CHAPTER IX ~ HUGH TELLS THE STORY OF THE QUEST'S ENDING.
When this was said, and there had been silence a while, Birdalone took up the word, and spake meekly and sweetly, saying: Dear friends, how it fared with you on the isle from the time of my leaving you, and how with you, true knights, from the time of your departure, I both were fain to know for the tale’s sake, and also I would take the telling thereof as a sign of your forgiveness of my transgression; so I would crave the same of you but if it weary you overmuch.
All they yeasaid her kindly, and Hugh spake and said: By your leave, fellows, I will tell in few words what betid us on our way to the Isle of Increase Unsought, and then shall Viridis take up the tale from the time that Birdalone left the said isle in the witch’s ferry. None said aught against it, and Hugh went on: Short is my tale of the journey: We came to the Isle of Nothing on the morrow’s morn of our departure, and being warned of thee, Birdalone, we abode there but a little while to rest us from the boat, and went nowhither from the strand, and so went on our way in a three hours’ space.
Thence again we took the water, and came to the Isle of Kings, and that was in the middle of the night: we beheld the dead long and heedfully when the morning came, and departed again before noon, and came to the Isle of Queens a little after nightfall. The next morning we deemed we needs must go see the images of those ladies, lest aught might have befell since thou wert there which might be of import to the Quest, but all was unchanged, and we came away while the day was yet young.
We made the Isle of the Young and the Old about sunset that day, and the boy and the girl came down to the strand to behold us and wonder at us, and we sported with them merrily a while; and then they brought us to the house of the old man, who received us courteously and gave us to eat and drink. Forsooth, when the night was somewhat spent, he brought out strong drink to us, and took it somewhat amiss that we drank not overmuch thereof, as forsooth he did, and so fell asleep. Before he was drunk we asked him many questions about the isle and its customs, but he knew nought to tell us of them. Of thee also we asked, sister, but he had no memory of thee.
On the morrow he fared down with us to our ferry, and made many prayers to us to take him along with us; for here, said he, is neither lordship nor fair lady; and if here I abide, soon shall I come to mine ending day, and sore I yearn for joyance and a long term to my years. Now we durst not take him aboard lest we should fare amiss with the wight of the Sending Boat; so we naysaid him courteously, thanked him for his guesting, and gave him gifts, to wit, a finger gold ring and an ouch of gold, so he turned away from us somewhat downcast as we deemed; but ere we had given the word to the Sending Boat we heard him singing merrily in a high cracked voice as he went on his way.
Now on this last day betid somewhat of new tidings; for scarce was this isle out of sight behind, ere we saw a boat come sailing toward us from the north-east, and it came on swiftly with a blue ripple of the lake behind it. Thereat we marvelled, and yet more when we saw that its sail was striped of gold and green and black; next then were we betwixt fear and joy when, as it drew nigher, we saw three women in the said boat, clad in gold, green, and black; and it came so nigh unto us at last, that we could see their faces that they were verily those of our lovelings; and each reached out her arms to us and called on us for help, each by our name: and there we were, oarless, sailless, at the mercy of our unkenned ferry. Then would Baudoin and I have leapt overboard to swim to our loves at all adventure; but Sir Arthur here stayed us, and bade us think of it, that we were now nearing the Witch-land, and if we might not look to be beset with guiles and gins to keep us from winning to our journey’s end; wherefore we forbore, though in all wretchedness, and the gay boat ran down the wind away from us, and the breeze and the ripple passed away with it, and the lake lay under the hot sun as smooth as glass; and on we went, weary-hearted.
Came again another sail out of the north-east, when the sun was getting low, and speedily it drew nigh, but this time it was no small boat or barge, but a tall ship with great sails, and goodly-towered she was and shield-hung, and the basnets gleamed and the spears glittered from her castle-tops and bulwarks, and the sound of her horns came down the wind as she neared us. We two handled our weapons and did on our basnets, but Arthur there, he sat still, and said: Not over-wise is the witch, that she lets loose on us two sendings in one day so like unto each other. Hah, said Baudoin, be we wary though; they are going to shoot. And sure enough we saw a line of bowmen in all the castles and even along, and a horn blew, and then forth flew the shafts, but whither we knew not, for none came anywhere anigh us; and Arthur laughed and said: A fair shot into the clouds; but, by our Lady! if none shot better in our country, I would bear no armour for their shafts. But we two were confused and knew not what to think.
The great ship flew past us on the wind as the barge had done, but when she was about half a mile aloof we saw her canvass fall to shivering and her yards swaying round, and Arthur cried out: St. Nicholas! the play beginneth again! she is coming about!
