But as to Hallblithe, he soon lost sight of the Glittering Plain and the mountains thereof, and there was nought but sea all round about him, and his heart swelled with joy as he sniffed the brine and watched the gleaming hills and valleys of the restless deep; and he said to himself that he was going home to his Kindred and the Roof of his Fathers of old time.
He stood as near due north as he might; but as the day wore, the wind headed him, and he deemed it not well to beat, lest he should make his voyage overlong; so he ran on with the wind abeam, and his little craft leapt merrily over the sea-hills under the freshening breeze. The sun set and the moon and stars shone out, and he still sailed on, and durst not sleep, save as a dog does, with one eye. At last came dawn, and as the light grew it was a fair day with a falling wind, and a bright sky, but it clouded over before sunset, and the wind freshened from the north by east, and, would he, would he not, Hallblithe must run before it night-long, till at sunrise it fell again, and all day was too light for him to make much way beating to northward; nor did it freshen till after the moon was risen some while after sunset. And now he was so weary that he must needs sleep; so he lashed the helm, and took a reef in the sail, and ran before the wind, he sleeping in the stern.
But past the middle of the night, towards the dawning, he awoke with the sound of a great shout in his ears. So he looked over the dark waters, and saw nought, for the night was cloudy again. Then he trimmed his craft, and went to sleep again, for he was over-burdened with slumber.
When he awoke it was broad daylight; so he looked to the tiller and got the boat’s head a little up to the wind, and then gazed about him with the sleep still in his eyes. And as his eyes took in the picture before him he could not refrain a cry; for lo! there arose up great and grim right ahead the black cliffs of the Isle of Ransom. Straightway he got to the sheet, and strove to wear the boat; but for all that he could do she drifted toward the land, for she was gotten into a strong current of the sea that set shoreward. So he struck sail, and took the oars and rowed mightily so that he might bear her off shore; but it availed nothing, and still he drifted landward. So he stood up from the oars, and turned about and looked, and saw that he was but some three furlongs from the shore, and that he was come to the very haven-mouth whence he had set sail with the Sea-eagle a twelvemonth ago: and he knew that into that haven he needs must get him, or be dashed to pieces against the high cliffs of the land: and he saw how the waves ran on to the cliffs, and whiles one higher than the others smote the rock-wall and ran up it, as if it could climb over on to the grassy lip beyond, and then fell back again, leaving a river of brine running down the steep.
Then he said that he would take what might befall him inside the haven. So he hoisted sail again, and took the tiller, and steered right for the midmost of the gate between the rocks, wondering what should await him there. Then it was but a few minutes ere his bark shot into the smoothness of the haven, and presently began to lose way; for all the wind was dead within that land-locked water. Hallblithe looked steadily round about seeking his foe; but the haven was empty of ship or boat; so he ran his eye along the shore to see where he should best lay his keel and as aforesaid there was no beach there, and the water was deep right up to the grassy lip of the land; though the tides ran somewhat high, and at low water would a little steep undercliff go up from the face of the sea. But now it was near the top of the tide, and there was scarce two feet betwixt the grass and the dark-green sea.
Now Hallblithe steered toward an ingle of the haven; and beyond it, a little way off, rose a reef of rocks out of the green grass, and thereby was a flock of sheep feeding, and a big man lying down amongst them, who seemed to be unarmed, as Hallblithe could not see any glint of steel about him. Hallblithe drew nigh the shore, and the big man stirred not; nor did he any the more when the keel ran along the shore, and Hallblithe leapt out and moored his craft to his spear stuck deep in the earth. And now Hallblithe deems that the man must be either dead or asleep: so he drew his sword and had it in his right hand, and in his left a sharp knife, and went straight up to the man betwixt the sheep, and found him so lying on his side that he could not see his face; so he stirred him with his foot, and cried out: “Awake, O Shepherd! for dawn is long past and day is come, and therewithal a guest for thee!”
