William Morris Archive


Wear the years and the years amidst such days as these, and now is Birdalone grown a dear maiden of seventeen summers; and yet was her life not unhappy; though the mirth of her childhood was somewhat chastened in her, and she walked the earth soberly and measurely, as though deep thoughts were ever in her head: though, forsooth, it is not all so sure that her serious face and solemn eyes were but a part of the beauty which was growing with the coming forth of childhood into youth and maidenhood. But this at least is sure, that about this time those forebodings which had shown her that she had no call to love and honour her mistress took clearer shape, and became a burden on her, which she might never wholly shake off. For this she saw, that she was not her own, but a chattel and a tool of one who not only used her as a thrall in the passing day, but had it in her mind to make of her a thing accursed like to herself, and to bait the trap with her for the taking of the sons of Adam. Forsooth she saw, though dimly, that her mistress was indeed wicked, and that in the bonds of that wickedness was she bound.

One thing, moreover, had she noted now this long while, that once and again, it might be once every two moons, the witch-wife would arise in the dead of night and go forth from the house, and be away for a day, or two or three, or whiles more, and come back again weary and fordone; but never said she any word to Birdalone hereof. Yet oft when she arose to go this errand, before she left the chamber would she come to Birdalone’s truckle-bed, and stand over her to note if she were asleep or not; and ever at such times did Birdalone feign slumber amidst of sickening dread. Forsooth in these latter days it whiles entered the maiden’s head that when the dame was gone she would rise and follow her and see whither she went, and what she did; but terror constrained her that she went not.

Now from amidst all these imaginings arose a hope in her that she might one day escape from her thralldom: and whiles, when she was lonely and safe in the wood, to this hope she yielded herself; but thereof came such tumult of her soul for joy of the hope, that she might not master her passion; the earth would seem to rise beneath her, and the woods to whirl about before her eyes, so that she might not keep her feet, but would sink adown to earth, and lie there weeping. Then most oft would come the cold fit after the hot, and the terror would take her that some day the witch would surprise the joy of that hope in her eyes, and would know what it meant, or that some light word might bewray her; and therewith came imaginings of what would then befall her, nor were that hard to picture, and it would come before her over and over again till she became weary and worn out therewith.

But though they abode ever with her, these troubling thoughts pricked not so oft at the keenest, but were as the dull ache of little import that comes after pain overcome: for in sooth busy and toilsome days did she wear, which irked her in nowise, since it eased her of the torment of those hopes and fears aforesaid, and brought her sound sleep and sweet awaking. The kine and the goats must she milk, and plough and sow and reap the acre-land according to the seasons, and lead the beasts to the woodland pastures when their own were flooded or burned; she must gather the fruits of the orchard, and the hazel nuts up the woodlands, and beat the walnut-trees in September. She must make the butter and the cheese, grind the wheat in the quern, make and bake the bread, and in all ways earn her livelihood hard enough. Moreover, the bowman’s craft had she learned, and at the dame’s bidding must fare alone into the wood now and again to slay big deer and little, and win venison: but neither did that irk her at all, for rest and peace were in the woods for her.

True it is, that as she wended thicket or glade or wood-lawn, she would at whiles grow timorous, and tread light and heedfully, lest rustling leaves or crackling stick should arouse some strange creature in human shape, devil, or god now damned, or woman of the faery. But if such were there, either they were wise and would not be seen, or kind and had no will to scare the simple maiden; or else maybe there were none such in those days. Anyhow, nought evil came to her out of Evilshaw.

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