The Story of the Glittering Plain - Chapter 9
THEY COME TO THE LAND OF THE GLITTERING PLAIN
As in the hall, so in the ship, Hallblithe noted that the folk were merry and of many words one with another, while to him no man cast a word save the Grandfather. As to Hallblithe, though he wondered much what all this betokened, and what the land was whereto he was wending, he was no man to fear an unboded peril; and he said to himself that whatever else betid, he should meet the Hostage on the Glittering Plain; so his heart rose and he was of good cheer, and as the Grandfather had foretold, he was a merry faring-fellow to him. Many a gibe the old man cast at him, and whiles Hallblithe gave him back as good as he took, and whiles he laughed as the stroke went home and silenced him; and whiles he understood nought of what the elder said. So wore the day and still the wind held fair, though it was light; and the sun set in a sky nigh cloudless, and there was nowhere any forecast of peril. But when night was come, Hallblithe lay down on a fair bed, which was dight for him in the poop, and he soon fell asleep and dreamed not save such dreams as are but made up of bygone memories, and betoken nought, and are not remembered.
When he awoke, day lay broad on the sea, and the waves were little, the sky had but few clouds, the sun shone bright, and the air was warm and sweet-breathed.
He looked aside and saw the old man sitting up in his bed, as ghastly as a dead man dug up again: his bushy eyebrows were wrinkled over his bleared old eyes, the long white hair dangled forlorn from his gaunt head: yet was his face smiling and he looked as happy as the soul within him could make the half-dead body. He turned now to Hallblithe and said:
“Thou art late awake: hadst thou been waking earlier, the sooner had thine heart been gladdened. Go forward now, and gaze thy fill and come and tell me thereof.”
“Thou art happy, Grandfather,” said Hallblithe, “what good tidings hath morn brought us?”
“The Land! the Land!” said the Long-hoary; “there are no longer tears in this old body, else should I be weeping for joy.”
Said Hallblithe: “Art thou going to meet some one who shall make thee glad before thou diest, old man?”
“Some one?” said the elder; “what one? Are they not all gone? burned, and drowned, and slain and died abed? Some one, young man? Yea, forsooth some one indeed! Yea, the great warrior of the Wasters of the Shore; the Sea-eagle who bore the sword and the torch and the terror of the Ravagers over the coal-blue sea. It is myself, MYSELF that I shall find on the Land of the Glittering Plain, O young lover!”
Hallblithe looked on him wondering as he raised his wasted arms towards the bows of the ship pitching down the slope of the sunlit sea, or climbing up it. Then again the old man fell back on his bed and muttered: “What fool’s work is this! that thou wilt draw me on to talk loud, and waste my body with lack of patience. I will talk with thee no more, lest my heart swell and break, and quench the little spark of life within me.”
Then Hallblithe arose to his feet, and stood looking at him, wondering so much at his words, that for a while he forgat the land which they were nearing, though he had caught glimpses of it, as the bows of the round-ship fell downward into the hollow of the sea. The wind was but light, as hath been said, and the waves little under it, but there was still a smooth swell of the sea which came of breezes now dead, and the ship wallowed thereon and sailed but slowly.
In a while the old man opened his eyes again, and said in a low peevish voice: “Why standest thou staring at me? why hast thou not gone forward to look upon the land? True it is that ye Ravens are short of wits.”
Said Hallblithe: “Be not wrath, chieftain; I was wondering at thy words, which are exceeding marvellous; tell me more of this land of the Glittering Plain.”
Said the Grandfather: “Why should I tell it thee? ask of the mariners. They all know more than thou dost.”
“Thou knowest,” said Hallblithe, “that these men speak not to me, and take no more heed of me than if I were an image which they were carrying to sell to the next mighty man they may hap on. Or tell me, thou old man,” said he fiercely, “is it perchance a thrall-market whereto they are bringing me? Have they sold her there, and will they sell me also in the same place, but into other hands.”
“Tush!” said the Grandfather somewhat feebly, “this last word of thine is folly; there is no buying or selling in the land whereto we are bound. As to thine other word, that these men have no fellowship with thee, it is true: thou art my fellow and the fellow of none else aboard. Therefore if I feel might in me, maybe I will tell thee somewhat.”
