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Far Too Many Questions, With Some Quite Dubious Answers

Chapter Text

There was, as is the way of things, a road, but the details of whence it came or for which destination it aimed I leave to others. On this road were two people; one was on horseback and the other on foot, as is the proper way of it in such circumstances. It may well be that one of these two was a far wanderer, a traveller who begged keeping from land to land, or sojourned here from some yet further land, from which there are no roads; it may be that one or both stood upon their native sod. But however they came there, they fell to talking, and the rider spoke to the one on foot, telling this tale:

Afterwards, after the blood and the darkness and the gnawing hunger, after the wonder had faded from things and all choices had been made – well, at the time there had been no afterwards to consider, only the endless present. One moment there were roads to choose between: the broad way and fair; the narrow road, stony and hard; or some other path as yet untrodden. One moment there was a choice to stay or follow. One moment there was a choice of gifts.

There is a land where it is always spring, where the flowers never fall from the apple trees and the cool streams will never freeze to winter ice. There one may sit beneath the trees and drowse content, or stroll any path that catches the eye. There’s music there, the chime of silver saddle bells, and laughter, and two can wander hand in hand.

There is another land where spring comes and goes and comes again; but that is not a land in which one may stay forever. It is only the spring that comes again, and not any given flower.

In one land, questions are an idle game, riddles to pass the unpassing time:

“Tell me, love, what is heard farthest? No, farther still than thunder; farther than any other thing.”

and

“Look, beloved, at the white swans flying over the mountains. And you, my love, as white and gold as milk and honey. Do you remember the cold, white snow that shall never again find season to fall? But whiter still than swans, and milk, and snow…”

But here what questions are there but ‘how far is heaven distant from hell’ and ‘where is the road neither broad nor narrow’? Here truth lies bittersweet on the tongue, and time and age gather in their final harvest.

Afterwards, the way she would tell it, it was in the early spring, when the apple trees were flowering, and there was a rider all dressed in grass-green silk, and there was a young woman sleeping by the road.

Chapter Text

The rider and the walker lingered still together on the road, and the rider spoke again to the one on foot, telling this tale:

One evening, halfway between light and dark, a man walked home along the road; he had hardly reached his own front gate when a young man rode up in the half-light and hailed him. The young man himself was handsome, but his clothes, once fine, were stained and worn, and his horse lean and starved.

Then up and spoke the goodman, standing by his own front gate, “The road is far, and cold, and dark,” he said, “and night will have fallen long before you reach your home. But bonny sing the birds by day, and short and pleasant seems the well-lit way. My bed is soft, my house is warm, neither wind nor rain will trouble you.”

The young man looked both grim and pale. “I have a dwelling of my own”, he said, “so closely built and tight, nor wind nor rain do trouble me. And far and cold and dark is the way I came, nor will I turn my path aside.”

But still the goodman pressed him harder, begging him by courtesy to stay the night.

“You have promised me shelter,” the young man said, “you have promised me rest, and for these two things I do not doubt your word: no better rest, no better shelter, will I find than at your hand.” And though he looked both drawn and white, he smiled at the thought. “I remember well”, he said, “the birds that sang at dawn about this road; I remember well the warmth of the summer sun. For the grace of these things I will come to you at your command.”

The goodman pinned the door with a silver pin; he laid soft pillows to his bed. He offered both the meat and wine; he drew a bath both warm and sweet. He sat his guest before the fire and asked him his country and his kin.

~

Now the young man sat by the fire, and drank the wine, but it brought no colour to his face and no hint of lightness to his eyes. The goodman built up the fire, although it couldn’t quite drive out the last of the cold, and there was, in truth, a faint unpleasant smell of mould. But the young man didn’t seem bothered by these things, and the goodman ignored them too, because he lived a somewhat lonely life, and the young man reminded him of a friend of his youth.

“But surely,” said the goodman, “you cannot be local, or I would remember you. Or if you once lived here, what brings you back now?”

