The Water of the Wondrous Isles 6-32
CHAPTER XXXII ~ OF THE RIGHT IN THE FOREST AND THE RESCUE OF THOSE FRIENDS FROM THE MEN OF THE RED COMPANY
Light was growing on the dawn of the next day, and the colours of things could be seen, when Birdalone, who was holding this last watch of the night, stood still and hearkened, deeming that she could hear some noise that was neither the morning wind in the tree-boughs nor the going of the wild things anear them in the wood.
So she did off her helm to hear the better, and stood thus a little; then she turned about and stooped down to Arthur, who was yet sleeping, and put forth a hand to rouse him. But or ever she touched him, broke forth a sound of big and rough voices and laughter, and amidst it two shrieks as of women.
Arthur heard it, and was on his feet in a moment, and helmed, and he caught up his bended bow and cast on the quiver (for Birdalone was already weaponed), and without more words they went forth swiftly up the bank and through the thicket till they were looking on the half-blind way, but under cover, and there was nothing before them as yet.
There they stayed and hearkened keenly. There were no more shrieks of women, nor heard they any weapon clash, but the talking and laughter of men went on; and at last they heard a huge and grim whoop of many men together; and then thereafter was less sound of talking, but came the jingle as of arms and harness; and Arthur whispered in Birdalone’s ear: Stand close! they have gotten to horse, and will be coming our way. Nock an arrow. And even so did he.
Therewith they heard clearly the riding of men, and in less than five minutes’ space they saw three big weaponed men riding together, clad in red surcoats, and they were so nigh that they heard the words of their speech. One said to the other: How long shall the knight hold out, think ye? Oh, a week maybe, said the other. Meseems it was scathe that we stayed not a while to pine him, said the first man. Nay, said the second, we be over-heavy laden with bed-gear to tarry. And they all laughed thereat, and so went on out of hearing.
But then came four on together, whereof one, a gaunt, oldish man, was saying: It is not so much how long we shall be getting there, but what shall betide when we get there. For this is not like lifting a herd of neat, whereof sharing is easy, but with this naked-skinned, two-legged cattle, which forsooth ye can eat and yet have, there may well be strife over the sharing. And look to it if it hath not begun already: we must needs dismount three of our best men that these white-skinned bitches forsooth may each have a horse to herself, or else would they be fighting as to which should have a damsel of them before him on the saddle: curse the fools!
Laughed out they who were about him, and one young man cast a jeer at him the meaning whereof they might not catch, and again they laughed; and that deal passed on. And next came a bigger rout, a half score or so, and they also laughing and jeering; but amidst them, plain to see riding a-straddle, their ankles twisted together under the horses’ bellies, their hands bound behind them, first Atra, black-clad as erst; then Aurea, in a gown of wheat-colour; then Viridis, green-clad. Atra rode upright, and looking straight before her; Aurea hung her head all she might, and her long red hair fell about her face; but Viridis had swooned, and was held up in the saddle by one of the caitiffs on each side of her. They were but little disarrayed, save that some felon had torn the bosom of Viridis’ gown, and dragged down the cloth so that her left shoulder was bare.
Arthur looked, and drew at the caitiff who went afoot beside Atra, and Birdalone at him who went by Viridis, for she wotted whitherward Arthur’s shaft would be turned. The loose of the two bows made but one sound; both men fell stark dead, and the others huddled together a moment, and then ran toward the thicket on either hand, and they who ran north, two of them saw not Arthur, because of his green armour, ere they felt the death which lay in his sword. And then he brake out amidst them, and there were three of them on him, yet for no long while, whereas their weapons bit not on the armour of the Faery, and his woodland blade sheared leather and ring-mail to the flesh and the bone: mighty were his strokes, and presently all three were wallowing on the earth.
Even therewith the seven who had passed on had turned back and were come on him a-horse-back; and hard had it gone with him, despite of his might and his valour and the trustiness of Habundia’s mail. But meanwhile Birdalone had run to Viridis, who had fallen a dead weight aside of her horse, and lay half hanging by the bonds of her ankles. Birdalone swiftly cut the cords both of her feet and her hands, and drew her off her horse as best she might, and laid her down on the grass; and then ran to Arthur sword aloft, just as his new battle was at point to begin.
