They say: If you take the road that leads west and north – the road of whales and gulls, the exile’s road – you will come to an island like a scratch on the surface of the sea, so bare is its existence, and yet the one who lives there may call it his fair green country, the fairest he will ever see again. The house he lives in rises hardly the land’s height again above the waves, and he may not even tether a goat on the ground about that house, for the sea’s greed will grab at its sure footing.
To go there is some adventure, they say. Ah, but to go and not return, that is no adventure; that is the sorrow of that man.
The joy of that man that befell before was short, they say, when he married a woodworker’s daughter, for she was a fine wife, but he was an unlucky son-in-law. For a grudge, and jealousy, the father-in-law conspired to draw him into a quarrel, and after that there was no place on land for him.
No foresight had that father, they say, to break oaths and banish kin; for he sent away his daughter’s son, too, a babe to be brought up on the waves.
She to whom they tell these tales listens, and nods, and when they raise their cups she drinks with them. She has her own drinking horn, and when they offer to fill it with mead, she shakes her head soberly. She is one of those whose faces look graceful in contemplation, cunning in delight.
They help her down to her ship the next morning, for she walks stiffly and slow. It is a large ship; the square sail that she unfurls rises above the men’s heads, although they stand above the shield line as they stand on the pier.
One asks another, uneasily, how it is that she steers it alone on the wide seas, but he is not answered; the answer is contained in her safe arrival here, to a harbour not famed for kindness, across a strait of contrary winds. And she is smiling, and they fear that smile.
So she goes with the early tide, her hands on the rigging sure.
None need tell the tale of how she comes to the island etched on the sea, for it is no tale: Old Age comes everywhere.
The exile’s child sees the ship approach. Child and father go down to the landing together, and the child is not so long to walking, but it is not so many steps. Up to their mooring post comes a haggard craft, hoar-hung in these cold spring seas. The pitch pulls away from its boards; the boards are cracked. But for all of that it has brought her here.
She, for her own part, beholds a marvel, for there is no other ship pulled up to the rock. The vessel of the vagabond has been stripped and newly shaped - every sea-battered timber makes now a sea-wall. It is a thing to marvel at within imagination, how a ship becomes a house; it is a thing to wonder at when the deed itself is in sight.
The outcast casts his eyes over that which may be called Elli's steed, and asks her how she intends to depart this place again.
"Is that any welcome?" she answers. She grasps at a green thing, a hopeful sapling not likely to grow above the child's height in these high seas. Under her hand the tree does grow - high and broad, and then, rushing past its prime, it grows bending and battered. The exile's son cries out and reaches to knock her hand away before rot sets into the tree's heart. "Here is my timber," she tells them, "if you will craft it for me."
And she gives a second answer, too. "What does it matter where an exile goes?"
For Elli is late of the giants' city, on another edge of the world. Elli is an old woman, and she is also a trick; she is a joke that rings to hollow laughter, and her own wry grin; she is Age in human form, but it is no longer the golden age of the world, and no man, woman, child, or god can believe any more that they will not die.
And as the woodworker cuts the tree, sands and seasons the wood, marks the timbers and mends the tide-strider, she gives a third answer, a question again. "Do you desire my departing?" she asks the exile, and he refuses her only in this.
For they have fallen in love.
Is that so strange? For he is a young man yet, but the years he has spent without kin are an eternity to him, and every one desires company in his old age. This she is. And she is not young, but there are other kinds of strength and virtue, and these she has. She is Old Age made human, with all that human may be. And he and she had the kinship of exile before they joined their hands.
They sit together in the little house, with sail-cloth for windows and for lining the roof, and the chickens peck at the floor, and the goat pokes its jaw through the smallest, highest window, with a gap made just for its head, and eats the turf off the top of the world.
They sit together, and the man guides his son's hand in carving, and she tells them tales of giants and gods. And when he laments the life his son must live on this lonely rock, sometimes she reminds him of her own boat, tied to the mooring post, and sometimes she only sips from her drinking horn.
That horn is never empty, no matter how often she sips, regarding him soberly across its edge; and later she will go down to the landing to let out a little of the rope that moors the ship to the rock, for as she drinks, the sea recedes.
And so as the years go by, that rock becomes wider, and higher, and longer; the house stands on a castle of rock, the rock slopes gently down behind it into the waves, and where a lone tree was foolish to put its roots down, once, there is a grove.
Now for men the island is a star on the map, and a stopping-point, and when they have come they stay.
Now he who was an exile is a leader of men, a wealth-giver, and a king over a fair green country.
He has the appearance of a king, now - he was young when Elli came to him, and it has been but ten years since. In that time, his back has bent towards her, and he is grizzled grey. He came late to it, but he has learned the sword as well as the saw.
Nor is there any tale to tell of the cause of such new old age.
And though he accepts this unnatural decline, a thing comes to him that is harder to accept, for Elli is dying.
He rages to rival the sea itself; he plots to leave the island for the first time since she has come, and go farther than she has herself journeyed. He will bring to her golden grains, bewitched wines, or perhaps even the apples of youth.
But she shakes her head. She has been everywhere in the world, and the golden apples are all gone. It is here she chooses to die, and so she does.
Old Age embodied is gone from him: he feels a lightness in his limbs, and a heaviness in his heart. His hall-holders circle his courtyard, and they are merry with his mead. He sips at Elli's cup in its golden holder, and the draught is very bitter, but he knows why she drank.
He is glad that he is old.
He orders sea-walls built against the surf, and he watches his warriors, and his son, and he sips. Not his love for all of them is enough to drain the cup, as Elli might have in time, with her love for him and her lash of the world onwards towards its end.
With the last gulp of his life he cuts his lip on the rim of the horn, and it drinks a drop from him. His hand is shaking now: he lets it fall, and he does not see it sink beneath the waves.