Then he raised his head a little and said: “The sun grows hot, the wind faileth us, and slow and slow are we sailing.”
Even as he spoke there was a stir amidships, and Hallblithe looked and beheld the mariners handling the sweeps, and settling themselves on the rowing-benches. Said the elder: “There is noise amidships, what are they doing?”
The old man raised himself a little again, and cried out in his shrill voice: “Good lads! brave lads! Thus would we do in the old time when we drew anear some shore, and the beacons were sending up smoke by day, and flame benights; and the shore-abiders did on their helms and trembled. Thrust her through, lads! Thrust her along!” Then he fell back again, and said in a weak voice: “Make no more delay, guest, but go forward and look upon the land, and come back and tell me thereof, and then the tale may flow from me. Haste, haste!” So Hallblithe went down from the poop, and in to the waist, where now the rowers were bending to their oars, and crying out fiercely as they tugged at the quivering ash; and he clomb on to the forecastle and went forward right to the dragon-head, and gazed long upon the land, while the dashing of the oar-blades made the semblance of a gale about the ship’s black sides. Then he came back again to the Sea-eagle, who said to him: “Son, what hast thou seen?”
“Right ahead lieth the land, and it is still a good way off. High rise the mountains there, but by seeming there is no snow on them; and though they be blue they are not blue like the mountains of the Isle of Ransom. Also it seemed to me as if fair slopes of woodland and meadow come down to the edge of the sea. But it is yet far away.”
“Yea,” said the elder, “is it so? Then will I not wear myself with making words for thee. I will rest rather, and gather might. Come again when an hour hath worn, and tell me what thou seest; and may happen then thou shalt have my tale!” And he laid him down therewith and seemed to be asleep at once. And Hallblithe might not amend it; so he waited patiently till the hour had worn, and then went forward again, and looked long and carefully, and came back and said to the Sea-eagle, “The hour is worn.”
The old chieftain turned himself about and said “What hast thou seen?
Said Hallblithe: “The mountains are pale and high, and below them are hills dark with wood, and betwixt them and the sea is a fair space of meadowland, and methought it was wide.”
Said the old man: “Sawest thou a rocky skerry rising high out of the sea anigh the shore?”
“Nay,” said Hallblithe, “if there be, it is all blended with the meadows and the hills.”
Said the Sea-eagle: “Abide the wearing of another hour, and come and tell me again, and then I may have a gainful word for thee.” And he fell asleep again. But Hallblithe abided, and when the hour was worn, he went forward and stood on the forecastle. And this was the third shift of the rowers, and the stoutest men in the ship now held the oars in their hands, and the ship shook through all her length and breadth as they drave her over the waters.
So Hallblithe came aft to the old man and found him asleep; so he took him by the shoulder, and shook him and said: “Awake, faring-fellow, for the land is a-nigh.”
So the old man sat up and said: “What hast thou seen?”
Said Hallblithe: “I have seen the peaks and cliffs of the far-off mountains; and below them are hills green with grass and dark with woods, and thence stretch soft green meadows down to the sea-strand, which is fair and smooth, and yellow.”
“Sawest thou the skerry?” said the Sea-eagle.
“Yea, I saw it,” said Hallblithe, “and it rises sheer from out the sea about a mile from the yellow strand; but its rocks are black, like the rocks of the Isle of Ransom.”
“Son,” said the elder, “give me thine hands and raise me up a little.” So Hallblithe took him and raised him up, so that he sat leaning against the pillows; and he looked not on Hallblithe, but on the bows of the ship, which now pitched but a little up and down, for the sea was laid quiet now. Then he cried in his shrill, piping voice: “It is the Land! It is the Land!”
