The Water of the Wondrous Isles
The Third Part: Of the Castle of the Quest
CHAPTER I ~ BIRDALONE COMES TO THE CASTLE OF THE QUEST
Empty was the day to Birdalone save for her thoughts, and she slept not a good while of the night. When she awoke in the morning there was no land before her, and she began to fear somewhat that so it might be many days, and that she might have to fare the water landless, and perchance till she starved for hunger; for now was there but little victual left of that which the kind Viridis had given her. So she wore the day somewhat uneasily, and by then night fell had eaten but little; yet was that little the last crumb and gobbet of her store. Wherefore it is no wonder though she were dismayed when she awoke early on the morrow, and beheld nought before her save the landless water.
But about noon she deemed she saw a little cloud in the offing that moved not as the other clouds, and she watched it closely at first, and it changed not any the more, and she grew weary of watching it and strove to sleep, turning her head to the after part of her ferry; and thus betwixt sleeping and waking she wore away three hours: then she stood up and looked ahead, and lo, the white cloud had taken shape, and was a white castle far away (for the day was exceeding clear), sitting, as it seemed, on the very face of the water. The boat sped on swiftly thitherward, so that it was not right long ere Birdalone beheld the green shore on either side of the said castle, and at last, three hours before sunset, she was drawing nigh thereto, and beheld it all clearly, what it was.
It was brand-new, and was fair enough, builded part of stone and lime, part of framed work, but was but middling big. As she drew nigher yet, she saw that there were folk on the walls of it, and they seemed to see her, for a horn was winded from the battlement, and folk were running together to somewhither. And now was Birdalone come so near, that she saw the water-gate of the castle, and folk coming out thereby on to the landing-place; and she saw presently, that a very tall man with grizzled hair stood foremost of them, and he waved his hand to her, and spake something, but the wind bore the words away from her; yet she seemed to know that this folk would do her to wit that they would have none of her; and her heart died within her, so faint and hungry as she was.
Howsoever the ferry sped on its way swiftly, and in a minute or two had stayed itself at the landing-stair, whereabout were gathered a score of men, some armed some unarmed, and they seemed for the more part to be grey-headed and past middle-age.
Birdalone stood up in her craft, and the aforesaid tall grey man, who was unarmed, but clad in knightly raiment, stood on the stair and spake unto her, and said: Lady, this is an house where women enter never since first the roof was done thereon, which forsooth was but a year ago. We will pray thee therefore to turn thy boat’s head away, and seek some other lodging by the water, either eastward or westward.
Little knew Birdalone of worldly courtesy, or she had made him a sharp answer belike; but she only looked on him ruefully, and said: Good warrior, I am come a long way, and may not turn back from mine errand; and I am now lacking victual and hungry, and if ye help me not, it is like that I shall die. Much lieth on mine errand, if ye knew it. She was weeping-ripe, but refrained her tears, though her lip quivered. She stretched out her hands to the greybeard, and he looked on her and found her exceeding fair; and he deemed her to be guileless, both because of her simple speech and sweet voice, and the goodliness of her face and eyes. But he said: Lady, thine errand hath nought to do with it, it is thy womanhood that bars our door. For all we are bound by oath not to suffer a woman to abide in this castle till our lords take the bann off, and bid us open to women. She smiled faintly, and said: If I might but see thy lords then, since thou art not master here. He said: They are away, and will not be back till tomorrow morning; and I wot not the hour of their return. And yet, said he, I would we might help thee somewhat. O I pray thee, I pray thee! she said, or mine errand will come to nought after all.
Therewith came another man down the stair, and stood by the old knight and plucked his sleeve, and fell to talk with him softly. This man was by his habit a religious, and was a younger man than the others, it might be of five and thirty winters, and he was fair of favour. While they spake together Birdalone sat her down again, and was well-nigh spent.
At last the old man spake: Damsel, he said, we deem we may suffer thee to enter the castle since thy need is so great, and have a meal’s meat at our hands, and yet save our oath, if thou depart thence by the landward gate before sunset. Will this serve thee? Fair sir, said Birdalone, it will save my life and mine errand; I may say no more words for my faintness, else would I thank thee.
She stood up on her feet, and the old man-at-arms reached out his hand to her, and she took it and came her ways up the stair, but found herself but feeble. But the priest (forsooth he was chaplain of the castle) helped her on the other side. But when she stood on the level stones by the water-gate, she turned to the old man and said: One thing I will ask of thee, Is this place one of the Wondrous Isles? The elder shook his head. We know not the Wondrous Isles, said he; this castle is builded on the mainland. Her face flushed for joy at the word, and she said: One thing I will crave of thee, to wit, that thou wilt leave my barge lying here untouched till thy masters come back, and wilt give command that none meddle therewith.
He would have answered, but the priest brake in, and said: This will he do, lady, and he is the castellan, and moreover he will swear to obey thee herein. And therewith he drew forth a cross with God nailed thereon, and the castellan swore on it with a good will.
Then the priest drew Birdalone on, and between them they brought her into the great hall, and set her down in a chair and propped her with cushions. And when she was thus at rest, she began to weep somewhat, and the castellan and the priest stood by and comforted her; for themseemed, despite her grief, that she had brought the sun into their house.
Next were victual brought unto her of broth and venison, and good wine and cates and strawberries; and she was not so famished but she might eat and drink with a good will. But when she was done, and had rested a little, the castellan stood up and said: Lady, the sun is gone off the western windows now, and I must save mine oath; but ere thou depart, I were fain to hear thy voice giving me pardon for my evil cheer and the thrusting of thee forth. And therewith he put one knee to the ground, and took her hand and kissed it. But Birdalone was grown merry again, and she laughed and said: What pardon thou canst have of me, kind knight, thou hast; but now methinks thou makest overmuch of me, because I am the only woman who hath come into thy castle. I am but a simple maiden, though mine errand be not little.
Forsooth she wondered that the stark and gruff old man was so changed to her in little space; for nought she knew as yet how the sight of her cast a hot gleed of love into the hearts of them who beheld her.
Now Birdalone arose; but the castellan knelt at her feet, and kissed her hand again, and again, and yet again. Then he said: Thou art gracious indeed. But methinks the father here will lead thee out-a-gates; for he may show thee a lair, wherein thou shalt be safe enough to-night; and tomorrow may bring new tidings.
So the priest made obeisance to her and led her down the hall, and the castellan’s eyes were following them till the screen hid them. The priest left her in the hall-porch a while, and went into the buttery, and came back with a basket of meat and drink, and they went forth at the great gate together, and there was the last of the sun before them.
