CHAPTER III ~ HOW THEY FOLLOW THE SLOT OF BIRDALONE AND THE BLACK KNIGHT
It was but five minutes ere the priest had told them all that need was; so they let him abide alone there, though sooth to say there was none of them but had good will to break his neck; and the same rede had all three, that there was nought for it but to go their ways with all speed to the Black Valley of the Greywethers, and follow up the slot of Birdalone if it might yet be found; wherefore they bade saddle their horses straightway; and while that was a-doing they ate a morsel, and bade farewell to their lovelings. And they dight them to go, they three together, with but one squire and a sergeant, who were both of them keen trackers and fell woodsmen. But ere they went, by the rede of Arthur they bade Sir Aymeris to arm a two score of men and ride toward the Red Hold, and beset the ways ‘twixt that and the Castle of the Quest; for one and all they deemed that if any harm befell Birdalone, the Red Knight would be at the bottom of it.
So rode those fellows, and came unto the dale but some four hours after Birdalone had happened on the stranger knight; and they took up the slot of her, but not easily, whereas the ground was hard and stony; howbeit, they found tokens of the knight also, finding here and there what they deemed the footprints of a tall man. And this was grievous to those fellows, since now they could not but deem that somewhat untoward had befallen Birdalone. But they went on making out the slot, and they followed it with much toil until they came to the doom-ring in the head of the dale, whereas Birdalone and the stranger had sat down to meat; but by that time, so toilsome had been their going, it was somewhat more than dusk, and there was nought for it but to abide there night-long. So a while they sat talking, all of them, and the squire and the sergeant aforesaid were not a little timorous of the adventure of making that stead unkenned their sleeping chamber; and to while away the time, their lords made them tell tales such as they knew concerning that place; and both they said that they had never erst come into the dale but a very little way, and said that they had done so then but trusting in their lords’ bidding and the luck of the Quest. Thereafter turned the talk as to what had befallen Birdalone, and the chances of coming on her; and, as folk will in such a plight, they talked the matter over and over again till they were weary and could say no more.
Then they went to sleep, and nought befell them till they awoke in the broad daylight; but they had little inkling of what hour it was, for all the dale was full of thick white mist that came rolling down from the mountains, so that they could scarce see their hands before them, and there they had to tarry still, would they, would they not; and the sergeant fell to telling tales of folk who had been lost in that stony maze; and all of them deemed, more or less, that this was the work either of evil wights, or it might be of the wizardry of the Red Knight; and, to be short, they all deemed that he it was who had wielded it, save the sergeant, who said that the mountain wights were the masters and not the servants of him of the Red Hold.
Thus, then, it betided; but when the said mist had been hanging upon them for some six hours, it rolled up like a curtain, and lo the blue sky and the sun, and the mountains as clear blue as in a picture; and they saw by the sun that it was but a little after high noon.
But as they rejoiced herein, and betook them once more to tracking out the slot of Birdalone and the other, the sky became suddenly overcast, and down from the jaws of the mountain came a storm of wind and rain, and thunder and lightning, so great that they might scarce see each other’s faces, and when it cleared off, in about an hour and a half, and went down the wind to the south-east, the stream was waxen great, and ran brown and furious down the dale, so that it was fordable only here and there; and as for tracking the slot of those twain, there was no need to talk thereof, for the fury of the driving rain had washed all away.
Thus fared they the whole day betwixt fog and clear weather, and they laid them down to rest at night sore disheartened. When the day broke they talked together as to what was best to do; and the sergeant aforesaid spake: Lords, said he, meseemeth I am more at home in the Black Valley than ye be; heed ye not wherefore. Now so it is that if we tarry here till night come we wot not what of evil may betide us, or at the least we do nought. Or if we turn back and go southward out of the dale we shall be safe indeed; but safe should we have been at your house, lords, and should have done no less. But now I shall tell you that, if ye will, lords, I shall guide you to a pass that goeth out of the head of the dale to our right hands, and so turneth the flank of the mountains, and cometh out into the country which lieth about the Red Hold; and meseemeth it is thitherward that we must seek if we would hear any tidings of the lady; for there may we lay in ambush and beset the ways that lead up to the Hold, by which she must have been brought if she hath not been carried through the air. How say ye, lords? Soothly there is peril therein; yet meseemeth peril no more than in our abiding another night in the Black Valley.
Said Arthur: We heed not the peril if there be aught to be done; wherefore let us be stirring straightway. And so said they all. Wherefore they gat to horse, and rode up to the very head of the valley, and the weather was now calm and bright.
But the sergeant brought them to the pass whereof the stranger knight had spoken to Birdalone, which led into the Red Knight’s country, and without more ado they entered it when it was now about three hours after noon. But the way was both steep and rough, so that they had much toil, and went not very far ere night fell upon them, and the moon was not yet up. So when they had stumbled on another two hours, and their horses were much spent and they themselves not a little weary, they laid them down to sleep, after they had eaten such meat as they had with them, in a place where was a little grass for the horses to bite; for all the road hitherto had been mere grim stones and big rocks, walled on either side by stony screes, above which rose steep and beetling crags.
In the dawn they arose again, and made no ado till they were in the saddle, and rode till they came to the crest of the pass, and came out thence after a while on to the swelling flank of a huge mountain (as it might be the side of the mountain of Plinlimmon in Wales), which was grassed and nought craggy, but utterly treeless.
Now the sergeant led them somewhat athwart the said mountain till they began to go down, and saw below them a country of little hills much covered with wood, and in a while, and ere it was noon, they were among the said woods, which were grown mostly with big trees, as oak here and beech there, and the going was good for them.