Whilom, as tells the tale, was a walled cheaping-town hight Utterhay, which was builded in a bight of the land a little off the great highway which went from over the mountains to the sea.
The said town was hard on the borders of a wood, which men held to be mighty great, or maybe measureless; though few indeed had entered it, and they that had, brought back tales wild and confused thereof.
Therein was neither highway nor byway, nor wood-reeve nor way-warden; never came chapman thence into Utterhay; no man of Utterhay was so poor or so bold that he durst raise the hunt therein; no outlaw durst flee thereto; no man of God had such trust in the saints that he durst build him a cell in that wood.
For all men deemed it more than perilous; and some said that there walked the worst of the dead; othersome that the Goddesses of the Gentiles haunted there; others again that it was the faery rather, but they full of malice and guile. But most commonly it was deemed that the devils swarmed amidst of its thickets, and that wheresoever a man sought to, who was once environed by it, ever it was the Gate of Hell whereto he came. And the said wood was called Evilshaw.
Nevertheless the cheaping-town throve not ill; for whatso evil things haunted Evilshaw, never came they into Utterhay in such guise that men knew them, neither wotted they of any hurt that they had of the Devils of Evilshaw.
Now in the said cheaping-town, on a day, it was market and high noon, and in the market-place was much people thronging; and amidst of them went a woman, tall, and strong of aspect, of some thirty winters by seeming, black-haired, hook-nosed and hawk-eyed, not so fair to look on as masterful and proud. She led a great grey ass betwixt two panniers, wherein she laded her marketings. But now she had done her chaffer, and was looking about her as if to note the folk for her disport; but when she came across a child, whether it were borne in arms or led by its kinswomen, or were going alone, as were some, she seemed more heedful of it, and eyed it more closely than aught else.
So she strolled about till she was come to the outskirts of the throng, and there she happened on a babe of some two winters, which was crawling about on its hands and knees, with scarce a rag upon its little body. She watched it, and looked whereto it was going, and saw a woman sitting on a stone, with none anigh her, her face bowed over her knees as if she were weary or sorry. Unto her crept the little one, murmuring and merry, and put its arms about the woman’s legs, and buried its face in the folds of her gown: she looked up therewith, and showed a face which had once been full fair, but was now grown bony and haggard, though she were scarce past five and twenty years. She took the child and strained it to her bosom, and kissed it, face and hands, and made it great cheer, but ever woefully. The tall stranger stood looking down on her, and noted how evilly she was clad, and how she seemed to have nought to do with that throng of thriving cheapeners, and she smiled somewhat sourly.
At last she spake, and her voice was not so harsh as might have been looked for from her face: Dame, she said, thou seemest to be less busy than most folk here; might I crave of thee to tell an alien who has but some hour to dwell in this good town where she may find her a chamber wherein to rest and eat a morsel, and be untroubled of ribalds and ill company? Said the poor-wife: Short shall be my tale; I am over poor to know of hostelries and ale-houses that I may tell thee aught thereof. Said the other: Maybe some neighbour of thine would take me in for thy sake? Said the mother: What neighbours have I since my man died; and I dying of hunger, and in this town of thrift and abundance?
The leader of the ass was silent a while, then she said: Poor woman! I begin to have pity on thee; and I tell thee that luck hath come to thee today.
Now the poor-wife had stood up with the babe in her arms and was turning to go her ways; but the alien put forth a hand to her, and said: Stand a while and hearken good tidings. And she put her hand to her girdle-pouch, and drew thereout a good golden piece, a noble, and said: When I am sitting down in thine house thou wilt have earned this, and when I take my soles out thereof there will be three more of like countenance, if I be content with thee meanwhile.
The woman looked on the gold, and tears came into her eyes; but she laughed and said: Houseroom may I give thee for an hour truly, and therewithal water of the well, and a mouse’s meal of bread. If thou deem that worth three nobles, how may I say thee nay, when they may save the life of my little one. But what else wouldst thou of me? Little enough, said the alien; so lead me straight to thine house.
So went they forth of the market-place, and the woman led them, the alien and the ass, out of the street through the west gate of Utterhay, that, to wit, which looked on Evilshaw, and so into a scattering street without the wall, the end of which neared a corner of the wood aforesaid: the houses there were nought so evil of fashion, but whereas they were so nigh unto the Devil’s Park, rich men might no longer away with them, and they were become wares for poor folk.
Now the townswoman laid her hand on the latch of the door that was hers, and threw the door open; then she put forth her palm to the other, and said: Wilt thou give me the first gold now, since rest is made sure for thee, as long as thou wilt? The ass-leader put it into her hand, and she took it and laid it on her baby’s cheek, and then kissed both gold and child together; then she turned to the alien and said: As for thy way-beast, I have nought for him, neither hay nor corn: thou wert best to leave him in the street. The stranger nodded a yeasay, and the three went in together, the mother, the child, and the alien.
Not right small was the chamber; but there was little therein; one stool to wit, a yew-chair, a little table, and a coffer: there was no fire on the hearth, nought save white ashes of small wood; but it was June, so that was of no account.
The guest sat down in the yew-chair, and the poor-wife laid her child down gently on the floor and came and stood before the stranger, as if abiding her bidding.
Spake the alien: Nought so uncomely or strait is thy chamber; and thy child, which I see is a woman, and therefore belike shall long abide with thee, is lovely of shape, and fair of flesh. Now also thou shalt have better days, as I deem, and I pray them on thine head.
She spake in a kind wheedling voice, and the poor-wife’s face grew softer, and presently tears fell down on to the table from her, but she spake no word. The guest now drew forth, not three nobles, but four, and laid them on the table, and said: Lo, my friend, the three nobles which I behight thee! now are they thine; but this other thou shalt take and spend for me. Go up into the town, and buy for me white bread of the best; and right good flesh, or poulaine if it may be, already cooked and dight; and, withal, the best wine that thou mayst get, and sweetmeats for thy baby; and when thou comest back, we will sit together and dine here. And thereafter, when we be full of meat and drink, we shall devise something more for thy good speed.
The woman knelt before her weeping, but might speak no word because of the fullness of her heart. She kissed the guest’s hands, and took the money, and then arose and caught up her child, and kissed her bare flesh eagerly many times, and then hastened out of the house and up the street and through the gate; and the guest sat hearkening to the sound of her footsteps till it died out, and there was nought to be heard save the far-off murmur of the market, and the chirrup of the little one on the floor.
Then arose the guest and took up the child from the floor, who kicked and screamed, and craved her mother as her broken speech might; but the alien spake softly to her, and said: Hush, dear one, and be good, and we will go and find her; and she gave her therewith a sugar-plum from out of her scrip. Then she came out of doors, and spake sweetly to the little one: See now this pretty way-beast. We will ride merrily on him to find thy mother.
Then she laid the child in the pannier with a soft cushion under, and a silk cloth over her, so that she lay there happily. Then she took her ass’s rein and went her ways over the waste toward Evilshaw; for, as ye may deem, where the houses and the street ended, the beaten way ended also.
Quietly and speedily she went, and met but three men on the way; and when these saw her, and that she was making for Evilshaw, they turned their heads away, each one, and blessed themselves, and went past swiftly. Not one sought to stay her, or held any converse with her, and no foot she heard following after her. So in scarce more than the saying of a low mass she was in amongst the trees, with her ass and her wares and her prey.
No stay she made there, but held forward at her best before the night should fall upon her. And whatsoever might be told concerning the creatures that other folk had met in Evilshaw, of her it must needs be said that therein she happened on nought worser than herself.
Four days they wended the wood, and nought befell to tell of. The witch-wife (for even such was she) fed the stolen child well and duly, and whiles caressed her and spake sweetly unto her; whiles also she would take her out of the pannier, and set her on the ass’s back and hold her thereon heedfully; or, otherwhiles, when they came upon grassy and flowery places, she would set her down on the ground and let her roam about, and pluck the flowers and the strawberries. And whoso might be sorry, the child was glad, so many things new and fair as she came upon.
At last, when the fifth day was waning, and they had been a long while wending a wood set thick with trees, it began to grow grey betwixt the distant boles, and then from grey to white, and it was as if a new world of light lay before them. Thitherward went they, and in a little, and before the sun was set, came they to the shore of a great water, and thence was no more land to be seen before them than if it had been the main sea itself, though this was a sweet water. Albeit, less than a half mile from the shore lay two eyots, as it might have been on the salt sea; but one of these sat low down on the water, and was green and well bushed, but the other, which lay east of it, and was nigher to the shore, was high, rocky, and barren.
Now the ending of the wood left a fair green plain betwixt it and the water, whiles more than a furlong across, whiles much less; and whiles the trees came down close to the water-side. But the place whereas they came from out the wood was of the widest, and there it was a broad bight of greensward of the fashion of the moon seven nights old, and a close hedge of thicket there was at the back of it; and the lake lay south, and the wood north. Some deal of this greensward was broken by closes of acre-land, and the tall green wheat stood blossoming therein; but the most was sweet meadow, and there as now was a gallant flock of goats feeding down it; five kine withal, and a tethered bull. Through the widest of this meadow ran a clear stream winding down to the lake, and on a little knoll beside a lap of the said stream, two bow-shots from the water, was a knoll, whereon stood, amidst of a potherb garden, a little house strongly framed of timber. Before it the steep bank of the lake broke down into a slowly-shelving beach, whose honey-coloured sand thrust up a tongue in amongst the grass of the mead.
Went the witch-wife straight to the door of the said house as if she were at home, as was sooth indeed. She threw the door open, and unladed the ass of all his wares, and first of the youngling, whom she shook awake, and bore into the house, and laid safely on the floor of the chamber; nor did she wait on her wailing, but set about what was to be done to kindle fire, and milk a she-goat, and get meat upon the board. That did she, and fed both herself and the child plenteously: neither did she stint her of meat ever, from that time forward, however else she dealt with her.
