William Morris Archive


When they had dined, and had sat a while talking, the knight said: I will ask thee once more wherefore thou must needs depart from this dale leaving the Greywethers unwaked? Yet this must I tell thee first, that this ring at the dale’s end is the only one due place where the Greywethers can be rightly waked, and that there be few who wot this. Wilt thou not tell me then what is in thy mind?

Birdalone gazed down on the ground a while; then she lifted up her head and looked on the Black Knight, and said: Sir Knight, we have been brought so close together today, and as meseemeth I am so wholly in thy power, that I will tell thee the very truth as it is. My mind it was to wake the dale here to-night, and take what might befall me. And well indeed might I fear the adventure, which few, meseemeth, would not fear. But so strong is my longing for that which I would crave of these wights, that it overmastered my fear, and my purpose held when I entered the dale. Then I met thee; and here again is the truth, take it how thou wilt, that presently I feared thee, and yet I fear thee; for I have noted thee closely all this while, and have seen of thee, that thou art over heedful of my poor body, and wouldst have it for thine own if thou mightest. And there is this in thee also, as I deem, though thou thyself mayst not know it, that thou wouldst have thy pleasure of me whether it pleasure me or grieve me; and this thy pleasure must I needs gainsay; for though thou mayest hereafter become my friend, yet are there other friends of mine, who be such, that my grief would mar any pleasure they might have. Hast thou heard and understood?

She looked on his face steadily as she spake, and saw that it flushed, and darkened, and scowled, and that his hands were clenched, and his teeth set hard together. And again she spake: Sir, thou shalt know that beside these shot-weapons, I have a thing here in my girdle that may serve either against thee or against me, if need drive me thereto; wherefore I will pray thee to forbear. Forsooth, thou shalt presently happen on other women, who shall be better unto thee than I can be.

By then Birdalone had spoken the word, the knight’s face had cleared, and he laughed aloud and said: As to thy last words, therein at least thou liest, my lady. But for the rest, I see that it must all be as thou wiliest. Yea, if such be thy will, we shall presently to horse and ride down the dale again, and at the end thereof I shall leave thee to go home alone at thy will. She said: For that I can thee thanks with all my heart. But why hast thou not asked me of whence I am, and whither I would go home?

Again he laughed and said: Because I know already. I have had more than two or three tales from them who have seen thee, or spoken unto others who have seen thee, how the gay Champions of the Castle of the Quest had fished up a wondrous pearl of price from out of the Great Water; and when I set eyes on thy beauty, I knew that the said pearl could be nowhere else than under mine eyes.

Let that pass, she said, and blushed not; but now tell me the truth as I have told thee, why thou art so instant with me to wake the Greywethers to-night? He kept silence a while, and, as she looked on him, she thought she saw confusion in his face; but at last he said: Thou wert wrong in saying that I heeded not thy pleasure, and solace, and welfare. Meseemed, and yet doth, that it might be to thine avail to wake the Greywethers to-night; and never again mayst thou have a chance of the waking, as erst I said. I say I wish thee to have fulfilment of thy craving. Nor hast thou aught to fear of them, seeing that it is but dastards and fools that they undo.

He broke off his speech, and Birdalone yet looked on him, and after a little he said: Thou drawest the truth out of me; for moreover I would have thee with me longer than thou wouldst be if we but rode together down the water and out of the dale, and thou to fare away alone.

Birdalone spake in a while, and that while he gazed upon her eagerly; she said: I shall now tell thee that I shall abide the adventure of the waking to-night, whatever befall. And I, said he, will so do that thou mayst fear me the less; for I will unarm me when the night cometh, and thou thyself shalt keep mine hauberk and sword and anlace.

She said: It is well; I will take that, lest desire overmaster thee.

They spake no more of it at that time, and it was now five hours after noon. Birdalone arose, for she found it hard to sit still and abide nightfall: she went without the two first rings of the Greywethers, which were set in more open order beyond that, and she looked all about her, to the black rocks on either side, and to the great black wall at the dale’s ending, and the blue mountains aloof beyond it; then down toward the plain of the dale came her eyes, and she looked through the tangle of the grey stones. Now she seemed to be looking more intently upon some one thing; with that she called to her the Black Knight, who was hanging about watching her, and she said to him: Fair sir, art thou clear-seeing and far-seeing? I am not thought to be purblind, quoth he. Then Birdalone reached out her hand and pointed and said: Canst thou see aught which thou didst not look to see, there, up the dale as I point? Said he: All too clear I see the hand and the wrist of thee, and that blinds me to aught else. I pray thee fool not, she said, but look heedfully, and thou mayst see what I see, and then tell me what it means. Though forsooth I am exceeding in far sight.

