CHAPTER VIII ~ BIRDALONE COMETH TO THE CASTLE OF THE QUEST, HEARETH THE TALE THEREOF FROM LEONARD, AND DEPARTETH THENCE BY THE SENDING BOAT
She arose betimes on the morrow, and was out of Greenford so soon as the gates were open, and at first made all speed that she might toward the Castle of the Quest; and nothing hindered her, for the land was verily in good peace, and she might have come there if she would before sunset, for all whom she met furthered her. But as the day waned her courage waned with it, so that at last she stayed some six miles short of the house, and craved shelter at a yeoman’s stead there, which was granted her with all kindness; and they made much of her, and she told them her vow of the sallet, and they deemed nought save that she was a young man.
She departed early in the morning with their God-speed, and while the day was yet young came into the meadows before the castle, and saw the towers thereof rising up before her: then she checked her horse, and rode on no faster than a foot’s pace; yet as slow as she might ride, needs must she get to the gate while the day was yet young.
So came Birdalone by that bower wherein she had slept that first night she came to the castle; and she reined up to look on it; and as she sat there gazing, came a man out from it clad as a man of religion; and her heart beat quick, and she was like to fall from her horse, for there came into her mind what the townsman had said, that the Black Squire had gone into religion. But the hermit came towards her with a cup of water in his hand, and he cast his hood aback from him, and she saw at once that it was Leonard the priest, and though it was not the friend whom she sought, yet was she glad that it was a friend; but he came and stood by her, and said: Hail, wayfarer! wilt thou drink of our well and rest thee a while? So she took the cup and drank of the water, looking kindly on him, while he wondered at the beauty of her hand, and misdoubted him. Then she gave him back the cup and lighted down off her horse, and took the sallet from her head, and spake: I may not pass by a friend without a word; think if thou hast not seen me before?
Then he knew her, and might not refrain him, but cast his arms about her and kissed her, weeping; and she said: It is sweet to me to find a friend after what I have been told of yonder house. Yea, said he, and art thou going up thither? Certes, said she, and why not? Said he: They are gone, and all gone! How and whither? said she. But I must full certainly go thither at once; I will go afoot with thee; do thou tether my horse till thou comest back.
He said: But wilt not thou come back? I know not, she said: I know nought save that I would go thither; let it be enough that I suffer thee to go with me, and on the way thou shalt tell me what thou canst of the tale.
Then went Leonard and tethered the horse, and they went together afoot to the gate; and Birdalone told what she had heard of Arthur and Hugh; and Leonard said: This is true, and there is not much else to be said. When the Black Squire came back from the leaguer of the Red Hold, and had heard before of thy departure, he was heavy of mood and few-spoken, and wandered about as one who might find no rest; yet was he not stern with Atra, who for her part was no less heavy-hearted: soothly a sad company we were, and it was somewhat better when my Lord Arthur went his ways from us; and indeed eager he was to be gone; and it could be seen of him that he was fain of the toil and peril which they of Greenford offered him. Then in some four months spake my lord Hugh that he also would be gone to a place where were both a land and folk that would look friendly on him; so he went with my lady Viridis and my lady Aurea, and they had Atra also with them; and me also they would have had, but my heart failed me to leave the place where I had been so glad and so sorry with thee; death had been better; wherefore in yonder bower as in an hermitage I serve God and abide my time. But though I wot nought of where is gone the Black Squire, I know whereto those four are gone, and it is but a seven days’ ride hence, and the land is goodly and peaceable, and if they be not dead, most like they be there yet. How sayest thou then, thou dearest and kindest, wilt thou thither to them? For if so, I may well lead thee thither.
Birdalone shook her head. Nay, she said, I deem that I am drawn elsewhither, but soon I shall tell thee. Lo now the gate. But ere we enter, tell me of Sir Geoffrey of Lea, and why it was that they might not abide the uncouth things, or if there were any such. Spake Leonard: Things uncouth there were, and I was called upon to lay them, and I did as biddeth Holy Church in all wise, but prevailed not against them, and still were they seen and heard, till folk might endure it no longer.