The young man shrugged. “Your door lay on my road. But perhaps after all you can be of assistance – I have come a long way already and I would as soon be done. I believe you are held in some respect locally?”

The goodman allowed that it was so, and indeed he was right to do so, for while he didn’t make close friends easily, always holding people at a distance, as though he were worried what they might see if they got too near, his fellows thought highly of both his character and his judgement, and did not allow themselves to be put off by what they saw as an innate diffidence, which after all did him no discredit. And he in turn valued their respect and tried hard to keep it.

“My journey has an unusual cause.” Here the young man paused for moment and smiled ruefully. “Or perhaps not so unusual – I’m hardly the first man to find the most vital knowledge is hard won. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s say I set out on a sort of quest, although I didn’t quite see it that way at the time. What happened was that I found a most remarkable thing, a thing I hadn’t thought could exist – it was blazing fire, as fine and red as you could hope to see, and yet it gave no warmth and spread no light.”

“Truly,” said the goodman, “you have seen a great wonder. How could such a thing be?”

“As to that, the cause was as strange as the thing itself, for although you could see clearly it was a fire, with flames leaping up, it was not in fact burning, nor had it ever done so. Naturally then it provided neither warmth nor light.”

“A fire that doesn’t burn? … Oh! We are playing riddles! I’m sure I know this one: it’s a painted fire, isn’t it?”

“Certainly that is one answer, though not perhaps one that would have been useful to me at the time. But it is too late now, of course, to go back and warn myself not to rely on appearances; besides, I doubt I would have believed that even the most blazing passion could be as hollow and cold as any painted show of virtue. But shall I continue my tale?”

“By all means – I remember I used to love riddles, but it has been years since I had anyone to play them with. How did this quest of yours continue?”

“As to that, I stumbled unwittingly on a most remarkable key: sometimes it is found by those who seek it with unusual desperation, but most find it only as I did, by accident and all unknowing. With it one may escape any enemy and discover that which is a mystery to even the wisest man alive, and yet there are more who will give it freely to their worst enemy than desire it for themselves.”

“That is a harder one. Let me think.”

“By tradition it is reputed to be as green as fire is red, greener even than grass or herbs or clover. Though this is poetic tradition only, you understand, and I wouldn’t recommend relying on it in real life, since it may be any colour at all, and most frequently invisible when in use. But let me continue my story. Having found this precious key by accident (it was in fact hidden within a gift, though I will not say whether from my last enemy or my first lover), I set out to find a distant land, one always dark as a night without stars or moon and cold as the cold clay ground, where no tree leafs in spring and autumn brings no fruit: a barren, hopeless land that yet has hospitality for all who come and will turn none away, and in this land I made my home. But as you may imagine, it is a rather lonely place to be, and so I like to revisit the site of happier times. And, who knows, I might find company along the way.”

Now you may say the goodman should have been paying rather more attention to all that, but truly no one had ever reminded him so much of his late friend, whom he still missed, and therefore he paid perhaps disproportionate attention to the thought of providing company, for which who shall blame him? He was, in his way, a lonely man, and loneliness is no easier to bear whether it is your own fault or not. And so they sat and talked until it grew late and the goodman showed his guest to the bed he had prepared. Showed him to the bed, and would have joined him in it, for warmth, as he explained, but the young man objected, saying “You have fed me and bathed me and laid my bed, but you’ve unwashed hands yourself, and unwashed feet to lie beside me.”

So the goodman sat instead by the side of the bed, and they continued to talk for a while longer, until the subject came back around to riddles, and the young man said he had thought of three more, all short and to the point, and asked if his host would like to hear them.

The goodman replying that he would, the young man offered “What is deeper than the sea?” and “What is heavier nor the lead?” and finally “What is brighter than the light?” And then he smiled quietly to himself and said that if they were too hard, he was always willing to sell the answer, at which the goodman laughed and acquiesced, asking at what price such valuable answers were to be had.

