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The Well at the World's End
by William Morris
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The Lady still held her head down, and tormented the grass with her foot, and murmured somewhat; for she could not come to herself again as yet. So the Lord looked sharply on her and said: "Well, when this tilting is over, thou shalt tell me thy mind of him; for if he turn out a dastard I would not ask thee to take him."

Now the lady lifted up her face, and she was grown somewhat pale; but she forced her speech to come, and said: "It is well, Lord, but now come thou into my pavilion, for thy meat is ready, and it lacketh but a minute or so of noon." So he took her hand and led her in to the pavilion, and all men got off their horses, and fell to pitching the tents and getting their meat ready; but Otter drew Ralph apart into a nook of the homestead, and there they ate their meat together.



CHAPTER 36

The Talk of Two Women Concerning Ralph

But when dinner was done, came David and a man with him bringing Ralph's war gear, and bade him do it on, while the folk were fencing the lists, which they were doing with such stuff as they had at the Tower; and the Lord had been calling for Otter that he might command him what he should tell to the marshals of the lists and how all should be duly ordered, wherefore he went up unto the Tower whither the Lord had now gone. So Ralph did on his armour, which was not right meet for tilting, being over light for such work; and his shield in especial was but a target for a sergeant, which he had brought at Cheaping Knowe; but he deemed that his deftness and much use should bear him well through.

Now, the Lady had abided in her pavilion when her Lord went abroad; anon after she sent all her women away, save one whom she loved, and to whom she was wont to tell the innermost of her mind; though forsooth she mishandled her at whiles; for she was hot of temper, and over-ready with her hands when she was angry; though she was nowise cruel. But the woman aforesaid, who was sly and sleek, and somewhat past her first youth, took both her caresses and her buffets with patience, for the sake of the gifts and largesse wherewith they were bought. So now she stood by the board in the pavilion with her head drooping humbly, yet smiling to herself and heedful of whatso might betide. But the Lady walked up and down the pavilion hastily, as one much moved.

At last she spake as she walked and said: "Agatha, didst thou see him when my Lord pointed him out?" "Yea," said the woman lifting her face a little.

"And what seemed he to thee?" said the Lady. "O my Lady," quoth Agatha, "what seemed he to thee?" The lady stood and turned and looked at her; she was slender and dark and sleek; and though her lips moved not, and her eyes did not change, a smile seemed to steal over her face whether she would or not. The Lady stamped her foot and lifted her hand and cried out. "What! dost thou deem thyself meet for him?" And she caught her by the folds over her bosom. But Agatha looked up into her face with a simple smile as of a child: "Dost thou deem him meet for thee, my Lady—he a thrall, and thou so great?" The Lady took her hand from her, but her face flamed with anger and she stamped on the ground again: "What dost thou mean?" she said; "am I not great enough to have what I want when it lieth close to my hand?" Agatha looked on her sweetly, and said in a soft voice: "Stretch out thine hand for it then." The Lady looked at her grimly, and said: "I understand thy jeer; thou meanest that he will not be moved by me, he being so fair, and I being but somewhat fair. Wilt thou have me beat thee? Nay, I will send thee to the White Pillar when we come home to Utterbol."

The woman smiled again, and said: "My Lady, when thou hast sent me to the White Pillar, or the Red, or the Black, my stripes will not mend the matter for thee, or quench the fear of thine heart that by this time, since he is a grown man, he loveth some other. Yet belike he will obey thee if thou command, even to the lying in the same bed with thee; for he is a thrall." The Lady hung her head, but Agatha went on in her sweet clear voice: "The Lord will think little of it, and say nothing of it unless thou anger him otherwise; or unless, indeed, he be minded to pick a quarrel with thee, and hath baited a trap with this stripling. But that is all unlike: thou knowest why, and how that he loveth the little finger of that new-come thrall of his (whom ye left at home at Utterbol in his despite), better than all thy body, for all thy white skin and lovely limbs. Nay, now I think of it, I deem that he meaneth this gift to make an occasion for the staying of any quarrel with thee, that he may stop thy mouth from crying out at him—well, what wilt thou do? he is a mighty Lord."

The Lady looked up (for she had hung her head at first), her face all red with shame, yet smiling, though ruefully, and she said: "Well, thou art determined that if thou art punished it shall not be for naught. But thou knowest not my mind." "Yea, Lady," said Agatha, smiling in despite of herself, "that may well be."

Now the Lady turned from her, and went and sat upon a stool that was thereby, and said nothing a while; only covering her face with her hands and rocking herself to and fro, while Agatha stood looking at her. At last she said: "Hearken, Agatha, I must tell thee what lieth in mine heart, though thou hast been unkind to me and hast tried to hurt my soul. Now, thou art self-willed, and hot-blooded, and not unlovely, so that thou mayst have loved and been loved ere now. But thou art so wily and subtle that mayhappen thou wilt not understand what I mean, when I say that love of this young man hath suddenly entered into my heart, so that I long for him more this minute than I did the last, and the next minute shall long still more. And I long for him to love me, and not alone to pleasure me."

"Mayhappen it will so betide without any pushing the matter," said Agatha.

