CHAPTER IV ~ OF THE SLAYING OF FRIEND AND FOE
So came they, three hours after noon, to where was a clearing in the woodland, and a long narrow plain some furlong over lay before them, with a river running along it, and the wood rose on the other side high and thick, so that the said plain looked even as a wide green highway leading from somewhence to somewhither.
At the edge hereof their way-leader, the sergeant, bade draw rein, and said: Lords, we are now in the lands of the Red Hold, and therein is mickle peril and dread to any save stout hearts as ye be; but meseems we are so steaded, that whatever may come out of the Black Valley of the Greywethers to the Red Hold, ye now may scarce miss. Yonder along this plain to the north lies the way to the said Hold, and any man coming from the head of the valley is sure to come by the way we have come, and will pass us not many yards at the worst from where we now be. On the other hand, if any come to the Hold from the mouth of the Black Valley, then along this green road must they needs pass under your very eyes. Lastly, if we do what we are come to do, to wit, to deliver the lady from the Red Knight, then, the deed done, we have to take the green road southward, and ride it for a league and then turn east, and we shall have our heads turned toward the Castle of the Quest, and shall speedily fall in with Sir Aymeris and our men who be guarding the out-gates of the Red Knight’s country toward our house. So now, by my rede, ye shall lay in covert here and abide a while what may befall; if nought come hereby ere two hours be lacking of sunset, then may we seek further.
They all yeasaid this, and gat off their horses, and lay quiet on the grass, not even speaking save softly. And when they had abided thus scarce an hour’s space, the squire, who was a man of very fine ear, held up his hand as though to bid utter silence, and all hearkened eagerly. Presently he said: Hear ye not? Said Arthur: Meseemeth I hear a faint tinkle as of a sheep-bell. Said the squire: ’Tis the clashing of swords down the plain to the south, and meseemeth ’tis but of two: ride we thither?
Quoth Baudoin: Nay, not by my rede; for if we can hear them they can hear us; let us quietly edge along afoot somewhat nigher their way, ever keeping the cover of the wood betwixt us and the open plain. Now then to it; and let each man keep his weapons ready.
Even so did they, and spread out in a line as they went, in such wise that there was some six paces betwixt each man of them, and they went softly forward; Baudoin went first, Hugh second, then Arthur; then the squire and the sergeant last of all.
Now when they had gone but a quarter of an hour, the squire caught up with Arthur, and spake to him softly, and said: The voice of the swords has been silent now a while, and I heard a voice crying out e’en now, a woman’s voice. And now again I could well-nigh deem that I hear horse-hoofs.
Arthur nodded to him, and they went but a little further ere he said: Lo, lo! ’tis the time of the eyes now! Here come folk. And therewithal they stayed them. For the wood turned somewhat here, so as to hide all but a little of the plain, and round the wood neb the new-comers hove in sight, and were close on them at once, so that they might see them clearly, to wit, a knight weaponed, clad all in red, a very big man, riding on a great bay horse, and behind him a woman going afoot in very piteous plight; for she was tethered to the horse’s crupper by a thong that bound her wrists together, so that she had but just room left ‘twixt her and the horse that she might walk, and round about her neck was hung a man’s head newly hewn off.
This sight they all saw at once, and were out of the wood in a trice with weapons aloft, for they knew both the man and the woman, that they were the Red Knight and Birdalone.
So swift and sudden had they been, that he had no time either to spur or even to draw his sword; but he had a heavy steel axe in his hand as the first man came up to him, which was the tall Baudoin; and therewith he smote down on Baudoin so fierce and huge a stroke, that came on him betwixt neck and shoulder, that all gave way before it, and the Golden Knight fell to earth all carven and stark dead: but even therewith fell Hugh, the squire, and the sergeant on the Red Knight; for Arthur had run to Birdalone and sheared her loose from her tether. The sergeant smote him on the right arm with a maul, so that the axe fell to the ground; the squire’s sword came on the side of his head, and, as it was cast back beneath the stroke, Hugh thrust his sword through the throat of him, and down he fell unto the earth and was dead in less than a minute.
