"It is a long story," said the Puny Fox, "which I may tell thee some day. Meantime I may tell thee this, that I was compelled thereto by one far mightier than I, to wit the Undying King."
At that word the smouldering wrath blazed up in Hallblithe, and he drew his sword hastily and hewed at the Puny Fox: but he leapt aside nimbly and ran in on Hallblithe, and caught his sword-arm by the wrist, and tore the weapon out of his hand, and overbore him by sheer weight and stature, and drave him to the earth. Then he rose up, and let Hallblithe rise also, and took his sword and gave it into his hand again and said: "Crag- nester, thou art wrathful, but little. Now thou hast thy sword again and mayst slay me if thou wilt. Yet not until I have spoken a word to thee: so hearken! or else by the Treasure of the Sea I will slay thee with my bare hands. For I am strong indeed in this place with my old kinsman beside me. Wilt thou hearken?"
"Speak," said Hallblithe, "I hearken."
Said the Puny Fox: "True it is that I lured thee away from thy quest, and wore away a year of thy life. Yet true it is also that I repent me thereof, and ask thy pardon. What sayest thou?"
Hallblithe spake not, but the heat died out of his face and he was become somewhat pale. Said the Puny Fox: "Dost thou not remember, O Raven, how thou badest me battle last year on the sea-shore by the side of the Rollers of the Raven? and how this was to be the prize of battle, that the vanquished should serve the vanquisher year-long, and do all his will? And now this prize and more thou hast won without battle; for I swear by the Treasure of the Sea, and by the bones of the great Sea-mew yonder, that I will serve thee not year-long but life-long, and that I will help thee in thy quest for thy beloved. What sayest thou?"
Hallblithe stood speechless a moment, looking past the Puny Fox, rather than at him. Then the sword tumbled out of his hand on to the grass, and great tears rolled down his cheeks and fell on to his raiment, and he reached out his hand to the Puny Fox and said: "O friend, wilt thou not bring me to her? for the days wear, and the trees are growing old round about the Acres of the Raven."
Then the Puny Fox took his hand; and laughed merrily in his face, and said: "Great is thine heart, O Carrion-biter! But now that thou art my friend I will tell thee that I have a deeming of the whereabouts of thy beloved. Or where deemest thou was the garden wherein thou sawest her standing on the page of the book in that dream of the night? So it is, O Raven-son, that it is not for nothing that my grandsire's father lieth in yonder hole of the rocks; for of late he hath made me wise in mighty lore. Thanks have thou, O kinsman!" And he turned him toward the rock wherein was the grave.
But Hallblithe said: "What is to do now? Am I not in a land of foemen?"
"Yea, forsooth," said the Puny Fox, "and even if thou knewest where thy love is, thou shouldst hardly escape from this isle unslain, save for me."
Said Hallblithe: "Is there not my bark, that I might depart at once? for I deem not that the Hostage is on the Isle of Ransom."
The Puny Fox laughed boisterously and said: "Nay, she is not. But as to thy boat, there is so strong a set of the flood-tide toward this end of the isle, that with the wind blowing as now, from the north-north-east, thou mayst not get off the shore for four hours at least, and I misdoubt me that within that time we shall have tidings of a ship of ours coming into the haven. Thy bark they shall take, and thee also if thou art therein; and then soon were the story told, for they know thee for a rebel of the Undying King. Hearken! Dost thou not hear the horn's voice? Come up hither and we shall see what is towards."
So saying, he led hastily up a kind of stair in the rock-wall, until they reached a cranny, whence through a hole in the cliff, they could see all over the haven. And lo! as they looked, in the very gate and entry of it came a great ship heaving up her bows on the last swell of the outer sea (where the wind had risen somewhat), and rolling into the smooth, land- locked water. Black was her sail, and the image of the Sea-eagle enwrought thereon spread wide over it; and the banner of the Flaming Sword streamed out from the stern. Many men all-weaponed were on the decks, and the minstrels high up on the poop were blowing a merry song of return on their battle-horns.
"Lo, you," said the Puny Fox, "thy luck or mine hath served thee this time, in that the Flaming Sword did not overhaul thee ere thou madest the haven. We are well here at least."
Said Hallblithe: "But may not some of them come up hither perchance?"
"Nay, nay," said the Puny Fox; "they fear the old man in the cleft yonder; for he is not over guest-fain. This mead is mine own, as for other living men; it is my unroofed house, and I have here a house with a roof also, which I will show thee presently. For now since the Flaming Sword hath come, there is no need for haste; nay, we cannot depart till they have gone up-country. So I will show thee presently what we shall do to-night."
So there they sat and watched those men bring their ship to the shore and moor her hard by Hallblithe's boat. They cried out when they saw her, and when they were aland they gathered about her to note her build, and the fashion of the spear whereto she was tied. Then in a while the more part of them, some fourscore in number, departed up the valley toward the great house and left none but a half dozen ship-warders behind.
"Seest thou, friend of the Ravens," said the Fox, "hadst thou been there, they might have done with thee what they would. Did I not well to bring thee into my unroofed house?"
"Yea, verily," said Hallblithe; "but will not some of the ship-wards, or some of the others returning, come up hither and find us? I shall yet lay my bones in this evil island."
The Puny Fox laughed, and said: "It is not so bad as thy sour looks would have it; anyhow it is good enough for a grave, and at this present I may call it a casket of precious things."
