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Now came they back to where were the three others, and Viridis was quite come to herself and ran to meet her man, and he took her in his arms and caressed her sweetly; and then he turned to Birdalone, and spared no sign of friendly love to her; and Arthur, for his part, did so much for Aurea and Viridis. No long tale there was between them for that while, for they would busk them to be gone. But first they dug a grave for those two poor men who had been slain by the felons, and prayed for them. As for the caitiffs who lay slain there, one score and two of them, they left them for the wolves to devour, and the tearing of the kites and crows; nor meddled they with any of their gear or weapons. But they speedily found Hugh’s raiment, and his pouch, wherein was money good store; and they found also rings and ouches and girdles, which had been torn from the damsels in the first rage of their taking.

First though, when they had gathered together such horses as they needed, and let the rest run wild, Birdalone brought her she-friends down into the dale, and did them to bathe in a pool of the stream, and tended them as if she were their tire-woman, so that they were mightily refreshed; and she made garlands for them of the woodland flowers, as eglantine and honeysuckle; and herself, she bathed her, and did not on her battle-gear again, but clad her body in her woman’s array.

Then she brought forth victual and wine from Habundia’s store, and set it out on the stream-side; and thereafter she went up the bent to the green way and fetched down Hugh and Arthur, and brought them to the ladies, and bade them note how trim and lovely they were gotten again, and again it could scarce be but that kisses and caresses were toward; and in all content and love they took their breakfast, though bitter-sweet unto Atra had been the holding of her hand by Arthur and the kissing of her cheek, albeit not for worlds had she foregone it.

So there they abode merrily for some three hours, whereas the day was yet young; and they asked and told each other much, so that the whole tale, both of the seekers from the world and of the seekers from the water-side, came out little by little. Now of the last ye have heard what there is to tell, but for the others Viridis took up the tale, as erst she did with the dealings of the Knights of the Quest in the Isle of Increase Unsought; and it seemed by her tale that Hugh and the ladies, though they were living happily and prosperously in the land of the Green Mountains, wherein Hugh had wealth enow, yet the thought both of Arthur and of Birdalone would not out of their minds, and often it was that they thought of them, not as friends think of friends of whom they are content to know that they are yet alive and most-like thriving, but as friends think of friends whose absence cuts a shard out of their lives, so that they long to see them day by day. Wherefore it came to this at last, after much talk hereof, that Hugh left his possessions and his children (for he had two women-bairns born of Viridis) in the keeping of trusty folk, and took with him Viridis his wife, and Aurea and Atra, and they set out to seek those twain the world over till they should find them. And first by the rede of Atra they fared to Greenford, and there tarried a month, and sought tidings of many, and heard a word here and there whereby they deemed that Birdalone had passed therethrough some little time before. So they went thence to the Castle of the Quest, and found it in such plight as ye have heard, and it went sore to their hearts to behold it and to be there. But therewithal they happed upon Leonard the priest, and he was rejoiced beyond measure to see them, and told them all that ye have heard concerning Birdalone’s coming thither and departing thence; and he told them therewith about those hauntings and sendings in the hall of the castle, and that they came to an end the very day that Birdalone departed thence in the Sending Boat. Yet for the last three days there had been visions therein; but being questioned he was loth to tell thereof, so they forbore him a while.

At these tidings they were sore moved, and they talked the matter over betwixt themselves (and Leonard also was in their redes), and they must needs deem that either Birdalone was cast away, or that she had come to her old dwelling, the House under the Wood, and belike had fallen into the hands of the witch once more, and thereat were they sore downcast; and yet somewhat it was, that they had heard sure tidings of her; though meanwhile of Arthur had they heard nought.

While they talked this over, Atra, who had been somewhat silent, spake and said: Here are we brought to a stop with the first tidings which we have heard, whereas we know no manner of wending the Great Water. This seemeth evil, but let us not be cast down, or die redeless. Ye have heard of what sayeth Sir Leonard of these hauntings in the hall, and how that they have come back again, wherefore why should we not sleep in the hall this night, those of us at least who have not so much fear as not to note them well, to see if we may draw any avail from them? How say ye? For my part I will try the adventure, whatever may come of it.

Now they all yeasaid it, though Aurea was somewhat timorous, albeit she would not be parted from the others; so when night came there they made their beds and lay down; and the end of it was, that a little before midnight Atra waked the others, and did them to wit that by her deeming something was toward; and presently they were all four as wide awake as ever they were in their lives; and next, without any sound that was strange, there came the image of a woman on to the dais, clad in green like to an huntress of ancient days, her feet sandalled, her skirts gathered up into her girdle, so that her legs were naked; she had a quiver at her back, and a great bow in her hand.

