CHAPTER XXVI ~ THE BLACK SQUIRE TELLETH THE WOOD-WIFE OF HIS DOINGS SINCE BIRDALONE WENT FROM THE CASTLE OF THE QUEST
As they went Habundia said to Arthur: Now shalt thou talk and tell for the shortening of the way, and let us know somewhat of thy story. But first I must tell thee, for thou mayest not know it, so witless as then thou wast, that yesterday we found thee down in the dale yonder, playing the string-play sweetly indeed, but otherwise dight like a half beast more than a man, so that we wondered at thee and pitied thee.
Arthur knit his brows as if he strove with some memory and might not master it; then he said: Thou sayest We, who then was the other? Said Habundia: I had a dear friend with me. Quoth he: And did she pity me also? Yea, said the wood-wife, else scarce had she been a friend to me. O let us on swiftly, said Arthur, so long as the time may be! And they quickened their pace and ate up the way speedily.
Presently spake the wood-wife again: Now for the tale of thee, fair sir; yet will I shorten it somewhat by telling thee that I know thy name, that thou art Arthur the Black Squire of the Castle of the Quest. He stared at that word, and said: How knewest thou this? how couldst thou guess it, who hast never seen me erst? A friend told me, said she; too long it were as now to tell thee thereof. Rather do thou tell me how thou didst fare when ye found thy friend gone from the castle that time ye came home from the winning of the Red Hold.
Arthur stared astonished, and said: What is it? Dost thou verily know my love? or art thou a sorceress and knowest somewhat of me by spell-work? I am somewhat more than a sorceress, may-happen, said the wood-wife; but heed it not, since I am thy friend today, but tell me what I ask, that I may have all the tale of thee; it will serve for the shortening of the way. Said Arthur: And who but I needeth it as short as may be? so stand we not loitering here, and I will talk as we wend on speedily.
On they sped therefore, and said Arthur: How did I fare? as one stunned, mother, and knew not what had happened; and when I heard their babble of how she had done wrong here and right there, I was driven half mad by it, so that I hastened back to the Red Hold, and became the captain of Greenford, to hunt down their scattered foemen; for I said to myself that needs must I rage and slay, and that were worser amongst my friends than mine unfriends. What then? that business came to an end; though all the ill men were not slain, but all were driven away from the parts of Greenford; and sooth to say they durst not come anywhere nigh where they heard of me. Then became each day like every other, and the thought of my hope and my despair ate mine heart out, and I was of no avail unto any. Now it so happened, amidst my many battles and chases, I had hunted the bands of the Red Hold into the northwest marches of the woodland; and I noted that even they, howsoever hard bestead, and the worst of men to boot, would scarce at the first be driven into the thickets thereof, though at last, whether or no they have made covenant with the devils, there I know not, they have betaken them to the depths of the wood and have borne off women from the dwellings and got children on them, and are like to breed an evil folk. That then I noted that this Evilshaw was a dwelling loathed and desert, and little like it was that any would meddle with me there. Three years had worn since I was cast away at the Castle of the Quest by her that loved me, who must needs sacrifice both her and me to the busy devil of folly; and I also deemed that if I sought for her I should not find her; and yet more forsooth, that if I found her she would be as hard unto me as when she fled from me. And as for me, I was gotten hard and crabbed, and no man, if his heart would let him, would have aught to say to me. So I gat me away from the Red Hold, as I had from the Castle of the Quest, and I gave out that I would enter into religion, and forbade any man to follow me. Neither did any desire it. First of all I set me down at the very outskirts of the woodland, and raised me a bower there, rude and ill-shapen. Few folk came anigh me, and yet some few, charcoal-burners, and hunters of the edges of the wood, and suchlike. These deemed me a holy man, whereas I was but surly. Somewhat also they feared me, whereas in some of their huntings or goings and comings after prey I had put forth all my strength, eked out by the lore of knighthood, which was strange to them. One man there was of them who was fashioned of the minstrel craft by nature, and who forgathered with me specially, till we became friends, and he was a solace to me, with his tales and his songs of a rougher people than I had been wont to deal with. But when I had been in that place for two years he died of a sickness, and I was left lonely, and my soreness of heart fell upon me till I scarce knew what next I should do. So I fared away yet deeper into the wildwood, taking with me the harp which my friend had given me before he died. It was summer, and I wandered about ever deeper into the wood, until belike I had scarce been able to win out of it if I had tried. At last, when the autumn came, I built myself again some sort of a bower in a clearing of the wood wherein was water, and the resort of plenteous venison.
