The Wood Beyond the World/Audio section 12
THEN all they bowed before the King, and he spake again: What is that noise that I hear without, as if it were the rising of the sea on a sandy shore, when the south-west wind is blowing.
Then the elder opened his mouth to answer; but before he might get out the word, there was a stir without the chamber door, and the throng parted, and lo! amidst of them came the Maid, and she yet clad in nought save the white coat wherewith she had won through the wilderness, save that on her head was a garland of red roses, and her middle was wreathed with the same. Fresh and fair she was as the dawn of June; her face bright, red-lipped, and clear-eyed, and her cheeks flushed with hope and love. She went straight to Walter where he sat, and lightly put away with her hand the elder who would lead her to the ivory throne beside the King; but she knelt down before him, and laid her hand on his steel-clad knee, and said: O my lord, now I see that thou hast beguiled me, and that thou wert all along a king-born man coming home to thy realm. But so dear thou hast been to me; and so fair and clear, and so kind withal do thine eyes shine on me from under the grey war-helm, that I will beseech thee not to cast me out utterly, but suffer me to be thy servant and handmaid for a while. Wilt thou not?
But the King stooped down to her and raised her up, and stood on his feet, and took her hands and kissed them, and set her down beside him, and said to her: Sweetheart, this is now thy place till the night cometh, even by my side.
So she sat down there meek and valiant, her hands laid in her lap, and her feet one over the other; while the King said: Lords, this is my beloved, and my spouse. Now, therefore, if ye will have me for King, ye must worship this one for Queen and Lady; or else suffer us both to go our ways in peace.
Then all they that were in the chamber cried out aloud: The Queen, the Lady! The beloved of our lord!
And this cry came from their hearts, and not their lips only; for as they looked on her, and the brightness of her beauty, they saw also the meekness of her demeanour, and the high heart of her, and they all fell to loving her. But the young men of them, their cheeks flushed as they beheld her, and their hearts went out to her, and they drew their swords and brandished them aloft, and cried out for her as men made suddenly drunk with love: The Queen, the Lady, the lovely one!
BUT while this betid, that murmur without, which is aforesaid, grew louder; and it smote on the King’s ear, and he said again to the elder: Tell us now of that noise withoutward, what is it?
Said the elder: If thou, King, and the Queen, wilt but arise and stand in the window, and go forth into the hanging gallery thereof, then shall ye know at once what is this rumour, and therewithal shall ye see a sight meet to rejoice the heart of a king new come into kingship.
So the King arose and took the Maid by the hand, and went to the window and looked forth; and lo! the great square of the place all thronged with folk as thick as they could stand, and the more part of the carles with a weapon in hand, and many armed right gallantly. Then he went out into the gallery with his Queen, still holding her hand, and his lords and wise men stood behind him. Straightway then arose a cry, and a shout of joy and welcome that rent the very heavens, and the great place was all glittering and strange with the tossing up of spears and the brandishing of swords, and the stretching forth of hands.
But the Maid spake softly to King Walter and said: Here then is the wilderness left behind a long way, and here is warding and protection against the foes of our life and soul. O blessed be thou and thy valiant heart!
But Walter spake nothing, but stood as one in a dream; and yet, if that might be, his longing toward her increased manifold.
But down below, amidst of the throng, stood two neighbours somewhat anigh to the window; and quoth one to the other: See thou! the new man in the ancient armour of the Battle of the Waters, bearing the sword that slew the foeman king on the Day of the Doubtful Onset! Surely this is a sign of good-luck to us all.Yea, said the second, he beareth his armour well, and the eyes are bright in the head of him; but hast thou beheld well his she-fellow, and what the like of her is?
I see her, said the other, that she is a fair woman; yet somewhat worse clad than simply. She is in her smock, man, and were it not for the balusters I deem ye should see her barefoot. What is amiss with her?
Dost thou not see her, said the second neighbour, that she is not only a fair woman, but yet more, one of those lovely ones that draw the heart out of a man’s body, one may scarce say for why? Surely Stark-wall hath cast a lucky net this time. And as to her raiment, I see of her that she is clad in white and wreathed with roses, but that the flesh of her is so wholly pure and sweet that it maketh all her attire but a part of her body, and halloweth it, so that it hath the semblance of gems. Alas, my friend! let us hope that this Queen will fare abroad unseldom amongst the people.
