The Well at the World's End
by William Morris
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

Ralph hung his head and was silent; for the joy of the Quest seemed dying out as the old man's words dropped slowly from his mouth. But he smiled upon Ralph and went on: "But for you, guests, it is otherwise, for ye of the World beyond the Mountains are stronger and more godlike than we, as all tales tell; and ye wear away your lives desiring that which ye may scarce get; and ye set your hearts on high things, desiring to be masters of the very Gods. Therefore ye know sickness and sorrow, and oft ye die before your time, so that ye must depart and leave undone things which ye deem ye were born to do; which to all men is grievous. And because of all this ye desire healing and thriving, whether good come of it, or ill. Therefore ye do but right to seek to the Well at the World's End, that ye may the better accomplish that which behoveth you, and that ye may serve your fellows and deliver them from the thralldom of those that be strong and unwise and unkind, of whom we have heard strange tales."

Ralph reddened as he spake, and Ursula looked on him anxiously, but that talk dropped for the present, and they fell to talking of lighter and more familiar matters.

Thereafter they wandered about the woods with the wardens and the way-leaders, and the elder brought them to the ancient altar in the wood whereon the Sorceress had offered up the goat; and the howe of the woman dight with the necklace of the Quest whom the Lady found dead in the snow; and the place nigh the house where the Sorceress used to torment her thrall that was afterwards the Lady of Abundance; yea, and they went further afield till they came to the Vale of Lore, and the Heath above it where they met, the King's Son and the Lady. All these and other places were now become as hallowed ground to the Innocent People, and to Ralph no less. In the house, moreover, was a fair ark wherein they kept matters which had belonged to the Lady, as her shoes and her smock, wrapped in goodly cloth amidst well-smelling herbs; and these things they worshipped as folk do with relics of the saints. In another ark also they showed the seekers a book wherein was written lore concerning the Well, and the way thereto. But of this book had the Sage forewarned Ralph and his mate, and had bidden them look to it that they should read in it, and no otherwhere than at that ancient altar in the wood, they two alone, and clad in such-like gear as they wore when they hearkened to his reading by his hermitage. And so it was that they found the due raiment in the ark along with the book. Therefore day after day betimes in the morning they bore the said book to the altar and read therein, till they had learned much wisdom.

Thus they did for eight days, and on the ninth they rested and were merry with their hosts: but on the tenth day they mounted their horses and said farewell, and departed by the ways they had learned of, they two alone. And they had with them bread and meal, as much as they might bear, and water-skins moreover, that they might fill them at the last sweet water before they came to the waterless desert.


They Come Through the Woodland to the Thirsty Desert

So they ride their ways, and when they were come well into the wildwood past the house, and had spoken but few words to each other, Ralph put forth his hand, and stayed Ursula, and they gat off their horses under a great-limbed oak, and did off their armour, and sat down on the greensward there, and loved each other dearly, and wept for joy of their pain and travail and love. And afterwards, as they sat side by side leaning up against the great oak-bole, Ralph spake and said: "Now are we two once again all alone in the uttermost parts of the earth, and belike we are not very far from the Well at the World's End; and now I have bethought me that if we gain that which we seek for, and bear back our lives to our own people, the day may come when we are grown old, for as young as we may seem, that we shall be as lonely then as we are this hour, and that the folk round about us shall be to us as much and no more than these trees and the wild things that dwell amongst them."

She looked on him and laughed as one over-happy, and said: "Thou runnest forward swiftly to meet trouble, beloved! But I say that well will it be in those days if I love the folk then as well as now I love these trees and the wild things whose house they are."

And she rose up therewith and threw her arms about the oak-bole and kissed its ruggedness, while Ralph as he lay kissed the sleekness of her feet. And there came a robin hopping over the leaves anigh them, for in that wood most of the creatures, knowing not man, were tame to him, and feared the horses of those twain more than their riders. And now as Ursula knelt to embrace Ralph with one hand, she held out the other to the said robin who perched on her wrist, and sat there as a hooded falcon had done, and fell to whistling his sweet notes, as if he were a-talking to those new-comers: then Ursula gave him a song-reward of their broken meat, and he flew up and perched on her shoulder, and nestled up against her cheek, and she laughed happily and said: "Lo you, sweet, have not the wild things understood my words, and sent this fair messenger to foretell us all good?"

"It is good," said Ralph laughing, "yet the oak-tree hath not spoken yet, despite of all thy kissing: and lo there goes thy friend the robin, now thou hast no more meat to give him."

"He is flying towards the Well at the World's End," she said, "and biddeth us onward: let us to horse and hasten: for if thou wilt have the whole truth concerning my heart, it is this, that some chance-hap may yet take thee from me ere thou hast drunk of the waters of the Well."

"Yea," said Ralph, "and in the innermost of my heart lieth the fear that mayhappen there is no Well, and no healing in it if we find it, and that death, and the backward way may yet sunder us. This is the worst of my heart, and evil is my coward fear."

But she cast her arms about him and kissed and caressed him, and cried out: "Yea, then fair have been the days of our journeying, and fair this hour of the green oak! And bold and true thine heart that hath led thee thus far, and won thee thy desire of my love."

So then they armed them, and mounted their horses and set forward. They lived well while they were in the wood, but on the third day they came to where it thinned and at last died out into a stony waste like unto that which they had passed through before they came to the House of the Sorceress, save that this lay in ridges as the waves of a great sea; and these same ridges they were bidden to cross over at their highest, lest they should be bewildered in a maze of little hills and dales leading no whither.

So they entered on this desert, having filled their water-skins at a clear brook, whereat they rejoiced when they found that the face of the wilderness was covered with a salt scurf, and that naught grew there save a sprinkling of small sage bushes.

Now on the second day of their riding this ugly waste, as they came up over the brow of one of these stony ridges, Ralph the far-sighted cried out suddenly: "Hold! for I see a man weaponed."

"Where is he?" quoth Ursula, "and what is he about?" Said Ralph: "He is up yonder on the swell of the next ridge, and by seeming is asleep leaning against a rock."

Then he bent the Turk bow and set an arrow on the string and they went on warily. When they were down at the foot of the ridge Ralph hailed the man with a lusty cry, but gat no answer of him; so they went on up the bent, till Ralph said: "Now I can see his face under his helm, and it is dark and the eyes are hollow: I will off horse and go up to him afoot, but do thou, beloved, sit still in thy saddle."

But when he had come nigher, he turned and cried out to her: "The man is dead, come anigh." So she went up to him and dismounted, and they both together stood over the man, who was lying up against a big stone like one at rest. How long he had lain there none knows but God; for in the saltness of the dry desert the flesh had dried on his bones without corrupting, and was as hardened leather. He was in full armour of a strange and ancient fashion, and his sword was girt to his side, neither was there any sign of a wound about him. Under a crag anigh him they found his horse, dead and dry like to himself; and a little way over the brow of the ridge another horse in like case; and close by him a woman whose raiment had not utterly perished, nor her hair; there were gold rings on her arms, and her shoes were done with gold: she had a knife stuck in her breast, with her hand still clutching the handle thereof; so that it seemed that she had herself given herself death.

Ralph and Ursula buried these two with the heaping of stones and went their ways; but some two miles thence they came upon another dead man-at-arms, and near him an old man unweaponed, and they heaped stones on them.

Thereabout night overtook them, and it was dark, so they lay down in the waste, and comforted each other, and slept two or three hours, but arose with the first glimmer of dawn, and mounted and rode forth onward, that they might the sooner be out of that deadly desert, for fear clung to their hearts.

This day, forsooth, they found so many dead folk, that they might not stay to bury them, lest they themselves should come to lie there lacking burial. So they made all the way they might, and rode on some hours by starlight after the night was come, for it was clear and cold. So that at last they were so utterly wearied that they lay down amongst those dead folk, and slept soundly.

On the morrow morn Ralph awoke and saw Ursula sleeping peacefully as he deemed, and he looked about on the dreary desert and its dead men and saw no end to it, though they lay on the top of one of those stony bents; and he said softly to himself: "Will it end at all then? Surely all this people of the days gone by were Seekers of the Well as we be; and have they belike turned back from somewhere further on, and might not escape the desert despite of all? Shall we turn now: shall we turn? surely we might get into the kindly wood from here."

So he spake; but Ursula sat up (for she was not asleep) and said: "The perils of the waste being abundant and exceeding hard to face, would not the Sage or his books have told us of the most deadly?" Said Ralph: "Yet here are all these dead, and we were not told of them, nevertheless we have seen the token on the rocks oft-times yesterday, so we are yet in the road, unless all this hath been but a snare and a betrayal."

She shook her head, and was silent a little; then she said: "Ralph, my lad, didst thou see this token (and she set hand to the beads about her neck) on any of those dead folk yesterday?" "Nay," said Ralph, "though sooth to say I looked for it." "And I in likewise," she said; "for indeed I had misgivings as the day grew old; but now I say, let us on in the faith of that token and the kindness of the Sage, and the love of the Innocent People; yea, and thy luck, O lad of the green fields far away, that hath brought thee unscathed so far from Upmeads."

So they mounted and rode forth, and saw more and more of the dead folk; and ever and anon they looked to them to note if they wore the beads like to them but saw none so dight. Then Ursula said: "Yea, why should the Sage and the books have told us aught of these dead bodies, that are but as the plenishing of the waste; like to the flowers that are cast down before the bier of a saint on a holy-day to be trodden under foot by the churls and the vicars of the close. Forsooth had they been alive now, with swords to smite withal, and hands to drag us into captivity, it had been another matter: but against these I feel bold."