But as she ran it came into her mind in a twinkling that her sword would be but weak, and the horn hung about her neck. Then she stayed her feet, and set the horn to her lips and blew; and the oliphant gave forth a long singing note which was strange to hear. But while it was yet at her lips one of the caitiffs was upon her, and he cried out: Hah the witch, the accursed green witch! and fetched her a great stroke from his saddle, and smote her on the helm; and though his sword bit not on that good head-burg, she fell to the ground unwitting.
Yet was not the wood-wife’s promise unavailing, for even while the voice of the horn was in the air, the way and thickets were alive with men-at-arms, green-clad as those twain, who straightway fell on the caitiffs, and with Arthur to help, left not one of them alive. Then went some to Viridis, and raised her up, and so dealt with her that she came to herself again; and the like they did by Birdalone, and she stood, and looked about confusedly, but yet saw this, that they had gotten the victory. Some went withal to Aurea, and cut her bonds and took her off her horse and set her on the ground; and she was all bewildered, and knew not where she was.
But Arthur, when he saw Birdalone on her feet, and unhurt by seeming, went to Atra, and cut her bonds and loosed her, and set her on the earth, all without a word, and then stood before her shyly. Came the colour back into her face therewith, and she flushed red, for she knew him despite his outlandish green war-harness, and she reached out her hand to him, and he knelt before her and took her hand and kissed it. But she bent over him till her face was anigh his, and he lifted up his face and kissed her mouth. And she drew aback a little, but yet looked on him earnestly, and said: Thou hast saved my life, not from death indeed, but from a loathsome hell; I may well thank thee for that. And O, if my thanks might be fruitful to thee! And her bosom heaved, and the sobs came, and the tears began to run down her cheeks. And he hung his head before her. But in a while she left weeping, and turned about her face and looked round the field of deed; and she said: Who is yonder slim green warrior who hath even now knelt down by Viridis? Is it not a woman? Arthur reddened: Yea, said he; it is Birdalone. Thy love? she said. He said swiftly: Yea, and thy friend, and this time thy deliverer. So it is, she said. It is five years since I beheld her. My heart yearns for her; I shall rejoice at the meeting of us.
She was silent, and he also a while; then she said: But why tarry we here in idle talk when he is yet bound, and in torment of body and soul; he the valiant, and the kind and the dear brother? Come, tarry for no question. And she stepped out swiftly along the green road going westward, and Arthur beside her; and as they went by Viridis, lo! Aurea had wandered unto them, and now was Birdalone unhelmed and kissing and comforting her. Then cried out Atra: Keep up thine heart, Viridis! for now we go to fetch thee thy man safe and sound.
So they went but a little way on the green road ere they came to Sir Hugh bound hard and fast to a tree-bole, and he naked in his shirt, and hard by lay the bodies of two stout carles with their throats cut; for these honest men and the two felons who had betrayed them were all the following wherewith the Green Knight had entered Evilshaw. And as it fell, the traitors had been set to watch while the others slept; and sleeping the caitiffs found them, and slew the said men-at-arms at once, but bound Hugh to a tree that he might be the longer a-dying; since none looked for any but their own folk to pass by that way. All this they heard afterwards of Hugh.
But now the said Hugh heard men going, and he opened his eyes, and saw Atra and a man-at-arms with her; and he cried out: Hah, what is this now, sister? a rescue? Yea, she said, and look thou on the face of the rescuer; and there is another hard by, and she is a woman.
Therewith was Arthur on him and cutting his bonds, and when he was loose they fell into each other’s arms, and Hugh spake: Now then at last doth life begin for me as I willed it! And hast thou my sweet she-fellow, Birdalone, with thee? Yea, said Arthur. How good is that! said Hugh. And yet, if it might but be that Baudoin were yet alive for us to seek! Then he laughed and said: These be but sorry garments wherewith to wend along with dear and fair ladies, brother! Nay, said Arthur, that may soon be amended, for yonder, where sword met sword, lieth raiment abundantly on the grass. Fie on it! said Hugh, laughing; shall I do on me the raiment of those lousy traitors? Not I, by the rood! Thou must seek further for my array, dear lad! So they all laughed, and were glad to laugh together. But Atra said: It is easier even than that, for thine own fair garments and weapons shall we find if we seek them. Sooth to say there was none left to bear them off, save it were this man, or Birdalone his mate.
With that word she looked kindly on Arthur, and again they laughed all three; though forsooth they were well-nigh weeping-ripe; one for joy, and that was Hugh; one for memory of the days gone by; and one for the bitterness of love that should never be rewarded; albeit dear even unto her was the meeting of friends and the glory of forgiveness and the end of enmity.