Even so it was, and presently she was bearing on us, and was ere long so close aboard that we could see her every spar and rope, and her folk all gathered to the windward, knights, sergeants, archers, and mariners, to gaze at us and mock us; and huge and devilish laughter arose from amongst them as she ploughed the water so close beside us, that one might well-nigh have cast a morsel of bread aboard her; for clear it was presently that she had no mind to run us down.
Spake Arthur then: There will be a fresh play presently, my mates, but ye sit fast, for meseemeth this show is no more perilous than the other, though it be bigger.
Scarce were the words out of his mouth, ere there was a stir amongst the men gathered in the waist, and lo, amidst a knot of big and fierce mariners, three women standing, pale, with flying hair, and their hands bound behind them, and one was clad in gold and another in green and the third in black; and their faces were as the faces of Aurea and Viridis and Atra.
Then there came forth from that ship a huge cruel roar blent with mocking laughter that shamed our very hearts, and those evil things in the form of mariners took hold of each one of the ladies and cast them overboard into the gulf of the waters, first Aurea, next Viridis, and then Atra; and we two stood up with our useless swords brandished and would have leapt over into the deep, but that Arthur arose also and took hold of an arm of each of us and stayed us, and said: Nay, then, if ye go, take me with you, and let all the Quest sink down into the deep, and let our lovelings pine in captivity, and Birdalone lose all her friends in one swoop, and we be known hereafter as the fools of lovers, the unstable.
So we sat us down, but huge shrieking laughter rose up unblended from the keel of the evil thing, and then they let her go down the wind, and she went her way with flashing of arms, and streaming of banners and pennons, and blowing of horns, and the sun was setting over the wide water.
But Arthur spake: Cheer up, brethren! see ye not how this proud witch is also but an eyeless fool to send us such a show, and the second time in one day to show us the images of our dearlings, who hours ago flitted past us in the stripe-sailed boat? Where, then, did they of the ship meet with them? Nay, lords, let not the anguish of love steal all your wits.
We saw we had been fools to be so overcast by guile, and yet were we exceeding ill at ease, and over-long the time seemed unto us until we should be come to the Isle of Increase Unsought, and find our lovelings there.
Now was the night come, and we fell asleep, but belike were not often all asleep at once; and at last it was, when we felt the dawn drawing near, though, the moon being down, it was the darkest of the summer night, that we were all three awake, when all of a sudden we heard just astern the rushing of the water, as though some keel were cleaving it, and dimly in the dark we saw a sail as of a boat overhauling us. Close at hand there rang out a lamentable cry: O, are ye there, fellows of the Quest? O, help me, friends! save me and deliver me, who am snatched away to be cast into the hands of my mistress that was. Help me, Baudoin, Hugh, Arthur! Help! help!
Then all we knew the voice of Birdalone, and Arthur leapt up, and would have been overboard in a trice had not we two held him, and he fought and cursed us well-favouredly, there is no nay thereto; and meanwhile the wailing voice of thee, my sister, died out in the distance, and the east grew grey, and dawn was come.
Then spake Baudoin: Arthur, my brother, dost thou not mark that this also was of the same sort of show as those two others, and thou who wert so wise before? It is but beguilings to bring the Quest to nought; wherefore call to mind thy manhood and thy much wisdom!
And we admonished him and rebuked him till he became quiet and wise again, but was sad and downcast and silent. But the Sending Boat sped on through the dawning, and when it was light we saw that we had the Isle of Increase close aboard, and we ran ashore there just as the sun was rising. Fain were we then to get out of the boat and feel earth under our feet. We took all our hards out of the boat, and hid away under the roots of an old thorn a little mail wherein was your raiment, my ladies, which ye had lent to Birdalone; then we did on our armour, and advised us of whereabout on the isle we were, and we saw the orchards and gardens before us, and the great fair house above all, even as ye told us of them, Birdalone.
Next, then, without more ado, we went our ways up through the orchard and the gardens, and when we were well-nigh at the end of them, and in face of those many steps ye spake of, we saw at the foot of them a tall woman clad in red scarlet, standing as if she abode our coming. When we drew nigh we saw that she was strong-looking, well-knit, white-skinned, yellow-haired, and blue-eyed, and might have been called a fair woman, as to her shaping, save that her face was heavy, yet hard-looking, with thin lips and somewhat flagging cheeks, a face stupid, but proud and cruel.
She hailed us as we came up, and said: Men-at-arms, ye be welcome to our house, and I bid you to eat and drink and abide here.
