So glided Birdalone over the lake and was come forth from the House of Captivity; it might well be that she was but swimming unto death; naked as she was, fireless, foodless, and helpless, at the mercy of mere sorcery. Yet she called to mind the word of the wood-mother that they should meet again, and took heart thereby; and she was glad in that she had had her will, and shaken off the guile and thraldom of the witch. Much she thought of the wood-mother, and loved her, and wondered had she yet sought into and seen her welfare by the burning of a hair of that tress of hers; and therewith she looked on that tress of Habundia’s hair and kissed it.
All day the Sending Boat sped on, and she saw no land and nought to tell of. It was but wave and sky and the familiar fowl of the lake, as coot, and mallard, and heron, and now and then a swift wood-dove going her ways from shore to shore; two gerfalcons she saw also, an osprey, and a great ern on his errand high up aloft.
Birdalone waked in her loneliness till the day was spent, and somewhat worn of the night; then she fell asleep for weariness; but so it was, that before dusk she had deemed that a blue cloud lay before her in the offing which moved not.
She slept the short night through, and was awakened by the boat smiting against something, and when her eyes opened she saw that she was come aland and that the sun was just risen. She stood up, and for the first minute wondered where she was, and she beheld her nakedness and knew not what it meant; then she loosened her hair, and shook its abundance all about her, and thereafter she turned her eyes on this new land and saw that it was fair and goodly. The flowery grass came down to the very water, and first was a fair meadow-land besprinkled with big ancient trees; thence arose slopes of vineyard, and orchard and garden; and, looking down on all, was a great White House, carven and glorious. A little air of wind had awakened with the sunrise, and bore the garden sweetness down to her; and warm it was after the chill of the wide water. No other land could she see when she looked lakeward thence.
She stepped ashore, and stood ankle-deep in the sweet grass, and looked about her for a while, and saw no shape of man astir. She was yet weary, and stiff with abiding so long amongst the hard ribs of the boat, so she laid herself down on the grass, and its softness solaced her; and presently she fell asleep again.
When she next awoke, the sun was not yet high, and the morning young, yet she stood upon her feet much refreshed by that short slumber. She turned toward the hill and the gay house, and saw one coming over the meadow to her, a woman to wit, in a shining golden gown, and as she drew nigh Birdalone could see that she was young and fair, tall, white-skinned and hazel-eyed, with long red hair dancing all about her as she tripped lightly and merrily over the greensward.
Now she comes up to Birdalone with wonder in her eyes, and greets her kindly, and asked her of her name, and Birdalone told it all simply; and the new-comer said: What errand hast thou hither, that thou art come thus naked and alone in this ill-omened ferry? Birdalone trembled at her words, though she spake kindly to her, and she said: It is a long story, but fate drave me thereto, and misery, and I knew not whither I was bound. But is there no welcome for me in this lovely land? I lack not deftness wholly; and I will be a servant of servants, and ask no better if it must be so. Said the new-comer: Unto that mayst thou come, but sore will be thy servitude. I fear me thy welcome here may be but evil. Said Birdalone: Wilt thou not tell me how so? Quoth that lady: We know thy ferry here, that it is the craft wherein cometh hither now and again the sister of our lady the Queen, into whose realm thou art now come, and who liveth up in the white palace yonder, and whom we serve. And meseems thou wilt not have come hither by her leave, or thou wouldst be in other guise than this; so that belike thou wilt be the runaway of thy mistress. Wherefore I fear that thou wilt be sent back to thy said mistress after a while, and that that while will be grievous to thee, body and soul.
Birdalone’s heart sank, and she was pale and trembling; but she said: O dear lady, might I then depart as I have come hither, without the wotting of this Queen! after thou hast given me a morsel of bread, for I am hungry. Said the gold-clad one, looking on her pitifully: Nay, maiden, I cannot choose but bring thee before our mistress, whereas most like she hath already seen thee from above there. For she is far-sighted beyond the wont of folk who be more manlike. But as for the bread, see thou! I have brought a manchet in my pouch, and cheese withal, as I came hurrying; for I thought, she will be hungry. And she reached the victual out to her. And Birdalone took it and kissed the golden lady’s hands, and she might not refrain her tears, but wept as she ate.
Meanwhile the golden lady spake unto her and said: Nevertheless, thou poor maiden, somewhat may be done for thine helping, and I will presently speak to my sisters thereon, who are, both of them, wiser than I. Sisters by blood are we not, but by love and fellowship. And I doubt not but that as we go up into the house we shall happen upon them in the garden. But now I look upon thee, how fair a woman art thou!
Thou art kind and friendly, said Birdalone, smiling amidst of her tears, might I know by what name to call so dear a woman? Thou shalt call me Aurea, said the other; and my next sister is Viridis, and the third, Atra; for that is according to the hues of our raiment, and other names we have not now. And lo! here cometh Viridis over the meadow.
Birdalone looked, and saw a woman coming toward them clad all in green, with a rose-wreath on her head. And she drew nigh, and greeted Birdalone kindly, and she also was a very beauteous woman; not great of body, whereas Aurea was tall and big-made, though excellently shapen. Light brown and goodly waved of hair was Viridis, her eyes brown, and rather long than great; her lips full and ruddy, her cheeks soft and sweet and smooth, and as rosy-tinted pearl; her hands small and delicate of fashion; her whole body soft-shapen as an egg; a kind, wheedling look her face bore.
When she had looked a while on Birdalone, she kissed her, and said: I would thou wert happier, for thou art beauteous, and all but the evil must love thee. Therewith she drew a cate from her pouch, and said: Eat somewhat, for thou wilt be hungry; and let us go meet our other sister, who is wiser than we.
So they went, all three of them, and came from off the meadow on to the garden-slopes, and at the entry thereof was come Atra to meet them; she was clad all in black, a tall, slim woman, with the grace of the willow-bough in the wind, with dark plenteous hair and grey hawk-eyes; her skin privet-white, with but little red in her cheeks. She also greeted Birdalone kindly, but sadly withal. She gave her strawberries to eat laid on a big kale-blade; and she said: Sisters, here are we hidden by the trees, and cannot be seen from the house; therefore we may sit here for a minute or two, while we talk together as to what may perchance be done for the helping of this unhappy maiden, who is so fair and lovely, and hath strayed into so ugly a trap. Then she said to Birdalone: Thou must know, poor wanderer, that this Queen, our mistress, who is sister to the Witch Under the Wood, is big and strong, well-made, and white-skinned, so that she deems herself a Queen of all beauty: keen-eyed is she to see a fly where others would see nought smaller than a coney; fine-eared withal; wise in wizardry; not altogether dull-witted, though she be proud, and crueller than the cruellest. But herein she faileth, that her memory is of the shortest for matters of the passing hour, albeit she remembers her spells and witch-songs over well. But other matters will scarce abide in her head for four and twenty hours. Wherefore, sisters, if we may keep this maiden out of her sight (after she hath seen her and given doom upon her) till the dead of tomorrow night, we may perchance do some good for her; and it is in my mind that then she may do good for us also.
Now they rejoiced in this word of Atra the wise; and Atra prayed Birdalone to tell them somewhat more of her story; and she told them much; but, whyso it were, she said nought concerning the wood-wife, whose outward semblance was the same as hers. Then they pitied her, and caressed her; but Atra said: We must tarry here no more, but go straight up to the lady, or maybe we shall lose all.
So they went their ways and came into the pleasance, and trod the sweet greensward betwixt the garland flowers and the beauteous trees; which now indeed, though Birdalone saw them all clear and over-clear, were become nought to her. Those three also spake gently to her, and now and then asked her somewhat, as if to show her that she was one of themselves; but she spake not, or answered at random, and to say sooth scarce heard their words: forsooth she was now become heart-sick, and was half dead for fear; and her nakedness, which would have troubled her little across the water, was now grown a shame and a terror unto her, and every deal of her body quivered with the anguish thereof.
So came they at last to the very house, and whereas it stood high on the bent, a great stair or perron of stone went up to it, and was of much majesty. They went through the porch, which was pillared and lovely, and into a great hall most nobly builded, and at the other end thereof, on a golden throne raised upon a dais, sat a big woman clad in red scarlet. The three damsels led Birdalone to some four paces of the great lady, and then stood away from her, and left her standing there alone, the scarlet-clad woman before her; on the right and the left the tall pillars going up gleaming toward the roof, and about her feet the dark polished pavement, with the wallowing of strange beasts and great serpents and dragons all done on the coal-blue ground.
When she was so left alone, at first she tottered, and went nigh to falling; but then came back some little heart to her, as she said to herself that now she should verily die once for all, and that no long while would be the passing from life into death. She looked up and beheld the lady-witch, that she was somewhat like to her sister, white-skinned and of plenteous golden-hair as was she, but younger of aspect, and nowise so ill-looked as that other had now become; for somewhat well-shapen of body she was; but her face forbidding; her lower lip thrust out, her cheeks flaggy and drooping, her eyes little more than half open; to be short, a face both proud, foolish, and cruel; terrible indeed, sitting in judgment in that place on a shrinking naked creature.
Now she spake; and if there were no majesty or solemnity in the voice, there was ugly glee and malice therein; but she said to those damsels: Is this the woman that my keen eyes beheld come aland from my sister’s Sending Boat e’en now? Aurea knelt on one knee, and said: Yea, so please you, my lady.
Then said the witch: Ho thou! Wilt thou plead some errand hither from my sister? Dost thou deem me so witless as not to know that if she had sent thee hither thou wouldst not have come in this plight? Nay, I know; thou hast stolen thyself from her: thou art a thief, and as a thief shalt thou be dealt with.
Spake Birdalone in a clear voice: No errand do I feign from thy sister, lady: when I could bear my life there no longer, I took occasion to flee from her: this is all the tale. Yet once and again it hath been in my mind that it was thy sister who stole me from them that loved me.