“I have a mind to be traditional,” said the young man, “and I believe tradition is quite clear on such things: you may borrow the answers at a kiss apiece. The answers, and my silence also, for remember that I shall be gone tomorrow, and your neighbours need not know.”

So the goodman took his hand and dropped a kiss into his palm, and that was for the first riddle. Then he knelt on the edge of the bed and kissed his cheek, and that was for the second riddle. And at last he kissed his clay cold lips, and that was for the third.

“It is well,” said the young man, “though you know the first two answers already and I do not need to tell you. But the third is the ruddy sun, that you shall see no more.”

Chapter Text

Hearing these stories, the walker longed to reply, and spoke up in turn to the rider, telling this tale:

Coming to the edge of a stream, the man spotted a woman on the far bank, washing clothes. Reining in his horse, he called out and bid her greeting, asking if he could be of service.

“Indeed,” she said, “you may. For three men have passed by this way already, and each has answered me a question. The first I asked to tell me what is blacker than a sloe and he said it was the fire-starting coal. The second I asked to tell what is blacker still than coal. He answered me that it was the swift-flying raven. The third I asked what was blacker still than the raven. He told me it was mortal Sin. To each of these men I gave a gift in keeping with their answer. Answer me also a question and if I am satisfied I will give you a gift likewise.”

The man readily agreed and begged her to ask him what she pleased.

“Very well,” she said, “since you are so eager, you must tell me what I desire to know: what is the fastest thing I may find in this world or any other?”

“Oh,” said the man with a laugh, “that one is too easy since you have given me a hint already with your talk of ravens: it is the mind. Asked me something else.”

“Very well,” said the woman, “if it is your wish to answer twice, tell me also which way I may travel where I shall find no dust in all the road.”

The man thought, but only for a moment. “That one too is clear, and you know the answer yourself already, for you are sitting by it, and it divides your land from mine.”

“Very well,” said the woman, “and you have answered twice, so I shall give you your own choice of gift. What is it that you choose to have from me?”

“Why,” said the man, “that too is easy. Give me something that is better than bread and I shall be content.”

And the man passed on from there, and had many adventures, meeting in time the Knight of the Coal, and the Knight of the Raven, and the Knight of the Mortal Sin, and in the end he himself became a great king, but that is another story.

Chapter Text

Now it may well be that of the rider and the walker, one of the two was as good as a blessing disguised as mortal help, or it may be one was a fiend in human guise, but whether they were travelling for gratitude or for revenge, or whether one was a hunter or a pilgrim, the rider spoke again to the one on foot, replying to the story:

Only the high, insistent rasp of the crickets and the sudden, shimmering darting of dragonflies across the road disturb the slow heat of the summer afternoon. The roadside trees stand still and silent in the heavy air, their shadows cast unmoving across the way: shade and light and shade and light in endless cavalcade. And over all the drowsy scents of summer, and the steady swing of the horse’s gait, and slow and slower run her thoughts, and slower still to sleep.

A cracking shock of pain, every gasp of air now stinging in her chest; the dizzy roar of the crickets in her ears and the sick tilting of the steady ground beneath her, the salt taste of blood in her mouth with every breath… And somewhere far away the horse goes on alone and she lies stranded, broken, a fish dashed on the rocks by a triumphant fisherman or a bird netted and brought tumbling to earth.

She has no thought how long she lies there, until it comes to her that she is not lying on the bare ground after all, but cradled in someone’s lap. Fair fingers card through her hair, teasing out the knots where blood has congealed. A voice soft as summer’s eve murmurs over her.

“Tell me, my love, what is thicker than the forest?”

How she can speak when she can barely breathe she doesn’t know, but the words come easy as thought. “Are you here for a schoolroom catechism? I learnt that one as a child.”

The soft voice comes again. “Tell me anyway.”

