CHAPTER VII ~ BIRDALONE TELLETH THE TALE OF HER WANDERING UP THE VALLEY OF THE GREYWETHERS
Now Viridis did as she said, and brought them all in to the solar; there was none lacking save Baudoin, and they sat silently in a half ring, till the door opened and Birdalone came in to them, clad all simply in but a black coat; and she made obeisance to them, and stood there with her head bent down as if they were her judges, for so in sooth she deemed them. Then Hugh bade her sit down amongst them; but she said: Nay, I will not sit amongst you till ye have heard my story, and ye have told me that I am yet of your fellowship. None said aught; Atra looked straight before her, and her eyes met not Birdalone’s eyes; Arthur looked down on the ground; but Hugh and Viridis looked kindly on Birdalone, and to Viridis’ eyes the tears were come.
Then spake Birdalone and said: I am here as one that hath done amiss; but I will tell you, so that ye may not think worse of me than ye should, that when ye were gone, ye Champions, and the time wore long that ye came not again, it lay heavy on my heart, and hope waned and fear waxed, and my soul so grieved my body that I thought to fall sick thereof, and I knew that it would be ill for you to come home hither and find me sick; so that I longed sore to do somewhat which should make me whole again. Then weird would that I should hear all the tale of the Black Valley of the Greywethers, and of how therein is whiles granted fulfilment of desire; and methought how well it were if I might seek the adventure there and accomplish it. Thereof, doubtless, hath the chaplain, Sir Leonard, told you; but this furthermore would I say, that his doing herein was nought; all was done by my doing and by my bidding, and he might not choose but do it. Wherefore I do pray you all earnestly that ye keep no grudge against him, but pardon him all. Tell me, then, will ye do thus much?
Said Hugh: Let him be pardoned, if he can take pardon. But Arthur spake not, and Birdalone looked on him anxiously, and her face was moved, and it was with her throat as if she had swallowed something down. Then she spake again, and fell to tell them all that had betid to her when she went to the Black Valley, even as is hereafore writ, hiding nought that had been done and said; and freely she told it, without fear or shame, and with such clearness and sweetness of words that no one of them doubted her aught; and Arthur lifted up his head, and once and again his eyes met hers, and there was nought of hardness in them, though they turned away at once.
So at last fell Birdalone to telling what betid after they two, the stranger knight and she, left the valley of the force and fell to riding the wildwood with their heads turned toward the Castle of the Quest; and she said:
When we turned into the wood away from the said valley it lacked some four hours of noon; and we rode till noon was, and rested by a stream-side and ate, for we knew no cause wherefore we should hasten overmuch; but my fellow the strange knight was downcast and heavy, and some might have called him sullen. But I strove to make him of better cheer, and spake to him kindly, as to one who of an enemy had become a friend; but he answered me: Lady, it availeth not; I grieve that I am no better company than thou seest me, and I have striven to be merrier; but apart from all that I wot and that thou wottest which should make me of evil cheer, there is now a weight upon my heart which I cannot lift, such as never have I felt erst. So by thy leave we will to horse at once, that we may the speedier come to the Castle of the Quest and Sir Aymeris’ prison.
So I arose, but smiled on him and said: Hold up thine heart, friend! for thee shall be no prison at the Castle of the Quest, but the fair welcome of friends. He said nought, and mended not his cheer; and in this plight we gat to horse and rode on for some three hours more, till we came out of the thick forest into a long clearing, which went like a wide highway of greensward between the thicket, and it seemed as if the hand of man had cleared that said green road. Thereto we had come, following a little river which came out on to the clearing with us, and then, turning, ran well-nigh amidst it toward the north.