Hah, thrall! said the lady, thou art bold; thou art over-bold, thou naked wretch, to bandy words with me. What heed I thy tale now thou art under my hand? Her voice was cold rather than fierce, yet was there the poison of malice therein. But Birdalone spake: If I be bold, lady, it is because I see that I have come into the House of Death. The dying may well be bold.
The House of Death! cried the stupid lady; and wilt thou call my noble house the House of Death? Now art thou no longer bold, stripped thrall, but impudent.
Scorn rose into Birdalone’s heart at this word, but she refrained her, and spake: I meant that I have stirred the wrath in thee, and that thou wilt slay me therefor; and that it availeth not to crave mercy of thee.
Laughed the lady: Thou art a fool, thrall, said she; if a sparrow fled hither from my sister, I should not wring its neck, but keep it for her. So shall I do with thee. I shall not slay thee, and so destroy my sister’s chattel; nor shall I spoil thee, and spoil her possession. I shall send thee back unto her, the stolen thrall in the stolen boat, when I have learned thee a lesson here. Forsooth it was for that cause meseemeth that she let thee slip through her fingers, for she is wise enough to have stayed thee from this holiday had she willed it. But she is tender-hearted, and kind, and soft, and might well deem that if thy chastisement were done to her hand here, it were better done than by her mercy. Now, thrall, I have spoken enough to thee, or more than enough: get thee back out of earshot!
Birdalone did as she was bidden, and the witch called unto her Atra, who came and stood humbly on the footpace beside her, and held converse with her mistress a while. Then she went backward from her a little, and then came to Birdalone, and in a somewhat harsh voice bade her come with her. Birdalone followed her, quaking, and they came out of the hall and into a long passage, which led to a wide stair winding round a newel; and all was builded exceeding fair, had Birdalone’s heart suffered her eyes to see it; but her flesh was weak, and quaked before the torment to come, so that her knees well-nigh failed her.
But now Atra lays a hand kindly on her shoulder and stays her, and says: Now meseems the walls of the Wailing-Tower, for so it hight, have no ears to hear, and we may talk together. Wottest thou why I have brought thee hither? Said Birdalone in a faint voice: Hast thou been bidden to whip me? And if I had been so bidden, dear maiden, said Atra laughing, nowise would I do it. Hold up thine heart! For all hath gone well so far, and now meseems betwixt us three we shall save thee.
Birdalone’s spirit came back to her at that word, and she put her hands to her face and fell a-weeping. But Atra was kind to her and made much of her; and she kissed her and wiped her tears, and Birdalone smiled again amidst her sobs, and she thanked Atra; who said to her: First of all I must tell thee that I am taking thee to prison by the witch’s bidding. Yea, said Birdalone, and what is prison? Said Atra: A prison is a grim place where poor folk who have done that which pleaseth not rich folk are shut up, that they may be grieved and tormented by not being able to fare abroad, or go where they would; and by suffering whatsoever their masters may lay upon them, as darkness, and cold, and hunger, and stripes. Somewhat so, or worse, our lady would have it for thee; but so would not we. Therefore for thee shall this prison be a place where thou shalt be safe till we may bring thee forth when the night hath worn towards its ending. For she will have forgotten thee by tomorrow; and this she knoweth; wherefore just now, when thou stoodest out of earshot, she was bidding me, amongst other matters, to bring thee before her tomorrow morning, and tell her the tale of thee, that she might call it to mind then what she had will to this morning.
Yea, said Birdalone, but will she not remember that she hath given thee a charge concerning me? But little thereof, said Atra, and with a few words I may easily confuse her memory so that speech thereon will fail her. Keep up thine heart, sweetling; but let us up this stair now forthwith, for I were fain to have thee hid away in this prison, and then will I down to her and tell her that thou art lying therein in all misery and terror, lest it come into her head to send for thee ere her memory is grown dim.
Again did Birdalone take heart, and they hastened a long way up the stair, till Atra stayed at last at a door all done with iron, endlong and over-thwart. Then she took a leash of keys from her girdle, one big and two little, and set the big one in the lock and turned it, and shoved the heavy door and entered thereby a chamber four-square and vaulted; and the vault was upheld by a pillar of red marble, wherein, somewhat higher than a man’s head, were set stanchions of latten, that could be clasped and unclasped. This chamber was in a way goodly, but yet grim to look on; for the walls were all of black ashlar stone close-jointed, and the floor black also, but of marble polished so wholly that it was as dark water, and gave back the image of Birdalone’s dear feet and legs as she went thereon. The windows were not small, and the chamber was light in every corner because of them, but they were so high up under the vaulting that none might see thereout aught save the heavens. There was nought in the chamber save a narrow bench of oak and three stools of the same, a great and stately carven chair dight with cushions of purple and gold, and in one corner a big oaken coffer.
Now spake Atra: This is our lady’s prison, and I fear me we cannot make it soft for thee, dear stranger. Yea, I must tell thee (and she reddened therewith) that it is part of my charge to set thee in irons. Birdalone smiled on her, and was over weary to ask what that meant, though she knew not. But Atra went to the big coffer and opened it and thrust in her hands, and there was a jangling therewith, and when she turned about to Birdalone again she had iron chains in her hands, and she said: This shameth me, dear friend; yet if thou wouldst wear them it might be well, for she may have a mind to go visit her prison, and if she find thee there unshackled she shall be wroth, and oftenest her wrath hath a whip in its hand. And these are the lightest that I might find.
Birdalone smiled again, and spake not, for she was very weary, and Atra did the irons on her wrists and her ankles; and said thereafter: Yet bear in mind that it is a friend that hath the key of these things. And now I will go away for a little, but I shall be on thine errands; for first I shall tell the mistress that thou art lying here shackled and in all wanhope; and next, by the will and command of her, I am to see that thou be well fed and nourished today that thou mayst be the stronger for tomorrow. Now if I may give thee rede, it is that thou forbear to open the coffer yonder; for ugly things shalt thou find there, and that may dishearten thee again.
Therewith she kissed her kindly on the cheek and went her ways, and the great key turned in the lock behind her.
There then was Birdalone left to herself; and she was over weary even to weep; true it is that she made a step or two towards the coffer, but reframed her, and took two of the pillows from the great chair and turned aside into the other corner, her chains jingling as she went. There she laid herself down, and nestled into the very wall-nook, and presently fell asleep, and slumbered dreamlessly and sweetly a long while.
Birdalone was awakened by the sound of the key in the lock, and the door opened, and there was Atra bearing dishes and platters, and behind her Viridis with the like gear, and beakers and a flagon to boot, and both they were smiling and merry.
Birdalone’s heart leapt up to meet them, and in especial was she gladdened by the coming of Viridis, who had seemed to be the kindest of them all.
Viridis spake: Now is come the meat for the dear sister, and it is time, for surely thou art famished, and it is now long past high noon. Do off her irons, Atra. Said Atra: Maybe it were well to let the fetters abide on her ankles, lest the mistress should come; but for the wrists, reach out thine hands, wayfarer. So did Birdalone, and Atra laid her things on the ground, and unlocked the hand-shackles, and did them off: and meanwhile Viridis spread forth the banquet, partly on the floor, and partly on that ill-omened coffer. Then she went up to Birdalone and kissed her, and said: Now shalt thou sit in our lady’s throne, and we shall serve thee, and thou shalt deem thee a great one.
Nought else would they have, and Birdalone laid her nakedness on the purple cushions, and then they fell all three to the feast. The victual was both plenteous and dainty, of venison and fowl, and cream and fruits and sweetmeats, and good wine they had withal: never had Birdalone feasted in like manner, and the heart came back unto her, and her cheeks grew rosy and her eyes glittered. But she said: How if your lady were to come upon us here, and we so merry? Said Atra: Out of the chair must thou when thou hearest the key in the lock, and then is all well, and she would have nought against us; for she herself bade us, and me in special, to keep thee company here, and talk with thee; and Aurea also would have been here, but that she is serving the lady as now. Hath she then some pity on me, said Birdalone, that she hath bidden thee do by me what is most to my pleasure?
Laughed Viridis thereat, and Atra said: She hath no pity, nor ever shall have; but so hard of heart is she, that she may not deem that we could love thee, a stranger, and unhappy, who can serve us in nowise; so she feareth not the abatement of thy grief from any compassion of us. Rather she hath sent us, and me in especial, not to comfort thee, but to grieve thee by words; for she biddeth me tell thee fair tales, forsooth, of what tomorrow shall be to thee, and the day after; and of how she shall begin on thee, and what shall follow the beginning, and what thou mayst look for after that. For by all this she deemeth to lower thy pride and abate thy valour, and to make every moment of today a terror to thy flesh and thy soul, so that thereby thou mayest thole the bitterness twice over. Such is her pity for thee! And yet belike this cruelty hath saved thee, for but for that she had not refrained her from thee today, and tomorrow thou shalt be far away from her.
Meanwhile, said Viridis, in her soft sweet voice, none of all these things will we talk over with thee, but things comfortable and kind; and we will tell each to each of our story. Will we not, Atra? Yea, verily, said she.
Birdalone looked upon them and said: Wondrous is your compassion and loving-kindness unto me, and scarce do I know how to bear the burden thereof. But tell me one thing truly; will ye not suffer in my place when this witch cometh to know that ye have stolen me away from her?
Nay, said Atra, I have told thee that by tomorrow she will have altogether, or at least almost, forgotten thee and thy coming hither. Moreover, she is foreseeing, and hath come to know that if she raise a hand against any of us three, it will lead her to her bane, save it be for heavy guilt clearly proven against us. Forsooth, in the earlier days of our captivity such a guilt we fell into, and did not wholly escape, as Viridis can bear me witness. But we are now grown wiser, and know our mistress better, and will give her no such joy.
