The Water of the Wondrous Isles 4-5
CHAPTER V ~ SIR AYMERIS SHOWETH BIRDALONE THE MOUNTAINS AFAR OFF
When it was morning and they arose, the day was as fair as yesterday, and folk were even as joyous as they had been then, all but Birdalone, and she was silent and downcast, even when she came forth from the fresh water into the sweetness of the midsummer wood. She had dreamed in the night that she was all alone in the Castle of the Quest, and that her old mistress came to her from out of the Sending Boat to fetch her away, and brought her aboard, and stripped her of her rich garments and sat facing her, drawing ugsome grimaces at her; and she thought she knew that her friends were all dead and gone, and she had none to pity or defend her. Then somehow were they two, the witch and she, amidmost of the Isle of Nothing, and the witch drew close anigh her, and was just going to whisper into her ear something of measureless horror, when she awoke; and the sun was bright outside the shaded whiteness of her tent; the shadows of the leaves were dancing on the ground of it; the morning wind was rustling the tree-boughs, and the ripple of the stream was tinkling hard by. At first was Birdalone joyous that what she had awakened from was but a dream; but presently she felt the burden of her longing, and she said to herself that when they came back to the castle they should find tidings, and that she should know either that her friends were indeed dead, or that they were come back again alive and well. And then she thought within herself, suppose the three Champions and their loves were dead and gone, how would she do with those that were left her, as Sir Aymeris, and Leonard the priest, and her women? and her soul turned with loathing from a life so empty as that would be; and yet she blamed herself that she was so little friendly to these lesser friends, whom forsooth she loved because of her love for the greater ones. So, as abovesaid, she was troubled and silent amongst the joy of the others.
That saw Sir Aymeris the castellan; and when they had broken fast and were getting to horse, he came to her and said: Lady, the day is yet young, and if we fetch a compass by a way that I wot of we shall see places new to thee, and mayhappen somewhat wonderful, and yet come home timely to the castle. Wilt thou?
Birdalone was still somewhat distraught, but she knew not how to naysay him, though at heart she would liefer have gone back to the castle by the shortest way. So folk brought her her palfrey, and they rode their ways, the castellan ever by her side. And by fair ways indeed they went, and so joyous was all about them, that little by little Birdalone’s gladness came back to her, and she made the most of it to be as merry of seeming as she might be.
Now they rode fair and softly by thicket and copse and glade of the woodland, following up the stream aforesaid for the more part, till at last the trees failed them suddenly, and they came forth on to a wide green plain, all unbuilded, so far as their eyes could see, and beyond it the ridges of the hills and blue mountains rising high beyond them.
When Birdalone’s eyes beheld this new thing, of a sudden all care left her, and she dropped her rein, and smote her palms together, and cried out: Oh! but thou art beautiful, O earth, thou art beautiful! Then she sat gazing on it, while the greyhead turned and smiled on her, well pleased of her pleasure.
After a while she said: And might we go nigher? Yea, certes, said he, yet I doubt if thou wilt like it the better, the nigher thou art. Ah! she said, but if I were only amidst it, and a part of it, as once I was of the woodland!
So thitherward they rode over the unharvested mead, and saw hart and hind thereon, and wild kine, and of smaller deer great plenty, but of tame beasts none; and the hills were before them like a wall. But as they drew nigher, they saw where the said wall of the hills was cloven by a valley narrow and steep-sided, that went right athwart the lie of the hills; the said valley was but little grassed, and the bare rocks were crow-black. When they had gone a little further, they could see that the ground near the foot of the hills rose in little knolls and ridges, but these were lower and fewer about the entry into that valley. Also presently they came upon a stream which ran out of the said valley, and Sir Aymeris said that this was the water whereby they had lain last night; albeit here it was little indeed.
Now when they had ridden some five miles over the plain, they came amongst those knolls at the mouth of the valley, and Sir Aymeris led Birdalone up to the top of one of the highest of them, and thence they could look into that dale and see how it winded away up toward the mountains, like to a dismal street; for not only was it but little grassed, but withal there was neither tree nor bush therein. Moreover, scattered all about the bottom of the dale were great stones, which looked as if they had once been set in some kind of order; and that the more whereas they were not black like the rocks of the dale-side, but pale grey of hue, so that they looked even as huge sheep of the giants feeding down the dale.
Then spake Birdalone: Verily, sir knight, thou saidst but sooth that I should see things new and strange. But shall we go a little way into this valley today? Nay, lady, said Sir Aymeris, nor tomorrow, nor any day uncompelled; neither shall we go nigher unto it than now we be. Wherefore not? said Birdalone, for meseemeth it is as the gate of the mountains; and fain were I in the mountains.
Lady, said the castellan, overmuch perilous it were to ride the valley, which, as thou sayest, is the very gate of the mountains. For the said dale, which hight the Black Valley of the Greywethers, hath a bad name for the haunting of unmanlike wights, against which even our men-at-arms might make no defence. And if any might escape them, and win through the gates and up into the mountains, I wot not if suchlike devils and things unkent be there in the mountain-land, but of a sooth there be fierce and wild men, like enough to devils, who know no peace, and slay whatsoever cometh unto them, but if they themselves be slain of them.
Well, said Birdalone, then today, at least, we go not into the dale; but knowest thou any tales of these wild places? Many have I heard, said he, but I am an ill minstrel and should spoil them in the telling. Ask them of Sir Leonard our priest, he knoweth of them better than others, and hath a tongue duly shapen for telling them.
Birdalone answered nought thereto; she but turned her horse’s head and rode down the knoll; and so they came unto their company, and all went their ways toward the Castle of the Quest.
Nought befell them on their way home; but the nigher they came to the castle the more pensive waxed Birdalone, and, though she hid it, when they were come to the gate she scarce had her wit; for it was as if she thought to have one rushing out and crying: Tidings, tidings! they are come.
Nowise it so befell; they were no more come than was the Day of Doom. And a little after they were within gates; it was night, and Birdalone crept wearily up to her chamber, and gat to bed, and so tired was she that she fell asleep at once and dreamed not.