CHAPTER VII ~ BIRDALONE COMETH TO GREENFORD, AND HEARS THE WASTING OF THE CASTLE OF THE QUEST
Now came Birdalone riding into Greenford an hour before sunset on a day of the latter end of May; and she had no doubt but to go straight to the hostelry, and that the less as she had not abided there before, as hath been told. To them that served her she told the tale of her vow, that she might not do off her sallet that seven days; and some trowed her, and some deemed her a woman, but whereas she seemed by her raiment to be of condition none meddled with her. Moreover, as she told her intent to ride on betimes in the morning, it mattered the less unto them: withal she gave out that she came from foreign parts, as sooth it was.
In the evening she sat in the hall, and with her were three chapmen travelling with their wares, and two good men of the town sitting; and they were talking together, and were courteous and blithe, and amidst their talk they threw many a glance at the slim and fair young squire, as Birdalone seemed, and were fain to speak unto him, but refrained them for courtesy’s sake. For her part, Birdalone longed sore to ask them somewhat of the Castle of the Quest, but the words clave to her throat for very fear; and she sat restless and ill at ease. However at last said a townsman to a chapman: Art thou for the Red Hold, Master Peter, when thou art done here? Birdalone turned very pale at that word; and Master Peter spake: Yea, surely, neighbour, if the folk leave aught in my packs for others to buy. He spake in a jovial voice, as if he were merry, and the others all laughed together, as though they were well pleased and in good contentment. And now, deemed Birdalone, would be her time to speak if she would learn aught; so she constrained herself at last, and spake, though in a quavering voice: Meseems then, masters, this good town is thriving as now? This I ask because I am a stranger in these parts this long while, and now I am come back hither fain were I to find the land in good peace; for I may chance to take up my abode hereby.
The goodmen turned to her and smiled kindly when they heard the sweetness of her voice; and one of them said: Sir of the sallet, ye shall be content with the peace in this land, and the thriving of its folk; the very villeins hereabout live as well as franklins in most lands, and the yeomen and vavassours are clad as if they were knights of a good lord’s household. Forsooth their houses are both goodly and easy to enter; and well is that, whereas there lacks never good meat and drink on the board therein. And moreover their women are for ever seeking whatso is fair and goodly, whatso is far-fetched and dear-bought, whereof we chapmen also thrive, as thou mayst well deem. Ah! it is a goodly land now!
The others nodded and smiled. But Birdalone spake, hardening her heart thereto for very need: Belike then there is a change of days here, for when I last knew of the land there was little peace therein. And that will not be so long agone, said a townsman, smiling, for I doubt we should see no grey hair in thine head if thy sallet were off it. Birdalone reddened: It will be some five years agone, said she. Yea, yea, said the townsman, we were beginning to end the unpeace then, and it was the darkest hour before the dawn; for five years agone we and the good knights of the Castle of the Quest were lying before the walls of the Red Hold. Forsooth we cleared out that den of devils then and there. What betid unto it after ye won it? said Birdalone, and she trembled withal. Said the townsman: Heard ye never of the Black Squire, a very valiant knight, since thou sayest that thou hast known this country-side? She bowed a yeasay, for this time she found it hard to speak.
Well, said the townsman, we held garrison in the Red Hold for some three months, and thereafter we craved of him to come and be our captain therein; for, even after the Hold was won, there was yet a sort of runagates that haunted the country-side, men who had no craft save lifting and slaying. And forsooth we knew this Lord Arthur for the keenest and deftest of men-at-arms; so he yeasaid our asking, and did all he might herein, and forsooth that was all there was to do; for he was ever in the saddle, and at the work. Forsooth he was not a merry man, save when he was at his busiest; and little he spake in hall or chamber, else had he been better beloved. But at least by no man better might the land have been served.
There was silence a little, and Birdalone waxed deadly pale; then she strove with herself and said: Thou sayest he was and he was; is he dead then? Said the townsman: Not to our knowledge. When he had brought the land into good peace, which is some three years and a half agone, he went his ways from the Red Hold all alone, and we saw him no more. But some folk deem that he hath entered into religion.
Birdalone’s heart sickened, and she thought to herself that now all was to begin again; yet she felt that the worst was over since he was not dead, and she was able to think what she should do. So she said: Mayhappen he hath gone back to the Castle of the Quest? Nay, nay, said the townsman, that may not be; for waste is that house now; there is none dwelleth there, save, it may be, now and again a wandering carle or carline abideth there a day or two. Said Birdalone: How hath that befallen? or where is gone Sir Hugh, the Green Knight? Said the townsman: We knew the Green Knight well; frank and free and joyous was he; all men loved him; and his lady and speech-friend, none ever saw a lovelier, and as kind as was he. But we might not keep them with us; they are gone into their own country. Sir Hugh left the Castle of the Quest some three months after the Black Squire came to us for captain, and he gave over the castle to Sir Geoffrey of Lea, an old and wise man of war. But not many months thereafter we heard that he also had departed, leaving it ungarnished of men; and we deem that the cause thereof is that something uncouth is seen and heard therein, which folk may not endure. Is it not so, my masters?
They all yeasaid that, and the talk went on to other matters. As for Birdalone, though her hope to come amongst friends was so utterly overthrown, yet she saw not what to do save to go her ways to the Castle of the Quest, and see if perchance she might find any tidings there. And she said to herself, that if the worst came to the worst, she would herself dwell there as an hermit of love; or, maybe, to face those uncouth things and see if any tidings might be compelled out of them.