Then we louted before her, and bade her Hail; and Baudoin said: Lady, thy bidding will we take; yet have we an errand to declare ere we break bread with thee, lest when it is told we be not so welcome as ye tell us now. What is it? said she. Said Baudoin: This man here is called the Green Knight, and this the Black Squire, and I am the Golden Knight; and now will we ask thee if this isle be called the Isle of Increase Unsought? Even so have I called it, quoth she, wherefore I deem none other will dare call it otherwise. It is well, quoth Baudoin; but we have heard say that hereto had strayed three dear friends of ours, three maidens, who hight Viridis, the friend of the Green Knight, and Atra, who is the Black Squire’s, and Aurea, who is mine own friend, so we have come to take them home with us, since they have been so long away from their land and their loves. Now if they be thy friends thou wilt perchance let them go for love’s sake and the eking of friendship; but if they be thy captives, then are we well willing to pay thee ransom, not according to their worth, for no treasure heaped up might come nigh it, but according to thy desire, lady.
Laughed the proud lady scornfully and said: Big are thy words, Sir Knight: if I had these maidens in my keeping I would give them unto you for nothing, and deem that I had the best of the bargain. But here are they not. True it is that I had here three thralls who were hight as thou hast said; but a while ago, not many days, they transgressed against me till I chastised them; and then was I weary of them and would be quit of them; for I need no servants here, whereas I myself am enough for myself. Wherefore I sent them away across the water to my sister, who dwells in a fair place hight the House under the Wood; for she needeth servants, because the earth there yieldeth nought save to the tiller and the herdsman and the hunter, while here all cometh unsought. With her may ye deal, for what I know, and buy the maidens whom ye prize so high; though belike ye may have to give her other servants in their place. For, indeed, a while ago her thrall fled from her and left her half undone, and it is said that she came hither in her shamelessness: but I know not; if she did, she slipped through my fingers, or else I would have made her rue her impudence. Now meseemeth, Sir Knights, here is enough of so small and foolish a matter; and again I pray you to enter my poor house, and take meat and drink along with me, for ye be none the less welcome because of your errand, though it be a foolish one.
Now would Sir Baudoin have answered wrathfully, but Arthur plucked at his skirt, and he yeasaid the lady’s bidding, though somewhat ungraciously; but that she heeded nought; she took Sir Baudoin by the hand and led him up the stately perron, and thence came we into a pillared hall, as fair as might be. And there on the dais was a table dight with dainty meats and drinks, and the lady bade us thereto, and we sat to it.
Thereat was the lady buxom and merry: Baudoin scowled across the board; I was wary and silent; but Arthur was as blithe with the lady as she with him; nor did I altogether marvel thereat, since I knew him wise of wit.
But when we were done with the meal, the lady stood up and said: Now, Sir Knights, I will give you leave; but this house is as your own to roam through all its chambers and pleasure you with its wonders and goodliness; and when ye are weary of the house, then is the orchard and the garden free to you, and all the isle wheresoever ye will go. And here in this hall is meat and drink for you whenso ye will; but if ye would see me again today, then shall ye meet me where ye first happened on me e’en now, at the foot of the great perron.
Then she laid her hand on Arthur’s shoulder, and said: Thy big friend may search out every nook in this house, and every bush in the whole island, and if he find there the maidens he spake of, one or all of them, then are they a gift from me unto him.
Therewith she turned, and went out of the hall by a door in the side thereof; and now already meseemed that though the woman was hateful and thick-hearted and cruel, yet she was become fairer, or seemed so, than when we first came on her; and for my part I pondered on what it might grow to, and fear of her came into my soul.
Now spake Baudoin: Fellows, let us get out into the garden at least; for this place is evil, and meseems it smells and tastes of tears and blood, and that evil wights that hate the life of men are lurking in the nooks thereof. And lo, our very she-friend that was so kind and simple and dainty with us, there is, as it were, the image of the dear maiden standing trembling and naked before the stupid malice of this lump of flesh. So spake he, Birdalone.
But I said to Arthur in a soft voice: And when shall we slay her? Said he: Not until we have gotten from her all that may be gotten; and that is the living bodies of our friends. But come we forth.
So did we, and came down to the orchard and did off our helms, and lay down under a big apple-tree which was clear of cover all round about, and so fell to our redes; and I asked Arthur what he deemed of the story of our loves having been carried to the House under the Wood, and if it might not be tried seeking thither; but he laughed and said: Never would she have told us thereof had it been sooth: doubtless our friends are here on this isle, but, as I deem, not in the house, else had not the witch left all the house free for us to search into. Yea, said I, but how if they be in her prison? Said he: It is not hard to find out which is the prison of so dainty a house as is yonder; and when we had found it, soon should we have hit upon a way to break it, since we be three, and stout fellows enough. Nay, I deem that the lovelings be stowed away in some corner of the isle without the house, and that mayhappen we shall find them there; and yet I trow not before we have made guile meet guile, and overcome the sorceress. But come now, let us be doing, and begin to quarter this little land as the kestrel doth the water-meadow; and leave we our armour, lest we weary us, for we shall have no need for hard strokes.