CHAPTER II ~ NOW SHALL BE TOLD OF THE HOUSE BY THE WATER-SIDE
On a fair smooth road went they amidst of a goodly meadow-land, wherein were little copses here and there. When they were fairly out of the gate, the priest reached for Birdalone’s hand, and she let him take it and lead her along thereby, thinking no evil; but he might scarce speak for a while, so great was the stir in his heart at the touch of her bare flesh. But Birdalone spake and said: Thou art kind, father, to lead me on my way thus.
He answered in a husky voice with his eyes cast down, and forsooth set on the feet of her: It is not far that I am leading thee; there is a broken cot by the copse at the turn of the road yonder, where thou mayst abide to-night; it is better lodging than none, evil as it is for such an one as thou. Birdalone laughed: Worse have I had, said she, than would be the copse without the cot. And she thought withal of the prison in the Isle of Increase Unsought.
Her voice seemed so cheery and friendly to the priest, that he shook off somewhat the moodiness of his desire, and looked up and said: I shall tell thee, lady, that I suppose thou hast more errand with my lords than to crave lodging of them despite the custom of the castle. Nay, I have an inkling of what thine errand may be, whereof more anon; but now shall I tell thee what is best for thee to do so as to have speech of them the soonest. They have gone forth with some of our lads to gather venison, or it may be beeves and muttons for our victualling, and somewhat of battle may they have had on the way, for ill neighbours have we. But if they come back unfoughten they will be wending this road, and must needs pass by thy copse-side; and if thou be sleeping the noise of them will full surely awaken thee. Then all thou hast to do is to come forth and stand in the way before them, that they may see thee; and when once they have seen thee, how may they pass thee by unspoken with?
I thank thee heartily for thy rede, said Birdalone; but I would ask thee two things: first, what is the name of the castle behind us? and second, why have ye the custom of shutting the door upon women? Said the priest: The castle is called in this country-side, the White Ward by the Water; but within there we call it the Castle of the Quest; and thus is it called because my lords are seeking their loves whom they have lost; and they have sworn an oath that no woman shall enter therein till their own loves have trodden its floors.
Rose the heart of Birdalone at that word, and she deemed indeed that she was come thither whereas her she-friends would have had her. The priest beheld her and saw how her beauty was eked by that gladness, and he scarce knew how to contain himself; and might speak no word awhile; then he said: Hearken further concerning thy matter; if my lords be tarried, and come not by matin-song, then I doubt not but the castellan will send folk to see to thee. He looked down therewith and said: I will come to thee myself; and will bring thee men-at-arms, if need be. But sometime tomorrow morning my lords will come, save mischief hath betid, which God forbid. And he crossed himself; then he looked up and full in her face, and said: But keep thine heart up; for whatsoever may betide, thou shalt not be left uncared for.
Said Birdalone: I see of thee that thou art become my good friend, and it rejoiceth my heart; I shall be well at ease to-night in thy cot, and tomorrow morn I shall be valiant to do thy bidding.
The sweetness of her speech so overcame him, that he but looked confusedly on her, as if he scarce heard her; and they went on together without more words, till he said: Here are we at the cot, and I will show thee thy chamber. So he led her to a little thatched bower, built with walls of wattle-work daubed with clay, which stood without the remnant of the cot: it was clean and dry, for the roof was weather-tight; but there was nought in it at all save a heap of bracken in a corner.
There stood the priest, still holding Birdalone’s hand, and spake not, but looked about, yet always covertly on Birdalone; but in a while he let go her hand, and seemed to wake up, and said: This it is; a sorry place enough, were it even for a gangrel body. Even so am I, quoth she laughing; and thou mayest look to it, that herein I shall rest full happily. Then he gave her a horn, drawing it from out of the basket of victual, which he now set down on the ground; and he said: If thou shouldst deem thee hard bestead, then wind this horn, and we shall know its voice up there and come to help thee. Now I give thee good-night.
She thanked him sweetly, and he went slowly out of the bower, but was scarce gone ere he came back again, and said: One thing I may perchance tell thee without drawing thine anger on my head; to wit, that I it was who said to the castellan that he should take thee in. Wilt thou say aught to this? She said: I will thank thee again and again; for it was the saving of my life and mine errand. And clearer is it now than ever that thou art a good friend unto me.
As she looked on him and caressed him with kind eyes, she saw that his brow was knit, and his face troubled, and she said to him: What ails thee? art thou wroth with me in any wise? O no, said he; how should I be wroth with thee! But there is a thing I would ask of thee. Yea, and what? said she. He said: Nay, I may not, I may not. It shall be for tomorrow, or another day. He spake it looking down, and in a broken voice; and she wondered somewhat at him, but not much, deeming that he was troubled by something which had nought to do with her, and which he might refrain from thinking of, even before a stranger.
But presently he caught her hand and kissed it, and bade her good-night again, and then went hastily out of the bower; and when he was well without, he muttered, but not so as she might hear him: Durst I have asked her, she would have suffered me to kiss her cheek. Alas! fool that I was! Birdalone turned then to her bracken bed, and found it sweet and clean; and she was at rest and peace in her mind, albeit her body was exceeding weary. She felt happy in the little lonely cot, and her heart had gone out to the sweet meadow-land, and she loved it after all the trouble of the water; and herseemed that even now, in the dusk a-growing into dark, it loved and caressed her. So she laid her down, nor unclad herself at all, lest she should have to arise on a sudden, and show those tokens of the three damsels on her body.
A little while she lay there happily, hearkening the voices of the nightingales in the brake, and then she fell into a dreamless sleep, unbroken till the short night passed into day.
CHAPTER III ~ HOW BIRDALONE DIGHT HER FOR MEETING THE CHAMPONS OF THE QUEST
It was the birds beginning their first song once more that awakened Birdalone before the sun was up; but she had no will to stir a while, whereas she felt so happy and restful; and that all the more when she remembered where she was, and told herself that her errand was now like to be accomplished; and she thought of her friends whom she had left on the Isle of Increase Unsought, and blessed them for their kindness, and the love of them was sweet to her heart, and amidst such thoughts she fell asleep again.
When she awoke thereafter there was a flood of sunshine lying on the meadows, and she sprang up in haste lest she had overslept herself, but when she was come out of the bower, she soon saw that the sunbeams lay low on the land, and that it was yet the first hour of the sun; so she turned about, and went through the copse to the other side, and lo! a little clear stream running before her. So she spake to herself softly and said: Fie on it! I was weary with the boat and my hunger last night, and I went to bed unwashen; and this morn I am weary for the foulness of my unwashen body. Unseemly it were to me to show myself sluttish before these lords; let me find time for a bath at least.
