Yet one more trial they made of Hilnaric’s beauty, for they watched her on the terraces at sunset ere yet the petals of the orchards had fallen, and all along the edge of neighbouring woods the rhododendron was blooming with the azalea. And the sun went down under craggy Poltarnees, and the sea-mist poured over his summit inland. And the marble temples stood up clear in the evening, but films of twilight were drawn between the mountain and the city. Then from the Temple ledges and eaves of palaces the bats fell headlong downwards, then spread their wings and floated up and down through darkening ways; lights came blinking out in golden windows, men cloaked themselves against the grey sea-mist, the sound of small songs arose, and the face of Hilnaric became a resting-place for mysteries and dreams.
“Than all these things,” said the kings, “she is more lovely: but who can say whether she is lovelier than the Sea?”
Prone in a rhododendron thicket at the edge of the palace lawns a hunter had waited since the sun went down. Near to him was a deep pool where the hyacinths grew and strange flowers floated upon it with broad leaves; and there the great bull gariachs came down to drink by starlight; and, waiting there for the gariachs to come, he saw the white form of the Princess leaning on her balcony. Before the stars shone out or the bulls came down to drink he left his lurking-place and moved closer to the palace to see more nearly the Princess. The palace lawns were full of untrodden dew, and everything was still when he came across them, holding his great spear. In the farthest corner of the terraces the three old kings were discussing the beauty of Hilnaric and the destiny of the Inner Lands. Moving lightly, with a hunter’s tread, the watcher by the pool came very near, even in the still evening, before the Princess saw him. When he saw her closely he exclaimed suddenly:
“She must be more beautiful than the Sea.”
When the Princess turned and saw his garb and his great spear she knew that he was a hunter of gariachs.
When the three kings heard the young man exclaim they said softly to one another:
“This must be the man.”
Then they revealed themselves to him, and spoke to him to try him. They said:
“Sir, you have spoken blasphemy against the Sea.”
And the young man muttered:
“She is more beautiful than the Sea.”
And the kings said:
“We are older than you and wiser, and know that nothing is more beautiful than the Sea.”
And the young man took off the gear of his head, and became downcast, and he knew that he spake with kings, yet he answered:
“By this spear, she is more beautiful than the Sea.”
And all the while the Princess stared at him, knowing him to be a hunter of gariachs.
Then the king of Arizim said to the watcher by the pool:
“If thou wilt go up Poltarnees and come back, as none have come, and report to us what lure or magic is in the Sea, we will pardon thy blasphemy, and thou shalt have the Princess to wife and sit among the Council of Kings.”
And gladly thereunto the young man consented. And the Princess spoke to him, and asked him his name. And he told her that his name was Athelvok, and great joy arose in him at the sound of her voice. And to the three kings he promised to set out on the third day to scale the slope of Poltarnees and to return again, and this was the oath by which they bound him to return:
“I swear by the Sea that bears the worlds away, by the river of Oriathon, which men call Ocean, and by the gods and their tiger, and by the doom of the worlds, that I will return again to the Inner Lands, having beheld the Sea.”
And that oath he swore with solemnity that very night in one of the temples of the Sea, but the three kings trusted more to the beauty of Hilnaric even than to the power of the oath.
The next day Athelvok came to the palace of Arizim with the morning…