And it is so easy to answer, easier to answer than to argue. “The stars. The stars are thicker than the forest. There are so very many of them, and they spin and dance like pricks of light.”

“I know, my love, I know. Don’t let them worry you. Tell me what is louder than the horn.”

And she wants for a moment to answer ‘your voice’, which is silly, because it is so soft and quiet, but its quietness deadens all other sounds away. Still, she knows she should answer right, and she learnt this one, too, so many years ago at her mother’s knee. “Thunder. Thunder is louder than a horn.”

The woman above her smiles, and strokes her face gently, and she continues with a burst of desperate honesty, because she wants to get it right, “I can’t hear it any more. It was like thunder, my heart beating in my ears, and the wind, except there wasn’t any really, and the crickets crying, but it’s all gone away now. Should I be afraid?”

The woman leans down to kiss her cheek and loosen her dress. “Everything is as it should be. Don’t think about it.” She brushes another kiss over the girl’s mouth and whispers into it, quiet as a secret, “Tell me what grows in earth but has no root.”

And she is so cold, too cold to think, too cold to answer, but the words are there anyway, unbidden: “A stone, a little pebble by the wayside, a rock, a marble slab.”

“You’re so good, so perfect for me. I knew you would be. But tell me, do you know yet what is the most important thing?”

And she wants to answer, she does, but this one she doesn’t know, and there’s nothing left of her but distant pain and something she needs but can no longer remember, which isn’t enough, can’t possibly be enough, and frustration curls through her.

But there’s a hint of a smile in the woman’s voice when she says, “Shall I tell you then?” and her cold, white fingers are still there, and perhaps, thinks the girl, perhaps that’s what it is she needs, because they’re the only thing giving her shape, keeping her pinned down like nails.

“The most important thing is the ground,” the woman says, still smiling. “You should remember that, it gave you quite the reminder. But those who can’t stand their ground must lose it, and you are quite lost already.”

And the woman’s fingers burn like ice, burn clean down to her bones as they stroke her, touching the jagged places in her chest where the flesh is ripped open to the heart. “Tell me,” she says, sliding her fingers into the wound, “tell me what pierces this deep, deep as the heart, deep as an arrow would.”

But the girl has no words left, no way to beg to be kept there, transfixed, beg the fingers to stay buried within her, the soft warmth of the voice to wrap round her, no way at all to escape.

“Oh, love,” murmurs the voice above her, around her, “I’ve told you that one already. You only have one chance more. Tell me what is longer than the way, and perhaps I will let you go.”

And the answer is there, it’s obvious, it’s the wind beating at her, cold and hungry, filling her up with empty air she can’t quite breathe, tearing away her thoughts before she can catch them, but she can’t say it, not through the blood in her mouth, not with her heart in that frozen grip, not when she doesn’t want to be let go, when she wants to stay here, just like this, forever.

And over her the woman smiles, sharp and bright and hungry, and strokes her heart with gentle fingertips, and her quiet voice falls as a murmur on the air, “I’ve caught you now and you are mine.”

Chapter Text

The walker then in turn spoke to the one on horseback, telling this tale:

A woman was out riding alone when she was seen by the local lord, who at once desired her and determined to have her for his own. But she would have none of him for all his pleas and all his demands, for she said she would acknowledge no one who was not both cleverer and more able than herself. Much put out, the lord at last he said he would ask her three questions, and if she could not answer them right, it would be clear she was not as clever as she thought, and must do as he told her. So he asked her first to tell him where, even within the borders of his own lands, he might find a forest in which there grew not a single leaf on any tree.

“Why,” she said “that is easy – any spruce forest will do for an answer. Surely you can do better than that.”

So he thought harder and asked to tell him what is fatter than fat itself and richer than the richest treasure store. But that too she found easy, telling that the ground itself was fatter than fat, since all fat things came from it and returned into it, and likewise all riches.