We hung up there on the tree helm and shield and hauberk, and all our defences, and went our ways quartering the isle; and the work was toilsome, but we rested not till the time was come to keep tryst with the lady; and all that while we found no sign of the darling ones: and the isle was everywhere a meadow as fair as a garden, with little copses of sweet-growing trees here and there, and goodly brooks of water, but no tillage anywhere: wild things, as hart and buck and roe, we came upon, and smaller deer withal, but all unhurtful to man; but of herding was no token.
Came we then back to that lordly perron, and there, at the foot thereof, stood the witch-wife, and received us joyously; clad was she all gloriously in red scarlet broidered and begemmed; her arms bare and her feet sandalled, and her yellow hair hanging down from under its garland; and certainly it was so that she had grown fairer, and was sleek and white and well-shapen, and well-haired; yet by all that, the visage of her was little bettered, and unto me she was loathsome.
Now the feast went much as the earlier meal had done; and Baudoin was surly and Arthur blithe and buxom; and nought befell to tell of, save that dishes and meats, and flasks and cups, and all things came upon the board as if they were borne thereon by folk unseen; and thereat we wondered not much, considering in what wonder-house we were. But the lady-witch looked on us and smiled, and said: Knights, ye marvel at the manner of our service, but call to mind that we told you this morning that we were enough for Ourselves, and we have so dight our days here that whoso is our friend on this Isle of Increase shall lack nothing. Fear not, therefore, to see aught ugly in our servants as now unseen, if their shapes were made manifest unto you.
All things were we heedful to note at this banquet; but when it was over, then came music into the hall from folk unseen, but not as if the musicians were a many, only belike some three or four. And thereat the lady spake, saying: Knights, ye may deem our minstrels but few, but such is our mind that we love not our music overloud, and for the most part only three sing or play unto us at one time.
Thereafter the lady brought us to fair chambers, and we slept there in all ease, and we arose on the morrow and found the lady still blithe with us; yet I noted this, that she seemed to deal with Arthur as if she saw him now for the first time, and much he seemed to be to her liking.
Again we fared forth, and were no less diligent in searching the isle than erst, and found nought; and all went that day as before.
On the morrow (that is, the third day) the witch seemed to have somewhat more memory of Arthur than erst, and even yet more liking of him, so that she reached out her hand for him to kiss, which needs must he do, despite his loathing of her.
When we had lain under the apple-tree a little while, Baudoin spake and said: Yesterday and the day before we searched the open land and found nought; now today let us search the house, and if we find nought, then at least it shall lie behind us. We yeasaid it, and presently went back, and from chamber to chamber, and all was fair and goodly as might be, and we marvelled what would betide to it when the witch was undone and her sorcery come to an end.
To the Wailing Tower we came, and up the stairs, and found the door open of the prison-chamber, and all there as thou hast told us, Birdalone; only we opened the great coffer, whence thou didst refrain thee, and found it full of hideous gear truly, as fetters and chains, and whips and rods, and evil tools of the tormentors, and cursed it all and came away; and Arthur said: Lo you, this stupid one! How eager is she to bid us what to do, and to tell us that our ladies are not in this evil house, since she leaveth all open to us. Yet we went about the house without, and counted the windows heedfully to see that we had missed no chamber, and found nought amiss; and then we went in again and sought as low down as we might, to see if perchance some dungeon there were underground, but found nought save a very goodly undercroft below the great hall, which was little less fair than that which was above it. So came the evening and the banquet, and the end of that day; but the witch-wife led Arthur by the hand to the board, and afterwards to the chamber ere we slept.
On the fourth day and the fifth it was no otherwise than erst; and when I fared to bed I felt confused in my head and sick of heart.
The night of the next day (the sixth), as we went to our chambers, and the witch-wife and Arthur hand-inhand, she stayed him a while, and spake eagerly to him in a soft voice; and as he came up to me afterwards he said: To-night I have escaped it, but there will not be escape for long. From what? said I. He said: From bedding her; for now it has come to this, that presently we must slay her at once and have no knowledge of our sweetlings, or I must do her will.
In such wise passed four more days, and it was the twelfth morning of our sojourn there, and we went forth on our search of every mead and every covert of the isle, and all day we found nought to our purpose; but as it grew toward sunset, and there grew great clouds in the eastern ort, piled up and copper-coloured, we came over a bent on to a little green dale watered by a clear brook, and as we looked down into it we saw something shine amongst its trees; so we hastened toward that gleam, and lo, amidst the dale, with the brook running through it, a strange garth we saw. For there was a pavilion done of timber and board, and gaily painted and gilded, and out from that house was, as it were, a great cage of thin gilded bars, both walls and roof, just so wide apart as no one full-grown, carl or quean, could thrust through.