Now when we were come thither, and were betwixt the thicket and the water’s edge, we drew rein, and it seemed to me as fair a stead as might be in the woodland, and I looked thereon well pleased and with a happy heart. But the knight said: Lady, art thou not exceeding weary? Nay, said I, not in any wise. Said he: It is strange then, for so weary am I, that I must in any case get off my horse and lay me down on the grass here, or I shall drop from the saddle. And therewith he lighted down and stood by me a little, as to help me off my horse; but I said to him: Knight, I pray thee, even if ye be weary, to struggle forward a little, lest we be in peril here. In peril? quoth he; yea, that might be if the Red Knight knew of our whereabouts; but how should that be? He spoke this heavily, as one scarce awake; and then he said: I pray thee pardon me, lady, but for nought may I hold my head up; suffer me to sleep but a little, and then will I arise and lead thee straight to thy journey’s end. Therewithal he laid him down on the grass and was presently asleep, and I sat down by him all dismayed. At first, indeed, I doubted some treachery in him, for how might I trust him wholly after all that had come and gone? but when I saw that there was no feigning in his sleep, I set that doubt aside, and knew not what to make of it.
Thus passed an hour, and from time to time I shook him and strove to waken him, but it was all in vain; so I knew none other rede than to abide his awakening; for I knew not the way to take toward this castle; and, moreover, though he were a knight, and armed, yet might it be perilous for him if he were left there alone and unguarded; so I abode.
But now came new tidings. Methought I heard the sound of the tinkling of weapons and armour; the green highway so turned that a wood neb about an hundred yards to the north hid it from my sight, so that a man might have drawn somewhat near to us without being seen, came he on the hither side of the river. So I stood up hastily, and strung my bow, and took a shaft in my fingers, and no sooner was it done than there came a rider round about the aforesaid wood neb. He was all-armed and had a red surcoat, and rode a great shining bay horse. I kept my eye upon him while I stirred the sleeping knight with my foot, and cried to him to wake, but he scarce moved, and but uttered words without sense.
Now the new-comer drew rein for a moment when he saw us, and then moved on a little toward me, but I nocked a shaft and pointed it at him, and cried out to him to stay. Then I heard a great rattling laugh come from him, and he shouted: Nay, do thou stay, fair wood-wife, and I will risk thy shafts to come at thee. But why doth not the sluggard at thy feet rise up and stand before me, if he be thy loveling? Or is he dead? His voice was harsh and big, and I feared him sore; and it was as much because of fear as of hardihood, that I drew and loosed straightway; and doubtless it was because of fear that I saw my shaft fly an inch or so over his right shoulder. I heard his rattling laugh again, and saw him bend forward as he spurred; I knew that time lacked for drawing another shaft, so I caught up my skirts and ran all I might; but swift-foot as I be, it availed me nought, for I was cumbered with my gown, and moreover I was confused with not knowing whither to run, since I wotted that in the water the horse would do better than I.
So he was up with me in a twinkling, and reached out his hand and caught hold of me by the hair, and tugged me to him as he reined back his horse. Then he laughed again and said: Forsooth she will look better when she is no longer reddened and roughened with fleeing; and, by Red Peter! what limbs she hath. Then he let me loose and got off his horse, and shoved me on before him till we came to where the Black One lay still sleeping heavily. Then the Red Knight stood against me, and looked hard into my face; and I saw how huge a man he was, and how a lock of bright red hair came out from under his sallet. His eyes were green and fierce underneath shaggy red eyebrows; terrible he was to look on.
Now he spake fiercely and roughly, and as though he had something against me: Tell me, thou, who thou art and who this is? I answered nought, for fear had frozen my speech. He stamped his foot on the ground and cried: Hah! art thou gone dumb? Speak! thou wert best! I said, all quaking: My name is Birdalone; I belong to no one; I have no kindred: as for this man, I know not his name. He said: Comest thou from the Castle of the Quest? Art thou the whore of those lily-and-rose champions there? My heart was hot with anger in spite of my dread, but I spake: I came from the Castle of the Quest. He said: And this man (therewith he turned about and spurned him in the side), where didst thou happen upon him? Again I was silent, and he roared out at me: So thou wilt not answer! Beware, or I may see how to compel the speech of thee. Now answer me this: Was it in the Black Valley of the Greywethers that ye two came together? Again I knew not how to answer, lest I might do a wrong to him who had repented him of the wrong he had done me. But the Red Knight burst out a-laughing and said: It shall be remembered against thee, first, that thou didst let fly a shaft at me; second, that thou didst run from me; and thirdly, that thou hast been slack in answering my questions. But all this scathes me nought; first, because thy shaft missed me; second, because thy legs failed thee (though they were fair to look on, running); and third, because all thou canst tell me I know without thine answering. Now thee will I tell that this is Friday, and that ye two first met in the Black Valley on Tuesday; now I will ask this last question, and thou mayst answer it or not as thou wilt; for presently I shall wake this brisk and stirring knight, and I deem that he will tell me the truth of this if of nought else. Tell me, thou whore of the Questing Champions, where and how many times thou hast lain in this good knight’s arms since last Tuesday? Nowhere and never, quoth I. Thou liest, I doubt thee, said the Red Knight; howsoever, let us see what this doughty one will say. Hah! thou deemest he shall be hard to wake up, dost thou not! Well, I shall see to that. He who giveth sleep may take it away again.