He therefore thought still harder, and turned from things of nature to things of man, hoping in that way to confuse her. “What,” he asked, “can you give me that runs but is incapable of walking, that has two hands and yet no arms, and which has no eyes or mouth in all its face?”

At that the woman laughed merrily. “A clock,” she cried, “and if you have no better questions I am well free of you.”

But the lord was very angry and would not let her go. “You think,” he said, “that you are so very clever, but I am more powerful than you, and you must bend to my will.”

“Very well,” she replied, “if you think you are more able than I, for all you are less clever, put it to the test, and if I lose you may do as you will, but if I win you must let me go.”

So he caused a large clay pot to be brought that had no base but only the solid ring of its sides, and gave it to her, saying that since sewing was woman’s work he desired her to sew a bottom onto the pot, with no stitch or seam visible. But she professed herself quite able to do such a thing – it would be no difficulty for her at all. Only, she had the one most minor request: surely the lord knew perfectly well that tailors turned garments inside out to mend them, so if he would just turn the pot inside out for her, she would get to work at once.

To this the lord could make no reply, so he caused a small glass to be brought, beautifully etched with shells and fish. “Take this glass,” he said, “and do something more impressive with it than all this idle talking: go empty me the sea.”

“Gladly,” the woman said, “and very readily will I empty for you as you ask that which is currently in the sea. But in all fairness you might do me the favour of stopping anything else flowing in while I work: take you a pound of tow and stop up all the rivers and I will complete my share of the task with good will.”

To this also the lord could find no reply to make, so he had her taken to a high tower from which she could see in all directions and demanded that she count for him all the stars in the night sky. But she again answered him without effort, telling him she had already counted them long since, on an idle night when she had nothing better to do, but lacking anything else suitable with which to keep the count, she had numbered them off against grains of sand and could thus tell him that there were just precisely as many stars as there were grains of sand on the beach, as he would readily prove if he counted them both for himself. And so he was forced to let her go.

Chapter Text

But the rider replied to the one on foot, telling this tale:

It’s evening and the woods are getting cold; there’s a dank smell of decay on the increasingly chilly wind, but it’s only the mouldering leaves lying thick on the path, nothing worse, and the grinning white skull is long since picked bare. Still, the passerby who has dismounted to examine it hesitates a moment, wishing he were wearing gloves. There’s no sign how the skull came to be there – no other bones, no reason for it to have been lying by the way. A few scratches might be teeth marks: perhaps some animal has dragged it from the site of some old robbery or accident deeper in the forest. Lacking a spade, the passerby can scrabble out little more than a shallow pit with his hands, and can cover the skull completely only by mounding soil and leaves up over it, topping off the makeshift grave with a few small rocks. It isn’t anything, really, and will hardly stop any scavenger determined to dig it up, but at least it’s a gesture, and maybe the only funeral rites whoever it once was will get. The passerby stands, knocking the soil off his hands, listening to the quiet noises of the forest, but the evening is too cold to stand around for no reason, and he continues on his way.

~

There was a house by the edge of the wood, not grand but built with a reserved simplicity of design that lent it a kind of modest grace. It was very late evening, and the only light in the house was from a single lantern, by which the owner was quietly reading. The lantern flame flickered in the dark: now tall and long, now a tiny, uncertain shiver of light that sent shadows racing across the page, now again large and bright. The knock at the door was entirely unexpected, but the man who owned the house was by nature courteous and hospitable, and perhaps also a little lonely, living this far out from town, so he didn’t hesitate to answer it.

Outside was a young man, perhaps barely more than a youth, quite unknown to him but obviously well to do, being dressed simply but well and in the (not entirely practical) pale colours that constituted the current fashion. He was slightly built and sharply featured and had by far the most charming smile the man had ever seen.

“I’m sorry to disturb you so late, but we’re neighbours of a sort, and I thought it was time we met.”

It is one of the blessings of a lovely smile that it invites reciprocation, and the man was smiling back at him even as he said “You thought we must meet right this moment? Not some more normal visiting hour?”