What befell next? My mind is not over-clear concerning it all, for I was now becoming more of a beast than a man. But this I know, that some men of the bands whom I had chased happened on me. They knew me not for their old foeman, but of their kind it was to torment and slay any man whom they might lightly overcome. Yet was not the battle so over-light but that I slew and hurt divers of them ere they got me under and stripped me and bound my hands and tormented me, after the manner that the devils shall do with them when they shall go to their reward. Yet somehow I lived, though they deemed me dead, and I crawled away thence when they were gone; and somehow I was healed of my body, but I was confused of my wit thereafter, and now can call to mind but little of what befell me as I strayed from place to place, save that I remember I was hapless and heart-sore ever: and also meseemeth that I saw visions at whiles, and those who had been in my life before these things, their images would come before me to mock me as I sat singing whiles and whiles playing the string-play (for my harp I bore ever with me); and whiles I bewailed me, and called for help on them that would not or might not help me. And now I may not even tell the years of my abiding in the desert, how many they be. But I pray thee let us on more swiftly yet.
Said the wood-wife: Thou hast told me but little of thy life, Black Squire, but it is enough maybe; and I see that thou mayst not tell me more because thou hast thy mind set on what may betide thee when this day is over. But thou must know that thou hast come into the wood of Evilshaw, wherein, besides those savage men who quelled thee and their like, there be uncouth things no few, and wights that be not of the race of Adam; wherefore no great marvel is it that thou sawest visions, and images of them that were not by thee. Yea, said he, but one vision had I that confused and overcame me more than all others, and meseemeth that came to me not long ago. For first I saw the shape of her that my soul desireth ever, and it wept and lamented for me; and then for a little I seemed as if I were coming forth from my confusion of wit; when lo! there issued from the thicket another image of my beloved and blamed me and threatened me. God wot good cause there was of the blame. But tell me, mother, since thou callest thyself wise, what may this portend?
The wood-wife laughed: Since I am wise, said she, I will foretell thee good days. And now we will talk no more of thee or thy love or thy sorrow, but since thou wilt so fiercely devour the way, I will tell thee a tale or two of this wood and its wights to save us from over-much weariness.
So did she, talking and telling as they went; and she went on a pace before him, and howsoever long or hardly he might stride he might not overgo her. And so fast they went, that they were within a little way of the Oak of Tryst a good while before the sun had set, though they had set out from the cave three hours after the hour when Birdalone and the wood-wife had left the House under the Wood on the yesterday. They had come to a steep rock that rose up from a water’s side, and the wood-wife bade stay, whether Arthur would or no, and she made him eat and drink, bringing the victual and wine from out of a cleft in the said rock. And she held him there till the night was come and there was a glimmer of the rising moon in the east, and he was ill at ease and restless; but still she held him there till the moon rose high and shone upon them, and the shadows of the oak-boughs lay black all around.
Then she bade him arise, and led him on to the Oak of Tryst, yea and somewhat beyond it toward the great water. Then she spake to him: Black Squire, I am now come home, and will lead thee no further; I was deeming that we should have slept in the wood a good way from this, and then would I have brought thee on thy way tomorrow morning; but the eagerness of thine heart hath made thy feet so speedy, that we be here somewhat rathe, and yet I am not ill-pleased therewith. Then she turned him about and said: Look down the bent and tell me what thou seest. He said: I see the boles of goodly trees, and betwixt them the gleaming of a great water. She said: Go thitherward then while the moon is yet at her brightest, and thou shalt presently come to wide meads lying along the water, and a stream running through them. Enter then into the meads and look about thee, and thou shalt see a little house (there is none other nigh) standing just across the said stream; go up thither boldly and crave guesting from whomsoever thou shalt find there, and maybe things shall go after thy mind. More than this I may not do for thee. Farewell then, and if thou wilt thou mayst meet me again; that is to say, that which is verily me: but it is like that this shape which hath been striding on with thee daylong thou shalt not see any more.
He looked on her wondering, for she seemed to grow goodly and stately before his eyes. But even as he stretched forth his hand to take hers, she turned about suddenly and fared into the wood out of his sight, wending full as swiftly as might have been looked for. Then he drew his sword and turned his face from the wood, and went down toward the water.