"What meanest thou?" said Hallblithe eagerly.
"Nay, nay," said the other, "nought but what thou knowest. Art thou not therein, and I myself? without reckoning the old carle in the hole yonder. But I promise thee thou shalt not die here this time, unless thou wilt. And as to folk coming up hither, I tell thee again they durst not; because they fear my great-grandsire over much. Not that they are far wrong therein; for now he is dead, the worst of him seemeth to come out of him, and he is not easily dealt with, save by one who hath some share of his wisdom. Thou thyself couldst see by my kinsman, the Sea- eagle, how much of ill blood and churlish malice there may be in our kindred when they wax old, and loneliness and dreariness taketh hold of them. For I must tell thee that I have oft heard my father say that his father the Sea-eagle was in his youth and his prime blithe and buxom, a great lover of women, and a very friendly fellow. But ever, as I say, as the men of our kind wax in years, they worsen; and thereby mayst thou deem how bad the old man in yonder must be, since he hath lain so long in the grave. But now we will go to that house of mine on the other side of the mead, over against my kinsman's."
Therewith he led Hallblithe down from the rock while Hallblithe said to him: "What! art thou also dead that thou hast a grave here?"
"Nay, nay," said Fox, smiling, "am I so evil-conditioned then? I am no older than thou art."
"But tell me," said Hallblithe, "wilt thou also wax evil as thou growest old?"
"Maybe not," said Fox, looking hard at him, "for in my mind it is that I may be taken into another house, and another kindred, and amongst them I shall be healed of much that might turn to ill."
Therewith were they come across the little meadow to a place where was a cave in the rock closed with a door, and a wicket window therein. Fox led Hallblithe into it, and within it was no ill dwelling; for it was dry and clean, and there were stools therein and a table, and shelves and lockers in the wall. When they had sat them down Fox said: "Here mightest thou dwell safely as long as thou wouldst, if thou wouldst risk dealings with the old carle. But, as I wot well that thou art in haste to be gone and get home to thy kindred, I must bring thee at dusk to-day close up to our feast-hall, so that thou mayst be at hand to do what hath to be done to-night, so that we may get us gone to-morrow. Also thou must do off thy Raven gear lest we meet any in the twilight as we go up to the house; and here have I to hand home-spun raiment such as our war- taken thralls wear, which shall serve thy turn well enough; but this thou needst not do on till the time is at hand for our departure; and then I will bring thee away, and bestow thee in a bower hard by the hall; and when thou art within, I may so look to it that none shall go in there, or if they do, they shall see nought in thee save a carle known to them by name. My kinsman hath learned me to do harder things than this. But now it is time to eat and drink."
Therewith he drew victual from out a locker and they fell to. But when they had eaten, Fox taught Hallblithe what he should do in the hall that night, as shall be told hereafter. And then, with much talk about many things, they wore away the day in that ancient cup of the seething rock, and a little before dusk set out for the hall, bearing with them Hallblithe's gear bundled up together, as though it had been wares from over sea. So they came to the house before the tables were set, and the Puny Fox bestowed Hallblithe in a bower which gave into the buttery, so that it was easy to go straight into the mid-most of the hall. There was Hallblithe clad and armed in his Raven gear; but Fox gave him a vizard to go over his face, so that none might know him when he entered therein.
CHAPTER XXI: OF THE FIGHT OF THE CHAMPIONS IN THE HALL OF THE RAVAGERS
Now it is to be told that the chieftains came into the hall that night and sat down at the board on the dais, even as Hallblithe had seen them do aforetime. And the chieftain of all, who was called the Erne of the Sea-eagles, rose up according to custom and said: "Hearken, folk! this is a night of the champions, whereon we may not eat till the pale blades have clashed together, and one hath vanquished and another been overcome. Now let them stand forth and give out the prize of victory which the vanquished shall pay to the vanquisher. And let it be known, that, whosoever may be the champion that winneth the battle, whether he be a kinsman, or an alien, or a foeman declared; yea, though he have left the head of my brother at the hall-door, he shall pass this night with us safe from sword, safe from axe, safe from hand: he shall eat as we eat, drink as we drink, sleep as we sleep, and depart safe from any hand or weapon, and shall sail the sea at his pleasure in his own keel or in ours, as to him and us may be meet. Blow up horns for the champions!"
So the horns blew a cheerful strain, and when they were done, there came into the hall a tall man clad in black, and with black armour and weapons saving the white blade of his sword. He had a vizard over his face, but his hair came down from under his helm like the tail of a red horse.
So he stood amidst the floor and cried out: "I am the champion of the Ravagers. But I swear by the Treasure of the Sea that I will cross no blade to-night save with an alien, a foeman of the kindred. Hearest thou, O chieftain, O Erne of the Sea-eagles?"
"Hear it I do," said the chieftain, "and I deem that thy meaning is that we should go supperless to bed; and this cometh of thy perversity: for we know thee despite thy vizard. Belike thou deemest that thou shalt not be met this even, and that there is no free alien in the island to draw sword against thee. But beware! For when we came aland this morning we found a skiff of the aliens tied to a great spear stuck in the bank of the haven; so that there will be one foeman at least abroad in the island. But we said if we should come on the man, we would set his head on the gable of the hall with the mouth open toward the North for a token of reproach to the dwellers in the land over sea. But now give out the prize of victory, and I swear by the Treasure of the Sea that we will abide by thy word."