Therewith she went swiftly down to the water, undoing her girdle and laces by the way. She came to the stream and found it running between blue-flowering mouse-ear and rushes, into a pool which deepened from a sandy shallow: so anon her borrowed raiment was lying on the grassy lip of the water, and she was swimming and disporting her in the pool, with her hair loose and wavering over her white back like some tress of the water-weed. Therein she durst not tarry long, but came hurrying out on to the grass, and clad herself in haste. But she covered not her shoulders with the golden gown, nor laced it over her bosom, so that Viridis’ smock might be the plainer to see: which smock was noteworthy, for the breast thereof was broidered with green boughs, whence brake forth little flames of fire, and all so dainty-wrought as if the faery had done it.
Withal she gathered up the gown into her girdle, and let the skirt-hem clear her ankles, so that Atra’s shoon might be seen at once; and they were daintily dight with window-work and broidery of gold and green stones, and blue. And forsooth it was little likely that any man should stand before her a minute ere his eyes would seek to her feet and ankles, so clean and kindly as they were fashioned.
Therewith she set her hands to her head, and trussed up her hair, and bound it closely to her head, so that it might hide no whit of her borrowed attire.
There she stood, with Aurea’s collar lying on her dear neck, and Viridis’ girdle about her shapen loins, and Atra’s ring on her lovesome finger. And she hearkened a while and heard no sound of coming men; and there came into her heart a gentle fear, which grieved her not. Over the water before her hung an eglantine bush, with its many roses either budding or but just out. Birdalone stole thither softly, and said, smiling: Nay, if I have nothing that is mine on my body, I will take this of the maiden’s bath and make it mine. And therewith she plucked a spray of the bush and turned it into a garland for her head; and then when she had stood shyly a while in that same place, she turned and went swiftly to her place beside her night-harbour, and stood there hearkening with that sweet fear growing upon her, her colour coming and going, and her heart beating fast.
Now the thought of that kind priest who had led her to the bower last night came into her mind, and she wondered why he had been so troubled. And she thought, would those others be so kind to her, or would they deem her an impudent wench or a foolish, or pass her by?
Forsooth if any had passed her by it had been not that he should miss seeing her beauty, but that he should fear it, and deem her some goddess of the Gentiles of old time come before him for his ensnaring.
CHAPTER IV ~ AND NOW SHE MEETS THE CHAMPIONS
Now, as she stood hearkening, she deemed she heard something that was not so loud as the song of the blackbird in the brake, but further off and longer voiced: and again she hearkened heedfully, and the sound came again, and she deemed now that it was the voice of an horn. But the third time of her hearing it she knew that it was nought less; and at last it grew nigher, and there was mingled with it the sound of men shouting and the lowing of neat.
Then she stepped down to the very edge of the way, and now she saw the riding-reek go up into the clear air, and she said: Now are they coming without fail, and I must pluck up a heart; for surely these dear friends of my friends shall neither harm a poor maiden nor scorn her.
Soon came the leading beasts from out of the dust-cloud, and behind them was the glitter of spear-heads; and then presently was a herd of neat shambling and jostling along the road, and after them a score or so of spearmen in jack and sallet, who, forsooth, turned to look on Birdalone as they passed by, and spake here and there a word or two, laughing and pointing to her, but stayed not; and all went on straight to the castle.
Thereafter was a void, and then came riding leisurely another score of weaponed men, whereof some in white armour; and amongst them were five sumpter horses laden with carcasses of venison. And all these also went by and stayed not, though the most of them gazed on Birdalone hard enough.
Last of all came three knights riding, one with a gold surcoat over his armour, and thereon a cleft heart of red; the second with a green surcoat, and on the same a chief of silver with green boughs thereon, their ends a-flaming; but the third bore a black surcoat besprinkled with silver tears. And all these three rode bare-headed, save that the Black Knight bore an oak-wreath on the head.
Now did Birdalone take to her valiancy, and she stepped out into the road till she was but a ten paces from those men, who reined up when they beheld her; and she said in a clear voice: Abide, warriors! for if ye be what I deem you, I have an errand unto you.
Scarce were the words out of her mouth, ere all three had leapt off their horses, and the Golden Knight came up to her, and laid his hand upon her side, and spake eagerly and said: Where is she, whence thou gattest this gown of good web? And thou, said she, art thou Baudoin the Golden Knight? But he set his hand to the collar on her neck, and touched her skin withal, and said: This, was she alive when thou camest by it? She said: If thou be Baudoin the Golden Knight, I have an errand to thee. I am he, said the knight; O tell me, tell me, is she dead? Said Birdalone: Aurea was alive when last I saw her, and mine errand is from her to thee, if thou be verily her lover. Now with this word I pray thee to be content a while, said she, smiling kindly upon him, for needs must I do mine errand in such wise as I was bidden. And thou seest also that thy friends would have a word of me.
Forsooth, they were thrusting in on her, and the Green Knight gat a hold of her left wrist in his left hand, and his right was on her shoulder, and his bright face close to her bosom whereon lay Viridis’ smock; and thereat she shrank aback somewhat, but said: Sir, it is sooth that the smock is for thee when thou hast answered me a question or two. Meanwhile I pray thee forbear a little; for, as I trow, all is well, and thou shalt see my dear friend Viridis again.
He withdrew him a little, flushed and shamefaced. He was a young man exceeding beauteous, clear-skinned and grey-eyed, with curly golden hair, and he bore his armour as though it were silken cloth. Birdalone looked upon him kindly though shyly, and was glad to the heart’s root that Viridis had so lovely a man to her darling. As for the Golden Knight, as Birdalone might see now, he stood a little aloof; he was a very goodly man of some five and thirty winters; tall he was, broad-shouldered and thin-flanked, black-haired, with somewhat heavy eyebrows, and fierce hawk-eyes; a man terrible of aspect, when one first beheld him.
Now when the Black Squire had hearkened Birdalone’s word concerning Viridis, he threw himself down on the ground before her, and fell to kissing her feet; or, if you will, Atra’s shoon which covered them. When she drew back a little, he rose on one knee and looked up at her with an eager face, and she said: To thee also I have an errand from Atra, thy speech-friend, if thou be Arthur the Black Squire. He spake not, but still gazed on her till she reddened. She knew not whether to deem him less goodly than the other twain. He also was a young man of not over five and twenty years, slim and lithe, with much brown hair; his face tanned so dark that his eyes gleamed light from amidst it; his chin was round and cloven, his mouth and nose excellently fashioned; little hair he had upon his face, his cheeks were somewhat more hollow than round. Birdalone noted of his bare hands, which were as brown as his face, that they were very trim and shapely.
Now he rose to his feet, and the three stood together and gazed on her; as how might they do otherwise? Birdalone hung her head, and knew not what next to do or say. But she thought within herself, would these three men have been as kind to her as her three friends of the Isle, had she happened on them in like case as she was that time? And she settled with herself that they would have been no less kind.
Now spake the Golden Knight, and said: Will the kind maiden do her errand to us here and now? for we be eager and worn with trouble. Birdalone looked adown and was somewhat confused. Fair sirs, said she, I will do your will herein.
