The Water of the Wondrous Isles 6-12
CHAPTER XII ~ BIRDALONE COMETH AGAIN TO THE ISLE OF QUEENS, AND FINDETH A PERILOUS ADVENTURE THEREIN
It was not yet daybreak when Birdalone came ashore again, and the moon was down, and it was dark; wherefore she durst not go up on the land, but lay down in the ferry and fell asleep there. When she woke again it was broad daylight, the sun was up, and a little ripple was running over the face of the water. She stepped ashore straightway, and looked up the land and to the right hand and the left, and saw at once that it was indeed the Isle of Queens, and the house stood trim and lovely as of old time; then she longed somewhat to tread the green meadow a little, for yet young was the day, and she saw nought stirring save the throstle and a few small beasts. However, she said to herself that she would go nowhere nigh to the goodly house wherein abode those images of death. Yet her body longed so sore for the springtide freshness of the grass, and was so bewooed of the flowery scent thereof, that though she durst not go unarmed, she did off her footgear and went stealing softly barefoot and with naked legs over the embroidered greensward, saying aloud to herself: If run for the ferry I needs must, lighter shall I run so dight.
Nonetheless, she had gone but a little way ere a terror took hold of her, though she saw no child of Adam anigh, and she turned and ran back swiftly to her old place and sat down under a twisted oak-tree hard by the Sending Boat, and abode there panting and quaking, and scarce daring to look up from the grass for a while. Then her heart came back to her, and she laughed, and said to herself: I am a fool, for I need fear nought on this Isle of Queens save women like myself.
Yet she sat there a little while longer without stirring; then she stood up and looked keenly around, and, as aforesaid, exceeding far-sighted she was; but still she saw neither man nor maid nor suckling child.
Then her eyes sought the lips of the lake, and rested on a little bight some stone’s throw ahead of the Sending Boat, where, a little back from the water, slim willows made a veil betwixt the water of the meadow; and she looked, and saw how pleasant a place it were for a one to stand and look on the ripple just left, while the water dripped from the clear body on to the grass. And her bare feet fell to telling her clad sides of the sweet coolness of the water, and waited for no naysay, but lightly bore her toward the willowy bight. And when she was there, she did off her sallet and ungirt her, and laid her sword on the grass, and did off her surcoat and hauberk, and so was a woman again in one white coat above her smock. Then she looked heedfully betwixt the willow-boughs, and saw no more than before, nought but a little whitethorn brake, now white indeed with blossom, some fifty yards landward from where she stood. So she laughed, and did off her other raiment, and slid swiftly into the water, that embraced her body in all its fresh kindness; and as for Birdalone, she rewarded it well for its past toil by sporting and swimming to her full.
Then she came forth from the water, and clad herself in no great haste, and did on her hauberk and sallet and sword, and so went back to her place, and sat down and began to do on her foot-gear.
But as she looked up from her work a moment, lo! a tall man coming toward her, and just about the willows whereby she had bathed. Her heart beat quick and her face changed, yet she hastened, and was shod and stood up in knightly array by then he stayed his steps some five paces from her, and gave her the sele of the day in courteous wise; and she strove to think that he had not seen her, or at least noted her otherwise dight; yet her heart misgave her.
He was a grizzled-haired man of over fifty summers by seeming, but goodly enough and well-knit; he was clad in a green coat more than a little worn, but made after the fashion of knighthood; he had nought on his head but an oak-chaplet, and no weapons but a short sword by his side and a stout staff in his hand.
She gave back his greeting in a quavering voice; and he said: Welcome again, young man. Art thou come to dwell with us? Truly thou art trim now, but ere some few months thine attire will be not so much fairer than ours, and thine hauberk will be rusted, for here be no joyous tiltings nor deeds of arms, and no kind ladies to give the award of honour, so that if we fight amongst ourselves it will be because we have fallen out, and spitefully. Yet (and he laughed, mockingly, as she thought) thou mayst bring us luck, and draw some fair damsels unto us, for that is what we await in this isle, which is barren of their fair bodies, despite of its deceitful name.
