The Water of the Wondrous Isles 2-12
CHAPTER XII ~ OF BIRDALONE, HOW SHE CAME UNTO THE ISLE OF NOTHING
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.