Therewith he went up to the Black One and stooped adown over his head, and spake some words over him, but so softly that I heard not their import; and straightway the sleeper rose up so suddenly that he wellnigh smote against the Red Knight. He stood awhile staggering, and blinking at the other one, but somehow got his sword drawn forth, and the Red Knight hindered him nought therein, but spake anon when the other was come to himself somewhat: The sele of the day to thee, Sir Thomas, True Thomas! Fair is thy bed, and most fair thy bedfellow.
The Black Knight drew aback from him and was now come awake, wherefore he stood on his guard, but said nought. Then said the Red Knight: Sir Thomas, I have been asking this fair lady a question, but her memory faileth her and she may not answer it; perchance thou mayst do better. Tell me where and how many times hast thou bedded her betwixt last Tuesday and this? Nowhere and never, cried Sir Thomas, knitting his brows and handling his sword. Hah, said the Red Knight, an echo of her speech is this. Lo, the tale ye have made up betwixt you. But at least, having done mine errand, though meseemeth somewhat leisurely, and having gotten the woman for me, thou art now bringing her on to the Red Hold, whatever thou hast done with her on the road? I am not, said my fellow, I am leading her away from the Red Hold. Pity of thee, quoth the other, that thou hast fallen in with me, and thou but half-armed. And he raised aloft his sword; but presently sank it again, and let the point rest on the earth.
Then he spoke again, not mockingly as erst: A word before we end it, Thomas: thou hast hitherto done well by me, as I by thee. I say thou hast gotten this woman, and I doubt not that at first thou hadst the mind to bring her to me unminished; but then thou wert overcome by her beauty, as forsooth I know thee woman-mad, and thou hadst meant to keep her for thyself, as forsooth I marvel not. But in thy love-making thou hast not bethought thee that keep her to thyself thou mayst not while I am above ground, save thou bewray me, and join thee to my foemen and thine. Because I am such a man, that what I desire that will I have. For this reason, when I misdoubted me of thee for thy much-tarrying, I cast the sleep over thee, and have caught thee. For what wilt thou do? Doubt it not, that if our swords meet, I shall pay thee for trying to take my bedthrall from me by taking from thee no more than thy life. But now will I forgive thee all if thou wilt ride home quietly with me and this damsel-errant to the Red Hold, and let her be mine and not thine so long as I will; and then afterwards, if thou wilt, she shall be thine as long as thou wilt. Now behold, both this chance and thy life is a mere gift of me to thee, for otherwise thou shalt have neither damsel nor life.
Yea, yea, said my friend, I know what thou wouldest: I have been no unhandy devil to thee this long while, and thou wouldst fain keep me still; but now I will be devil no longer, on this earth at least, but will die and take my luck of it. And do thou, God, see to the saving of this damsel, since thou hast taken the matter out of my hands. Farewell, dear maiden!