One thing must here be told: Whenas the said dame stood forth clad amidst of the chamber the next morning, the child ran up to her to greet her or what not, but straightway when she saw her close, drew aback, and stood gasping with affright; for verily she deemed this was nowise she who had brought her last night into the fair chamber, and given bread and milk to her and put her to bed, but someone else. For this one had not dark hair, and hooked nose, and eyen hawk-bright; stark and tall was she indeed, as that other one, and by seeming of the same-like age; but there came to an end all her likeness to last night’s housewife. This one had golden-red hair flowing down from her head; eyes of hazel colour, long and not well-opened, but narrow and sly. High of cheekbones she was, long-chinned and thin-lipped; her skin was fine and white, but without ruddiness; flat-breasted she was, and narrow-hipped.
Now she laughed at the babe’s terror, and said, but in her old voice at least: Thou foolish little beast! I know what scares thee, to wit, that thou deemest me changed: now I tell thee that I am the one who brought thee here last night, and fed thee; neither is my changing a matter of thine, since at least I am the one who shall keep thee from hunger and weather henceforward; that is enough for thee to know as now. Now thou hast to eat and sleep and play and cry out, that thou mayest the sooner wax, and grow into the doing of my will.
Therewith she led her out into the sunshine, and tethered her to an ash sapling which grew anigh the door, that the child might be safe the while she went about her work in acre and mead.
But as for that matter of changing of aspect, the maiden came to know thereafter that the witch durst not go into the wood in the same skin as that which she wore at home, wherefore she had changed it for the journey to Utterhay, and changed back again in the night-tide before she arose.
This little one, who is henceforth called Birdalone, though the witch called her but seldom so, nor indeed by any name, dwelt there betwixt the water and the wood, and saw none save the said witch-wife, who, as aforesaid, fed her well, but scarce meddled with her else for a long while; so she wandered well-nigh as she had will, and much in the wood; for she had no fear thereof, nor indeed of aught else save of the dame. She learned of the ways and the wont of all the creatures round about her, and the very grass and flowers were friends to her, and she made tales of them in her mind; and the wild things feared her in no wise, and the fowl would come to her hand, and play with her and love her. A lovely child she was, rosy and strong, and as merry as the birds on the bough; and had she trouble, for whiles she came across some ugly mood of the witch-wife, she bore it all as lightly as they.
Wore the years thus, till now she was grown tall and thin, and had seen twelve winters, and was far stronger and handier than at first sight she looked to be. That found her mistress, and would not forego the using of her deftness. For indeed the maiden knew all matters of wood and field full well, and somewhat of the water also (though no boat had she ever seen there), for she learned herself swimming, as the ducks do belike.
But now her mistress would learn her swinking, and hard was the lesson, for with twiggen rods and switches was she learned, and was somewhat stubborn with this woman, who she deemed loved her not; and, however it were, there began to grow in her an inkling that all was not well with the dame, and howsoever she might fear her, she trusted her not, nor worshipped her; otherwise she had learned her lesson speedily; for she was not slack nor a sluggard, and hated not the toil, even when it pained and wearied her, but against the anger and malice she hardened her heart.
It is to be said, that though there she dwelt alone with the witch-wife, she had somehow got to know that they two were not alone in the world, and she knew of male and female, and young and old. Thereof doubtless the witch herself had learned her, would she, would she not; for though she were mostly few-spoken, yet whiles the tongue of her would loosen, and she would tell Birdalone tales of men and women, and kings and warriors and thralls, and the folk of the world beyond them, if it were but to scare the child. Yea, and when she rated Birdalone, or girded at her, words would come forth which the maiden stored up, and by laying two and two together gat wisdom howso it were. Moreover, she was of the race of Adam, and her heart conceived of diverse matters from her mother’s milk and her father’s blood, and her heart and her mind grew up along with her body. Herein also was she wise, to wit, how to give wrath the go-by, so that she oft found the wood a better home than the house: for now she knew that the witch-wife would enter it never; wherefore she loved it much, and haunted it daily if she might.
Amidst all this she lived not unmerrily; for the earth was her friend, and solaced her when she had suffered aught: withal she was soon grown hardy as well as strong; and evil she could thole, nor let it burden her with misery.
Wear the years and the years amidst such days as these, and now is Birdalone grown a dear maiden of seventeen summers; and yet was her life not unhappy; though the mirth of her childhood was somewhat chastened in her, and she walked the earth soberly and measurely, as though deep thoughts were ever in her head: though, forsooth, it is not all so sure that her serious face and solemn eyes were but a part of the beauty which was growing with the coming forth of childhood into youth and maidenhood. But this at least is sure, that about this time those forebodings which had shown her that she had no call to love and honour her mistress took clearer shape, and became a burden on her, which she might never wholly shake off. For this she saw, that she was not her own, but a chattel and a tool of one who not only used her as a thrall in the passing day, but had it in her mind to make of her a thing accursed like to herself, and to bait the trap with her for the taking of the sons of Adam. Forsooth she saw, though dimly, that her mistress was indeed wicked, and that in the bonds of that wickedness was she bound.
One thing, moreover, had she noted now this long while, that once and again, it might be once every two moons, the witch-wife would arise in the dead of night and go forth from the house, and be away for a day, or two or three, or whiles more, and come back again weary and fordone; but never said she any word to Birdalone hereof. Yet oft when she arose to go this errand, before she left the chamber would she come to Birdalone’s truckle-bed, and stand over her to note if she were asleep or not; and ever at such times did Birdalone feign slumber amidst of sickening dread. Forsooth in these latter days it whiles entered the maiden’s head that when the dame was gone she would rise and follow her and see whither she went, and what she did; but terror constrained her that she went not.
Now from amidst all these imaginings arose a hope in her that she might one day escape from her thralldom: and whiles, when she was lonely and safe in the wood, to this hope she yielded herself; but thereof came such tumult of her soul for joy of the hope, that she might not master her passion; the earth would seem to rise beneath her, and the woods to whirl about before her eyes, so that she might not keep her feet, but would sink adown to earth, and lie there weeping. Then most oft would come the cold fit after the hot, and the terror would take her that some day the witch would surprise the joy of that hope in her eyes, and would know what it meant, or that some light word might bewray her; and therewith came imaginings of what would then befall her, nor were that hard to picture, and it would come before her over and over again till she became weary and worn out therewith.
But though they abode ever with her, these troubling thoughts pricked not so oft at the keenest, but were as the dull ache of little import that comes after pain overcome: for in sooth busy and toilsome days did she wear, which irked her in nowise, since it eased her of the torment of those hopes and fears aforesaid, and brought her sound sleep and sweet awaking. The kine and the goats must she milk, and plough and sow and reap the acre-land according to the seasons, and lead the beasts to the woodland pastures when their own were flooded or burned; she must gather the fruits of the orchard, and the hazel nuts up the woodlands, and beat the walnut-trees in September. She must make the butter and the cheese, grind the wheat in the quern, make and bake the bread, and in all ways earn her livelihood hard enough. Moreover, the bowman’s craft had she learned, and at the dame’s bidding must fare alone into the wood now and again to slay big deer and little, and win venison: but neither did that irk her at all, for rest and peace were in the woods for her.
True it is, that as she wended thicket or glade or wood-lawn, she would at whiles grow timorous, and tread light and heedfully, lest rustling leaves or crackling stick should arouse some strange creature in human shape, devil, or god now damned, or woman of the faery. But if such were there, either they were wise and would not be seen, or kind and had no will to scare the simple maiden; or else maybe there were none such in those days. Anyhow, nought evil came to her out of Evilshaw.
Lank and long is Birdalone the sweet, with legs that come forth bare and browned from under her scant grey coat and scantier smock beneath, which was all her raiment save when the time was bitter, and then, forsooth, it was a cloak of goat-skin that eked her attire: for the dame heeded little the clothing of her; nor did Birdalone give so much heed thereto that she cared to risk the anger of her mistress by asking her for aught.
But on a day of this same spring, when the witch-wife was of sweeter temper than her wont was, and the day was very warm and kindly, though it was but one of the last of February days, Birdalone, blushing and shamefaced, craved timidly some more womanly attire. But the dame turned gruffly on her and said: Tush, child! what needeth it? here be no men to behold thee. I shall see to it, that when due time comes thou shalt be whitened and sleeked to the very utmost. But look thou! thou art a handy wench; take the deer-skin that hangs up yonder and make thee brogues for thy feet, if so thou wilt.
Even so did Birdalone, and shaped the skin to her feet; but as she was sewing them a fancy came into her head; for she had just come across some threads of silk of divers colours; so she took them and her shoon and her needle up into the wood, and there sat down happily under a great spreading oak which much she haunted, and fell to broidering the kindly deer-skin. And she got to be long about it, and came back to it the next day and the next, and many days, whenso her servitude would suffer it, and yet the shoon were scarce done.
So on a morning the dame looked on her feet as she moved about the chamber, and cried out at her: What! art thou barefoot as an hen yet? Hast thou spoilt the good deer-skin and art yet but shoeless? Nay, our lady, said Birdalone, but the shoon are not altogether done. Show them to me, said the dame.
Birdalone went to her little coffer to fetch them, and brought them somewhat timorously, for she knew not how her mistress would take her working on them so long, if perchance she would blame her, or it might be chastise her, for even in those days the witch-wife’s hand was whiles raised against her. But now when the dame took the shoes and looked on them, and saw how there were oak-leaves done into them, and flowers, and coneys, and squirrels, she but smiled somewhat grimly on Birdalone, and said: Well, belike thou art a fool to waste thy time and mine in such toys; and to give thee thy due would be to give thee stripes. But thou doest herein after the nature of earthly women, to adorn thy body, whatsoever else is toward. And well is that, since I would have thee a woman so soon as may be; and I will help thy mind for finery, since thou art so deft with thy needle.
Therewith she went to the big coffer and drew forth thence a piece of fine green cloth, and another of fine linen, and said to Birdalone: This mayest thou take, and make thee a gown thereof and a new smock, and make them if thou wilt as gay as thy new shoon are gotten to be; and here is wherewithal. And therewith she gave her two handfuls of silken threads and gold, and said: Now I suppose that I must do the more part of thy work, while thou art making thee these gaudy garments. But maybe someone may be coming this way ere long, who will deem the bird the finer for her fine feathers. Now depart from me; for I would both work for thee and me, and ponder weighty matters.
