CHAPTER XIII ~ COMING TO THE ISLE OF THE YOUNG AND THE OLD, BIRDALONE FINDETH IT PEOPLED WITH CHILDREN
Midst all this had worn some hours, but yet it was barely noon; wherefore it was yet dark by then Birdalone made the Isle of the Young and the Old; so she stepped out of the boat, and lay down on the grass and abode the dawn sleeping. And she awoke with the clatter of shrill voices, and she rose up and looked, and lo a multitude of children all about her, both men and women children, and, as it seemed, from five years old upward to fifteen. They cried and crowed merrily when they saw her stand up, and pressed on her to see her the nearer and to touch her hands or her raiment. They were but little clad, and the younger ones not at all, but were goodly younglings and merry. So great was the noise they raised, that loud were the thunder which had not been hushed thereby; and Birdalone stood looking on them, smiling, and knew not what to do. Anon she turned to a tall thin lad of some fifteen winters, and said unto him: Wilt thou now take me unto the house, and the place where dwelleth the old man? Quoth he: I neither know of an old man, nor rightly what it means, the word. Am not I old enough for thee? I am the oldest of these here. But belike thou art hungry; wherefore if thou come to the place where we sleep a-nights, and where we shelter us from the storm and the rain when need is, I will give thee to eat; for we have both bread and milk and cheese, and raisins of the sun.
So he took her hand and led her along, and asked her by the way concerning her armour and weapons, and of the fashion of battle, and she told him thereof what she would.
Thus came they to the place where erst had been the cot under the ruin of the great ancient house; but now was gone all that ruin and the great grey walls, though the cot was left; and all about it were low bowers built of small wood and thatched undeftly. But the lad smiled when he saw it, as if the sight thereof made him happy; and he said: All these have we made since I have dwelt here, and no other home have I known.
And he led her into the cot, and set her down to eat and to drink, and through the open door she could see the children swarming, and they that were nighest thrusting each other this way and that to catch a sight of her.
Now she said: Fair child, how gattest thou this victual if there be no older folk to help you? Said he: We dig the ground and sow it, and the wheat comes up, and we reap it in harvest, and make bread of it; and we have goats and kine, and we milk them, and turn the milk with a little blue flower, which is fair to see. And there are in this isle little hills where the grapes grow plenty; and some we eat and some we dry for store. Lo thou, such be our ways for victual. But tell me, said he, thou sayest old, and I know not the word; art thou old? She laughed: Not very, said she, yet older than thou.
Said the lad: Thou art fair and dear to look on, and thy voice is sweet; wilt thou not abide with us, and teach us what it is to be old? Nay, said she, I may not, for I have an errand which driveth me on; wherefore I must be gone within this hour.
Forsooth, she was growing eager now to be done with her journey and come to the House under the Wood, whatever should befall her there. Moreover she deemed it would not be restful to her to abide among all these restless children, with their ceaseless crying and yelping: if rest she might, she would rest, she deemed, in the Isle of Increase Unsought, if there were no ill things abiding there.
Wherefore now she arose, when she had sat hearkening the sound of the lad’s prattle for a while, for as to the sense thereof she might not heed it over-much. The youngling would not leave her, but led her, holding her hand, down to her ferry again; she kissed him in thanks for his meat, and he reddened thereat but said nought. All the whole rout of little ones had followed her down to the water, and now they stood, as thick as bees on a honeycomb, on the bank, to watch her departure. But if they were keen to see her doings before, how much keener were they when it came to the baring of her arm and the smearing of the Sending Boat. To be short, so keen were they, and pushed and shoved each other so sturdily, that more than one or two fell into the water, and Birdalone was frighted lest they should drown; but they swam like ducks, and got on to the land when they would, which was not so very soon, for some of them hung unto the gunwale of the boat, and hove their faces up to look over into it, and left not hold till the ferry was fairly under weigh and beginning to quicken its speed.
So left Birdalone the isle, and nought befell her on the way to the Isle of Increase Unsought.