“I’m sadly importunate, I know. But I can’t change my nature, so there’s nothing for it, you’ll just have to forgive me.” Then he faltered, looking a little abashed, and very much younger. “I can go if I’m really disturbing you.”

“To be honest I’d welcome some company. Besides – if I’m supposed to forgive you your nature, shouldn’t I have a chance to get to know it?”

The young man brightened immediately. “I knew I’d like you. You have no idea how dull it gets having no one who can really answer back.”

“If you were hoping for a witty conversationalist, you’d do better in town. As you can see, I stay here quietly and study. Are you sure I’m what you’re looking for?”

The young man had followed him in and thrown himself down to lounge across one of the chairs. “What else should anyone do with their lives but learn? I want to know everything - the names of all the stars in the sky, and where rivers come from, and how a flower can turn into a fruit, and what happens when you die, and how to live a thousand years.”

“With such modest, easily fulfilled ambitions, aren’t you worried about getting bored?”

“Never. Not with someone sympathetic to talk to, anyway. Tell me you don’t feel the same way?”

And the other man had to admit, at least to himself, that was true: so many of his books recounted stories of men who were ambitious for this thing or that, for office or wealth or status, while all he truly wanted was someone to share the quiet life he had made for himself. And so he forbore to cross-question either his good fortune or his unusual visitor, but instead welcomed him those evenings he appeared unheralded from the wood, saving everything – the choicest food, the best of the wine, his most private reflections, the most interesting passages from his books – to share equally with him.

One evening the young man had turned up, pink cheeked from the biting cold, brushing snow from his hair and his clothes. Now he was curled comfortably in front of the fire, having shed his outer clothes, the melted snow in his hair slowly drying, the picture of warm contentment.

“I swear the wind goes through you like an arrow – I can’t escape it whatever I wear.”

“But you wouldn’t appreciate the fire half so much if you weren’t cold.”

The young man stretched lazily and half-closed his eyes. “You mean I should go wander the woods naked, perhaps roll around in the undergrowth a bit, so as to properly enjoy having a nice soft bed to visit? I believe you’ve finally convinced me it’s possible to take the pleasures of the flesh too far.”

“Sybarite.”

“I’ve never denied it. What are you reading?”

“A book of devotion. The author has been searching for the greatest store of riches, and now realises they are to be found in prayers and ritual.”

“The author is being excessively metaphorical. Has he never looked from his window or walked out of his door?”

“Well, what would you have it as, then?”

“Autumn, of course. The trees bear fruit, the ground bears harvest, all the creatures of the earth are plump and tasty, the sun is still warm in the day and all the promises of spring are finally fulfilled.”

“And you are being excessively practical. Will you make nature the answer to everything?”

“Well, what else is there?” The young man sat up a little and cocked his eye at his companion. “Try me.”

“Alright.” The man thought for a moment. “What is softer than silk?”

“Down, of course. I believe I was just mentioning the particular excellence of a goose-down mattress.”

“Softer even than down.”

“No appeal to metaphor will convince me there’s any such thing. You should know by now you won’t interest me in sophistry above a comfortable bed.”

The other man smiled. “You’re right, I should. Very well then, how about ‘what is longer than the way’?”.

The young man shifted and looked up with troubled eyes. “I don’t know that one.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t think you’d mind.” The man paused. Do you mind, or do you genuinely not know?”

“No, I honestly don’t. But you do, right? There is an answer and you know what it is?”

The man reached out and gently stroked his hair down, where it had dried standing out. “Yes, there is, and I do. Shall I tell you?”

The young man relaxed and stretched out again, pillowing his head on the other man’s lap. “No, I’ll figure it out. So long as there’s an answer.”

They watched the fire together in companionable silence for a while. Eventually, the man asked “But what do you believe in, really? I’ve never known anyone take such delight in things, or enjoy themself so thoroughly, and I cannot fault your curiosity, or your knowledge – you know so much more than I do on so many subjects – but I’m never quite sure what you take seriously.”

