The Water of the Wondrous Isles 1-8
CHAPTER VIII ~ OF BIRDALONE AND THE WITCH-WIFE
It went with Birdalone as Habundia had foretold, for she came home to the house glad of semblance, flushed and light-foot, so that she was lovely and graceful beyond her wont. The dame looked on her doubtfully and grimly a while, and then she said: What ails thee, my servant, that thou lookest so masterful? Nought ails me, lady, said Birdalone, save that I am gay because of the summer season, and chiefly because of thy kindness and thy gift, and that I have well-nigh done my work thereon, and that soon now I shall feel these dainty things beating about my ankles. And she held up and spread abroad the skirt with her two hands, and it was indeed goodly to look on.
The witch-wife snorted scornfully and scowled on her, and said: Thine ankles forsooth! Bag-o’-bones! thou wisp! forsooth, thou art in love with thy looks, though thou knowest not what like a fair woman is. Forsooth, I begin to think that thou wilt never grow into a woman at all, but will abide a skinny elf thy life long. Belike I did myself wrong to suffer thee to waste these three or four months of thy thrall’s work, since for nought but thrall’s work shalt thou ever be meet.
Birdalone hung her head adown, and blushed, but smiled a little, and swayed her body gently, as a willow-bough is swayed when a light air arises in the morning. But the witch stood so scowling on her, and with so sour a look, that Birdalone, glancing at her, found her heart sink so within her, that she scarce kept countenance; yet she lost it not.
Then said the witch sharply: Wert thou in the wood today? Yea, lady, said the maiden. Then said the dame fiercely: And what sawest thou? Quoth Birdalone, looking up with an innocent face somewhat scared: Lady, I saw a bear, one of the big ones, crossing a glade. And thou without bow and arrow or wood-knife, I warrant me, said the witch. Thou shalt be whipped, to keep thee in mind that thy life is mine and not thine. Nay, nay, I pray thee be not wroth! said the maid; he was a long way down the glade, and would not have followed me if he had seen me: there was no peril therein. Said the witch-wife: Didst thou see aught else? Yea, said Birdalone, and was weeping somewhat now; which forsooth was not hard for her to do, over-wrought as she was betwixt hope and fear: yea, I saw my white doe and her fawn, and they passed close by me; and two herons flew over my head toward the water; and . . . But the witch turned sharply and said: Thrall! hast thou seen a woman today in the wood? A woman? said Birdalone, and what woman, my lady, said Birdalone. Hath any woman come to the house, and passed forth into the wood?
The dame looked on her carefully, and remembered how she had faltered and changed countenance that other day, when she had charged her with being minded to flee; and now she saw her with wondering face, and in no wise confused or afraid of guilt, as it seemed; so she believed her tale, and being the more at ease thereby, her wrath ran off her, and she spake altogether pleasantly to Birdalone, and said: Now I have had my gird at thee, my servant, I must tell thee that in sooth it is not all for nothing that thou hast had these months of rest; for verily thou hast grown more of a woman thereby, and hast sleekened and rounded much. Albeit, the haysel will wait no longer for us, and the day after tomorrow we must fall to on it. But when that is done, thou shalt be free to do thy green gown, or what thou wilt, till wheat harvest is toward; and thereafter we shall see to it. Or what sayest thou?
Birdalone wondered somewhat at this so gracious word, but not much; for in her heart now was some guile born to meet the witch’s guile; so she knelt down and took the dame’s hands and kissed them, and said: I say nought, lady, save that I thank thee over and over again that thou art become so good to me; and that I will full merrily work for thee in the hay-field, or at whatsoever else thou wilt.
And indeed she was so light-hearted that she had so escaped from the hand of the witch for that time, and above all, that she had gotten a friend so kind and dear as the wood-woman, that her heart went out even toward her mistress, so that she went nigh to loving her.