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The Elfin Knight

from The Scottish Fairy Book





There is a lone moor in Scotland, which, in times past, was said to be
haunted by an Elfin Knight. This Knight was only seen at rare intervals,
once in every seven years or so, but the fear of him lay on all the
country round, for every now and then someone would set out to cross the
moor and would never be heard of again.

And although men might search every inch of the ground, no trace of him
would be found, and with a thrill of horror the searching party would go
home again, shaking their heads and whispering to one another that he
had fallen into the hands of the dreaded Knight.

So, as a rule, the moor was deserted, for nobody dare pass that way,
much less live there; and by and by it became the haunt of all sorts of
wild animals, which made their lairs there, as they found that they
never were disturbed by mortal huntsmen.

Now in that same region lived two young earls, Earl St. Clair and Earl
Gregory, who were such friends that they rode, and hunted, and fought
together, if need be.

And as they were both very fond of the chase, Earl Gregory suggested one
day that they should go a-hunting on the haunted moor, in spite of the
Elfin King.

"Certes, I hardly believe in him at all," cried the young man, with a
laugh. "Methinks 'tis but an old wife's tale to frighten the bairns
withal, lest they go straying amongst the heather and lose themselves.
And 'tis pity that such fine sport should be lost because we--two
bearded men--pay heed to such gossip."

But Earl St. Clair looked grave. "'Tis ill meddling with unchancy
things," he answered, "and 'tis no bairn's tale that travellers have set
out to cross that moor who have vanished bodily, and never mair been
heard of; but it is, as thou sayest, a pity that so much good sport be
lost, all because an Elfin Knight choosest to claim the land as his, and
make us mortals pay toll for the privilege of planting a foot upon it.

"I have heard tell, however, that one is safe from any power that the
Knight may have if one wearest the Sign of the Blessed Trinity. So let
us bind That on our arm and ride forth without fear."

Sir Gregory burst into a loud laugh at these words. "Dost thou think
that I am one of the bairns," he said, "'first to be frightened by an
idle tale, and then to think that a leaf of clover will protect me? No,
no, carry that Sign if thou wilt; I will trust to my good bow and
arrow."

But Earl St. Clair did not heed his companion's words, for he remembered
how his mother had told him, when he was a little lad at her knee that
whoso carried the Sign of the Blessed Trinity need never fear any spell
that might be thrown over him by Warlock or Witch, Elf or Demon.

So he went out to the meadow and plucked a leaf of clover, which he
bound on his arm with a silken scarf; then he mounted his horse and rode
with Earl Gregory to the desolate and lonely moorland.

For some hours all went well; and in the heat of the chase the young men
forgot their fears. Then suddenly both of them reined in their steeds
and sat gazing in front of them with affrighted faces.

For a horseman had crossed their track, and they both would fain have
known who he was and whence he came.

"By my troth, but he rideth in haste, whoever he may be," said Earl
Gregory at last, "and tho' I always thought that no steed on earth could
match mine for swiftness, I reckon that for every league that mine
goeth, his would go seven. Let us follow him, and see from what part of
the world he cometh."

"The Lord forbid that thou shouldst stir thy horse's feet to follow
him," said Earl St. Clair devoutly. "Why, man, 'tis the Elfin Knight!
Canst thou not see that he doth not ride on the solid ground, but flieth
through the air, and that, although he rideth on what seemeth a mortal
steed, he is really craried by mighty pinions, which cleave the air like
those of a bird? Follow him forsooth! It will be an evil day for thee
when thou seekest to do that."

But Earl St. Clair forgot that he carried a Talisman which his companion
lacked, that enabled him to see things as they really were, while the
other's eyes were holden, and he was startled and amazed when Earl
Gregory said sharply, "Thy mind hath gone mad over this Elfin King. I
tell thee he who passed was a goodly Knight, clad in a green vesture,
and riding on a great black jennet. And because I love a gallant
horseman, and would fain learn his name and degree, I will follow him
till I find him, even if it be at the world's end."

And without another word he put spurs to his horse and galloped off in
the direction which the mysterious stranger had taken, leaving Earl St.
Clair alone upon the moorland, his fingers touching the sacred Sign and
his trembling lips muttering prayers for protection.

For he knew that his friend had been bewitched, and he made up his mind,
brave gentleman that he was, that he would follow him to the world's
end, if need be, and try to deliver him from the spell that had been
cast over him.