The young man frowned a little, weighing up his answer carefully. “I suppose I try to take things just as seriously as they merit. There’s cold, and hunger, and discomfort, whatever we do – something bad will run us down in the end. So we should make the most of every good thing we have, but at the same time there’s no point getting too attached. Since you’re so fond of metaphor, consider the candle: it gives both warmth and light, but tears are part of its nature and all that it leaves behind is ash. Better, then, to appreciate it while it burns and then let it go, insubstantial as smoke, without grieving.”

“And is that all we are in the end, a pinch of ash in the wind?”

“Go out and look at the innumerable stars. How could we hope to be more than we are in the face of such vastness? Although,” the young man said thoughtfully, “I’ve heard tell the stars are no more than a road for the gods, free from the dust of mortal life.” Here he gave his slyest, most sharp-edged grin. “And if that’s the case I certainly intend to slip up among them and find out for myself.”

“But not yet,” the man said, still stroking his hair. “I still have a while yet to appreciate you properly.”

“No,” said the young man, closing his eyes contentedly, “not yet.”

Chapter Text

The walker then in turn spoke to the one on horseback, telling this tale:

“Oh where are you going?” asked the false chevaliere, false all her urging and false her advice.

“I go on my way,” said the pretty wee boy, and he stood still.

“A load of fine wood,” said the false chevaliere. “Bring me a load neither crook’d nor straight. Bring me such wood and be on your way.”

“You’ll have ice in the summer,” said the pretty wee boy, and he stood still.

“But which is the house,” asked the false chevaliere, “which is the house with nary a mouse?”

“It’s you that will burn,” said the pretty wee boy, and he stood still.

“So fleet is my hound,” said the false chevaliere, “quick in the chase and so fierce in the hunt. Tell me how far in the woods he may run?”

“Two halves make a whole,” said the pretty wee boy, and he stood still.

“I’m tired of your talking,” said the false chevaliere. “Bring me a creature without any mouth.

“In window and out,” said the pretty wee boy, and he stood still.

“Oh what may I find,” asked the false chevaliere, “burns at your eyes and it stings your mouth raw: what may I find thought delicious by all?

“I’ll catch you your bird,” said the pretty wee boy, and he stood still.

“All breathless it speaks,” said the false chevaliere. “Hard is its tongue though it sings out sweet.”

“It tolls for your death,” said the pretty wee boy, and he stood still.

Chapter Text

The walker then in turn spoke to the one on horseback, saying these words:

“Welcome, far wanderer,” said the girl at the door. “What was your lodging? In what hall did you rest?”

“Far have I fared,” said the traveller, “a friendless man, and many the night I have slept in creeping cold beneath that roof that needs no walls.”

“More welcome, then,” said the girl, “if you are in need of warmth and shelter. But on what have you fed? Our meal is humble.”

“The way I came is set thick with briars and thorns,” the traveller said. “But sharper than any thorn was the dish on which I dined.”

“More welcome still, if you will not scorn our bread. But tell me then what you have drunk?”

“The streams all flow with salt,” the traveller said. “But for my thirst I have found springs of clear water, untroubled by sand.”

“What store of wisdom have you gathered,” asked the girl, “travelling through so many winters?”

“I will give you three things,” said the traveller, “and bitter they are to know.

“For the first I will tell you what rings louder than the horn as it sounds the hounds to hunting. For I have seen many empty boasts, and many failed feats, and many hollow hope.

“For the second I will tell you the richest thing in this world or any other. For in days now gone I knew wealth and joy and youth: many my friends and dear my loved ones.

“For the third I will tell you the seed that will never set root, though it be planted deep in the finest field. For I know a place where there grows no leaf in all the wood, where all roads meet, and all rivers end, beyond which not the longest way can reach.”