CHAPTER III ~ BIRDALONE IS BROUGHT BEFORE THE WITCH-WIFE'S SISTER
So came they at last to the very house, and whereas it stood high on the bent, a great stair or perron of stone went up to it, and was of much majesty. They went through the porch, which was pillared and lovely, and into a great hall most nobly builded, and at the other end thereof, on a golden throne raised upon a dais, sat a big woman clad in red scarlet. The three damsels led Birdalone to some four paces of the great lady, and then stood away from her, and left her standing there alone, the scarlet-clad woman before her; on the right and the left the tall pillars going up gleaming toward the roof, and about her feet the dark polished pavement, with the wallowing of strange beasts and great serpents and dragons all done on the coal-blue ground.
When she was so left alone, at first she tottered, and went nigh to falling; but then came back some little heart to her, as she said to herself that now she should verily die once for all, and that no long while would be the passing from life into death. She looked up and beheld the lady-witch, that she was somewhat like to her sister, white-skinned and of plenteous golden-hair as was she, but younger of aspect, and nowise so ill-looked as that other had now become; for somewhat well-shapen of body she was; but her face forbidding; her lower lip thrust out, her cheeks flaggy and drooping, her eyes little more than half open; to be short, a face both proud, foolish, and cruel; terrible indeed, sitting in judgment in that place on a shrinking naked creature.
Now she spake; and if there were no majesty or solemnity in the voice, there was ugly glee and malice therein; but she said to those damsels: Is this the woman that my keen eyes beheld come aland from my sister’s Sending Boat e’en now? Aurea knelt on one knee, and said: Yea, so please you, my lady.
Then said the witch: Ho thou! Wilt thou plead some errand hither from my sister? Dost thou deem me so witless as not to know that if she had sent thee hither thou wouldst not have come in this plight? Nay, I know; thou hast stolen thyself from her: thou art a thief, and as a thief shalt thou be dealt with.
Spake Birdalone in a clear voice: No errand do I feign from thy sister, lady: when I could bear my life there no longer, I took occasion to flee from her: this is all the tale. Yet once and again it hath been in my mind that it was thy sister who stole me from them that loved me.
Hah, thrall! said the lady, thou art bold; thou art over-bold, thou naked wretch, to bandy words with me. What heed I thy tale now thou art under my hand? Her voice was cold rather than fierce, yet was there the poison of malice therein. But Birdalone spake: If I be bold, lady, it is because I see that I have come into the House of Death. The dying may well be bold.
The House of Death! cried the stupid lady; and wilt thou call my noble house the House of Death? Now art thou no longer bold, stripped thrall, but impudent.
Scorn rose into Birdalone’s heart at this word, but she refrained her, and spake: I meant that I have stirred the wrath in thee, and that thou wilt slay me therefor; and that it availeth not to crave mercy of thee.
Laughed the lady: Thou art a fool, thrall, said she; if a sparrow fled hither from my sister, I should not wring its neck, but keep it for her. So shall I do with thee. I shall not slay thee, and so destroy my sister’s chattel; nor shall I spoil thee, and spoil her possession. I shall send thee back unto her, the stolen thrall in the stolen boat, when I have learned thee a lesson here. Forsooth it was for that cause meseemeth that she let thee slip through her fingers, for she is wise enough to have stayed thee from this holiday had she willed it. But she is tender-hearted, and kind, and soft, and might well deem that if thy chastisement were done to her hand here, it were better done than by her mercy. Now, thrall, I have spoken enough to thee, or more than enough: get thee back out of earshot!