Viridis cast her eyes down at those words and Atra’s smile, and turned red and then pale, and Birdalone looked on her wondering what ailed her; then she said: Do ye sisters work in the field and the garden? I mean at milking the kine and the goats, and digging the earth, and sowing and reaping, and the like. Nay, said Atra; either our mistress or someone else who is of marvellous might, hath so ordained, that here everything waxeth of itself without tillage, or sowing or reaping, or any kind of tending; and whatso we need of other matters the mistress taketh it for us from out of her Wonder-coffer, or suffereth us to take it for ourselves. For thou must know that this land is one of the Isles of the Lake, and is called the Isle of Increase Unsought.
Meseemeth then, said Birdalone, were the mistress of you to gainsay you the gifts of the Wonder-coffer, ye were undone. Yea, verily, said Atra; then would be but the fruits of the earth and the wild creatures for our avail, and these, we have not learned how to turn them into dinner and supper. And they all laughed thereat; but Birdalone said: See ye then how I was right to offer myself unto you as a servant, for in all matters of the house and the byre and the field have I skill. But since ye would not or could not have me, I wonder not that ye be ill at ease here, and long to be gone, for as plenteous and lovely as the isle is, and though ye live here without present mishandling or pining. For, sooth to say, ye have over you a tyrant and a fool.
Viridis answered: Yet is there something else, dear friend, that whets our longing to depart. Tell her thereof, Atra.
Atra smiled and said: Simple it is: there are they who long for us and for whom we long, and we would be together. Said Birdalone: Be these kinsfolk of yours, as fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, or the like?
Reddened Viridis again; but Atra spake, and she also blushed somewhat, though she smiled: Those whom we love, and who love us, be not queans, but carles; neither be they of our blood, but aliens, till love overcometh them and causeth them to long to be of one flesh with us; and their longing is beyond measure, and they desire our bodies, which they deem far fairer than belike they be. And they would bed us, and beget children on us. And all this we let them do with a good will, because we love them for their might, and their truth, and the hotness of their love toward us.
Looked up Viridis thereat, and her eyes gleamed amidst the flushing of her cheeks, and she said: Sister, sister! even in such wise, and no other, as they desire us do we desire them; it is no mere good will toward them from us, but longing and hot love.
Now must Atra blush no less than Viridis; yet she but said: I have told thee hereof, Birdalone, because I deem that thou hast lived simply and without the sight of men; but it is what all know in the world of the sons of Adam. Said Birdalone: Thou sayest sooth concerning me. Yet about this love have I learned somewhat even ere today, and now, as ye speak and I, meseems the lore of it comes pouring in on me and fills my heart with its sweetness. And O, to have such love from any, and with such love to be loved withal!
Dear sister, said little Viridis, fear not; such as thou shall not fail of the love of some man whom thou must needs love. Is it not so, sister Atra? Said Atra: Yea; such love shall come unto her as surely as death.
They were silent now a little, and it was as if some sweet incense had been burned within the chamber. For Birdalone the colour came and went in her cheeks, her flesh quaked, her heart beat quick, and she was oppressed by the sweetness of longing. More daintily she moved her limbs, and laid foot to foot and felt the sleekness of her sides; and tender she was of her body as of that which should one day be so sorely loved.
Now she spake timidly to the others, and said: Each one of you then has a man who loves her, and longs for her and for none else? So it is, said Viridis. How sweet that shall be! said Birdalone; and now all the more I wonder that ye could trouble yourselves over me, or think of me once; and the kinder I think it of you.
Said Atra smiling on her: Nay, now must the cat be out of the bag, and I must tell thee that thou art to think of us as chapmen who with our kindness would buy something of thee, to wit, that thou wouldst do an errand for us to those three lovers of ours. Surely, said Birdalone, it were a little payment to set against your saving of my life and my soul; and had I to go barefoot over red gleeds I would do it. And yet, if I may go hence to your lovers, why not all three of you along with me?
Said Atra: For this reason; thy ferry, the Sending Boat, wherein ye came hither, is even somewhat akin to thy mistress and ours; and the mistress here hath banned it against bearing us; and now, were we so much as to touch it, such sore turmoil would arise, and such hideous noise as if earth and heaven were falling together; and the lady would be on us straightway, and we should be undone; and, as thou shalt hear presently, this hath been proved. But thou, thou art free of the said ferry. Forsooth I wot not why thy mistress banned it not against thee; maybe because she deemed not that thou wouldst dare to use it or even go anigh it.
Birdalone considered, and thought that even so it was; that the witch deemed that she would not dare use the Sending Boat, nor know how to, even if she came upon it, and that if she did so find it, she would sicken her of the road thereto. So now she told her friends the whole tale thereof more closely than she had afore, save again what pertained to Habundia; withal she told every word of what her mistress had said to her at that time when she changed her into a hind. And Viridis heard and wondered, and pitied her. But Atra sat somewhat downcast a while. Then she said: However this may be, we will send thee forth tomorrow in the dawn, and take the risk of what may befall thereafter; and thou shalt bear a token for each of those three that love us. For we deem that they have not forgotten aught, but are still seeking us.
Birdalone said: Whatsoever ye bid me; that will I do, and deem me your debtor still. But now I pray you, pleasure a poor captive somewhat more. Wherein? said they both; we be all ready thereto. Said the maiden: Would ye do so much as to tell me the tale of how ye came hither, and then how it hath been with you from your first coming until now? With a good will, said Atra; hearken!
We were born and bred in the land that lies south-west along this Great Water, and we waxed happily, and became fellows when we were yet but children, and thus grew up dear friends into maidenhood and womanhood. We were wooed by many men, but our hearts turned to none of them save unto three, who were goodly, kind, and valiant; and thou mayst call them the Golden Knight, who is Aurea’s man; the Green Knight, who is man of Viridis; and my man, the Black Squire. But in this was unhap, that because of certain feuds which had endured from old time, this love was perilous unto them and us; so that we lived in doubt and unrest.
Came a day, now three years ago, when the king of the whole land brought his folk into our lakeside country, and there held a court and a mote in a fair great meadow anigh to the water. But even as the mote was hallowed, and the Peace of God proclaimed at the blast of the war-horn, came we three woeful ladies clad in black and knelt before the lord king, and prayed him hearken us. And he deemed that we were fair, so he had compassion on us, and raised us up, and bade us speak.
So we told our tale, how that strife and wounds and death stood betwixt us and love; and we wept, and bewailed it, that our love must be slain because men were wroth with each other and not with us.
The king looked on us kindly, and said: Who be the swains for whom these lovely damsels make such a piece of work? So we named them, and said that they were there in the mote; and the king knew them for valiant men who had done him good service; and he cried out their names, and bade them stand forth out of the throng. So forth they stood, the Golden Knight, the Green Knight, and the Black Squire (and he also was now a knight); but now were they all three clad in black, and they were unarmed, save for their swords girt to their sides, without which no man amongst us may come to the mote, be he baron or earl or duke, or the very lord king himself.
So the king looked upon us and them, and laughed and said: Fair ladies, ye have got me by the nose, so needs must my body follow. Do ye three knights, whom I know for valiant men and true, take each his love by the hand, and let the weddings be tomorrow. Who then were joyful but us? But even at the word the king spake arose great turmoil in the mote, for they smote the feud and contention awake, and men thronged forward against each other, and swords were drawn and brandished. But the king arose in his place and spake long and deftly, and waxed exceeding wroth, while none heeded him nor hearkened. And there stood our three men, who laid no hand to hilt, but abode heart-whole by seeming amid the tumult. And lovely they were to look on. At last the wise men and old barons went between, and by fair words appeased the trouble, and the mote grew hushed. Then spake the king: What is this, my thanes? I had deemed that my foemen were far away, and that ye that here are were all friends unto me and unto each other. But now must we try another rede. Therewith he turned unto our men and said: Ye champions, are ye so much in love with Love that ye will fight for him? They all yeasaid that, and then the king said: Then do I declare that these three will hold the field against all comers from matins till high noon, and that he who vanquisheth any one of them shall have his lady and wed her if he will, and, if he will, shall ransom her. And this field shall be foughten after two months’ frist in these fair meadows, when I return from the outermost marches of the south, whereto I am now wending. But when the battle is done, then let all men bow to the judgment of God, whether he be well content or not, and this on peril of life and limb. And now let there be deep peace between all men meanwhile; and if any break the peace, be he high or low, rich or unrich, churl or earl, I swear it by the souls of my fathers that he shall lose nought save his life therefor.
At these words was there a rumour of yeasay, and all men were content, save we three poor maidens, into whose hearts had now entered fear of loss and death.
But our kindreds on both sides were glad and proud, and they were not so bitter against us as they had been; they put hand to pouch, and let rear for us a fair pavilion of painted timber, all hung with silk and pictured cloths and Saracen tapestry, by the very lake-side; and gay boats gaily bedight lay off the said pavilion for our pleasure; and when all was done, it yet lacked a half month of the day of battle, and thither were we brought in triumph by the kindreds on a fair day of May, and there was not a sword or a spear amongst the whole company, and peaceful and merry was all by seeming. But we were not suffered to meet our lovers all this while, from the time when the mote was.
Now on a day came a messenger on the spur, and did us to wit that the king would be with us on the morrow, and that the day after, the fateful field should be foughten. Then, though the coming of this day had been so longed for by us, yet now it was at hand it cast us into all unrest and trouble, so that we scarce knew whether to go, or stand, or sit, or what to do with our bodies. Our folk, and all other men withal, were so busy making ready for the morrow of tomorrow, that they left us alone to wear through the day as we might.