Scarce was the word out of his mouth ere his sword was in the air, and he smote so fierce and straight that he beat down the huge man’s blade, and, ere he could master it again, smote the Red Knight so heavily on the crest that he fell to his knees; and the heart rose in me, for I deemed that he might yet prevail; and in as ’twere a flash I bethought me of the knife at my girdlestead, and drew it and ran to the Red Knight, and tore aside his mail hood with one hand and thrust the knife into his shoulder with the other; but so mighty was he that he heeded nought the hurt, but swept his sword back-handed at the Black Knight’s unarmed leg, and smote him so sore a wound that down he fell clattering. Then arose the Red Knight, and thrust me from him with the left hand, and strode over my fellow-farer and thrust his sword through his throat. Then he turned to me, and spake in a braying voice as if a harsh horn were blown:
Abide thou; if thou takest one step I will slay thee at once. So he went and sat down on a bank a little way from the dead man, and wiped his sword on the grass and laid it beside him, and so sat pondering a while. Thereafter he called me to him, and bade me stand in face of him with my hands clasped before me. Then he spake to me: Thou art my thrall and my having, since I had thus doomed it no few days ago; and thou art now in my hands for me to do with as I will. Now instead of being meek and obedient to me thou hast rebelled against me, shot an arrow at me, run from me, denied answer to my questions, and thrust a knife into me. To be short, thou hast made thyself my foe. Furthermore, it is by thy doing that I have lost a right good servant and a trusty fellow, and one that I loved; it is thou that hast slain him. Now have I been pondering what I shall do with thee. I said: If I have deserved the death, then make an end and slay me presently; but bring me not to thine house, I pray thee. I pray by the mother that bore thee!
Quoth he: Hold thy peace, it is not what thou deservest that I am looking to, but what shall pleasure me. Now hearken; I say that thou hast made thee my foe, and I have overcome thee; thou art my runaway thrall, and I have caught thee. As my foe I might slay thee in any evil way it might like me; as my thrall I might well chastise thee as sharply and as bitterly as I would. But it is not my pleasure to slay thee, rather I will bring thee to the Red Hold, and there see what we may make of thee; whereas I cannot but deem that in thee is the making of somewhat more than a thrall; and if not, then a thrall must thou needs be. Again as to the chastising of thee, that also I forgive thee since I have gotten the hope aforesaid. Yet forsooth some shame must I do thee to pay thee back for the love that was betwixt thee and the slain man. I will ponder what it shall be; but take heed that whatsoever it shall be, it will not avail thee to pray me to forego it, though thy speech be as fair and sweet as thy body.
Therewith he was silent a while, and I stood there not daring to move, and my heart was so downcast that all the sweetness of life seemed departed. Yet I withheld lamentations or prayers, thinking within myself, who knows what occasion may be between this and the Red Hold for my escaping; let me keep myself alive for that if it may be.
Presently he arose and took his sword, and went up to the slain man’s body and smote the head from off it. Then he went to the two horses of Sir Thomas and of me, and took from them such gear of girths and thongs as he would, and therewith he dight me as ye saw, doing a girth about my middle and making me fast to a line wherewith to hold me in tow. And then he did that other thing which sickens my very soul to tell of, to wit, that he took the slain man’s head and tied a lace thereto, and hung it about my neck; and as he did so, he said: This jewel shalt thou thyself bear to mine house; and there belike shall we lay it in earth, since the man was my trusty fellow. Lo now, this is all the ill I shall do thee till it be tried of what avail thou art. This is a shaming to thee and not a torment, for I will ride a foot’s-pace, and the green way is both soft and smooth; wherefore fear not that I shall throw thee down or drag thee along. And tomorrow thy shame shall be gone and we shall see what is to betide.
Lo, friends, this is the last word he spake ere he was slain, and the ending of my tale; for we had gone thus but a little way ere ye brake out of the wood upon us; and then befell the death of one friend, and the doubt, maybe, of the others, and all the grief and sorrow that I shall never be quit of unless ye forgive me where I have done amiss, and help me in the days to come. And she spread out her hands before them, and bowed her head, and the tears fell from her eyes on to the floor.
Viridis wept at Birdalone’s weeping, and Aurea for her own sorrow, which this other sorrow stirred. Atra wept not, but her face was sadder than weeping.