Who was glad now but Birdalone; she grew red with new pleasure, and knelt down and kissed the witch’s hand, and then went her ways to the wood with her precious lading, and wrought there under her oak-tree day after day, and all days, either there, or in the house when the weather was foul. That was in the middle of March, when all birds were singing, and the young leaves showing on the hawthorns, so that there were pale green clouds, as it were, betwixt the great grey boles of oak and sweet-chestnut; and by the lake the meadow-saffron new-thrust-up was opening its blossom; and March wore and April, and still she was at work happily when now it was later May, and the hare-bells were in full bloom down the bent before her.
All this while the witch had meddled little with Birdalone, and had bidden her to no work afield or in the stead which was anywise grievous, but had done all herself; yet was she few-spoken with her, and would oft behold her gloomily. And one evening when Birdalone came in from the wood, the witch came close up to her and stared her in the face, and said suddenly: Is it in thine heart to flee away from me and leave me?
A sharp pang of fear shot through Birdalone’s heart at that word, and she turned very red, and then pale to the lips, but stammered out: No, lady, it is not in mine heart. The dame looked grimly on her and said: If thou try it and fail, thou shalt rue it once only, to wit, lifelong; and thou canst but fail. She was silent a while, and then spake in a milder voice: Be content here a while with me, and thereafter thou shalt be more content, and that before long.
She said no more at that time; but her word clave to Birdalone’s heart, and for some time thereafter she was sorely oppressed with a burden of fear, and knew not how to hold herself before the witch-wife. But the days wore, and nought betid, and the maiden’s heart grew lighter, and still she wrought on at her gown and her smock, and it was well-nigh done. She had broidered the said gown with roses and lilies, and a tall tree springing up from amidmost the hem of the skirt, and a hart on either side thereof, face to face of each other. And the smock she had sewn daintily at the hems and the bosom with fair knots and buds. It was now past the middle of June, hot and bright weather.
On a day she went to the wood, and sat down under her oak-tree, and it was far and far out of sight of anyone standing in the meadow by the lake; and in the wood Birdalone looked to see nought at all save the rabbits and squirrels, who were, forsooth, familiar enough with her, and fearless, so that they would come to her hand and sport with her when she hailed them. Wherefore, as the day was exceeding hot, she put off from her her simple raiment, that she might feel all the pleasure of the cool shadow and what air was stirring, and the kindness of the greensward upon her very body. So she sat sewing, covered but by a lap of the green gown which her needle was painting.
But as she sat there intent on her work, and her head bent over it, and it was now at the point of high noon, she heard as if some creature were going anigh to her; she heeded it not, deeming that it would be but some wandering hind. But even therewith she heard one say her name in a soft voice, and she leapt up trembling, deeming at first that it would be the witch come to fetch her: but yet more scared she was, when she saw standing before her the shape of a young woman as naked as herself, save that she had an oak wreath round about her loins.
The new-comer, who was now close to her, smiled on her, and said in a kind and sweet voice: Fear nought, Birdalone, for I deem thou wilt find me a friend, and it is not unlike that thou wilt need one ere long. And furthermore, I will say it, said she smiling, that since I am not afraid of thee, thou needest not be afraid of me. Said Birdalone, she also smiling: True it is that thou art nought fearsome to look on. The new-comer laughed outright, and said: Are we not well met then in the wildwood? and we both as two children whom the earth loveth. So play we at a game. At what game? said Birdalone. Spake she of the oak-wreath: This; thou shalt tell me what I am like in thine eyes first, because thou wert afraid of me; and then when thou art done, I will tell thee what thou seemest to me.
Quoth Birdalone: For me that will be hard; for I have nought to liken thee to, whereas save this sight of thee I have seen nought save her that dwelleth in the House by the Water, and whom I serve. Nay, said the other, then will I begin, and tell thee first whatlike thou art, so that thou wilt know the better how to frame thy word concerning me. But tell me, hast thou ever seen thyself in a mirror? What thing is that? said Birdalone. It is a polished round of steel or some other white metal, said the wood-maiden, which giveth back in all truth the image of whatso cometh before it. Said Birdalone and reddened therewith: We have at home a broad latten dish, which it is my work, amongst other things, to brighten and keep bright; yet may I not make it so bright that I may see much of mine image therein; and yet. What wouldst thou? said the wood-woman. Said Birdalone: I shall tell thee presently when thy part of the play is done.
Laughed the new-comer, and said: It is well; now am I to be thy mirror. Thus it is with thee: thou standest before me a tall and slim maiden, somewhat thin, as befitteth thy seventeen summers; where thy flesh is bare of wont, as thy throat and thine arms and thy legs from the middle down, it is tanned a beauteous colour, but otherwhere it is even as fair a white, wholesome and clean, and as if the golden sunlight, which fulfilleth the promise of the earth, were playing therein. Fairer and rounder shall be thine arms and thy shoulders when thou hast seen five more summers, yet scarce more lovesome, so strong and fine as now they are. Low are thy breasts, as is meet for so young a maiden, yet is there no lack in them; nor ever shall they be fairer than now they are. In goodly fashion sits thine head upon thy shoulders, upheld by a long and most well-wrought neck, that the sun hath tanned as aforesaid. The hair of thee is simple brown, yet somewhat more golden than dark; and ah! now thou lettest it loose it waveth softly past thy fair smooth forehead and on to thy shoulders, and is not stayed by thy girdlestead, but hideth nought of thy knees, and thy legs shapely thin, and thy strong and clean-wrought ankles and feet, which are with thee as full of thine heart and thy soul and as wise and deft as be thy wrists and thine hands, and their very fellows. Now as to thy face: under that smooth forehead is thy nose, which is of measure, neither small nor great, straight, and lovely carven at the nostrils: thine eyen are as grey as a hawk’s, but kind and serious, and nothing fierce nor shifting. Nay, now thou lettest thine eyelids fall, it is as fair with thy face as if they were open, so smooth and simple are they and with their long full lashes. But well are thine eyen set in thine head, wide apart, well opened, and so as none shall say thou mayst not look in the face of them. Thy cheeks shall one day be a snare for the unwary, yet are they not fully rounded, as some would have them; but not I, for most pitiful kind are they forsooth. Delicate and clear-made is the little trench that goeth from thy nose to thy lips, and sweet it is, and there is more might in it than in sweet words spoken. Thy lips, they are of the finest fashion, yet rather thin than full; and some would not have it so; but I would, whereas I see therein a sign of thy valiancy and friendliness. Surely he who did thy carven chin had a mind to a master-work and did no less. Great was the deftness of thine imaginer, and he would have all folk that see thee wonder at thy deep thinking and thy carefulness and thy kindness. Ah maiden! is it so that thy thoughts are ever deep and solemn? Yet at least I know it of thee that they be hale and true and sweet.
My friend, when thou hast a mirror, some of all this shalt thou see, but not all; and when thou hast a lover some deal wilt thou hear, but not all. But now thy she-friend may tell it thee all, if she have eyes to see it, as have I; whereas no man could say so much of thee before the mere love should overtake him, and turn his speech into the folly of love and the madness of desire. So now I have played the play, and told thee of thee; tell me now of me, and play thy play.
For a while stood Birdalone silent, blushing and confused, but whiles casting shy glances at her own body, what she might see of it. At last she spake: Fair friend, I would do thy will, but I am not deft of speech; for I speak but little, save with the fowl and wild things, and they may not learn me the speech of man. Yet I will say that I wonder to hear thee call me fair and beauteous; for my dame tells me that never, nor sayeth aught of my aspect save in her anger, and then it is: Rag! and bag-of-bones! and when wilt thou be a woman, thou lank elf thou? The new-comer laughed well-favouredly hereat, and put forth a hand, and stroked her friend’s cheek. Birdalone looked piteous kind on her and said: But now I must needs believe thy words, thou who art so kind to me, and withal thyself so beauteous. And I will tell thee that it fills my heart with joy to know that I am fair like to thee. For this moreover I will tell thee, that I have seen nought in field or woodland that is as lovely to me as thou art; nay, not the fritillary nodding at our brook’s mouth, nor the willow-boughs waving on Green Eyot; nor the wild-cat sporting on the little woodlawn, when she saw me not; nor the white doe rising up from the grass to look to her fawn; nor aught that moves and grows. Yet there is another thing which I must tell thee, to wit, that what thou hast said about the fashion of any part of me, that same, setting aside thy lovely words, which make the tears come into the eyes of me, would I say of thee. Look thou! I take thine hair and lay the tress amongst mine, and thou mayst not tell which is which; and amidst the soft waves of it thy forehead is nestling smooth as thou saidst of mine: hawk-grey and wide apart are thine eyen, and deep thought and all tenderness is in them, as of me thou sayest: fine is thy nose and of due measure; and thy cheeks a little hollow, and somewhat thin thy lovely lips; and thy round chin so goodly carven, as it might not be better done. And of thy body else I will say as thou sayst of mine, though I deem these hands have done more work than thine. But see thou! thy leg and mine as they stand together; and thine arm, as if it were of my body. Slim and slender thou art, or it may be lank; and I deem our dame would call thee also bag-of-bones. Now is this strange. Who art thou? Art thou my very own sister? I would thou wert.
Spake then to Birdalone that image of her, and said, smiling kindly on her: As to our likeness, thou hast it now; so alike are we, as if we were cast in one mould. But thy sister of blood I am not; nay, I will tell thee at once that I am not of the children of Adam. As to what I am, that is a long story, and I may not tell it as now; but thou mayst call me Habundia, as I call thee Birdalone. Now it is true that to everyone I show not myself in this fair shape of thee; but be not aghast thereat, or deem me like unto thy mistress herein, for as now I am, so ever shall I be unto thee.
Quoth Birdalone, looking on her anxiously: Yea, and I shall see thee again, shall I not? else should I grieve, and wish that I had never seen thee at all. Yea, forsooth, said Habundia, for I myself were most fain to see thee oft. But now must thou presently get thee back home, for evil as now is the mood of thy mistress, and she is rueing the gift of the green gown, and hath in her mind to seek occasion to chastise thee.