And what like were these things? said Birdalone, and are they yet seen and heard? Said Leonard: Strange it is, but last night I went into the great hall where they mostly betid, and laid me down there, as whiles I do, for I fear them not, and would see if they yet appear; but all night came nothing at all. As to the likeness of them . . . Then he stopped, but said presently: Hard it is to tell thee of them, but needs must I. There be two of these things; and one is an image of a tall woman of middle-age, red-haired, white-skinned, and meagre, and whiles she has a twiggen rod in her hand, and whiles a naked short sword, and whiles nought at all. But the voice of her is cursing and blaspheming and ill-saying.
Said Birdalone: This is then a fetch of my witch-mistress of whom I told thee erst, and the image of her; what is the other? Said Leonard: I were fain not to tell thee. Yet needs must thou, said Birdalone. Dear lady, said Leonard, the other is an image of thee, and even most like unto thee; but whiles clad in a scanty grey coat and barefoot, and whiles clad in a fair green gown goodly broidered, and broidered shoon; and whiles all mother-naked.
And what voice cometh from mine image? said Birdalone, smiling, yet somewhat pale withal. Said Leonard: One while a voice of sweet singing, as of a bird in the brake, and that is when thou art clad; and again, when thou art naked, a voice of shrieking and wailing, as of one enduring torments.
Spake Birdalone: And when did these wonders begin? Said he: Not till after Sir Hugh and thy she-friends were gone hence.
Pondered Birdalone a little; then she said: I see herein the malice of my witch-mistress; she would not send these fetches while Hugh was here, lest he should turn to seeking me with all his might. But when they departed, she would have the castle waste, and then she sent them, wotting that thereby she would rid her of Sir Geoffrey of Lea; while, on the other hand, I was nought so much unto him that he would spend all his life seeking me. But now I deem I know so much of her that I may bid thee to look on her as dead if these fetches come not again within a little while. Then mayst thou send and do Sir Geoffrey to wit thereof, and belike he will come back again; and fain were I thereof for it will be merrier if the Castle of the Quest be dwelt in once more.
Yea, verily, said Leonard; but far merrier yet wert thou to dwell there. Nay, she said, but now I see that it is not fated for me. Let us go in, for I would get to what I would do.
So therewith they passed under the shadow of the archway, and Birdalone stayed not but went straightway into the hall, and through it; and the priest, who lagged somewhat behind her speedy feet, cried out unto her: Whither wilt thou? what chamber wilt thou visit first? But she stayed not, and spake to him over her shoulder as she went: Follow me if thou wilt; I have but one place only to come to ere I leave the Castle of the Quest, save I must needs turn back on my footsteps.
Then Leonard came up with her, and she went her ways out of the hall, and out on to the waterswale of the castle, and so to the little haven of the water-gate. There Birdalone looked about her eagerly; then she turned to Leonard and pointed with her finger and said: Lo thou! there yet lieth my ferry of old time, the Sending Boat; now wot I wherefore I was drawn hither. And her eyes glittered and her body quivered as she spake.
Yea forsooth, said Leonard, there it lieth; who of all folk in the castle had durst to touch it? But what hath it to do with thee, O kindest lady?
Friend, she said, if this day weareth, and I am yet within these walls, then meseemeth there must I abide for evermore; and there perchance shall I meet that seeming of myself, maybe for this night, maybe for ever, till I die here in this castle void of all that I love, and I over-young for it, friend. And I know now that there is hope within me; for I bethink me of a dear friend over yonder water of whom I have never told any, nor will tell thee now, save this, that she is the wisdom of my life.
Wherefore now I will try this ferry and wot if the wight thereof will yet obey the voice of the speaker of the spell, who has shed of her blood to pay therefor. Put not forth a hand therefore nor speak a word to let me, but take this farewell of me, with my pity and such love as I may give thee, and let me go, and think kindly of me.
Then she went up to him, and laid her hands upon his shoulders, and kissed him, and turned about without more ado and stepped into the boat; then she sat down and stripped her arm of its sleeve, and drew forth a knife and let blood of her arm, and then arose and smeared stem and stern therewith, and then sat down with her face to the stern and sang:
The red raven-wine now Hast thou drunk, stern and bow; Wake then and awake And the Northward way take: The way of the Wenders forth over the flood, For the will of the Senders is blent with the blood.
Then she abode a little, while Leonard stood staring on her speechless with grief and blinded with his bitter tears, till the boat began to move under her, and presently glided out of the little haven into the wide lake; then she turned her face back unto him and waved her hand, and he knelt down and blessed her, weeping. And so she vanished away from before him.