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6
The Lady in the Water

A Hobbit-tale from Buckland


~~~

Between the Withywindle and the Brandywine was a small village. In those days, it had another name, but now we call it Haysend.

Gladden and Kalimac lived in holes dug in the same hillside. As little ones they played together, though as they grew up Kali began to spend more time with the other boys. Gladdy missed him and waited for him, but he would greet her carelessly, and rush on to fish or play games without asking her to come.

Sometimes he remembered her, and they would talk in the evening after chores, and she would stay as late as her mother let her.

One day, he said, "Gladdy, I've had the most peculiar dream. I dreamed a tall lady with yellow hair walked along the river, and beckoned to me."

"That's not so odd," said Gladden. "People walk along the river all the time."

"No, no. She walked on the river, right on top of the water."

A few days later, he mentioned the same dream again. He began to dream of the lady and the river often. He told Gladden of it, but no one else. "The boys would just laugh at me, and mother would say I was being silly," he said.

It seemed to Gladden that he spent more and time thinking about the lady, believing she wanted him to come find her. He grew thinner and paler.

One day, Kali's mother came to Gladden's hole, wringing her hands and weeping. "He's been gone for two days," she told Gladdy's mother. "I don't know where he can be. He's been moping about the house for days, I thought it was just a girl, but now he's gone."

Gladden overheard this, and thought, "He's gone to find the lady of his dreams." She felt a sharp pang in her heart, and tears fell down her cheeks. She wiped her eyes, and said to herself, "If he loves the lady and she loves him, then I will wish them happy. If she gives him pain, then I'll give her pain," and she started right off to pack a little bag with food and extra clothes.

Somehow, she knew that he had gone up along the Withywindle, so she set out toward it with certainty, but a troubled heart. She had walked some hours, and the afternoon was fading, when she heard a thrashing in the bushes and soft whining.

She stepped carefully around them, and found a vixen caught in an old rabbit snare. She took her little knife, and said, "Be calm, my friend. I will cut you free." The vixen quieted her whimpering, and kept still while Gladden cut the twine away from her leg.

While the vixen rested, Gladden brought her water from the river, then fed her bits of bread and cheese, until she felt stronger.

"Thank you, my dear," said the vixen. "You have a kind heart. If I can repay you in any way, just call on me." She gave Gladden a white tuft from her tail-tip, and said, "Keep this in your bosom. If you need my help, strike it against a tree-trunk and call for me," and with that she sprang away through the woods.

Gladden followed the faint trail along the river until dark. She found a hollow beneath an oak tree, ate a little and then wrapped her cloak about her and curled up. She slept, but her dreams were full of Kali, looking past her at something she could not see.

In the morning, she breakfasted, drank from the river and set off again. Before long, she came upon a clearing by the riverbank, where she saw a family of otters. The mother and her kits were playing in the early sun. They turned toward her as she approached, and the mother otter said, "Greetings, young lady. Good morning to you."

Gladden returned the greeting, and knelt to make friends with the kits. She played with them a little, while their mother rested and looked on.

Soon the mother said, "I must go fishing for the children's dinner. Will you watch them while I am gone?"

Gladden agreed with good cheer, for the kits were active and comical. She played with them until the mother returned with a couple of fish in her mouth. "Will you have some?" she offered.

"I thank you, but no," said Gladden. "I have already broken my fast, and these little ones are quite hungry."

The otter mother divided the fish among her kits. While she and Gladden watched them eat, she said, "Thank you for your kindness in watching my children." She clawed one long, bristly whisker from her snout, and said, "Take this. If you need me, just trail it in the water, and I will come to help."

Gladden thanked her again and again, then took her leave and continued her journey up the river. She stopped to make a little sachet from her handkerchief. She put into it the tuft of fur and the whisker, and hung it about her neck on a cord.

She walked through the day. The sun began to sink to the west when she saw a large muddy flat in a bend of the river. There caught in the mud was a hawk, its claws held fast by the sticky muck. It flapped its wings, trying to get free, but only sank deeper, getting mud on its feathers, as well.

"Stop, stop," cried Gladden. "You'll do yourself more harm that way. Let me help you." She set down her bag, tied up her skirts, and walked out through the mud. She sank to her knees in it before she reached the bird, but she was able to lift it away from the mud and carry it back to dry land. She tore a strip from her underskirt, and washed the mud from the hawk's claws and wingtips.

When he had preened every feather back into place, he pecked out one, and gave it to Gladden, saying, "You are a good-hearted young person. I owe you my life. If you have need of me, wave this feather through the air, and I will come to you." Then he leaped onto the air and was gone.

The sun dropped below the trees by the time Gladden and the hawk parted, so she found a place to spend the night, ate a little and went to sleep. Again, she dreamed of Kali. He looked thinner and paler than ever.

In the morning, she again continued up-river, but was soon stopped by a steep, rocky slope, over which the river tumbled with great force. She looked about for a trail, for she was certain, she knew not why, that Kali was still ahead of her.

She saw nothing. "If only I could fly over this cliff," she said to herself. Then she thought, "My hawk-friend! I cannot fly, but he surely could go ahead, and see if my dear friend is there."

