CHAPTER IX ~ BIRDALONE FINDETH THE ISLE OF NOTHING GREATLY BETTERED, AND IS KINDLY ENTREATED THERE
Now it was scarce noon when she departed, and the dark night came upon her in the midst of the water; and she fell asleep in the boat ere the night had grown very old, and woke up in the morning, not exceeding early, maybe about six o’clock; then she looked ahead and thought presently to see the ill-favoured blotch of the Isle of Nothing on the bosom of the blue waters, whereas it was a fair and cloudless morning of latter May. Sure enough she saw land ahead, and it lay low down on the water, but she deemed from the first that it was green of hue, and as she neared it she saw that it was verily as green as emerald. Thereat she was a little troubled, because she thought that mayhappen the Sending Boat had gone astray, and that if the wight thereof were not wending the old road, maybe he was not making for the old haven. For now indeed she told herself right out that her will was to go back again to the House under the Wood, and see what might betide there, and if she and the wood-mother together might not overcome the witch.
But whatever might happen nought could she do but sit in her place and wend as the Sending Boat would; and in an hour’s space she was right under the lee of the land, and she saw that it was shapen even as the Isle of Nothing had been aforetime. But this made her wonder, that now the grass grew thick down to the lip of the water, and all about from the water up were many little slim trees, and some of them with the May-tide blossom yet on them, as though it were a fair and great orchard that she was nearing; and moreover, beyond all that she saw the thatched roofs of houses rising up.
Presently then the Sending Boat had brought her to the land, and she stepped ashore, but was wary, and gat her bow bent and set an arrow thereto she began to go up from the water. Yet she thought within herself, it will be nought ill if I be come amongst folk, so long as they be peaceful, or else how might I live the journey out to all the isles and so home to the House under the Wood?
So she turned her face to where she had seen those roofs, which now she saw no longer because of the thick leaves of the little trees, and so went along a narrow path, which grew to be more and more closely beset with trees, and were now no longer apple and pear and quince and medlar, but a young-grown thicket of woodland trees, as oak and hornbeam and beech and holly.
At last as she went she heard voices before her, so she stole warily to the edge of the copse, finger on shaft; and presently could see clear of the saplings and out on to a wide space of greensward, beyond which was a homestead of many houses and bowers, like unto that of a good yeoman in peaceful lands, save that the main building was longer, though it were low. But amidst the said greensward was a goodly flock of sheep that had been but of late washed for the shearing, and along with the sheep four folk, two carles and two queans, all of them in their first youth, not one by seeming of over a score and two of summers. These folk were clad but simply, man and woman, in short coats of white woollen (but the women’s coats a little longer than the men’s), without shoon or hosen; they had garlands of green leaves on their heads, and were wholly unarmed, save that one of the men bore an ashen wand in his hand. As for their bodies, they were goodly of fashion, tanned indeed by the sun’s burning, but all sweet of flesh were they, shapely and trim, clean-made, and light and slim.
Birdalone’s heart yearned toward them, and she stepped straightway from out of the cover of the coppice, and the sun flamed from her sallet and glittered in the rings of her hauberk, so that the folk might not fail to see her; the sheep fled bundling from her past their keepers, who stood firm, but seemed somewhat scared, and moved not toward Birdalone. She gave them the sele of the day and stood still herself; but the man with the ash-wand said: Hail, thou man; but we would have thee come no nearer a while, though thy voice be sweet: for we know what things they be which thou bearest, and that thou art a warrior. Wilt thou hurt us?
Birdalone laughed as sweetly as the blackbird sings, and she did off her sallet and shook the plenteous hair down over her, and then drew forth her sword and dagger and cast them to earth, and laid her bow and quiver of arrows upon them, and said: Now will I come to you, or ye shall come to me, whereas I am unweaponed, and no warrior, but a woman, and ye are four to one, and two of you carles; wherefore now ye may bind me or slay me if you will; but in any case I pray you first to give me a mouthful of meat.
When she had done her speech, she went up to the fairest of the women and kissed her; but the two carles made no more ado but came to Birdalone and kissed her one after other, and that as men who needed nought to compel them therein, and each thereafter took a hand of her and held it and caressed it. But the other woman had run into the house as soon as Birdalone spoke, and came back again with a treen bowl full of milk and a little loaf, not white but brown; and there blundered about her legs as she came a little lad of some three winters old, naked and brown, who was shy of the gleaming new-comer, and hid him behind the woman one while, and the other while came forth to see the new thing. But the woman said: Dear woman, here is for thee some of the ewes’ milk, and a bite of bread, and a little deal of cheese; the said milk is yet warm, so that it is not yet clottered; but if thou wilt come with us thou mayest speedily drink cows’ milk, and we be now at point to go milk them.
Birdalone thanked her with a heart full of content, and was not ill-pleased to get her hands free from the two carles; so she sat down and ate her breakfast while they talked with her, and told her of diverse work of theirs; as to how their trees were waxing, and new tillage they had done the past spring, and how it befell to the kine and the goats; of their children also they spake, and how there were already four thereof, and one of the women, the meat-bringer, already quickened with child once more. So that ere we die, quoth the carle who was speaking, we look to see many grandchildren, and shall have some stout carles and queans here. And by that time will some of the trees be well grown, so that we may fell timber and make us some keel that will wend the lake, and help us a-fishing; or we may go to other lands; or whiles folk may come to us, even as thou hast, thou dear-handed, sweet-voiced woman. But wilt thou abide here ever?
Yea, said the other, but that is looking forward a long while, that building of ships. What is nearer and well to think of is, that these apple and pear trees be so well fruited, small as they be, that this harvest we shall be able to make us cider and perry; yea, and no little deal thereof. But art thou minded to abide with us ever? That were dear to us; and belike thou wouldest bear us children, thou also.
Then spake the meat-fetching woman and laughed withal: Nay, thou also lookest aloof a pretty deal; whereas what is now to do is to go milk the kine, and to take this guest with us, so that she may drink somewhat better than ewes’ milk though the cider be not ready to hand. But tell me, our dear guest, art thou verily going to abide with us a long while? that were sweet to us, and we will do all we may to pleasure thee.
Nay, said Birdalone, it will no better be but that I depart on the morrow; and all thanks do I give you for your kindness.
The woman kissed her, and she arose, and all they went together to the milking of the kine some half mile inland; and they passed through much of orchard, and some deal of tillage, wherein the wheat was already growing high; and so came they to a wide meadow through which ran a little stream, and therein was a goodly herd of kine. So they fell to the milking, and made Birdalone drink of the sweet cows’ milk, and then went and lay down under the shade of the little young trees, and talked and were merry together. But the men were both of them somewhat willing at first to kiss Birdalone and toy with her, but when she let them know that she desired it not they refrained them without grudging.
All this while of their talk they asked Birdalone nought of whence and whither, and she would not ask them, lest it might stir their asking, and then she would have to tell them some deal of her story; and telling it was now become unto her somewhat weary work.
In a while they arose all, and the men and one woman went their ways to deal with the acre-land, but the meat-fetcher went back with Birdalone into the house; and she showed her all that was therein, which was for the more part, forsooth, the four babes aforesaid. The others came back in the eventide, bearing with them foison of blue hare-bells, and telling joyously how they had found them anigh the coppice edge in such a place: and thereafter they were merry, and sang and talked the evening away, and showed Birdalone at last to a fair little chamber wherein was a bed of dry grass, where she lay down and slept in all content.