Thereat Birdalone reddened, deeming that he divined her womanhood, but she enforced her to speak hardily, and as manly as she might, and said: Yea, fair sir, and if I be the God of Love, as thou deemest, and not merely a poor squire (Louis Delahaye, at thy service), how many damsels shall I send thee if there must needs be one to each man of you? Quoth he: Thou must make up the tale to a score or more, or some of us must lack. Sooth to say, at this time thou needest not haste overmuch for all the tale, whereas there is but one other of the company near at hand, a mere foolish young man; the others are gone to the leeward side of the isle, to fetch us venison and fish, both of which are more plenty there than here; wherefore are we two somewhat lonesome in this stead, all the more as we be over-nigh to the sorcery in the great house, which we durst not enter; for though nought cometh out thence down unto us, yet hear we a-night-tides, first songs, and then cries and shrieking, come out therefrom.
Then he stayed his speech, and drew a little nigher to Birdalone, and then grinned, and said: Forsooth we can spare him, we twain. And he looked on her hard, and the colour came into her cheeks, and she laughed uneasily, as a dainty lady when she heareth some unmeet tale.
But again the old carle drew nigher to her, and said: Thou seemest to have a good bow and store of arrows; if thou wouldst lend them to me for a little, and come with me into the wood hard by, I might shoot thee some venison with little toil to thee; whereas, forsooth, thou lookest scarce like one who is meet for over-much toil. Again she reddened, and spake nought this time; and he said: Deem not there be no deer this end of the isle because I said that the others were gone to fetch home venison; only the deer be tamer there and more, and we have but evil shooting-gear, whereas thou art well found therein. Wilt thou not come? we shall have merry feast after the hunt.
Now had Birdalone come to her wits again, and she answered like a merry youth, with a flavour of mockery in her speech: Fair sir, thou shalt not deem that I need much help in slaying the dun deer; for I do thee to wit that I shoot not ill in the bow; neither am I heavy-footed. But I will not hunt in your park today, for I have an errand which calleth me away, so that I shall depart hence presently. Besides, wise elder, there is thine errand to see to; and if I be the God of Love, as thou sayest, I must not keep thee and thy valiant fellows languishing mateless; so with thy leave I will now depart, that I may send you a score of fair damsels for your company.
And she turned about and made a step toward her boat; but the carle drew nearer, laughing; and he said: Truly sayest thou that thou art not heavy-footed, for never saw I feet lighter or fairer than glided over the meadow e’en now; nor a fairer body than came like rosy-tinted pearl fresh out of the water while I lay hidden in yonder thorn-brake that while. Wherefore trouble not thyself to bring any more damsels than thyself, fairest Goddess of Love, for thou art enough for me.
And therewith he ran forward, and stretched out a hand to her; but in that nick of time had she her sword naked in her hand, and the carle drew back before the glitter thereof, and cried out: Ho, ho! is it to be battle, my mistress? Deemest thou that thou wilt slay me as lightly as the dun deer, and thou with thy bow unstrung at thy back? Now shall I show thee a trick of fence; but fear not that I shall hurt thee to spoil thee.
He advanced on her with his staff aloft, and her heart failed her, and she quaked, and lightly he beat down her guard and did the sword out of her hand; and again he turned on her to take her, but she sprang aside and ran from him, but ran landward perforce, as he was betwixt her and the boat; and he followed heavily, and had nought to do in the race.
But she had not gone a two-score yards ere she heard a great shout, and another man came running over the meadow; a slim young man was this, and worse of attire than the old carle, for so tattered was his raiment that he was half naked; but he was goodly of fashion, fresh-coloured and black-haired. Birdalone stayed her feet when she saw him, for though she doubted not to outrun him, yet whither should she run, since her ferry was behind her?
So the young man came up to her, and the old carle met him all panting, and the young man said: How now, Antony! what battle is this? and wherefore art thou chasing this fair knight? And thou, fair sir, why fleest thou this grey dastard?
Said Antony: Thou art but a young fool, Otter, this is no man, but a woman, and I have taken her, and she is mine.
Well, said Otter, I say she is as much mine as thine; nay, more, if she will give herself unto me. But if she will not, she shall go whither she will in thy despite. Or art thou a woman?
Yea, yea, said Birdalone; and I pray thee, by thy mother’s head, suffer me to depart; for heavy and full of need is the errand that I am about.
Go thou shalt then, said Otter; lead back to thy place, and I will walk with thee. So did they: and Birdalone went beside the young man quaking; but he put out no hand unto her; and sooth to say, she deemed that she had seldom seen so fair a young man, but it were Arthur or Hugh.
Now he, as Antony, was girt with a short sword, but he let it be in its sheath; and as they went, Antony drew his blade again, and hove it up to smite Otter, but as it befell Birdalone saw him, and turned round sharp upon him and gat hold of his wrist, and therewith Otter turned also, and caught the old carle by the nape as he turned away, and put a foot before his and shoved mightily, so that he went noseling to the earth.
