CHAPTER X ~ HOW IT FAIRED WITH THE THREE LADIES AFTER THE ESCAPE OF BIRDALONE
Viridis took up the word without more ado, and said: I will do my best herein, and ye, sisters, must set me right if I err. When we had seen the last of you, dear Birdalone, that early morning, we turned back again to the house as speedily and as covertly as we might, lest the witch might espy our disarray and question us thereover. Then we went to the wonder-coffer, and gat thereout raiment for that which we had given away, which was easy for us to do, whereas the witch-mistress was so slothful that she had given to us the words of might wherewith to compel the coffer to yield, so that we might do all the service thereof, and she not to move hand or foot in the matter. So when we were clad, and the time was come, we went into the hall, by no means well assured of our mistress.
When we came before her, she looked on us in surly wise, as her wont was, and said nought for a while; she stared on us and knit her brows, as if she strove to call to mind something that ran to and fro in her memory; and I noted that, and for my part I trembled before her. But she spake at last: Meseemeth as if there is a woman in the isle besides you three; some misdoer that I was minded to punish. Tell me, you! was there not a naked one who came into this hall a while ago, one whom I threatened with pining? Atra, who was the boldest of us, bowed the knee before her, and said: Nay, our lady, since when do stranger women come naked into thine hall, and dare thee there?
Said the witch: Yet have I an image of a naked woman standing down there before me; and if I have it in mine eye, so should ye. Tell me therefore, and beware, for We are not bidden to hold Our hand from you if We take you in misdeeds.
If I quaked before, now much more I quaked, till my legs well-nigh failed me for fear; but Atra said: Great lady, this image will belike be of that one whom a while ago ye had stripped and tied to a pillar here, and tormented while ye feasted.
The lady looked on her hard, and again seemed striving to gather up the thrums of some memory, and then her face became smooth again, and she spake lightly: All that may well be; so do ye go about your due service, and trouble Our rest here no longer; for We love not to look on folk who be not wholly Our own to pine or to spare, to slay or let live, as We will; and We would that the winds and the waves would send Us some such now; for it is like to living all alone to have but such as you with Us, and none to cower before Us and entreat Us of mercy. So begone, I bid you.
Thus for that time were we saved from the witch’s cruelty; but our time came before long. The days wore heavily, nor kept we count of them lest we should lose heart for the weariness of waiting. But on a day as we stood on the steps of the perron and served my lady with dainties, of a hot afternoon, came two great white doves a-flying, who pitched down right before our mistress’s feet; and each had a gold ring about his neck, and a scroll tied thereto, and the witch bade us take the doves and take off the scrolls and give them unto her; and she looked on the gold rings which the doves bore, and for a moment on the scrolls, and then she said: Take ye the doves and cherish them, lest We have need of them; take also the two scrolls and keep them till tomorrow morning, and then give them into Our hands. And look ye to this, that if ye give them not unto Us it will be treason against Us, and We shall have a case against you, and your bodies will be Ours.
Then she rose up slowly, and bade me to her that she might lean upon my shoulder and be helped upstairs, so slothful a beast as she was; and as we went up I heard her say softly to herself: Weary on it, now must I drink a sup of the Water of Might, that I may remember and do and desire. But dear is my sister, and without doubt she hath matters of import to tell me by these doves.
So when we were together alone I told the others hereof, and we talked it over; and they deemed the tidings ill, even as I did; for we might not doubt but that the doves were a sending from the witch-sister who dwelt at the House under the Wood; and sore we misdoubted that they were sped to our mistress to tell her of thee, Birdalone, and mayhappen of the Quest, so wise as we knew she was. As to the two scrolls, forsooth, they were open, and not sealed; but when we looked on them we could make nought of it; for though they were writ fairly in Latin script, so that we read them, yet of the words no whit might we understand, so we feared the worst. But what might we do? we had but two choices, either to cast ourselves into the water, or abide what should befall; and this last one we chose because of the hope of deliverance.
Next morning, therefore, we came before our mistress in the hall, and we found her pacing up and down before the dais; though her wont was at that hour to be sitting in her throne of gold and ivory, lying back on the cushions half asleep.
So Atra went up to her, and knelt before her and gave her the scrolls, and she looked on her grimly, and smiled evilly, and said: Kneel there yet; and ye others kneel also, till I see what befitteth you. So did we, and indeed I was fain to kneel, for I might scarce stand up for terror; and all of us, our hearts died within us.
But the witch read those scrolls to herself, sitting in her throne, and spake not a long while; then she said: Come hither, and grovel before Us, and hearken! Even so we did; and she said again: Our sister, who hath been so kind unto you, and saved you from so many pains, here telleth Us, by the message of the two doves, that ye have betrayed Us and her, and have stolen her thrall and her Sending Boat, and sent her an errand for Our destruction; and therewith she delivereth you into Our hands, and ye are Ours henceforward; nor is it to be thought that ye may escape Us. Now, for your treason, some would slay you outright here and now, but We will be merciful, and let you live, and do no more than chastise you sharply now; and thereafter shall ye be Our very thralls to do as We will with: thereafter, that is to say, when they whom ye have sent Our sister’s thrall to fetch have come hither (as belike I may scarce stay them), and I have foiled them and used them, and sent them away empty. Now I tell you, that meanwhile of their coming shall ye suffer such things as We will; and when they be here We will not forbid you to be anigh them; but We shall see that there will be little joy to you in that nighness. Yea, ye shall know now to what market ye have brought your wares, and what the price of treason is therein.
Verily then we suffered at her hand what she would, whereof it would shame me to tell more as at this present; and thereafter did she chain us to those three pillars of the hall whereas ye found us chained; and we were fed as dogs be, and served as dogs, but we endured all for the sake of hope; and when we durst, and deemed the witch would not hear us, we spake together and enheartened each other.