She pulled the feather from her tunic and waved it through the air. Almost before her hand ceased moving, the hawk was plummeting toward her. She held up her arm, and he landed there. She told him her tale, of Kali's dream of the Lady, and her certainty that he had followed the river to find her.

"No sooner asked than answered," said the hawk. "I have seen your playmate. He is indeed by the river. Over this cliff, the land slopes gently up toward another, taller waterfall. Below that fall is a deep pool. Beside the pool waits a young person, drooping and sad. I see nothing of any Lady, but I know the river can be tricky and treacherous."

"How may I come there?" asked Gladden, but on this, the hawk was unable to advise her, for all his pathways were through the air.

"If you are acquainted with any creatures of the ground, perhaps one could guide you," he said.

Gladden bethought her of the fox, and, bidding the hawk farewell, she pulled the bit of fur from its sachet. She struck it against the trunk of a tree. Hardly had she struck it thrice before the vixen came trotting though the woods.

"Good morning, my friend," she said. "I am ready to help you."

Gladden again told the story of Kali and the river, and how the hawk said that he was beyond the cliff.

The vixen said, "I can guide you 'round this pile of rock, and bring you up to the pool. The hawk is correct, though. The river is not always friendly."

So Gladden followed her around through the trees and up past the cliff. After some time, they came to the pool, surrounded by the yellow flags of her name-flower.

There, indeed, was Kalimac. He sat on the sand at the edge of the water, his eyes fixed on its surface. He seemed not to see nor hear her. Gladden wept and shouted, but he gave no reply. However, when she stepped between him and the pond, he moved aside so he could still gaze into it.

Gladden went closer, and looked into the water. Deep in the pool, she could discern the outline of a woman. Her long, yellow hair and green gown rippled in the water.

"My Lady," whispered Kali. "I cannot free you from the bonds of the river. I have tried and failed."

Gladden thought the lady could not be alive at the bottom of the pool, but then she saw her move and twist, as though trying to break free from unseen bonds.

"I have tried night and morn to release you," said Kali. "Now I shall die here beside you." Tears fell from his eyes to the sand.

Gladden thought, "If it will keep my dear friend from dying, I must try to free the lady, though she take him from me forever." She laid down her cloak and took off her skirts, looking aside at Kali. He paid her no more mind than before, but continued heaving sighs and watching the lady.

Clad only in her shift, Gladden walked into the water. It made her shiver, but she took deep breaths and dived down to the bottom. She saw then that little tendrils of mossy waterweed wrapped around the woman's arms and legs, holding her fast.

Gladden tried to pull it away, but as fast as she pulled, the weeds twisted back faster. She rose back to the surface and breathed deeply. She climbed dripping out of the water to get her little knife from her bag.

Once more, she dived into the water, but no sooner had she reached the lady, than she felt someone beside her, and saw the sleek dark fur of the mother otter and her kits. She had left the sachet with the whisker in it around her neck, and as soon as it touched the water, it had drawn the otter to her aid.

The otters pulled away the weeds, and Gladden cut them with her knife. She had to return to the surface for air more than a few times. As soon as one arm was loosened, the lady's eyes opened, and she began to tug at the weeds, as well.

Soon, the last green curl gave way, and the lady rose to the surface. Gladden came shivering out of the pool. The water mixed with her tears as she saw Kali watching the Lady.

The Lady was very tall. She hardly glanced at Kali, but looked around. Her eyes fell on Gladden, and she said, "Do I owe my rescue to you? You have my deepest thanks.

"My poor child, you are nearly frozen! Come, let us get you dry," and without a word to Kali, she led Gladden to her pile of clothes, helped her strip off the wet shift and put on dry clothes. The Lady wrapped her in her cloak, and drew her into the sun.

The Lady herself seemed not at all inconvenienced by a prolonged wetting. Her green gown still rippled and glittered as dew on young grass, and her yellow hair drifted in the air as if in water.

"How did you come to find me?" she asked. "I sent dreams to my true love, hoping he would set me free, but he has not heard them, I see."

"Those dreams found their mark," said Gladden bitterly. "Behold, there he is," and she gestured to Kali, who still stood watching with open mouth.

"Ah, I see," said the Lady. "My dreams were sent astray, and have ensnared your friend." She laughed softly and sadly. "No, here is not my true love. My true love walks far under sun and star. He is older, he is wiser, still the river tricked him. The river held me, sent my dreams adrift.

"Now you have freed me, but I must free your friend." The Lady went to Kali and laid both her hands on his head. "I am but a dream to you. One day you will find the one who is not a dream."

She turned back to Gladden. "You have courage and a generous heart. Though you thwarted the river, my father, he will not harm you. Indeed, he will be kind to you and your friends, in this much I can guide him."

She knelt and embraced Gladden warmly and kissed her. "I and my love will be friends to you and your children and theirs. May you fare well all your days. If you would speak with me again, go to the river, to the Withywindle, and say, 'Send me your daughter', and I will come to you." The Lady dived once more into the pool. Gladden thought she saw something green and yellow flashing up the waterfall. She whispered, "Fare you well, also, Riverdaughter."

Gladdy turned to Kali. He shook himself and looked around. "What are we doing here?" he asked, "and is there anything to eat?"

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