Said the champion: "These are the terms and conditions of the battle; that whichso of us is vanquished, he shall either die, or serve the vanquisher for twelve moons, to fare with him at his will, to go his errands, and do according to his commandment in all wise. Hearest thou, chieftain?"
"Yea," said he, "and by the Undying King, both thou and we shall abide by this bargain. So look to it that thou smite great strokes, lest our hall lack a gable-knop. Horns, blow up for the alien champion!"
So again the horns were winded; and ere their voice had died, in from the buttery screens came a glittering image of war, and there stood the alien champion over against the warrior of the sea; and he too had a vizard over his face.
Now when the folk saw him, and how slim and light and small he looked beside their champion, and they beheld the Raven painted on his white shield, they hooted and laughed for scorn of him and his littleness. But he tossed his sword up lightly and caught it by the hilts as it fell, and drew nigher to the champion of the sea and stood facing him within reach of his sword. Then the chieftain on the high-seat put his two hands to his mouth and roared out: "Fall on, ye champions, fall on!"
But the folk in the hall were so eager that they stood on the benches and the boards, and craned over each other's shoulders, so that they might lose no whit of the hand-play. Now flashed the blades in the candle-lit hall, and the red-haired champion hove up his sword and smote two great strokes to right and to left; but the alien gave way before him, and the folk cried out at him in scorn and in joy of their champion, who fell to raining down great strokes like the hail amidst the lightning. But so deft was the alien, that he stood amidst it unhurt, and laid many strokes on his foeman, and did all so lightly and easily, that it seemed as if he were dancing rather than fighting; and the folk held their peace and began to doubt if their huge champion would prevail. Now the red-haired fetched a mighty stroke at the alien, who leapt aside lightly and gat his sword in his left hand and dealt a great stroke on the other's head, and the red-haired staggered, for he had over-reached himself; and again the alien smote him a left-handed stroke so that he fell full length on the floor with a mighty clatter, and the sword flew out of his hand: and the folk were dumb-founded.
Then the alien threw himself on the sea-champion, and knelt upon him, and shortened his sword as if to slay him with a thrust. But thereon the man overthrown cried out: "Hold thine hand, for I am vanquished! Now give me peace according to the bargain struck between us, that I shall serve thee year-long, and follow thee wheresoever thou goest."
Therewith the alien champion arose and stood off from him, and the man of the sea gat to his feet, and did off his helm, so that all men could see that he was the Puny Fox.
Then the victorious champion unhelmed himself, and lo, it was Hallblithe! And a shout arose in the hall, part of wonder, part of wrath.
Then cried out the Puny Fox: "I call on all men here to bear witness that by reason of this battle, Hallblithe of the Ravens is free to come and go as he will in the Isle of Ransom, and to take help of any man that will help him, and to depart from the isle when he will and how he will, taking me with him if so he will."
Said the chieftain: "Yea, this is right and due, and so shall it be. But now, since no freeman, who is not a foe of the passing hour, may abide in our hall without eating of our meat, come up here, Hallblithe, and sit by me, and eat and drink of the best we have, since the Norns would not give us thine head for a gable-knop. But what wilt thou do with thy thrall the Puny Fox; and whereto in the hall wilt thou have him shown? Or wilt thou that he sit fasting in the darkness to-night, laid in gyves and fetters? Or shall he have the cheer of whipping and stripes, as befitteth a thrall to whom the master oweth a grudge? What is thy will with him?"
Said Hallblithe: "My will is that thou give him a seat next to me, whether that be high or low, or the bench of thy prison-house. That he eat of my dish, and drink of my cup, whatsoever the meat and drink may be. For to-morrow I mean that we twain shall go under the earth-collar together, and that our blood shall run together and that we shall be brothers in arms henceforward." Then Hallblithe did on his helm again and drew his sword, and looked aside to the Puny Fox to bid him do the like, and he did so, and Hallblithe said: "Chieftain, thou hast bidden me to table, and I thank thee; but I will not set my teeth in meat, out of our own house and land, which hath not been truly given to me by one who wotteth of me, unless I have conquered it as a prey of battle; neither will I cast a lie into the loving-cup which shall pass from thy lips to mine: therefore I will tell thee, that though I laid a stroke or two on the Puny Fox, and those no light ones, yet was this battle nought true and real, but a mere beguiling, even as that which I saw foughten in this hall aforetime, when meseemeth the slain men rose up in time to drink the good-night cup. Therefore, O men of the Ravagers, and thou, O Puny Fox, there is nought to bind your hands and refrain your hearts, and ye may slay me if ye will without murder or dishonour, and may make the head of Hallblithe a knop for your feast-hall. Yet shall one or two fall to earth before I fall."
Therewith he shook his sword aloft, and a great roar arose, and weapons came down from the wall, and the candles shone on naked steel. But the Puny Fox came and stood by Hallblithe, and spake in his ear amidst the uproar: "Well now, brother-in-arms, I have been trying to learn thee the lore of lies, and surely thou art the worst scholar who was ever smitten by master. And the outcome of it is that I, who have lied so long and well, must now pay for all, and die for a barren truth."
Said Hallblithe: "Let all be as it will! I love thee, lies and all; but as for me I cannot handle them. Lo you! great and grim shall be the slaying, and we shall not fall unavenged."