Thitherward then ran we, shouting, for we saw at once that in the said cage were three women whose aspect was that of our sweetlings, and presently we were standing by the said herse, reaching our hands out to them to come to us and tell us their tale, and that we would deliver them. But they stood together in the midst of the said cage, and though they gazed piteously on us thence, and reached out their hands to us, they neither spake nor came to the herse to us; so we deemed that they were bewitched, and our joy was dashed.
Then we went all about the cage and the pavilion to find ingate, and found it not; and then the three of us together strove with the bars of the herse, and shook and swayed them, but it was all to no purpose.
Moreover, while we were at this work the sun seemed to go out, and there came a heavy black mist rolling into the dale, and wrapped us about so that we saw not each other’s faces, and the bars of the herse were gone from our hands as we stood there. Then came rain and thunder and lightning on to the black night, and by the glare of the lightning we could see the leaves and grass of the dale, but neither herse nor house nor woman. So we abode there in the dark night, and the storm all bewildered us, till the rain and clouds drew off and it was calm fair starlight again, but clean gone was the golden cage and they that stood therein; and we turned sadly, and went our ways toward the witch-house.
On the way said Arthur: Brethren, this meseemeth is but a-going on with the shows which were played us on the water as we came hither; but whether she doth this but for to mock and torment us, or that she would beguile us into deeming that our friends are verily here, I wot not; but tomorrow, meseemeth, I shall can to tell you.
Now came we to the perron of the house, and there stood the witch-wife under the stars to meet us. And when she saw us, she took hold of Arthur by the hand and the arm to caress him, and found that he and we were drenched with the rain and the storm, as might well be deemed; then she bade us up to our chambers to do on raiment which she had dight for us, and we went thither, and found our garments rich and dainty indeed; but when we came down into the hall where the witch abode us, we saw that Arthur’s raiment was far the richest and daintiest. But the witch ran to him and cast her arms about him, and clipped and kissed him before the others, and he suffered it. So sped the feast again.
But when they went to bed, the said witch took Arthur’s hand and spake a word unto him, and led him away, and he went with her as one nought loth; but we twain were afraid lest she should destroy him when she had had her will of him. Wherefore we waked through the more part of the night with our swords ready to hand.
But when we were clad in the morn he came unto us, he also clad, and was downcast and shamefaced indeed, but safe and sound; and he said: Speak no word about our matter till we be out in the open air, for I fear all things about us.
So when we had gone forth and were under the apple-tree once more, spake Arthur: Now, lords, am I shamed for ever, for I have become the leman of this evil creature; but I pray ye not to mock me; and that the more as the same lot may happen on you both, or either; for I can see for sure that the wretch will weary of me and desire one of you two. Let it pass. Somewhat have I found out from her, but not much; first, that she has forgotten her first lie, to wit, how she sent our ladies to the sister-witch; for I told her of the golden cage, and how we had missed it in the storm; and she said: Though I deem it a folly that ye should seek these thralls, yet would I help you if I might, since ye are now become my dear friends. Though, forsooth, when ye meet them I deem that ye will find them sore changed to you. For, as I told you, they fled away from me, after I had chastised them for a treason, into the hidden places of the isle, whereas they had no keel to sail away hence. And I cared not to follow them, as I myself am queen and lady of all things here, and am enough for myself, save when love constraineth me, dear lord. Now, my rede is that ye seek the golden cage again and yet again, because I deem that these thralls have somehow learned some wisdom, and they have enchanted the said cage for a defence against me, from whom they might not hide as they did from you; for of me have they stolen their wizardry, and I am their mistress therein.
This, therefore, is the new lie of her, and my rede is that we heed it nought. For my mind is that she it is that hath made the appearance of the cage and the women therein, and that she hath our poor friends somewhere underneath her hand.
Now this we deemed most like; yet whereas we had nought to do with the time, which, now that we had searched the isle throughly, hung heavy on hand, we deemed it good to go to the dale of the golden cage again, though we looked not to find the cage there any more. But this betid, that we found the little dale easily enough, and there stood the cage as we had seen it yesterday, but nought was there within its bright bars save the grass and the flowers, and the water of the brook a-running.
We loitered about that place a while, and went back to the house in due time; and to shorten the tale, I shall tell that for many days it betid that we went every day to seek the golden cage, but after the first three days we saw it no more.
Now began sadness and weariness to overcome us as the days and weeks wore, and belike the witch-wife noted it that we were worse company than heretofore.