Now it was afternoon, and the day hot and hazy, and we stood on the very lip of the land wearied with hope and fear, and striving to keep good countenance to each other; and there came a boat unto the shore gaily painted and gilded, and bedight with silken cloths and cushions; and the steerer thereof was a woman, not young, by seeming of fifty winters; red-haired she was, thin-lipped and narrow-eyed, flat-breasted and strait-hipped; an ungoodly woman, though her skin was white and smooth as for her age. Hast thou ever seen such an one, guest? Said Birdalone, smiling: Forsooth that have I; for such an one is my mistress to behold.
Well, said Atra, this dame stretched out her hands to us, and said: Will not the pretty ladies, the dear ladies, who have nought on hand this afternoon, come into my boat and look on the face of the water, so calm and fair as it is, and let their lovely hands go over the gunwale and play with the ripple, and so beguile this heavy time for a two hours; and then give a little gift of a piece or two of silver to a poor carline, who loveth all fair ladies and bright warriors, and who needeth a little livelihood?
Now the woman seemed nought lovely unto us, and to me forsooth she seemed hateful; but we looked on each other, and we found that we were utterly weary of going up and down on the meadow, and lying about in the pavilion, and it seemed as if this would give us a little rest; withal we saw not that the woman could do us any hurt, whereas we were three, and strong enough as women go; nor were we mariners so evil but that we might sail or steer a boat at a pinch. So we stepped into the boat straightway, and the woman sat aft and paddled deftly with the steering oar, and we glided away from the land.
Soon we were come so far that we could but just see our pavilion through the haze, which had somewhat thickened, and we said to the woman that she should go about and make for the shore, and that then we would go to and fro a while along by our stead. She nodded yeasay, and began by seeming to dight the craft for return. But therewith the haze was grown suddenly into a low cloud, which came down upon us from the south-west in the arms of a cold breeze, that grew stronger every minute, so no wonder it was though the steerer might not keep head to wind; and then who was afraid and ashamed save ourselves?
But the woman said, and there seemed to be a mock in her voice: Ill luck, pretty ladies! Now is there nought for it but to drive, if we would not drown. But belike this duskiness will clear presently, and then at least we shall know whither we be going; and we may either turn back, or seek some other shelter, for I know the lake well; I know, I know.
We were too terror-stricken to speak, for we felt that still the wind grew stronger, and the lake began to rise into waves, and the craft to wallow; but well-nigh therewith was the dusk and the mist gone; the sky was bright blue overhead, and the westering sun shone cloudless; but on no land it shone, or on aught save the blue waters and the white wave-crests.
Then wept Aurea, and this Viridis here, but as to me, I grew wroth and cried out to the steerer: Accursed carline! thou hast betrayed us; never now may we get back to our pavilion till the fight is foughten, and our lovers will deem that we have forsaken them, and we are shamed for ever. Well, well, said the carline, what remedy save patience for the winds and waves? And she laughed mockingly. Quoth I: There is this remedy, that we three arise and lay hands on thee, and cast thee outboard, save thou straightway turn the boat’s head and back to the main. Forsooth I doubt not but that as thou hast raised this foul wind against us, thou canst raise a fair wind for us.
Hearken to the lovely lady! quoth the carline, how she deemeth me to be none other than the great God himself, to hold the winds in the hollow of my hand, and still the waves with a word! What! am I wrought somewhat after his image, kind ladies? And she grinned horribly therewith. Then she said again: As to thy remedy, sweetling, meseemeth it nought. For how shall ye sail this stormy water when your captain is gone, and ye but holiday sailors belike?
As she spake, a great wave came up from the windward, and brake over us, and half filled the craft, and lifted her bows up towering, and then down we went into the trough; and I sat cowed and quaking, and spake never another word.
Now began the sun to sink, and the wind abated, and the sea went down, but the boat sped on as swift as ever over the landless waters.
Now the sun was down, and dusk was at hand, and the carline spake, and drew a bright-gleaming sax from under her raiment: Damsels, I warn you that now it were best that ye obey me in all things; for though ye be three and I one, yet whereas I have here an edge-friend, I may take the life of any one of you, or of all three, as simply as I could cut a lamb’s throat. Moreover it will serve you better in the house whereto ye are wending, that I make a good tale of you rather than a bad. For the mistress of that house is of all might; and I must say it of her, though she is my very sister, yet she is not so sweet-tempered and kind of heart as I am, but somewhat rough and unyielding of mood, so that it is best to please her. Wherefore, maidens, I rede you be sage.
Our unhappy hearts were now so sunken in wan-hope, that we had no word wherewith to answer her, and she spake: Now obey ye my bidding and eat and drink, that ye may come hale and sound to your journey’s end, for I would not give starvelings to my dear sister. Therewith she brought forth victual for us, and that nought evil, of flesh and bread, and cheese and cakes, and good wine withal; and we were hunger-weary as well as sorrow-weary; and hunger did at that moment overcome sorrow, so we ate and drank, and, would we, would we not, something of heart came back to us thereby. Then again spake the carline: Now my will is that ye sleep; and ye have cushions and cloths enough to dight you a fair bed; and this bidding is easy for you to obey. Forsooth, so weary were we with sorrow, and our hunger was now quenched, that we laid us down and slept at once, and forgat our troubles.
When we awoke it was after the first dawn, and we were come aland even where thou didst this morning, guest. And thou mayst deem it wondrous, but so it was, that close to where our boat took land lay the ferry which brought thee hither.
Now the carline bade us get ashore, and we did so, and found the land wondrous fair, little as that solaced us then. But she said unto us: Hearken! now are ye come home; and long shall ye dwell here, for never shall ye depart hence save by the will of my sister and me, wherefore, once more, I rede you be good, for it will be better for you. Go forth now unto yonder house, and on the way ye shall meet the Queen of this land, and ye have nought to do but to say to her that ye are the Gift; and then shall she see to your matter.
Therewith she gat into her own craft, the Sending Boat, and therein did the deed and spake the words ye wot of, and was gone north-away; and when we turned to seek for our boat wherein we had come hither, it was gone.
We stood miserably for a while on the lip of the land, and then I said that we might as well go meet our fate as die there of grief and hunger. So we went, and came into those fair gardens, and as we went slowly up toward the house came on us a woman clad in red scarlet and grandly dight. A big woman she was, and like to her that beguiled us, but far younger and fairer of favour, foolish and proud of visage. She stared on us, and seemed half afeard of us at first, but asked us what we were, and I answered that we were the Gift. The Gift? said she, what meaneth that? Will ye obey me in all things? If ye gainsay it, ye will perish, unless ye can eat grass; for on this isle everything cometh from my hand.
What might we do? We all knelt down before her, and swore to do her will. Then she said, after she had stared on us a while: Now I know: ye are they of whom my sister spake, that she would fetch me a gift of a leash of damsels for my service. Now I take the Gift and thank her good heart. But if ye would do my will, then . . . But she broke off here and stared at us a long while, and then she said: Now I know; she bade me treat you well, and hold my hand from you, or evil would come of it, belike at last my bane. So go ye home to the house, and I will give you meat and drink, and show you my stores and the Wonder-coffer, and ye shall serve me in honour.
Even so did we; and we ate and drank and rested, and nought we lacked, save leave to depart home to our lovers, and some mistress better than this stupid and proud lump of flesh. But the next morning when we came before the lady, she knew nought of what we were; and again we had to tell her that we were the Gift, and again she glared at us balefully, and again she called to mind her sister and her rede concerning us. And this went on for many days, till at last she got to know what we were; and she followed her sister’s rede in that she never mishandled us, though we could see that it irked her to forbear, nor did she speak to us more roughly than her fool’s wont was; and we had in our hands all that was needed for our sustenance, and lived easily enough.
Now our coming hither betid three years ago, and a month thereafter comes thy witch hither in her ferry, and she greeted us when we met, and asked us, grinning, had she not been kind to win us such good days? Yea, and over kind, said she, ye would deem me, knew ye what would have betid you save for my good word. Forsooth we deemed it no kind deed to steal us from our lovers; but we kept good tongues in our heads, for thralls must needs kiss the rod.
She went away in two days, but came again many times thereafter, till we won the secret of the Sending Boat, and her spell therewith; but we knew not that was banned against us. Wherefore on a day in the grey of the morning, when we had been on this isle somewhat less than a year, we went down to it and stepped in, and reddened stem and stern and said the spell-words. But straightway arose an hideous braying and clatter, and thunder came therewith, and trembling of the earth, and the waters of the lake arose in huge waves; nor might we move from our seats in the boat till the two witches came running down to us, and haled us out ashore, and had us up into the house, and into this very prison-chamber, wherein we are now sitting so merry. And here we bore what was laid upon us, whereof, dear guest, we shall tell thee nought. But this came of it, that never thereafter durst we try the adventure of the Sending Boat, but have lived on in lazy sorrow and shameful ease, till thou, dear guest and sister, wert sent hither by heaven for our helping.
Now what became of the king’s court, and the hazelled field of our champions, we wot not, or whether they be yet alive we cannot tell thee; but if they be alive, it is to them that we would have thee do our errand, and thereof will we tell thee closely tomorrow. And so, sweetling, an end of my tale.
Birdalone thanked Atra much for her tale, and strange it was to her to hear of such new things and the deeds of folk; but the dealing of the witches with those three was familiar to her and was of her world.
Now they talked merrily, till there came a footstep to the door and one without knocked. Viridis paled thereat, and a pang of fear smote Birdalone, and she swiftly got from out the chair and sat down on a stool; but when Atra opened, it was but Aurea come from her service to bid Atra take her place. So she went, and again was there pleasant converse betwixt Aurea and the other twain; and certain matters did Aurea tell Birdalone which had been left untold by Atra. And chiefly, when Birdalone asked if any other folk had come into the isle while they dwelt there, she said yea; once had come a knight with a lady, his love, fleeing from war and mishap, and these had the witch overcome by wizardry, and destroyed them miserably: and that again another had strayed thither, and him also the witch undid, because he would not do her will and lie in her bed. Withal had come drifting there a young damsel, a castaway of the winds and waves; her the witch kept as a thrall, and after a while took to mishandling her so sorely, that at last, what for shame and what for weariness of life, she cast herself into the water and was drowned. None of these folk might the damsels help so as to do them any good, though they tried it, and went nigh to suffer therefor themselves.