Ralph sighed, and said: "Yea, but even if we die not in the waste, yet this is piteous; so many lives passed away, so many hopes slain."

"Yea," she said; "but do not folk die there in the world behind us? I have seen sights far worser than this at Utterbol, little while as I was there. Moreover I can note that this army of dead men has not come all in one day or one year, but in a long, long while, by one and two and three; for hast thou not noted that their raiment and wargear both, is of many fashions, and some much more perished than other, long as things last in this Dry Waste? I say that men die as in the world beyond, but here we see them as they lie dead, and have lain for so long."

He said: "I fear neither the Waste nor the dead men if thou fearest not, beloved: but I lament for these poor souls."

"And I also," said she; "therefore let us on, that we may come to those whose grief we may heal."


They Come to the Dry Tree

Presently as they rode they had before them one of the greatest of those land-waves, and they climbed it slowly, going afoot and leading their horses; but when they were but a little way from the brow they saw, over a gap thereof, something, as it were huge horns rising up into the air beyond the crest of the ridge. So they marvelled, and drew their swords, and held them still awhile, misdoubting if this were perchance some terrible monster of the waste; but whereas the thing moved not at all, they plucked up heart and fared on.

So came they to the brow and looked over it into a valley, about which on all sides went the ridge, save where it was broken down into a narrow pass on the further side, so that the said valley was like to one of those theatres of the ancient Roman Folk, whereof are some to be seen in certain lands. Neither did those desert benches lack their sitters; for all down the sides of the valley sat or lay children of men; some women, but most men-folk, of whom the more part were weaponed, and some with their drawn swords in their hands. Whatever semblance of moving was in them was when the eddying wind of the valley stirred the rags of their raiment, or the long hair of the women. But a very midmost of this dreary theatre rose up a huge and monstrous tree, whose topmost branches were even the horns which they had seen from below the hill's brow. Leafless was that tree and lacking of twigs, and its bole upheld but some fifty of great limbs, and as they looked on it, they doubted whether it were not made by men's hands rather than grown up out of the earth. All round about the roots of it was a pool of clear water, that cast back the image of the valley-side and the bright sky of the desert, as though it had been a mirror of burnished steel. The limbs of that tree were all behung with blazoned shields and knight's helms, and swords, and spears, and axes, and hawberks; and it rose up into the air some hundred feet above the flat of the valley.

For a while they looked down silently on to this marvel then from both their lips at once came the cry THE DRY TREE. Then Ralph thrust his sword back into his sheath and said: "Meseems I must needs go down amongst them; there is naught to do us harm here; for all these are dead like the others that we saw."

Ursula turned to him with burning cheeks and sparkling eyes, and said eagerly: "Yea, yea, let us go down, else might we chance to miss something that we ought to wot of."

Therewith she also sheathed her sword, and they went both of them down together, and that easily; for as aforesaid the slope was as if it had been cut into steps for their feet. And as they passed by the dead folk, for whom they had often to turn aside, they noted that each of the dead leathery faces was drawn up in a grin as though they had died in pain, and yet beguiled, so that all those visages looked somewhat alike, as though they had come from the workshop of one craftsman.

At last Ralph and Ursula stood on the level ground underneath the Tree, and they looked up at the branches, and down to the water at their feet; and now it seemed to them as though the Tree had verily growth in it, for they beheld its roots, that they went out from the mound or islet of earth into the water, and spread abroad therein, and seemed to waver about. So they walked around the Tree, and looked up at the shields that hung on its branches, but saw no blazon that they knew, though they were many and diverse; and the armour also and weapons were very diverse of fashion.

Now when they were come back again to the place where they had first stayed, Ralph said: "I thirst, and so belike dost thou; and here is water good and clear; let us drink then, and so spare our water-skins, for belike the dry desert is yet long." And therewith he knelt down that he might take of the water in the hollow of his hand. But Ursula drew him back, and cried out in terror: "O Ralph, do it not! Seest thou not this water, that although it be bright and clear, so that we may see all the pebbles at the bottom, yet nevertheless when the wind eddies about, and lifts the skirts of our raiment, it makes no ripple on the face of the pool, and doubtless it is heavy with venom; and moreover there is no sign of the way hereabout, as at other watering-steads; O forbear, Ralph!"

Then he rose up and drew back with her but slowly and unwillingly as she deemed; and they stood together a while gazing on these marvels. But lo amidst of this while, there came a crow wheeling over the valley of the dead, and he croaked over the Dry Tree, and let himself drop down to the edge of the pool, whereby he stalked about a little after the manner of his kind. Then he thrust his neb into the water and drank, and thereafter took wing again; but ere he was many feet off the ground he gave a grievous croak, and turning over in the air fell down stark dead close to the feet of those twain; and Ralph cried out but spake no word with meaning therein; then said Ursula: "Yea, thus are we saved from present death." Then she looked in Ralph's face, and turned pale and said hastily: "O my friend how is it with thee?" But she waited not for an answer, but turned her face to the bent whereby they had come down, and cried out in a loud, shrill voice: "O Ralph, Ralph! look up yonder to the ridge whereby we left our horses; look, look! there glitters a spear and stirreth! and lo a helm underneath the spear: tarry not, let us save our horses!"

Then Ralph let a cry out from his mouth, and set off running to the side of the slope, and fell to climbing it with great strides, not heeding Ursula; but she followed close after, and scrambled up with foot and hand and knee, till she stood beside him on the top, and he looked around wildly and cried out: "Where! where are they?"

"Nowhere," she said, "it was naught but my word to draw thee from death; but praise to the saints that thou are come alive out of the accursed valley."

He seemed not to hearken, but turned about once, and beat the air with his hands, and then fell down on his back and with a great wail she cast herself upon him, for she deemed at first that he was dead. But she took a little water from one of their skins, and cast it into his face, and took a flask of cordial from her pouch, and set it to his lips, and made him drink somewhat thereof. So in a while he came to himself and opened his eyes and smiled upon her, and she took his head in her hands and kissed his cheek, and he sat up and said feebly: "Shall we not go down into the valley? there is naught there to harm us."

"We have been down there already," she said, "and well it is that we are not both lying there now."

Then he got to his feet, and stretched himself, and yawned like one just awakened from long sleep. But she said: "Let us to horse and begone; it is early hours to slumber, for those that are seeking the Well at the World's End."

He smiled on her again and took her hand, and she led him to his horse, and helped him till he was in the saddle and lightly she gat a-horseback, and they rode away swiftly from that evil place; and after a while Ralph was himself again, and remembered all that had happened till he fell down on the brow of the ridge. Then he praised Ursula's wisdom and valiancy till she bade him forbear lest he weary her. Albeit she drew up close to him and kissed his face sweetly.


They Come Out of the Thirsty Desert

Past the Valley of the Dry Tree they saw but few dead men lying about, and soon they saw never another: and, though the land was still utterly barren, and all cast up into ridges as before, yet the salt slime grew less and less, and before nightfall of that day they had done with it: and the next day those stony waves were lower; and the next again the waste was but a swelling plain, and here and there they came on patches of dwarf willow, and other harsh and scanty herbage, whereof the horses might have a bait, which they sore needed, for now was their fodder done: but both men and horses were sore athirst; for, as carefully as they had hoarded their water, there was now but little left, which they durst not drink till they were driven perforce, lest they should yet die of drought.

They journeyed long that day, and whereas the moon was up at night-tide they lay not down till she was set; and their resting place was by some low bushes, whereabout was rough grass mingled with willow-herb, whereby Ralph judged that they drew nigh to water, so or ever they slept, they and the horses all but emptied the water-skins. They heard some sort of beasts roaring in the night, but they were too weary to watch, and might not make a fire.

When Ralph awoke in the morning he cried out that he could see the woodland; and Ursula arose at his cry and looked where he pointed, and sure enough there were trees on a rising ground some two miles ahead, and beyond them, not very far by seeming, they beheld the tops of great dark mountains. On either hand moreover, nigh on their right hand, far off on their left, ran a reef of rocks, so that their way seemed to be as between two walls. And these said reefs were nowise like those that they had seen of late, but black and, as to their matter, like to the great mountains by the rock of the Fighting Man: but as the reefs ran eastward they seemed to grow higher.

Now they mounted their horses at once and rode on; and the beasts were as eager as they were, and belike smelt the water. So when they had ridden but three miles, they saw a fair little river before them winding about exceedingly, but flowing eastward on the whole. So they spurred on with light hearts and presently were on the banks of the said river, and its waters were crystal-clear, though its sands were black: and the pink-blossomed willow-herb was growing abundantly on the sandy shores. Close to the water was a black rock, as big as a man, whereon was graven the sign of the way, so they knew that there was no evil in the water, wherefore they drank their fill and watered their horses abundantly, and on the further bank was there abundance of good grass. So when they had drunk their fill, for the pleasure of the cool water they waded the ford barefoot, and it was scarce above Ursula's knee. Then they had great joy to lie on the soft grass and eat their meat, while the horses tore eagerly at the herbage close to them. So when they had eaten, they rested awhile, but before they went further they despoiled them, one after other, and bathed in a pool of the river to wash the foul wilderness off them. Then again they rested and let the horses yet bite the grass, and departed not from that pleasant place till it was two hours after noon. As they were lying there Ralph said he could hear a great roar like the sound of many waters, but very far off: but to Ursula it seemed naught but the wind waxing in the boughs of the woodland anigh them.