He looked under the sharp of his hand heedfully, then he turned unto her and said: By All-hallows! there is in thee every excellency! Thou art right; I see a bay horse up there feeding on the bites of grass amongst the Greywethers. Look again! she said; what else canst thou see? Is there aught anigh to the bay horse which is like to the gleam and glitter of metal. Christ! said he, once more thou art right. There be weaponed men in the dale. Tarry not, I beseech thee, but get to horse forthright, and I will do no less.

There goeth the waking of the dale for this time, said Birdalone, laughing. But art thou not in haste, fair sir? may not these be friends?

The knight laid his hand upon her shoulder, and thrust her on toward her palfrey, and spake fiercely, but not loud: Thee I pray not to fool now! There is not a minute to spare. If thou deemest me evil, as I think thou dost, there are worser than I, I tell thee, there are worser. But we will talk of it when we be in the saddle, and clear of this accursed dale.

Birdalone knew not what to do save obey him, so she lightly gat into her saddle, and followed him, for he was mounted in a twinkling, and riding on. He led out of the ring, and fell to threading the maze of the Greywethers, keeping ever toward the steep side of the dale, which was on that hand that looked toward the Castle of the Quest, that is to say, the eastern bent. Birdalone wondered at this leading, and when she was come up with the knight she spake to him breathlessly, and said: But, fair sir, why wend we not down the dale? He answered: First, lady, because we must hide us from them straightway; and next because they be more than we, many more, and their horses be fresh, while thine at least is somewhat spent; and if they were to spur down the dale in chase, they would soon be upon us; for think not that I would escape and leave thee behind.

Said Birdalone: But thou knowest them, then, what they be? since thou wottest of their numbers and their riding. Hearken now! Upon thy soul and thy salvation, be they more friends unto thee than unto me?

He said, as be rode on a little slower than erst: Upon my soul and my salvation I swear it, that the men yonder be of the worst unfriends to thee that may be in the world. And now, lady, I promise thee that I will unravel thee the riddle, and tell thee the whole truth of these haps, whatsoever may come of my words, when we be in a safer place than this; and meantime I beseech thee to trust in me thus far, as to believe that I am leading thee out of the very worst peril that might befall thee. Nay, thou must needs trust me; for I tell thee, that though I now love thee better than all the world and all that is in it, I would slay thee here in this dale rather than suffer thee to fall into the hands of these men.

Birdalone heard him with a sick heart; but such passion went with his words that she believed what he said; and she spake softly: Sir, I will trust thee thus far; but I beseech thee to have pity upon a poor maiden who hath had but little pity shown unto her until these latter days; and then: O woe’s me, to have fallen out of the kindness and love once more!

The Black Knight spake to her in a little while, and said: What pity I can to thee, that I will. Once more I tell thee, that if thou but knew it thou wouldst thank me indeed for what I have done for thee in this hour; and henceforth I will do and forbear with thee to the uttermost that love will suffer me. But lo thou! here are we safe for this present; but we must nowise tarry.

Birdalone looked and saw that they were come to the wall of the dale, and that there it went down sheer to the plain thereof, and that before them was a cleft that narrowed speedily, and over which the rocks well-nigh met, so that it was indeed almost a cave. They rode into it straightway, and when that they had gone but a little, and because it had winded somewhat, they could but see the main valley as a star of light behind them, then it narrowed no more, but was as a dismal street of the straitest, whiles lighter and whiles darker, according as the rocks roofed it in overhead or drew away from it. Long they rode, and whiles came trickles of water from out the rocks on one hand or the other; and now and again they met a stream which covered all the ground of the pass from side to side for the depth of a foot or more. Great rocks also were strewn over their path every here and there, so that whiles must they needs dismount and toil afoot over the rugged stones; and in most places the way was toilsome and difficult. The knight spake little to Birdalone, save to tell her of the way, and warn her where it was perilous; and she, for her part, was silent, partly for fear of the strange man, or, it might be, even for hatred of him, who had thus brought her into such sore trouble, and partly for grief. For, with all torment of sorrow, she kept turning over and over in her mind whether her friends had yet come home to the Castle of the Quest, and whether they would go seek her to deliver her. And such shame took hold of her when she thought of their grief and confusion of soul when they should come home and find her gone, that she set her mind to asking if it had not been better had she never met them. Yet in good sooth her mind would not shape the thought, howsoever she bade it.

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