Now the day wore, and in a while Atra came back, and Viridis must serve. At last the dusk and the dark was come. Then said Atra: Now must we twain begone to wait upon our lady, as the wont is: and that is now for our good hap, for if we be with her all three, and especially, to say sooth, if I be with her, we may well keep her from visiting thee here; since belike she shall yet dimly remember that thou art in her prison. Therefore thou must forgive it if I shackle thy wrists again. And now if thou wilt follow my rede, thou shalt try to sleep some deal, and it were well if thou might’st sleep till we come for thee in the grey dawn.
Therewith they left her there, and she nestled in the corner once more, and there did verily fall asleep, and slept till the key in the lock and the opening door awakened her, and Atra came stealing soft-footed into the prison. Eager she was and panting, and she kneeled before Birdalone and unlocked her leg-shackles, and then stood up and did the like by the irons on her wrists. Then she said: Look up, dear friend, to thy prison windows, and behold the dawn beginning to break on the day of thy deliverance, and ours maybe. But come now at once: and again, wilt thou pardon me, that we clothe thee not here for thy journey? For from our own bodies must we clothe thee, and if by any hap our lady were to see any one of us more or less unclad, it might draw her on to see what was toward, and we might yet be found out, for our undoing.
Therewith she took her hand, and led her forth of the prison, and locked the door behind her; and then downstairs they went, and out-a-doors by a little wicket at the stair-end. The dawn drew on apace now, and Birdalone saw at once the other twain lurking in the wall-nook hard by. No word was spoken between them, and with noiseless feet they went forth into the orchard, where the blackbirds and thrushes were beginning their first morning song, and ere they came out on to the meadow the full choir of them was a-singing.
When they were all clear of the orchard trees the three damsels kept Birdalone between them closely, so that her white body should not be seen if the lady were awake and looking forth. Thus they brought her to where a few thorn-bushes made a cover for them close to the water’s edge, some twenty yards from the Sending Boat. There they stood together, and Atra said:
Now, dear guest, and dearest messenger, it is our matter to clothe thee from our very bodies; and do thou, Viridis, begin.
Viridis came forward blushing, as her wont was, and took off her green gown and laid it on the grass; then she set her hand to her smock, and did it off, and stood naked, knee set to knee, and swaying like the willow branch; and then was seen all the dainty fashion of her body, and how lovely of hue and sweet of flesh she was.
But she said: Dear sister Birdalone, here is my smock, which I lend thee, but as to my love, I give it thee therewith; therefore grudge it not, though thou give me back the linen, for happy will be the day to me when I have it again; for now none may do it on me save the Green Knight, my own love. Therewith she gave her the smock, and kissed her, and Birdalone did it on, and felt the valianter and mightier when she had a garment upon her.
Then Aurea did off her golden gown, and stood in smock alone, so that her naked arms shone more precious than the golden sleeves that had covered them. And she spake: Birdalone, dear messenger, take now my golden gown, and send it back to me when thou hast found the man unto whom it is due; and think meanwhile that, when thou wearest it, thou wearest my love, and that when thou pullest it off, thou art clad with my love instead of it.
So Birdalone did on the gown, and became to look on as the daintiest of the queens of the earth; and she turned her head about to look on her gold-clad flanks, and wondered.
Thereafter Atra knit up her skirts into her girdle, and then did off her shoon, so that her slim feet shone like pearls on the green grass; and she said:
Birdalone, sweet friend! wilt thou be my messenger to bear these shoon to my Black Squire, and meanwhile put my love for thee under thy feet, to speed thee and to bear thee up? Wherefore be good to me.
Birdalone then shod herself, and though pity it were to hide her feet from the eyes of Earth, yet felt she the stouter-hearted thereby, and her cheeks flushed and her eyes brightened.
Thereafter Aurea gave her withal a golden collar for the neck, and Viridis a girdle of silver well-wrought, and Atra a gold finger-ring set with a sapphire stone; and all these she did on her; but yet she knew that they were tokens to be delivered to the three lovers according as was due.
Then spake Atra: Lo, sister, we pray thee to bear these lendings on thy body in such wise that when thou comest to the mainland they may be seen by knights seeking adventures, and that thou mayst answer to any who may challenge thee thereof and say that thou bearest this raiment and these jewels from Aurea and Viridis and Atra to Baudoin the Golden Knight, and to Hugh the Green Knight, and to Arthur the Black Squire. And if thou deem that thou hast found these, then shall they tell thee a token, such as we shall tell thee, that they be truly these and none other; and thereafter, when thou art made sure, they shall take of thee the raiment, the gems, and the Sending Boat, and come hither if they may. And God look to the rest! But as for the token to be told aforesaid, we have determined that each of us shall tell thee privily what question thou shalt ask for her, and what answer thou must look for.
When she had done speaking, each came up to Birdalone and spake something into her ear amidst blushes enough forsooth. And what they said will be seen hereafter. Then again said Atra: Now by this errand shall we be well paid for the care we have had of thee. It may be, forsooth, that thou shalt not find our speech-friends; for they may be dead, or they may deem us untrue, and may have forsaken us and their land; and in any such case thou art free of our errand; but whatsoever may betide us, God speed thee!
Then Viridis drew forth a basket from under a bush, and said: We know not how long thy voyage may be, but some little provision for the way we may at least give thee: now wilt thou bear this aboard thyself; for we dare not touch thy craft, nay, nor come nigh it, no one of us. And she set down the basket and cast her arms about her, and kissed her and wept over her; and the other twain, they also kissed her lovingly. Birdalone wept even as Viridis, and said: May ye do well, who have been so kind to me; but now am I both so glad and so sorry, that the voice of me will not make due words for me. O farewell!
Therewith she took up her basket, and turned and went speedily to the Sending Boat; and they beheld her how she stepped aboard and bared her arm, and drew blood from it with the pin of her girdle-buckle, and therewith reddened stem and stern; and a pang of fear smote into their hearts lest their lady had banned it for Birdalone as for them. But Birdalone sat down on the thwart, and turned her face south, and spake:
The red raven-wine now Hast thou drunk, stern and bow; Awake then, awake! And the southward way take: The way of the Wender forth over the flood, For the will of the Sender is blent with the blood.
No cloud barred the gateway of the sun as she spoke; no wave rose upon the bosom of the lake; no clatter nor tumult was there; but the Sending Boat stirred, and then shot out swiftly into the wide water; and the sun arose as they looked, and his path of light flashed on Birdalone’s golden gown for a moment, and then it grew grey again, and presently she was gone from before their eyes.
So they turned up into the orchard: and now was Viridis of good cheer, and Aurea no less; but Atra lagged behind, and as she went, some passion took her, she knew not wherefore; her bosom swelled, her shoulders heaved therewith, and she wept.
All went well with Birdalone when she had left the Isle of Increase Unsought, much as it had on her first voyage, save that now she was both clad and victualled, and her heart, if yet it harboured fear, was also full of new and strange hope; and oft, even as she sat there amidst the waste of waters, she wondered what new longing this was which wrought so sweet a pain in her, that it made her cheeks burn, and her eyes dim, and her hands and her limbs restless. And then would she set her mind to her friends and their errand, and would hope and pray for them; but again would she fall to picture to herself what manner of men they were who were so sore longed for by those three beauteous women; and she deemed that since they were thus desired, they must be fairer even than her friends of the isle; and again the nameless longing overtook her, and held her till it wearied her into sleep.
When she awoke again the boat had stayed, and she was come aland; but the dawn was not yet come, and the night was moonless, yet was there light enough to see, from the water and the stars, that the bows of the boat were lying safe on a little sandy beach. So she stepped out and looked around, and deemed she could see great trees before her, and imagined also dark masses of she knew not what. So she walked warily up the said strand till she came on to soft grass, and smelled the scent of the clover as her foot-soles crushed it. There she sat down, and presently lay along and went to sleep.
After a while she awoke, and felt happy and well at ease, and had no will to move: the sun was shining brightly, but had not been up long: the song of birds was all about her, but amidst it she deemed she heard some speech of man, though it were not like to what she had heard in her life before. So she raised herself on her elbow, and looked up and saw a new thing, and sat up now, and beheld and wondered.
For there stood before her, gazing wide-eyed on her, two little children, some three winters of age, a man and a woman as it seemed. The man-child with light and fine white-golden hair, falling straight down and square over his brow, and blue-grey eyes which were both kind and merry, and shyly seeking as it were. Plump and rosy he was, sturdy and stout-limbed. No less fair was the woman; her hair golden-brown, as oft it is with children who grow up dark-haired, and curling in fair little rings all over her head; her eyes were big and dark grey; she was thinner than the lad, and somewhat taller.
These two babes had between them a milk-white she-goat, and had been playing with her, and now she turned her head to this and that one of them, bleating, as if to crave more of the game; but they had no eyes for her, but stood staring with might and main on the new-comer and her shining golden gown.
Birdalone laughed with joy when she saw the little ones, and a dim memory of the days of Utterhay passed before her: she stretched out a hand to them, and spake softly and caressingly, and the little lad came forward smiling, and took her hand, and made as if he would help her up for courtesy’s sake. She laughed on him, and arose; and when she stood up, tall and golden, he seemed somewhat afeard of so big a creature, but stood his ground valiantly. Then she stooped down to him and kissed him, and he naysaid her not, but seemed rather glad when it was over; but when Birdalone went to the little maid, and kissed her, the child clung to her as if she were her mother, and babbled to her.