The man turned over and slowly sat up, and, lo! who should it be but the Puny Fox? Hallblithe started back at the sight of him, and cried out at him, and said: “Have I found thee, O mine enemy?”
The Puny Fox sat up a little straighter, and rubbed his eyes and said: “Yea, thou hast found me sure enough. But as to my being thine enemy, a word or two may be said about that presently.”
“What!” said Hallblithe, “dost thou deem that aught save my sword will speak to thee?”
“I wot not,” said the Puny Fox, slowly rising to his feet, “but I suppose thou wilt not slay me unarmed, and thou seest that I have no weapons.”
“Get thee weapons, then,” quoth Hallblithe, “and delay not; for the sight of thee alive sickens me.”
“Ill is that,” said the Puny Fox, “but come thou with me at once, where I shall find both the weapons and a good fighting-stead. Hasten! time presseth, now thou art come at last.”
“And my boat?” said Hallblithe.
“Wilt thou carry her in thy pouch?” said the Puny Fox; “thou wilt not need her again, whether thou slay me, or I thee.”
Hallblithe knit his brows on him in his wrath; for he deemed that Fox’s meaning was to threaten him with the vengeance of the kindred. Howbeit, he said nought; for he deemed it ill to wrangle in words with one whom he was presently to meet in battle; so he followed as the Puny Fox led. Fox brought him past the reef of rock aforesaid, and up a narrow cleft of the cliffs overlooking the sea, whereby they came into a little grass-grown meadow well nigh round in shape, as smooth and level as a hall-floor, and fenced about by a wall of rock: a place which had once been the mouth of an earth-fire, and a cauldron of molten stone.
When they stood on the smooth grass Fox said: “Hold thee there a little, while I go to my weapon-chest, and then shall we see what is to be done.”
Therewith he turned aside to a cranny of the rock, and going down on his hands and knees, fell to creeping like a worm up a hole therein, which belike led to a cavern; for after his voice had come forth from the earth, grunting and groaning, and cursing this thing, and that, out he comes again feet first, and casts down an old rusty sword without a sheath; a helm no less rusty, and battered withal, and a round target, curled up and outworn as if it would fall to pieces of itself. Then he stands up and stretches himself, and smiles pleasantly on Hallblithe and says: “Now, mine enemy, when I have donned helm and shield and got my sword in hand, we may begin the play: as to a hauberk I must needs go lack; for I could not come by it; I think the old man must have chaffered it away: he was ever too money-fain.”
But Hallblithe looked on him angrily and said: “Hast thou brought me hither to mock me? Hast thou no better weapons wherewith to meet a warrior of the Raven than these rusty shards, which look as if thou hadst robbed a grave of the dead? I will not fight thee so armed.”
“Well,” said the Puny Fox, “and from out of a grave come they verily: for in that little hole lieth my father’s grandsire, the great Sea-mew of the Ravagers, the father of that Sea-eagle whom thou knowest. But since thou thinkest scorn of these weapons of a dead warrior, in go the old carle’s treasures again! It is as well maybe; since he might be wrath beyond his wont if he were to wake and miss them; and already this cold cup of the once-boiling rock is not wholly safe because of him.”
So he crept into the hole once more, and out of it presently, and stood smiting his palms one against the other to dust them, like a man who has been handling parchments long laid by; and Hallblithe stood looking at him, still wrathful, but silent.
Then said the Puny Fox: “This at least was a wise word of thine, that thou wouldst not fight me. For the end of fighting is slaying; and it is stark folly to fight without slaying; and now I see that thou desirest not to slay me: for if thou didst, why didst thou refuse to fall on me armed with the ghosts of weapons that I borrowed from a ghost? Nay, why didst thou not slay me as I crept out of yonder hole? Thou wouldst have had a cheap bargain of me either way. It would be rank folly to fight me.”
Said Hallblithe hoarsely: “Why didst thou bewray me, and lie to me, and lure me away from the quest of my beloved, and waste a whole year of my life?”
“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.