Said the Puny Fox: "Hearken! for still they hang back. Belike it is I that have drawn this death on thee and me. My last lie was a fool's lie and we die for it: for what wouldst thou have done hadst thou wotted that thy beloved, the Hostage of the Rose—" He broke off perforce; for Hallblithe was looking to right and left and handling his sword, and heard not that last word of his; and from both sides of the hall the throng was drawing round about those twain, weapon in hand. Then Hallblithe set his eyes on a big man in front who was heaving up a heavy short-sword and thought that he would at least slay this one. But or ever he might smite, the great horn blared out over the tumult, and men forbore a while and fell somewhat silent.
Then came down to them the voice of the chieftain, a loud voice, but clear and with mirth mingled with anger in it, and he said: "What do these fools of the Ravagers cumbering the floor of the feast-hall, and shaking weapons when there is no foeman anigh? Are they dreaming-drunk before the wine is poured? Why do they not sit down in their places, and abide the bringing in of the meat? And ye women, where are ye, why do ye delay our meat, when ye may well wot that our hearts are drooping for hunger; and all hath been duly done, the battle of the champions fought and won, and the prize of war given forth and taken? How long, O folk, shall your chieftains sit fasting?"
Then there arose great laughter in the hall, and men withdrew them from those twain and went and sat them down in their places.
Then the chieftain said: "Come up hither, I say, O Hallblithe, and bring thy war-thrall with thee if thou wilt. But delay not, unless it be so that thou art neither hungry nor thirsty; and good sooth thou shouldst be both; for men say that the ravens are hard to satisfy. Come then and make good cheer with us!"
So Hallblithe thrust his sword into the sheath, and the Puny Fox did the like, and they went both together up the hall to the high-seat. And Hallblithe sat down on the chieftain's right hand, and the Puny Fox next to him; and the chieftain, the Erne, said: "O Hallblithe, dost thou need thine armour at table; or dost thou find it handy to take thy meat clad in thy byrny and girt with a sword?"
Then laughed Hallblithe and said: "Nay, meseemeth to-night I shall need war-gear no more." And he stood up and did off all his armour and gave it, sword and all, into the hands of a woman, who bore it off, he knew not whither. And the Erne looked on him and said: "Well is that! and now I see that thou art a fair young man, and it is no marvel though maidens desire thee."
As he spake came in the damsels with the victual and the cheer was exceeding good, and Hallblithe grew light-hearted.
But when the healths had been drunk as aforetime, and men had drunk a cup or two thereafter, there rose a warrior from one of the endlong benches, a big young man, black-haired and black-bearded, ruddy of visage, and he said in a voice that was rough and fat: "O Erne, and ye other chieftains, we have been talking here at our table concerning this guest of thine who hath beguiled us, and we are not wholly at one with thee as to thy dealings with him. True it is, now that the man hath our meat in his belly, that he must depart from amongst us with a whole skin, unless of his own will he stand up to fight some man of us here. Yet some of us think that he is not so much our friend that we should help him to a keel whereon to fare home to those that hate us: and we say that it would not be unlawful to let the man abide in the isle, and proclaim him a wolf's- head within a half-moon of to-day. Or what sayest thou?"
Said the Erne: "Wait for my word a while, and hearken to another! Is the Grey-goose of the Ravagers in the hall? Let him give out his word on this matter."
Then arose a white-headed carle from a table nigh to the dais, whose black raiment was well adorned with gold. Despite his years his face was fair and little wrinkled; a man with a straight nose and a well-fashioned mouth, and with eyes still bright and grey. He spake: "O folk, I find that the Erne hath done well in cherishing this guest. For first, if he hath beguiled us, he did it not save by the furtherance and sleight of our own kinsman; therefore if any one is to die for beguiling us, let it be the Puny Fox. Secondly, we may well wot that heavy need hath driven the man to this beguilement; and I say that it was no unmanly deed for him to enter our hall and beguile us with his sleight; and that he hath played out the play right well and cunningly with the wisdom of a warrior. Thirdly, the manliness of him is well proven, in that having overcome us in sleight, he hath spoken out the sooth concerning our beguilement and hath made himself our foeman and captive, when he might have sat down by us as our guest, freely and in all honour. And this he did, not as contemning the Puny Fox and his lies and crafty wiles (for he hath told us that he loveth him); but so that he might show himself a man in that which trieth manhood. Moreover, ye shall not forget that he is the rebel of the Undying King, who is our lord and master; therefore in cherishing him we show ourselves great-hearted, in that we fear not the wrath of our master. Therefore I naysay the word of the War-brand that we should make this man a wolf's-head; for in so doing we shall show ourselves lesser-hearted than he is, and of no account beside of him; and his head on our hall-gable should be to us a nithing-stake, and a tree of reproach. So I bid thee, O Erne, to make much of this man; and thou shalt do well to give him worthy gifts, such as warriors may take, so that he may show them at home in the House of the Raven, that it may be the beginning of peace betwixt us and his noble kindred. This is my say, and later on I shall wax no wiser."
Therewith he sat down, and there arose a murmur and stir in the hall; but the more part said that the Grey-goose had spoken well, and that it was good to be at peace with such manly fellows as the new guest was.
But the Erne said: "One word will I lay hereto, to wit, that he who desireth mine enmity let him do scathe to Hallblithe of the Ravens and hinder him."