Then comes the lad to her, and takes her hand, and would draw her away, and speaks to her in his prattle, and she understood him to mean that she should come with him to see the father. So she went, wondering what should next betide; and the little maiden went on the other side of her, holding by a fold of her skirt. Forsooth the goat followed bleating, not well pleased to be forgotten.
Now had Birdalone time to look about her, though the two babes fell to prattling with her in their way, and she thought it sweet to look down on the two little faces that looked up to her so pleased and merry.
She was in a grassy plain, somewhat over rough and broken to be called a meadow, and not enough be-timbered to be called a wood; it rose up a little and slowly as they left the water, but scarce so much as one might call it a hill. Straight before her on the way that they were going went up into the air great masses of grey stone builded by man’s hand, but looking, even from this way off, ragged and ruinous. It may well be thought that Birdalone wondered what things might lie betwixt the trees and the towers.
Now as they went they came on other goats, who seemed tame, and these joined them to their fellow, and suffered the younglings to play with them. Moreover there were rabbits great plenty scuttling in and out of the brakes and the rough ground upon the way, and the younglings beheld them, and the little lad said, after his fashion: Why do the rabbits run away from us, and the goats follow us? Now, sooth to say, Birdalone scarce knew why, and had no word ready for the child; but she said at last: Mayhappen they will come to me; so it was once when I dwelt away from here. Shall I go fetch thee one? The little ones yeasaid that, though somewhat shyly and doubtfully. Then said Birdalone: Do ye, sweetlings, abide me here, and go not away. They nodded their heads thereat, and Birdalone kilted her skirts and went her ways to some broken bushed ground, where was a many rabbits playing about; but she went not out of eye-shot of the babes. Before she was well-nigh to the little beasts, she fell to talking to them in a low sweet voice, as had been her wont when she was little; and when they heard it, those who had not scuttled away at first glance of her, fell to creeping little short creeps one to the other, as their manner is when they be alone together and merry; and they suffered her to come quite amongst them, and crept about her feet while she stood, still talking unto them. Then she stooped down and took up one in her arms and caressed it, and then laid him down and took up another, and so with three or four of them; and she fell to pushing them, and rolling them over with her foot; then she turned a little away from them toward the children, and then a little more, and the rabbits fell to following her, and she turned and took up one in her arms, and went straight on toward the children, but turning and talking to the rabbits now and again.
As to the babes, she saw the goats, of whom were now a dozen, or thereabouts, standing together in a kind of ring, and the little ones going from one to the other playing with them happily. But presently the lad turned and saw her coming with her tail of little beasts, and he cried out a great Oh and ran toward her straightway, and the maiden after him; and he held out his arms to have the rabbit she bore, and she gave it to him smiling, and said: Lo now! here be pretty playmates; but look to it that ye be soft and kind with them, for they are but feeble people. So the younglings fell to sporting with their new friends, and for a little forgat both goats and golden lady; but the goats drew nigh, and stood about them bleating, nor durst they run at the rabbits to butt them, because of Birdalone and the little ones.
There then stood the slim maiden, tall and gleaming above her little flock; and her heart was full of mirth and rest, and the fear was all forgotten. But as she looked up toward the grey walls, lo, new tidings to hand! For she saw an old man with a long white beard slowly coming toward them: she started not, but abode his coming quietly, and as he drew nigh she could see of him that he was big and stark, and, old as he was, not yet bowed with his many years. He stood looking on this Queen and her court silently a while, and then he spake: Such a sight I looked not to see on this Isle of the Young and the Old. She said: But meseemeth it is full meet that these younglings should sport with the creatures. He smiled and said: Such a voice I looked not to hear on the Isle of the Young and the Old.
Birdalone became somewhat troubled, and said: Am I welcome here? for if I be not, I will pray thy leave to depart. He said: Thou art as welcome as the very spring, my child; and if thou have a mind to abide here, who shall naysay thee? For surely thou art young; nay, in regard to me thou art scarce older than babes. All blessings be with thee. But though thou art true and kind, as is clear to be seen by thy playing with these children and the landward beasts in peace and love, yet it may be so that thou hast brought hither somewhat less than peace. And he smiled upon her strangely.
She looked somewhat scared at his last words, and said: But how so? If I might I would bear nought but peace and happiness to any place. The old carle laughed outright now, and said: How so, dear child? because ladies so sweet and lovesome as thou be sent by love, and love rendeth apart that which was joined together.
She wondered at his word, and was bewildered by it, but she held her peace; and he said: Now we may talk hereof later on; but the matter to hand now is the quenching of thine hunger; for I will not ask thee whereby thou camest, since by water thou needs must have come. Wherefore now I bid thee to our house, and these little ones shall go with us, and the three of these horned folk whom we are wont to tether amidst the wrack and ruin of what once was fair; the rest have our leave to depart, and these nibblers also; for we have a potherb garden by our house, and are fain to keep the increase of the same for ourselves. Birdalone laughed, and shook her skirts at the coneys, and they all scuttled away after the manner of their kind. Thereat the little lad looked downcast and well-nigh tearful, but the maid stamped her foot, and roared well-favouredly.
Birdalone did her best to solace her, and plucked a bough from a hawthorn bush far above the little ones’ reach whereon was yet some belated blossom, and gave it to her and stilled her. But the old man picked out his milch-goats from the flock (whereof was the white), and drave them before him, while the two babes went on still beside Birdalone, the little carle holding her hand and playing with the fingers thereof; the maiden sometimes hanging on to her gown, sometimes going loose and sporting about beside her.
So came they to where the ground became smoother, and there was a fair piece of greensward in a nook made by those great walls and towers, which sheltered it from the north. The said walls seemed to be the remnant of what had once been a great house and castle; and up aloft, where was now no stair to come at them, were chimneys and hearths here and there, and windows with fair seats in them, and arched doors and carven pillars, and many things beautiful, but now was all ruined and broken, and the house was roofless and floorless: withal it was overgrown with ash-trees and quicken-beam, and other berry-trees and key-trees, which had many years ago seeded in the rent walls, and now grew there great and flourishing. But in the innermost nook of this mighty remnant, and using for its lowly walls two sides of the ancient ashlar ones, stood a cot builded not over trimly of small wood, and now much overgrown with roses and woodbine. In front of it was a piece of garden ground, wherein waxed potherbs, and a little deal of wheat; and therein was a goodly row of bee-skeps; and all without it was the pleasant greensward aforesaid, wherein stood three great ancient oaks, and divers thorns, which also were ancient after their kind.
The elder led his guest into the cot, which had but simple plenishing of stools and benches, and a table unartful, and then went to tether his goats in the ruined hall of the house, and the children must needs with him, though Birdalone had been glad of one of them at least; but there was no nay, but that they must go see their dear white goat in her stall. Howsoever all three came back again presently, the old carle with a courteous word in his mouth, and he took Birdalone’s hand, and kissed it and bade her welcome to his house, as though he had been a great lord at home in his own castle. Therewith must the little ones also kiss her hand and be courteous; and Birdalone suffered it, laughing, and then caught them up in her arms, and clipped and kissed them well-favouredly; wherewith belike they were not over-well pleased, though the boy endured it kindly. Thereafter the elder set forth his banquet, which was simple enough: upland cheer of cream and honey, and rough bread; but sweet it was to Birdalone to eat it with good welcome, and the courtesy of the old man.
When they were done, they went out-a-doors, and Birdalone and the old man laid them down under an oak-tree, and the children sported about anigh them. Then spake Birdalone: Old man, thou hast been kind unto me; but now wouldest thou tell me about thee, what thou art, and what are these walls about us here? Said he: I doubt if I may do so, this day at least. But belike thou shalt abide with us, and then some day the word may come into my mouth. She held her peace, and into her mind it came that it would be sweet to dwell there, and watch those fair children waxing, and the lad growing up and loving her; yea, even she fell to telling up the years which would make him a man, and tried to see herself, how she would look, when the years were worn thereto. Then she reddened at the untold thought, and looked down and was silent. But the elder looked on her anxiously, and said: It will be no such hard life for thee, for I have still some work in me, and thou mayst do something in spite of thy slender and delicate fashion. She laughed merrily, and said: Forsooth, good sire, I might do somewhat more than something; for I am deft in all such work as here ye need; so fear not but I should earn my livelihood, and that with joy. Merry days shall we have then, said he.
But therewith her eye caught the gleam of her golden sleeve, and she thought of Aurea, and her heart smote her for her errand; then she laid her hand on her girdle and called to mind little Viridis, and the glitter of the ring on her finger brought the image of Atra before her; then she rose up and said: Thou art kind, father, but I may not; I have an errand; this day must I depart from thee. He said: Thou hast broken my heart; if I were not so old, I would weep. And he hung adown his head.
She stood before him abashed, as if she had done him a wrong. At last he looked up and said: Must it be today? Wilt thou not abide with us night-long, and go thy ways in the early morning?
Now she scarce knew how to gainsay him, so wretched as the old carle looked; so it came to this, that she yeasaid the abiding till tomorrow. Then suddenly he became gay and merry, and he kissed her hand, and fell to much speaking, telling tales of little import concerning his earlier days. But when she asked him again of how he came there, and what meant the great ruined house, then he became foolish and wandering, and might scarce answer her; whereas otherwise he was a well-spoken old carle of many words, and those of the grandest.
Then changed his mood again, and he fell to bewailing her departure, and how that henceforth he should have none to speak to him with understanding. Then she smiled on him and said: But yonder babes will grow up; month by month they will be better fellows unto thee. Fair child, he said, thou dost not know. My days to come are but few, so that I should see but little of their waxing in any case. But furthermore, wax they will not; such as they be now, such shall they be till I at least see the last of them and the earth.
