CHAPTER XI ~ AND NOEW SHE COMES TO THE ISLE OF THE KINGS
When Birdalone came to herself it was drawing toward the glooming, and she rose up hastily, and went down to the Sending Boat, for she would not for aught abide the night in that fearful isle, lest the flock of the hall should come alive and walk in the dusk and the dark. She stepped aboard lightly, and yielded her blood to the pride of that ferry, and it awoke and bore her forth, and she went through the night till she fell asleep.
When she awoke it was broad day and the sun just arising, and lo! before her, some half mile off, an isle rugged and rocky, and going up steep from the shore; and then, held as it were by the fangs of the rocks and pikes of the higher land, was a castle, white, high, and hugely builded, though, because of the rock-land belike, it spread not much abroad. Like to the lovely house of yesterday, it seemed new-builded; and, little as Birdalone knew of such matters, her heart told her that this new house was fashioned for battle.
She was downcast when she saw the isle so rugged and forbidding, but when the boat came aland in a stony bight, whence the ground went up somewhat steeply toward the heights, she went ashore straightway, and toiled up toward the white battlement. Presently she found herself in a strait and rugged path betwixt two walls of rock, so that she lost sight of the castle a while, till she came out on to a level place which looked down from aloft on to the blue water, but all over against her close at hand were the great towers and walls. She was worn by the rough road, and over helpless she felt her, and all too little to deal with that huge morsel of the world; and her valiancy gave way, and her trust in her errand. She sat down on a stone and wept abundantly.
After a while she was amended, and she looked up and saw the huge hold, and said: Yea, but if it were less by the half than it is, it would still be big enough to cow me. Yet she stood not up. Then she put forth a foot of her, and said aloud: Sorely hath this rough road tried Atra’s shoon and their goodly window-work; if they are to be known I must be speedy on my journey or go barefoot.
As she spoke she stood up, and the sound of her own voice frighted her, though nought noiseless was the place; for the wind was there, and beat to and fro the castle and the rock, and ran baffled into every corner of that market-place of nothing. For in that garth was neither knight nor squire nor sergeant; no spear-head glittered from the wall, no gleam of helm showed from the war-swales; no porter was at the gate; the drawbridge over the deep ghyll was down, the portcullis was up, and the great door cast wide open.
Birdalone steeled her heart and went forward swiftly, and over the bridge, and entered the basecourt, and came without more ado to the door of the great hall, and opened it easily, as with the door of yesterday, looking to find another show like unto that one; and even so it fell out.
Forsooth the hall was nought light and lovely, and gay with gold and bright colours, as that other, but beset with huge round pillars that bore aloft a wide vault of stone, and of stone were the tables; and the hallings that hung on the wall were terrible pictures of battle and death, and the fall of cities, and towers a-tumbling and houses a-flaming.
None the less there also were the shapes of folk that moved not nor spake, though not so thronged was that hall as the other one; and it seemed as if men were sitting there at a council rather than a feast. Close by Birdalone’s right hand as she entered were standing in a row along the screen big men-at-arms all weaponed, and their faces hidden by their sallets; and down below the dais on either side of the high table was again a throng of all-armed men; and at the high-table itself; and looking down the hall, sat three crowned kings, each with his drawn sword lying across his knees, and three long-hoary wise men stood before them at the nether side of the board.
Birdalone looked on it all, striving with her fear: but yet more there was, for she deemed that needs must she go through the hall up to the dais, lest the Sending Boat deny its obedience. Up toward the dais she went then, passing by weaponed men who sat as if abiding the council’s end at the end-long tables. And now, though no shape of man there spake or breathed, yet sound lacked not; for within the hall went the wind as without, and beat about from wall to wall, and drave clang and clash from the weapons hung up, and waved the arras, and fared moaning in the nooks, and hummed in the vault above.
Came she up to the dais then, and stood beside one of the wise men, and looked on the kings, and saw the mightiness which had been in them, and quaked before them. Then she turned from them and looked down to the floor, and lo! there, just below the dais, lay a woman on a golden bier; exceeding fair had she been, with long yellow hair streaming down from her head; but now waxen white she was, with ashen lips and sunken cheeks. Clad was she in raiment of purple and pall, but the bosom of her was bared on one side, and therein was the road whereby the steel had fared which had been her bane.
Now when Birdalone had gazed thereon a while, she deemed that if she tarried there long amidst those fierce men by the dead woman, she should lose her wit full soon, so sore the fear, held back, beset her now. Wherefore she turned and went hastily down the hall, and out-a-doors, and over the bridge, and ran fleet-foot down the rocky way whereby she had come, till she could run no further, and lay down under a great stone breathless and fordone; yet her heart upheld her and suffered her not to swoon, belike because she had given her limbs such hard work to do.
There she lay awake and troubled for an hour or more, and then she fell asleep, and slept till the day was worn toward sunset, and nought meddled with her. She arose and went to her ship somewhat downhearted, wondering how many such terrors should befall her; nay, whether the Sending Boat would so lead her that henceforth she should happen on no children of Adam but such as were dead images of the living. Had all the world died since she left the Isle of the Young and the Old?
Howsoever, she had nought to do save to board her ferry, and content its greedy soul with her blood, and drive it with the spell-words. And thereafter, when it was speeding on, and the twilight dusking apace, she looked aback, and seemed to see the far-off woodland in the northern ort, and the oak-clad ridge, where she had met her wood-mother; and then it was as if Habundia were saying to her: Meet again we shall. And therewith straightway became life sweeter unto her.
Deepened then the dusk, and became night, and she floated on through it, and was asleep alone on the bosom of the water.