Then turned Otter about again, laughing, and he said to Birdalone: By Saint Giles! thou art well-nigh too valiant for a woman, and I would that we two might be together; and then between us we might achieve the adventure of the dead ladies up yonder. She hung her head, and said: Fair sir, it may not anywise be; yet I thank thee, I thank thee.
So came they to the water-side and the Sending Boat, and Birdalone stayed her feet there, and the young man said: What is this keel, that seemeth unto me as if it were a ferry for malefactors wending to a death of torment, so grey and bleared and water-logged and sun-bleached as it is, and smeared over with stains of I know not what?
Said Birdalone: Such as it is, it is my ferry over the water to where I would be. Strange! said Otter; to my mind it is like to our fortunes on this isle, we who were once knights and merry squires and are now as gangrel men, and of ill conditions, thinking of nought save our first desires, even those which we share with the wolf and the kite.
She said: But art thou of evil conditions, thou who hast just delivered me from trouble? He smiled grimly: Damsel, said he, I have not delivered thee yet from me, though I have from him. But tell me, art thou a sorceress? Not a black one, said Birdalone; but I will tell thee at once that I have been bred by a witch most mighty, and some deal of lore have I learned. And therewith she told him of the Sending Boat, and how she would have to speed it on the way.
He looked on her a little and then turned away, and saw her sword lying on the grass; so he went to it and picked it up and brought it to her, and said: Thou mayst yet need this keen friend. So she took it and thrust it back into the scabbard, quaking somewhat because of him; so feeble and frail as she felt before him. Then he said: If thou deemest thou hast somewhat to reward me for, I have a boon to ask of thee, and granting that, we shall be quits again. Yea, she said faintly, and what is the boon? He said: Art thou pressed to depart now, this minute? Nay, said Birdalone, not for an hour if there be no peril here from other men, and . . . and . . . And if I be true to thee and will let thee go? said he, laughing; hah! is that not thy word? fear not, I swear by thine eyes that thou shalt depart whenso thou wilt. Now then, the boon I crave is, that thou wilt sit down here beside me and tell me the tale of thy life that has been. Said she: It wearies me to think thereof; yet hast thou a right to crave somewhat of me, and this is not hard to grant.
And she sat down by him; but he said: Do this also for me, take off thine headpiece, since now that we know thee for a woman it serveth thee nought. So did she, and began her tale straightway, and told him all thereof, save as to the wood-wife, and he sat hearkening and watching her face; and when she had made an end, he said: Now shall I ask none other boon of thee, though I long sore for it; but best it is that we sunder straightway, else maybe I might yet be for hindering thee.
Therewith he stood up, and Birdalone also, and he looked on her eagerly, and said: I am now to bid thee farewell, and it is most like that I shall never see thee again, wherefore I will ask thee yet to let one thing come from thy mouth; for I deem thee the dearest of all women I have ever seen. What shall I say? said Birdalone, smiling on him kindly; must thou needs put the word in my mouth? Thou hast been friendly with me here when need was to me of friendliness; wherefore I say, I would I might see thee again, and thou better bestead than now thou art.
The young man’s face brightened, and he said: Spake I not that thou wert the dearest of all? This was even the word I would have put in thy mouth. But now see thou, one goeth on from one thing to another, and I must now ask thee, is there aught which thou hast a mind to give me ere I depart, some keepsake which I durst not ask for?
She flushed red and said: I will with a good heart give thee my bow and arrows for a keepsake; whereas the old carle told me that ye be ill furnished of shooting-gear.
And she would have taken her bow from her back, but he laughed aloud, and said: Nay, nay, I will not have that; for there be those who gird them to a sword and know not how to use it, but few will cumber their shoulders with bow and quiver who cannot shoot therewith; I deem it like that thou art a fell bowman. Keep thy bow therefore, and if thou wilt go without any other gift, even so be it.
And he made as if he would turn away; but she put forth both her hands and took his in them, and lifted up her face and kissed him kindly, and then turned away to her ferry; while Otter stood still and said in a merry voice: Now is it better than well, for thou art in all ways what I would have thee, and there is nought like unto thee. And therewith he turned away and departed ere Birdalone had stepped into the Sending Boat, and she blushing like a rose the while. Then she did due sacrifice to the wight of the witch-ferry, and sped on her way without any hindrance.