Meanwhile Earl Gregory rode on and on, ever following in the wake of the
Knight in green, over moor, and burn, and moss, till he came to the
most desolate region that he had ever been in in his life; where the
wind blew cold, as if from snow-fields, and where the hoar-frost lay
thick and white on the withered grass at his feet.

And there, in front of him, was a sight from which mortal man might well
shrink back in awe and dread. For he saw an enormous Ring marked out on
the ground, inside of which the grass, instead of being withered and
frozen, was lush, and rank, and green, where hundreds of shadowy Elfin
figures were dancing, clad in loose transparent robes of dull blue,
which seemed to curl and twist round their wearers like snaky wreaths of
smoke.

These weird Goblins were shouting and singing as they danced, and waving
their arms above their heads, and throwing themselves about on the
ground, for all the world as if they had gone mad; and when they saw
Earl Gregory halt on his horse just outside the Ring they beckoned to
him with their skinny fingers.

"Come hither, come hither," they shouted; "come tread a measure with us,
and afterwards we will drink to thee out of our Monarch's loving cup."

And, strange as it may seem, the spell that had been cast over the young
Earl was so powerful that, in spite of his fear, he felt that he must
obey the eldrich summons, and he threw his bridle on his horse's neck
and prepared to join them.

But just then an old and grizzled Goblin stepped out from among his
companions and approached him.

Apparently he dare not leave the charmed Circle, for he stopped at the
edge of it; then, stooping down and pretending to pick up something, he
whispered in a hoarse whisper:

"I know not whom thou art, nor from whence thou comest, Sir Knight, but
if thou lovest thy life, see to it that thou comest not within this
Ring, nor joinest with us in our feast. Else wilt thou be for ever
undone."

But Earl Gregory only laughed. "I vowed that I would follow the Green
Knight," he replied, "and I will carry out my vow, even if the venture
leadeth me close to the nethermost world."

And with these words he stepped over the edge of the Circle, right in
amongst the ghostly dancers.

At his coming they shouted louder than ever, and danced more madly, and
sang more lustily; then, all at once, a silence fell upon them, and they
parted into two companies, leaving a way through their midst, up which
they signed to the Earl to pass.

He walked through their ranks till he came to the middle of the Circle;
and there, seated at a table of red marble, was the Knight whom he had
come so far to seek, clad in his grass-green robes. And before him, on
the table, stood a wondrous goblet, fashioned from an emerald, and set
round the rim with blood-red rubies.

And this cup was filled with heather ale, which foamed up over the brim;
and when the Knight saw Sir Gregory, he lifted it from the table, and
handed it to him with a stately bow, and Sir Gregory, being very
thirsty, drank.

And as he drank he noticed that the ale in the goblet never grew less,
but ever foamed up to the edge; and for the first time his heart misgave
him, and he wished that he had never set out on this strange adventure.

But, alas! the time for regrets had passed, for already a strange
numbness was stealing over his limbs, and a chill pallor was creeping
over his face, and before he could utter a single cry for help the
goblet dropped from his nerveless fingers, and he fell down before the
Elfin King like a dead man.

Then a great shout of triumph went up from all the company; for if there
was one thing which filled their hearts with joy, it was to entice some
unwary mortal into their Ring and throw their uncanny spell over him, so
that he must needs spend long years in their company.

But soon their shouts of triumphs began to die away, and they muttered
and whispered to each other with looks of something like fear on their
faces.

For their keen ears heard a sound which filled their hearts with dread.
It was the sound of human footsteps, which were so free and untrammelled
that they knew at once that the stranger, whoever he was, was as yet
untouched by any charm. And if this were so he might work them ill, and
rescue their captive from them.

And what they dreaded was true; for it was the brave Earl St. Clair who
approached, fearless and strong because of the Holy Sign he bore.

And as soon as he saw the charmed Ring and the eldrich dancers, he was
about to step over its magic border, when the little grizzled Goblin who
had whispered to Earl Gregory, came and whispered to him also.

"Alas! alas!" he exclaimed, with a look of sorrow on his wrinkled face,
"hast thou come, as thy companion came, to pay thy toll of years to the
Elfin King? Oh! if thou hast wife or child behind thee, I beseech thee,
by all that thou holdest sacred, to turn back ere it be too late."

"Who art thou, and from whence hast thou come?" asked the Earl, looking
kindly down at the little creature in front of him.

"I came from the country that thou hast come from," wailed the Goblin.
"For I was once a mortal man, even as thou. But I set out over the
enchanted moor, and the Elfin King appeared in the guise of a beauteous
Knight, and he looked so brave, and noble, and generous that I followed
him hither, and drank of his heather ale, and now I am doomed to bide
here till seven long years be spent.

