CHAPTER XXXI ~ HABUNDIA COMETH WITH TIDINGS OF THOSE DEAR FRIENDS
Wore the days thenceforth merrily; and one day it was delight in the wide meads, and another they went a long way west along the water-side, and so into another meadow-plain, smaller than their home— plain, which Birdalone had never erst come into; and three eyots lay off it, green and tree-beset, whereto they swam out together. Then they went into the wood thereby in the heat of the afternoon, and so wore the day, that they deemed themselves belated, and lay there under a thorn-bush the night through.
Another day Birdalone took her mate over on to Green Eyot and Rock Eyot, and showed him all the places she was used to haunt. And they had their fishing-gear with them, and angled off the eyots a good part of the day, and had good catch, and swam back therewith merrily. And Birdalone laughed, and said that it seemed to her as if once again she were ransoming her skin of the witch-wife by that noble catch.
Divers times also they fared into the wood, and thrice they lay out the night there in some woodlawn where was water; and on one of these times it happed that Arthur awoke in the grey dawn, and lay open-eyed but not moving for a little; and therewith he deemed he saw the gleam of war-gear in the thicket. So he kept as still as he might, but gat his sword out of its sheath without noise, and then leapt up suddenly, and sprang thitherward whereas he had seen that token, and again saw armour gleam and heard some man crashing through the underwood, for all was gone in one moment. So he woke up Birdalone, and they bended their bows both of them, and searched the thicket thereabouts heedfully, arrow on string, but found nought fiercer than a great sow and her farrow. So came the full day, and they gat them back to their meadows and their house; but thereafter were they warier in going about the woodland.
In all joyance then wore the days till the fifteenth, and in the morning early they went their ways to the Oak of Tryst, and had no need to call Habundia to them, for presently she came forth out of the thicket, with her gown gathered up into her girdle and bow in hand. But she cast it down and ran up to Birdalone, and kissed her and clipped her, and then she took a hand of Arthur and a hand of Birdalone, and held them both and said: My child, and thou dear knight, have ye still a longing to fall in with those friends of yours, and to run all risk of whatsoever contention and strife there may be betwixt you thereafter? Yea, certes, said Arthur; and even so said Birdalone. Well is that then, said the wood-wife; but now and for this time, ere I help you, I shall put a price upon my help, and this is the price, that ye swear to me never wholly to sunder from me; that once in the year at least, as long as ye be alive and wayworthy, ye come into the Forest of Evilshaw, and summon me by the burning of a hair of mine, that we may meet and be merry for a while, and part with the hope of meeting once more at least. And if ye will not pay the price, go in peace, and ye shall yet have my help in all other matters that may seem good unto you, but not in this of joining your fellowship together. How sayest thou, Birdalone, my child? How sayest thou, Black Squire, whom, as meseemeth, I have delivered from a fate worse than death, and have brought out of wretchedness into bliss?
Spake Birdalone: Had I dared, I would have bidden thee to swear to me even such an oath, to wit, that thou wouldst never wholly sunder thee from me. How then may I not swear this that thou biddest me, and that with all joy and trustiness?
Spake Arthur: Lady, had I no will to swear oath for thy sake, yet with a good will would I swear it for my true-love’s sake who loveth thee. Yet verily of mine own will would I swear it joyfully, were it for nought else save to pleasure thee, who hast done so kindly by me, and hath given me back my manhood and my love, which else I had miserably lost.
Spake the wood-wife: It is well again. Join hands then, and swear as I have bidden you by the love ye bear each other.
Even so they did, and then the wood-wife kissed them both and said: Now do I deem you earth’s very children and mine, and this desire of yours is good, and it shall be done if I may bring it about; yet therein the valiance and wisdom of you both may well be tried. For this have I found out by my messengers and others, that your friends are alive, all of them; and they have thought of you in their inmost hearts, and have long determined that they must needs go seek you if they are to live lives happy and worthy. Furthermore, their quest hath drawn them hither to Evilshaw (nor say I that I have been nothing therein), and they are even now in the wood. But ye shall know that peril encompasses them; for they fare but a few, and of those few be there two traitors who are minded to deliver them to the men of the Red Company, unto whom three women as fair as your she-friends were a prize indeed. Wherefore the Red Folk are dogging them, and will fall upon them when they find the occasion. But I shall see to it that the occasion shall be in time and place where they shall not be unholpen. Now what ye have to do for your parts, is to waylay the waylayers, and keep watch and ward anigh the road they must needs take, and to fall on when need is. But this again I shall see to, that your onset fail not.
But now ye may say: Since thou art mighty, why shouldst not thou thyself take our friends out of the hands of these accursed, as thou couldst well do, and we to take no part therein? My friends, this might indeed well be; but thou, Birdalone, hast told me the whole tale, and how that there be wrongs to be forgiven which cannot be made right, and past kindness to be quickened again, and coldness to be kindled into love, and estrangement into familiar friendship; and meseems that the sight of your bodies and your hands made manifest to the eyes of them may do somewhat herein. Yet if otherwise ye think, then so let it be, and go ye back to the House under the Wood, and in three days’ time I will bring you your friends all safe and sound.
Now they both said that they would not for aught that they should have no hand in the deliverance of them; so the wood-wife said: Come with me, and I shall lead you to the place of your ambush.
Then all they went on together, and fared a long way west, and toward the place where erst they two had found Arthur; and at last, two hours before sunset, they came to where was a glade or way between the thickets, which was as it were a little beaten by the goings of man-folk. And the wood-wife did them to wit, that the evil folk aforesaid had so used it and beaten it, that it might just look as if folk were wont to pass that way, whereas it was not very far from their chiefest haunt and stronghold. A little on the north side of this half-blind way, and some ten yards through the thicket, the ground fell away into a little dale, the bottom whereof was plain and well grassed, and watered by a brook.
Thither the wood-wife brought the twain; and when they all stood together on the brook-side, she said to them: Dear friends, this is your woodland house for this time, and I rede you go not forth of it, lest ye happen upon any of those evil men; for nought have ye to fear from any save them. Here amidst these big stones, which make, see ye, as it were a cavern, have I stowed victual for you; and armour therewithal, because, though both of you are in a manner armed, yet who knoweth where a shaft drawn at a venture may reach.
And from the said stones she drew forth two very fair armours, helm and hauberk, and leg and arm wards; and they were all of green, and shone but little, but were fashioned as no smith of man-folk could have done the like.
This is thine, Sir Arthur, said the wood-wife, and thou wilt wear it like as it were silk; and this thine, my child, and thou art strong enough to bear such light gear. And I charge you both to do on this gear presently, nor do it off till ye have achieved the adventure. And now this is the last word: here is a horn of oliphant which thou shalt wear about thy neck, Birdalone; and if thou be sore bestead, or thy heart faileth thee, blow in it, yet not before the onfall; and then, whether thou blow much or little, thou shalt be well holpen.
Now be not downcast if nought befall to-night or tomorrow, or even the day after; but if the third day be tidingless, then at sunset burn a hair of my head, Birdalone, and I will come to you. And now farewell! for I have yet to do in this matter.
With that she kissed Birdalone fondly and embraced Arthur, and went her way; and those twain abode in the dale, and slept and watched by turns, and all was tidingless till the morrow’s dawn; neither was there aught to tell of on that day and the night that ended it.