Then he bade fill round the cups, and called a health to Hallblithe, and all men drank to him, and there was much joyance and merriment.
But when the night was well worn, the Erne turned to Hallblithe and said: "That was a good word of the Grey-goose which he spake concerning the giving of gifts: Raven-son, wilt thou take a gift of me and be my friend?"
"Thy friend will I be," said Hallblithe, "but no gift will I take of thee or any other till I have the gift of gifts, and that is my troth-plight maiden. I will not be glad till I can be glad with her."
Then laughed the Erne, and the Puny Fox grinned all across his wide face, and Hallblithe looked from one to the other of them and wondered at their mirth, and when they saw his wondering eyes, they did but laugh the more; and the Erne said: "Nevertheless, thou shalt see the gift which I would give thee; and then mayst thou take it or leave it as thou wilt. Ho ye! bring in the throne of the Eastland with them that minister to it!"
Certain men left the hall as he spake, and came back bearing with them a throne fashioned most goodly of ivory, parcel-gilt and begemmed, and adorned with marvellous craftsmanship: and they set it down amidst of the hall-floor and went aback to their places, while the Erne sat and smiled kindly on the folk and on Hallblithe. Then arose the sound of fiddles and the lesser harp, and the doors of the screen were opened, and there flowed into the hall a company of fair damsels not less than a score, each one with a rose on her bosom, and they came and stood in order behind the throne of the Eastlands, and they strewed roses on the ground before them: and when they were duly ranged they fell to singing:
Now waneth spring, While all birds sing, And the south wind blows The earliest rose To and fro By the doors we know, And the scented gale Fills every dale. Slow now are brooks running because of the weed, And the thrush hath no cunning to hide her at need, So swift as she flieth from hedge-row to tree As one that toil trieth, and deedful must be.
And O! that at last, All sorrows past, This night I lay 'Neath the oak-beams grey! O, to wake from sleep, To see dawn creep Through the fruitful grove Of the house that I love! O! my feet to be treading the threshold once more, O'er which once went the leading of swords to the war! O! my feet in the garden's edge under the sun, Where the seeding grass hardens for haysel begun!
Lo, lo! the wind blows To the heart of the Rose, And the ship lies tied To the haven side! But O for the keel The sails to feel! And the alien ness Growing less and less; As down the wind driveth and thrusts through the sea The sail-burg that striveth to turn and go free, But the lads at the tiller they hold her in hand, And the wind our well-willer drives fierce to the land.
We shall wend it yet, The highway wet; For what is this That our bosoms kiss? What lieth sweet Before our feet? What token hath come To lead us home? 'Tis the Rose of the garden walled round from the croft Where the grey roof its warden steep riseth aloft, 'Tis the Rose 'neath the oaken-beamed hall, where they bide, The pledges unbroken, the hand of the bride.
Hallblithe heard the song, and half thought it promised him somewhat; but then he had been so misled and mocked at, that he scarce knew how to rejoice at it.
Now the Erne spake: "Wilt thou not take the chair and these dainty song- birds that stand about it? Much wealth might come into thine hall if thou wert to carry them over sea to rich men who have no kindred, nor affinity wherein to wed, but who love women as well as other men."
Said Hallblithe: "I have wealth enow were I once home again. As to these maidens, I know by the fashion of them that they are no women of the Rose, as by their song they should be. Yet will I take any of these maidens that have will to go with me and be made sisters of my sisters, and wed with the warriors of the Rose; or if they are of a kindred, and long to sit each in the house of her folk, then will we send them home over the sea with warriors to guard them from all trouble. For this gift I thank thee. As to thy throne, I bid thee keep it till a keel cometh thy way from our land, bringing fair gifts for thee and thine. For we are not so unwealthy."
Those that sat nearby heard his words and praised them; but the Erne said: "All this is free to thee, and thou mayst do what thou wilt with the gifts given to thee. Yet shalt thou have the throne; and I have thought of a way to make thee take it. Or what sayst thou, Puny Fox?"
Said the Puny Fox: "Yea if thou wilt, thou mayst, but I thought it not of thee that thou wouldst. Now is all well."
Again Hallblithe looked from one to the other and wondered what they meant. But the Erne cried out: "Bring in now the sitter, who shall fill the empty throne!"
Then again the screen-doors opened, and there came in two weaponed men, leading between them a woman clad in gold and garlanded with roses. So fair was the fashion of her face and all her body, that her coming seemed to make a change in the hall, as though the sun had shone into it suddenly. She trod the hall-floor with firm feet, and sat down on the ivory chair. But even before she was seated therein Hallblithe knew that the Hostage was under that roof and coming toward him. And the heart rose in his breast and fluttered therein, so sore he yearned toward the Daughter of the Rose, and his very speech-friend. Then he heard the Erne saying, "How now, Raven-son, wilt thou have the throne and the sitter therein, or wilt thou gainsay me once more?"
Thereafter he himself spake, and the sound of his voice was strange to him and as if he knew it not: "Chieftain, I will not gainsay thee, but will take thy gift, and thy friendship therewith, whatsoever hath betided. Yet would I say a word or two unto the woman that sitteth yonder. For I have been straying amongst wiles and images, and mayhappen I shall yet find this to be but a dream of the night, or a beguilement of the day." Therewith he arose from the table, and walked slowly down the hall; but it was a near thing that he did not fall a-weeping before all those aliens, so full his heart was.
