Hallblithe pondered his answer awhile with downcast eyes and said at last: “Have ye a mind to ransom me, now that I have walked into the trap?”
“There is no need to talk of ransom,” said the elder; “thou mayst go out of this house when thou wilt, nor will any meddle with thee if thou strayest about the Isle, when I have set a mark on thee and given thee a token: nor wilt thou be hindered if thou hast a mind to leave the Isle, if thou canst find means thereto; moreover as long as thou art in the Isle, in this house mayst thou abide, eating and drinking and resting with us.”
“How then may I leave this Isle?” said Hallblithe.
The elder laughed: “In a ship,” said he.
“And when,” said Hallblithe, “shall I find a ship that shall carry me?”
Said the old carle, “Whither wouldest thou my son?” Hallblithe was silent a while, thinking what answer he should make; then he said: “I would go to the land of the Glittering Plain.”
“Son, a ship shall not be lacking thee for that voyage,” said the elder. “Thou mayst go to-morrow morn. And I bid thee abide here to-night, and thy cheer shall not be ill. Yet if thou wilt believe my word, it will be well for thee to say as little as thou mayst to any man here, and that little as little proud as maybe: for our folk are short of temper and thou knowest there is no might against many. Indeed it is not unlike that they will not speak one word to thee, and if that be so, thou hast no need to open thy mouth to them. And now I will tell thee that it is good that thou hast chosen to go to the Glittering Plain. For if thou wert otherwise minded, I wot not how thou wouldest get thee a keel to carry thee, and the wings have not yet begun to sprout on thy shoulders, raven though thou be. Now I am glad that thou art going thy ways to the Glittering Plain to-morrow; for thou wilt be good company to me on the way: and I deem that thou wilt be no churl when thou art glad.”
“What,” said Hallblithe, “art thou wending thither, thou old man?”
“Yea,” said he, “nor shall any other be on the ship save thou and I, and the mariners that waft us; and they forsooth shall not go aland there. Why should not I go, since there are men to bear me aboard?”
Said Hallblithe, “And when thou art come aland there, what wilt thou do?”
“Thou shalt see, my son,” said the Long-hoary. “It may be that thy good wishes shall be of avail to me. But now since all this may only be if I live through this night, and since my heart hath been warmed by the good mead, and thy fellowship, and whereas I am somewhat sleepy, and it is long past noon, go forth into the hall, and leave me to sleep, that I may be as sound as eld will let me to-morrow. And as for thee, folk, both men and women, shall presently come into the hall, and I deem not that any shall meddle with thee; but if so be that any challenge thee, whatsoever may be his words, answer thou to him, ‘THE HOUSE OF THE UNDYING,’ and there will be an end of it. Only look thou to it that no naked steel cometh out of thy scabbard. Go now, and if thou wilt, go out of doors; yet art thou safer within doors and nigher unto me.”
So Hallblithe went back into the main hall, and the sun had gotten round now, and was shining into the hall, through the clerestory windows, so that he saw clearly all that was therein. And he deemed the hall fairer within than without; and especially over the shut-beds were many stories carven in the panelling, and Hallblithe beheld them gladly. But of one thing he marvelled, that whereas he was in an island of the strong-thieves of the waters, and in their very home and chiefest habitation, there were no ships or seas pictured in that imagery, but fair groves and gardens, with flowery grass and fruited trees all about. And there were fair women abiding therein, and lovely young men, and warriors, and strange beasts and many marvels, and the ending of wrath and beginning of pleasure and the crowning of love. And amidst these was pictured oft and again a mighty king with a sword by his side and a crown on his head; and ever was he smiling and joyous, so that Hallblithe, when he looked on him, felt of better heart and smiled back on the carven image.
So while Hallblithe looked on these things, and pondered his case carefully, all alone as he was in that alien hall, he heard a noise without of talking and laughter, and presently the pattering of feet therewith, and then women came into the hall, a score or more, some young, some old, some fair enough, and some hard-featured and uncomely, but all above the stature of the women whom he had seen in his own land.
So he stood amidst the hall-floor and abided them; and they saw him and his shining war-gear, and ceased their talking and laughter, and drew round about him, and gazed at him; but none said aught till an old crone came forth from the ring, and said “Who art thou, standing under weapons in our hall?”
He knew not what to answer, and held his peace; and she spake again: “Whither wouldest thou, what seekest thou?”
Then answered Hallblithe: “THE HOUSE OF THE UNDYING.”
None answered, and the other women all fell away from him at once, and went about their business hither and thither through the hall. But the old crone took him by the hand, and led him up to the dais, and set him next to the midmost high-seat. Then she made as if she would do off his war-gear, and he would not gainsay her, though he deemed that foes might be anear; for in sooth he trusted in the old carle that he would not bewray him, and moreover he deemed it would be unmanly not to take the risks of the guesting, according to the custom of that country.