Now was Birdalone half weeping, as she did on her raiment while her friend looked on her kindly. She said presently: Habundia, thou seest I am hard bestead; give me some good rede thereto.
That will I, said the wood-wife. When thou goest home to the house, be glad of countenance, and joyous that thy gown is nigh done; and therewith be exceeding wary. For I deem it most like that she will ask thee what thou hast seen in the wood, and then if thou falter, or thy face change, then she will have an inkling of what hath befallen, to wit, that thou hast seen someone; and then will she be minded to question thy skin. But if thou keep countenance valiantly, then presently will her doubt run off her, and she will cease grudging, and will grow mild with thee and meddle not. This is the first rede, and is for today; and now for the second, which is for days yet unborn. Thou hast in thy mind to flee away from her; and even so shalt thou do one day, though it may be by way of Weeping Cross; for she is sly and wise and grim, though sooth it is that she hateth thee not utterly. Now thou must note that nowise she hindereth thee from faring in this wood, and that is because she wotteth, as I do, that by this way there is no outgoing for thee. Wherefore look thou to it that it is by the way of the water that thou shalt fare to the land of men-folk. Belike this may seem marvellous to thee; but so it is; and belike I may tell thee more hereof when time serveth. Now cometh the last word of my rede. Maybe if thou come often to the wood, we shall whiles happen on each other; but if thou have occasion for me, and wouldst see me at once, come hither, and make fire, and burn a hair of my head therein, and I will be with thee: here is for thee a tress of mine hair; now thou art clad, thou mayst take a knife from thy pouch and shear it from off me.
Even so did Birdalone, and set the tress in her pouch; and therewith they kissed and embraced each other, and Birdalone went her ways home to the house, but Habundia went back into the wood as she had come.
It went with Birdalone as Habundia had foretold, for she came home to the house glad of semblance, flushed and light-foot, so that she was lovely and graceful beyond her wont. The dame looked on her doubtfully and grimly a while, and then she said: What ails thee, my servant, that thou lookest so masterful? Nought ails me, lady, said Birdalone, save that I am gay because of the summer season, and chiefly because of thy kindness and thy gift, and that I have well-nigh done my work thereon, and that soon now I shall feel these dainty things beating about my ankles. And she held up and spread abroad the skirt with her two hands, and it was indeed goodly to look on.
The witch-wife snorted scornfully and scowled on her, and said: Thine ankles forsooth! Bag-o’-bones! thou wisp! forsooth, thou art in love with thy looks, though thou knowest not what like a fair woman is. Forsooth, I begin to think that thou wilt never grow into a woman at all, but will abide a skinny elf thy life long. Belike I did myself wrong to suffer thee to waste these three or four months of thy thrall’s work, since for nought but thrall’s work shalt thou ever be meet.
Birdalone hung her head adown, and blushed, but smiled a little, and swayed her body gently, as a willow-bough is swayed when a light air arises in the morning. But the witch stood so scowling on her, and with so sour a look, that Birdalone, glancing at her, found her heart sink so within her, that she scarce kept countenance; yet she lost it not.
Then said the witch sharply: Wert thou in the wood today? Yea, lady, said the maiden. Then said the dame fiercely: And what sawest thou? Quoth Birdalone, looking up with an innocent face somewhat scared: Lady, I saw a bear, one of the big ones, crossing a glade. And thou without bow and arrow or wood-knife, I warrant me, said the witch. Thou shalt be whipped, to keep thee in mind that thy life is mine and not thine. Nay, nay, I pray thee be not wroth! said the maid; he was a long way down the glade, and would not have followed me if he had seen me: there was no peril therein. Said the witch-wife: Didst thou see aught else? Yea, said Birdalone, and was weeping somewhat now; which forsooth was not hard for her to do, over-wrought as she was betwixt hope and fear: yea, I saw my white doe and her fawn, and they passed close by me; and two herons flew over my head toward the water; and . . . But the witch turned sharply and said: Thrall! hast thou seen a woman today in the wood? A woman? said Birdalone, and what woman, my lady, said Birdalone. Hath any woman come to the house, and passed forth into the wood?
The dame looked on her carefully, and remembered how she had faltered and changed countenance that other day, when she had charged her with being minded to flee; and now she saw her with wondering face, and in no wise confused or afraid of guilt, as it seemed; so she believed her tale, and being the more at ease thereby, her wrath ran off her, and she spake altogether pleasantly to Birdalone, and said: Now I have had my gird at thee, my servant, I must tell thee that in sooth it is not all for nothing that thou hast had these months of rest; for verily thou hast grown more of a woman thereby, and hast sleekened and rounded much. Albeit, the haysel will wait no longer for us, and the day after tomorrow we must fall to on it. But when that is done, thou shalt be free to do thy green gown, or what thou wilt, till wheat harvest is toward; and thereafter we shall see to it. Or what sayest thou?
Birdalone wondered somewhat at this so gracious word, but not much; for in her heart now was some guile born to meet the witch’s guile; so she knelt down and took the dame’s hands and kissed them, and said: I say nought, lady, save that I thank thee over and over again that thou art become so good to me; and that I will full merrily work for thee in the hay-field, or at whatsoever else thou wilt.
And indeed she was so light-hearted that she had so escaped from the hand of the witch for that time, and above all, that she had gotten a friend so kind and dear as the wood-woman, that her heart went out even toward her mistress, so that she went nigh to loving her.
Full fair was the morrow morn, and Birdalone arose betimes before the sun was up, and she thought she would make of this a holiday before the swink afield began again, since the witch was grown good toward her. So she did on her fair shoes, and her new raiment, though the green gown was not fully done, and said to herself that she would consider what she would do with her holiday when she was amidst of her bathing.
So she went down to the water-side, and when she was standing knee-deep in the little sandy bight aforesaid, she looked over to Green Eyot, and was minded to swim over thither, as oft she did. And it was a windless dawn after a hot night, and a light mist lay upon the face of the water, and above it rose the greenery of the eyot.
She pushed off into the deep and swam strongly through the still water, and the sun rose while she was on the way, and by then she had laid a hand on the willow-twigs of the eyot, was sending a long beam across the waters; and her wet shoulders rose up into the path of it and were turned into ruddy gold. She hoisted herself up, and climbing the low bank, was standing amongst the meadow-sweet, and dripping on to its fragrance. Then she turned about to the green plain and the house and the hedge of woodland beyond, and sighed, and said softly: A pity of it, to leave it! If it were no better otherwhere, and not so fair?
Then she turned inward to the eyot, which had done her nought but good, and which she loved; and she unbound her hair, and let it fall till the ends of the tresses mingled with the heads of the meadow-sweet, and thereafter walked quietly up into the grassy middle of the isle.
She was wont to go to a knoll there where the grass was fine, and flowery at this time with white clover and dog violet, and lie down under the shade of a big thorn with a much-twisted bole: but today some thought came across her, and she turned before she came to the thorn, and went straight over the eyot (which was but a furlong over at that place) and down to the southward-looking shore thereof. There she let herself softly down into the water and thrust off without more ado, and swam on and on till she had gone a long way. Then she communed with herself, and found that she was thinking: If I might only swim all the water and be free.
And still she swam on: and now a light wind had been drawn up from the west, and was driving a little ripple athwart the lake, and she swam the swiftlier for it awhile, but then turned over on her back and floated southward still. Till on a sudden, as she lay looking up toward the far-away blue sky, and she so little and low on the face of the waters, and the lake so deep beneath her, and the wind coming ever fresher from the west, and the ripple rising higher against her, a terror fell upon her, and she longed for the green earth and its well-wrought little blossoms and leaves and grass; then she turned over again and swam straight for the eyot, which now was but a little green heap far away before her.
Long she was ere she made land there, and the sun was high in the heavens when she came, all spent and weary, to the shadow of the hawthorn-tree; and she cast herself down there and fell asleep straightway. Forsooth her swim was about as much as she had might for.
When she awoke it lacked but an hour of noon-tide, and she felt the life in her and was happy, but had no will to rise up for a while; for it was ajoy to her to turn her head this way and that to the dear and dainty flowers, that made the wide, grey, empty lake seem so far away, and no more to be dealt with than the very sky itself.
At last she arose, and when she had plucked and eaten some handfuls of the strawberries which grew plenteously on the sweet ground of the eyot, she went down to the landward-looking shore, and took the water, and swam slowly across the warm ripple till she came once more to the strand and her raiment. She clad herself, and set her hand to her pouch and drew forth bread, and sat eating it on the bank above the smooth sand. Then she looked around, and stood up with her face toward the house, to see if the dame would call to her. But she saw the witch come out of the porch and stand there looking under the sharp of her hand toward her, and thereafter she went back again into the house without giving any sign. Wherefore Birdalone deemed that she had leave that day, and that she might take yet more holiday; so she stepped lightly down from her place of vantage, turned her face toward the east, and went quietly along the very lip of the water.
Soon she had covered up the house from her, for on that eastern end, both a tongue of the woodland shoved out west into the meadow, and, withal, the whole body of the wood there drew down to the water, and presently cut off all the greensward save a narrow strip along by the lake, off the narrowest whereof lay the rocky eyot aforesaid, nigher unto the shore than lay Green Eyot.
Now never had Birdalone gone so far east as to be over against Rock Eyot. In her childish days the witch had let her know that she might go where she would, but therewith had told her a tale of a huge serpent which dwelt in the dark wood over against Rock Eyot, whose wont it was to lap his folds round and round living things that went there, and devour them; and many an evil dream had that evil serpent brought to Birdalone. In after days belike she scarce trowed in the tale, yet the terror of it abode with her. Moreover the wildwood toward that side, as it drew toward the water, was dark and dreary and forbidding, running into black thickets standing amidst quagmires, all unlike to the sweet, clean upland ridges, oak begrown and greenswarded, of the parts which lay toward the north, and which she mostly haunted.
But this summer day, which was so bright and hot, Birdalone deemed she might harden her heart to try the adventure; and she had a mind to enter the wood thereby, and win her way up into the oakland whereas she had met Habundia, and perchance she might happen on her; for she would not dare to summon her so soon after their first meeting. And if she met her, there would be the holiday worthily brought to an end!