But the Black Squire looked on her and saw that she was troubled, and he said: Your pardon, fair fellows, but is it not so that we have an house somewhat anigh, not ill purveyed of many things? By your leave I would entreat this kind and dear lady to honour us so much as to enter the Castle of the Quest with us, and abide there so long as she will; and therein may she tell us all her errand at her leisure; and already we may see and know, that it may not be aught save a joyous one.
Then spake the Golden Knight, and said: I will ask the lady to pardon me, and will now join my prayer to thine, brother, that she come home with us. Lady, he said, wilt thou not pardon me, that in the eager desire to hear tidings of my speech-friend I forgat all else.
And therewithal he knelt before her, and took her hand and kissed it; and for all his fierce eyes and his warrior’s mien, she deemed him kind and friendly. Then needs must the Green Knight kneel and kiss also, though he had no pardon to crave; but a fair sweet lad she thought him, and again her heart swelled with joy to think that her friend Viridis had so dear a speech-friend to long for her.
Then came the turn of the Black Squire, and by then were the two others turned away a little toward their horses; and he knelt down on both knees before Birdalone and took her right arm above the wrist, and looked at the hand and kissed it as if it were a relic, but stood not up; and she stood bending over him, and a new sweetness entered into her, the like of which she had never felt. But as for the Black Squire, it seemed that one hand would not suffice him, and he took her left hand and fell to kissing it, and then both the hands together all over the backs of them, and then the palms thereof, and he buried his face in the two palms, and held them to his cheeks; and the dear hands suffered it all, and consented to the embracing of his cheeks. But Birdalone deemed that this was the kindest and sweetest of the three kind warriors, and sorry she was when he let go her hands and stood up.
His face was flushed, but his speech calm, as he spake so that the other knights might hear him: Now will we straight to the castle, lady, and we will ask thee which of us three thou wilt honour by riding his horse there; shall it be Baudoin’s bright bay, or Hugh’s dapple-grey, or my red roan? And therewith he took her by the hand and led her toward the horses. But she laughed, and turning a little, pointed to the castle, and said: Nay, sweet lords, but I will fare afoot, such a little way as it is, and I all unwont to the saddle.
Spake the Green Knight: If that be so, lady, then shall we three walk afoot with thee. Nay, nay, she said; I have nought to carry but myself; but ye have your byrnies and your other armour, which were heavy for you to drag on afoot, even a little way. Moreover, I were fain to see you mount your horses, and ride and run about the meadow with tossing manes and flashing swords, while I trudge quietly toward the gate; for such things, and so beauteous, are all new unto me, as ye shall learn presently when I tell you my story. Do so much to pleasure me, kind knights.
The tall Baudoin nodded to her, smiling kindly, as much as to say that he thought well of her desire. But the Green Knight ran to his horse with a glad shout, and anon was in the saddle with his bright sword in his fist; then he spurred, and went a-gallop hither and thither over the mead, making his horse turn short and bound, and playing many tricks of the tilt-yard, and crying, A Hugh, A Hugh, for the Green Gown! The Golden Knight was slower and more staid, but in manywise he showed his war-deftness, riding after Hugh as if he would fall on him, and staying his way just as it became perilous; and he cried, Baudoin, Baudoin, for Gold-sleeves! And all this seemed to Birdalone both terrible and lovely.
But for the Black Squire, he was slow to let loose Birdalone’s hand; but thereafter he was speedy to vault into his saddle, and he made courses over the meadow, but ever came back to Birdalone as she went her ways, riding round and round her, and tossing his sword into the air the while and catching it as it fell. And no less lovely did this seem to Birdalone, and she smiled on him and waved her hand to him.
Going slowly in this wise, she came at last to the castle gate; and now had all those three out-gone her and stood afoot in the wicket to welcome her, and the Golden Knight, who was the oldest of the three, was the speaker of the welcome.
Over the threshold of the Castle of the Quest went Birdalone’s feet then, and she was grown so happy as she had never deemed she should be all her life long.
CHAPTER V ~ BIRDALONE HAS TRUE TOKENS FROM THE CHAMPIONS OF THE QUEST
Now they brought Birdalone into a very fair chamber, where was presently everything she might need, save a tiring woman, which, forsooth, was no lack unto her, since never had she had any to help her array her body. So she did what she might to make herself the trimmer; and in a while came two fair swains of service, who brought her in all honour into the great hall, where were the three lords abiding her. There were they served well and plenteously, and fair was the converse between them; and in especial was the talk of Arthur the Black Squire goodly and wise and cheery, and well-measured; and the Green Knight’s speech merry and kind, as of an happy child; and the Golden Knight spake ever free and kindly, though not of many words was he. And who was happy if Birdalone were not?
But when they had eaten and washed their hands, then spake the Golden Knight: Dear maiden, now are we ready to hear the innermost of thine errand, all we together, if thou wilt.
Birdalone smiled and reddened withal, as she said: Fair lords, I doubt not but ye are even they unto whom I was sent, but they who sent me, and who saved me from death and worse, bade me do mine errand in such a way, that I should speak with each one of you privily, and that for a token each should tell me a thing known but to him and his love, and to me unto whom she hath told it. Now am I all ready to do mine errand thus, and no other wise.
Laughed they now, and were merry, and the Green Knight blushed like a maiden; forsooth like to his very speech-friend Viridis. But the Black Squire said: Fair fellows, get we all into the pleasance this fair morn, and sit there on the grass, and our sweet lady shall take us one after other into the plashed alley, and have the tokens of us.
Even so they did, and went into the pleasance, which was a goodly little garth south of the castle, grassed, and set thick with roses and lilies and gillyflowers, and other fragrant flowers. There then they sat on the daisied greensward, the three lords together, and Birdalone over against them, and they three watched her beauty and loveliness and wondered thereat.
But she said: Now it comes to the very point of mine errand; wherefore I bid thee, Baudoin the Golden Knight, to come apart with me and answer to my questions, so that I may know surely that I am doing mine errand aright.
Therewith she arose to her feet, and he also, and he led her into the plashed alley, out of earshot of the other twain, who lay upon the grass biding their turn with but little patience.
But when those two were in the deep shade of the alley, Birdalone said: Thou must know, Sir Golden Knight, that the three lovers of you three were good to me in my need, and clad my nakedness from their very bodies, but this raiment they lent me, and gave it not; for they bade me give it up piece by piece each unto the one who had given it to his love, whom I should know by the token that he should tell truly the tale of its giving. Now, fair sir, I know well, for I have been told, what was the tale of thy giving this golden gown to Aurea, and that same tale shalt thou now tell me, and if thou tell it aright, then is the gown thine. Begin, then, without more tarrying.