But Arthur spake and said: Herein hath been the hand of Weird, and hath been heavy on us; but no blame have we to lay on our sister Birdalone, nor hath she done light-mindedly by us; though maybe she erred in not trusting to the good-hap of the Quest to bring us back in due time: and all that she saith do we trow as if it were written in the Holy Gospel. They all yeasaid this, and called on her to come amongst them; but she thought of little at first save the joy of hearing the sweetness of those words as Arthur spake them; wherefore she hung back a little, and thought shame of it that she might not give more heed to the others of them. Then came Viridis and took her by the hand and led her to Sir Hugh, and Birdalone knelt down before him and took his hand to kiss it, but he put both hands about her face and kissed her kindly and merrily on the lips. Then she knelt before Aurea, and was hapless before her; but Aurea kissed her, and bade her be of better cheer, albeit the words came coldly from her mouth. Next she came to Arthur, and knelt before him and took his hand and kissed it, and thanked him kindly for his kind words, looking into his face meanwhile; and she saw that it was pale and troubled now, and she longed to be alone with him that she might ask him wherefore.
As for Atra, she arose as Birdalone came before her, and cast her arms about her neck, and wept and sobbed upon her bosom, and then went hurrying from out the solar and into the hall, and walked to and fro there a while until the passion that tore her was lulled somewhat, and she might show her face to them calm and friendly once more. And as she entered Arthur was speaking, and he said:
To you, ladies, I tell what we of the castle wot better than well, that our dear friend hath escaped so heavy a fate in escaping the Red Hold, that it were unmeet for us to murmur at our loss in our fellow; for a warrior’s life, which is ever in peril of death, is nought over heavy a ransom for such a friend, and so dear and lovely, from such a long and evil death. Whereas ye must wot that the said Hold hath this long while been a very treasure-house of woes and a coffer of lamentations; for merciless was the tyrant thereof, and merciless all his folk. Now another time, when ye are stronger in heart than now ye be, I may tell you tales thereof closer and more nicely of those who did his will; as of his innermost band of men-at-arms, called the Millers; and of his fellow-worker in wizardry and venoms, called the Apothecary; and the three hags, called the Furies; and the three young women, called the Graces; and his hounds that love man’s flesh; and the like tales, as evil as nightmares turned into deeds of the day. But now and here will I say this, that when we have done the obsequies of our dear fellow, it were good that we follow up the battle so valiantly begun by him. I mean that the Quest of our ladies being now accomplished, we should turn what is left of the fellowship into a war against the Red Hold and its evil things; and that so soon as the relics of Baudoin are laid in earth, we gather force and go thither in arms to live or die in the quarrel, and so sweeten the earth, as did the men of ancient days when they slew the dragons and the giants, and the children of hell, and the sons of Cain.
His cheek flushed as he spoke, and he looked around till his eyes fell on Birdalone, and he saw that her face also glowed and her eyes gleamed; but Viridis, her heart sank so that she paled, and her lips trembled.
But Aurea spake and said: I thank thee for thy word, Black Squire, and I know that my man shall rejoice in Paradise when he knoweth of it, and thereof shall I tell him tomorrow when the mass is said for him.
And Atra said: Good is the word, and we look to it that the deed shall be better yet. Thus hath the evil arisen that shall destroy the evil, as oft hath been when the valiant have been grieved, and the joy of the true-hearted hath been stolen from them; then the hand doth the doughty deed and the heart hath ease, and solaced is sorrow.
They looked on her and wondered, for she spake with her head upraised and her eyes glittering, as she had been one of the wise women of yore agone. And Birdalone feared her, though she loved her.
Lastly spake Hugh, and said: Brother, this is well thought of indeed, and I marvel that I did not prevent thee; and I am thine to live and die with thee. And the adventure is nought unlikely; for if we have lost a captain they have lost their head devil, and their head little devil; moreover, the good men of Greenford shall join them to us, and that shall make us strong, whereas they have men enough, and those stout men-at-arms; and artificers they have to make us engines, and do other wisdom; and therewithal money to buy or to wage what they will. Wherefore, to my mind, we were best to make no tarrying, but send out the messengers for the hosting straightway.
Straightway, said the Black Squire; and let us go now and find Sir Aymeris. So they arose both and went their ways, and left the women there alone, and were gone a good while.