On went Birdalone, and was soon at the narrowest of the greensward, and had the wood black on her left hand, for the trees of it were mostly alder. But when she was come just over against Rock Eyot, she found a straight creek or inlet of the water across her way; and the said creek ran right up into the alder thicket; and, indeed, was much overhung by huge ancient alders, gnarled, riven, mossy, and falling low over the water. But close on the mouth of the creek, on Birdalone’s side thereof, lay a thing floating on the dull water, which she knew not how to call a boat, for such had she never seen, nor heard of, but which was indeed a boat, oarless and sailless.
She looked on it all about, and wondered; yet she saw at once that it was for wending the water, and she thought, might she but have a long pole, she might push it about the shallow parts of the lake, and belike take much fish. She tried to shove it somewhat toward the lake, but with her little might could make nothing of the work; for the craft was heavy, like a barge, if there were nothing else that withstood her.
About this new thing she hung a long while, wondering that she had never heard thereof, or been set to toil therewith. She noted that it was mostly pale grey of hue, as if it had been bleached by sun and water, but at the stem and stern were smears of darker colour, as though someone had been trying the tints of staining there.
Now so much did this new matter take up all her mind, that she thought no more of going up into the wood; but though she had fain abided there long to see whatever might be seen, she deemed it would go ill with her did the witch happen on her there; wherefore she turned about, and went back the way she had come, going very slowly and pondering the tidings. And ever she called to mind what Habundia had said to her, that it was by water she must flee, and wondered if she had sent her this thing that she might escape therein; so different as her going would be thereby to swimming the lake with her wet body. Then again she thought, that before she might let herself hope this, it were best, if she might, to find out from the witch what was the thing, and if she knew thereof. Yet at last she called to mind how little patient of questions was her mistress, and that if she were unheedful she might come to raise an evil storm about her. Wherefore she took this rede at the last, that she would keep all hidden in her own breast till she should see Habundia again; and meanwhile she might steal down thither from time to time to see if the thing still abode there; which she might the easier do by swimming if she chose her time heedfully, and go thither from Rock Eyot, which now and again she visited.
By this she was come back to the sandy bight, and the sun was westering; and she looked up toward the house and saw that it was the time of their evening meal, for the blue smoke of the cooking fire was going up into the air. So she went thither speedily, and entered gay of seeming. The witch looked on her doubtfully, but presently fell to speaking with her graciously as yesterday, and Birdalone was glad and easy of mind, and went about the serving of her; for always she ate after the dame; and the mistress asked her of many matters concerning the house, and the gathering of stuff.
So came the talk on the fishing of the brook that ran before their door, and how the trouts therein were but little, and not seldom none at all; and even therewith came these words into Birdalone’s mouth, she scarce knew how: My lady, why do we not fish the lake, whereas there be shoal places betwixt us and the eyots where lie many and great fish, as I have seen when I have been swimming thereover? And now in that same creek whereas the serpent used to lurk when I was little, we have a thing come, which is made to swim on the water; and I, could I have a long pole to shove withal.
But no time she had to make an end, ere the witch-wife sprang up and turned on her with a snarl as of an evil dog, and her face changed horribly: her teeth showed grinning, her eyes goggled in her head, her brow was all to-furrowed, and her hands clenched like iron springs.
Birdalone shuddered back from her and cringed in mere terror, but had no might to cry out. The witch hauled her up by the hair, and dragged her head back so that her throat lay bare before her all along. Then drew the witch a sharp knife from her girdle, and raised her hand over her, growling and snarling like a wolf. But suddenly she dropped the knife, her hand fell to her side, and she fell in a heap on the floor and lay there hushed.
Birdalone stood gazing on her, and trembling in every limb; too confused was she to think or do aught, though some image off light through the open door passed before her: but her feet seemed of lead, and, as in an evil dream, she had no might to move her limbs, and the minutes went by as she stood there half dead with fear.
At last, (and belike it was no long while) the witch-wife came to herself again, and sat up on the floor, and looked all about the chamber, and when her eyes fell upon Birdalone, she said in a weak voice, yet joyfully; Hah! thou art there still, my good servant! Then she said: A sickness fell upon me suddenly, as whiles it is wont; but now am I myself again; and presently I have a word for thee.
Therewith she rose up slowly, Birdalone helping her, and sat in her big chair silent awhile, and then she spake: My servant, thou hast for the more part served me well: but this time thou hast done ill, whereas thou hast been spying on my ways; whereof may come heavy trouble but if we look to it. Well is it for thee that thou hast none unto whom thou mightest babble; for then must I needs have slain thee here and now. But for this first time I pardon thee, and thou hast escaped the wrath.
Her voice was soft and wheedling; but for Birdalone the terror had entered into her soul, and yet abode with her.
The witch-wife sat a while, and then arose and went about the chamber, and came to a certain aumbry and opened it, and drew forth a little flasket of lead and a golden cup scored over with strange signs, and laid them on the board beside her chair, wherein she now sat down again, and spake once more, still in the same soft and wheedling voice: Yet, my servant, thy guilt would be required of me, if I let this pass as if today were the same as yesterday; yea, and of thee also would it be required; therefore it is a part of the pardon that thou be corrected: and the correction must be terrible to thee, that thou mayst remember never again to thrust thyself into the jaws of death. And what may I do to correct thee? It shall be in a strange way, such as thou hast never dreamed of. Yet the anguish thereof shall go to thine heart’s root; but this must thou needs bear, for my good and thine, so that both we may live and be merry hereafter. Go now, fill this cup with water from the spring and come back with it. Birdalone took the cup with a sinking heart, and filled it, and brought it back, and stood before the witch more dead than alive.
Then the witch-wife took up the flasket and pulled out the stopple and betook it to Birdalone, and said: Drink of this now, a little sip, no more. And the maiden did so, and the liquor was no sooner down her gullet than the witch-wife and the chamber, and all things about her, became somewhat dim to her; but yet not so much so as that she could not see them. But when she stretched out her arm she could see it not at all, nor her limbs nor any other part of her which her eyes might fall upon. Then would she have uttered a lamentable wail, but the voice was sealed up in her and no sound came from her voice. Then she heard the witch-wife how she said (and yet she heard it as if her voice came from afar), Nay, thou canst not speak, and thou canst not see thyself, nor may any other, save me, and I but dimly. But this is but part of what I must lay upon thee; for next I must give thee a new shape, and that both thyself and all other may see. But, before I do that, I must speak a word to thee, which thy new shape would not suffer the sense thereof to reach to thine heart. Hearken!
Said the witch-wife: When thou comest to thyself (for it is not my will that thou shouldest never have thine own shape again), doubtless the first thing which thou shalt do with thy new-gained voice and thy new-gained wit shall be to curse me, and curse me again. Do as thou wilt herein; but I charge thee, disobey me not, for that shall bring thee to thy bane. For if thou do not my bidding, and if thou pry into my matters, and lay bare that which I will have hidden, then will it be imputed unto thee for guilt, and will I, will I not, I must be avenged on thee even to slaying: and then is undone all the toil and pain I have had in rearing thee into a deft and lovely maiden. Deem thou, then, this present anguish kind to thee, to keep thee that thou come not to nought.
Now since I have begun speaking, I will go on; for little heretofore have I spoken to thee what was in mine heart. Well I wot that thou thinkest of me but as of an evil dream, whereof none can aught but long to awake from it. Yet I would have thee look to this at least; that I took thee from poverty and pinching, and have reared thee as faithfully as ever mother did to child; clemming thee never, smiting thee not so oft, and but seldom cruelly. Moreover, I have suffered thee to go whereso thou wouldest, and have compelled thee to toil for nought but what was needful for our two livelihoods. And I have not stayed thy swimmings in the lake, nor thy wanderings in the wood, and thou hast learned bowshot there, till thou art now a past-master in the craft: and, moreover, thou art swift-foot as the best of the deer, and mayest over-run any one of them whom thou wilt.
Soothly a merry life hast thou had as a child, and merry now would be thy life, save for thine hatred of me. Into a lovely lily-lass hast thou grown. That I tell thee now, though my wont has been to gird at thee for the fashion of thy body; that was but the word of the mistress to the thrall. And now what awaiteth thee? For thou mayst say: I am lonely here, and there is no man to look on me. Of what avail, therefore, is my goodliness and shapeliness? Child, I answer thee that the time is coming when thou shalt see here a many of the fairest of men, and then shalt thou be rather rose than lily, and fully come to womanhood; and all those shall love and worship thee, and thou mayst gladden whom thou wilt, and whom thou wilt mayst sadden; and no lack soever shalt thou have of the sweetness of love, or the glory of dominion.
Think of it then! All this is for thee if thou dwell here quietly with me, doing my will till thy womanhood hath blossomed. Wherefore I beseech and pray thee put out of thy mind the thought of fleeing from me. For if thou try it, one of two things shall be: either I shall bring thee back and slay thee, or make thee live in misery of torment; or else thou wilt escape, and then what will it be? Dost thou know how it shall go with thee, coming poor and nameless, an outcast, into the world of men? Lust shalt thou draw unto thee, but scarce love. I say an outcast shalt thou be, without worship or dominion; thy body shall be a prey to ribalds, and when the fine flower thereof hath faded, thou shalt find that the words of thy lovers were but mockery. That no man shall love thee, and no woman aid thee. Then shall Eld come to thee and find thee at home with Hell; and Death shall come and mock thee for thy life cast away for nought, for nought. This is my word to thee: and now I have nought to do to thee save to change thee thy skin, and therein must thou do as thou canst, but it shall be no ugly or evil shape at least. But another time maybe I shall not be so kind as to give thee a new shape, but shall let thee wander about seen by none but me. Then she took the cup and took water in the hollow of her hand and cast it into Birdalone’s face, and muttered words withal; and presently she saw herself indeed, that she was become a milk-white hind; and she heard and saw again, but not as she, the maiden, was wont to hear and see; for both her hearing and seeing and her thought was of a beast and not of a maiden.
Said the witch-wife: It is done now, till I give thee grace again; and now be off into the field; but if thou stray more than half a bowshot from the brook, it shall be the worse for thee. And now the day was done and night was come.