Lady, said the knight, thus it was: Aurea, my sweetling, abode with an ancient dame, a kinswoman of hers, who was but scantly kind to her; and on a day when we had met privily, and were talking together, my love lamented the niggard ways of her said kinswoman, and told how she had no goodly gown to make her fair when feasts were toward; but I laughed at her, and told her that so clad as she was (and her attire was verily but simple) she was fairer than any other; and then, as ye may wot, there was kissing and clipping between us; but at last, as from the first I meant it, I promised her I would purvey her such a gown as no lady should go with a better in all the country-side; but I said that in return I must have the gown she went in then, which had so long embraced her body and been strained so close to her body and her sides, and was as it were a part of her. That she promised me with kisses, and I went away as merry as a bird. Straightway thereafter I did do make this very gown, which thou bearest, dear maiden, and on the appointed day she came out to me unto the same place clad as she was before; but the new gown I had with me. Hard by our trysting-place was a hazel-copse thick enow, for it was midsummer, and she said she would go thereinto and shift gowns, and bear me out thence the gift of the old clout (so she called it, laughing merrily). But I said: Nay, I would go into the copse with her to guard her from evil things, beasts or men; and withal to see her do off the old gown, that I might know before I wedded her whatlike stuffing and padding went to make the grace of her flanks and her hips. And again was she merry, and she said: Come, then, thou Thomas unbelieving, and see the side of me. So we went into that cover together, and she did off her gown before mine eyes, and stood there in her white coat with her arms bare, and her shoulders and bosom little covered, and she was as lovely as a woman of the faery. Then I made no prayer unto her for leave, but took my arms about her, and kissed her arms and shoulders and bosom all she would suffer me, for I was mad with love of her naked flesh. Then she did on this golden gown, and departed when she had given me the old clout aforesaid, and I went away with it, scarce feeling the ground beneath my feet; and I set the dear gown in a fair little coffer, and here in this castle I have it now, and many times I take it forth and kiss it and lay my head upon it. Now this is a simple tale, lady, and I am ashamed that I have made it so long for thee. And yet I know not; for thou seemest to me so kind and loving and true, that I am fain that thou shouldest know how sorely I love thy friend and mine.
Birdalone deemed Baudoin a good man indeed, and the tears came into her eyes as she answered and said: True is thy tale, dear friend, and I have deemed it rather short than long. I see well that thou art Aurea’s very lover; and it joys me to think that thou, O terrible champion, art yet so tender and true. Now is the golden gown thine, but I will pray thee to lend it me a little longer. But this jewel shalt thou have from my neck here and now; and thou knowest whence it came, thine Aurea’s neck forsooth.
Therewith she betook it him, and he held it in his hand doubtfully a while, and then he said: Dear maiden, I thank thee, but I will take this collar, and lay it in my casket, and be glad thereof; and that the more, as, now I look on thee, I see nought missing from the loveliness of thine own neck.
Go to thy fellows now, said Birdalone, and send me the Green Knight, the goodly lad. So went he, and presently came Hugh thither merry and smiling, and said: Thou hast been long about the first token, sweet mistress; I fear me I shall make no such goodly story as hath Baudoin. And yet, said she, Viridis’ tale was the longest of all. I doubt thou mayst fail in the token. And she laughed; and he no less, and took her by the shoulders, and kissed her cheek frankly, and in such wise that she feared him nought, and said: Now that is to pay thee for thy gibe; what wouldst thou have of me? Said Birdalone: I would have thee tell me how it was that Viridis came by the smock with the green boughs aflame, which now I bear upon me.
Hearken, darling lady, said he: On a day Viridis and I were alone in the meadow, and so happy, that we might find nought to do save to fall into strife together; and I said it to her, that she loved me not as well as I loved her; which, by the way, was no less than a lie, for of all things living she is the most loving, and when we be together she knoweth not how to make enough of me. Well, we fell to wrangling after the manner of lovers, till I, having nothing else to say, bade her remember that since we had first come to love each other, I had given her many things, and she had given me nothing. Lo, then! my dear, what an ill-conditioned lad was I. But, little as I meant it, she took it all amiss, and leapt up, and fell to running back home over the meadow; thou mayst think how easily I caught up with her, and how little loth she was to be dragged back by the shoulders. So when we were sitting again under the thorn-bush, we had well-nigh done our wrangle; but she unlaced her gown and drew down a corner thereof, to show me her shoulder, how I had hurt it e’en now; and forsooth some little mark there was on the rose-leaf skin; and that made good time for kissing again, as ye may well wot. Then she said unto me: And how may I, a poor damsel, give thee gifts, and my kindred all greedy about me? Yet would I give thee a gift, such as I may, if I but knew what thou wouldst take. Now my heart was afire with that kissing of her shoulder, and I said that I would have that very same smock from her body, which then she bore, and that thereof I should deem that I had a rich gift indeed. What! said she, and wouldst thou have it here and now? And indeed I think she would have done it off her that minute had I pressed her, but I lacked the boldness thereto; and I said: Nay, but would she bring it unto me the next time we met; and forsooth she brought it folded in a piece of green silk, and dearly have I loved it and kissed it sithence. But as for thy smock, I had it fairly wrought and embroidered with the flaming green branches, as thou seest it, and I gave it to her; but not on the day when she gave me the gift; for the new one was long about doing. Now this is all the tale, and how Viridis might eke it into a long one, I wot not. But let it be, and tell me, have I won thy smock, or lost it?
Birdalone laughed on him and said: Well, at least thou shalt have it as a gift; and thou mayst call it given either by Viridis or me, which thou wilt. But with it goes another gift; which thou mayst have at once since thou must lend me the smock a little longer. And therewith she betook him her girdle, and he kissed it, but said: Nay, fair lady, this befitteth well the loveliness of thy body that thou shouldst wear it; and well it befitteth the truth and love of thy soul toward it for me; I pray thee to keep it. Nevertheless, she said, I will not have it, for it goeth with mine errand that thou take it of me. Now I bid thee depart, and send hither thy fellow, the Black Squire.
Went he then, and anon comes the Black Squire, and now that he was alone with Birdalone this first time, he seemed moody and downcast, all unlike the two others. He stood a little aloof from Birdalone, and said: What wouldst thou ask of me? Her heart was somewhat chilled by his moodiness, for erst had she deemed him the kindest of the three; but she said: It is of mine errand to ask of thee concerning this foot-gear which Atra lent me until I give it unto thee, if thou be verily her lover. Said he: I was verily her lover. Birdalone said: Then canst thou tell me the manner of thy giving these fair shoon unto Atra?