They Come to the Ocean Sea

Being come to the wood they went not very far into it that day, for they were minded to rest them after the weariness of the wilderness: they feasted on a hare which Ralph shot, and made a big fire to keep off evil beasts, but none came nigh them, though they heard the voices of certain beasts as the night grew still. To be short, they slept far into the morrow's morn, and then, being refreshed, and their horses also, they rode strongly all day, and found the wood to be not very great; for before sunset they were come to its outskirts, and the mountains lay before them. These were but little like to that huge wall they had passed through on their way to Chestnut-dale, being rather great hills than mountains, grass-grown, and at their feet somewhat wooded, and by seeming not over hard to pass over.

The next day they entered them by a pass marked with the token, which led them about by a winding way till they were on the side of the biggest fell of all; so there they rested that night in a fair little hollow or dell in the mountain-side. There in the stillness of the night both Ursula, as well as Ralph, heard that roaring of a great water, and they said to each other that it must be the voice of the Sea, and they rejoiced thereat, for they had learned by the Sage and his books that they must needs come to the verge of the Ocean-Sea, which girdles the earth about. So they arose betimes on the morrow, and set to work to climb the mountain, going mostly a-foot; and the way was long, but not craggy or exceeding steep, so that in five hours' time they were at the mountain-top, and coming over the brow beheld beneath them fair green slopes besprinkled with trees, and beyond them, some three or four miles away, the blue landless sea and on either hand of them was the sea also, so that they were nigh-hand at the ending of a great ness, and there was naught beyond it; and naught to do if they missed the Well, but to turn back by the way they had come.

Now when they saw this they were exceedingly moved and they looked on one another, and each saw that the other was pale, with glistening eyes, since they were to come to the very point of their doom, and that it should be seen whether there were no such thing as the Well in all the earth, but that they had been chasing a fair-hued cloud; or else their Quest should be achieved and they should have the world before them, and they happy and mighty, and of great worship amidst all men.

Little they tarried, but gat them down the steep of the mountain, and so lower and lower till they were come to ground nigh level; and then at last it was but thus, that without any great rock-wall or girdle of marvellous and strange land, there was an end of earth, with its grass and trees and streams, and a beginning of the ocean, which stretched away changeless, and it might be for ever. Where the land ended there was but a cliff of less than an hundred feet above the eddying of the sea; and on the very point of the ness was a low green toft with a square stone set atop of it, whereon as they drew nigh they saw the token graven, yea on each face thereof.

Then they went along the edge of the cliff a mile on each side of the said toft, and then finding naught else to note, naught save the grass and the sea, they came back to that place of the token, and sat down on the grass of the toft.

It was now evening, and the sun was setting beyond them, but they could behold a kind of stair cut in the side of the cliff, and on the first step whereof was the token done; wherefore they knew that they were bidden to go down by the said stair; but it seemed to lead no whither, save straight into the sea. And whiles it came into Ralph's mind that this was naught but a mock, as if to bid the hapless seekers cast themselves down from the earth, and be done with it for ever. But in any case they might not try the adventure of that stair by the failing light, and with the night long before them. So when they had hoppled their horses, and left them to graze at their will on the sweet grass of the meadow, they laid them down behind the green toft, and, being forwearied, it was no long time ere they twain slept fast at the uttermost end of the world.


Now They Drink of the Well at the World's End

Ralph awoke from some foolish morning dream of Upmeads, wondering where he was, or what familiar voice had cried out his name: then he raised himself on his elbow, and saw Ursula standing before him with flushed face and sparkling eyes, and she was looking out seaward, while she called on his name. So he sprang up and strove with the slumber that still hung about him, and as his eyes cleared he looked down, and saw that the sea, which last night had washed the face of the cliff, had now ebbed far out, and left bare betwixt the billows and the cliff some half mile of black sand, with rocks of the like hue rising out of it here and there. But just below the place where they stood, right up against the cliff, was builded by man's hand of huge stones a garth of pound, the wall whereof was some seven feet high, and the pound within the wall of forty feet space endlong and overthwart; and the said pound was filled with the waters of a spring that came forth from the face of the cliff as they deemed, though from above they might not see the issue thereof; but the water ran seaward from the pound by some way unseen, and made a wide stream through the black sand of the foreshore: but ever the great basin filled somewhat faster than it voided, so that it ran over the lip on all sides, making a thin veil over the huge ashlar-stones of the garth. The day was bright and fair with no wind, save light airs playing about from the westward ort, and all things gleamed and glittered in the sun.

Ralph stood still a moment, and then stretched abroad his arms, and with a great sob cast them round about the body of his beloved, and strained her to his bosom as he murmured about her, THE WELL AT THE WORLD'S END. But she wept for joy as she fawned upon him, and let her hands beat upon his body.

But when they were somewhat calmed of their ecstasy of joy, they made ready to go down by that rocky stair. And first they did off their armour and other gear, and when they were naked they did on the hallowed raiment which they had out of the ark in the House of the Sorceress; and so clad gat them down the rock-hewn stair, Ralph going first, lest there should be any broken place; but naught was amiss with those hard black stones, and they came safely to a level place of the rock, whence they could see the face of the cliff, and how the waters of the Well came gushing forth from a hollow therein in a great swelling wave as clear as glass; and the sun glistened in it and made a foam-bow about its edges. But above the issue of the waters the black rock had been smoothed by man's art, and thereon was graven the Sword and the Bough, and above it these words, to wit:


So they looked long and wondered; and Ursula said: "Deemest thou, my friend, that any have come thus far and forborne to drink?"

Said Ralph: "Surely not even the exceeding wise might remember the bitterness of his wisdom as he stood here."

Then he looked on her and his face grew bright beyond measure, and cried out: "O love, love! why tarry we? For yet I fear lest we be come too late, and thou die before mine eyes ere yet thou hast drunken."

"Yea," she said, "and I also fear for thee, though thy face is ruddy and thine eyes sparkle, and thou art as lovely as the Captain of the Lord's hosts."

Then she laughed, and her laughter was as silver bells rung tunably, and she said: "But where is the cup for the drinking?"

But Ralph looked on the face of the wall, and about the height of his hand saw square marks thereon, as though there were an ambrye; and amidst the square was a knop of latten, all green with the weather and the salt spray. So Ralph set his hand to the knop and drew strongly, and lo it was a door made of a squared stone hung on brazen hinges, and it opened easily to him, and within was a cup of goldsmith's work, with the sword and the bough done thereon; and round about the rim writ this posey: "THE STRONG OF HEART SHALL DRINK FROM ME." So Ralph took it and held it aloft so that its pure metal flashed in the sun, and he said: "This is for thee, Sweetling."

"Yea, and for thee," she said.

Now that level place, or bench-table went up to the very gushing and green bow of the water, so Ralph took Ursula's hand and led her along, she going a little after him, till he was close to the Well, and stood amidst the spray-bow thereof, so that he looked verily like one of the painted angels on the choir wall of St. Laurence of Upmeads. Then he reached forth his hand and thrust the cup into the water, holding it stoutly because the gush of the stream was strong, so that the water of the Well splashed all over him, wetting Ursula's face and breast withal: and he felt that the water was sweet without any saltness of the sea. But he turned to Ursula and reached out the full cup to her, and said: "Sweetling, call a health over the cup!"

She took it and said: "To thy life, beloved!" and drank withal, and her eyes looked out of the cup the while, like a child's when he drinketh. Then she gave him the cup again and said: "Drink, and tarry not, lest thou die and I live."

Then Ralph plunged the cup into the waters again, and he held the cup aloft, and cried out: "To the Earth, and the World of Manfolk!" and therewith he drank.

For a minute then they clung together within the spray-bow of the Well, and then she took his hand and led him back to the midst of the bench-table, and he put the cup into the ambrye, and shut it up again, and then they sat them down on the widest of the platform under the shadow of a jutting rock; for the sun was hot; and therewithal a sweet weariness began to steal over them, though there was speech betwixt them for a little, and Ralph said: "How is it with thee, beloved?"

"O well indeed," she said.

Quoth he: "And how tasteth to thee the water of the Well?"

Slowly she spake and sleepily: "It tasted good, and as if thy love were blended with it."

And she smiled in his face; but he said: "One thing I wonder over: how shall we wot if we have drunk aright? For whereas if we were sick or old and failing, or ill-liking, and were now presently healed of all this, and become strong and fair to look on, then should we know it for sure—but now, though, as I look on thee, I behold thee the fairest of all women, and on thy face is no token of toil and travail, and the weariness of the way; and though the heart-ache of loneliness and captivity, and the shame of Utterbol has left no mark upon thee—yet hast thou not always been sweet to my eyes, and as sweet as might be? And how then?"...But he broke off and looked on her and she smiled upon the love in his eyes, and his head fell back and he slept with a calm and smiling face. And she leaned over him to kiss his face but even therewith her own eyes closed and she laid her head upon his breast, and slept as peacefully as he.


Now They Have Drunk and Are Glad

Long they slept till the shadows were falling from the west, and the sea was flowing fast again over the sands beneath them, though there was still a great space bare betwixt the cliff and the sea. Then spake Ursula as if Ralph had but just left speaking; and she said: "Yea, dear lord, and I also say, that, lovely as thou art now, never hast thou been aught else but lovely to me. But tell me, hast thou had any scar of a hurt upon thy body? For if now that were gone, surely it should be a token of the renewal of thy life. But if it be not gone, then there may yet be another token."