It was fifteen days thereafter that Birdalone awoke lying in her bed on a bright morning, as if all this had been but a dream. But the witch-wife was standing over her and crying out: Thou art late, slug-a-bed, this fair-weather day, and the grass all spoiling for lack of the scythe. Off! and down to the meadow with thee.
Birdalone waited not for more words, but sprang out of bed, and had her work-a-day raiment on in a twinkling, and stayed but to wash her in a pool of the brook, and then was amidst the tall grass with the swathe falling before her. As she worked she thought, and could scarce tell whether joy at her present deliverance, or terror of the witch-wife, were the greatest. Sore was her longing to go see her friend in the wood, but the haysel lasted more than a week, and when that was done, whether it were of set purpose or no, the dame forgat her other promise, to give Birdalone more holiday, and kept her close to her work about meadow and acre. Otherwise her mistress nowise mishandled or threatened her, though she had gone back to the surliness and railing which was her wont. At last, on a morning when the dame had bidden her to nought of work, Birdalone took her bow in her hand and cast her quiver on her back, and went her ways into the wood, and forgat not the tress of Habundia’s hair; but she had no need to use it, for when she was come to the Oak of Tryst, straightway came Habundia forth from the thicket, and now so like to Birdalone that it was a wonder, for as her friend she bare bow and quiver, and green gown trussed up till her knees were naked.
So they kissed and embraced, and Birdalone wept upon her friend’s bosom, but was ashamed of the words which would have told her of her case. Then Habundia set her down upon the greensward, and sat down beside her, and caressed her and soothed her; then she smiled on Birdalone, and said: Thy tale is partly told without words, and I would weep for thee if I might shed tears. But thou mayest tell me wherefore thou didst suffer this; though forsooth I have an inkling thereof. Hast thou happened on the witch’s ferry?
Even so it was, sister, quoth Birdalone. And therewith she plucked up heart, and told her all the tale of the vanishing of her body and the skin-changing. And Habundia answered: Well then, there is this to be said, that sooner or later this must have happened, for thereby lieth thy road of escape; wherefore it is better sooner than later. But tell me again: was she fierce and rough in words with thee? for what she said to thee thou hast not yet told me. Said Birdalone: In her first fury, when she was like to have slain me, she had no words, nought but wolfish cries. But thereafter she spake unto me strangely, yet neither fiercely nor roughly; nay, it seemed to me as if almost she loved me. And more than almost she besought me rather than commanded me not to flee from her. And wert thou beguiled by her soft speech? said Habundia. Nowise to cast aside my hope of escape, nay, not even in that hour, said Birdalone; but amidst all the confusion and terror somewhat was I moved to compassion on her.
Spake Habundia, looking anxiously on her: Dost thou deem that thou art somewhat cowed by what she hath done to thee? Said Birdalone, and flushed very red: Oh no, no! Nought save death or bonds shall come betwixt me and my utmost striving for escape. That is better than well, said Habundia; but again, canst thou have patience a little, and be wary and wise the while? So meseemeth, said the maiden. Said Habundia: Again it is well. Now is the summer beginning to wane, and by my rede thou shalt not try the flight until May is come again and well-nigh worn into June; for thou wilt be bigger then, little sister, and tidings are waxing that shall get matters ready for thy departure: moreover, thou must yet learn what thou hast to do meanwhile, and thereof shall I tell thee somewhat as now. For that boat, the thing which thou didst find, and for which thou didst suffer, is called the Sending Boat, and therein thy mistress fareth time and again, I deem to seek to some other of her kind, but I know not unto whom, or whereto. Hast thou noted of her that whiles she goeth away privily by night and cloud? Yea, verily, said Birdalone, and this is one of the things which heretofore hath made me most afraid. Said Habundia: Well now, that she wendeth somewhither in this ferry I wot; but as I wot not whither, so also I know not what she doth with the Sending Boat to make it obey her; whereas, though I know all things of the wood, I know but little of the lake. Wherefore, though there be peril to thee therein, follow her twice or thrice when she riseth up for this faring, and note closely what is her manner of dealing with the said Sending Boat, so that thou mayst do in like wise. Wilt thou risk the smart and the skin-changing, or even if it were the stroke of the knife, to gather this wisdom? And thereafter thou shalt come hither and tell me how thou hast sped. With a good heart will I, dear sister, said Birdalone.
Then Habundia kissed her and said: It is a joy to me to see thee so valiant, but herein may I help thee somewhat; here is a gold finger-ring, see thou! fashioned as a serpent holding his tail in his mouth; whenso thou goest on this quest, set thou this same ring on the middle finger of thy left hand, and say thou above thy breath at least:
To left and right, Before, behind, Of me be sight As of the wind!
And nought then shall be seen of thee even by one who standeth close beside. But wear not the ring openly save at such times, or let the witch have sight thereof ever, or she will know that thou hast met me. Dost thou understand, and canst thou remember?
Laughed Birdalone, and took the ring and set it on her finger, and spake aloud even as Habundia had given her the words. Then quoth Habundia, laughing: Now have I lost my friend and sister, for thou art gone, Birdalone. Take off the ring, sweetling, and get thee to thine hunting, for if thou come home empty-handed there will be flyting awaiting thee, or worse.
So Birdalone took off the ring and came back to sight again laughing; then the wood-woman kissed her and turned her heels to her, and was gone; but Birdalone strung her bow, and got to her woodcraft, and presently had a brace of hares, wherewith she went back home to the dame; who indeed girded at her for her sloth, and her little catch in so long a while; but there it ended.
Now were the days wearing toward wheat-harvest, and nought befel to tell of, save that on a morn the witch-wife called Birdalone to her, and said: Now is little to be done till the wheat is ready for the hook, and thy days are idle; or what is that word that fell from thee that other day, that there be good swims for fish about the eyots? Canst thou swim across bearing thine angle, and back again therewith, and thy catch withal? Yea, certes, said Birdalone gaily; with one hand I may swim gallantly, or with my legs alone, if I stir mine arms ever so little. I will go straightway if thou wilt, lady; but give me a length of twine so that I may tie my catch about my middle when I swim back again.
Therewith she went forth lightly to fetch her angle, which was in a shed without; but just as she took it in her hand, a sudden thought came to her, so wary as she was grown. She undid the bosom of her gown, and took forth her serpent-ring; for she bore it next to her skin, made fast to the bosom of her smock; but now she hid it carefully in the thickest of her brow-hair, which was very thick and soft. Withal the tress of Habundia’s hair she bore ever mingled with her own.
No sooner had she done it, but she was glad; for she heard the dame calling her, who, when she came to the house-door, spake and said: Now shall I fare with thee down to the water, and look to thy garments lest they be fouled by some straying beast. And therewith she looked curiously on Birdalone, and knit her brows when she saw that the maiden changed countenance in nowise.
Down to the water went they, and the witch sat down close to where Birdalone should take the water, and watched her do off her raiment, and eyed her keenly when she was bare, but said nought. Birdalone turned her head as she stood knee-deep, and said: How long shall I abide, lady, if I have luck? As long as thou wilt, said the dame: most like I shall be gone by then thou comest back, even if thou be away no long while.
Fell Birdalone to swimming then, and when she was more than half over, the witch, stirring no more than need was, got hold of her raiment, which was but the old grey coat over a smock, and ransacked it, but found nought, as well ye may wot. And when she had done, she sat down again in heavy mood as it seemed, and watched Birdalone swimming, and when she beheld her body come forth out of the water, and pass out of sight amongst the flowers of the eyot, she arose and went her ways home.
Birdalone looked through the willow-boughs, and saw her turn away; then she fared to her fishing with a smile, and soon had plenteous catch from under the willow-boughs. Then, whereas the day was very calm and fair, and the dame had given her holiday, she wandered about the eyot, and most in a little wood of berry-trees, as quicken and whitebeam and dog-wood, and sported with the birds, who feared her not, but came and sat on her shoulders, and crept about her feet. She went also and stood a while on the southern shore, and looked on the wide water dim in the offing under the hot-weather haze, and longed to be gone beyond it. Then she turned away, and to the other shore, and gat her fish and strung them on the string, and made them fast to her middle, and so took the water back again to the yellow strand, where now was no one awaiting her. But before she did on her garments, she looked on them, and saw that they lay not as she had left them, whereby she knew well that the witch-wife had handled them.
Amidst all this the day was wearing to an end, and again she saw the smoke of the cooking-fire going up into the air from the chimney of the house; and she smiled ruefully, thinking that the witch might yet find an occasion for ransacking her raiment. But she plucked up heart, and came home with her catch, and the dame met her with a glum face, and neither praised her nor blamed her, but took the fish silently. Such ending had that day.
After this she went once and again fishing on to Green Eyot by the bidding of the dame, who went not again to the shore with her. These times she had half a mind to go see the Sending Boat, but durst not, lest the thing itself might have life enough to tell of her.
And now was come the time of wheat-harvest, and Birdalone must wear her days swinking in the acre-land, clad but in smock and shoes; and the toil was hard, and browned her skin and hardened her hands, but it irked her not, for the witch let her work all alone, and it was holiday unto the maiden if her mistress were not anigh, despite those words which had somewhat touched her heart that other day.
But when wheat-getting was done, there was again rest for her body, and swimming withal and fishing from the eyot by the witch’s leave. And again by her own leave she went to seek Habundia in the wood, and spent a happy hour with her, and came back with a fawn which she had shot, and so but barely saved her skin from the twig-shower. Then yet again she went into the wood on the witch’s errand as well as her own, and was paid by her friend’s sweet converse, and by nought else save the grudging girding of her mistress.
But on a night when September was well in, and the sky was moonless and overcast, somewhat before midnight the dame came and hung over Birdalone as she lay abed, and watched to see if she waked; forsooth the witch’s coming had waked her; but even so she was wary, and lay still, nor changed her breathing. So the witch turned away, but even therewith Birdalone made a shift to get a glimpse of her, and this she saw thereby, that the semblance of her was changed, and that she bore the self-same skin wherewith she had come to Utterhay, and which she had worn twice or thrice afterwards when she had an errand thither.
