The Water of the Wondrous Isles 1-15
CHAPTER XV ~ BIRDALONE WEARETH HER SERPENT-RING
After this she went once and again fishing on to Green Eyot by the bidding of the dame, who went not again to the shore with her. These times she had half a mind to go see the Sending Boat, but durst not, lest the thing itself might have life enough to tell of her.
And now was come the time of wheat-harvest, and Birdalone must wear her days swinking in the acre-land, clad but in smock and shoes; and the toil was hard, and browned her skin and hardened her hands, but it irked her not, for the witch let her work all alone, and it was holiday unto the maiden if her mistress were not anigh, despite those words which had somewhat touched her heart that other day.
But when wheat-getting was done, there was again rest for her body, and swimming withal and fishing from the eyot by the witch’s leave. And again by her own leave she went to seek Habundia in the wood, and spent a happy hour with her, and came back with a fawn which she had shot, and so but barely saved her skin from the twig-shower. Then yet again she went into the wood on the witch’s errand as well as her own, and was paid by her friend’s sweet converse, and by nought else save the grudging girding of her mistress.
But on a night when September was well in, and the sky was moonless and overcast, somewhat before midnight the dame came and hung over Birdalone as she lay abed, and watched to see if she waked; forsooth the witch’s coming had waked her; but even so she was wary, and lay still, nor changed her breathing. So the witch turned away, but even therewith Birdalone made a shift to get a glimpse of her, and this she saw thereby, that the semblance of her was changed, and that she bore the self-same skin wherewith she had come to Utterhay, and which she had worn twice or thrice afterwards when she had an errand thither.
The witch now glided swiftly to the door, and out into the night. Birdalone lay still a little, lest she should fall into a trap, and then arose very quietly and did on her smock, which lay ever under her pillow with the ring sewn thereto again, and so went out adoors also, and deemed she saw the witch some way on ahead; but it was nothing for her light feet to overtake her. So she stayed to take the ring from her smock, and set it on her finger; then in a low voice she said:
To left and right, Before, behind, Of me be sight As of the wind!
Then boldly she sped on, and was soon close on the heels of the witch, who made her way to the edge of the lake, and then turned east, and went even as Birdalone had gone when she came across the Sending Boat.
So fared the witch-wife straight to the creek-side, and Birdalone must needs stick close to her, or she had known nought, so black was the night amongst the alder-boughs. But the witch-wife fumbled about a while when she was stayed by the creek, and presently drew somewhat from under her cloak, and the maiden saw that she was about striking flint upon steel, and quaked somewhat, lest her charm had played her false. Presently the tinder quickened, and the dame had lighted a lantern, which she held up, peering all about; and full she looked on the place whereas was Birdalone, and made no show of seeing her, though well-nigh the maiden looked for it to see her drop the lantern and spring on her.
Now the witch, holding the lantern aloft, steps over the gunwale of the boat, and sits down on the thwart; and it was a near thing but that Birdalone followed her into the boat, but she feared the getting forth again, so she but hung over it as close as she might. Then she saw the witch draw out of her girdle that sharp little knife which Birdalone had seen raised against her own throat; and then the witch bared her arm, and pricked it till the blood sprang from that barren white skin; thereat she stood up, and went to the bows of the craft and hung over them, and drew her arm to and fro over the stem to bloody it; and went thereafter to the stern, and took blood into her right hand and passed it over the place of the steerage (for there was no rudder) and came back and sat down on the thwart again; and, so far as Birdalone might see, busied herself in staunching the little wound on her arm. Then deemed Birdalone that she knew what manner of paint was that which had made the rusty smears which she had seen on the boat by daylight.
But now as the witch sat there, a harsh voice began to stir in her throat, and then words came out of her, and she sang in a crow’s croak:
The red raven-wine now Hast thou drunk, stern and bow; Then wake and awake And the wonted way take! The way of the Wender forth over the flood, For the will of the Sender is blent with the blood.
Therewithal began the boat to stir, and anon it glided forth out of the creek into the waters of the lake, and the light of the lantern died, and it was but a minute ere Birdalone lost all sight of it. She abode a little longer, lest perchance boat and witch might come back on her hands, and then turned and went swiftly back again. She would have drawn off her ring straightway, but the thought came on her, that she had seen the witch depart in her second semblance; how if she were abiding her at home in her wonted skin? So she came to the house even as she was, and opened the door, and looked in, quaking; but there was no image of a child of Adam therein, and no living thing, save the cat drowsing before the fire; wherefore Birdalone took the ring from her finger and went to the hearth, and stirred up the cat with her foot till he arose and fell to rubbing himself against her legs, and she was fain of him.
Thereafter she made her ring fast to her smock again, and set the smock under her pillow as her wont was, and betook herself to bed, and fell asleep sweetly, leaving all troublous thoughts for the morrow; and that the more as she was free of the witch-wife for that night at least.