And now on a day Arthur bade us note that the said witch was growing weary of him, and he bade me look to it; for, said he, she is turning her face toward thee, brother. My heart burned with rage at that word; I said nought, but made up my mind that I would try to bring the matter to an end.
That same night befell what Arthur had threatened; for the feast being done in the evening, the witch drew me aside while the music was a-playing, and caressed my hand and my shoulder, and said: I am yet wondering at you Champions, that ye must needs follow after those three wretched thralls, whom never will ye find, for they. need ye not, but will flee from you if ye have sight of them, as they did that other day; and therein they are scarce in the wrong, whereas they may well think that if ye find them they should fall into my hands; for easily may I take them any day that I will, and then I have a case against them, and may lawfully chastise them according to the law that has been given unto me; and then shall they be in grievous plight. Wherefore the rede We give unto you three now is the rede of friendliness that ye make yourselves happy in Our Island, and then will We do everything We may for your pleasure and delight; and if ye will that We make Ourselves even fairer than now We be, that may be done, and shall be a reward unto you for your yielding and obedience. And if ye will women thralls for your pleasure, that also may be gotten for you; for We be not wholly without power in these waters, though We have no keel or ferry upon them. And now, thou fair lad, We give thee this last word: Ye Champions have been dwelling in Our house a long while, and that while have ever striven to thwart Us. We now counsel you to make an end of it, and it shall be better for you.
She seemed to my eyes prouder and stupider than ever erst, despite her golden hair and white skin and lovely limbs; and I said to myself that now must we destroy the evil of that house even if we died for it, or else we were all undone; withal I saw somewhat of truth thrusting up through her much lying, and I deemed, even as Arthur did, that she had our friends under her band somewhere.
Nought else betid that night; but on the morrow we went forth and strayed on till we were come into the southernmost quarter of the isle, and not very far from the water we came upon a wood or big thicket which was new to us. So we entered it, and as we went and noted the wild things of the wood going hither and thither, we espied afar off the shape of a man going amidst the thicket; wherefore we went warily towards him, lest he should see us and flee from us; and when we drew a little nigher we saw it was a woman, though she was clad as a hunter, with legs naked to above the knee. She had a quiver at her back and a bow in her hand, and her coat was black of hue. Belike now she heard our going amongst the dry leaves, for she turned her face to us, and lo! it was the face of Atra.
When she saw us, she gave a shrill cry, and fell to running at her swiftest away from us, and we followed all we might, but we could not over-run her, though we kept her in sight ever, till we had run all through the wood, and before us was the sheer side of a rocky hill and the mouth of a cave therein, and by the said mouth who should there be but Aurea and Viridis, as we thought, clad in gold and in green, but the fashion of their raiment not otherwise than Atra’s. Their bows were bended and they had shafts in their hands, and as we came out of the thicket into the open lawn before the cave, Viridis nocked a shaft and aimed at us and drew, and the shaft flew over my head; therewith mocking laughter came from them, and they ran into the cave. Speedily we ran up to it, but when we came home thither, there was the sheer hillside, but never a cave nor an opening.
Dismayed were we thereat; but more dismayed had we been but that we deemed that all this was but a cheat and a painted show put upon us by the witch to back up her lying. Nevertheless we fared the next day to seek the wood and the cave in the sheer rock, but nowise might we find either wood or cave.
Now it was the night of the day hereafter, as we went to our chambers, that the witch-wife took me by the hand and led me apart, and said me many soft things of her accursed lust, whereof I will not say one again. But the upshot of it all was that she would bring me to her chamber and her bed. And whereas I was determined what to do, and had my war-sword by my side, I naysaid her not, but made her good countenance. And when we came to her chamber, which was full gloriously dight, and fragrant as with the scent of the roses and lilies of mid-June, she bade me to lie in her bed of gold and ivory and she would be with me anon. So I unclad myself and laid me down, but I drew forth my sword, and laid the ancient naked blade betwixt my side and her place.
Anon she cometh back again unclad, and would step into the bed; but she saw the sword and said: What is this, Champion? Said I: These edges are the token of sundering between us, for there is a spell on me, that with no woman may I deal, save with mine only love, but I shall do her mortal scathe; so beware by the token of the grey edges of battle. She drew aback, and was as a spiteful and angry cat, and there was no loveliness in her; and she said: Thou liest, and thou hatest me; see thou to it, both for thyself and thy loveling. And she turned about and strode out of the chamber; but I arose and clad myself in haste, and took my naked sword in my hand. But before I went, I looked around, and espied an ambry fashioned in the wall of the bed-lane, and the door was half open; and the said ambry was wrought of the daintiest, all of gold and pearl and gems; and I said to myself: Herein is some treasure, and this is a tide of war. So I opened the ambry, and within it was even more gloriously wrought than without; and there was nought therein, save a little flask of crystal done about with bands of gold set with great and goodly gems. So I took the said flask and went my ways hastily to my own chamber, and there I looked at the said flask and took out the stopple; and there was a liquor therein, white like to water, but of a spicy smell, sweet, fresh, and enheartening. So I yet thought this was some great treasure, and that much hung upon it, could I find out unto what use it might be put. And I said: To-morrow we will put it to the proof. Then I put the said flask under my pillow, and laid my sword by my side and slept, and was not ill-content so far.