Thus, then, they spake; but after a while the King and his mate went back into the chamber, and he gave command that the women of the Queen should come and fetch her away, to attire her in royal array. And thither came the fairest of the honourable damsels, and were fain of being her waiting-women. Therewithal the King was unarmed, and dight most gloriously, but still he bore the Sword of the King’s Slaying: and sithence were the King and the Queen brought into the great hall of the palace, and they met on the dais, and kissed before the lords and other folk that thronged the hall. There they ate a morsel and drank a cup together, while all beheld them; and then were they brought forth, and a white horse of the goodliest, well bedight, brought for each of them, and thereon they mounted, and went their ways together, by the lane which the huge throng made for them, to the great church, for the hallowing and the crowning; and they were led by one squire alone, and he unarmed; for such was the custom of Stark-wall when a new king should be hallowed: so came they to the great church (for that folk was not miscreant, so to say), and they entered it, they two alone, and went into the choir: and when they had stood there a little while wondering at their lot, they heard how the bells fell a-ringing tunefully over their heads; and then drew near the sound of many trumpets blowing together, and thereafter the voices of many folk singing; and then were the great doors thrown open, and the bishop and his priests came into the church with singing and minstrelsy, and thereafter came the whole throng of the folk, and presently the nave of the church was filled by it, as when the water follows the cutting of the dam, and fills up the dyke. Thereafter came the bishop and his mates into the choir, and came up to the King, and gave him and the Queen the kiss of peace. Then was mass sung gloriously; and thereafter was the King anointed and crowned, and great joy was made throughout the church. Afterwards they went back afoot to the palace, they two alone together, with none but the esquire going before to show them the way. And as they went, they passed close beside those two neighbours, whose talk has been told of afore, and the first one, he who had praised the King’s war-array, spake and said: Truly, neighbour, thou art in the right of it; and now the Queen has been dight duly, and hath a crown on her head, and is clad in white samite done all over with pearls, I see her to be of exceeding goodliness; as goodly, maybe, as the Lord King.
Quoth the other: Unto me she seemeth as she did e’en now; she is clad in white, as then she was, and it is by reason of the pure and sweet flesh of her that the pearls shine out and glow, and by the holiness of her body is her rich attire hallowed; but, forsooth, it seemed to me as she went past as though paradise had come anigh to our city, and that all the air breathed of it. So I say, praise be to God and His Hallows who hath suffered her to dwell amongst us!
Said the first man: Forsooth, it is well; but knowest thou at all whence she cometh, and of what lineage she may be?
Nay, said the other, I wot not whence she is; but this I wot full surely, that when she goeth away, they whom she leadeth with her shall be well bestead. Again, of her lineage nought know I; but this I know, that they that come of her, to the twentieth generation, shall bless and praise the memory of her, and hallow her name little less than they hallow the name of the Mother of God.
So spake those two; but the King and Queen came back to the palace, and sat among the lords and at the banquet which was held thereafter, and long was the time of their glory, till the night was far spent and all men must seek to their beds.
LONG it was, indeed, till the women, by the King’s command, had brought the Maid to the King’s chamber; and he met her, and took her by the shoulders and kissed her, and said: Art thou not weary, sweetheart? Doth not the city, and the thronging folk, and the watching eyes of the great ones . . . doth it not all lie heavy on thee, as it doth upon me?
She said: And where is the city now? is not this the wilderness again, and thou and I alone together therein?
He gazed at her eagerly, and she reddened, so that her eyes shone light amidst the darkness of the flush of her cheeks.He spake trembling and softly, and said: Is it not in one matter better than the wilderness? is not the fear gone, yea, every whit thereof?
The dark flush had left her face, and she looked on him exceeding sweetly, and spoke steadily and clearly: Even so it is, beloved. Therewith she set her hand to the girdle that girt her loins, and did it off, and held it out toward him, and said: Here is the token; this is a maid’s girdle, and the woman is ungirt.