He said: Even so; we were walking together in this country-side and came to a ford of the river, and it was somewhat deep and took me to over the knee, so I bore her over in my arms; then we went on a little further till we must cross the river back again in another place, and there the ford was shallower, and, the day being hot, Atra must needs wade it on her own feet. So she did off hosen and shoon, and I led her by the hand, and it took her but up to mid-leg. But when we came up out of the water and were on the grass again, I craved the gift of her foot-gear for the love of her, and she gave it straightway, and fared home barefoot, for it was over the meads we were wending in early summer, and the grass was thick and soft. But thereafter I did do make the fair shoon which thou hast on thy feet, and gave them to her. And, for a further token that my tale is true, I shall tell thee that the name of the first ford we waded that day is the Grey-nag’s Wade, and the second is called Goat Ford. This is all my tale, lady; is the token true?
True it is, squire, said Birdalone, and was silent awhile, and he also. Then she looked on him friendly, and said: Thou art out of heart as now, my friend. Fear not, for thou shalt without doubt see thy speech-friend again. Moreover here is a ring which she set upon my finger, bidding me give it thee. And she held it out unto him.
He took the ring, and said: Yea, it is best that I have it of thee, lest unluck come thereof. She saw trouble in his face, but knew not what to say to cheer him, and they stood silently facing one another for awhile. Then he said: Let us back to our fellows, and talk it over, what is now to be done.
So they went their ways to where lay the other two upon the green grass, and the Black Squire lay down beside them; but Birdalone stood before them and spake unto the three.
CHAPTER VI ~ HOW THE CHAMPIONS WOULD DO BIRDALONE TO BE CLAD ANEW IN THE CASTLE OF THE QUEST
Lords, she said, now is it clear by the tokens that mine errand is to you and none other; now therefore am I to tell you what to do to come unto your speech-friends and deliver them and bring them back hither. For this is their case, that they are in captivity in a wonder-isle of this great water, and it is called the Isle of Increase Unsought.
Spake the Golden Knight: Fair lady, we have heard before that our friends fared hence, or rather were taken hence over the water. And that is the cause why we builded this castle on the water’s edge, on the very stead where was raised the pavilion, the house made for the ladies to abide therein the battle of the Champions. Since that time, moreover, many a barge and keel have we thrust out into the water, that we might accomplish the Quest whereunto we were vowed; but ever one way went our seafaring, that when we were come so far out into the water as to lose sight of land, came upon us mist, rose against us dusk and darkness; and then a fierce driving wind that drave us back to this shore. It is but six days ago since we tried this adventure for the last time, and belike the same shall befall us the next time we try it. Wherefore I must ask thee, lady, dost thou know any way whereby we may come to the said isle? For if thou dost, full surely we will try it, whatsoever may be the risk thereby to our bodies or our souls.
Full surely I do, said Birdalone; else how had I come from thence hither mine own self? And therewith she told them of the Sending Boat, what it was, and how she had come all the way by means thereof from the Isle of Increase Unsought; and they all hearkened her heedfully, and wondered both at the sorcery, and the valiant heart of her who had driven it as she would in despite of the evil. But in the end she spake and said: Lords, ye have now heard some deal of my story, even that which concerns you thereof; and which must needs be told at once: wherefore doubtless ye shall fare unto your speech-friends by this ferry in the very wise that I shall show you; unless perchance ye deem that I have been lying and making light tales to you, as, sooth to say, I deem ye think it not.
Spake the Golden Knight: Damsel, in all wise we trow in thee and thy tale. And God forbid that we should tarry! Go we hence this very day.
Yea, but hearken, said the Black Squire: Is it not a part of this damsel’s errand that she should deliver to us the raiment of our friends, which now she beareth on her own body, that we may bear it back unto them?
Sooth is that, said Birdalone, and ye may well wot that this may be nought but needful, whereas the said ladies be all beset by sorceries.
See ye then, fellows, said the Black Squire, it may not be today nor yet tomorrow that we may take the road. For ye wot that there is no woman’s gear in all the castle, and we must needs send otherwhere to seek it.
Look thou, maiden, said the Golden Knight, laughing, how duly this young knight thinketh of thee; whereas I, who am his elder, and should be wiser than he, am but heedless of thee. I pray thy pardon.
Moreover, said the Black Squire, there may well be wisdom in abiding; for it is to be thought that our dear loves considered this, and knew what the time of tarrying should be, and have so dight their matter as to fit in therewith; and I may not deem it of them that they would have us array this our dear sister and theirs in unseemly wise. Nay, for that would be an ill beginning of this deal of the Quest.
Now all yeasaid this gladly; and the Green Knight said: It were not so ill done that we should see more of our sister here ere we depart, and hear more of her tale; for meseemeth she began it erewhile but half-way. And he turned to Birdalone, and took her hand and caressed it.
Birdalone smiled on them somewhat shyly, and thanked them; but bade them spend as little time as might be on her arrayal. For, said she, though those ladies may well have reckoned on the time of the arrayal of my body, yet surely also they shall have reckoned with the eager fire of love in the hearts of you, and the haste it shall breed therein.
Well pleased were they with that word of hers, but none the less sent two sergeants and a squire with led horses unto the cheaping-town, a goodly and great town hight Greenford, which was some twenty miles thence, with the errand to bring back with them a good shaper and embroideress, and sewing-women, and cloth and silk and linen, and all things needful.
As for jewels, each one of them was fain to give her something which he prized, and fair and rich were the gifts, though they had not been made for women. As a fair SS collar of gold, which the Golden Knight gave her, and a girdle of broad golden plates, wrought beauteously, which was the gift of the Black Squire. Albeit he did not offer to clasp it round her loins, as she deemed he would; for when the Green Knight brought his gift, a great gold ring, very ancient of fashion, he would have her turn back the sleeve from her fore-arm, that he might set his dwarf-wrought gold upon the bare flesh; neither did he refrain him from kissing it withal.
But the messengers came back with their work-women and stuffs early on the morrow; and now was changed all the manner of the womanless castle, and men were full merry therein.
CHAPTER VII ~ OF BIRDALONE, HOW SHE TOLD THE CHAMPIONS ALL HER TALE
It was a matter of eight days, the making of all Birdalone’s raiment, and meanwhile she was ever with the three Champions, either all three together, or one or other of them. And as to their manners with her, ever was the Golden Knight of somewhat sober demeanour, as if he were an older man than he verily was. The Green Knight was for ever praising Birdalone’s beauty to her face, and seemed to find it no easy matter to keep his eyes off her, and somewhat he wearied her with kisses and caresses; but a gay and sportive lad he was; and when she rebuked him for his overmuch fondness, as now and again she did, he would laugh at himself along with her; and in sooth she deemed him heart-whole, and of all truth to Viridis, and oft he would talk of her to Birdalone, and praise her darling beauty to her, and tell of his longing for his love aloof. Only, quoth he, here art thou, my sister, dwelling amongst us, and shedding thy fragrance on us, and showing to us, wilt thou, wilt thou not, as do the flowers, all the grace and loveliness of thee; and thou so tender of heart withal, that thou must not blame me overmuch if whiles I forget that thou art my sister, and that my love is, woe’s me! far away. So thou wilt pardon me, wilt thou not? Yea, verily, said she, with a whole heart. Yet thou needest not reach out for my hand; thou hast had enough of it this morning. And she hid it, laughing, in the folds of her gown; and he laughed also, and said: Of a truth thou art good in all wise, and a young fool am I; but Viridis shall make me wiser, when we come together again. Sawest thou ever so fair a damsel? Never, she said, and surely there is none fairer in all the world. So hold thee aloof now for a while, and think of her.
