CHAPTER IV ~ AND NOW SHE MEETS THE CHAMPIONS
Now, as she stood hearkening, she deemed she heard something that was not so loud as the song of the blackbird in the brake, but further off and longer voiced: and again she hearkened heedfully, and the sound came again, and she deemed now that it was the voice of an horn. But the third time of her hearing it she knew that it was nought less; and at last it grew nigher, and there was mingled with it the sound of men shouting and the lowing of neat.
Then she stepped down to the very edge of the way, and now she saw the riding-reek go up into the clear air, and she said: Now are they coming without fail, and I must pluck up a heart; for surely these dear friends of my friends shall neither harm a poor maiden nor scorn her.
Soon came the leading beasts from out of the dust-cloud, and behind them was the glitter of spear-heads; and then presently was a herd of neat shambling and jostling along the road, and after them a score or so of spearmen in jack and sallet, who, forsooth, turned to look on Birdalone as they passed by, and spake here and there a word or two, laughing and pointing to her, but stayed not; and all went on straight to the castle.
Thereafter was a void, and then came riding leisurely another score of weaponed men, whereof some in white armour; and amongst them were five sumpter horses laden with carcasses of venison. And all these also went by and stayed not, though the most of them gazed on Birdalone hard enough.
Last of all came three knights riding, one with a gold surcoat over his armour, and thereon a cleft heart of red; the second with a green surcoat, and on the same a chief of silver with green boughs thereon, their ends a-flaming; but the third bore a black surcoat besprinkled with silver tears. And all these three rode bare-headed, save that the Black Knight bore an oak-wreath on the head.
Now did Birdalone take to her valiancy, and she stepped out into the road till she was but a ten paces from those men, who reined up when they beheld her; and she said in a clear voice: Abide, warriors! for if ye be what I deem you, I have an errand unto you.
Scarce were the words out of her mouth, ere all three had leapt off their horses, and the Golden Knight came up to her, and laid his hand upon her side, and spake eagerly and said: Where is she, whence thou gattest this gown of good web? And thou, said she, art thou Baudoin the Golden Knight? But he set his hand to the collar on her neck, and touched her skin withal, and said: This, was she alive when thou camest by it? She said: If thou be Baudoin the Golden Knight, I have an errand to thee. I am he, said the knight; O tell me, tell me, is she dead? Said Birdalone: Aurea was alive when last I saw her, and mine errand is from her to thee, if thou be verily her lover. Now with this word I pray thee to be content a while, said she, smiling kindly upon him, for needs must I do mine errand in such wise as I was bidden. And thou seest also that thy friends would have a word of me.
Forsooth, they were thrusting in on her, and the Green Knight gat a hold of her left wrist in his left hand, and his right was on her shoulder, and his bright face close to her bosom whereon lay Viridis’ smock; and thereat she shrank aback somewhat, but said: Sir, it is sooth that the smock is for thee when thou hast answered me a question or two. Meanwhile I pray thee forbear a little; for, as I trow, all is well, and thou shalt see my dear friend Viridis again.
He withdrew him a little, flushed and shamefaced. He was a young man exceeding beauteous, clear-skinned and grey-eyed, with curly golden hair, and he bore his armour as though it were silken cloth. Birdalone looked upon him kindly though shyly, and was glad to the heart’s root that Viridis had so lovely a man to her darling. As for the Golden Knight, as Birdalone might see now, he stood a little aloof; he was a very goodly man of some five and thirty winters; tall he was, broad-shouldered and thin-flanked, black-haired, with somewhat heavy eyebrows, and fierce hawk-eyes; a man terrible of aspect, when one first beheld him.
Now when the Black Squire had hearkened Birdalone’s word concerning Viridis, he threw himself down on the ground before her, and fell to kissing her feet; or, if you will, Atra’s shoon which covered them. When she drew back a little, he rose on one knee and looked up at her with an eager face, and she said: To thee also I have an errand from Atra, thy speech-friend, if thou be Arthur the Black Squire. He spake not, but still gazed on her till she reddened. She knew not whether to deem him less goodly than the other twain. He also was a young man of not over five and twenty years, slim and lithe, with much brown hair; his face tanned so dark that his eyes gleamed light from amidst it; his chin was round and cloven, his mouth and nose excellently fashioned; little hair he had upon his face, his cheeks were somewhat more hollow than round. Birdalone noted of his bare hands, which were as brown as his face, that they were very trim and shapely.