So she took his armour and his weapons and bore them off to a shut-bed next to that wherein lay the ancient man, and she laid the gear within it, all save the spear, which she laid on the wall-pins above; and she made signs to him that therein he was to lie; but she spake no word to him. Then she brought him the hand-washing water in a basin of latten, and a goodly towel therewith, and when he had washed she went away from him, but not far.
This while the other women were busy about the hall; some swept the floor down, and when it was swept strawed thereon rushes and handfuls of wild thyme: some went into the buttery and bore forth the boards and the trestles: some went to the chests and brought out the rich hangings, the goodly bankers and dorsars, and did them on the walls: some bore in the stoups and horns and beakers, and some went their ways and came not back a while, for they were busied about the cooking. But whatever they did, none hailed him, or heeded him more than if he had been an image, as he sat there looking on. None save the old woman who brought him the fore-supper, to wit a great horn of mead, and cakes and dried fish.
So was the hall arrayed for the feast very fairly, and Hallblithe sat there while the sun westered and the house grew dim, and dark at last, and they lighted the candles up and down the hall. But a little after these were lit, a great horn was winded close without, and thereafter came the clatter of arms about the door, and exceeding tall weaponed men came in, one score and five, and strode two by two up to the foot of the dais, and stood there in a row. And Hallblithe deemed their war-gear exceeding good; they were all clad in ring-locked byrnies, and had steel helms on their heads with garlands of gold wrought about them and they bore spears in their hands, and white shields hung at their backs. Now came the women to them and unarmed them; and under their armour their raiment was black; but they had gold rings on their arms, and golden collars about their necks. So they strode up to the dais and took their places on the high-seat, not heeding Hallblithe any more than if he were an image of wood. Nevertheless that man sat next to him who was the chieftain of all and sat in the midmost high-seat; and he bore his sheathed sword in his hand and laid it on the board before him, and he was the only man of those chieftains who had a weapon.
But when these were set down there was again a noise without, and there came in a throng of men armed and unarmed who took their places on the end-long benches up and down the hall; with these came women also, who most of them sat amongst the men, but some busied them with the serving: all these men were great of stature, but none so big as the chieftains on the high-seat.
Now came the women in from the kitchen bearing the meat, whereof no little was flesh-meat, and all was of the best. Hallblithe was duly served like the others, but still none spake to him or even looked on him; though amongst themselves they spoke in big, rough voices so that the rafters of the hall rang again.
When they had eaten their fill the women filled round the cups and the horns to them, and those vessels were both great and goodly. But ere they fell to drinking uprose the chieftain who sat furthest from the midmost high-seat on the right and cried a health: “THE TREASURE OF THE SEA!” Then they all stood up and shouted, women as well as men, and emptied their horns and cups to that health. Then stood up the man furthest on the left and cried out, “Drink a health to the Undying King!” And again all men rose up and shouted ere they drank. Other healths they drank, as the “Cold Keel,” the “Windworn Sail,” the “Quivering Ash” and the “Furrowed Beach.” And the wine and mead flowed like rivers in that hall of the Wild Men. As for Hallblithe, he drank what he would but stood not up, nor raised his cup to his lips when a health was drunk; for he knew not whether these men were his friends or his foes, and he deemed it would be little-minded to drink to their healths, lest he might be drinking death and confusion to his own kindred.
But when men had drunk a while, again a horn blew at the nether end of the hall, and straightway folk arose from the endlong tables, and took away the boards and trestles, and cleared the floor and stood against the wall; then the big chieftain beside Hallblithe arose and cried out: “Now let man dance with maid, and be we merry! Music, strike up!” Then flew the fiddle-bows and twanged the harps, and the carles and queens stood forth on the floor; and all the women were clad in black raiment, albeit embroidered with knots and wreaths of flowers. A while they danced and then suddenly the music fell, and they all went back to their places. Then the chieftain in the high-seat arose and took a horn from his side, and blew a great blast on it that filled the hall; then he cried in a loud voice: “Be we merry! Let the champions come forth!”
Men shouted gleefully thereat, and straightway ran into the hall from out the screens three tall men clad all in black armour with naked swords in their hands, and stood amidst the hall-floor, somewhat on one side, and clashed their swords on their shields and cried out: “Come forth ye Champions of the Raven!”
Then leapt Hallblithe from his seat and set his hand to his left side, but no sword was there; so he sat down again, remembering the warning of the Elder, and none heeded him.
Then there came into the hall slowly and mournfully three men-at-arms, clad and weaponed like the warriors of his folk, with the image of the Raven on their helms and shields. So Hallblithe refrained him, for besides that this seemed like to be a fair battle of three against three, he doubted some snare, and he determined to look on and abide.