Now to all of them save Atra this appearance seemed to be the image of Birdalone; but she told her fellows afterwards, that to her it seemed not to be altogether Birdalone, but rather some other one most like unto her, as it were her twin-sister.

Gazed the image kindly and sweetly on them, so that they beheld it without fear; and it seemed to them that it gave forth speech; yet not so much that the sound of words was in the air about and smote their ears, as that the sense of words reached the minds of them. And this was the tale of it: Ye, who are seeking the lost, have done well to come hither, and now shall ye do well to wend the straightest way to the dwelling of the wildwood, and that is by way of the western verge of Evilshaw the forest. Greenford is on the way. Way-leaders ye shall get; be wise, yet not prudent, and take them, though they be evil, and your luck may well avail.

Therewith the image vanished away as it had come, and Leonard, who with the others took the appearance for an image of Birdalone, said that it was such as he had seen it the three last days. So they lay not down again, but departed for Greenford without tarrying, and rode the other end of the short night through till they came to Greenford. But Leonard would not with them; and Hugh behight him, if he lived and did well, to come back somehow to the Castle of the Quest, and so redo it that it should be no longer desolate. So to Greenford they came, and spared not to do folk to wit that they would ride a pilgrimage in Evilshaw, and were fain of way-leaders; and there they dwelt a day or two, and many would let them of that journey, which, said they, was rather deadly than perilous only. But on the third day came to Sir Hugh two stout carles well weaponed, who said that they knew well all the ways that led to Evilshaw, and the ways that went therethrough, and they offered themselves for a wage to Sir Hugh. Now these said carles were not over fair of favour, but seemed somewhat of ribalds, nor would Sir Hugh have taken them to service in his house at home; but he called to mind that it were more prudence than wisdom to spoil his journey and lose the occasion of finding his dear friends for the hasty judgment of a man’s face and demeanour, wherefore he waged these two men, and they set out for the western edges of Evilshaw.

Many towns and thorps they passed through, and everywhere, when men knew whither they were bound, they letted them all they might in words; but little heed they paid thereto, whereas they were all fixed in their rede that nought was to be done save the finding of their friends, and that their life-days were spoiled if they found them not. And moreover, each one of them, but especially Atra and Viridis, had dreams of the night from time to time, wherein they seemed to see the green-clad woman, were she Birdalone or another, beckoning and bidding them to enter the Wood of Evilshaw.

As to those two way-leaders withal, whether it were that they got used to their faces, or that their ways and manners were nought uncourteous or fierce, they doubted them less and less as time wore; all save Viridis, whose flesh crept when they drew anigh her, as will betide one who comes across an evil-looking creeping thing. As for Atra, she now began to heed little the things about her, as if her heart were wholly set on the end of the journey.

But now at last were they come so far that they had no choice but to use the said way-leaders, for they were gotten to the edge of Evilshaw. So they entered it, and those two led them by half-blind ways and paths amongst the thickets, and fumbled never with the road.

Five days they went thus, and on the fifth evening they lay down to sleep in the wood, and it was the turn of those two hirelings to keep watch and ward, and they woke not the next morn save with the hands of the Red Felons at their throats, so that Hugh was bound, and his two trusty men who came with him from the Green Mountains were slain before a stroke might be struck.

This was the end of Viridis’ tale, save that she told how that it was she that had uttered those two shrieks which Arthur and Birdalone had heard from the thicket; and that she had so done when the two false way-leaders laid hold of her to drag her away from her man, who stood there before her bound to a tree that he might perish there, whereon the two caitiffs had smitten her into unwit that they might have no more of her cries.

Now when all this had been told, and they had abided awhile in the fair little dale, and had said many kind endearing words of friendship, they went up on the green way again, and took what of the horses they needed and trussed their goods thereon (and Birdalone would not leave that brave armour which Habundia had given her), and they dight others for their home-riding, and the rest they turned loose into the woods, and so rode their ways, Birdalone going ever with Atra, and Arthur by Aurea; but Viridis must needs have Hugh within reach of her hand all the way.

Good speed they made, so that ere the night had fallen on them, though the sun was set, they ‘had come to the House under the Wood; and there again was joy and wondering of the new-comers, and merry feasting on such simple victuals as were there, and good-night and rest in all contentment in the house where erst had Birdalone tholed so many griefs and fears.

Here ends the Sixth Part of the Water of the Wondrous Isles, which is called The Days of Absence, and begins the Seventh Part, which is called The Days of Returning.


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