CHAPTER IV ~ OF THE WITCH'S PRISON IN THE WAILING-TOWER
Birdalone did as she was bidden, and the witch called unto her Atra, who came and stood humbly on the footpace beside her, and held converse with her mistress a while. Then she went backward from her a little, and then came to Birdalone, and in a somewhat harsh voice bade her come with her. Birdalone followed her, quaking, and they came out of the hall and into a long passage, which led to a wide stair winding round a newel; and all was builded exceeding fair, had Birdalone’s heart suffered her eyes to see it; but her flesh was weak, and quaked before the torment to come, so that her knees well-nigh failed her.
But now Atra lays a hand kindly on her shoulder and stays her, and says: Now meseems the walls of the Wailing–Tower, for so it hight, have no ears to hear, and we may talk together. Wottest thou why I have brought thee hither? Said Birdalone in a faint voice: Hast thou been bidden to whip me? And if I had been so bidden, dear maiden, said Atra laughing, nowise would I do it. Hold up thine heart! For all hath gone well so far, and now meseems betwixt us three we shall save thee.
Birdalone’s spirit came back to her at that word, and she put her hands to her face and fell a-weeping. But Atra was kind to her and made much of her; and she kissed her and wiped her tears, and Birdalone smiled again amidst her sobs, and she thanked Atra; who said to her: First of all I must tell thee that I am taking thee to prison by the witch’s bidding. Yea, said Birdalone, and what is prison? Said Atra: A prison is a grim place where poor folk who have done that which pleaseth not rich folk are shut up, that they may be grieved and tormented by not being able to fare abroad, or go where they would; and by suffering whatsoever their masters may lay upon them, as darkness, and cold, and hunger, and stripes. Somewhat so, or worse, our lady would have it for thee; but so would not we. Therefore for thee shall this prison be a place where thou shalt be safe till we may bring thee forth when the night hath worn towards its ending. For she will have forgotten thee by tomorrow; and this she knoweth; wherefore just now, when thou stoodest out of earshot, she was bidding me, amongst other matters, to bring thee before her tomorrow morning, and tell her the tale of thee, that she might call it to mind then what she had will to this morning.
Yea, said Birdalone, but will she not remember that she hath given thee a charge concerning me? But little thereof, said Atra, and with a few words I may easily confuse her memory so that speech thereon will fail her. Keep up thine heart, sweetling; but let us up this stair now forthwith, for I were fain to have thee hid away in this prison, and then will I down to her and tell her that thou art lying therein in all misery and terror, lest it come into her head to send for thee ere her memory is grown dim.
Again did Birdalone take heart, and they hastened a long way up the stair, till Atra stayed at last at a door all done with iron, endlong and over-thwart. Then she took a leash of keys from her girdle, one big and two little, and set the big one in the lock and turned it, and shoved the heavy door and entered thereby a chamber four-square and vaulted; and the vault was upheld by a pillar of red marble, wherein, somewhat higher than a man’s head, were set stanchions of latten, that could be clasped and unclasped. This chamber was in a way goodly, but yet grim to look on; for the walls were all of black ashlar stone close-jointed, and the floor black also, but of marble polished so wholly that it was as dark water, and gave back the image of Birdalone’s dear feet and legs as she went thereon. The windows were not small, and the chamber was light in every corner because of them, but they were so high up under the vaulting that none might see thereout aught save the heavens. There was nought in the chamber save a narrow bench of oak and three stools of the same, a great and stately carven chair dight with cushions of purple and gold, and in one corner a big oaken coffer.
Now spake Atra: This is our lady’s prison, and I fear me we cannot make it soft for thee, dear stranger. Yea, I must tell thee (and she reddened therewith) that it is part of my charge to set thee in irons. Birdalone smiled on her, and was over weary to ask what that meant, though she knew not. But Atra went to the big coffer and opened it and thrust in her hands, and there was a jangling therewith, and when she turned about to Birdalone again she had iron chains in her hands, and she said: This shameth me, dear friend; yet if thou wouldst wear them it might be well, for she may have a mind to go visit her prison, and if she find thee there unshackled she shall be wroth, and oftenest her wrath hath a whip in its hand. And these are the lightest that I might find.
Birdalone smiled again, and spake not, for she was very weary, and Atra did the irons on her wrists and her ankles; and said thereafter: Yet bear in mind that it is a friend that hath the key of these things. And now I will go away for a little, but I shall be on thine errands; for first I shall tell the mistress that thou art lying here shackled and in all wanhope; and next, by the will and command of her, I am to see that thou be well fed and nourished today that thou mayst be the stronger for tomorrow. Now if I may give thee rede, it is that thou forbear to open the coffer yonder; for ugly things shalt thou find there, and that may dishearten thee again.
Therewith she kissed her kindly on the cheek and went her ways, and the great key turned in the lock behind her.
There then was Birdalone left to herself; and she was over weary even to weep; true it is that she made a step or two towards the coffer, but reframed her, and took two of the pillows from the great chair and turned aside into the other corner, her chains jingling as she went. There she laid herself down, and nestled into the very wall-nook, and presently fell asleep, and slumbered dreamlessly and sweetly a long while.