Birdalone wondered at this word, and the place seemed changed to her, yea, was grown somewhat dreary; but she said to the carle: And thou, dost thou change in any wise, since these change not? He laughed somewhat grimly, and said: The old that be here change from old to dead; how could I change to better? Yea, the first thing I had to do here was to bury an old man. Quoth she: And were there any children here then? Yea, said he; these same, or I can see no difference in them. Said Birdalone: And how long ago is that? And how camest thou hither? His face became foolish, and he gibbered rather than spake: No, I wot not; no, no, no, not a whit, a whit. But presently after was he himself again, and telling her a tale of a great lady of the earl-folk, a baron’s dame, and how dear he was unto her. He lay yet on the grass, and she stood before him, and presently he put forth a hand to her gown-hem and drew her to him thereby, and fell to caressing her feet; and Birdalone was ashamed thereat, and a little angry. He was nought abashed, but sat up and said: Well, since thou must needs depart tomorrow, be we merry today. And I pray thee talk much with me, fair child, for sweet and sweet is thy voice to hearken. Then he arose and said: Now will I fetch thee somewhat to eke the joy of us both. And he turned therewith and went into the house.
Birdalone stood there, and was now perplexed and downhearted; for now the look of the elder scarce liked her, and the children began to seem to her as images, or at the best not more to her than the rabbits or the goats; and she rued her word that she would abide there the night through. For she said to herself: I fear some trap or guile; is the witch behind this also? for the old man is yet stark, and though he be foolish at whiles, yet may wizardry have learned him some guile.
With that cometh out the carle again, bearing a little keg and a mazer roughly wrought; and he came to Birdalone, and sat down, and bade her sit by him, and said to her: Maybe I shall hear more of thy sweet voice when thy sweet lips have been in the cup. Therewith he poured forth into the mazer, and handed it to Birdalone, and lo! it was clear and good mead. She sipped thereof daintily, and, to say sooth, was well-pleased therewith, and it stirred the heart in her. But then she gave back the cup to the elder, and would no more of it. As for him, he drank what was left in the cup, looking over the rim thereof meanwhile; and then filled himself another, and another, and yet more. But whereas it might have been looked for that his tongue should be loosened by the good mead into foolishness and gibbering, he became rather few-spoken, and more courteous and stately even than he had been at the first. But in the end, forsooth, he was forgetting Birdalone, what she was, and he fell a-talking, always with much pomp and state, as if to barons and earls, and great ladies; till suddenly his head fell back, he turned over on his face, and all wit was gone from him.
At first, then, Birdalone was afraid that he was dead, or nigh unto death, and she knelt down and raised his head, and fetched water and cast it over his face. But when she saw that he was breathing not so ill, and that the colour was little changed in his lips and cheeks, she knew that it was but the might of the mead that had overcome him. Wherefore she laid him so that he was easy, and then stood up and looked about her, and saw the children playing together a little way off; and nought else anigh her, save the birds in the brake, or flying on their errands eagerly from place to place. Then, as it were, without her will being told them, her limbs and her feet turned her about to the shore where lay the Sending Boat, and she went speedily but quietly thitherward, her heart beating quick, for fear lest something should yet stay her, and her eyes glancing from brake to bush, as if she looked to see some enemy, old or new, come out thence.
So now her will was clear enough to her feet, and they brought her down to the water-side and the long strand, past which the wide water lay windless and gleaming in the hot afternoon. Then lightly she stepped aboard, and awoke the Sending Boat with blood-offering, and it obeyed her, and sped swiftly on the way to the southward.
Birdalone awoke the next morning while the boat was yet speeding over the water, and the sun was up: but she was hard on the land, which sat low and green, like a meadow exceeding fair, on the bosom of the water, and many goodly trees were sprinkled about the greenland. But from amidst the trees, no great way from the water’s edge, rose a great house, white and fair, as if it were new-builded, and all glorious with pinnacles, and tabernacles set with imagery.
Presently the boat’s bows ran into the reed and rush at the brim of the water, and Birdalone stepped ashore without more ado, and the scent of the meadow-sweet amongst which she landed brought back unto her the image of Green Eyot that while agone.
But now when she was ashore the dread took hold of her again, and her knees trembled under her, so that she might scarce stand, so fearful was she of walking into some trap; especially when she beheld that goodly house, lest therein awaited her some proud and cruel lady, and no kind damsels to deliver her.
She looked about her, and saw in all the fair meadow neither man nor woman, nor draught-beast nor milch-beast, nought but the little creatures of the brake and the bent-grass, which were but as the blossoms thereof; and the birds running in the herbage or singing amidst the tree-boughs.
Then she thought that she must needs go forward, or belike her errand would not speed; that the Sending Boat might not obey her, unless she saw through the adventure to the end; so she went on toward the house quaking.
Soon was she at the porch of the white palace, and had seen no man nor heard any voice of men; much she marvelled, despite her dread, at the beauty of the said house, and the newness thereof; for it was as one flower arisen out of the earth, and every part of it made the beauty of the other parts more excellent; and so new it was, that it would have seemed as if the masons thereof had but struck their scaffold yesterday, save that under the very feet of the walls the sweet garden flowers grew all uncrushed.
Now comes Birdalone through the porch unto the screens of the great hall; and she stopped a little to recover her breath, that she might be the quieter and calmer amongst the great folk and mighty whom she looked to find therein. So she gathered heart; but one thing daunted her, to wit, that she heard no sound come from that great and goodly hall, so that she doubted if it were perchance left desert by them who had been its lords.
She raised her hand to the door of the screen, and it opened easily before her, and she entered, and there indeed she saw new tidings. For the boards end-long and over-thwart were set, and thereat were sitting a many folk, and their hands were reached out to knife and to dish, and to platter and cup; but such a hush there was within, that the song of the garden birds without sounded to her as loud as they were the voices of the children of Adam.
Next she saw that all that company, from the great folk on the dais down to those who stood about the hall to do the service, were women, one and all; not one carle might she see from where she stood: lovely were they many of them, and none less than comely; their cheeks were bright, and their eyes gleamed, and their hair flowed down fair of fashion. And she stood, and durst not move a long while, but expected when someone would speak a word, and all should turn their heads toward the new-comer. But none moved nor spake. And the fear increased in her amidst that hush, and weighed so heavy on her heart, that at last she might endure it no longer, but fell swooning to the floor.
When she came to herself; and the swoon-dreams had left her, she saw by the changing of the sun through the hall-windows, that she had lain there long, more nearly two hours than one; and at first she covered her face with her hands as she crouched there, that she might not see the sight of the silent hall, for yet was it as hushed as before. Then slowly she arose, and the sound of her raiment and her stirring feet was loud in her ears. But when she was upright on her feet, she hardened her heart, and went forth into the hall, and no less was her wonder than erst. For when she came close to those ladies as they sat at table, and her raiment brushed the raiment of the serving-women as she passed by, then saw she how no breath came from any of these, and that they neither spake nor moved, because they were dead.
At first, then, she thought to flee away at once, but again she had mind of her errand, and so went up the hall, and so forth on to the dais; and there again, close by the high table, she saw new tidings. For there was set a bier, covered with gold and pall, and on it was laid a tall man, a king, belted and crowned; and beside the said bier, by the head of the king, knelt a queen of exceeding goodly body, clad all in raiment of pearl and bawdekin; and her hands were clasped together, and her mouth was drawn, and her brow knit with the anguish of her grief. But athwart the king’s breast lay a naked sword all bloody; and this Birdalone noted, that whereas the lady was of skin and hue as if she were alive, the king was yellow as wax, and his cheeks were shrunken, and his eyes had been closed by the wakers of the dead.
Long Birdalone looked and wondered; and now if her fear were less, her sorrow was more for all that folk sitting there dead in their ancient state and pomp. And was not the thought clean out of her head, that yet they might awake and challenge her, and that she might be made one of that silent company. Withal she felt her head beginning to fail her, and she feared that she might swoon again and never waken more, but lie for ever beside that image of the dead king.
So then she refrained her both of fear and sorrow, and walked speedily down the hall, looking neither to the right nor left: and she came forth into the pleasance, but stayed there nought, so nigh it seemed to that hushed company. Thence came she forth into the open meadow, and sweet and dear seemed its hot sunshine and noisy birds and rustling leaves. Nevertheless, so great was the tumult of her spirits, that once more she grew faint, and felt that she might scarce go further. So she dragged herself into the shade of a thorn-tree, and let her body sink unto the ground, and lay there long unwitting.
When Birdalone came to herself it was drawing toward the glooming, and she rose up hastily, and went down to the Sending Boat, for she would not for aught abide the night in that fearful isle, lest the flock of the hall should come alive and walk in the dusk and the dark. She stepped aboard lightly, and yielded her blood to the pride of that ferry, and it awoke and bore her forth, and she went through the night till she fell asleep.
When she awoke it was broad day and the sun just arising, and lo! before her, some half mile off, an isle rugged and rocky, and going up steep from the shore; and then, held as it were by the fangs of the rocks and pikes of the higher land, was a castle, white, high, and hugely builded, though, because of the rock-land belike, it spread not much abroad. Like to the lovely house of yesterday, it seemed new-builded; and, little as Birdalone knew of such matters, her heart told her that this new house was fashioned for battle.
She was downcast when she saw the isle so rugged and forbidding, but when the boat came aland in a stony bight, whence the ground went up somewhat steeply toward the heights, she went ashore straightway, and toiled up toward the white battlement. Presently she found herself in a strait and rugged path betwixt two walls of rock, so that she lost sight of the castle a while, till she came out on to a level place which looked down from aloft on to the blue water, but all over against her close at hand were the great towers and walls. She was worn by the rough road, and over helpless she felt her, and all too little to deal with that huge morsel of the world; and her valiancy gave way, and her trust in her errand. She sat down on a stone and wept abundantly.