Then he stood upon his feet, and she cried out: "O but thou art fair and mighty, who now shall dare gainsay thee? Who shall not long for thee?"

Said Ralph: "Look, love! how the sea comes over the sand like the creeping of a sly wood-snake! Shall we go hence and turn from the ocean-sea without wetting our bodies in its waters?"

"Let us go," she said.

So they went down on to the level sands, and along the edges of the sweet-water stream that flowed from the Well; and Ralph said: "Beloved, I will tell thee of that which thou hast asked me: when I was but a lad of sixteen winters there rode men a-lifting into Upmeads, and Nicholas Longshanks, who is a wise man of war, gathered force and went against them, and I must needs ride beside him. Now we came to our above, and put the thieves to the road; but in the hurly I got a claw from the war-beast, for the stroke of a sword sheared me off somewhat from my shoulder: belike thou hast seen the scar and loathed it."

"It is naught loathsome," she said, "for a lad to be a bold warrior, nor for a grown man to think lightly of the memory of death drawn near for the first time. Yea, I have noted it but let me see now what has befallen with it."

As she spoke they were come to a salt pool in a rocky bight on their right hand, which the tide was filling speedily; and Ralph spake: "See now, this is the bath of the water of the ocean sea." So they were speedily naked and playing in the water: and Ursula took Ralph by the arm and looked to his shoulder and said: "O my lad of the pale edges, where is gone thy glory? There is no mark of the sword's pilgrimage on thy shoulder." "Nay, none?" quoth he.

"None, none!" she said, "Didst thou say the very sooth of thy hurt in the battle, O poor lad of mine?" "Yea, the sooth," said he. Then she laughed sweetly and merrily like the chuckle of a flute over the rippling waters, that rose higher and higher about them, and she turned her eyes askance and looked adown to her own sleek side, and laid her hand on it and laughed again. Then said Ralph: "What is toward, beloved? For thy laugh is rather of joy that of mirth alone."

She said: "O smooth-skinned warrior, O Lily and Rose of battle; here on my side yesterday was the token of the hart's tyne that gored me when I was a young maiden five years ago: look now and pity the maiden that lay on the grass of the forest, and the woodman a-passing by deemed her dead five years ago."

Ralph stooped down as the ripple washed away from her, then said: "In sooth here is no mark nor blemish, but the best handiwork of God, as when he first made a woman from the side of the Ancient Father of the field of Damask. But lo you love, how swift the tide cometh up, and I long to see thy feet on the green grass, and I fear the sea, lest it stir the joy over strongly in our hearts and we be not able to escape from its waves."

So they went up from out of the water, and did on the hallowed raiment fragrant with strange herbs, and passed joyfully up the sand towards the cliff and its stair; and speedily withal, for so soon as they were clad again, the little ripple of the sea was nigh touching their feet. As they went, they noted that the waters of the Well flowed seaward from the black-walled pound by three arched openings in its outer face, and they beheld the mason's work, how goodly it was; for it was as if it had been cut out of the foot of a mountain, so well jointed were its stones, and its walls solid against any storm that might drive against it.

They climbed the stair, and sat them down on the green grass awhile watching the ocean coming in over the sand and the rocks, and Ralph said: "I will tell thee, sweetling, that I am grown eager for the road; though true it is that whiles I was down yonder amidst the ripple of the sea I longed for naught but thee, though thou wert beside me, and thy joyous words were as fire to the heart of my love. But now that I am on the green grass of the earth I called to mind a dream that came to me when we slept after the precious draught of the Well: for methought that I was standing before the porch of the Feast-hall of Upmeads and holding thine hand, and the ancient House spake to me with the voice of a man, greeting both thee and me, and praising thy goodliness and valiancy. Surely then it is calling me to deeds, and if it were but morning, as it is now drawing towards sunset, we would mount and be gone straightway."

"Surely," she said, "thou hast drunk of the Well, and the fear of thee has already entered into the hearts of thy foemen far away, even as the love of thee constraineth me as I lie by thy side; but since it is evening and sunset, let it be evening, and let the morning see to its own matters. So now let us be pilgrims again, and eat the meal of pilgrims, and see to our horses, and then wander about this lovely wilderness and its green meads, where no son of man heedeth the wild things, till the night come, bringing to us the rest and the sleep of them that have prevailed over many troubles."

Even so they did, and broke bread above the sea, and looked to their horses, and then went hand in hand about the goodly green bents betwixt the sea and the rough of the mountain; and it was the fairest and softest of summer evenings; and the deer of that place, both little and great, had no fear of man, but the hart and hind came to Ursula's hand; and the thrushes perched upon her shoulder, and the hares gambolled together close to the feet of the twain; so that it seemed to them that they had come into the very Garden of God; and they forgat all the many miles of the waste and the mountain that lay before them, and they had no thought for the strife of foemen and the thwarting of kindred, that belike awaited them in their own land, but they thought of the love and happiness of the hour that was passing. So sweetly they wore through the last minutes of the day, and when it was as dark as it would be in that fair season, they lay down by the green knoll at the ending of the land, and were lulled to sleep by the bubbling of the Well at the World's End.


The Road Home


Ralph and Ursula Come Back Again Through the Great Mountains

On the morrow morning they armed them and took to their horses and departed from that pleasant place and climbed the mountain without weariness, and made provision of meat and drink for the Dry Desert, and so entered it, and journeyed happily with naught evil befalling them till they came back to the House of the Sorceress; and of the Desert they made little, and the wood was pleasant to them after the drought of the Desert.

But at the said House they saw those kind people, and they saw in their eager eyes as in a glass how they had been bettered by their drinking of the Well, and the Elder said to them: "Dear friends, there is no need to ask you whether ye have achieved your quest; for ye, who before were lovely, are now become as the very Gods who rule the world. And now methinks we have to pray you but one thing, to wit that ye will not be overmuch of Gods, but will be kind and lowly with them that needs must worship you."

They laughed on him for kindness' sake, and kissed and embraced the old man, and they thanked them all for their helping, and they abode with them for a whole day in good-will and love, and thereafter the carle, who was the son of the Elder, with his wife, bade farewell to his kinsmen, and led Ralph and Ursula back through the wood and over the desert to the town of the Innocent Folk. The said Folk received them in all joy and triumph, and would have them abide there the winter over. But they prayed leave to depart, because their hearts were sore for their own land and their kindred. So they abode there but two days, and on the third day were led away by a half score of men gaily apparelled after their manner, and having with them many sumpter-beasts with provision for the road. With this fellowship they came safely and with little pain unto Chestnut Vale, where they abode but one night, though to Ralph and Ursula the place was sweet for the memory of their loving sojourn there.

They would have taken leave of the Innocent Folk in the said vale, but those others must needs go with them a little further, and would not leave them till they were come to the jaws of the pass which led to the Rock of the Fighting Man. Further than that indeed they would not, or durst not go; and those huge mountains they called the Wall of Strife, even as they on the other side called them the Wall of the World.

So the twain took leave of their friends there, and howbeit that they had drunk of the Well at the World's End, yet were their hearts grieved at the parting. The kind folk left with them abundant provision for the remnant of the road, and a sumpter-ox to bear it; so they were in no doubt of their livelihood. Moreover, though the turn of autumn was come again and winter was at hand, yet the weather was fair and calm, and their journey through the dreary pass was as light as it might be to any men.


They Hear New Tidings of Utterbol

It was on a fair evening of later autumn-tide that they won their way out of the Gates of the Mountains, and came under the rock of the Fighting Man. There they kissed and comforted each other in memory of the terror and loneliness wherewith they had entered the Mountains that other time; though, sooth to say, it was to them now like the reading of sorrow in a book.

But when they came out with joyful hearts into the green plain betwixt the mountains and the River of Lava, they looked westward, and beheld no great way off a little bower or cot, builded of boughs and rushes by a blackthorn copse; and as they rode toward it they saw a man come forth therefrom, and presently saw that he was hoary, a man with a long white beard. Then Ralph gave a glad cry, and set spurs to his horse and galloped over the plain; for he deemed that it could be none other than the Sage of Swevenham; and Ursula came pricking after him laughing for joy. The old man abode their coming, and Ralph leapt off his horse at once, and kissed and embraced him; but the Sage said: "There is no need to ask thee of tidings; for thine eyes and thine whole body tell me that thou hast drunk of the Well at the World's End. And that shall be better for thee belike than it has been for me; though for me also the world has not gone ill after my fashion since I drank of that water."

Then was Ursula come up, and she also lighted down and made much of the Sage. But he said: "Hail, daughter! It is sweet to see thee so, and to wot that thou art in the hands of a mighty man: for I know that Ralph thy man is minded for his Father's House, and the deeds that abide him there; and I think we may journey a little way together; for as for me, I would go back to Swevenham to end my days there, whether they be long or short."

But Ralph said: "As for that, thou mayst go further than Swevenham, and as far as Upmeads, where there will be as many to love and cherish thee as at Swevenham."

The old man laughed a little, and reddened withal, but answered nothing.

Then they untrussed their sumpter-beast, and took meat and drink from his burden, and they ate and drank together, sitting on the green grass there; and the twain made great joy of the Sage, and told him the whole tale; and he told them that he had been abiding there since the spring-tide, lest they might have turned back without accomplishing their quest, and then may-happen he should have been at hand to comfort them, or the one of them left, if so it had befallen. "But," quoth he, "since ye have verily drunk of the Well at the World's End, ye have come back no later than I looked for you."