But on the morrow, when I met my fellows, they asked me how I had sped, and I told them, Well, and that we would talk the matter over under our tree of counsel. So we went down into the hall, where we met the witch-lady; and I looked for it that she would be angry and fierce with me; but it went far otherwise; for she was blithe and buxom, and abounding in endearments more than I could away with. But this I noted, that her eyes wandered, and her speech faltered at whiles, and ever she seemed to be seeking somewhat; and withal that her caressing hands were seeking if they could aught stowed away in the bosom of my coat. But all was nought, for as we came to the door of the hall I gave Baudoin the flask to guard until we should come to our apple-tree of rede. Wherefore the she-wolf went red and white by turns, and fumed, and fretted her bedizenments with unrestful hands, and when she should let us go our ways, she lingered and looked back oft, and was loth to depart ere she had gotten what she lacked, and that, forsooth, was the said flasket.
But when we were without the house, I bade our fellows go with me to another place than the wonted apple-tree of rede, and they understood my word, and I led them to a little grassy plain without the orchard, where was no covert for a wide space about it, nought but the one linden-tree under which now we sat. There I told them all the tale of the last night and of the flasket, and put before them all that was in my mind to do that evening at the banquet, and they both of them yeasaid it. But what it was, that shall ye hear anon when we carried the matter through; but I bade Baudoin still carry the flasket till the evening.
Thereafter we spake of other matters; but soon we had good cause to rejoice that we had not talked our talk under the apple-tree (whereas I doubted not that the witch would spy upon us there), for not long had we been at our talk ere, looking that way, we saw the evil creature by the hedge of the orchard and gazing over at us.
We arose then, and came to her as if nought had happened; and she bade us walk the garden with her, and we yeasaid it, and went with her, and paced about amidst the flowers and lay on the blossomed grass. Forsooth, both to her and to us the time hung heavy on hand. And meseemed that the sleekness and fairness of her body was worsened since yesterday, and she was pale and haggard, and her eyes were wandering and afraid.
Now she bade us come a little further into the garden and eat a morsel at noon; and we arose, and she brought us to where were vines trellised all about and overhead, so that it was like a fair green cloister; and there was a board laid and spread with many dainties of meat and drink. And she bade us sit. Verily we had but little stomach to that dinner; and I said to myself, Poison! poison! and even so my fellows deemed, as afterwards they told me. And I saw Baudoin loosen his sword in the sheath, and I knew that his mind was to smite at once if he saw aught amiss. And I, who sat next to the witch, laid my hand on a little dagger which I wore at my girdle. She also saw this, and turned as pale as death, and sat trembling before us; and whatso we ate or drank at that board under the rustling vine-leaves, she gave unto us with her own hand; and then we wotted full surely that she had meant our deaths there and then, but was cowed by the fierce eyes of Baudoin and the threat of my hand.
Withal it seemed that she might not bear it to sit there long amongst us. She rose up and smiled on us as ghastly as a corpse, and gave us leave, and went hurrying into the house. And right glad we were to be at rest from her. Yet as we ourselves durst not go far away from the house, lest some new thing might happen, neither could she leave us quite alone, but thrice again that afternoon at some turn of the garden, or orchard, or meadow, we came upon her wan face and eyes full of all hate and staring pride, and she enforced her to smile upon us, and turned away with some idle word.
At last the sun began to sink, and we went to the perron of the house, and found her standing to meet us in her wonted way. But when we came up she gave no hand to any one of us but went up the stairs before us, and we followed with no word spoken.
There was the hall with the lordly service on the board, and the wax-candles lighted all about, and the great vault of stone fair and stately over it. We went to the dais and the board and sat down, the witch-wife in her gold and ivory chair at the board’s end, and I at her right hand and looking down the hall, my two fellows facing me, with their backs to the clear of the hall.
There we sat, and the meats and drinks were before us as dainty as ever erst; but we put forth no hand to them, but sat staring at each other for some two minutes it might be, and the witch looked from one to the other of us, and quaked that her hands shook like palsy.