As for the Black Squire, hight Arthur, Birdalone was troubled for him, and he made her somewhat sad. True it is that he came not before her again so moody and downcast as when he was giving her the token; yet she deemed that he enforced himself to seem of good cheer. Furthermore, though he sought her company ever, and that lonely with him, and would talk with her almost as one man with another, though with a certain tenderness in his voice, and looking earnestly on her the while, yet never would he take her hand, or touch her in any wise. And true it is that she longed for the touch of his hand.
On the third day of her sojourn in the Castle of the Quest, Birdalone took heart at the much egging of her friends, as they sat all together in the meadow without the castle, to tell them all the story of her; she hid none, save concerning the wood-mother, for she deemed that her sweet friend would love her the better if she babbled not of her.
So the Champions hearkened her telling the tale in her clear lovely voice, and great was their love and pity for the poor lonely maiden. And in especial clear it was to see that they were sore moved when she told how she first came on the Sending Boat, and how the witch-wife tormented her innocent body for that guilt. Then Baudoin laid his hand upon her head, and spake: Poor child, much indeed hast thou suffered! and now I will say it, that it was for us and our loves that thou hast borne all this anguish of captivity and toil and stripes.
But Hugh leaned over to her, as she sat with her head hanging down, and kissed her cheek, and said: Yea! and I was not there to smite the head off that accursed one; and I knew nought of thee and thine anguish, as I took my light pleasure about these free meadows. And he turned very red, and went nigh to weep.
Arthur sat still with his eyes bent down on the ground, and he said nothing; and Birdalone glanced on him wistfully ere she went on with her tale. And she went on and told closely all that had happened unto her in the crossing of the water and on the Isle of Increase Unsought, and the other Wonder Isles; and she deemed it not too much that she should tell it twice over, nor they that twice over they should hearken it.
That same evening as Birdalone walked by herself in the castle pleasance, she saw Arthur peering about as if he were seeking someone; so she stood forth, and asked him was he seeking aught; and he said: Thee was I seeking. But she durst not ask him what he would, but stood silent and trembling before him, till he took her hand, and spake not loud but eagerly.
After what thou hast told us today, I seem to know thee what thou art; and I tell thee that it is a pain and grief to me to leave thee, yea to leave thee were it but for a minute. O I pray thee pity me for the sundering. And therewith he turned about and hastened into the castle. But Birdalone stood there with her heart beating fast and her flesh quivering, and a strange sweetness of joy took hold of her. But she said to herself that it was no wonder though she felt so happy, seeing that she had found out that, despite her fears, this one of her friends loved her no less well than the others. And then she spake it in a soft voice that she would indeed pity him for the sundering, yea, and herself also.
Nevertheless, when they met thereafter, his demeanour to her was none otherwise than it had been; but she no longer heeded this since now she trowed in him.
CHAPTER VIII ~ IN THE MEANWHILE OF THE DEPARTING OF THE CHAMPIONS, THEY WOULD PLEASURE BIRDALONE WITH FEATS OF ARMS AND GAMES OF PROWESS
Passed the days now speedily, and the three Champions did what they might for the solace of Birdalone. For they and their household showed her of arms, and they tilted together courteously; and the sergeants stood forth, and shot in the bow before her, till she herself by their bidding took the bow in hand, and shot straighter and well-nigh as hard as the best man there, whereat they marvelled, and praised her much.
Then the young men ran afoot before her for the prize of a belt and knife, and forsooth she wotted well that were she to run against them with trussed-up skirts she would bear off the prize; but she had no heart thereto, for amidst them all, and her new friendships, she had grown shamefast, and might play the wood-maiden no longer. Yet twice the Champions fared further afield with her to show her some woodcraft; yet were not very free to go far, because of the ill neighbours whereof the chaplain had told her that first night of her coming.
And in all these pastimes, whatso they were, Birdalone bore herself well and merrily, and put from her the sorrow of the sundering, and the peril of her dear friends which grew now so near at hand.
The chaplain aforesaid, who hight Leonard, she fell in with not seldom; and he was ever meek and humble before her; and ever withal was sorrow easy to be seen in his countenance, and trouble withal; and she knew not how to help him, save by being courteous and kind with him whenso they met; but none the more might he pluck up cheerful countenance in answer to her kindness.
With Sir Aymeris, the grizzle-haired castellan, she foregathered also oft enough, and could not forbear some merry gibes with him concerning their first meeting, and how that she had been a burden and a terror to him; and these mocks she made him because she saw it liked him not ill to be mocked in friendly fashion; though forsooth betwixt the laughter he looked on her somewhat ruefully. And ever, ere he parted from her, he made occasion to kiss her hands; and she suffered it smiling, and was debonair to him; whereas she saw that he was of good will to her. In such wise then wore the hours and the days.
CHAPTER IX ~ BIRDALONE COMETH BEFORE THE CHAMPIONS IN HER NEW ARAY
Now the time was come when Birdalone had all her gear ready, and the women were to abide in the castle as her serving-damsels while the Champions were away.
So now in the summer eve, an hour before sunset, Birdalone did on the richest of her new raiment, and came into the hall where sat the Three together, and Sir Aymeris with them. She was so clad, that she had on a green gown with broidered sleeves, and thereover a white cote-hardie welted with gold, and gold-embroidered; on her feet were gold shoon of window-work, pearled and gemmed; and on her head a rose garland; on her neck she bore the Golden Knight’s collar; her loins were girt with the Black Squire’s girdle; and on her wrist was the Green Knight’s ancient gold ring; and she carried in her arms Aurea’s gown and Viridis’ shift and Atra’s shoon.
Rather sunrise than sunset it seemed, as verily Birdalone she came into the hall with bright eager eyes, and flushed cheeks, and countenance smiling with love. The men stood up all, and would come down from the dais to meet her; but she bade them go back, and sit each in his place till she stood before them.
Up the hall then she walked, and every step of hers seemed lovelier than the last, till she came to them and gave unto each his keepsake, and said: Champions, now is mine errand all done, save that tomorrow I must show you the manner of the Sending Boat. Now there is nought save the darkness of the coming night to hinder you from this last deal of your Quest; and it is I that have brought you to this, and have done this good unto you, if no more good I do in the world. Wherefore I pray you to love me ever, and bear me ever in your minds.
