CHAPTER XVIII ~ THE WOOD-MOTHER COMETH TO BIRDALONE AND HEARETH HER STORY
Now Birdalone arose and bathed her and broke her fast, and then went about her work with the beasts and the dairy; but all that time seemed long to her till she had bow in hand and quiver on back, and was wending her way to the Oak of Tryst; and swift were her feet and her heart beat quick with hope of pleasure.
Forsooth no long tarrying had she, for scarce had she set her down beneath the oak, ere the wood-mother came forth from the thicket even as the first time when Birdalone saw her, and presently she had her arms about Birdalone and was kissing and clipping her. Then they sat down together in the shade of the great tree, and the wood-mother made much of her friend with few words and those but simple, while Birdalone wept for joy.
At last spake Birdalone: Wood-mother, my dear, I look in thy face, and I see thee that thou art nowise changed, so that thou callest to my mind the Birdalone that met thee here when she was straying from the House of Captivity like to a bird with a string to its leg.
Habundia smiled on her and said: So it is that now thou lookest older than I. Rounder and fuller is thy body, and thy limbs greater and fairer, and thy flesh sleeker; lovelier art thou in all wise, and such as I have thought of thee during these years, save that thy face is grown wiser and sadder than might be looked for. Mother, she said, I am grown older than I should be by the tale of the years, for I have had joy and grief, and grief and joy, and grief again; and now that the years have worn, the grief abideth and the joy hath departed, save this joy of thee and the day of the meeting I have so often thought of.
Said the wood-wife: Were I to hear the story of thee, I deem it most like that I would fain buy thy joy with thy grief, both that which has been and that which is to come. And now I will ask thee right out to tell me all thy tale, as much as thou canst; and all thou canst tell to me, who am thine other self: and I wot moreover that thou hast not told of me to any whom thou hast met in the world since we were last together: is it not so? In faith and in troth so it is, said Birdalone. Said Habundia, after she had looked hard on Birdalone a while: Now there is this I find in thee, that though thou callest me wood-mother still, thou art not my daughter as thou wert erewhile, nor I thy mother; and I know not whether to be glad or sorry thereof, since thou art even as much my friend as ever thou wert. But much do I rejoice herein that thou hast not told any one soul of me.
Said Birdalone: I must tell thee that part of the tale I shall tell thee is how I have found my mother in the flesh, and loved her sorely; and then I lost her again, for she is dead.
Quoth the wood-wife, smiling on her lovingly: Then should I be even more thy mother than erst I was: there will be something else in thy tale, sweetling.
Then Birdalone flushed very red, and she smiled piteously in Habundia’s face; but then she put up her hands to hide the change therein which the anguish of longing wrought, and her shoulders shook and her bosom heaved, and she wept bitterly; but the wood-wife still looked on her smiling, and said softly at last: Yea, how sweet it were to be grieved with thy pain.
But in a while Birdalone grew calm again and the very smile blossomed out in her face, and they kissed together. Then Habundia rose up and looked on her, and said at last and laughed out withal: One thing I must needs say, that thou hast not fetched thee raiment of price from the knighthood and the kings’ houses; or have I not seen thy grey coat of old time, while thou wert living amidst the witch’s cruelty? Yea forsooth, said Birdalone; thou needest not to ask this. Verily not, said Habundia, nor why thou art not clad in the fair green gown which thou didst broider; for whiles I have seen the witch flaunting it on the wooden ugly body of her, and thou wouldst not wear it after she had cursed it with her foulness. Is it not so? Yea, it is even so, said Birdalone; dost thou love me the less therefor? Habundia laughed again: Were I a man of Adam’s sons, said she, I might make thee many words on the seemliness of thy short coat, and the kindness of it, that it will be for ever slipping off one or other of thy shoulders. But now am I at least enough thy mother, and thou art dwelling even so much in my house, that the next time we meet (and that shall be tomorrow) I shall fetch thee raiment which shall make us forget that thou camest back again to this land as naked as thou didst depart thence.
Birdalone reddened and hung down her head, but the wood-mother sat down beside her and kissed her and said: But now forget all save thy tale, and tell all as closely as thou mayest, for I would lose nought thereof. Yea, said Birdalone; and where shall I begin? Said Habundia: I know nought thereof save the beginning, that thou fledst away naked and escaped the witch; and the ending, to wit, that the Sending Boat failed thee at the last of the Wonder Isles, and that thou calledst on me not wholly in vain, whereas the witch was dead, and therefore there was nought to stay me from sending thee one of my trees and the wight thereof (whom belike I may show to thee one day) to save thee from the bottom of the deep water.
At that word Birdalone threw herself on the wood-wife and clipped and kissed her, and thanked her for the helping with all the dearest words she might. But the wood-mother laughed for joy, and stroked her cheeks and said: Now I deem thee my daughter again, whereas thou thankest me with such sweet passion for doing to thee as a kind mother needs must without any thought thereof. And I bid thee, my dear, never again to go so far from me as that I may not easily help thee and comfort thee from out of my realm wherein I am mighty. And now tell me all in thy dear speech.
Therewith Birdalone began her story without more ado, even as ye have heard it afore. Yea and many more things than we can set down did she tell, for full filled she was with the wisdom of the wood. And between whiles the wood-mother fed her with dainty meat and drink, such as Birdalone had never erst tasted the like of. And by then she had got so far as her flight from the Isle of Increase Unsought, the sun was set and the twilight begun. And the wood-wife said: Now shalt thou go home to thine house; and have no fear of witch or evil thing, for I am not far from thee and will watch over thee. Sweet is thy tale, my daughter, and dear are thy she-friends; and if ever it may be that I may do them any pleasure, fain were I; and that especially to thy Viridis, who meseemeth is both sweet and wise even as thou thyself art. Nay, dost thou begrudge my loving her? Nay, nay, said Birdalone, laughing; but I rejoice in it. And hereafter when I tell thee how sorely they paid for helping me, I will bid thee to love them yet more than now thou dost. Therewith they parted, and Birdalone came to her house; and on the way she made as it were a feigned tale in mockery of her old trouble, that there would be the witch-mistress awaiting her to whip her. So that when she came to the door she was half frighted with her own mock, lest the witch might now at last have taken to walking.
But all was quiet when she entered with the last of the twilight, and she rested that night in all peace, as in the best of her days in the Five Crafts.