So he took the girdle and her hand withal, and cast his arms about her: and amidst the sweetness of their love and their safety, and assured hope of many days of joy, they spake together of the hours when they fared the razor-edge betwixt guile and misery and death, and the sweeter yet it grew to them because of it; and many things she told him ere the dawn, of the evil days bygone, and the dealings of the Mistress with her, till the grey day stole into the chamber to make manifest her loveliness; which, forsooth, was better even than the deeming of that man amidst the throng whose heart had been so drawn towards her. So they rejoiced together in the new day.
But when the full day was, and Walter arose, he called his thanes and wise men to the council; and first he bade open the prison-doors, and feed the needy and clothe them, and make good cheer to all men, high and low, rich and unrich; and thereafter he took counsel with them on many matters, and they marvelled at his wisdom and the keenness of his wit; and so it was, that some were but half pleased thereat, whereas they saw that their will was like to give way before his in all matters. But the wiser of them rejoiced in him, and looked for good days while his life lasted.
Now of the deeds that he did, and his joys and his griefs, the tale shall tell no more; nor of how he saw Langton again, and his dealings there.
In Stark-wall he dwelt, and reigned a King, well beloved of his folk, sorely feared of their foemen. Strife he had to deal with, at home and abroad; but therein he was not quelled, till he fell asleep fair and softly, when this world had no more of deeds for him to do. Nor may it be said that the needy lamented him; for no needy had he left in his own land. And few foes he left behind to hate him.
As to the Maid, she so waxed in loveliness and kindness, that it was a year’s joy for any to have cast eyes upon her in street or on field. All wizardry left her since the day of her wedding; yet of wit and wisdom she had enough left, and to spare; for she needed no going about, and no guile, any more than hard commands, to have her will done. So loved she was by all folk, forsooth, that it was a mere joy for any to go about her errands. To be short, she was the land’s increase, and the city’s safeguard, and the bliss of the folk.
Somewhat, as the days passed, it misgave her that she had beguiled the Bear-folk to deem her their God; and she considered and thought how she might atone it.
So the second year after they had come to Stark-wall, she went with certain folk to the head of the pass that led down to the Bears; and there she stayed the men-at-arms, and went on further with a two score of husbandmen whom she had redeemed from thralldom in Stark-wall; and when they were hard on the dales of the Bears, she left them there in a certain little dale, with their wains and horses, and seed-corn, and iron tools, and went down all bird-alone to the dwelling of those huge men, unguarded now by sorcery, and trusting in nought but her loveliness and kindness. Clad she was now, as when she fled from the Wood beyond the World, in a short white coat alone, with bare feet and naked arms; but the said coat was now embroidered with the imagery of blossoms in silk and gold, and gems, whereas now her wizardry had departed from her.
So she came to the Bears, and they knew her at once, and worshipped and blessed her, and feared her. But she told them that she had a gift for them, and was come to give it; and therewith she told them of the art of tillage, and bade them learn it; and when they asked her how they should do so, she told them of the men who were abiding them in the mountain dale, and bade the Bears take them for their brothers and sons of the ancient Fathers, and then they should be taught of them. This they behight her to do, and so she led them to where her freedmen lay, whom the Bears received with all joy and loving-kindness, and took them into their folk.
So they went back to their dales together; but the Maid went her ways back to her men-at-arms and the city of Stark-wall.
Thereafter she sent more gifts and messages to the Bears, but never again went herself to see them; for as good a face as she put on it that last time, yet her heart waxed cold with fear, and it almost seemed to her that her Mistress was alive again, and that she was escaping from her and plotting against her once more.
As for the Bears, they throve and multiplied; till at last strife arose great and grim betwixt them and other peoples; for they had become mighty in battle: yea, once and again they met the host of Stark-wall in fight, and overthrew and were overthrown. But that was a long while after the Maid had passed away.
Now of Walter and the Maid is no more to be told, saving that they begat between them goodly sons and fair daughters; whereof came a great lineage in Stark-wall; which lineage was so strong, and endured so long a while, that by then it had died out, folk had clean forgotten their ancient custom of king-making; so that after Walter of Langton there was never another king that came down to them poor and lonely from out of the Mountains of the Bears.