But after a little while he turned to Hallblithe and spake: “Short is the tale to tell: thou hast wished me youth, and thy wish hath thriven; for to-day, ere the sun goes down, thou shalt see me as I was in the days when I reaped the harvest of the sea with sharp sword and hardy heart. For this is the land of the Undying King, who is our lord and our gift-giver; and to some he giveth the gift of youth renewed, and life that shall abide here the Gloom of the Gods. But none of us all may come to the Glittering Plain and the King Undying without turning the back for the last time on the Isle of Ransom: nor may any men of the Isle come hither save those who are of the House of the Sea-eagle, and few of those, save the chieftains of the House, such as are they who sat by thee on the high-seat that even. Of these once in a while is chosen one of us, who is old and spent and past battle, and is borne to this land and the gift of the Undying. Forsooth some of us have no will to take the gift, for they say they are liefer to go to where they shall meet more of our kindred than dwell on the Glittering Plain and the Acre of the Undying; but as for me I was ever an overbearing and masterful man, and meseemeth it is well that I meet as few of our kindred as may be: for they are a strifeful race.”
Hereat Hallblithe marvelled exceedingly, and he said: “And what am I in all this story? Why am I come hither with thy furtherance?”
Said the Sea-eagle: “We had a charge from the Undying King concerning thee, that we should bring thee hither alive and well, if so be thou camest to the Isle of Ransom. For what cause we had the charge, I know not, nor do I greatly heed.”
Said Hallblithe: “And shall I also have that gift of undying youth, and life while the world of men and gods endureth?”
“I must needs deem so,” said the Sea-eagle, “so long as thou abidest on the Glittering Plain; and I see not how thou mayst ever escape thence.”
Now Hallblithe heard him, how he said “escape,” and thereat he was somewhat ill at ease, and stood and pondered a little. At last he said: “Is this then all that thou hast to tell me concerning the Glittering Plain?”
“By the Treasure of the Sea!” said the elder, “I know no more of it. The living shall learn. But I suppose that thou mayst seek thy troth-plight maiden there all thou wilt. Or thou mayst pray the Undying King to have her thither to thee. What know I? At least, it is like that there shall be no lack of fair women there: or else the promise of youth renewed is nought and vain. Shall this not be enough for thee?”
“Nay,” said Hallblithe.
“What,” said the elder, “must it be one woman only?”
“One only,” said Hallblithe.
The old man laughed his thin mocking laugh, and said: “I will not assure thee but that the land of the Glittering Plain shall change all that for thee so soon as it touches the soles of thy feet.”
Hallblithe looked at him steadily and smiled, and said: “Well is it then that I shall find the Hostage there; for then shall we be of one mind, either to sunder or to cleave together. It is well with me this day.”
“And with me it shall be well ere long,” said the Sea-eagle.
But now the rowers ceased rowing and lay on their oars, and the shipmen cast anchor; for they were but a bowshot from the shore, and the ship swung with the tide and lay side-long to the shore. Then said the Sea-eagle: “Look forth, shipmate, and tell me of the land.”
And Hallblithe looked and said: “The yellow beach is sandy and shell-strewn, as I deem, and there is no great space of it betwixt the sea and the flowery grass; and a bowshot from the strand I see a little wood amidst which are fair trees blossoming.”
“Seest thou any folk on the shore?” said the old man. “Yea,” said Hallblithe, “close to the edge of the sea go four; and by seeming three are women, for their long gowns flutter in the wind. And one of these is clad in saffron colour, and another in white, and another in watchet; but the carle is clad in dark red; and their raiment is all glistening as with gold and gems; and by seeming they are looking at our ship as though they expected somewhat.”
Said the Sea-eagle: “Why now do the shipmen tarry and have not made ready the skiff? Swillers and belly-gods they be; slothful swine that forget their chieftain.”
But even as he spake came four of the shipmen, and without more ado took him up, bed and all, and bore him down into the waist of the ship, whereunder lay the skiff with four strong rowers lying on their oars. These men made no sign to Hallblithe, nor took any heed of him; but he caught up his spear, and followed them and stood by as they lowered the old man into the boat. Then he set his foot on the gunwale of the ship and leapt down lightly into the boat, and none hindered or helped him; and he stood upright in the boat, a goodly image of battle with the sun flashing back from his bright helm, his spear in his hand, his white shield at his back, and thereon the image of the Raven; but if he had been but a salt-boiling carle of the sea-side none would have heeded him less.