Then I rose up and put my hand to my bosom (for Baudoin had given me the flasket ere we came to the perron): I spake in a loud voice, and it sounded wild and hard in the goodly hall: My lady, I said, thou art looking but pale now, and sick and downcast. Drink now to me out of this precious flasket, and thou shalt be whole and well.
And therewith I held the flasket aloft; but her face changed horribly; she sprang up in her chair and reached out her arm to clutch at the flasket, screaming like an eagle therewith. But I thrust her back into the chair with my left hand; and therewith arose Baudoin and Arthur, and caught her by the shoulders, and bound her fast to the chair with cords that they had gotten thereto. But when she got her breath she yelled out: Ah, now shall all tumble together, my proudful house and I under it! Loose me, traitors! loose me, fools! and give me one draught of the water of might, and then shall I tell you all, and ye shall go free with your thralls if ye will. Ah! ye will not loose me? ye will not? Well then, at least ye, the fools, shall be under it, and they also, the she-traitors, the scourged and tormented fools that might not save themselves from me. O loose me! loose me! thou in whose arms I have lain so many a night, and give me to drink of the proud water of might!
So she yelled; and now had all the fairness gone from her body: flaggy and yellow were her limbs, and she looked all over as her face, a lump of stupid and cruel pride, and her words lost meaning and changed into mere bestial howling. But for me, since she so desired that water, I knew that it was good for us to drink, and I took out the stopple and drank, and it was as if fire ran through all my veins, and I felt my strength three-folded straightway, and most wondrous clear was my sight grown therewith; and I raised my eyes now and looked down the hall, and lo, there was Aurea, chained by the ankle to the third pillar from the dais; and over against her, Viridis; and next, to the fourth pillar, Atra. Then I cried in a loud voice that rang through the witch’s hall: Lo what I see! And I ran round the head of the board, and thrust and dragged Baudoin and Arthur along with me, crying out: Come, come! they are found! they are here! And I came to my sweetling, and found her clad but in her white smock, which was flecked with blood all about, and her face was wan and pined, and the tears began to run when she saw me, but no word came from her lips though the kissing of them was sweet.
Then I turned about to my two fellows, and they stood bewildered, not knowing what was toward; and I came to them and made them drink of the flasket, and their eyes were opened and the strength of giants came to them, and they ran each to his sweetling; but Baudoin, before ever he kissed Aurea, caught hold of the chain that bound her to the pillar, and by main force dragged it out. Wise was that, meseemed, for words were again come into the witch’s howls, and I heard her: Ah, long may ye be playing with the chains, long! for now the house rumbleth toward its fall. Ah, the bitches are loose! Woe’s me! to die alone! And once more she howled wordless, as both I and Arthur had our loves in our arms, and fell to following Baudoin out on to the perron and down into the fresh fragrant garden wherein now was the moon beginning to cast shadows.
Stood we then aloof from the house, and the rumbling whereof the evil hag had howled waxed into a thunder, and under our very eyes the great white walls and gold-adorned roofs fell together, and a great cloud of dust rose under the clear moonlit sky.
We looked and wondered, and our loves also, but no word they spake; but ere the other two had time to grieve thereat, I gave Viridis to drink of the water of might, and she fell to sweet speech straightway, of such sort and such wise as I will not tell you. Then I did the same by Aurea and Atra, and forthwith the speech flowed from them to their friends.
Full happy were we then in the early night-season, for the water of might gave them strength also, as to us, and healed all the stripes and wounds their bodies had suffered of the foul witch, and made their eyes bright, and their cheeks full and firm, and their lips most sweet, and their hands strong and delicious.
Now when we had stood gazing toward the melting of the beauteous palace for a little, we took our darlings in our arms again, whereas the chains would have hindered their walking, and went down to the lip of the water whereas lay the Sending Boat, so that we might be anigh our ferry in case of need; for we knew not what might betide the isle now its mistress had perished. Then we fell to and sawed off the chains from the dear ankles with our swords, and took Birdalone’s lendings from the mail. And Aurea had her gown again, and Viridis her smock, and my green surcoat over it, and Atra wore the battle-coat of the Black Squire. As for their bare feet (for Atra would not have hers dight prouder than her sisters’), we so clad them with kisses that they were not ill-covered belike.
So gat we aboard our ferry, and did blood-offering to the wight thereof, and so sped merrily and lovingly over the wide lake back on our homeward road. And we said: This hath the dear Birdalone done for us.
And now, my Viridis, I will that thou fill up the tale by telling to Birdalone, as ye told us, how it fared with you three and the evil one from the time that ye sped Birdalone on her way till the moment when mine eyes first beheld you made fast to the pillars of the palace which has crumbled into dust.