That night they slept in the bower there, and on the morrow betimes, the Sage drove together three or four milch goats that he pastured there, and went their ways over the plain, and so in due time entered into the lava-sea. But the first night that they lay there, though it was moonless and somewhat cloudy, they saw no glare of the distant earth-fires which they had looked for; and when on the morrow they questioned the Sage thereof, he said: "The Earth-fires ceased about the end of last year, as I have heard tell. But sooth it is that the foreboding of the Giant's Candle was not for naught. For there hath verily been a change of masters at Utterbol."

"Yea," said Ralph, "for better or worse?"

Said the Sage: "It could scarce have been for worse; but if rumour runneth right it is much for the better. Hearken how I learned thereof. One fair even of late March, a little before I set off hither, as I was sitting before the door of my house, I saw the glint of steel through the wood, and presently rode up a sort of knights and men-at-arms, about a score; and at the head of them a man on a big red-roan horse, with his surcoat blazoned with a white bull on a green field: he was a man black-haired, but blue-eyed; not very big, but well knit and strong, and looked both doughty and knightly; and he wore a gold coronet about his basnet: so not knowing his blazonry, I wondered who it was that durst be so bold as to ride in the lands of the Lord of Utterbol. Now he rode up to me and craved a drink of milk, for he had seen my goats; so I milked two goats for him, and brought whey for the others, whereas I had no more goats in milk at that season. So the bull-knight spake to me about the woodland, and wherefore I dwelt there apart from others; somewhat rough in his speech he was, yet rather jolly than fierce; and he thanked me for the bever kindly enough, and said: "I deem that it will not avail to give thee money; but I shall give thee what may be of avail to thee. Ho, Gervaise! give me one of those scrolls!" So a squire hands him a parchment and he gave it me, and it was a safe-conduct to the bearer from the Lord of Utterbol; but whereas I saw that the seal bore not the Bear on the Castle-wall, but the Bull, and that the superscription was unknown to me, I held the said scroll in my hand and wondered; and the knight said to me: "Yea, look long at it; but so it is, though thou trow it not, that I am verily Lord of Utterbol, and that by conquest; so that belike I am mightier than he was, for that mighty runagate have I slain. And many there be who deem that no mishap, heathen though I be. Come thou to Utterbol and see for thyself if the days be not changed there; and thou shalt have a belly-full of meat and drink, and honour after thy deserving." So they rested a while, and then went their ways. To Utterbol I went not, but ere I departed to come hither two or three carles strayed my way, as whiles they will, who told me that this which the knight had said was naught but the sooth, and that great was the change of days at Utterbol, whereas all men there, both bond and free, were as merry as they deserved to be, or belike merrier."

Ralph pondered this tale, and was not so sure but that this new lord was not Bull Shockhead, his wartaken thrall; natheless he held his peace; but Ursula said: "I marvel not much at the tale, for sure I am, that had Gandolf of the Bear been slain when I was at Utterbol, neither man nor woman had stirred a finger to avenge him. But all feared him, I scarce know why; and, moreover, there was none to be master if he were gone."

Thereafter she told more tales of the miseries of Utterbol than Ralph had yet heard, as though this tale of the end of that evil rule had set her free to utter them; and they fell to talking of others matters.


They Winter With the Sage; and Thereafter Come Again to Vale Turris

Thus with no peril and little pain they came to the Sage's hermitage; and whereas the autumn was now wearing, and it was not to be looked for that they should cross even the mountains west of Goldburg, let alone those to the west of Cheaping Knowe, when winter had once set in, Ralph and Ursula took the Sage's bidding to abide the winter through with him, and set forth on their journey again when spring should be fairly come and the mountain ways be clear of snow.

So they dwelt there happily enough; for they helped the Sage in his husbandry, and he enforced him to make them cheer, and read in the ancient book to them, and learned them as much as it behoved them to hearken; and told them tales of past time.

Thereafter when May was at hand they set out on their road, and whereas the Sage knew the wood well, he made a long story short by bringing them to Vale Turris in four days' time. But when they rode down into the dale, they saw the plain meads below the Tower all bright with tents and booths, and much folk moving about amidst them; here and there amidst the roofs of cloth withal was showing the half finished frame of a timber house a-building. But now as they looked and wondered what might be toward, a half score of weaponed men rode up to them and bade them, but courteously, to come with them to see their Lord. The Sage drew forth his let-pass thereat; but the leader of the riders said, as he shook his head: "That is good for thee, father; but these two knights must needs give an account of themselves: for my lord is minded to put down all lifting throughout his lands; therefore hath he made the meshes of his net small. But if these be thy friends it will be well. Therefore thou art free to come with them and bear witness to their good life."

Here it must be said that since they were on the road again Ursula had donned her wargear once more, and as she rode was to all men's eyes naught but a young and slender knight.

So without more ado they followed those men-at-arms, and saw how the banner of the Bull was now hung out from the Tower; and the sergeants brought them into the midst of the vale, where, about those tents and those half-finished frame-houses (whereof they saw six) was a market toward and much concourse of folk. But the sergeants led through them and the lanes of the booths down to the side of the river, where on a green knoll, with some dozen of men-at-arms and captains about him, sat the new Lord of Utterbol.

Now as the others drew away from him to right and left, the Lord sat before Ralph with naught to hide him, and when their eyes met Ralph gave a cry as one astonished; and the Lord of Utterbol rose up to his feet and shouted, and then fell a laughing joyously, and then cried out: "Welcome, King's Son, and look on me! for though the feathers be fine 'tis the same bird. I am Lord of Utterbol and therewithal Bull Shockhead, whose might was less than thine on the bent of the mountain valley."

Therewith he caught hold of Ralph's hand, and sat himself down and drew Ralph down, and made him sit beside him.

"Thou seest I am become great?" said he. "Yea," said Ralph, "I give thee joy thereof!" Said the new Lord: "Perchance thou wilt be deeming that since I was once thy war-taken thrall I should give myself up to thee: but I tell thee I will not: for I have much to do here. Moreover I did not run away from thee, but thou rannest from me, lad."

Thereat in his turn Ralph fell a laughing, and when he might speak he said: "What needeth the lord of all these spears to beg off his service to the poor wandering knight?"

Then Bull put his arms about him, and said: "I am fain at the sight of thee, time was thou wert a kind lad and a good master; yet naught so merry as thou shouldest have been; but now I see that gladness plays all about thy face, and sparkles in thine eyes; and that is good. But these thy fellows? I have seen the old carle before: he was dwelling in the wildwood because he was overwise to live with other folk. But this young man, who may he be? Or else—yea, verily, it is a young woman. Yea, and now I deem that it is the thrall of my brother Bull Nosy. Therefore by heritage she is now mine."

Ralph heard the words but saw not the smiling face, so wroth he was; therefore the bare sword was in his fist in a twinkling. But ere he could smite Bull caught hold of his wrist, and said: "Master, master, thou art but a sorry lawyer, or thou wouldst have said: 'Thou art my thrall, and how shall a thrall have heritage?' Dost thou not see that I cannot own her till I be free, and that thou wilt not give me my freedom save for hers? There, now is all the matter of the service duly settled, and I am free and a Lord. And this damsel is free also, and—yea, is she not thy well-beloved, King's Son?"

Ralph was somewhat abashed, and said: "I crave thy pardon, Lord, for misdoubting thee: but think how feeble are we two lovers amongst the hosts of the aliens."

"It is well, it is well," said Bull, "and in very sooth I deem thee my friend; and this damsel was my brother's friend. Sit down, dear maiden, I bid thee; and thou also, O man overwise; and let us drink a cup, and then we will talk about what we may do for each other."

So they sat down all on the grass, and the Lord of Utterbol called for wine, and they drank together in the merry season of May; and the new Lord said: "Here be we friends come together, and it were pity of our lives if we must needs sunder speedily: howbeit, it is thou must rule herein, King's Son; for in my eyes thou art still greater than I, O my master. For I can see in thine eyes and thy gait, and in thine also, maiden, that ye have drunk of the Well at the World's End. Therefore I pray you gently and heartily that ye come home with me to Utterbol."

Ralph shook his head, and answered: "Lord of Utterbol, I bid thee all thanks for thy friendliness, but it may not be."

"But take note," said Bull, "that all is changed there, and it hath become a merry dwelling of men. We have cast down the Red Pillar, and the White and the Black also; and it is no longer a place of torment and fear, and cozening and murder; but the very thralls are happy and free-spoken. Now come ye, if it were but for a moon's wearing: I shall be there in eight days' time. Yea, Lord Ralph, thou would'st see old acquaintance there withal: for when I slew the tyrant, who forsooth owed me no less than his life for the murder of my brother, I made atonement to his widow, and wedded her: a fair woman as thou wottest, lord, and of good kindred, and of no ill conditions, as is well seen now that she lives happy days. Though I have heard say that while she was under the tyrant she was somewhat rough with her women when she was sad. Eh, fair sir! but is it not so that she cast sheep's eyes on thee, time was, in this same dale?"

Ralph reddened and answered naught; and Bull spake again, laughing: "Yea, so it is: she told me that much herself, and afterwards I heard more from her damsel Agatha, who told me the merry tale of that device they made to catch thee, and how thou brakest through the net. Forsooth, though this she told me not, I deem that she would have had the same gift of thee as her mistress would. Well, lad, lucky are they with whom all women are in love. So now I prithee trust so much in thy luck as to come with me to Utterbol."

