Encounter on the turret stair
Hellalyle, followed by the young Ethla, crossed the castle
courtyard to a concealed doorway, where they started to climb
the winding stair of a turret leading to the princess’s apartment and
the fortifications above. On their ascent, they halted by a small
window, overhearing voices below. Peering through the opening,
they spotted a group of her bodyguards, returned from surveying
the outer defences of the fortress.
Their leader, assigned to inspect the battlements in his line of
duty, was about to enter the hidden doorway to the spiral staircase
the princess and her maid had used, unaware the woman he loved
was within. Catching sight of Hildebrand at the foot of the tower,
Hellalyle, apprehensive their paths might cross, hastened up the next
flight. Ethla poked fun at her mistress’s predicament, and, finding
this turn of events amusing, she impulsively chased after Hellalyle
with hair-brained glee. The princess, shouting breathlessly over her
shoulder, rebuked the girl’s witless behaviour.
As the echo of the knight’s footsteps grew louder, the princess
was eager to reach the privacy of her room, but high-spirited Ethla
had other ideas. Mischievously overtaking Hellalyle, she was the
first to enter the room, and slammed the door, sliding the bolt,
leaving her luckless mistress stranded on the landing.
The unsuspecting Hildebrand drawing ever closer, the panic-
stricken princess implored Ethla to come to her senses and unlock
the latch, but the impudent girl refused, treating the precarious
scene as a childish prank. The Englishman finally reached their
level and stood spellbound by this unexpected vision of the
princess. Convinced fate had brought them together, he pressed
forward heedlessly to embrace her, but Hellalyle – timorous and
abashed – took upward flight once more, gaining but half-a-dozen
steps before Hildebrand caught up with her. Hellalyle’s back
turned, her left hand braced against the wall to support her slender
figure, she bowed her head until it nudged the rough stone surface
of the staircase outer wall. The ardent warrior, his chainmailgloved
hands gripping the right arm she had surrendered, buried
his enraptured face in the smooth folds of her sleeve.
Besotted Hildebrand, his back pressed firmly to the newel, kept
hold of her arm passionately and raised her delicate hand to his lips;
With trembling voice, the knight declared she was, in truth,
the fairest woman he had ever beheld, far excelling his runaway
dreams. He begged her to ride out with him to Lake Eydis, whose
enchanting waters seemed to reflect her transcendental beauty.
Overwhelmed by conflicting emotions, the princess felt her
heart about to break; wretched, apprehensive, she burst into tears.
She knew it would be her father, the arbiter of her suitors, who
would ultimately control her destiny. Mortified by her reaction,
Hildebrand felt unnerved that he had crudely misjudged her
nature. Hellalyle cast a momentary glance at him as she fled to her
chamber, which Ethla had wilfully left open so she would be able
to eavesdrop on the proceedings.
One peek at the despondent prince sufficed for Ethla to dart
forward and embrace him with little inhibition, before skipping
back into the room and gauchely elbowing the door to with a bang.
The knight, stifling a nervous chuckle, wistfully reflected that he
might have found an unusual ally in his struggle to win Hellalyle’s
Confused and downhearted, Hildebrand tried to compose
himself, counting aloud the uneven steps as he climbed to the
ramparts where he was to finish his tour of duty that day.
Later, after an hour had passed, he descended, passing the
princess’s apartment. He noticed as the door suddenly swung ajar to
reveal Ethla, beaming inanely, frantically waving a silk scarf
belonging to her mistress. Impulsively, the girl ran up to Hildebrand
and pressed the garment into his hand, then scurried back, tittering
mindlessly. Stupefied, holding the kerchief to his face, he looked up
and made out the figure of Hellalyle, poised in the shadows at the far
end of her chamber. The exquisite features of her pretty face were
just visible beneath her hood, with both hands holding her cloak
together at the throat. In the intriguing image, although blurred in
the ghostly light, her penetrating eyes could be seen intently focused,
following him, before she slowly turned away, motioning Ethla to
close the chamber door.
At nightfall, people flocked outside the castle to watch the awe inspiring
spectacle of a celestial body in the heavens. For it was a comet,
which had suddenly appeared without warning, its dazzling tail on
closer observation, just for an instant, appeared like the menacingly
shaped handle of a brandished mace; its spiked head glowed with
ultimate white, like a cauldron of fire. Fearful, in disbelief, the mood
of the crowd was uneasy, as they muttered amongst themselves,
speculating superstitiously, about what strange portent it foretold.
*This chapter describes the drama depicted in the book cover picture. The painting hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland.
Here is a link to the radio show I did with Tagai:
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