Then gathered the others round about Baudoin, and saw at once that he was dead; and Birdalone came thrusting through the press of them, and knelt down beside him, and when she saw her friend so piteously dight, she wept and wailed over him as one who might not be comforted; and Hugh stood over her and let his tears fall down upon the dead man; and withal the squire and the sergeant did not refrain their lamentations, for sore beloved was Sir Baudoin the Golden Knight.
But Arthur spake dry-eyed, though there was grief in his countenance, and he said: Fellows, and thou, lady, let us lament afterwards, but now is time for us to get us gone hence as speedily as may be. Yet I will ask, doth any know whose is this head that the slain tyrant here had hung about the lady’s neck? May the fiends curse him therefor!
Said the sergeant: Yea, lords, that wot I; this is the head of the Red Knight’s captain and head man, Sir Thomas of Estcliffe; one of the hardiest of knights he was while he was alive, as ye surely wot, lords; neither, as I have heard say, was he as cruel a tyrant as his lord that lieth there ready for the ravens.
Now had Birdalone arisen and was standing facing Arthur; her face was pale and full of anguish, and she was dabbled with blood from the dead man’s neck; but there was nought of shame in her face as she stood there and spoke: O my living friends, who have but now saved me, ye and my dead friends, from what shame and death I know not, the tale of this woeful hap is over long to tell if there be peril at hand, and I scarce alive from dread and sorrow; but shortly thus it is: This man, whose head here lieth, entrapped me as I foolishly wandered in the Black Valley, and afterwards delivered me, and was leading me to your castle, my friends, when this other one, his master, the tyrant of the Red Hold, came upon him, and fell upon him and slew him as a traitor, and dighted me as ye saw. And woe’s me! I am the fool whose folly has slain your friend and mine. Wherefore I am not worthy of your fellowship, and ye shall cast me forth of it; or to slay me were better.
So she spake, gazing earnestly on Arthur; and so troubled and grieved, that she might well have died but for her woodland breeding, and the toil of the days she had won through in the House under the Wood.
But Hugh spake gently to her and said: Keep up thine heart yet, maiden; for the hand of Fate it is that led thee, and none doeth grievously amiss but if he mean wrong-doing in his heart; and we know thee for true; and thou hast been our helper, and brought our lovelings unto us to make us happy.
But she brake out weeping afresh, and said: O no, no! it is but woe and weariness I have brought unto my friends; and to myself woe and weariness yet more.
And she looked piteously into Arthur’s face, and hard and stern it seemed unto her; and she writhed and wrung her hands for anguish. But he spake and said: This will we look into when we be safe behind our walls, and see what she hath done amiss and what not amiss. But now is there but one thing to do, and that is to get us speedily on our way to the Castle of the Quest, and bind our fellow’s body on his horse that he also may ride with us, and the lady shall ride the horse of the accursed thief. Then they turned to go toward their horses; but therewith Birdalone smote her foot against the slain knight’s head, and shrank aback from it, and pointed down toward it and spake no word; and Hugh said: Friends, the lady is right, this at least we will cover with earth. Do ye go fetch hither our horses, since we be on the road, and I will do here what need is meanwhile.
So they went on that errand, and then Hugh and Birdalone between them dug a hole with the swords and laid the head of the captain of the Red Knight therein. And forsooth, somewhat would Birdalone have wept for him had she had a tear to spare.
Then they fell to and bound the dead Baudoin on the Red Knight’s mighty bay steed, so that no time might be wasted; and when that was done, and the others had not come back with their horses, Hugh took Birdalone’s hand and led her down to the stream and washed the gore off her bosom, and she washed her face and her hands and let him lead her back again in such wise that now she could hearken to the words of comfort he spake to her, and piteous kind he seemed unto her; so that at last she plucked up heart, and asked him how Viridis did. Quoth he: They be all safe at home in the castle, and Viridis is well and loveth thee well. And Aurea was well, woe worth the while for her now! As for Atra, she has not been so glad as the other twain, I wot not wherefore.
Even as he spake were the others come up with the horses, and Arthur nodded yeasay when he saw what had been done with Baudoin dead; and so they gat to horse, and Birdalone it was that rode Baudoin’s steed. Then they went their ways, crossing the river into the wood; and the sergeant was ever way-leader, but the squire led the horse which bore the sorrowful burden of the dead Knight of the Quest.