So the champions fell to laying on strokes that were no child’s play, though Hallblithe doubted if the edges bit, and it was but a little while before the Champions of the Raven fell one after another before the Wild Men, and folk drew them by the heels out into the buttery. Then arose great laughter and jeering, and exceeding wroth was Hallblithe; howbeit he refrained him because he remembered all he had to do. But the three Champions of the Sea strode round the hall, tossing up their swords and catching them as they fell, while the horns blew up behind them.
After a while the hall grew hushed, and the chieftain arose and cried: “Bring in now some sheaves of the harvest we win, we lads of the oar and the arrow!” Then was there a stir at the screen doors, and folk pressed forward to see, and, lo, there came forward a string of women, led in by two weaponed carles; and the women were a score in number, and they were barefoot and their hair hung loose and their gowns were ungirt, and they were chained together wrist to wrist; yet had they gold at arm and neck: there was silence in the hall when they stood amidst of the floor.
Then indeed Hallblithe could not refrain himself, and he leapt from his seat and on to the board, and over it, and ran down the hall, and came to those women and looked them in the face one by one, while no man spake in the hall. But the Hostage was not amongst them; nay forsooth, they none of them favoured of the daughters of his people, though they were comely and fair; so that again Hallblithe doubted if this were aught but a feast-hall play done to anger him; whereas there was but little grief in the faces of those damsels, and more than one of them smiled wantonly in his face as he looked on them.
So he turned about and went back to his seat, having said no word, and behind him arose much mocking and jeering; but it angered him little now; for he remembered the rede of the elder and how that he had done according to his bidding, so that he deemed the gain was his. So sprang up talk in the hall betwixt man and man, and folk drank about and were merry, till the chieftain arose again and smote the board with the flat of his sword, and cried out in a loud and angry voice, so that all could hear: “Now let there be music and minstrelsy ere we wend bedward!”
Therewith fell the hubbub of voices, and there came forth three men with great harps, and a fourth man with them, who was the minstrel; and the harpers smote their harps so that the roof rang therewith, and the noise, though it was great, was tuneable, and when they had played thus a little while, they abated their loudness somewhat, and the minstrel lifted his voice and sang:
The land lies black
With winter’s lack,
The wind blows cold
Round field and fold;
All folk are within,
And but weaving they win.
Where from finger to finger the shuttle flies fast,
And the eyes of the singer look fain on the cast,
As he singeth the story of summer undone
And the barley sheaves hoary ripe under the sun.
Then the maidens stay
The light-hung sley,
And the shuttles bide
By the blue web’s side,
While hand in hand
With the carles they stand.
But ere to the measure the fiddles strike up,
And the elders yet treasure the last of the cup,
There stand they a-hearkening the blast from the lift,
And e’en night is a-darkening more under the drift.
There safe in the hall
They bless the wall,
And the roof o’er head,
Of the valiant stead;
And the hands they praise
Of the olden days.
Then through the storm’s roaring the fiddles break out,
And they think not of warring, but cast away doubt,
And, man before maiden, their feet tread the floor,
And their hearts are unladen of all that they bore.
But what winds are o’er-cold
For the heart of the bold?
What seas are o’er-high
For the undoomed to die?
Dark night and dread wind,
But the haven we find.
Then ashore mid the flurry of stone-washing surf!
Cloud-hounds the moon worry, but light lies the turf;
Lo the long dale before us! the lights at the end,
Though the night darkens o’er us, bid whither to wend.
Who beateth the door
By the foot-smitten floor?
What guests are these
From over the seas?
Take shield and sword
For their greeting-word.
Lo, lo, the dance ended! Lo, midst of the hall
The fallow blades blended! Lo, blood on the wall!
Who liveth, who dieth? O men of the sea,
For peace the folk crieth; our masters are ye.
Now the dale lies grey
At the dawn of day;
And fair feet pass
O’er the wind-worn grass;
And they turn back to gaze
On the roof of old days.
Come tread ye the oaken-floored hall of the sea!
Be your hearts yet unbroken; so fair as ye be,
That kings are abiding unwedded to gain
The news of our riding the steeds of the main.
Much shouting and laughter arose at the song’s end; and men sprang up and waved their swords above the cups, while Hallblithe sat scowling down on their merriment. Lastly arose the chieftain and called out loudly for the good-night cup, and it went round and all men drank. Then the horn blew for bed, and the chieftains went to their chambers, and the others went to the out-bowers or laid them down on the hall-floor, and in a little while none stood upright thereon. So Hallblithe arose, and went to the shut-bed appointed for him, and laid him down and slept dreamlessly till the morning.