They gazed on her, and were overcome by her loveliness and grace, and by the kindness and valiancy of her heart. Next arose the Golden Knight, Baudoin to wit, and took a cross from his breast, and held it up, and spake: Maiden, thou sayest well, and never shall we forget thee, or cease to love thee; and here I swear by God upon the Tree, that it shall be a light thing for me to die for thee, if in any need I find thee. Brethren, will ye not swear the same? And this is but thy due, maiden, for I declare unto thee, that when thou didst enter the hall e’en now, it was as if the very sun of heaven was coming in unto us.
Thereon the other two took the Rood and swore upon it: and Hugh was hushed and meek and sad-faced after he had sworn; but Arthur the Black Squire bowed down his head and wept, and his fellows marvelled nought thereat, neither did Birdalone; and all her body yearned toward him to solace him.
Now turned Sir Baudoin to the castellan and said: Sir Aymeris, I will now swear thee to guard this lady as the apple of thine eye whiles we three be away, and therein to spare neither thyself nor others. For thou seest well what grief it would be to us if she came to any harm.
And to me also, said the castellan. And therewith he swore upon the Rood, and then came round the table, and knelt before Birdalone, and kissed her hands.
Thereafter were they all silent a space; and then came Birdalone to the inner side of the table and sat betwixt Baudoin and Hugh. But the Black Squire took up the word and spake: Birdalone, sweet child, one thing is to be said, to wit, that it were well that thou keep within walls while we be away; or at least that thou go but a little beyond the castle, and never but within a half bowshot, save thou be well accompanied. For there be men of violence dwelling no great way off, reivers and rovers, who would be well pleased to take from us anything which we deem dear; besides others who would think the lifting of such a jewel good hap indeed. Sir Aymeris, have a care of the Red Knight; and if thou mightest come by a few more stout lads, to wage them, it were well.
Birdalone heeded not what the castellan answered, such a shaft of joy went to her heart when she heard that friend speak her own name in such wise as he had never done erst, and that before them all. She but murmured some yeasay to that which Arthur had spoken unto her, and then she held her peace for the sweetness of that moment.
So there they sat and talked a while in dear and pleasant converse; and Hugh fell to asking her of her life in the House under the Wood, and she answered all frankly and simply, and the more she told the dearer she seemed to them.
Thus drew night in, till folk came flockmeal into the hall; for needs must be feast and banquet for triumph of the furtherance of the Quest; and the most of men were merry; but somewhat sober were all the three Champions, so that whoso ran might read it in their faces. As for Birdalone, she showed cheerful to all that folk which loved her and praised her; but inwardly sorrow had come home to her heart.
CHAPTER X ~ THE CHAMPIONS GO THEIR WAYS IN THE SENDING BOAT
When the sun was arisen on the morrow the three Champions went down to the landing-place, and there was none with them; for they had given command that no man should pry into their doings. Thither to them cometh Birdalone, clad no more in her gay attire, but in a strait black coat and with unshod feet; and she looked no sorrier than she was.
By Birdalone’s rede the Champions bore down in their own hands the victual and weapons and armour that they needed for the voyage; for she knew not but that the Sending Boat might take it amiss that any should touch her save the senders. And when they had done lading her, then all four stood together by the water’s edge, and Birdalone spake to her friends, and again bade them beware of the wiles of the Isle of Nothing; and again she told them of the woful images of the Isle of Kings and the Isle of Queens, and the strange folk of the Isle of the Young and the Old. Then she said: Now when ye come to the Isle of Increase Unsought, what think ye to do? Said the Green Knight: If I might rule, we should go straight up to the witch sitting in her hall, as thou toldest us, my dear, and then and there smite the head from off her. His eyes flashed and his brow knitted, and so fierce he looked that Birdalone shrank back from him; but the Black Squire smiled and said: It may come to the smiting off of heads in the end; yet must we so fashion our carving, that it avail us for the freeing of our friends; else may the witch die, and the secret of the prison-house die with her. How sayest thou, dear Birdalone?
She reddened at the caress of his voice, and answered: By my rede ye shall seek and find your speech-friends ere ye make open war upon the witch; else may her malice destroy them ere ye undo her. Her face flushed yet more as she spake again: But concerning all things, I deem that Atra may give you the best rede, when ye have met the loves; for that she knoweth more of the isle and its guiles than the others.
Quoth Baudoin: Herein is wisdom, sweet maiden, for as guileless as thou mayst be; and so far as we may we shall follow thy rede; but all lieth in the fathom of the coming time. And now this moment is the moment of sundering and farewell.
Came he then to Birdalone and took his two hands about her head, and lifted her face unto him, and kissed it kindly, as a father might kiss a daughter, and said: Farewell, dear child, and take heed to the word that Arthur spake yesterday, and go not from the castle even a little way save with good and sure company.
Then came Hugh to her, and took her hand somewhat timidly; but she put up her face to him in simple wise, and he kissed either cheek of her, and said no more than: Farewell, Birdalone!
Lastly came Arthur, and stood before her a little; and then he knelt down on the stones before her and kissed her feet many times, and she shuddered and caught her breath as they felt his kisses; but neither he nor she spake a word, and he stood up and turned away at once toward the Sending Boat, and boarded her first of the three; and the others followed straightway.
Thereafter the Champions bared each an arm, and let blood flow thence into a bowl, and reddened stem and stern of their barge, and then all three spake the spell together thus, as Birdalone had taught them:
The red raven-wine now Hast thou drunk, stern and bow: Wake then, and awake, And the northern way take! The way of the Wenders forth over the flood, For the will of the Senders is blent with the blood.
Went all as before thereafter, that the Sending Boat stirred under them, and then turned about and pointed her bows to the northward, and sped swiftly over the waters. It was a fair sunny day, with no cloud, nought save the summer haze lying on the lake far away. Birdalone stood watching the speeding of the boat, till she could see it no longer, not even as a fleck on the face of the waters. Then she turned away and went toward her chamber, saying to herself that the sundering was easier to bear than she had deemed it would be, and that she had a many things to do that day. But when she came into her chamber, and shut the door, she looked about her on the things which had grown so familiar to her in these few latter days, and she stood watching the bright sunshine that streamed across the floor and lay warm upon her feet; then she took three steps toward the window, and saw the lake lying all a-glitter under the sun, and her heart failed her withal, and she had no might so much as to think about her sorrow and caress it, but fell down where she was swooning on to the floor, and lay there, while all the house began to stir about her.
Here ends the Third Part of the Water of the Wondrous Isles, which is called Of the Castle of the Quest, and begins the fourth Part of the said tale, which is called Of the Days of Abiding.