William Morris Archive


Came new tidings therewithal; for the moment after she had spoken, a tall man drew out from behind the big stone, and stood before her; and at first it was in her mind that this was the very chieftain come alive for her, and for terror she was like to swoon this time; but he spake nought a while, but looked on her eagerly and curiously.

She came to herself presently, so much that she could see him clearly, and was now growing more shamefast than afraid, when she saw beyond doubt that the man was of the sons of Adam; but what with her shame that was now, and her fear that had been, she yet had no might to move, but stood there pale and trembling like a leaf, and might scarce keep her feet.

Now the new-comer bowed before her smiling, and said: I ask thy pardon, fair damsel (or indeed I should say fairest damsel), that I have scared thee. But sooth to say I beheld thee coming riding, and even from a little aloof I could see that nought which might befall could ever make it up to me for not seeing thee close at hand and hearing thee speak. Wherefore I hid myself behind the king’s stone here; and no harm is done thereby I trow; for now I see that the colour is coming into thy cheeks again, and thy fear is gone. And as for me, thou hast not fled away from me, as thou wouldst have done had I not hidden and come on thee suddenly; and then thou being horsed and I unhorsed, thou wouldst have escaped me, whereas now thou art within reach of my hand. Then he smiled, and said: Furthermore, thou hast told so little of thy secret to this stony king here, that I am little the wiser for thy word, and thou the little more betrayed. Only this I will say, that if He loveth thee not, He is more of a fool than I be.

He reached out his hand to hers, but she drew it aback, and grew yet more ashamed, and could find no word for him. His voice was soft and full, and he spake deftly, but she was not content with it for its kindness, as she had been with all the other men whom she had met since she left the House under the Wood, and she durst not trust her hand to him.

As for his aspect, she saw that he was tall and well-knit, and goodly of fashion; dark-haired, with long hazel eyes, smooth-cheeked and bright-skinned; his nose long, and a little bent over at the end, and coming down close to his lips, which were full and red; his face was hairless save for a little lip-beard. He was so clad, that he had no helm on his head, but a little hat with a broad gold piece in the front thereof; he was girt to a long sword, and had an anlace also in his belt, and Birdalone saw the rings of a fine hauberk at his collar and knees; otherwise he was not armed. Over his hauberk he wore a black surcoat, without device of any kind, and his foot and leg gear were of the same hue; wherefore may we call him the Black Knight. Sooth to say, for all his soft speech, she feared him and rued the meeting of him.

Now he spake to her again: I see that thou art wroth with me, lady; but mayhappen it is not so ill that I have happened on thee; for this dale hath a bad name for more than one thing, and is scarce meet for damsels to wander in. But now since thou hast a weaponed man with thee, and thou, by All-hallows! not utterly unarmed, thou mayst well go up the valley and see something more thereof. So come now, mount thine horse again, and I will lead him for thee.

Now Birdalone found speech and said: Knight, for such thou seemest to me, I deem now that I have no need to fare further in this dale, but I will get me into the saddle and turn my horse’s head outward again, giving thee good day first and thanking thee for thy courtesy. And therewith she turned to get to her palfrey, but sore trembling the while; but he followed her and said, with brow somewhat knitted: Nay, lady, I have left my horse somewhat further up, and I must go back to fetch him, that we may wend out of the dale together. For I will not suffer thee to flee from me and fall into the hands of evil wights, be they ghosts or living men, and that the less since I have heard the speech in thy mouth, as of honey and cream and roses. Therefore if thou go out of the dale, I shall go with thee afoot, leading thine horse. And look to it if it be courteous to unhorse a knight, who is ready to be thy servant. Moreover, since thou hast come to this dale of wonder, and mayst leave it safely, pity it were that thou shouldst see nought thereof, for strange is it forsooth, and belike thou shalt never seek thither again. Wherefore I crave of thee, once more, to mount thine horse and let me lead thee up the dale.

He spake these last words rather as one giving a command than making a prayer, and Birdalone feared him now sorely. Forsooth she had her bended bow in hand; but let alone that the knight was over-near to her that she might get a shaft out of her quiver and nock it, ere he should run in on her, and let alone also that he was byrnied, she scarce deemed that it behoved her to slay or wound the man because she would be quit of him. Wherefore angrily, and with a flushed face, she answered him: So shall it be then, Sir Knight; or rather so must it be, since thou compellest me.

He laughed and said: Nay, now thou art angry. I compel thee not, I but say that it will not do for thee to compel me to leave thee. Go which way thou wilt, up the dale, or down it and out of it; it is all one unto me, so long as I am with thee. Forsooth, damsel, I have said harder words to ladies who have done my pleasure and not deemed themselves compelled.

She paled but answered nought; then she mounted her palfrey, and the knight went to her bridle-rein without more words, and so led her on up the valley by the easiest way amongst the Greywethers.

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