Now he rose to his feet, and the three stood together and gazed on her; as how might they do otherwise? Birdalone hung her head, and knew not what next to do or say. But she thought within herself, would these three men have been as kind to her as her three friends of the Isle, had she happened on them in like case as she was that time? And she settled with herself that they would have been no less kind.
Now spake the Golden Knight, and said: Will the kind maiden do her errand to us here and now? for we be eager and worn with trouble. Birdalone looked adown and was somewhat confused. Fair sirs, said she, I will do your will herein.
But the Black Squire looked on her and saw that she was troubled, and he said: Your pardon, fair fellows, but is it not so that we have an house somewhat anigh, not ill purveyed of many things? By your leave I would entreat this kind and dear lady to honour us so much as to enter the Castle of the Quest with us, and abide there so long as she will; and therein may she tell us all her errand at her leisure; and already we may see and know, that it may not be aught save a joyous one.
Then spake the Golden Knight, and said: I will ask the lady to pardon me, and will now join my prayer to thine, brother, that she come home with us. Lady, he said, wilt thou not pardon me, that in the eager desire to hear tidings of my speech-friend I forgat all else.
And therewithal he knelt before her, and took her hand and kissed it; and for all his fierce eyes and his warrior’s mien, she deemed him kind and friendly. Then needs must the Green Knight kneel and kiss also, though he had no pardon to crave; but a fair sweet lad she thought him, and again her heart swelled with joy to think that her friend Viridis had so dear a speech-friend to long for her.
Then came the turn of the Black Squire, and by then were the two others turned away a little toward their horses; and he knelt down on both knees before Birdalone and took her right arm above the wrist, and looked at the hand and kissed it as if it were a relic, but stood not up; and she stood bending over him, and a new sweetness entered into her, the like of which she had never felt. But as for the Black Squire, it seemed that one hand would not suffice him, and he took her left hand and fell to kissing it, and then both the hands together all over the backs of them, and then the palms thereof, and he buried his face in the two palms, and held them to his cheeks; and the dear hands suffered it all, and consented to the embracing of his cheeks. But Birdalone deemed that this was the kindest and sweetest of the three kind warriors, and sorry she was when he let go her hands and stood up.
His face was flushed, but his speech calm, as he spake so that the other knights might hear him: Now will we straight to the castle, lady, and we will ask thee which of us three thou wilt honour by riding his horse there; shall it be Baudoin’s bright bay, or Hugh’s dapple-grey, or my red roan? And therewith he took her by the hand and led her toward the horses. But she laughed, and turning a little, pointed to the castle, and said: Nay, sweet lords, but I will fare afoot, such a little way as it is, and I all unwont to the saddle.
Spake the Green Knight: If that be so, lady, then shall we three walk afoot with thee. Nay, nay, she said; I have nought to carry but myself; but ye have your byrnies and your other armour, which were heavy for you to drag on afoot, even a little way. Moreover, I were fain to see you mount your horses, and ride and run about the meadow with tossing manes and flashing swords, while I trudge quietly toward the gate; for such things, and so beauteous, are all new unto me, as ye shall learn presently when I tell you my story. Do so much to pleasure me, kind knights.
The tall Baudoin nodded to her, smiling kindly, as much as to say that he thought well of her desire. But the Green Knight ran to his horse with a glad shout, and anon was in the saddle with his bright sword in his fist; then he spurred, and went a-gallop hither and thither over the mead, making his horse turn short and bound, and playing many tricks of the tilt-yard, and crying, A Hugh, A Hugh, for the Green Gown! The Golden Knight was slower and more staid, but in manywise he showed his war-deftness, riding after Hugh as if he would fall on him, and staying his way just as it became perilous; and he cried, Baudoin, Baudoin, for Gold-sleeves! And all this seemed to Birdalone both terrible and lovely.
But for the Black Squire, he was slow to let loose Birdalone’s hand; but thereafter he was speedy to vault into his saddle, and he made courses over the meadow, but ever came back to Birdalone as she went her ways, riding round and round her, and tossing his sword into the air the while and catching it as it fell. And no less lovely did this seem to Birdalone, and she smiled on him and waved her hand to him.
Going slowly in this wise, she came at last to the castle gate; and now had all those three out-gone her and stood afoot in the wicket to welcome her, and the Golden Knight, who was the oldest of the three, was the speaker of the welcome.
Over the threshold of the Castle of the Quest went Birdalone’s feet then, and she was grown so happy as she had never deemed she should be all her life long.