"Nay," said the Lady, "Nay; my heart tells me that it will not be so; for I have seen him, that he is of higher kind than we be; as if he were a god come down to us, who if he might not cast his love upon a goddess, would disdain to love an earthly woman, little-minded and in whom perfection is not." Therewith the tears began to run from her eyes; but Agatha looked on her with a subtle smile and said: "O my Lady! and thou hast scarce seen him! And yet I will not say but that I understand this. But as to the matter of a goddess, I know not. Many would say that thou sitting on thine ivory chair in thy golden raiment, with thy fair bosom and white arms and yellow hair, wert not ill done for the image of a goddess; and this young man may well think so of thee. However that may be, there is something else I will say to thee; (and thou knowest that I speak the truth to thee—most often— though I be wily). This is the word, that although thou hast time and again treated me like the thrall I am, I deem thee no ill woman, but rather something overgood for Utterbol and the dark lord thereof."

Now sat the Lady shaken with sobs, and weeping without stint; but she looked up at that word and said: "Nay, nay, Agatha, it is not so. To-day hath this man's eyes been a candle to me, that I may see myself truly; and I know that though I am a queen and not uncomely, I am but coarse and little-minded. I rage in my household when the whim takes me, and I am hot-headed, and masterful, and slothful, and should belike be untrue if there were any force to drive me thereto. And I suffer my husband to go after other women, and this new thrall is especial, so that I may take my pleasure unstayed with other men whom I love not greatly. Yes, I am foolish, and empty-headed, and unclean. And all this he will see through my queenly state, and my golden gown, and my white skin withal."

Agatha looked on her curiously, but smiling no more. At last she said: "What is to do, then? or must I think of something for thee?"

"I know not, I know not," said the Lady between her sobs; "yet if I might be in such case that he might pity me; belike it might blind his eyes to the ill part of me. Yea," she said, rising up and falling walking to and fro swiftly, "if he might hurt me and wound me himself, and I so loving him."

Said Agatha coldly: "Yes, Lady, I am not wily for naught; and I both deem that I know what is in thine heart, and that it is good for something; and moreover that I may help thee somewhat therein. So in a few days thou shalt see whether I am worth something more than hard words and beating. Only thou must promise in all wise to obey me, though I be the thrall, and thou the Lady, and to leave all the whole matter in my hands."

Quoth the Lady: "That is easy to promise; for what may I do by myself?"

Then Agatha fell pondering a while, and said thereafter: "First, thou shalt get me speech with my Lord, and cause him to swear immunity to me, whatsoever I shall say or do herein." Said the Lady: "Easy is this. What more hast thou?"

Said Agatha: "It were better for thee not to go forth to see the jousting; because thou art not to be trusted that thou show not thy love openly when the youngling is in peril; and if thou put thy lord to shame openly before the people, he must needs thwart thy will, and be fierce and cruel, and then it will go hard with thy darling. So thou shalt not go from the pavilion till the night is dark, and thou mayst feign thyself sick meantime."

"Sick enough shall I be if I may not go forth to see how my love is faring in his peril: this at least is hard to me; but so be it! At least thou wilt come and tell me how he speedeth." "Oh yes," said Agatha, "if thou must have it so; but fear thou not, he shall do well enough."

Said the Lady: "Ah, but thou wottest how oft it goes with a chance stroke, that the point pierceth where it should not; nay, where by likelihood it could not."

"Nay," said Agatha, "what chance is there in this, when the youngling knoweth the whole manner of the play, and his foemen know naught thereof? It is as the chance betwixt Geoffrey the Minstrel and Black Anselm, when they play at chess together, that Anselm must needs be mated ere he hath time to think of his fourth move. I wot of these matters, my Lady. Now, further, I would have thy leave to marshal thy maids about the seat where thou shouldest be, and moreover there should be someone in thy seat, even if I sat in it myself." Said the Lady: "Yea, sit there if thou wilt."

"Woe's me!" said Agatha laughing, "why should I sit there? I am like to thee, am I not?" "Yea," said the Lady, "as the swan is like to the loon." "Yea, my Lady," said Agatha, "which is the swan and which the loon? Well, well, fear not; I shall set Joyce in thy seat by my Lord's leave; she is tall and fair, and forsooth somewhat like to thee." "Why wilt thou do this?" quoth the Lady; "Why should thralls sit in my seat?" Said Agatha: "O, the tale is long to tell; but I would confuse that young man's memory of thee somewhat, if his eyes fell on thee at all when ye met e'en now, which is to be doubted."

The Lady started up in sudden wrath, and cried out: "She had best not be too like to me then, and strive to draw his eyes to her, or I will have her marked for diversity betwixt us. Take heed, take heed!"