He came and stood before the Hostage, and their eyes were upon each other, and for a little while they had no words. Then Hallblithe began, wondering at his voice as he spake: "Art thou a woman and my speech-friend? For many images have mocked me, and I have been encompassed with lies, and led astray by behests that have not been fulfilled. And the world hath become strange to me, and empty of friends."
Then she said: "Art thou verily Hallblithe? For I also have been encompassed by lies, and beset by images of things unhelpful."
"Yea," said he, "I am Hallblithe of the Ravens, wearied with desire for my troth-plight maiden."
Then came the rosy colour into the fairness of her face, as the rising sun lighteth the garden of flowers in the June morning; and she said: "If thou art Hallblithe, tell me what befell to the finger-gold-ring that my mother gave me when we were both but little."
Then his face grew happy, and he smiled, and he said: "I put it for thee one autumntide in the snake's hole in the bank above the river, amidst the roots of the old thorn-tree, that the snake might brood it, and make the gold grow greater; but when winter was over and we came to look for it, lo! there was neither ring nor snake, nor thorn-tree: for the flood had washed it all away."
Thereat she smiled most sweetly, and whereas she had been looking on him hitherto with strained and anxious eyes, she now beheld him simply and friendly; and she said: "O Hallblithe, I am a woman indeed, and thy speech-friend. This is the flesh that desireth thee, and the life that is thine, and the heart which thou rejoicest. But now tell me, who are these huge images around us, amongst whom I have sat thus, once in every moon this year past, and afterwards I was taken back to the women's bower? Are they men or mountain-giants? Will they slay us, or shut us up from the light and air? Or hast thou made peace with them? Wilt thou then dwell with me here, or shall we go back again to Cleveland by the Sea? And when, oh when, shall we depart?"
He smiled and said: "Quick come thy questions, beloved. These are the folks of the Ravagers and the Sea-eagles: they be men, though fierce and wild they be. Our foes they have been, and have sundered us; but now are they our friends, and have brought us together. And to-morrow, O friend, shall we depart across the waters to Cleveland by the Sea."
She leaned forward, and was about to speak softly to him, but suddenly started back, and said: "There is a big, red-haired man, as big as any here, behind thy shoulder. Is he also a friend? What would he with us?"
So Hallblithe turned about, and beheld the Puny Fox beside him, who took up the word and spoke, smiling as a man in great glee: "O maiden of the Rose, I am Hallblithe's thrall, and his scholar, to unlearn the craft of lying, whereby I have done amiss towards both him and thee. Whereof I will tell thee all the tale soon. But now I will say that it is true that we depart to-morrow for Cleveland by the Sea, thou and he, and I in company. Now I would ask thee, Hallblithe, if thou wouldst have me bestow this gift of thine in safe-keeping to-night, since there is an end of her sitting in the hall like a graven image: and to-morrow the way will be long and wearisome, What sayest thou?"
Said the Hostage: "Shall I trust this man and go with him?"
"Yea, thou shalt trust him," said Hallblithe, "for he is trusty. And even were he not, it is meet for us of the Raven and the Rose to do as our worth biddeth us, and not to fear this folk. And it behoveth us to do after their customs since we are in their house."
"That is sooth," she said; "big man, lead me out of the hall to my place. Farewell, Hallblithe, for a little while, and then shall there be no more sundering for us."
Therewith she departed with the Puny Fox, and Hallblithe went back to the high-seat and sat down by the Erne, who laughed on him and said: "Thou hast taken my gift, and that is well: yet shall I tell thee that I would not have given it to thee if I could have kept it for myself in such plight as thou wilt have it. But all I could do, and the Puny Fox to help withal, availed me nought. So good luck go with thine hands. Now will we to bed, and to-morrow I will lead thee out on thy way; for to say sooth, there be some here who are not well pleased with either thee or me; and thou knowest that words are wasted on wilful men, but that deeds may avail somewhat."
Therewith he cried out for the cup of good-night, and when it was drunken, Hallblithe was shown to a fair shut-bed; even that wherein he had lain aforetime; and there he went to sleep in joy, and in good liking with all men.
CHAPTER XXII: THEY GO FROM THE ISLE OF RANSOM AND COME TO CLEVELAND BY THE SEA
In the morning early Hallblithe arose from his bed, and when he came into the mid-hall, there was the Puny Fox and the Hostage with him; Hallblithe kissed her and embraced her, and she him; yet not like lovers long sundered, but as a man and maid betrothed are wont to do, for there were folk coming and going about the hall. Then spake the Puny Fox: "The Erne is abiding us out in the meadow yonder; for now nought will serve him but he must needs go under the earth-collar with us. How sayest thou, is he enough thy friend?"
Said Hallblithe, smiling on the Hostage: "What hast thou to say to it, beloved?"
"Nought at all," she said, "if thou art friend to any of these men. I may deem that I have somewhat against the chieftain, whereof belike this big man may tell thee hereafter; but even so much meseemeth I have against this man himself, who is now become thy friend and scholar; for he also strove for my beguilement, and that not for himself, but for another."
