So strode on Hallblithe; but when he had gone but a little way his head turned, and the earth and heavens wavered before him, so that he must needs sit down on a stone by the wayside, wondering what ailed him. Then he looked up at the mountains, which now seemed quite near to him at the plain’s ending, and his weakness increased on him; and lo! as he looked, it was to him as if the crags rose up in the sky to meet him and overhang him, and as if the earth heaved up beneath him, and therewith he fell aback and lost all sense, so that he knew not what was become of the earth and the heavens and the passing of the minutes of his life.
When he came to himself he knew not whether he had lain so a great while or a little; he felt feeble, and for a while he lay scarce moving, and beholding nought, not even the sky above him. Presently he turned about and saw hard stone on either side, so he rose wearily and stood upon his feet, and knew that he was faint with hunger and thirst. Then he looked around him, and saw that he was in a narrow valley or cleft of the mountains amidst wan rocks, bare and waterless, where grew no blade of green; but he could see no further than the sides of that cleft, and he longed to be out of it that he might see whitherward to turn. Then he bethought him of his wallet, and set his hand to it and opened it, thinking to get victual thence; but lo! it was all spoilt and wasted. None the less, for all his feebleness, he turned and went toiling slowly along what seemed to be a path little trodden leading upward out of the cleft; and at last he reached the crest thereof, and sat him down on a rock on the other side; yet durst not raise his eyes awhile and look on the land, lest he should see death manifest therein. At last he looked, and saw that he was high up amongst the mountain-peaks: before him and on either hand was but a world of fallow stone rising ridge upon ridge like the waves of the wildest of the winter sea. The sun not far from its midmost shone down bright and hot on that wilderness; yet was there no sign that any man had ever been there since the beginning of the world, save that the path aforesaid seemed to lead onward down the stony slope.
This way and that way and all about he gazed, straining his eyes if perchance he might see any diversity in the stony waste; and at last betwixt two peaks of the rock-wall on his left hand he descried a streak of green mingling with the cold blue of the distance; and he thought in his heart that this was the last he should see of the Glittering Plain. Then he spake aloud in that desert, and said, though there was none to hear: “Now is my last hour come; and here is Hallblithe of the Raven perishing, with his deeds undone and his longing unfulfilled, and his bridal-bed acold for ever. Long may the House of the Raven abide and flourish, with many a man and maiden, valiant and fair and fruitful! O kindred, cast thy blessing on this man about to die here, doing none otherwise than ye would have him!”
He sat there a little while longer, and then he said to himself: “Death tarries; were it not well that I go to meet him, even as the cot-carle preventeth the mighty chieftain?”
Then he arose, and went painfully down the slope, steadying himself with the shaft of his gleaming spear; but all at once he stopped; for it seemed to him that he heard voices borne on the wind that blew up the mountain-side. But he shook his head and said: “Now forsooth beginneth the dream which shall last for ever; nowise am I beguiled by it.” None the less he strove the more eagerly with the wind and the way and his feebleness; yet did the weakness wax on him, so that it was but a little while ere he faltered and reeled and fell down once more in a swoon.
When he came to himself again he was no longer alone: a man was kneeling down by him and holding up his head, while another before him, as he opened his eyes, put a cup of wine to his lips. So Hallblithe drank and was refreshed; and presently they gave him bread, and he ate, and his heart was strengthened, and the happiness of life returned to it, and he lay back, and slept sweetly for a season.
When he awoke from that slumber he found that he had gotten back much of his strength again, and he sat up and looked around him, and saw three men sitting anigh, armed and girt with swords, yet in evil array, and sore travel-worn. One of these was very old, with long white hair hanging down; and another, though he was not so much stricken in years, still looked an old man of over sixty winters. The third was a man some forty years old, but sad and sorry and drooping of aspect.
So when they saw him stirring, they all fixed their eyes upon him, and the oldest man said: “Welcome to him who erst had no tidings for us!” And the second said: “Tell us now thy tidings.” But the third, the sorry man, cried out aloud, saying: “Where is the Land? Where is the Land?”
Said Hallblithe: “Meseemeth the land which ye seek is the land which I seek to flee from. And now I will not hide that meseemeth I have seen you before, and that was at Cleveland by the Sea when the days were happier.”
Then they all three bowed their heads in yea-say, and spake: “‘Where is the Land? Where is the Land?”
Then Hallblithe arose to his feet, and said: “Ye have healed me of the sickness of death, and I will do what I may to heal you of your sickness of sorrow. Come up the pass with me, and I will show you the land afar off.”
Then they arose like young and brisk men, and he led them over the brow of the ridge into the little valley wherein he had first come to himself: there he showed them that glimpse of a green land betwixt the two peaks, which he had beheld e’en now; and they stood a while looking at it and weeping for joy.
