CHAPTER VI ~ ATRA TELLS OF HOW THEY THREE CAME UNTO THE ISLE OF INCREASE UNSOUGHT
We were born and bred in the land that lies south-west along this Great Water, and we waxed happily, and became fellows when we were yet but children, and thus grew up dear friends into maidenhood and womanhood. We were wooed by many men, but our hearts turned to none of them save unto three, who were goodly, kind, and valiant; and thou mayst call them the Golden Knight, who is Aurea’s man; the Green Knight, who is man of Viridis; and my man, the Black Squire. But in this was unhap, that because of certain feuds which had endured from old time, this love was perilous unto them and us; so that we lived in doubt and unrest.
Came a day, now three years ago, when the king of the whole land brought his folk into our lakeside country, and there held a court and a mote in a fair great meadow anigh to the water. But even as the mote was hallowed, and the Peace of God proclaimed at the blast of the war-horn, came we three woeful ladies clad in black and knelt before the lord king, and prayed him hearken us. And he deemed that we were fair, so he had compassion on us, and raised us up, and bade us speak.
So we told our tale, how that strife and wounds and death stood betwixt us and love; and we wept, and bewailed it, that our love must be slain because men were wroth with each other and not with us.
The king looked on us kindly, and said: Who be the swains for whom these lovely damsels make such a piece of work? So we named them, and said that they were there in the mote; and the king knew them for valiant men who had done him good service; and he cried out their names, and bade them stand forth out of the throng. So forth they stood, the Golden Knight, the Green Knight, and the Black Squire (and he also was now a knight); but now were they all three clad in black, and they were unarmed, save for their swords girt to their sides, without which no man amongst us may come to the mote, be he baron or earl or duke, or the very lord king himself.
So the king looked upon us and them, and laughed and said: Fair ladies, ye have got me by the nose, so needs must my body follow. Do ye three knights, whom I know for valiant men and true, take each his love by the hand, and let the weddings be tomorrow. Who then were joyful but us? But even at the word the king spake arose great turmoil in the mote, for they smote the feud and contention awake, and men thronged forward against each other, and swords were drawn and brandished. But the king arose in his place and spake long and deftly, and waxed exceeding wroth, while none heeded him nor hearkened. And there stood our three men, who laid no hand to hilt, but abode heart-whole by seeming amid the tumult. And lovely they were to look on. At last the wise men and old barons went between, and by fair words appeased the trouble, and the mote grew hushed. Then spake the king: What is this, my thanes? I had deemed that my foemen were far away, and that ye that here are were all friends unto me and unto each other. But now must we try another rede. Therewith he turned unto our men and said: Ye champions, are ye so much in love with Love that ye will fight for him? They all yeasaid that, and then the king said: Then do I declare that these three will hold the field against all comers from matins till high noon, and that he who vanquisheth any one of them shall have his lady and wed her if he will, and, if he will, shall ransom her. And this field shall be foughten after two months’ frist in these fair meadows, when I return from the outermost marches of the south, whereto I am now wending. But when the battle is done, then let all men bow to the judgment of God, whether he be well content or not, and this on peril of life and limb. And now let there be deep peace between all men meanwhile; and if any break the peace, be he high or low, rich or unrich, churl or earl, I swear it by the souls of my fathers that he shall lose nought save his life therefor.
At these words was there a rumour of yeasay, and all men were content, save we three poor maidens, into whose hearts had now entered fear of loss and death.
But our kindreds on both sides were glad and proud, and they were not so bitter against us as they had been; they put hand to pouch, and let rear for us a fair pavilion of painted timber, all hung with silk and pictured cloths and Saracen tapestry, by the very lake-side; and gay boats gaily bedight lay off the said pavilion for our pleasure; and when all was done, it yet lacked a half month of the day of battle, and thither were we brought in triumph by the kindreds on a fair day of May, and there was not a sword or a spear amongst the whole company, and peaceful and merry was all by seeming. But we were not suffered to meet our lovers all this while, from the time when the mote was.
Now on a day came a messenger on the spur, and did us to wit that the king would be with us on the morrow, and that the day after, the fateful field should be foughten. Then, though the coming of this day had been so longed for by us, yet now it was at hand it cast us into all unrest and trouble, so that we scarce knew whether to go, or stand, or sit, or what to do with our bodies. Our folk, and all other men withal, were so busy making ready for the morrow of tomorrow, that they left us alone to wear through the day as we might.
