CHAPTER I ~ BIRDALONE COMES TO THE CASTLE OF THE QUEST
Empty was the day to Birdalone save for her thoughts, and she slept not a good while of the night. When she awoke in the morning there was no land before her, and she began to fear somewhat that so it might be many days, and that she might have to fare the water landless, and perchance till she starved for hunger; for now was there but little victual left of that which the kind Viridis had given her. So she wore the day somewhat uneasily, and by then night fell had eaten but little; yet was that little the last crumb and gobbet of her store. Wherefore it is no wonder though she were dismayed when she awoke early on the morrow, and beheld nought before her save the landless water.
But about noon she deemed she saw a little cloud in the offing that moved not as the other clouds, and she watched it closely at first, and it changed not any the more, and she grew weary of watching it and strove to sleep, turning her head to the after part of her ferry; and thus betwixt sleeping and waking she wore away three hours: then she stood up and looked ahead, and lo, the white cloud had taken shape, and was a white castle far away (for the day was exceeding clear), sitting, as it seemed, on the very face of the water. The boat sped on swiftly thitherward, so that it was not right long ere Birdalone beheld the green shore on either side of the said castle, and at last, three hours before sunset, she was drawing nigh thereto, and beheld it all clearly, what it was.
It was brand-new, and was fair enough, builded part of stone and lime, part of framed work, but was but middling big. As she drew nigher yet, she saw that there were folk on the walls of it, and they seemed to see her, for a horn was winded from the battlement, and folk were running together to somewhither. And now was Birdalone come so near, that she saw the water-gate of the castle, and folk coming out thereby on to the landing-place; and she saw presently, that a very tall man with grizzled hair stood foremost of them, and he waved his hand to her, and spake something, but the wind bore the words away from her; yet she seemed to know that this folk would do her to wit that they would have none of her; and her heart died within her, so faint and hungry as she was.
Howsoever the ferry sped on its way swiftly, and in a minute or two had stayed itself at the landing-stair, whereabout were gathered a score of men, some armed some unarmed, and they seemed for the more part to be grey-headed and past middle-age.
Birdalone stood up in her craft, and the aforesaid tall grey man, who was unarmed, but clad in knightly raiment, stood on the stair and spake unto her, and said: Lady, this is an house where women enter never since first the roof was done thereon, which forsooth was but a year ago. We will pray thee therefore to turn thy boat’s head away, and seek some other lodging by the water, either eastward or westward.
Little knew Birdalone of worldly courtesy, or she had made him a sharp answer belike; but she only looked on him ruefully, and said: Good warrior, I am come a long way, and may not turn back from mine errand; and I am now lacking victual and hungry, and if ye help me not, it is like that I shall die. Much lieth on mine errand, if ye knew it. She was weeping-ripe, but refrained her tears, though her lip quivered. She stretched out her hands to the greybeard, and he looked on her and found her exceeding fair; and he deemed her to be guileless, both because of her simple speech and sweet voice, and the goodliness of her face and eyes. But he said: Lady, thine errand hath nought to do with it, it is thy womanhood that bars our door. For all we are bound by oath not to suffer a woman to abide in this castle till our lords take the bann off, and bid us open to women. She smiled faintly, and said: If I might but see thy lords then, since thou art not master here. He said: They are away, and will not be back till tomorrow morning; and I wot not the hour of their return. And yet, said he, I would we might help thee somewhat. O I pray thee, I pray thee! she said, or mine errand will come to nought after all.
Therewith came another man down the stair, and stood by the old knight and plucked his sleeve, and fell to talk with him softly. This man was by his habit a religious, and was a younger man than the others, it might be of five and thirty winters, and he was fair of favour. While they spake together Birdalone sat her down again, and was well-nigh spent.
At last the old man spake: Damsel, he said, we deem we may suffer thee to enter the castle since thy need is so great, and have a meal’s meat at our hands, and yet save our oath, if thou depart thence by the landward gate before sunset. Will this serve thee? Fair sir, said Birdalone, it will save my life and mine errand; I may say no more words for my faintness, else would I thank thee.
She stood up on her feet, and the old man-at-arms reached out his hand to her, and she took it and came her ways up the stair, but found herself but feeble. But the priest (forsooth he was chaplain of the castle) helped her on the other side. But when she stood on the level stones by the water-gate, she turned to the old man and said: One thing I will ask of thee, Is this place one of the Wondrous Isles? The elder shook his head. We know not the Wondrous Isles, said he; this castle is builded on the mainland. Her face flushed for joy at the word, and she said: One thing I will crave of thee, to wit, that thou wilt leave my barge lying here untouched till thy masters come back, and wilt give command that none meddle therewith.
He would have answered, but the priest brake in, and said: This will he do, lady, and he is the castellan, and moreover he will swear to obey thee herein. And therewith he drew forth a cross with God nailed thereon, and the castellan swore on it with a good will.
Then the priest drew Birdalone on, and between them they brought her into the great hall, and set her down in a chair and propped her with cushions. And when she was thus at rest, she began to weep somewhat, and the castellan and the priest stood by and comforted her; for themseemed, despite her grief, that she had brought the sun into their house.
Next were victual brought unto her of broth and venison, and good wine and cates and strawberries; and she was not so famished but she might eat and drink with a good will. But when she was done, and had rested a little, the castellan stood up and said: Lady, the sun is gone off the western windows now, and I must save mine oath; but ere thou depart, I were fain to hear thy voice giving me pardon for my evil cheer and the thrusting of thee forth. And therewith he put one knee to the ground, and took her hand and kissed it. But Birdalone was grown merry again, and she laughed and said: What pardon thou canst have of me, kind knight, thou hast; but now methinks thou makest overmuch of me, because I am the only woman who hath come into thy castle. I am but a simple maiden, though mine errand be not little.
Forsooth she wondered that the stark and gruff old man was so changed to her in little space; for nought she knew as yet how the sight of her cast a hot gleed of love into the hearts of them who beheld her.
Now Birdalone arose; but the castellan knelt at her feet, and kissed her hand again, and again, and yet again. Then he said: Thou art gracious indeed. But methinks the father here will lead thee out-a-gates; for he may show thee a lair, wherein thou shalt be safe enough to-night; and tomorrow may bring new tidings.
So the priest made obeisance to her and led her down the hall, and the castellan’s eyes were following them till the screen hid them. The priest left her in the hall-porch a while, and went into the buttery, and came back with a basket of meat and drink, and they went forth at the great gate together, and there was the last of the sun before them.