The Water of the Wondrous Isles, by William Morris, , at sacred-texts.com
CHAPTER II. BIRDALONE FALLETH IN WITH NEW FRIENDS
When she next awoke, the sun was not yet high, and the morning young, yet she stood upon her feet much refreshed by that short slumber. She turned toward the hill and the gay house, and saw one coming over the meadow to her, a woman to wit, in a shining golden gown, and as she drew nigh Birdalone could see that she was young and fair, tall, white-skinned and hazel-eyed, with long red hair dancing all about her as she tripped lightly and merrily over the greensward.
Now she comes up to Birdalone with wonder in her eyes, and greets her kindly, and asked her of her name, and Birdalone told it all simply; and the new-comer said: What errand hast thou hither, that thou art come thus naked and alone in this ill-omened ferry? Birdalone trembled at her words, though she spake kindly to her, and she said: It is a long story, but fate drave me thereto, and misery, and I knew not whither I was bound. But is there no welcome for me in this lovely land? I lack not deftness wholly; and I will be a servant of servants, and ask no better if it must be so. Said the new-comer: Unto that mayst thou come, but sore will be thy servitude. I fear me thy welcome here may be but evil. Said Birdalone: Wilt thou not tell me how so? Quoth that lady: We know thy ferry here, that it is the craft wherein cometh hither now and again the sister of our lady the Queen, into whose realm thou art now come, and who liveth up in the white palace yonder, and whom we serve. And meseems thou wilt not have come hither by her leave, or thou wouldst be in other guise than this; so that belike thou wilt be the runaway of thy mistress. Wherefore I fear that thou wilt be sent back to thy said mistress after a while, and that that while will be grievous to thee, body and soul.
Birdalone's heart sank, and she was pale and trembling; but she said: O dear lady, might I then depart as I have come hither, without the wotting of this Queen! after thou hast given me a morsel of bread, for I am hungry. Said the gold-clad one, looking on her pitifully: Nay, maiden, I cannot choose but bring thee before our mistress, whereas most like she hath already seen thee from above there. For she is far-sighted beyond the wont of folk who be more manlike. But as for the bread, see thou! I have brought a manchet in my pouch, and cheese withal, as I came hurrying; for I thought, she will be hungry. And she reached the victual out to her. And Birdalone took it and kissed the golden lady's hands, and she might not refrain her tears, but wept as she ate.
Meanwhile the golden lady spake unto her and said: Nevertheless, thou poor maiden, somewhat may be done for thine helping, and I will presently speak to my sisters thereon, who are, both of them, wiser than I. Sisters by blood are we not, but by love and fellowship. And I doubt not but that as we go up into the house we shall happen upon them in the garden. But now I look upon thee, how fair a woman art thou!
Thou art kind and friendly, said Birdalone, smiling amidst of her tears, might I know by what name to call so dear a woman? Thou shalt call me Aurea, said the other; and my next sister is Viridis, and the third, Atra; for that is according to the hues of our raiment, and other names we have not now. And lo! here cometh Viridis over the meadow.
Birdalone looked, and saw a woman coming toward them clad all in green, with a rose-wreath on her head. And she drew nigh, and greeted Birdalone kindly, and she also was a very beauteous woman; not great of body, whereas Aurea was tall and big-made, though excellently shapen. Light brown and goodly waved of hair was Viridis, her eyes brown, and rather long than great; her lips full and ruddy, her cheeks soft and sweet and smooth, and as rosy-tinted pearl; her hands small and delicate of fashion; her whole body soft- shapen as an egg; a kind, wheedling look her face bore.
When she had looked a while on Birdalone, she kissed her, and said: I would thou wert happier, for thou art beauteous, and all but the evil must love thee. Therewith she drew a cate from her pouch, and said: Eat somewhat, for thou wilt be hungry; and let us go meet our other sister, who is wiser than we.
So they went, all three of them, and came from off the meadow on to the garden-slopes, and at the entry thereof was come Atra to meet them; she was clad all in black, a tall, slim woman, with the grace of the willow-bough in the wind, with dark plenteous hair and grey hawk-eyes; her skin privet-white, with but little red in her cheeks. She also greeted Birdalone kindly, but sadly withal. She gave her strawberries to eat laid on a big kale-blade; and she said: Sisters, here are we hidden by the trees, and cannot be seen from the house; therefore we may sit here for a minute or two, while we talk together as to what may perchance be done for the helping of this unhappy maiden, who is so fair and lovely, and hath strayed into so ugly a trap. Then she said to Birdalone: Thou must know, poor wanderer, that this Queen, our mistress, who is sister to the Witch Under the Wood, is big and strong, well-made, and white-skinned, so that she deems herself a Queen of all beauty: keen-eyed is she to see a fly where others would see nought smaller than a coney; fine-eared withal; wise in wizardry; not altogether dull-witted, though she be proud, and crueller than the cruellest. But herein she faileth, that her memory is of the shortest for matters of the passing hour, albeit she remembers her spells and witch-songs over well. But other matters will scarce abide in her head for four and twenty hours. Wherefore, sisters, if we may keep this maiden out of her sight (after she hath seen her and given doom upon her) till the dead of to-morrow night, we may perchance do some good for her; and it is in my mind that then she may do good for us also.
Now they rejoiced in this word of Atra the wise; and Atra prayed Birdalone to tell them somewhat more of her story; and she told them much; but, whyso it were, she said nought concerning the wood-wife, whose outward semblance was the same as hers. Then they pitied her, and caressed her; but Atra said: We must tarry here no more, but go straight up to the lady, or maybe we shall lose all.
So they went their ways and came into the pleasance, and trod the sweet greensward betwixt the garland flowers and the beauteous trees; which now indeed, though Birdalone saw them all clear and over-clear, were become nought to her. Those three also spake gently to her, and now and then asked her somewhat, as if to show her that she was one of themselves; but she spake not, or answered at random, and to say sooth scarce heard their words: forsooth she was now become heart- sick, and was half dead for fear; and her nakedness, which would have troubled her little across the water, was now grown a shame and a terror unto her, and every deal of her body quivered with the anguish thereof.