"As for thy friend, Sir Earl, he, too, hath drunk of the accursed
draught, and he now lieth as dead at our lawful Monarch's feet. He will
wake up, 'tis true, but it will be in such a guise as I wear, and to the
bondage with which I am bound."

"Is there naught that I can do to rescue him!" cried Earl St. Clair
eagerly, "ere he taketh on him the Elfin shape? I have no fear of the
spell of his cruel captor, for I bear the Sign of One Who is stronger
than he. Speak speedily, little man, for time presseth."

"There is something that thou couldst do, Sir Earl," whispered the
Goblin, "but to essay it were a desperate attempt. For if thou failest,
then could not even the Power of the Blessed Sign save thee."

"And what is that?" asked the Earl impatiently.

"Thou must remain motionless," answered the old man, "in the cold and
frost till dawn break and the hour cometh when they sing Matins in the
Holy Church. Then must thou walk slowly nine times round the edge of the
enchanted Circle, and after that thou must walk boldly across it to the
red marble table where sits the Elfin King. On it thou wilt see an
emerald goblet studded with rubies and filled with heather ale. That
must thou secure and carry away; but whilst thou art doing so let no
word cross thy lips. For this enchanted ground whereon we dance may look
solid to mortal eyes, but in reality it is not so. 'Tis but a quaking
bog, and under it is a great lake, wherein dwelleth a fearsome Monster,
and if thou so much as utter a word while thy foot resteth upon it, thou
wilt fall through the bog and perish in the waters beneath."



So saying the Grisly Goblin stepped back among his companions, leaving
Earl St. Clair standing alone on the outskirts of the charmed Ring.

There he waited, shivering with cold, through the long, dark hours, till
the grey dawn began to break over the hill tops, and, with its coming,
the Elfin forms before him seemed to dwindle and fade away.

And at the hour when the sound of the Matin Bell came softly pealing
from across the moor, he began his solemn walk. Round and round the Ring
he paced, keeping steadily on his way, although loud murmurs of anger,
like distant thunder, rose from the Elfin Shades, and even the very
ground seemed to heave and quiver, as if it would shake this bold
intruder from its surface.

But through the power of the Blessed Sign on his arm Earl St. Clair went
on unhurt.

When he had finished pacing round the Ring he stepped boldly on to the
enchanted ground, and walked across it; and what was his astonishment to
find that all the ghostly Elves and Goblins whom he had seen, were lying
frozen into tiny blocks of ice, so that he was sore put to it to walk
amongst them without treading upon them.

And as he approached the marble table the very hairs rose on his head at
the sight of the Elfin King sitting behind it, stiff and stark like his
followers; while in front of him lay the form of Earl Gregory, who had
shared the same fate.

Nothing stirred, save two coal-black ravens, who sat, one on each side
of the table, as if to guard the emerald goblet, flapping their wings,
and croaking hoarsely.

When Earl St. Clair lifted the precious cup, they rose in the air and
circled round his head, screaming with rage, and threatening to dash it
from his hands with their claws; while the frozen Elves, and even their
mighty King himself stirred in their sleep, and half sat up, as if to
lay hands on this presumptuous intruder. But the Power of the Holy Sign
restrained them, else had Earl St. Clair been foiled in his quest.

As he retraced his steps, awesome and terrible were the sounds that he
heard around him. The ravens shrieked, and the frozen Goblins screamed;
and up from the hidden lake below came the sound of the deep breathing
of the awful Monster who was lurking there, eager for prey.

But the brave Earl heeded none of these things, but kept steadily
onwards, trusting in the Might of the Sign he bore. And it carried him
safely through all the dangers; and just as the sound of the Matin Bell
was dying away in the morning air he stepped on to solid ground once
more, and flung the enchanted goblet from him.

And lo! every one of the frozen Elves vanished, along with their King
and his marble table, and nothing was left on the rank green grass save
Earl Gregory, who slowly woke from his enchanted slumber, and stretched
himself, and stood up, shaking in every limb. He gazed vaguely round
him, as if he scarce remembered where he was.

And when, after Earl St. Clair had run to him and had held him in his
arms till his senses returned and the warm blood coursed through his
veins, the two friends returned to the spot where Earl St. Clair had
thrown down the wondrous goblet, they found nothing but a piece of rough
grey whinstone, with a drop of dew hidden in a little crevice which was
hollowed in its side.





Next: What To Say To The New Mune

Previous: The Wee Bannock



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