Then spake the oldest of the seekers: “Show us the way to the land.”
“Nay,” said Hallblithe, “I may not; for when I would depart thence, I might not go by mine own will, but was borne out hither, I wot not how. For when I came to the edge of the land against the will of the King, he smote me, and then cast me out. Therefore since I may not help you, find ye the land for yourselves, and let me go blessing you, and come out of this desert by the way whereby ye entered it. For I have an errand in the world.”
Spake the youngest of the seekers: “Now art thou become the yoke-fellow of Sorrow, and thou must wend, not whither thou wouldst, but whither she will: and she would have thee go forward toward life, not backward toward death.”
Said the midmost seeker: “If we let thee go further into the wilderness thou shalt surely die: for hence to the peopled parts, and the City of Merchants, whence we come, is a month’s journey: and there is neither meat nor drink, nor beast nor bird, nor any green thing all that way; and since we have found thee famishing, we may well deem that thou hast no victual. As to us we have but little; so that if it be much more than three days’ journey to the Glittering Plain, we may well starve and die within sight of the Acre of the Undying. Nevertheless that little will we share with thee if thou wilt help us to find that good land; so that thou mayst yet put away Sorrow, and take Joy again to thy board and bed.”
Hallblithe hung his head and answered nought; for he was confused by the meshes of ill-hap, and his soul grew sick with the bitterness of death. But the sad man spake again and said: “Thou hast an errand sayest thou? is it such as a dead man may do?”
Hallblithe pondered, and amidst the anguish of his despair was borne in on him a vision of the sea-waves lapping the side of a black ship, and a man therein: who but himself, set free to do his errand, and his heart was quickened within him, and he said: “I thank you, and I will wend back with you, since there is no road for me save back again into the trap.”
The three seekers seemed glad thereat, and the second one said: “Though death is pursuing, and life lieth ahead, yet will we not hasten thee unduly. Time was when I was Captain of the Host, and learned how battles were lost by lack of rest. Therefore have thy sleep now, that thou mayst wax in strength for our helping.”
Said Hallblithe: “I need not rest; I may not rest; I will not rest.”
Said the sad man: “It is lawful for thee to rest. So say I, who was once a master of law.”
Said the long-hoary elder: “And I command thee to rest; I who was once the king of a mighty folk.”
In sooth Hallblithe was now exceeding weary; so he laid him down and slept sweetly in the stony wilderness amidst those three seekers, the old, the sad, and the very old.
When he awoke he felt well and strong again, and he leapt to his feet and looked about him, and saw the three seekers stirring, and he deemed by the sun that it was early morning. The sad man brought forth bread and water and wine, and they broke their fast; and when they had done he spake and said: “Abideth now in wallet and bottle but one more full meal for us, and then no more save a few crumbs and a drop or two of wine if we husband it well.”
Said the second elder: “Get we to the road, then, and make haste. I have been seeking, and meseemeth, though the way be long, it is not utterly blind for us. Or look thou, Raven-son, is there not a path yonder that leadeth onward up to the brow of the ghyll again? and as I have seen, it leadeth on again down from the said brow.”
Forsooth there was a track that led through the stony tangle of the wilderness; so they took to the road with a good heart, and went all day, and saw no living thing, and not a blade of grass or a trickle of water: nought save the wan rocks under the sun; and though they trusted in their road that it led them aright, they saw no other glimpse of the Glittering Plain, because there rose a great ridge like a wall on the north side, and they went as it were down along a trench of the rocks, albeit it was whiles broken across by ghylls, and knolls, and reefs.
So at sunset they rested and ate their victual, for they were very weary; and thereafter they lay down, and slept as soundly as if they were in the best of the halls of men. On the morrow betimes they arose soberly and went their ways with few words, and, as they deemed, the path still led them onward. And now the great ridge on the north rose steeper and steeper, and their crossing it seemed not to be thought of; but their half-blind track failed them not. They rested at even, and ate and drank what little they had left, save a mouthful or two of wine, and then went on again by the light of the moon, which was so bright that they still saw their way. And it happened to Hallblithe, as mostly it does with men very travel-worn, that he went on and on scarce remembering where he was, or who his fellows were, or that he had any fellows.
So at midnight they lay down in the wilderness again, hungry and weary. They rose at dawn and went forward with waning hope: for now the mountain ridge on the north was close to their path, rising up along a sheer wall of pale stone over which nothing might go save the fowl flying; so that at first on that morning they looked for nothing save to lay their bones in that grievous desert where no man should find them.
But, as beset with famine, they fared on heavily down the narrow track, there came a hoarse cry from Hallblithe’s dry throat and it was as if his cry had been answered by another like to his; and the seekers turned and beheld him pointing to the cliff-side, and lo! half-way up the pale sun-litten crag stood two ravens in a cranny of the stone, flapping their wings and croaking, with thrusting forth and twisting of their heads; and presently they came floating on the thin pure air high up over the heads of the wayfarers, croaking for the pleasure of the meeting, as though they laughed thereat.
