CHAPTER XXII ~ BIRDALONE WENDETH THE WILDWOOD IN FELLOWSHIP WITH HABUNDIA
Now as they went their ways lightly through the wood, spake Habundia and said: Birdalone, my child, fair is the gold ring with the sapphire stone that the third finger of thy right hand beareth; seldom have I seen so fair a stone as that deep blue one; hangeth any tale thereby? Said Birdalone: Did I not tell thee thereof, wood-mother, how that my beloved who is lost gave it unto me the very last time I saw him, woe worth the while? Nay, said Habundia, I mind not the tale. But deemest thou he would know it again if he saw it? Yea, surely, said Birdalone, hanging her head; for when first he gave it, the gift was not to me, but to another woman. And she held her peace, and went on with hanging head and all the glee faded out of her a while.
At last she turned to Habundia, and said: I have now bethought me to ask thee whither we be going and on what errand; for at first I was so glad at heart, I know not why, and it was so merry to be wending the wood with thee freely, that I had no thought in me as to whither and wherefore. But now wilt thou tell me?
Said the wood-wife: How if I were to tell thee we were going a-hunting? Birdalone said: Then I should ask thee what like the quarry were. And suppose it were men? said the wood-wife. Birdalone turned somewhat pale. My mother, she said, if we be going against some of those men of the Red Bands, I am not happy over it. I am no warrior, and fear strokes. Said Habundia, laughing: Yet art thou a fell archer; and thou mayest shoot from an ambush of the thick leaves, since June is in today. But neither would I slay or hurt any man, said Birdalone, but it were to save me from present death.
Habundia looked on her with a sly smile and said: Well maybe though we take cover and get within wind of our quarry thou shalt not need to speed an arrow to him. Have patience therefore. For this is a strange beast which I have marked down; he is not ill to look on, and his voice, which we may well hearken, for whiles he singeth, is rather sweet than surly. What meanest thou, mother? said Birdalone, growing red and then paler yet; what man is it? since thy calling him a beast is a jest, is it not?
Nay, said Habundia, I neither name him nor know him; only I deem him by no means to be one of the Red Band. For the rest, he may be a man in a beast’s skin, or a beast in a man’s skin, for aught I know; whereas he seems, so far as I have seen him, to be not wholly man-like or wholly beast-like. But now let us hold our peace of him till we be come nigher to his haunt.
So they went on their way, and Birdalone said but little, while the wood-wife was of many words and gay. They made all diligence, for Birdalone was not soon wearied, and moreover as now she was anxious and eager to see what would befall, which she might not but deem would be something great.
They went without stay till past noon, when they were come to a little shady dale wherethrough ran a clear stream; there they rested and bathed them, and thereafter sat under the boughs and ate the dainty meat which the wood-wife provided, howsoever she came by it; and when they had rested a while, the wood-wife turned the talk once more unto Arthur the Black Squire, and would have Birdalone tell her all nicely what manner of man he was; and Birdalone was nothing loth thereto; for had she her will she had talked of him day-long.