Quoth Ralph: "Once again, Lord of Utterbol, we thank thee; but whereas thou hast said that thou hast much to do in this land; even so I have a land where deeds await me. For I stole myself away from my father and mother, and who knows what help they need of me against foemen, and evil days; and now I might give help to them were I once at home, and to the people of the land also, who are a stout-hearted and valiant and kindly folk."

The new Lord's face clouded somewhat, as he said: "If thine heart draweth thee to thy kindred, there is no more to say. As for me, what I did was for kindred's sake, and then what followed after was the work of need. Well, let it be! But since we must needs part hastily, this at least I bid you, that ye abide with me for to-night, and the banquet in the great pavilion. Howsoever ye may be busied, gainsay me not this; and to-morrow I shall further you on your way, and give you a score of spears to follow thee to Goldburg. Then as for Goldburg and Cheaping Knowe, see ye to it yourselves: but beyond Cheaping Knowe and the plain country, thy name is known, and the likeness of thee told in words; and no man in those mountains shall hurt or hinder thee, but all thou meetest shall aid and further thee. Moreover, at the feast to-night thou shalt see thy friend Otter, and he and I betwixt us shall tell thee how I came to Utterbol, and of the change of days, and how it betid. For he is now my right-hand man, as he was of the dead man. Forsooth, after the slaying I would have had him take the lordship of Utterbol, but he would not, so I must take it perforce or be slain, and let a new master reign there little better than the old. Well then, how sayest thou? Or wilt thou run from me without leave-taking, as thou didst ere-while at Goldburg?"

Ralph laughed at his word, and said that he would not be so churlish this time, but would take his bidding with a good heart; and thereafter they fell to talking of many things. But Ralph took note of Bull, that now his hair and beard were trim and his raiment goodly, for all his rough speech and his laughter and heart-whole gibes and mocking, his aspect and bearing was noble and knightly.


A Feast in the Red Pavilion

So in a while they went with him to the Tower, and there was woman's raiment of the best gotten for Ursula, and afterwards at nightfall they went to the feast in the Red Pavillion of Utterbol, which awhile ago the now-slain Lord of Utterbol had let make; and it was exceeding rich with broidery of pearl and gems: since forsooth gems and fair women were what the late lord had lusted for the most, and have them he would at the price of howsoever many tears and groans. But that pavilion was yet in all wise as it was wont to be, saving that the Bull had supplanted the Bear upon the Castle-wall.

Now the wayfarers were treated with all honour and were set upon the high-seat, Ralph upon the right-hand of the Lord, and Ursula upon his left, and the Sage of Swevenham out from her. But on Ralph's right hand was at first a void place, whereto after a while came Otter, the old Captain of the Guard. He came in hastily, and as though he had but just taken his armour off: for his raiment was but such as the men-at-arm of that country were wont to wear under their war-gear, and was somewhat stained and worn; whereas the other knights and lords were arrayed grandly in silks and fine cloth embroidered and begemmed.

Otter was fain when he saw Ralph, and kissed and embraced him, and said: "Forsooth, I saw by thy face, lad, that the world would be soft before thee; and now that I behold thee I know already that thou hast won thy quest; and the Gods only know to what honour thou shalt attain."

Ralph laughed for joy of him, and yet said soberly: "As to honour, meseems I covet little world's goods, save that it may be well with my folk at home." Nevertheless as the words were out of his mouth his thought went back to the tall man whom he had first met at the churchyard gate of Netherton, and it seemed to him that he wished his thriving, yea, and in a lesser way, he wished the same to Roger of the Rope-walk, whereas he deemed that both of these, each in his own way, had been true to the lady whom he had lost.

Then Otter fell a-talking to him of the change of days at Utterbol, and how that it was the Lord's intent that a cheaping town should grow up in the Dale of the Tower, and that the wilderness beyond it should be tilled and builded. "And," said he, "if this be done, and the new lord live to see it, as he may, being but young of years, he may become exceedingly mighty, and if he hold on in the way whereas he now is, he shall be well-beloved also."

So they spake of many things, and there was minstrelsy and diverse joyance, till at last the Lord of Utterbol stood up and said: "Now bring in the Bull, that we may speak some words over him; for this is a great feast." Ralph wondered what bull this might be whereof he spake; but the harps and fiddlers, and all instruments of music struck up a gay and gallant tune, and presently there came into the hall four men richly attired, who held up on spears a canopy of bawdekin, under which went a man-at-arms helmed, and clad in bright armour, who held in his hands a great golden cup fashioned like to a bull, and he bore it forth unto the dais, and gave it into the hands of the Lord. Then straightway all the noise ceased, and the glee and clatter of the hall, and there was dead silence. Then the Lord held the cup aloft and said in a loud voice:

"Hail, all ye folk! I swear by the Bull, and they that made him, that in three years' time or less I will have purged all the lands of Utterbol of all strong-thieves and cruel tyrants, be they big or little, till all be peace betwixt the mountains and the mark of Goldburg; and the wilderness shall blossom like the rose. Or else shall I die in the pain."

Therewith he drank of the cup, and all men shouted. Then he sat him down and bade hand the cup to Otter; and Otter took the cup and looked into the bowl and saw the wave of wine, and laughed and cried out: "As for me, what shall I swear but that I will follow the Bull through thick and thin, through peace and unpeace, through grief and joy. This is my oath-swearing."

And he drank mightily and sat down.

Then turned the Lord to Ralph and said: "And thou who art my master, wilt thou not tell thy friends and the Gods what thou wilt do?"

"No great matter, belike," said Ralph; "but if ye will it, I will speak out my mind thereon."

"We will it," said the Lord.

Then Ralph arose and took the cup and lifted it and spake: "This I swear, that I will go home to my kindred, yet on the road will I not gainsay help to any that craveth it. So may all Hallows help me!"

Therewith he drank: and Bull said: "This is well said, O happy man! But now that men have drunk well, do ye three and Otter come with me into the Tower, whereas the chambers are dight for you, that I may make the most of this good day wherein I have met thee again."

So they went with him, and when they had sat down in the goodliest chamber of the Tower, and they had been served with wine and spices, the new Lord said to Ralph: "And now, my master, wilt thou not ask somewhat concerning me?" "Yea," said Ralph, "I will ask thee to tell the tale of how thou camest into thy Lordship." Said the Lord, "This shall ye hear of me with Otter to help me out. Hearken!"


Bull Telleth of His Winning of the Lordship of Utterbol

"When thou rannest away from me, and left me alone at Goldburg, I was grieved; then Clement Chapman offered to take me back with him to his own country, which, he did me to wit, lieth hard by thine: but I would not go with him, since I had an inkling that I should find the slayer of my brother and be avenged on him. So the Chapmen departed from Goldburg after that Clement had dealt generously by me for thy sake; and when they were gone I bethought me what to do, and thou knowest I can some skill with the fiddle and song, so I betook myself to that craft, both to earn somewhat and that I might gather tidings and be little heeded, till within awhile folk got to know me well, and would often send for me to their merry-makings, where they gave me fiddler's wages, to wit, meat, drink, and money. So what with one thing what with another I was rich enough to leave Goldburg and fall to my journey unto Utterbol; since I misdoubted me from the first that the caytiff who had slain my brother was the Lord thereof.

"But one day when I went into the market-place I found a great stir and clutter there; some folk, both men and women screeching and fleeing, and some running to bows and other weapons. So I caught hold of one of the fleers, and asked him what was toward; and he cried out, 'Loose me! let me go! he is loose, he is loose!'

"'Who is loose, fool?' quoth I. 'The lion,' said he, and therewith in the extremity of his terror tore himself away from me and fled. By this time the others also had got some distance away from me, and I was left pretty much alone. So I went forth on a little, looking about me, and sure enough under one of the pillars of the cloister beneath the market-house (the great green pillar, if thou mindest it), lay crouched a huge yellow lion, on the carcase of a goat, which he had knocked down, but would not fall to eating of amidst all that cry and hubbub.

"Now belike one thing of me thou wottest not, to wit, that I have a gift that wild things love and will do my bidding. The house-mice will run over me as I lie awake looking on them; the small birds will perch on my shoulders without fear; the squirrels and hares will gambol about quite close to me as if I were but a tree; and, withal, the fiercest hound or mastiff is tame before me. Therefore I feared not this lion, and, moreover, I looked to it that if I might tame him thoroughly, he would both help me to live as a jongleur, and would be a sure ward to me.

"So I walked up towards him quietly, till he saw me and half rose up growling; but I went on still, and said to him in a peaceable voice: 'How now, yellow mane! what aileth thee? down with thee, and eat thy meat.' So he sat down to his quarry again, but growled still, and I went up close to him, and said to him: 'Eat in peace and safety, am I not here?' And therewith I held out my bare hand unclenched to him, and he smelt to it, and straightway began to be peaceable, and fell to tearing the goat, and devouring it, while I stood by speaking to him friendly.

"But presently I saw weapons glitter on the other side of the square place, and men with bended bows. The yellow king saw them also, and rose up again and stood growling; then I strove to quiet him, and said, 'These shall not harm thee.'

"Therewith the men cried out to me to come away, for they would shoot: But I called out; 'Shoot not yet! but tell me, does any man own this beast?' 'Yea,' said one, 'I own him, and happy am I that he doth not own me.' Said I, 'Wilt thou sell him?' 'Yea' said he, 'if thou livest another hour to tell down the money.' Said I, 'I am a tamer of wild beasts, and if thou wilt sell this one at such a price, I will rid thee of him.' The man yeasaid this, but kept well aloof with his fellows, who looked on, handling their weapons.