Then rose the heart of Hallblithe, and he smote his palms together, and fell to singing an old song of his people, amidst the rocks whereas few men had sung aforetime.
Whence are ye and whither, O fowl of our fathers?
What field have ye looked on, what acres unshorn?
What land have ye left where the battle-folk gathers,
And the war-helms are white o’er the paths of the corn?
What tale do ye bear of the people uncraven,
Where amidst the long hall-shadow sparkle the spears;
Where aloft on the hall-ridge now flappeth the raven,
And singeth the song of the nourishing years?
There gather the lads in the first of the morning,
While white lies the battle-day’s dew on the grass,
And the kind steeds trot up to the horn’s voice of warning,
And the winds wake and whine in the dusk of the pass.
O fowl of our fathers, why now are ye resting?
Come over the mountains and look on the foe.
Full fair after fight won shall yet be your nesting;
And your fledglings the sons of the kindred shall know.
Therewith he strode with his head upraised, and above him flew the ravens, croaking as if they answered his song in friendly fashion.
It was but a little after this that the path turned aside sharp toward the cliffs, and the seekers were abashed thereof, till Hallblithe running forward beheld a great cavern in the face of the cliff at the path’s ending: so he turned and cried on his fellows, and they hastened up, and presently stood before that cavern’s mouth with doubt and joy mingled in their minds; for now, mayhappen, they had reached the gate of the Glittering Plain, or mayhappen the gate of death.
The sad man hung his head and spake: “Doth not some new trap abide us? What do we here? is this aught save death?”
Spake the Elder of Elders: “Was not death on either hand e’en now, even as treason besetteth the king upon his throne?”
And the second said: “Yea, we were as the host which hath no road save through the multitude of foe-men.”
But Hallblithe laughed and said: “Why do ye hang back, then? As for me, if death be here, soon is mine errand sped.” Therewith he led the way into the dark of the cave, and the ravens hung about the crag overhead croaking, as the men left the light.
So was their way swallowed up in the cavern, and day and its time became nought to them; they went on and on, and became exceeding faint and weary, but rested not, for death was behind them. Whiles they deemed they heard waters running, and whiles the singing of fowl; and to Hallblithe it seemed that he heard his name called, so that he shouted back in answer; but all was still when the sound of his voice had died out.
At last, when they were pressing on again after a short while of resting, Hallblithe cried out that the cave was lightening: so they hastened onward, and the light grew till they could dimly see each other, and dimly they beheld the cave that it was both wide and high. Yet a little further, and their faces showed white to one another, and they could see the crannies of the rocks, and the bats hanging garlanded from the roof. So then they came to where the day streamed down bright on them from a break overhead, and lo! the sky and green leaves waving against it.
To those way-worn men it seemed hard to clamber out that way, and especially to the elders: so they went on a little further to see if there were aught better abiding them, but when they found the daylight failing them again, they turned back to the place of the break in the roof, lest they should waste their strength and perish in the bowels of the mountain. So with much ado they hove up Hallblithe till he got him first on to a ledge of the rocky wall, and so, what by strength, what by cunning, into the daylight through the rent in the roof. So when he was without he made a rope of his girdle and strips from his raiment, for he was ever a deft craftsman, and made a shift to heave up therewith the sad man, who was light and lithe of body; and then the two together dealt with the elders one after another, till they were all four on the face of the earth again.
The place whereto they had gotten was the side of a huge mountain, stony and steep, but set about with bushes, which seemed full fair to those wanderers amongst the rocks. This mountain-slope went down towards a fair green plain, which Hallblithe made no doubt was the outlying waste of the Glittering Plain: nay, he deemed that he could see afar off thereon the white walls of the Uttermost House. So much he told the seekers in few words; and then while they grovelled on the earth and wept for pure joy, whereas the sun was down and it was beginning to grow dusk, he went and looked around soberly to see if he might find water and any kind of victual; and presently a little down the hillside he came upon a place where a spring came gushing up out of the earth and ran down toward the plain; and about it was green grass growing plentifully, and a little thicket of bramble and wilding fruit-trees. So he drank of the water, and plucked him a few wilding apples somewhat better than crabs, and then went up the hill again and fetched the seekers to that mountain hostelry; and while they drank of the stream he plucked them apples and bramble-berries. For indeed they were as men out of their wits, and were dazed by the extremity of their jog, and as men long shut up in prison, to whom the world of men-folk hath become strange. Simple as the victual was, they were somewhat strengthened by it and by the plentiful water, and as night was now upon them, it was of no avail for them to go further: so they slept beneath the boughs of the thorn-bushes.