The Water of the Wondrous Isles 1-13
CHAPTER XIII ~ BIRDALONE MEETETH THE WOOD-WOMAN AGAIN
It was fifteen days thereafter that Birdalone awoke lying in her bed on a bright morning, as if all this had been but a dream. But the witch-wife was standing over her and crying out: Thou art late, slug-a-bed, this fair-weather day, and the grass all spoiling for lack of the scythe. Off! and down to the meadow with thee.
Birdalone waited not for more words, but sprang out of bed, and had her work-a-day raiment on in a twinkling, and stayed but to wash her in a pool of the brook, and then was amidst the tall grass with the swathe falling before her. As she worked she thought, and could scarce tell whether joy at her present deliverance, or terror of the witch-wife, were the greatest. Sore was her longing to go see her friend in the wood, but the haysel lasted more than a week, and when that was done, whether it were of set purpose or no, the dame forgat her other promise, to give Birdalone more holiday, and kept her close to her work about meadow and acre. Otherwise her mistress nowise mishandled or threatened her, though she had gone back to the surliness and railing which was her wont. At last, on a morning when the dame had bidden her to nought of work, Birdalone took her bow in her hand and cast her quiver on her back, and went her ways into the wood, and forgat not the tress of Habundia’s hair; but she had no need to use it, for when she was come to the Oak of Tryst, straightway came Habundia forth from the thicket, and now so like to Birdalone that it was a wonder, for as her friend she bare bow and quiver, and green gown trussed up till her knees were naked.
So they kissed and embraced, and Birdalone wept upon her friend’s bosom, but was ashamed of the words which would have told her of her case. Then Habundia set her down upon the greensward, and sat down beside her, and caressed her and soothed her; then she smiled on Birdalone, and said: Thy tale is partly told without words, and I would weep for thee if I might shed tears. But thou mayest tell me wherefore thou didst suffer this; though forsooth I have an inkling thereof. Hast thou happened on the witch’s ferry?
Even so it was, sister, quoth Birdalone. And therewith she plucked up heart, and told her all the tale of the vanishing of her body and the skin-changing. And Habundia answered: Well then, there is this to be said, that sooner or later this must have happened, for thereby lieth thy road of escape; wherefore it is better sooner than later. But tell me again: was she fierce and rough in words with thee? for what she said to thee thou hast not yet told me. Said Birdalone: In her first fury, when she was like to have slain me, she had no words, nought but wolfish cries. But thereafter she spake unto me strangely, yet neither fiercely nor roughly; nay, it seemed to me as if almost she loved me. And more than almost she besought me rather than commanded me not to flee from her. And wert thou beguiled by her soft speech? said Habundia. Nowise to cast aside my hope of escape, nay, not even in that hour, said Birdalone; but amidst all the confusion and terror somewhat was I moved to compassion on her.
Spake Habundia, looking anxiously on her: Dost thou deem that thou art somewhat cowed by what she hath done to thee? Said Birdalone, and flushed very red: Oh no, no! Nought save death or bonds shall come betwixt me and my utmost striving for escape. That is better than well, said Habundia; but again, canst thou have patience a little, and be wary and wise the while? So meseemeth, said the maiden. Said Habundia: Again it is well. Now is the summer beginning to wane, and by my rede thou shalt not try the flight until May is come again and well-nigh worn into June; for thou wilt be bigger then, little sister, and tidings are waxing that shall get matters ready for thy departure: moreover, thou must yet learn what thou hast to do meanwhile, and thereof shall I tell thee somewhat as now. For that boat, the thing which thou didst find, and for which thou didst suffer, is called the Sending Boat, and therein thy mistress fareth time and again, I deem to seek to some other of her kind, but I know not unto whom, or whereto. Hast thou noted of her that whiles she goeth away privily by night and cloud? Yea, verily, said Birdalone, and this is one of the things which heretofore hath made me most afraid. Said Habundia: Well now, that she wendeth somewhither in this ferry I wot; but as I wot not whither, so also I know not what she doth with the Sending Boat to make it obey her; whereas, though I know all things of the wood, I know but little of the lake. Wherefore, though there be peril to thee therein, follow her twice or thrice when she riseth up for this faring, and note closely what is her manner of dealing with the said Sending Boat, so that thou mayst do in like wise. Wilt thou risk the smart and the skin-changing, or even if it were the stroke of the knife, to gather this wisdom? And thereafter thou shalt come hither and tell me how thou hast sped. With a good heart will I, dear sister, said Birdalone.
Then Habundia kissed her and said: It is a joy to me to see thee so valiant, but herein may I help thee somewhat; here is a gold finger-ring, see thou! fashioned as a serpent holding his tail in his mouth; whenso thou goest on this quest, set thou this same ring on the middle finger of thy left hand, and say thou above thy breath at least:
To left and right, Before, behind, Of me be sight As of the wind!
And nought then shall be seen of thee even by one who standeth close beside. But wear not the ring openly save at such times, or let the witch have sight thereof ever, or she will know that thou hast met me. Dost thou understand, and canst thou remember?
Laughed Birdalone, and took the ring and set it on her finger, and spake aloud even as Habundia had given her the words. Then quoth Habundia, laughing: Now have I lost my friend and sister, for thou art gone, Birdalone. Take off the ring, sweetling, and get thee to thine hunting, for if thou come home empty-handed there will be flyting awaiting thee, or worse.
So Birdalone took off the ring and came back to sight again laughing; then the wood-woman kissed her and turned her heels to her, and was gone; but Birdalone strung her bow, and got to her woodcraft, and presently had a brace of hares, wherewith she went back home to the dame; who indeed girded at her for her sloth, and her little catch in so long a while; but there it ended.