"Then I turned to my new-bought thrall and bade him come with me, and he followed me like a dog to his cage, which was hard by; and I shut him in there, and laid down the money to his owner; and folk came round about, and wondered, and praised me. But I said: 'My masters, have ye naught of gifts for the tamer of beasts, and the deliverer of men?' Thereat they laughed: but they brought me money and other goods, till I had gotten far more than I had given for the lion.

"Howbeit the next day the officers of the Porte came and bade me avoid the town of Goldburg, but gave me more money withal. I was not loth thereto, but departed, riding a little horse that I had, and leading my lion by a chain, though when I was by he needed little chaining.

"So that without more ado I took the road to Utterbol, and wheresoever I came, I had what was to be had that I would; neither did any man fall on me, or on my lion. For though they might have shot him or slain him with many spear-thrusts, yet besides that they feared him sorely, they feared me still more; deeming me some mighty sending from their Gods.

"Thus came I to Utterness, and found it poor and wretched, (as forsooth, it yet is, but shall not be so for long). But the House of Utterbol is exceeding fair and stately (as thou mightest have learned from others, my master,) and its gardens, and orchards, and acres, and meadows as goodly as may be. Yea, a very paradise; yet the dwellers therein as if it were hell, as I saw openly with mine own eyes.

"To be short, the fame of me and my beast had somehow gone before me, and when I came to the House, I was dealt with fairly, and had good entertainment: and this all the more, as the Lord was away for a while, and the life of folk not so hard by a great way as it had been if he had been there: but the Lady was there in the house, and on the morrow of my coming by her command, I brought my lion before her window and made him come and go, and fetch and carry at my bidding, and when I had done my play she bade me up into her bower, and bade me sit and had me served with wine, while she asked me many questions as to my country and friends, and whence and whither I was; and I answered her with the very sooth, so far as the sooth was handy; and there was with her but one of her women, even thy friend Agatha, fair sir.

"Methought both that this Queen was a fair woman, and that she looked kindly upon me, and at last she said, sighing, that she were well at ease if her baron were even such a man as I, whereas the said Lord was fierce and cruel, and yet a dastard withal. But the said Agatha turned on her, and chided her, as one might with a child, and said: 'Hold thy peace of thy loves and thy hates before a very stranger! Or must I leave yet more of my blood on the pavement of the White Pillar, for the pleasure of thy loose tongue? Come out now, mountain-carle!'

"And she took me by the hand and led me out, and when we had passed the door and it was shut, she turned to me and said: 'Thou, if I hear any word abroad of what my Lady has just spoken, I shall know that thou hast told it, and though I be but a thrall, yea, and of late a mishandled one, yet am I of might enough in Utterbol to compass thy destruction.'

"I laughed in her face and went my ways: and thereafter I saw many folk and showed them my beast, and soon learned two things clearly.

"And first that the Lord and the Lady were now utterly at variance. For a little before he had come home, and found a lack in his household—to wit, how a certain fair woman whom he had but just got hold of, and whom he lusted after sorely, was fled away. And he laid the wyte thereof on his Lady, and threatened her with death: and when he considered that he durst not slay her, or torment her (for he was verily but a dastard), he made thy friend Agatha pay for her under pretence of wringing a true tale out of her.

"Now when I heard this story I said to myself that I should hear that other one of the slaying of my brother, and even so it befell. For I came across a man who told me when and how the Lord came by the said damsel (whom I knew at once could be none other than thou, Lady,) and how he had slain my brother to get her, even as doubtless thou knowest, Lord Ralph.

"But the second thing which I learned was that all folk at Utterbol, men and women, dreaded the home-coming of this tyrant; and that there was no man but would have deemed it a good deed to slay him. But, dastard as he was, use and wont, and the fear that withholdeth rebels, and the doubt that draweth back slaves, saved him; and they dreaded him moreover as a devil rather than a man. Forsooth one of the men there, who looked upon me friendly, who had had tidings of this evil beast drawing near, spake to me a word of warning, and said: 'Friend lion-master, take heed to thyself! For I fear for thee when the Lord cometh home and findeth thee here; lest he let poison thy lion and slay thee miserably afterward.'

"Well, in three days from that word home cometh the Lord with a rout of his spearmen, and some dozen of captives, whom he had taken. And the morrow of his coming, he, having heard of me, sent and bade me showing the wonder of the Man and the Lion; therefore in the bright morning I played with the lion under his window as I had done by the Queen. And after I had played some while, and he looking out of the window, he called to me and said: 'Canst thou lull thy lion to sleep, so that thou mayst leave him for a little? For I would fain have thee up here.'

"I yeasaid that, and chid the beast, and then sang to him till he lay down and slept like a hound weary with hunting. And then I went up into the Lord's chamber; and as it happed, all the while of my playing I had had my short-sword naked in my hand, and thus, I deem without noting it, yet as weird would, I came before the tyrant, where he sat with none anigh him save this Otter and another man-at-arms. But when I saw him, all the blood within me that was come of one mother with my brother's blood stirred within me, and I set my foot on the foot-pace of this murderer's chair, and hove up my short-sword, and clave his skull, in front and with mine own hand: not as he wrought, not as he wrought with my brother.

"Then I turned about to Otter (who had his sword in his fist when it was too late) till he should speak. Hah Otter, what didst thou say?"

Otter laughed: Quoth he, "I said: thus endeth the worst man in the world. Well done, lion-tamer! thou art no ill guest, and hast paid on the nail for meat, drink and lodging. But what shall we do now? Then thou saidst; 'Well, I suppose thou wilt be for slaying me.' 'Nay,' said I, 'We will not slay thee; at least not for this, nor now, nor without terms.' Thou saidst: 'Perchance then thou wilt let me go free, since this man was ill-beloved: yea, and he owed me a life.' 'Nay, nay,' said I, 'not so fast, good beast-lord.' 'Why not?' saidst thou, 'I can see of thee that thou art a valiant man, and whereas thou hast been captain of the host, and the men-at-arms will lightly do thy bidding, why shouldest thou not sit in the place of this man, and be Lord of Utterbol?'

"'Nay nay,' said I, 'it will not do, hearken thou rather: For here I give thee the choice of two things, either that thou be Lord of Utterbol, or that we slay thee here and now. For we be two men all-armed.'

"Thou didst seem to ponder it a while, and then saidst at last: 'Well, I set not out on this journey with any such-like intent; yet will I not wrestle with weird. Only I forewarn thee that I shall change the days of Utterbol.'

"'It will not be for the worst then,' quoth I. 'So now go wake up thy lion, and lead him away to his den: and we will presently send him this carrion for a reward of his jonglery.' 'Gramercy, butcher,' saidst thou, 'I am not for thy flesh-meat to-day. I was forewarned that the poor beast should be poisoned at this man's home-coming, and so will he be if he eat of this dastard; he will not outlive such a dinner.' Thereat we all laughed heartily."

"Yea," said Bull, "So I went to lead away the lion when thou hadst bidden me return in an hours' wearing, when all should be ready for my Lordship. And thou wert not worse than thy word, for when I came into that court again, there were all the men-at-arms assembled, and the free carles, and the thralls; and the men-at-arms raised me on a shield, set a crowned helm on my head, and thrust a great sword into my hand, and hailed me by the name of the Bull of Utterbol, Lord of the Waste and the Wildwood, and the Mountain-side: and then thou, Otter, wert so simple as to kneel before me and name thyself my man, and take the girding on of sword at my hand. Then even as I was I went in to my Lady and told her the end of my tale, and in three minutes she lay in my arms, and in three days in my bed as my wedded wife. As to Agatha, when I had a little jeered her, I gave her rich gifts and good lands, and freedom, to boot her for her many stripes. And lo there, King's Son and Sweet Lady, the end of all my tale."

"Yea," quoth Otter, "saving this, that even already thou has raised up Utterbol from Hell to Earth, and yet meseemeth thou hast good-will to raise it higher."

Bull reddened at his word, and said: "Tush, man! praise the day when the sun has set." Then he turned to Ralph, and said: "Yet couldst thou at whiles put in a good word for me here and there amongst the folks that thou shalt pass through on thy ways home, I were fain to know that I had a well-speaking friend abroad." "We shall do no less," said Ralph; and Ursula spake in like wise.

So they talked together merrily a while longer, till night began to grow old, and then went to their chambers in all content and good-liking.


They Ride From Vale Turris. Redhead Tells of Agatha

On the morrow when they arose, Ralph heard the sound of horses and the clashing of arms: he went to the window, and looked out, and saw how the spears stood up thick together at the Tower's foot, and knew that these were the men who were to be his fellows by the way. Their captain he saw, a big man all-armed in steel, but himseemed that he knew his face under his sallet, and presently saw that it was Redhead. He was glad thereof, and clad himself hastily, and went out a-doors, and went up to him and hailed him, and Redhead leapt off his horse, and cast his arms about Ralph, and made much of him, and said: "It is good for sore eyes to see thee, lord; and I am glad at heart that all went well with thee that time. Although, forsooth, there was guile behind it. Yet whereas I wotted nothing thereof, which I will pray thee to believe, and whereas thou hast the gain of all, I deem thou mayst pardon me."

Said Ralph: "Thou hast what pardon of me thou needest; so be content. For the rest, little need is there to ask if thou thrivest, for I behold thee glad and well honoured."