"True it is," said the Fox, "that I did it for another; even as yesterday I took thy mate Hallblithe out of the trap whereinto he had strayed, and compassed his deliverance by means of the unfaithful battle; and even as I would have stolen thee for him, O Rose-maiden, if need had been; yea, even if I must have smitten into ruin the roof-tree of the Ravagers. And how could I tell that the Erne would give thee up unstolen? Yea, thou sayeth sooth, O noble and spotless maiden; all my deeds, both good and ill, have I done for others; and so I deem it shall be while my life lasteth."
Then Hallblithe laughed and said: "Art thou nettled, fellow-in-arms, at the word of a woman who knoweth thee not? She shall yet be thy friend, O Fox. But tell me, beloved, I deemed that thou hadst not seen Fox before; how then can he have helped the Erne against thee?"
"Yet she sayeth sooth," said Fox, "this was of my sleight: for when I had to come before her, I changed my skin, as I well know how; there are others in this land who can do so much as that. But what sayest thou concerning the brotherhood with the Erne?"
"Let it be so," said Hallblithe, "he is manly and true, though masterful, and is meet for this land of his. I shall not fall out with him; for seldom meseemeth shall I see the Isle of Ransom."
"And I never again," said the Puny Fox.
"Dost thou loathe it, then," said the Hostage, "because of the evil thou hast done therein?"
"Nay," said he, "what is the evil, when henceforth I shall do but good? Nay, I love the land. Belike thou deemest it but dreary with its black rocks and black sand, and treeless wind-swept dales; but I know it in summer and winter, and sun and shade, in storm and calm. And I know where the fathers dwelt and the sons of their sons' sons have long lain in the earth. I have sailed its windiest firths, and climbed its steepest crags; and ye may well wot that it hath a friendly face to me; and the land-wights of the mountains will be sorry for my departure."
So he spake, and Hallblithe would have answered him, but by now were they come to a grassy hollow amidst the dale, where the Erne had already made the earth-yoke ready. To wit, he had loosened a strip of turf all save the two ends, and had propped it up with two ancient dwarf-wrought spears, so that amidmost there was a lintel to go under.
So when he saw those others coming, he gave them the sele of the day, and said to Hallblithe: "What is it to be? shall I be less than thy brother- in-arms henceforward?"
Said Hallblithe: "Not a whit less. It is good to have brothers in other lands than one."
So they made no delay, but clad in all their war-gear, they went under the earth-yoke one after the other; thereafter they stood together, and each let blood in his arm, so that the blood of all three mingled together fell down on the grass of the ancient earth; and they swore friendship and brotherhood each to each.
But when all was done the Erne spake: "Brother Hallblithe, as I lay awake in bed this morning I deemed that I would take ship with thee to Cleveland by the Sea, that I might dwell there a while. But when I came out of the hall, and saw the dale lying green betwixt hill-side and hill- side, and the glittering river running down amidmost, and the sheep and kine and horses feeding up and down on either side the water: and I looked up at the fells and saw how deep blue they stood up against the snowy peaks, and I thought of all our deeds on the deep sea, and the merry nights, in yonder abode of men: then I thought that I would not leave the kindred, were it but for a while, unless war and lifting called me. So now I will ride with thee to the ship, and then farewell to thee."
"It is good," said Hallblithe, "though not as good as it might be. Glad had we been with thee in the hall of the Ravens."
As he spoke drew anigh the carles leading the horses, and with them came six of those damsels whom the Erne had given to Hallblithe the night before; two of whom asked to be brought to their kindred over sea; but the other four were fain to go with Hallblithe and the Hostage, and become their sisters at Cleveland by the Sea.
So then they got to horse and rode down the dale toward the haven, and the carles rode with them, so that of weaponed men they were a score in company. But when they were half-way to the haven they saw where hard by three knolls on the way-side were men standing with their weapons and war- gear glittering in the sun. So the Erne laughed and said: "Shall we have a word with War-brand then?"
But they rode steadily on their way, and when they came up to the knolls they saw that it was War-brand indeed with a score of men at his back; but they stirred not when they saw Erne's company that it was great. Then Erne laughed aloud and cried out in a big voice, "What, lads! ye ride early this morning; are there foemen abroad in the Isle?"
They shrank back before him, but a carle of those who was hindermost cried out: "Art thou coming back to us, Erne, or have thy new friends bought thee to lead them in battle?"
"Fear it nought," quoth Erne, "I shall be back before the shepherd's noon."
So they went their ways and came to the haven, and there lay the Flaming Sword, and beside her a trim bark, not right great, all ready for sea: and Hallblithe's skiff was made fast to her for an after-boat.
Then the Hostage and Hallblithe and the six damsels went aboard her, and when the Erne had bidden them farewell, they cast off the hawsers and thrust her out through the haven-mouth; but ere they had got midmost of the haven, they saw the Erne, that he had turned about, and was riding up the dale with his house-carles, and each man's weapon was shining in his hand: and they wondered if he were riding to battle with War-brand; and Fox said: "Meseemeth our brother-in-arms hath in his mind to give those waylayers an evil minute, and verily he is the man to do the same."
So they gat them out of the haven, and the ebb-tide drave out seaward strongly, and the wind was fair for Cleveland by the Sea; and they ran speedily past the black cliffs of the Isle of Ransom, and soon were they hull down behind them. But on the afternoon of the next day they hove up the land of the kindreds, and by sunset they beached their ship on the sand by the Rollers of the Raven, and went ashore without more ado. And the strand was empty of all men, even as on the day when Hallblithe first met the Puny Fox. So then in the cool of the evening they went up toward the House of the Raven. Those damsels went together hand in hand two by two, and Hallblithe held the Hostage by the hand; but the Puny Fox went along beside them, gleeful and of many words; telling them tales of his wiles and his craft, and his skin-changing.