The witch now glided swiftly to the door, and out into the night. Birdalone lay still a little, lest she should fall into a trap, and then arose very quietly and did on her smock, which lay ever under her pillow with the ring sewn thereto again, and so went out adoors also, and deemed she saw the witch some way on ahead; but it was nothing for her light feet to overtake her. So she stayed to take the ring from her smock, and set it on her finger; then in a low voice she said:
To left and right, Before, behind, Of me be sight As of the wind!
Then boldly she sped on, and was soon close on the heels of the witch, who made her way to the edge of the lake, and then turned east, and went even as Birdalone had gone when she came across the Sending Boat.
So fared the witch-wife straight to the creek-side, and Birdalone must needs stick close to her, or she had known nought, so black was the night amongst the alder-boughs. But the witch-wife fumbled about a while when she was stayed by the creek, and presently drew somewhat from under her cloak, and the maiden saw that she was about striking flint upon steel, and quaked somewhat, lest her charm had played her false. Presently the tinder quickened, and the dame had lighted a lantern, which she held up, peering all about; and full she looked on the place whereas was Birdalone, and made no show of seeing her, though well-nigh the maiden looked for it to see her drop the lantern and spring on her.
Now the witch, holding the lantern aloft, steps over the gunwale of the boat, and sits down on the thwart; and it was a near thing but that Birdalone followed her into the boat, but she feared the getting forth again, so she but hung over it as close as she might. Then she saw the witch draw out of her girdle that sharp little knife which Birdalone had seen raised against her own throat; and then the witch bared her arm, and pricked it till the blood sprang from that barren white skin; thereat she stood up, and went to the bows of the craft and hung over them, and drew her arm to and fro over the stem to bloody it; and went thereafter to the stern, and took blood into her right hand and passed it over the place of the steerage (for there was no rudder) and came back and sat down on the thwart again; and, so far as Birdalone might see, busied herself in staunching the little wound on her arm. Then deemed Birdalone that she knew what manner of paint was that which had made the rusty smears which she had seen on the boat by daylight.
But now as the witch sat there, a harsh voice began to stir in her throat, and then words came out of her, and she sang in a crow’s croak:
The red raven-wine now Hast thou drunk, stern and bow; Then wake and awake And the wonted way take! The way of the Wender forth over the flood, For the will of the Sender is blent with the blood.
Therewithal began the boat to stir, and anon it glided forth out of the creek into the waters of the lake, and the light of the lantern died, and it was but a minute ere Birdalone lost all sight of it. She abode a little longer, lest perchance boat and witch might come back on her hands, and then turned and went swiftly back again. She would have drawn off her ring straightway, but the thought came on her, that she had seen the witch depart in her second semblance; how if she were abiding her at home in her wonted skin? So she came to the house even as she was, and opened the door, and looked in, quaking; but there was no image of a child of Adam therein, and no living thing, save the cat drowsing before the fire; wherefore Birdalone took the ring from her finger and went to the hearth, and stirred up the cat with her foot till he arose and fell to rubbing himself against her legs, and she was fain of him.
Thereafter she made her ring fast to her smock again, and set the smock under her pillow as her wont was, and betook herself to bed, and fell asleep sweetly, leaving all troublous thoughts for the morrow; and that the more as she was free of the witch-wife for that night at least.
When morning was, Birdalone arose, and longed sore to go into the wood to seek Habundia again, but durst not, lest the witch-wife should come to hand again earlier than might be looked for. So she abode quiet and did what was toward near about the house. All that day the witch came not back, nor the next; but the morrow thereafter, when Birdalone arose, she found the wonted aspect of her mistress in the wonted place, who, when she saw the maiden, greeted her, and was somewhat blithe with her; and Birdalone would have asked her leave to go to the wood, but she trusted little in her unwonted soft mood; which yet lasted so long that on the third day she herself bade Birdalone go take her pleasure in the wood, and bear back with her what of venison she might.
Forthwith went Birdalone as glad as might be, and met her friend at the Oak of Tryst, and told her closely how all had betid; and Habundia said: Here, then, thou hast learned how to sail the lake. But hast thou learned enough to try the adventure and not to fail? Even so I deem, said Birdalone; but this I would say, that meseemeth it better that I follow the witch down to the boat one more time at least; for this first time it was dark; and moreover shall I not be surer of the spell if I hear it said oftener, lest it be not ever the same words? What sayest thou? She said: Thou art right herein, and, since the adventure may not be tried till next June is at hand, there is time enough and to spare. And now for this hour that is we need talk no more of it. Only, my sweet, I beseech thee be wary; and above all suffer not the witch-wife to set eye or hand on the ring. Truly mine heart oft aches sorely for thy peril; for therein the image of thee abideth rather as of my daughter than my friend. Yea, now thou laughest, but kindly, so that the sound of thy laughter is as sweet music. But know that though thou art but a young maiden, and I in all wise like unto thee of aspect, yet have I dwelt many and many a year upon the earth, and much wisdom have learned. Trowest thou me?
Yea, yea, said Birdalone, with all my heart. Then she hung her head a while and kept silence, and thereafter looked up and spake: I would ask thee a thing and crave somewhat of thee, as if thou wert verily my mother; wilt thou grant it me? Yea, surely, child, said Habundia. Said Birdalone: This it is then, that thou wilt learn me of thy wisdom. Habundia smiled full kindly on her, and said: This of all things I would have had thee ask; and this day and now shall we begin to open the book of the earth before thee. For therein is mine heritage and my dominion. Sit by me, child, and hearken!
So the maiden sat down by her likeness under the oak, and began to learn her lesson. Forsooth forgotten is the wisdom, though the tale of its learning abideth, wherefore nought may we tell thereof.
When it was done, Birdalone kissed her wood-mother and said: This is now the best day of my life, this and the day when first I saw thee. I will come hither now many times before the day of my departure. Yea, but, sweet child, said Habundia, beware of the witch and her cruelty; I fear me she shall yet be grim toward thee. So will I be wary, said Birdalone, but I will venture some little peril of pain but if thou forbid me, mother. And I pray thee by thy love to forbid me not. And this I pray thee the more, because after one of these grim times then mostly doth she meddle the less with me for a while, wherefore I shall be the freer to come hither. Habundia kissed her and embraced her, and said: Valiant art thou for a young maiden, my child, and I would not refrain thee more than a father would refrain his young son from the strokes of the tilt-yard. But I pray thee to forget not my love, and my sorrow for thy grief.
Therewith they sundered, and it was drawing toward evening. Birdalone sought catch, and brought home venison to the dame, who was yet blithe with her, and spake that evening as she eyed her: I cannot tell how it is, but thou seemest changed unto me, and lookest more towards thy womanhood than even yesterday. I mean the face of thee, for wert thou stripped, lean enough I should see thee, doubtless. But now look to it, I beseech thee, to be both deft and obedient, so that I may be as kind to thee as I would be, and kinder than I have been heretofore.
Wore the days now, till on a night of October, toward the end thereof, the witch went a-night-tide to the Sending Boat, and Birdalone followed her as erst. This time the night was wild and windy, but the moon was high aloft and big, and all cloud save a few flecks was blown from off the heavens; so that the night was as light as could be; and even at the tree-hung creek it was easy to see all that was done. And so it was that the witch did and spake in all wise as she did before.
Another time, when November was well-nigh out, the dame arose for her lake-faring; but this night the snow lay deep betwixt house and water, and Birdalone thought that it would scarce do to follow. Forsooth she knew not whether her feet would the less leave their print in the snow because they were not to be seen. When she asked Habundia thereof, she laughed and said: Once more thou hast been wise, my child, for though it had been no harder to put this might into thy ring, that whoso wore it should not touch the ground, yet it hath not been done.
It must be told, that in this while Birdalone went oft to the Trysting Tree, and called on her mother (as now she called her) to come to her, and ever more and more of wisdom she won thereby. Though the witch was oft surly with her, and spared not her girding, yet, the needful work done, she meddled little with her. But on a day she straightly banned her the wood, and Birdalone went notwithstanding, and when she was there with the wood-mother nought she told her thereof, but was blithe and merry beyond her wont. She came back home thereafter empty handed, and stepped into the chamber proudly and with bright eyes and flushed cheeks, though she looked for nought save chastisement; yea, it might be even the skin-changing. Forsooth the witch was sitting crouched in her chair with her hands on the elbows and her head thrust forward, like a wild beast at point to spring; but when her eye fell on Birdalone, she faltered and drew back into herself again, and muttered somewhat unheard; but to Birdalone spake nought of good or bad.
Now was winter-tide upon them, when there was nought to do in field and acre, and but a little in the byre. In years bygone, and even in the last one, the witch had not spared Birdalone toil any the more, but had made errands for her amidst the snow and biting winds, or over the lake when it was laid with ice. But now she bade her to nought save what she had a will to; whereby she lost but little, whereas Birdalone was well willing to strive against wind and weather and the roughness of the winter earth, and overcome if she might, so that all were well done that had to be done about the stead.
Still did the witch give her hard words and rail at her for the most part, but from the teeth outward only, and because she was wont thereto. Inwardly indeed she began to fear Birdalone, and deemed that she would one day have the mastery; and this led her into fierce and restless moods; so that she would sit staring at the maiden’s beauty handling her knife withal, and scarce able to forbear her. And in such a mood she once made occasion to chastise her as her wont had been erst, and looked to see Birdalone rebel against her; but it fell out otherwise, for Birdalone submitted herself to her meekly and with a cheerful countenance. And this also was a terror to the witch, who deemed, as indeed it was, that the purpose was growing in her thrall. So from that time she meddled with her no more. All this while, as may be thought, Birdalone went yet oftener to the Oak of Tryst, despite frost and snow and wind, and gat much lore of her wood-mother, and learned wisdom abundantly. And her days were happy.
Now was the winter gone and the spring-tide come again, and with the blossoming of the earth blossomed Birdalone also. Nought sweeter of flesh might she be than erst, but there was now a new majesty grown into her beauty; her limbs were rounded, her body fulfilled, her skin sleeked and whitened; and if any mother’s son had beheld her feet as they trod the meadow besprinkled with saffron and daffodil, ill had it gone with him were he gainsaid the kisses of them, though for the kissing had he fared the worse belike.