As they spoke came the Lord forth from the Tower, and said: "Come thou, Lord Ralph, and eat with us ere thou takest to the road; I mean with Otter and me. As for thee, Redhead, if aught of ill befall this King's Son under thy way-leading, look to it that thou shalt lose my good word with Agatha; yea, or gain my naysay herein; whereby thou shalt miss both fee and fair dame."

Redhead looked sheepishly on Ralph at that word, yet winked at him also, as if it pleased him to be jeered concerning his wooing; so that Ralph saw how the land lay, and that the guileful handmaid was not ill content with that big man. So he smiled kindly on him and nodded, and went back with Bull into the Tower. There they sat down all to meat together; and when they were done with their victual, Bull spake, and said to Ralph: "Fair King's Son, is this then the last sight of thee? wilt thou never come over the mountains again?" Said Ralph: "Who knoweth? I am young yet, and have drunk of the Water of the Well." Bull grew somewhat pensive and said: "Yea, thou meanest that thou mayest come back and find me no longer here. Yet if thou findest but my grave-mound, yet mayhappen thou shalt come on something said or sung of me, which shall please thee. For I will tell thee, that thou hast changed my conditions; how, I wot not."

"Thy word is good," said Ralph, "yet I meant not that; never should I come to Utterbol if I looked not to find thee living there." Bull smiled on him as though he loved him, and said: "This is well spoken; I shall look to see thee before I die."

Then said Ursula: "Lord of Utterbol, this also thou mayst think on, that it is no further from Utterbol to Upmeads than from Upmeads to Utterbol." The Lord laughed and said: "Sooth is that; and were but my Bull here, as I behold you I should be of mind to swear by him to come and see you at Upmeads ere ten years have worn."

Then she put forth her hand and said: "Swear by this!" So he took it and swore the oath; but the Sage of Swevenham said: "This oath thou shalt keep to the gain and not the loss both of thee and of thy friends of Upmeads."

Thus were they fain of each other, and Ralph saw how Bull's heart was grown big, and he rejoiced thereat. But anon he arose and said: "Now, Lord, we ask leave to depart for the way is long, and mayhappen my kindred now lack a man's helping." Then Bull stood up and called for his horse, and Otter also, and they all went forth and gat a-horseback and rode away from Vale Turris, and Redhead rode behind them humbly, till it was noon and they made stay for meat. Then after they had broken bread together and drunk a cup Bull and Otter kissed the wayfarers, and bade them farewell and so rode back to Vale Turris, and Ralph and Ursula and the Sage tarried not but rode on their ways.

But anon Ralph called to Redhead, and bade him ride beside them that they might talk together, and he came up with them, and Ursula greeted him kindly, and they were merry one with another. And Ralph said to Redhead: "Friend captain, thou art exceeding in humility not to ride with the Lord or Captain Otter; save for chance-hap, I see not that thou art worser than they."

Redhead grinned, and said: "Well, as to Otter, that is all true; but as for Lord Bull it is another matter; I wot not but his kindred may be as good or better than any in these east parts. In any case, he hath his kin and long descent full often in his mouth, while I am but a gangrel body. Howbeit it is all one, whereas whatso he or Otter bid any man to do, he doeth it, but my bidding may be questioned at whiles. And look you, lord, times are not ill, so wherefore should I risk a change of days? Sooth to say, both these great lords have done well by me."

Ralph laughed: "And better will they do, as thou deemest; give thee Agatha, to wit?" "Yea, fair sir," quoth Redhead. "No great gift, that seemeth to me, for thy valiancy," said Ralph; "she is guileful enough and loose enough for a worse man than thee."

"Lord," said Redhead, "even of her thou shalt say what pleaseth thee; but no other man shall say of her what pleaseth me not. For all that is come and gone she is true and valiant, and none may say that she is not fair and sweet enough for a better man than me; and my great good luck it is that, as I hope, she looketh no further for a better."

Ursula said: "Is it so, perchance, that now she is free and hath naught to fear, she hath no need for guile?" "Hail to thee for thy word, lady," quoth Redhead; and then he was silent, glooming somewhat on Ralph.

But Ralph said: "Nay, my friend, I meant no harm, but I was wondering what had befallen to bring you two so close together."

"It was fear and pain, and the helping of each other that wrought it," said Redhead. Said Ursula: "Good Captain, how was it that she escaped the uttermost of evil at the tyrant's hands? since from all that I have heard, it must needs be that he laid the blame on her (working for her mistress) of my flight from Utterbol."

"Even so it was, lady," said Redhead; "but, as thou wottest belike, she had got it spread abroad that she was cunning in sorcery, and that her spell would not end when her life ended; nay, that he to whom her ghost should bear ill-will, and more especially such an one as might compass her death, should have but an ill time of it while he lived, which should not be long. This tale, which, sooth to say, I myself helped to spread, the Lord of Utterbol trowed in wholly, so cunningly was it told; so that, to make a long story short, he feared her, and feared her more dead than living. So that when he came home, and found thee gone, lady, he did indeed deem that thy flight was of Agatha's contrivance. And this the more because his nephew (he whom thou didst beguile; I partly guess how) told him a made-up tale how all was done by the spells of Agatha. For this youth was of all men, not even saving his uncle, most full of malice; and he hated Agatha, and would have had her suffer the uttermost of torments and he to be standing by the while; howbeit his malice overshot itself, since his tale made her even more of a witch than the lord deemed before."

"Yea," said Ursula, "and what hath befallen that evil young man, Captain?" Said Redhead: "It is not known to many, lady; but two days before the slaying of his uncle, I met him in a wood a little way from Utterbol, and, the mood being on me I tied him neck and heels and cast him, with a stone round his neck, into a deep woodland pool hight the Ram's Bane, which is in that same wood. Well, as to my tale of Agatha. When the lord came home first, he sent for her, and his rage had so mastered his fear for a while that his best word was scourge and rack and faggot; but she was, outwardly, so calm and cold, smiling on him balefully, that he presently came to himself, a found that fear was in his belly, and that he might not do what he would with her; wherefore he looked to it that however she were used (which was ill enough, God wot!) she should keep the soul in her body. And at last the fear so mounted into his head that he made peace with her, and even craved forgiveness of her and gave her gifts. She answered him sweetly indeed, yet so as he (and all others who were bystanding, of whom I was one,) might well see that she deemed she owed him a day in harvest. As for me, he heeded me naught, and I lay low all I might. And in any wise we wore the time till the great day of deliverance."

Therewith dropped the talk about Agatha, when they had bidden him all luck in his life. Forsooth, they were fain of his words, and of his ways withal. For he was a valiant man, and brisk, and one who forgat no benefit, and was trusty as steel; merry-hearted withal, and kind and ready of speech despite his uplandish manners, which a life not a little rude had thrust on him.


Of Their Riding the Waste, and of a Battle Thereon

They slept in no house that night nor for many nights after; for they were now fairly on the waste. They bore with them a light tent for Ursula's lodging benights, and the rest of them slept on the field as they might; or should they come to a thicket or shaw, they would lodge them there softly. Victual and drink failed them not, for they bore what they needed on sumpter-horses, and shot some venison on the way withal. They saw but few folk; for the most part naught save a fowler of the waste, or a peat-cutter, who stood to look on the men-at-arms going by, and made obeisance to the token of Utterbol.

But on a time, the fifth day of their journey, they saw, in the morning, spears not a few standing up against a thicket-side in the offing. Redhead looked under the sharp of his hand, and laughed as though he were glad, and said: "I know not clearly what these may be, but it looketh like war. Now, knight, this is best to do: hold with thee three of our best men, so that ye may safe guard the Lady, and I with the others will prick on and look into this."

"Nay," said Ralph, "thou mayst yet be apaid of a man's aid; and if there be strokes on sale in the cheaping-stead yonder, I will deal along with thee. Leave thy three men with the Lady, and let us on; we shall soon be back."

"Nay once more, dear lord," quoth Ursula, "I fear to be left alone of thee, and it is meet that thou free me from fear. I will ride with you, but three horse-lengths behind, so as not to hinder you. I have been worse bestead than this shall be."

"It is good," quoth Redhead, "let her ride with us: for why should she suffer the pain of fear in the lonely waste? But let her do on a hauberk over her coats, and steel coif over her head, for shaft and bolt will ofttimes go astray."

Even so they did, and rode forward, and presently they saw the spearmen that they were somewhat more than their company, and that they were well mounted on black horses and clad in black armour. Then they drew rein for awhile and Redhead scanned them again and said: "Yea, these are the men of the brother of thy hot wooer, Lady Ursula, whom I cooled in the Ram's Bane, but a man well nigh as old as his uncle, though he hath not made men tremble so sore, albeit he be far the better man, a good warrior, a wise leader, a reiver and lifter well wrought at all points. Well, 'tis not unlike that we shall have to speak to his men again, either out-going or home-coming: so we had best kill as many of these as we may now. Do on thy sallet, my lord; and thou, Michael-a-green shake out the Bull; and thou, our Noise, blow a point of war that they may be warned. God to aid! but they be ready and speedy!"

In sooth even as the pennon of the Bull ran down the wind and the Utterbol horn was winded, the Black men-at-arms came on at a trot, and presently with a great screeching yell cast their spears into the rest, and spurred on all they might, while a half score of bowmen who had come out of the thicket bent their bows and fell a-shooting. But now the men of Utterbol spurred to meet the foe, and as Redhead cast his spear into the rest, he said to Ralph: "Glad am I that thy Lady is anear to see me, for now I worship her."

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13     Next Part
Home - Random Browse