"But now," quoth he, "I have left all that behind me in the Isle of Ransom, and have but one shape, and I would for your behoof that it were a goodlier one: and but one wisdom have I, even that which dwelleth in mine own head-bone. Yet it may be that this may avail you one time or other. But lo you! though I am thy thrall, have I not the look of a thrall-huckster from over sea leading up my wares to the cheaping-stead?" They laughed at his words and were merry, and much love there was amongst them as they went up to the House of the Raven.
But when they came thither they went into the garth, and there was no man therein, for it was now dusk, and the windows of the long hall were yellow with candle-light. Then said Fox: "Abide ye here a little; for I would go into the hall alone and see the conditions of thy people, O Hallblithe."
"Go thou, then," said Hallblithe, "but be not rash. I counsel thee; for our folk are not over-patient when they deem they have a foe before them."
The Puny Fox laughed, and said: "So it is then the world over, that happy men are wilful and masterful."
Then he drew his sword and smote on the door with the pommel, and the door opened to him and in he went: and he found that fair hall full of folk and bright with candles; and he stood amidst the floor; all men looked on him, and many knew him at once to be a man of the Ravagers, and silence fell upon the hall, but no man stirred hand against him. Then he said: "Will ye hearken to the word of an evil man, a robber of the folks?"
Spake the chieftain from the dais: "Words will not hurt us, sea-warrior; and thou art but one among many; wherefore thy might this eve is but as the might of a new-born baby. Speak, and afterwards eat and drink, and depart safe from amongst us!"
Spake the Puny Fox: "What is gone with Hallblithe, a fair young man of your kindred, and with the Hostage of the Rose, his troth-plight maiden?"
Then was the hush yet greater in the hall, so that you might have heard a pin drop; and the chieftain said: "It is a grief of ours that they are gone, and that none hath brought us back their dead bodies that we might lay them in the Acre of the Fathers."
Then leapt up a man from the end-long table nigh to Fox, and cried out: "Yea, folk! they are gone, and we deem that runagates of thy kindred, O new-come man, have stolen them from us; wherefor they shall one day pay us."
Then laughed the Puny Fox and said: "Some would say that stealing Hallblithe was like stealing a lion, and that he might take care of himself; though he was not as big as I am."
Said the last speaker: "Did thy kin or didst thou steal him, O evil man?"
"Yea, I stole him," quoth Fox, "but by sleight, and not by might."
Then uprose great uproar in the hall, but the chieftain on the high-seat cried out: "Peace, peace!" and the noise abated, and the chieftain said: "Dost thou mean that thou comest hither to give us thine head for making away with Hallblithe and the Hostage?"
"I mean to ask rather," said the Fox, "what thou wilt give me for the bodies of these twain?"
Said the chieftain: "A boat-load of gold were not too much if thou shouldst live a little longer."
Quoth the Puny Fox: "Well, in anywise I will go and bring in the bodies aforesaid, and leave my reward to the goodwill of the Ravens."
Therewith he turned about to go, but lo! there already in the door stood Hallblithe holding the Hostage by the hand; and many in the hall saw them, for the door was wide. Then they came in and stood by the side of the Puny Fox, and all men in the hall arose and shouted for joy. But when the tumult was a little abated, the Puny Fox cried out: "O chieftain, and all ye folk! if a boat-load of gold were not too much reward for the bringing back the dead bodies of your friends, what reward shall he have who hath brought back their bodies and the souls therein?"
Said the chieftain: "The man shall choose his own reward." And the men in the hall shouted their yeasay.
Then said the Puny Fox: "Well, then, this I choose, that ye make me one of your kindred before the fathers of old time."
They all cried out that he had chosen wisely and manfully; but Hallblithe said: "I bid you do for him no less than this; and ye shall wot that he is already my sworn brother-in-arms."
Now the chieftain cried out: "O Wanderers from over the sea, come up hither and sit with us and be merry at last!"
So they went up to the dais, Hallblithe and the Hostage, and the Puny Fox and the six maidens withal. And since the night was yet young, the supper of the men of the Ravens was turned into the wedding-feast of Hallblithe and the Hostage, and that very night she became a wife of the Ravens, that she might bear to the House the best of men and the fairest of women.
But on the morrow they brought the Puny Fox to the mote-stead of the kindreds that he might stand before the fathers and be made a son of the kindred; and this they did because of the word of Hallblithe, and because they believed in the tale which he told them of the Glittering Plain and the Acre of the Undying. The four maidens also were made sisters of the House; and the other twain were sent home to their own kindred in all honour.
Of the Puny Fox it is said that he soon lost and forgot all the lore which he had learned of the ancient men, living and dead; and became as other men and was no wizard. Yet he was exceeding valiant and doughty; and he ceased not to go with Hallblithe wheresoever he went; and many deeds they did together, whereof the memory of men hath failed: but neither they nor any man of the Ravens came any more to the Glittering Plain, or heard any tidings of the folk that dwell there.
HEREWITH ENDETH THE TALE.
Printed by BALLANTYNE, HANSON & CO. at Paul's Work, Edinburgh