CHAPTER XIV ~ THE BLACK KNIGHT TELLS THE TRUTH OF HIMSELF
When the morning was come down into the straitness of their secret road, Birdalone opened her eyes and saw the Black Knight busy over dighting their horses: so she arose and thrust her grief back into her heart, and gave her fellow-farer the sele of the day, and he brought her victual, and they ate a morsel, and gat to horse thereafter and departed; and the way became smoother, and it was lighter overhead everywhere now, and the rocks never again met overhead athwart the way; and it seemed to Birdalone that now they were wending somewhat downward.
The knight was courteous unto Birdalone, and no longer for the present thrust his love upon her, so that now she had some solace of his fellowship, though he was but few-spoken to her.
It was betimes when they arose, and they rode all the morning till it was noon, which they might well wot of, because the way was much wider, and the cliff-walls of the pass much lower, so that the sun shone in upon them and cheered them.
Now the Black Knight drew rein and said: Shall we rest, lady, and eat? And thereafter, if thou wilt, I shall tell thee my tale. Or rather, if thou wilt suffer me, I shall speak first and eat afterwards, or else the morsel might stick in my throat. Knight, said Birdalone, smiling, I hope thou hast no lie to swallow down before the meat. Nay, lady, said he; no lie that is of moment at least.
So they lighted down, and Birdalone sat on the wayside under a birch-bush that came thrusting out from the rock, and the knight stood before her, hanging his head, as though he were one accused who would plead his cause; and he began:
Lady, I must tell thee first of all, that today I have done as an unfaithful servant and a traitor to my lord. Said Birdalone simply: Shall I tell thee the truth, and say that from the first I seemed to see in thee that thou wert scarce trusty? He said: Well, that mind I saw in thee, and it went to my heart that thou shouldest think it, and that it should be no less than true. But now I must tell thee, that it is for thy sake that I have been untrusty to my lord. How so? said she. Quoth he: Heardest thou ever of the Red Knight? Yea, said Birdalone, I have heard of him ever as a tyrant and oppressor. Then she grew pale, and said: Art thou he? Nay, said the knight, I am but a kinsman of his, and his best-trusted man; nor have I failed him ever till yesterday.
He kept silence a while, and then said: This is the true tale: that we have had tidings of thee and of thy ridings abroad with that old fool, Sir Aymeris, and how thou hadst been twice to look into the Black Valley. This I say hath the Red One heard, and the heart of him was touched by the mere hearsay of thee; and moreover ’tis blessed bread to him the doing of any grief to the knights of Quest Castle; wherefore he hath sent me to hang about the dale, to lay hands on thee if I might for; he knew being wise, that thou wouldst hanker after it; and moreover he let one of his wise women sit out in spells on thee. So I espied, and happened on thee all alone; and mine errand it was, since I came upon thee thus, to draw thee till I had thee safe at home in the Red Hold. Forsooth I began mine errand duly, and fell to beguiling thee, so that thou mayst well have seen the traitor in me. But then, and then my heart failed me, because I fell, not to desiring thee as coveting my master’s chattel, but to loving thee and longing for thee as my fellow and speech-friend. And I said to myself: Into the Red Hold she shall not go if I may hinder it.
Birdalone was very pale, but she refrained her from grief and fear, and said: But those horsed and weaponed men up the dale, who were they? He said: I will not lie now, not even a little; they came into the dale by that upper pass whereof I told thee; they were of our men; I brought them. I was never all alone in the dale; I was to have fetched thee to them, so that thou mightest not see a rout of folk and flee away; and then would we all have gone home together by the upper pass. But we two must have gone on unto them in the dale’s head, whereas for all that I could say I might not bring them down into that doom-ring where we ate and talked yesterday. We two have been valianter than thou mayst have deemed, to have done the deed of dining there; for all men fear it. But as for me, I have been there more than twice or thrice, and thence have I wandered, and found this pass wherein now we be; concerning which I have held my tongue, deeming that it might one day serve my turn; as it hath done now abundantly, since it hath been a refuge unto thee.
Yea, but whither are we going now? said Birdalone; is it perchance to the Red Hold? Nay, never, said the knight, so help me God and All-hallows!
Whither then? said Birdalone; tell me, that I may at least trust thee, even though I owe thee for all the pain and grief which thou hast wrought me. He reddened and said: Wait a while; I bring thee to no ill place; there shall no harm befall thee. And he fretted and fumed, and was confused of speech and look, and then he said: When we come there I shall belike crave a boon of thee.
O, but I crave a boon of thee here and now, said Birdalone. Wipe away thine offence to me and take me back to my friends and the Castle of the Quest! So mayst thou yet be dear unto me, though maybe not wholly as thou wouldst have it. And she reached out her two hands toward him.
His breast heaved, and he seemed nigh to weeping; but he said: Nay, lady, ask me not here and now, but there and tomorrow. But again I swear to thee by thine hands that to the Red Hold I will not bring thee, nor suffer thee to be brought, if I may hinder it; nay, not though I give my life therefor.
Birdalone was silent awhile; then she said: And what shall befall me if I come to the Red Hold? What is the Red Knight, and what would he do with me? Said he: The Red Knight is terrible and fierce and wise; and I fear him, I. He held his peace, and said: I must needs say it, that to thee he would have been as Death and the Devil. He would have bedded thee first. She broke in: Nay, never! and flushed very red. But the knight went on: And after, I wot not; that were according to his mood. And as to thy never, lady, thou wottest not the like of him or of the folk he hath about him. Such as thou? she said angrily. Nay, he said, far worse than me; men who fare little afield, and are not sweetened by adventures and war-perils; and women worser yet; and far worser were they dealing with a woman. She was silent again awhile, and paled once more; then her colour came back to her, and she held out her hand to him and said kindly: Thou being what thou art, I thank thee for thy dealings with me; and now until tomorrow, when I shall ask thee of that again, I am friends with thee; so come now, and let us eat and drink together.
He took her hand and kissed it, and then came and sat down meekly beside her, and they ate and drank in that wild place as though they had been friends of long acquaintance.