CHAPTER XV ~ THE BLACK KNIGHT BRINGS BIRDALONE TO THE BOWER IN THE DALE
When they had made an end of their meal, they gat to horse again and rode on their ways; and every mile now was their road the easier, the pass wider, and its walls lower and now also more broken; till at last they began to go down hill swiftly, and after a little their road seemed to be swallowed in a great thicket of hornbeam and holly; but the knight rode on and entered the said thicket, and ever found some way amidst the branches, though they were presently in the very thick of the trees, and saw no daylight between the trunks for well-nigh an hour, whereas the wood was thick and tangled, and they had to thread their way betwixt its mazes.
At last the wood began to grow thinner before them, and the white light to show between the trunks; and Birdalone deemed that she heard the sound of falling water, and presently was sure thereof; and the knight spake to her: Patience, my lady; now are we near home for today. She nodded kindly to him, and therewith they rode on to open ground, and were on the side of a steep bent, broken on their right hands into a sheer cliff as Birdalone saw when the knight led her to the edge and bade her look over. Then she saw down into a fair dale lying far below them, through the which ran a little river, clear and swift, but not riotous, after it had fallen over a force at the upper end of the dale, and made the sound of water which she had heard. The said dale was so, that whatsoever was on the other side thereof was hidden by tall and great trees, that stood close together some twenty yards aloof from the stream, and betwixt them and it was fair greensward with a few bushes and thorn-trees thereon.
Quoth the knight: Down there shall we rest till tomorrow, if it please thee, lady; and since the sun will set in an hour, we were best on our way at once. It pleases me well, said Birdalone, and I long to tread the turf by the river-side, for I am weary as weary may be of the saddle and the pass.
So down the bent they rode, and it was but a little ere they had ridden it to an end, and had met the river as it swept round the cliff-wall of the valley; and they rode through it, and came on to the pleasant greensward aforesaid under the trees; and in a bight of the wood was a bower builded of turf and thatched with reed; and there, by the bidding of the knight, they alighted; and the knight said: This is thine house for to-night, my lady; and thou mayest lie there in all safety after thou hast supped, and mayst have my weapons by thy side if thou wilt, while I lie under the trees yonder. And if thou wilt bathe thee in the cool water, to comfort thee after the long ride and the weariness, I swear by thy hand that I will take myself out of eye-shot and abide aloof till thou call me.
Said Birdalone, smiling somewhat: Fair sir, I will not have my watch and ward unarmed; keep thou thy weapons; and thou wilt not forget, perchance, that I am not wholly unarmed, whereas I have my bow and arrows and my knife here. And as to my bathing, I will take thee at thy word, and bid thee go aloof a while now at once; for I will go down to the water; and if thou spy upon me, then will it be thy shame and not mine.
The knight went his ways therewith, and Birdalone went down to the water and unclad her; but ere she stepped into the river, she laid her bow and three shafts on the lip thereof. Then she took the water, and disported her merrily therein; and now, forsooth, she was nowise downcast, for she said to herself, this man is not all evil and he lovest me well, and I look for it that tomorrow he will bring me on my way toward the Castle of the Quest, for mere love of me; and then shall he be a dear friend to me, and I will comfort him what I can for as long as we both live.
So she came out of the water and clad her, and then called aloud for the knight, and he came speedily unto her, as if he had been not exceeding far away, though he swore with a great oath that he had nowise espied her. She answered him nought, and they went side by side to the bower; and there the knight dight the victual, and they sat together and ate their meat like old friends; and Birdalone asked the knight concerning this valley and the bower, if he had known it for long, and he answered: Yea, lady, I was but a stripling when I first happened on the dale; and I deem that few know thereof save me; at least none of our flock knoweth thereof, and I am fain thereof, and keep them unknowing, for if my lord were to hear of my having a haunt privy unto me he would like it but ill.
Birdalone turned pale when she heard him speak of his lord; for fear of the Red Knight had entered into her soul, so that now the flesh crept upon her bones. But she enforced her to smile, and said: Yea, and what would he do to thee were he ill-content with thy ways? Forsooth, lady, said he, if he could spare me he would make an end of me in some miserable way; nay, if he were exceeding ill-content, he would do as much for me whether he could spare me or not; otherwise he would watch his occasion, and so grieve me that what he did would go to my very heart. Woe’s me! said Birdalone, thou servest an evil master. The knight answered not, and Birdalone went on speaking earnestly: It is a shame to thee to follow this fiend; why dost thou not sunder thee from him, and become wholly an honest man? Said he gruffly: It is of no use talking of this, I may not; to boot, I fear him. Then did Birdalone hold her peace, and the knight said: Thou dost not know; when I part from thee I must needs go straight to him, and then must that befall which will befall. Speak we no more of these matters.
Birdalone flushed with hope and joy as he spake thus, for she took him to mean that he would lead her, on the morrow, on her way to the Castle of the Quest. But the knight spake in a voice grown cheerful again: As to this bower, lady, the tale thereof is soon told; for with mine own hands I builded it some fifteen years ago; and I have come to this place time and again when my heart was overmuch oppressed with black burdens of evil and turmoil, and have whiles prevailed against the evil, and whiles not. Mayst thou prevail this time, then! said she. He answered her not, but presently fell to talking with her of other matters, and the two were frank and friendly together, till the August night grew dark about them; and then spake Birdalone: Now would I rest, for I can no longer keep mine eyes open. Abide aloof from me tomorrow morning till I call to thee, as thou didst this evening; and then, before we eat together again, thou shalt tell me what thou wilt do with me. He stood up to depart, and she reached out her hand to him in the glimmer, and he saw it, but said: Nay, if I take thine hand, I shall take thine whole body. And therewith he departed, and she laid her down in her smock alone, and slept anon, and was dreamless and forgetting everything till the sun was up in the morning.