CHAPTER IX ~ BIRDALONE COMETH BEFORE THE CHAMPIONS IN HER NEW ARRAY
Now the time was come when Birdalone had all her gear ready, and the women were to abide in the castle as her serving-damsels while the Champions were away.
So now in the summer eve, an hour before sunset, Birdalone did on the richest of her new raiment, and came into the hall where sat the Three together, and Sir Aymeris with them. She was so clad, that she had on a green gown with broidered sleeves, and thereover a white cote-hardie welted with gold, and gold-embroidered; on her feet were gold shoon of window-work, pearled and gemmed; and on her head a rose garland; on her neck she bore the Golden Knight’s collar; her loins were girt with the Black Squire’s girdle; and on her wrist was the Green Knight’s ancient gold ring; and she carried in her arms Aurea’s gown and Viridis’ shift and Atra’s shoon.
Rather sunrise than sunset it seemed, as verily Birdalone she came into the hall with bright eager eyes, and flushed cheeks, and countenance smiling with love. The men stood up all, and would come down from the dais to meet her; but she bade them go back, and sit each in his place till she stood before them.
Up the hall then she walked, and every step of hers seemed lovelier than the last, till she came to them and gave unto each his keepsake, and said: Champions, now is mine errand all done, save that tomorrow I must show you the manner of the Sending Boat. Now there is nought save the darkness of the coming night to hinder you from this last deal of your Quest; and it is I that have brought you to this, and have done this good unto you, if no more good I do in the world. Wherefore I pray you to love me ever, and bear me ever in your minds.
They gazed on her, and were overcome by her loveliness and grace, and by the kindness and valiancy of her heart. Next arose the Golden Knight, Baudoin to wit, and took a cross from his breast, and held it up, and spake: Maiden, thou sayest well, and never shall we forget thee, or cease to love thee; and here I swear by God upon the Tree, that it shall be a light thing for me to die for thee, if in any need I find thee. Brethren, will ye not swear the same? And this is but thy due, maiden, for I declare unto thee, that when thou didst enter the hall e’en now, it was as if the very sun of heaven was coming in unto us.
Thereon the other two took the Rood and swore upon it: and Hugh was hushed and meek and sad-faced after he had sworn; but Arthur the Black Squire bowed down his head and wept, and his fellows marvelled nought thereat, neither did Birdalone; and all her body yearned toward him to solace him.
Now turned Sir Baudoin to the castellan and said: Sir Aymeris, I will now swear thee to guard this lady as the apple of thine eye whiles we three be away, and therein to spare neither thyself nor others. For thou seest well what grief it would be to us if she came to any harm.
And to me also, said the castellan. And therewith he swore upon the Rood, and then came round the table, and knelt before Birdalone, and kissed her hands.
Thereafter were they all silent a space; and then came Birdalone to the inner side of the table and sat betwixt Baudoin and Hugh. But the Black Squire took up the word and spake: Birdalone, sweet child, one thing is to be said, to wit, that it were well that thou keep within walls while we be away; or at least that thou go but a little beyond the castle, and never but within a half bowshot, save thou be well accompanied. For there be men of violence dwelling no great way off, reivers and rovers, who would be well pleased to take from us anything which we deem dear; besides others who would think the lifting of such a jewel good hap indeed. Sir Aymeris, have a care of the Red Knight; and if thou mightest come by a few more stout lads, to wage them, it were well.
Birdalone heeded not what the castellan answered, such a shaft of joy went to her heart when she heard that friend speak her own name in such wise as he had never done erst, and that before them all. She but murmured some yeasay to that which Arthur had spoken unto her, and then she held her peace for the sweetness of that moment.
So there they sat and talked a while in dear and pleasant converse; and Hugh fell to asking her of her life in the House under the Wood, and she answered all frankly and simply, and the more she told the dearer she seemed to them.
Thus drew night in, till folk came flockmeal into the hall; for needs must be feast and banquet for triumph of the furtherance of the Quest; and the most of men were merry; but somewhat sober were all the three Champions, so that whoso ran might read it in their faces. As for Birdalone, she showed cheerful to all that folk which loved her and praised her; but inwardly sorrow had come home to her heart.