After a while she was amended, and she looked up and saw the huge hold, and said: Yea, but if it were less by the half than it is, it would still be big enough to cow me. Yet she stood not up. Then she put forth a foot of her, and said aloud: Sorely hath this rough road tried Atra’s shoon and their goodly window-work; if they are to be known I must be speedy on my journey or go barefoot.
As she spoke she stood up, and the sound of her own voice frighted her, though nought noiseless was the place; for the wind was there, and beat to and fro the castle and the rock, and ran baffled into every corner of that market-place of nothing. For in that garth was neither knight nor squire nor sergeant; no spear-head glittered from the wall, no gleam of helm showed from the war-swales; no porter was at the gate; the drawbridge over the deep ghyll was down, the portcullis was up, and the great door cast wide open.
Birdalone steeled her heart and went forward swiftly, and over the bridge, and entered the basecourt, and came without more ado to the door of the great hall, and opened it easily, as with the door of yesterday, looking to find another show like unto that one; and even so it fell out.
Forsooth the hall was nought light and lovely, and gay with gold and bright colours, as that other, but beset with huge round pillars that bore aloft a wide vault of stone, and of stone were the tables; and the hallings that hung on the wall were terrible pictures of battle and death, and the fall of cities, and towers a-tumbling and houses a-flaming.
None the less there also were the shapes of folk that moved not nor spake, though not so thronged was that hall as the other one; and it seemed as if men were sitting there at a council rather than a feast. Close by Birdalone’s right hand as she entered were standing in a row along the screen big men-at-arms all weaponed, and their faces hidden by their sallets; and down below the dais on either side of the high table was again a throng of all-armed men; and at the high-table itself; and looking down the hall, sat three crowned kings, each with his drawn sword lying across his knees, and three long-hoary wise men stood before them at the nether side of the board.
Birdalone looked on it all, striving with her fear: but yet more there was, for she deemed that needs must she go through the hall up to the dais, lest the Sending Boat deny its obedience. Up toward the dais she went then, passing by weaponed men who sat as if abiding the council’s end at the end-long tables. And now, though no shape of man there spake or breathed, yet sound lacked not; for within the hall went the wind as without, and beat about from wall to wall, and drave clang and clash from the weapons hung up, and waved the arras, and fared moaning in the nooks, and hummed in the vault above.
Came she up to the dais then, and stood beside one of the wise men, and looked on the kings, and saw the mightiness which had been in them, and quaked before them. Then she turned from them and looked down to the floor, and lo! there, just below the dais, lay a woman on a golden bier; exceeding fair had she been, with long yellow hair streaming down from her head; but now waxen white she was, with ashen lips and sunken cheeks. Clad was she in raiment of purple and pall, but the bosom of her was bared on one side, and therein was the road whereby the steel had fared which had been her bane.
Now when Birdalone had gazed thereon a while, she deemed that if she tarried there long amidst those fierce men by the dead woman, she should lose her wit full soon, so sore the fear, held back, beset her now. Wherefore she turned and went hastily down the hall, and out-a-doors, and over the bridge, and ran fleet-foot down the rocky way whereby she had come, till she could run no further, and lay down under a great stone breathless and fordone; yet her heart upheld her and suffered her not to swoon, belike because she had given her limbs such hard work to do.
There she lay awake and troubled for an hour or more, and then she fell asleep, and slept till the day was worn toward sunset, and nought meddled with her. She arose and went to her ship somewhat downhearted, wondering how many such terrors should befall her; nay, whether the Sending Boat would so lead her that henceforth she should happen on no children of Adam but such as were dead images of the living. Had all the world died since she left the Isle of the Young and the Old?
Howsoever, she had nought to do save to board her ferry, and content its greedy soul with her blood, and drive it with the spell-words. And thereafter, when it was speeding on, and the twilight dusking apace, she looked aback, and seemed to see the far-off woodland in the northern ort, and the oak-clad ridge, where she had met her wood-mother; and then it was as if Habundia were saying to her: Meet again we shall. And therewith straightway became life sweeter unto her.
Deepened then the dusk, and became night, and she floated on through it, and was asleep alone on the bosom of the water.
Long before sunrise, in the very morn-dusk, she awoke and found that her ferry had taken land again. Little might she see what the said land was like; so she sat patiently and abode the day in the boat; but when day was come, little more was to see than erst. For flat was the isle, and scarce raised above the wash of the leeward ripple on a fair day; nor was it either timbered or bushed or grassed, and, so far as Birdalone might see, no one foot of it differed in aught from another. Natheless she deemed that she was bound to go ashore and seek out the adventure, or spoil her errand else.
Out of the boat she stepped then, and found the earth all paved of a middling gravel, and nought at all growing there, not even the smallest of herbs; and she stooped down and searched the gravel, and found neither worm nor beetle therein, nay nor any one of the sharp and slimy creatures which are wont in such ground.
A little further she went, and yet a little further, and no change there was in the land; and yet she went on and found nothing; and she wended her ways southward by the sun, and the day was windless.
At last she had gone a long way and had no sight of water south of the isle, nor had she seen any hill, nay, not so much as an ant-heap, whence she might look further around; and it seemed to her that she might go on for ever, and reach the heart of Nowhither at last. Wherefore she thought she would turn back and depart this ugly isle, and that no other adventure abided her therein. And by now it was high noon; and she turned about and took a few steps on the backward road.
But even therewith it seemed as if the sun, which heretofore had been shining brightly in the heavens, went out as a burnt-down candle, and all was become dull grey over head, as all under foot was a dull dun. But Birdalone deemed she could follow a straight course back again, and so walked on sturdily. Hour after hour she went and stayed not, but saw before her no glimpse of the northern shore, and no change in the aspect of the ground about her.
It had so happened that a little before she had turned to go back, she had eaten her dinner of a piece of bread and a morsel of cheese, and now as she stooped and peered on the ground, looking for some sign of the way, as her foot-prints going south, and had her eyes low anigh the earth, she saw something white at her feet in the gathering dusk (for the day was wearing), and she put her hand to it and lifted it, and found it a crumb of bread, and knew that it must have come from her dinner of’ seven hours ago, whereas till that time her bread had lain unbroken in her scrip. Fear and anguish smote her therewith, for she saw that in that dull land, every piece whereof was like every other piece, she must have gone about in a ring, and come back again to where she first turned to make for the northern shore.
Yet would she not cast aside all hope, but clad herself in her valiancy. Forsooth she knew it availed nought to try to move on in the twilight; so she laid herself down on that waste, and made up her mind to sleep if she might, and abide the new day there, and then to strive with the way once more, for belike, she thought, it may be fair tomorrow, and the sun shining. And as she was very weary with tramping the waste all day, she fell asleep at once, and slept the short night through.
But when she awoke, and saw what the new day was, her heart fell indeed, for now was she encompassed and shut in with a thick dark mist (though it seemed to be broad day), so that had there been aught to see she would not have seen it her own length away from her. So there she stood, hanging her head, and striving to think; but the master-thought of death drawing nigh scattered all other thoughts, or made them dim and feeble.
Long she stood there; but suddenly something came into her mind. She set her hand to the fair-broidered pouch which hung from Viridis’ loin-girdle, and drew out thence flint and steel and tinder, which matters, forsooth, had served her before in the boat to make fire withal. Then she set her hand to her head, and drew forth the tress of hair which Habundia had given her, and which was coiled up in the crown of her own abundant locks which decked her so gloriously; she drew two hairs from the said tress, and held them between her lips while she did up the tress in its place again, and then, pale and trembling, fell to striking a light, and when she had the tinder burning, she cried out:
O wood-mother, wood-mother! How then may we meet again as thou didst promise me, if I die here in this empty waste? O wood-mother, if thou mightest but come hither for my deliverance!
Then she burned the hairs one after another, and stood waiting, but nought befell a great while, and her heart sickened, and there she stood like a stone.
But in awhile, lo! there came as it were a shadow amidst the mist, or rather lying thereon, faint and colourless, and it was of the shape of the wood-mother, with girt-up gown and bow in hand. Birdalone cried aloud with joy, and hastened toward the semblance, but came to it no nigher, and still she went, and the semblance still escaped her, and she followed on and on; and this lasted long, and faster and faster must she follow lest it vanish, and she gathered her skirts into her girdle, and fell to running fleet-foot after the fleeing shadow, which she loved dearly even amidst the jaws of death; and all her fleetness of foot had Birdalone to put forth in following up the chase; but even to die in the pain would she not miss that dear shadow.
But suddenly, as she ran, the mist was all gone from before her, the sun shone hot and cloudless; there was no shadow or shape of Habundia there, nought but the blue lake and the ugly lip of that hideous desert, with the Sending Boat lying a half score yards from her feet; and behind her stood up, as it were a wall, the mist from out of which she had come.
Forsooth Birdalone was too breathless to cry out her joy, but her heart went nigh to breaking therewith, and lovely indeed to her was the rippled water and the blue sky; and she knew that her wood-mother had sped a sending to her help, and she fell a-weeping where she stood, for love of her wise mother, and for longing to behold her: she stretched out her arms to the north quarter, and said blessings on her in a voice faint for weariness. Then she laid her down on the desert, and rested her with sleep, despite the hot sun, and when she awoke, some three hours thereafter, all was as before, save that the sky had now some light-flying clouds, and still was the wall of mist behind her. Wherefore she deemed she had yet time, and the blue rippling water wooed her much-besweated limbs; so she did off her raiment and took the water, and became happy and unweary therein. Then she landed and stood in the sun to dry her, and so, strengthened with that refreshing, clad her, and went aboard and did the due rites, and sped over the waters, and had soon lost sight of that ugly blotch on the fair face of the Great Water.
Here ends the Second Part of the Water of the Wondrous Isles, which is called Of the Wondrous Isles, and begins the Third Part of the said tale, which is called Of the Castle of the Quest.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11