Not long had he worked ere he heard the sound of horsehoofs once more, and he looked not up, but said to himself, “It is but the lads bringing back the teams from the acres, and riding fast and driving hard for joy of heart and in wantonness of youth.”
But the sound grew nearer and he looked up and saw over the turf wall of the garth the flutter of white raiment; and he said:
“Nay, it is the maidens coming back from the seashore and the gathering of wrack.”
So he set himself the harder to his work, and laughed, all alone as he was, and said: “She is with them: now I will not look up again till they have ridden into the garth, and she has come from among them, and leapt off her horse, and cast her arms about my neck as her wont is; and it will rejoice her then to mock me with hard words and kind voice and longing heart; and I shall long for her and kiss her, and sweet shall the coming days seem to us: and the daughters of our folk shall look on and be kind and blithe with us.”
Therewith rode the maidens into the garth, but he heard no sound of laughter or merriment amongst them, which was contrary to their wont; and his heart fell, and it was as if instead of the maidens’ laughter the voices of those wayfarers came back upon the wind crying out, “Is this the Land? Is this the Land?”
Then he looked up hastily, and saw the maidens drawing near, ten of the House of the Raven, and three of the House of the Rose; and he beheld them that their faces were pale and woe-begone, and their raiment rent, and there was no joy in them. Hallblithe stood aghast while one who had gotten off her horse (and she was the daughter of his own mother) ran past him into the hall, looking not at him, as if she durst not: and another rode off swiftly to the horse-stalls. But the others, leaving their horses, drew round about him, and for a while none durst utter a word; and he stood gazing at them, with the spoke-shave in his hand, he also silent; for he saw that the Hostage was not with them, and he knew that now he was the yokefellow of sorrow.
At last he spoke gently and in a kind voice, and said: “Tell me, sisters, what evil hath befallen us, even if it be the death of a dear friend, and the thing that may not be amended.”
Then spoke a fair woman of the Rose, whose name was Brightling, and said: “Hallblithe, it is not of death that we have to tell, but of sundering, which may yet be amended. We were on the sand of the sea nigh the Ship-stead and the Rollers of the Raven, and we were gathering the wrack and playing together; and we saw a round-ship nigh to shore lying with her sheet slack, and her sail beating the mast; but we deemed it to be none other than some bark of the Fish-biters, and thought no harm thereof, but went on running and playing amidst the little waves that fell on the sand, and the ripples that curled around our feet. At last there came a small boat from the side of the round-ship, and rowed in toward shore, and still we feared not, though we drew a little aback from the surf and let fall our gown-hems. But the crew of that boat beached her close to where we stood, and came hastily wading the surf towards us; and we saw that they were twelve weaponed men, great, and grim, and all clad in black raiment. Then indeed were we afraid, and we turned about and fled up the beach; but now it was too late, for the tide was at more than half ebb and long was the way over the sand to the place where we had left our horses tied among the tamarisk-bushes. Nevertheless we ran, and had gotten up to the pebble-beach before they ran in amongst us: and they caught us, and cast us down on to the hard stones.
“Then they made us sit in a row on a ridge of the pebbles; and we were sore afraid, yet more for defilement at their hands than for death; for they were evil-looking men exceeding foul of favour. Then said one of them: ‘Which of all you maidens is the Hostage of the House of the Rose?’
“Then all we kept silence, for we would not betray her. But the evil man spake again: ‘Choose ye then whether we shall take one, or all of you across the waters in our black ship.’ Yet still we others spake not, till arose thy beloved, O Hallblithe, and said:
“‘Let it be one then, and not all; for I am the Hostage.’
“‘How shalt thou make us sure thereof?’ said the evil carle.
“She looked on him proudly and said: ‘Because I say it.’
“‘Wilt thou swear it?’ said he.
“‘Yea,’ said she, ‘I swear it by the token of the House wherein I shall wed; by the wings of the Fowl that seeketh the Field of Slaying.’
“‘It is enough,’ said the man, ‘come thou with us. And ye maidens sit ye there, and move not till we have made way on our ship, unless ye would feel the point of the arrow. For ye are within bowshot of the ship, and we have shot weapons aboard.’
“So the Hostage departed with them, and she unweeping, but we wept sorely. And we saw the small boat come up to the side of the round-ship, and the Hostage going over the gunwale along with those evil men, and we heard the hale and how of the mariners as they drew up the anchor and sheeted home; and then the sweeps came out and the ship began to move over the sea. And one of those evil-minded men bent his bow and shot a shaft at us, but it fell far short of where we sat, and the laugh of those runagates came over the sands to us. So we crept up the beach trembling, and then rose to our feet and got to our horses, and rode hither speedily, and our hearts are broken for thy sorrow.”
At that word came Hallblithe’s own sister out from the hall; and she bore weapons with her, to wit Hallblithe’s sword and shield and helm and hauberk. As for him he turned back silently to his work, and set the steel of the spear on the new ashen shaft, and took the hammer and smote the nail in, and laid the weapon on a round pebble that was thereby, and clenched the nail on the other side. Then he looked about, and saw that the other damsel had brought him his coal-black war-horse ready saddled and bridled; then he did on his armour, and girt his sword to his side and leapt into the saddle, and took his new-shafted spear in hand and shook the rein. But none of all those damsels durst say a word to him or ask him whither he went, for they feared his face, and the sorrow of his heart. So he got him out of the garth and turned toward the sea-shore, and they saw the glitter of his spear-point a minute over the turf-wall, and heard the clatter of his horse-hoofs as he galloped over the hard way; and thus he departed.