That spring-tide, amidst of April, she followed the witch-wife down to the Sending Boat for the third time; and there went everything as erst, and she deemed now that the lesson was well learned, and that she was well-nigh as wise as the witch herself therein.
But the day after she went about somewhat pensive, as though a troublous thought were on her; and when, three days thereafter, she met the wood-mother, she spake to her even as they parted, and said: Mother, much wisdom hast thou learned me, and now this at the last withal, that hitherto there has been shame in my life; and now fain were I to be done with it. Fair child, said Habundia, little is the shame though this woman hath had the upper hand of thee and hath used thee cruelly: how mightest thou, a child, strive with her? But now I see and know that there is an end of that; that she feareth thee now, and will never again raise a hand against thee save thou fall wholly into her power; as thou shalt not, my child. Be comforted then for what is gone by! Nay, mother, said Birdalone, it is not that which troubleth me; for, as thou sayest, what else might I do? But thy wisdom which thou hast set in my heart hath learned me that for these last months I have been meeting guile with guile and lies with lies. And now will I do so no more, lest I become a guileful woman, with nought good in me save the fairness of my body. Wherefore hearken, sweet mother! What is done, is done; but when it cometh to the day, which is speedily drawing nigh, that I must part from thee, it may be for a long while, then will I not fare to the Sending Boat by night and cloud and with hidden head, but will walk thither in broad day, and let that befall which must befall.
Changed then Habundia’s face and became haggard and woeful, and she cried out: O if I could but weep, as ye children of Adam! O my grief and sorrow! Child, child! then will betide that falling into her hands which I spake of e’en now; and then shall this wretch, this servant of evil, assuredly slay thee there and then, or will keep thee to torment thee till thy life be but a slow death. Nay, nay, do as I should do, and fare with hidden head, and my ring on thy finger. Or else, O child, how wilt thou hurt me!
Birdalone wept; but presently she fell to caressing the mother’s hand, and said: This is thy doing, wherein thou hast made me wise. Yet fear not: for I deem that the witch-wife will not slay me, whereas she looketh to have some gain of me; moreover, in the evil of her heart is mingled some love toward me, whereof, as erst I told thee, I have a morsel of compassion. Mother, she will not slay me; and I say that she shall not torment me, for I will compel her to slay me else. It is my mind that she will let me go. Said the mother: Yea, mayhappen, yet but as a bird with a string to its leg. If it be so, said Birdalone, then let my luck prevail over her guile; as well it may be, since I have known thee, O wise mother!
The wood-wife hung her head and spake nought for a while; then she said: I see that thou wilt have it so, and that there is something in thine heart which we, who are not children of Adam, may not understand; yet once wert thou more like unto us. Now all I may say is, that thou must rule in this matter, and that I am sad.
Then she looked down again and presently raised a brighter face, and said: Belike all shall be better than I thought. Then she kissed Birdalone and they parted for that time.
Now April was gone, and May was come with the thorn a-blossoming, and there was Birdalone waxing still in loveliness. And now the witch had left all girding at her even, and spake to her but little, save when she needs must. But to Birdalone it seemed that she watched her exceeding closely.
Birdalone went oft to the wood, and learned yet more of lore: but of the matter of the Departure, how it was to be gone about they spake no more, and great was the love betwixt them.
At last when May was worn nigh to June came Birdalone to the Oak of Tryst, and found the wood-mother there; and when they had talked a while, but ever from the teeth out, spake Habundia: Though thou be now the wiser of us two maybe, yet have I wisdom to wot that this is the hour of our sundering, and that tomorrow thou wilt try the adventure of the Sending Boat: is it not so? Yea, mother, said Birdalone; I bid thee farewell now: woe is me therefor! Said Habundia: And thou wilt deliver thyself into the hands of the witch, wilt thou, as thou saidst that other day? Quoth Birdalone: Is it not wisdom, dear mother, if I trust in my goodhap? Alas, said the mother, it may be so when all is said. But O my sad heart! and how I fear for thee!
My mother, my mother! said Birdalone, that I should make the days grievous unto thee! and thou who hast made my days so joyous! But now canst thou not say of thy wisdom that we shall meet again?
The wood-woman sat down, and let her head fall over her knees, and was silent a long while; then she rose up and stood before Birdalone, and said: Yea, we shall meet again, howsoever it may be. Let us depart with that sweet word in the air between us. Yet first thou shalt give me a tress of thine hair, as I did to thee when first we met; for by means of it may I know tomorrow how thou hast sped.
Even so did Birdalone, and this was the end of their talk, save broken words of lamentation as they said farewell. And therewith for that while they sundered.
Birdalone woke up in the morning, and arose and clad herself, and she saw not the witch-wife in the chamber, though her bed looked as if it had been slept in. Birdalone accounted little thereof, whereas the dame would oft go on one errand or another much betimes in the morning. Yet was she somewhat glad, for she was nowise wishful for a wrangle with her. Withal, despite her valiancy, as may well be thought, she was all a-flutter with hopes and fears, and must needs refrain her body from overmuch quaking and restlessness if she might.
Now she mingled the tress of the wood-mother’s hair with her own hair, but deemed it nought perilous to leave the ring yet sewn to her smock: she set some deal of bread and flesh in her scrip, lest her voyage should be long, and then all simply stepped over the threshold of the House of her Captivity.
She went straight to the strand aforesaid, seeing nought of the witch-wife by the way; and when she came there, was about to turn straightway to her left hand down to the creek, when it came into her mind that she would first swim over to Green Eyot for this last of times. For the eyot indeed she loved, and deemed it her own, since never had her evil dream, the witch, set foot thereon. Moreover, she said to herself that the cool lake would allay the fever of her blood, and make her flesh firmer and less timorous for the adventure. And again, that if the witch should see her from afar, as she could scarce fail to do, she would deem the maiden was about her wonted morning swimming, and would be the less like to spy on her.
So now, when she had let her garments slip from off her on to the sand close to the water’s edge, she stood a while, with her feet scarce covered by the little ripple of the bight, to be a token of safety to her mistress. To say sooth, now it was come so nigh to the deed, she shrank aback a little, and was fain to dally with the time, and, if it might be, thrust something of no import betwixt her and the terror of the last moment.
Now she took the water, and rowed strongly with her lovely limbs till she came to the eyot, and there she went aland, and visited every place which had been kind to her; and kissed the trees and flowers that had solaced her, and once more drew the birds and rabbits to sport with her; till suddenly it came into her head that the time was wearing overfast. Then she ran down to the water and plunged in, and swam over to the strand as fast as she might, and came aland there, thinking of nothing less than what had befallen.
For lo! when she looked around for her raiment and her scrip, it was nowhere to be seen; straightway then it came into her mind, as in one flash, that this was the witch’s work; that she had divined this deed of the flight, and had watched her, and taken the occasion of her nakedness and absence that she might draw her back to the House of Captivity. And this the more as the precious ring was sewn to Birdalone’s smock, and the witch would have found it there when she handled the raiment.
Birdalone wasted no time in seeking for the lost; she looked down on to the smooth sand, and saw there footprints which were not her own, and all those went straight back home to the house. Then she turned, and for one moment of time looked up toward the house, and saw plainly the witch come out adoors, and the sun flashed from something bright in her hand.
Then indeed she made no stay, but set off running at her swiftest along the water-side toward the creek and the Sending Boat. As is aforesaid she was as fleet-foot as a deer, so but in a little space of time she had come to the creek, and leapt into the boat, panting and breathless. She turned and looked hastily along the path her feet had just worn, and deemed she saw a fluttering and flashing coming along it, but some way off; yet was not sure, for her eyes were dizzy with the swiftness of her flight and the hot sun and the hurry of her heart. Then she looked about a moment confusedly, for she called to mind that in her nakedness she had neither knife, nor scissors, nor bodkin to let her blood withal. But even therewith close to hand she saw hanging down a stem of half-dead briar-rose with big thorns upon it; she hastily tore off a length thereof and scratched her left arm till the blood flowed, and stepped lightly first to stem and then to stern, and besmeared them therewith. Then she sat down on the thwart and cried aloud:
The red raven-wine now Hast thou drunk, stern and bow; Then wake and awake And the wonted way take! The way of the Wender forth over the flood, For the will of the Sender is blent with the blood.
Scarce had she time to wonder if the boat would obey her spell ere it began to stir beneath her, and then glided out into the lake and took its way over the summer ripple, going betwixt Green Eyot and the mainland, as if to weather the western ness of the eyot: and it went not a stonecast from the shore of the said mainland.
Hither to meet it now cometh the witch, running along the bank, her skirts flying wild about her, and a heavy short-sword gleaming in her hand. Her furious running she stayed over against the boat, and cried out in a voice broken for lack of breath:
Back over the flood To the house by the wood! Back unto thy rest In the alder nest! For the blood of the Sender lies warm on thy bow, And the heart of the Wender is weary as now.
But she saw that the Sending Boat heeded her words nothing, whereas it was not her blood that had awakened it, but Birdalone’s. Then cried out the witch: O child, child! say the spell and come back to me! to me, who have reared thee and loved thee and hoped in thee! O come back!
But how should Birdalone heed her prayer? She saw the sax; and withal had her heart forgotten, her flesh might well remember. She sat still, nor so much as turned her head toward the witch-wife.
Then came wild yelling words from the witch’s mouth, and she cried: Go then, naked and outcast! Go then, naked fool! and come back hither after thou hast been under the hands of the pitiless! Ah, it had been better for thee had I slain thee! And therewith she whirled the sax over her head and cast it at Birdalone. But now had the boat turned its head toward the ness of Green Eyot and was swiftly departing, so that Birdalone but half heard the last words of the witch-wife, and the sax fell flashing into the water far astern.
There the witch stood tossing her arms and screaming, wordless; but no more of her saw Birdalone, for the boat came round about the ness of Green Eyot, and there lay the Great Water under the summer heavens all wide and landless before her. And it was now noon of day.
Here ends the First Part of the Water of the Wondrous Isles, which is called Of the House of Captivity. And now begins the Second Part, which is called Of the Wondrous Isles.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11