Now it was afternoon, and the day hot and hazy, and we stood on the very lip of the land wearied with hope and fear, and striving to keep good countenance to each other; and there came a boat unto the shore gaily painted and gilded, and bedight with silken cloths and cushions; and the steerer thereof was a woman, not young, by seeming of fifty winters; red-haired she was, thin-lipped and narrow-eyed, flat-breasted and strait-hipped; an ungoodly woman, though her skin was white and smooth as for her age. Hast thou ever seen such an one, guest? Said Birdalone, smiling: Forsooth that have I; for such an one is my mistress to behold.
Well, said Atra, this dame stretched out her hands to us, and said: Will not the pretty ladies, the dear ladies, who have nought on hand this afternoon, come into my boat and look on the face of the water, so calm and fair as it is, and let their lovely hands go over the gunwale and play with the ripple, and so beguile this heavy time for a two hours; and then give a little gift of a piece or two of silver to a poor carline, who loveth all fair ladies and bright warriors, and who needeth a little livelihood?
Now the woman seemed nought lovely unto us, and to me forsooth she seemed hateful; but we looked on each other, and we found that we were utterly weary of going up and down on the meadow, and lying about in the pavilion, and it seemed as if this would give us a little rest; withal we saw not that the woman could do us any hurt, whereas we were three, and strong enough as women go; nor were we mariners so evil but that we might sail or steer a boat at a pinch. So we stepped into the boat straightway, and the woman sat aft and paddled deftly with the steering oar, and we glided away from the land.
Soon we were come so far that we could but just see our pavilion through the haze, which had somewhat thickened, and we said to the woman that she should go about and make for the shore, and that then we would go to and fro a while along by our stead. She nodded yeasay, and began by seeming to dight the craft for return. But therewith the haze was grown suddenly into a low cloud, which came down upon us from the south-west in the arms of a cold breeze, that grew stronger every minute, so no wonder it was though the steerer might not keep head to wind; and then who was afraid and ashamed save ourselves?
But the woman said, and there seemed to be a mock in her voice: Ill luck, pretty ladies! Now is there nought for it but to drive, if we would not drown. But belike this duskiness will clear presently, and then at least we shall know whither we be going; and we may either turn back, or seek some other shelter, for I know the lake well; I know, I know.
We were too terror-stricken to speak, for we felt that still the wind grew stronger, and the lake began to rise into waves, and the craft to wallow; but well-nigh therewith was the dusk and the mist gone; the sky was bright blue overhead, and the westering sun shone cloudless; but on no land it shone, or on aught save the blue waters and the white wave-crests.
Then wept Aurea, and this Viridis here, but as to me, I grew wroth and cried out to the steerer: Accursed carline! thou hast betrayed us; never now may we get back to our pavilion till the fight is foughten, and our lovers will deem that we have forsaken them, and we are shamed for ever. Well, well, said the carline, what remedy save patience for the winds and waves? And she laughed mockingly. Quoth I: There is this remedy, that we three arise and lay hands on thee, and cast thee outboard, save thou straightway turn the boat’s head and back to the main. Forsooth I doubt not but that as thou hast raised this foul wind against us, thou canst raise a fair wind for us.
Hearken to the lovely lady! quoth the carline, how she deemeth me to be none other than the great God himself, to hold the winds in the hollow of my hand, and still the waves with a word! What! am I wrought somewhat after his image, kind ladies? And she grinned horribly therewith. Then she said again: As to thy remedy, sweetling, meseemeth it nought. For how shall ye sail this stormy water when your captain is gone, and ye but holiday sailors belike?
As she spake, a great wave came up from the windward, and brake over us, and half filled the craft, and lifted her bows up towering, and then down we went into the trough; and I sat cowed and quaking, and spake never another word.
Now began the sun to sink, and the wind abated, and the sea went down, but the boat sped on as swift as ever over the landless waters.
Now the sun was down, and dusk was at hand, and the carline spake, and drew a bright-gleaming sax from under her raiment: Damsels, I warn you that now it were best that ye obey me in all things; for though ye be three and I one, yet whereas I have here an edge-friend, I may take the life of any one of you, or of all three, as simply as I could cut a lamb’s throat. Moreover it will serve you better in the house whereto ye are wending, that I make a good tale of you rather than a bad. For the mistress of that house is of all might; and I must say it of her, though she is my very sister, yet she is not so sweet-tempered and kind of heart as I am, but somewhat rough and unyielding of mood, so that it is best to please her. Wherefore, maidens, I rede you be sage.