But on the fourth day of our torment came the witch to us, and gave us to drink a certain red water from out of a leaden flasket; and when I drank I deemed it was poison, and was glad, if gladness might be in me at such a tide; and when I had drunk I felt an icy chill go through all my body, and all things swam before my eyes, and deadly sickness came over me. But that passed away from me presently, and I felt helpless and yet not feeble; all sounds heard I clearer than ever yet in my life; also I saw the hall, every arch and pillar and fret, and the gleam on the pavement from the bright sun that might not enter; and the witch I saw walking up and down the hall by the dais; but my sisters I saw not when I looked across to their pillars. Moreover, I might not see myself when I reached out my hand or my foot, though I saw the chain which made my ankle fast to the pillar; and withal, when I set my hand on my face, or any other part of my body, or what else I might touch, I felt there what I looked to feel, were it flesh or linen, or the cold iron of my fetter, or the polished face of the marble pillar.
Now I knew scarce if I were alive or dead, or if I were but beginning to be dead; but there came upon me the desire of life, and I strove to cry out to the sisters, but though I formed the words in my mouth, and did with my throat as when one cries out aloud, yet no sound of a voice came from me, and more helpless did I feel than erst.
But even therewith I saw the witch come toward me, and therewith all my body felt such fear of her that I knew I was not dead. Then she came before me and said: O shadow of a thrall, whom none can see but them unto whom wisdom hath given eyes to see wonders withal, now have I tidings for thee and thy sisters, to wit, that your lovers and seekers are at hand; and presently I shall bring them into this hall, and they shall be so nigh unto you that ye might touch them if I did not forbid it; but they shall not see you, but shall wonder where I have hidden you, and shall go seeking you today and many days, and shall find you not at all. So make ye the most of the sight of them, for in them henceforward ye have no other part or lot.
Therewith she spat out at me, and went over to my sisters, and said words of like import to those which she had said unto me. And presently she went out of the hall; and not long afterwards I heard voices speaking on the perron, and knew one for the voice of the witch, and the other for the voice of my lord Baudoin; and then again wore a little while, and I saw the witch come through the great door of the hall leading Sir Arthur by the hand, as if she were his dear friend, and Baudoin and Hugh, my man, following them. And the said witch was clad full fair, and had laid by her sloth and stupid pride, as meseemed; and her limbs were grown rounder and sleeker, and her skin fairer, so that to them that knew her not she might well seem to be a goodly woman.
Now they sat to meat as my man hath told you, and then departed from the hall, and the witch also. But after a while she came back again and loosed us, and grimly bade us go with her, and needs must we, though we could not so much as see our own feet upon the floor. And she set us to tasks about the house, and stood by while we toiled for her, and mocked us not without stripes, and in all ways was as rough and cruel and hard with us as she had been smooth and debonair to our lords; but after noon she brought us back and chained us to our pillars again. And when the evening came and the banquet was, it was we who were the unseen players of the string-play; and we might play no other melody than what the witch bade us; else belike, could we have held converse, we might have played such tunes as would have smitten the hearts of our loves, and told them that we were anigh. To make a short story of it, thus did she day by day, and no comfort or converse might we sisters have of each other, or of aught else save the sight of our beloved ones, and a glimmer of hope therewith. And, forsooth, for as grievously as my heart was wrung by the yearning of me for my love, yet was it a joy unto me to think that he went there desiring me, and that whom he desired was not the poor wretched creature chained there in her nakedness, with her body spoiled by torment and misery, but the glad maiden whom he had so often called fair and lovesome.
So passed the days, and at last hope had grown so pale and wan, that she was no more to be seen by us than we were by our lords; and now it seemed to me that death was coming, so feeble and wretched as I grew. But the witch would not let us die, but sustained us from time to time with some little draughts of a witch-drink that revived us.
So wore the time till that evening, when came hope together with the fulfilment of hope, so that one minute we durst hope for deliverance, and the next we were delivered.
Nor is there more to tell, Birdalone, my dear, save that we came safely to the Isle of the Young and the Old in the full morning-tide; and as our ferry drew nigh the green shore, there were the two younglings whereof thou didst tell us awaiting our landing, and when we stepped ashore they came to us bearing cakes and fruit in a fair basket, and they made much of us and we of them. And so we came to the old man, who was exceeding fain of us, and grand and courteous, till he became a little drunk, and then he was somewhat over-kind to us women. Nevertheless, there in that pleasant isle we rested us for three days, that we might somewhat calm and refresh our spirits with what was small and of little account. And when we departed, the old man followed us down to the strand, and lamented our departure, as he had done with our lords erewhile; only this time yet greater was his lamentation, and needs must we kiss him, each one of us, or never had he been done. So he turned up landward, bewailing the miss of us, but presently, before we had seen the last of him, was cheerful again and singing.
So we went on our way; and we also, we maidens, in our turn, saw those woeful images of the Isle of Queens and the Isle of Kings; and we came to the Isle of Nothing, and abode warily by our ferry, and so came away safe, and thus, as thou wottest, home to the castle to hear evil tidings of thee. Now is this all my tale.
Birdalone sat shyly and hushed when all was done; and then all they did somewhat to comfort her, each after their own fashion; and now sorrow for the slain man was made softer and sweeter for them, whereas they had to lose not two fellows, but one only. Yet, despite of all, trouble and care was on Birdalone’s soul betwixt the joy of loving and being beloved, and the pain and fear of robbing a friend of her love. For Atra’s face, which she might not hate, and scarce might love, was a threat to her day by day.