward, and whether in dale or on ridge, he went ever amidst sand and stones, and the weeds of the wilderness, and saw no man, or man-tended beast.
At last, after he had been four hours on the way, but had not gone very far, he topped a stony bent, and from the brow thereof beheld a wide valley grass-grown for the more part, with a river running through it, and sheep and kine and horses feeding up and down it. And amidst this dale by the stream-side, was a dwelling of men, a long hall and other houses about it builded of stone.
Then was Hallblithe glad, and he strode down the bent speedily, his war-gear clashing upon him: and as he came to the foot thereof and on to the grass of the dale, he got amongst the pasturing horses, and passed close by the horse-herd and a woman that was with him. They scowled at him as he went by, but meddled not with him in any way. Although they were giant-like of stature and fierce of face, they were not ill-favoured: they were red-haired, and the woman as white as cream where the sun had not burned her skin; they had no weapons that Hallblithe might see save the goad in the hand of the carle.
So Hallblithe passed on and came to the biggest house, the hall aforesaid: it was very long, and low as for its length, not over shapely of fashion, a mere gabled heap of stones. Low and strait was the door thereinto, and as Hallblithe entered stooping lowly, and the fire of the steel of his spear that he held before him was quenched in the mirk of the hall, he smiled and said to himself: “Now if there were one anigh who would not have me enter alive, and he with a weapon in his hand, soon were all the tale told.” But he got into the hall unsmitten, and stood on the floor thereof, and spake: “The sele of the day to whomsoever is herein! Will any man speak to the new comer?”
But none answered or gave him greeting; and as his eyes got used to the dusk of the hall, he looked about him, and neither on the floor or the high seat nor in any ingle could he see a man; and there was silence there, save for the crackling of the flickering flame on the hearth amidmost, and the running of the rats behind the panelling of the walls.
On one side of the hall was a row of shut-beds, and Hallblithe deemed that there might be men therein; but since none had greeted him he refrained him from searching them for fear of a trap, and he thought, “I will abide amidst the floor, and if there be any that would deal with me, friend or foe, let him come hither to me.”
So he fell to walking up and down the hall from buttery to dais, and his war-gear rattled upon him. At last as he walked he thought he heard a small thin peevish voice, which yet was too husky for the squeak of a rat. So he stayed his walk and stood still, and said: “Will any man speak to Hallblithe, a newcomer, and a stranger in this Stead?”
Then that small voice made a word and said: “Why paceth the fool up and down our hall, doing nothing, even as the Ravens flap croaking about the crags, abiding the war-mote and the clash of the fallow blades?”
Said Hallblithe, and his voice sounded big in the hall: “Who calleth Hallblithe a fool and mocketh at the sons of the Raven?”
Spake the voice: “Why cometh not the fool to the man that may not go to him?”
Then Hallblithe bent forward to hearken, and he deemed that the voice came from one of the shut-beds, so he leaned his spear against a pillar, and went into the shut-bed he had noted, and saw where there lay along in it a man exceeding old by seeming, sore wasted, with long hair as white as snow lying over the bed-clothes.
When the elder saw Hallblithe, he laughed a thin cracked laugh as if in mockery and said: “Hail newcomer! wilt thou eat?”
“Yea,” said Hallblithe.
“Go thou into the buttery then,” said the old carle, “and there shalt thou find on the cupboard cakes and curds and cheese: eat thy fill, and when thou hast done, look in the ingle, and thou shalt see a cask of mead exceeding good, and a stoup thereby, and two silver cups; fill the stoup and bring it hither with the cups; and then may we talk amidst of drinking, which is good for an old carle. Hasten thou! or I shall deem thee a double fool who will not fare to fetch his meat, though he be hungry.”
Then Hallblithe laughed, and went down the hall into the buttery and found the meat, and ate his fill, and came away with the drink back to the Long-hoary man, who chuckled as he came and said: “Fill up now for thee and for me, and call a health to me and wish me somewhat.”
“I wish thee luck,” said Hallblithe, and drank. Said the elder: “And I wish thee more wits; is luck all that thou mayst wish me? What luck may an outworn elder have?”
“Well then,” quoth Hallblithe, “what shall I wish thee? Wouldst thou have me wish thee youth?”
“Yea, certes,” said the Long-hoary, “that and nought else.”
“Youth then I wish thee, if it may avail thee aught,” said Hallblithe, and he drank again therewith.
“Nay, nay,” said the old carle peevishly, “take a third cup, and wish me youth with no idle words tacked thereto.”
Said Hallblithe raising the cup: “Herewith I wish thee youth!” and he drank.
“Good is the wish,” said the elder; “now ask thou the old carle whatso thou wilt.”
Said Hallblithe: “What is this land called?”
“Son,” said the other, “hast thou heard it called the Isle of Ransom?”
“Yea,” said Hallblithe, “but what wilt thou call it?”
“By no other name,” said the hoary carle.
“It is far from other lands?” said Hallblithe.
“Yea,” said the carle, “when the light winds blow, and the ships sail slow.”
“What do ye who live here?” said Hallblithe. “How do ye live, what work win ye?”
“We win diverse work,” said the elder, “but the gainfullest is robbing men by the high hand.”
“Is it ye who have stolen from me the Hostage of the Rose?” said Hallblithe.
Said the Long-hoary, “Maybe; I wot not; in diverse ways my kinsmen traffic, and they visit many lands. Why should they not have come to Cleveland also?”
“Is she in this Isle, thou old runagate?” said Hallblithe.
“She is not, thou young fool,” said the elder. Then Hallblithe flushed red and spake: “Knowest thou the Puny Fox?”
“How should I not?” said the carle, “since he is the son of one of my sons.”
“Dost thou call him a liar and a rogue?” said Hallblithe.
The elder laughed; “Else were I a fool,” said he; “there are few bigger liars or bigger rogues than the Puny Fox!”
“Is he here in this Isle?” said Hallblithe; “may I see him?”
The old man laughed again, and said: “Nay, he is not here, unless he hath turned fool since yesterday: why should he abide thy sword, since he hath done what he would and brought thee hither?”
Then he laughed, as a hen cackles a long while, and then said: “What more wilt thou ask me?”
But Hallblithe was very wroth: “It availeth nought to ask,” he said; “and now I am in two minds whether I shall slay thee or not.”
“That were a meet deed for a Raven, but not for a man,” said the carle, “and thou that hast wished me luck! Ask, ask!”
But Hallblithe was silent a long while. Then the carle said, “Another cup for the longer after youth!”
Hallblithe filled, and gave to him, and the old man drank and said: “Thou deemest us all liars in the Isle of Ransom because of thy beguiling by the Puny Fox: but therein thou errest. The Puny Fox is our chiefest liar, and doth for us the more part of such work as we need: therefore, why should we others lie. Ask, ask!”
“Well then,” said Hallblithe, “why did the Puny Fox bewray me, and at whose bidding?”
Said the elder: “I know, but I will not tell thee. Is this a lie?”
“Nay, I deem it not,” said Hallblithe: “But, tell me, is it verily true that my trothplight is not here, that I may ransom her?”
Said the Long-hoary: “I swear it by the Treasure of the Sea, that she is not here: the tale was but a lie of the Puny Fox.”