Our unhappy hearts were now so sunken in wan-hope, that we had no word wherewith to answer her, and she spake: Now obey ye my bidding and eat and drink, that ye may come hale and sound to your journey’s end, for I would not give starvelings to my dear sister. Therewith she brought forth victual for us, and that nought evil, of flesh and bread, and cheese and cakes, and good wine withal; and we were hunger-weary as well as sorrow-weary; and hunger did at that moment overcome sorrow, so we ate and drank, and, would we, would we not, something of heart came back to us thereby. Then again spake the carline: Now my will is that ye sleep; and ye have cushions and cloths enough to dight you a fair bed; and this bidding is easy for you to obey. Forsooth, so weary were we with sorrow, and our hunger was now quenched, that we laid us down and slept at once, and forgat our troubles.
When we awoke it was after the first dawn, and we were come aland even where thou didst this morning, guest. And thou mayst deem it wondrous, but so it was, that close to where our boat took land lay the ferry which brought thee hither.
Now the carline bade us get ashore, and we did so, and found the land wondrous fair, little as that solaced us then. But she said unto us: Hearken! now are ye come home; and long shall ye dwell here, for never shall ye depart hence save by the will of my sister and me, wherefore, once more, I rede you be good, for it will be better for you. Go forth now unto yonder house, and on the way ye shall meet the Queen of this land, and ye have nought to do but to say to her that ye are the Gift; and then shall she see to your matter.
Therewith she gat into her own craft, the Sending Boat, and therein did the deed and spake the words ye wot of, and was gone north-away; and when we turned to seek for our boat wherein we had come hither, it was gone.
We stood miserably for a while on the lip of the land, and then I said that we might as well go meet our fate as die there of grief and hunger. So we went, and came into those fair gardens, and as we went slowly up toward the house came on us a woman clad in red scarlet and grandly dight. A big woman she was, and like to her that beguiled us, but far younger and fairer of favour, foolish and proud of visage. She stared on us, and seemed half afeard of us at first, but asked us what we were, and I answered that we were the Gift. The Gift? said she, what meaneth that? Will ye obey me in all things? If ye gainsay it, ye will perish, unless ye can eat grass; for on this isle everything cometh from my hand.
What might we do? We all knelt down before her, and swore to do her will. Then she said, after she had stared on us a while: Now I know: ye are they of whom my sister spake, that she would fetch me a gift of a leash of damsels for my service. Now I take the Gift and thank her good heart. But if ye would do my will, then . . . But she broke off here and stared at us a long while, and then she said: Now I know; she bade me treat you well, and hold my hand from you, or evil would come of it, belike at last my bane. So go ye home to the house, and I will give you meat and drink, and show you my stores and the Wonder-coffer, and ye shall serve me in honour.
Even so did we; and we ate and drank and rested, and nought we lacked, save leave to depart home to our lovers, and some mistress better than this stupid and proud lump of flesh. But the next morning when we came before the lady, she knew nought of what we were; and again we had to tell her that we were the Gift, and again she glared at us balefully, and again she called to mind her sister and her rede concerning us. And this went on for many days, till at last she got to know what we were; and she followed her sister’s rede in that she never mishandled us, though we could see that it irked her to forbear, nor did she speak to us more roughly than her fool’s wont was; and we had in our hands all that was needed for our sustenance, and lived easily enough.
Now our coming hither betid three years ago, and a month thereafter comes thy witch hither in her ferry, and she greeted us when we met, and asked us, grinning, had she not been kind to win us such good days? Yea, and over kind, said she, ye would deem me, knew ye what would have betid you save for my good word. Forsooth we deemed it no kind deed to steal us from our lovers; but we kept good tongues in our heads, for thralls must needs kiss the rod.
She went away in two days, but came again many times thereafter, till we won the secret of the Sending Boat, and her spell therewith; but we knew not that was banned against us. Wherefore on a day in the grey of the morning, when we had been on this isle somewhat less than a year, we went down to it and stepped in, and reddened stem and stern and said the spell-words. But straightway arose an hideous braying and clatter, and thunder came therewith, and trembling of the earth, and the waters of the lake arose in huge waves; nor might we move from our seats in the boat till the two witches came running down to us, and haled us out ashore, and had us up into the house, and into this very prison-chamber, wherein we are now sitting so merry. And here we bore what was laid upon us, whereof, dear guest, we shall tell thee nought. But this came of it, that never thereafter durst we try the adventure of the Sending Boat, but have lived on in lazy sorrow and shameful ease, till thou, dear guest and sister, wert sent hither by heaven for our helping.
Now what became of the king’s court, and the hazelled field of our champions, we wot not, or whether they be yet alive we cannot tell thee; but if they be alive, it is to them that we would have thee do our errand, and thereof will we tell thee closely tomorrow. And so, sweetling, an end of my tale.