CHAPTER XI ~ COMING TO THE ISLE OF KINGS BIRDALONE FINDETH THERE A SCORE AND TWO OF FAIR DAMSELS WHO WOULD FAIN HAVE HER COMPANY
Birdalone came ashore at the said isle at the day-dawn, and saw but little change in the isle when it grew light, and still the castle stood looking down awfully on to the meadows. But when she had set foot on the land, she handled her bow lest the worst might befall, and looked about her, deeming that this time she would not go her ways to the dread show that was arrayed in the castle, if forsooth those dead folk yet abode there.
So now as she looked across the meadow, she saw one with light and fluttering raiment come forth from the trees, and look toward her whereas she stood flashing and gleaming in the sun like an image of the God of Love turned warrior. Now Birdalone deemed for sure that this was a woman; she saw her come a little nigher to her, and then stand looking at her under the sharp of her hand; then she turned about and ran back to the brake whence she came; and presently Birdalone heard the sound of voices coming thence, and in a little while thereafter came forth from the said brake a rout of women (one score and two as they were told thereafter) and walked over the meadow straight unto her. She stood where she was, so as to be nigh unto her ferry in case they willed her unpeace; for though they were weaponless by seeming, they were a many.
When they were come near they stood about her in a half ring, whispering and laughing each to each. Birdalone saw that they were all young, and that none of them might be called ungoodly, and some were full fair. They were bright and fine of array. Most bore gold and gems on fingers and neck and arms; they were clad in light, or it may be said wanton raiment of diverse colours, which had only this of their fashion in common, that they none of them hid over-much of their bare bodies; for either the silk slipped from the shoulder of her, or danced away from her flank; and she whose feet were shod, spared not to show knee and some deal of thigh; and she whose gown reached unsheared from neck to heel, wore it of a web so thin and fine that it hid but little betwixt heel and neck.
Birdalone stood gazing on them and wondering, and she had a mind to think that they were some show sent by her old mistress the witch for her undoing, and she loosened her sword in its sheath and nocked an arrow.
But then ran forward two of the damsels and knelt before her, and each took an hand of her and fell to kissing it, and she felt their hands that they were firm and their lips that they were soft and warm, and they were doubtless alive and real. Then spake one of them and said: Hail our lord! How can words say how we rejoice in thy coming this happy morn! Now do all we give ourselves to thee as thy slaves to do as thou wilt with. Yet we pray thee be merciful to us and our longings.
Therewith all the sort of them knelt down on the grass before Birdalone and joined their hands as praying to her. And Birdalone was full ill at ease, and wotted not where she was. But she said: Hail! and good days and fulfilment of wishes unto you, fair damsels! But tell me, is this the Isle of Kings, as I deemed; for strange it is for me to see ye womenfolk here?
Said she who had spoken afore: Yea verily this is the Isle of Kings; but long ago are the kings dead, and yet they sit dead in the great hall of the castle yonder, as thou mayst see if thou, who art a man and a valiant warrior, durst follow up yon mountain path thereto; but we, weak women and little-hearted, durst not go anigh it; and we tremble when whiles a-nights cometh down thence the sound of clashing swords and clattering shields, and the cries of men in battle. But, praise be to the God of Love, nought cometh down from thence unto us. Therefore do we live peaceful lives and pleasant here, lacking nought but thee, lord; and lo now thou hast come unto us, and we are happy in our inmost hearts.
Now was Birdalone perplexed and knew not what to do; but at last she said: Gentle maidens, I pray you pardon me, but I must depart straightway; for I have an errand, and life or death lieth on it. In all else than my abiding here may ye have your will.
Therewith did she move a little way toward her ferry; but forthwith all they brake out weeping and wailing and lamenting, and some of them came up to Birdalone and cast themselves down before her, and clasped her knees, and took hold of her skirts, and besought her piteously to abide with them. But she put them aside as well as she might, and stepped aboard the Sending Boat, and stood amidst it waiting on their departure; but they went not, and stood along on the lip of the land crying out and beseeching with much clamour.
Then Birdalone waxed somewhat wrath at their noise and tumult, and she drew forth her knife and bared her arm and let blood from it. But when they saw the whiteness and roundness of it, and how fine and sleek it was, straightway they changed their tune, and cried out: A woman, a woman, a fool of a woman! and they laughed in scorn and mockery. And the speaker of them said: Now there is but one thing for thee to do, and that is to come forth from thy boat and strip off thy stolen raiment, and we shall make thee as fine as ourselves, and thou shalt come with us, and with us abide the coming of our lord. Nay, thou art so fair and lovely, that thou shalt be the Lady and Queen of us, and we will do after thy commands, and thou mayst chastise us if we fail therein. But now if thou wilt not come forth of the boat uncompelled, we shall pluck thee forth of it.
And therewith she set her foot on the gunwale of the boat, and two or three others did the like. But now had Birdalone her sword naked in her hand, and she waxed as red as blood, and cried out: Forbear I bid you! Yea verily I am a woman; but I will not take this offer either, whereas I have an errand, as I told you. And so stern it is, that if ye now let my departure I will not spare to smite with this sword whoso first cometh aboard my ferry, and though I be not a man, yet shall ye find that in this matter I shall be little worse, whereas I am armed and ye be naked.
Then they drew back and stood gibing and jeering at her; but she heeded it no whit, but reddened stem and stern of the Sending Boat, and sang her spell, and forth glided the ferry, while the damsels stood and stared astonished. As for Birdalone, as she sped on her way she might not refrain her laughter. Thus she wended the wet highway.