Agatha looked softly on her and said: "My Lady. Ye fair-skinned, open-faced women should look to it not to show yourselves angry before men-folk. For open wrath marreth your beauty sorely. Leave scowls and fury to the dark-browed, who can use them without wrying their faces like a three months' baby with the colic. Now that is my last rede as now. For methinks I can hear the trumpets blowing for the arraying of the tourney. Wherefore I must go to see to matters, while thou hast but to be quiet. And to-night make much of my Lord, and bid him see me to-morrow, and give heed to what I shall say to him. But if I meet him without, now, as is most like, I shall bid him in to thee, that thou mayst tell him of Joyce, and her sitting in thy seat. Otherwise I will tell him as soon as he is set down in his place. Sooth to say, he is little like to quarrel with either thee or me for setting a fair woman other than thee by his side."

Therewith she lifted the tent lap and went out, stepping daintily, and her slender body swaying like a willow branch, and came at once face to face with the Lord of Utterbol, and bowed low and humbly before him, though her face, unseen of him, smiled mockingly. The Lord looked on her greedily, and let his hand and arm go over her shoulder, and about her side, and he drew her to him, and kissed her, and said: "What, Agatha! and why art thou not bringing forth thy mistress to us?" She raised her face to him, and murmured softly, as one afraid, but with a wheedling smile on her face and in her eyes: "Nay, my Lord, she will abide within to-day, for she is ill at ease; if your grace goeth in, she will tell thee what she will have."

"Agatha," quoth he, "I will hear her, and I will do her pleasure if thou ask me so to do." Then Agatha cast down her eyes, and her speech was so low and sweet that it was as the cooing of a dove, as she said: "O my Lord, what is this word of thine?"

He kissed her again, and said: "Well, well, but dost thou ask it?" "O yea, yea, my Lord," said she.

"It is done then," said the Lord; and he let her go; for he had been stroking her arm and shoulder, and she hurried away, laughing inwardly, to the Lady's women. But he went into the pavilion after he had cast one look at her.



CHAPTER 37

How Ralph Justed With the Aliens

Meanwhile Captain Otter had brought Ralph into the staked-out lists, which, being hastily pitched, were but slenderly done, and now the Upmeads stripling stood there beside a good horse which they had brought to him, and Otter had been speaking to him friendly. But Ralph saw the Lord come forth from the pavilion and take his seat on an ivory chair set on a turf ridge close to the stakes of the lists: for that place was used of custom for such games as they exercised in the lands of Utterbol. Then presently the Lady's women came out of their tents, and, being marshalled by Agatha, went into the Queen's pavilion, whence they came forth again presently like a bed of garden flowers moving, having in the midst of them a woman so fair, and clad so gloriously, that Ralph must needs look on her, though he were some way off, and take note of her beauty. She went and sat her down beside the Lord, and Ralph doubted not that it was the Queen, whom he had but glanced at when they first made stay before the pavilion. Sooth to say, Joyce being well nigh as tall as the Queen, and as white of skin, was otherwise a far fairer woman.

Now spake Otter to Ralph: "I must leave thee here, lad, and go to the other side, as I am to run against thee." Said Ralph: "Art thou to run first?" "Nay, but rather last," said Otter; "they will try thee first with one of the sergeants, and if he overcome thee, then all is done, and thou art in an evil plight. Otherwise will they find another and another, and at last it will be my turn. So keep thee well, lad."

Therewith he rode away, and there came to Ralph one of the sergeants, who brought him a spear, and bade him to horse. So Ralph mounted and took the spear in hand; and the sergeant said: "Thou art to run at whatsoever meeteth thee when thou hast heard the third blast of the horn. Art thou ready?" "Yea, yea," said Ralph; "but I see that the spear-head is not rebated, so that we are to play at sharps."

"Art thou afraid, youngling?" said the sergeant, who was old and crabbed, "if that be so, go and tell the Lord: but thou wilt find that he will not have his sport wholly spoiled, but will somehow make a bolt or a shaft out of thee."

Said Ralph: "I did but jest; I deem myself not so near my death to-day as I have been twice this summer or oftener." Said the sergeant, "It is ill jesting in matters wherein my Lord hath to do. Now thou hast heard my word: do after it."

Therewith he departed, and Ralph laughed and shook the spear aloft, and deemed it not over strong; but he said to himself that the spears of the others would be much the same.

Now the horn blew up thrice, and at the latest blast Ralph pricked forth, as one well used to the tilt, but held his horse well in hand; and he saw a man come driving against him with his spear in the rest, and deemed him right big; but this withal he saw, that the man was ill arrayed, and was pulling on his horse as one not willing to trust him to the rush; and indeed he came on so ill that it was clear that he would never strike Ralph's shield fairly. So he swerved as they met, so that his spear-point was never near to Ralph, who turned his horse toward him a little, and caught his foeman by the gear about his neck, and spurred on, so that he dragged him clean out of his saddle, and let him drop, and rode back quietly to his place, and got off his horse to see to his girths; and he heard great laughter rising up from the ring of men, and from the women also. But the Lord of Utterbol cried out: "Bring forth some one who doth not eat my meat for nothing: and set that wretch and dastard aside till the tilting be over, and then he shall pay a little for his wasted meat and drink."

Ralph got into his saddle again, and saw a very big man come forth at the other end of the lists, and wondered if he should be overthrown of him; but noted that his horse seemed not over good. Then the horn blew up and he spurred on, and his foeman met him fairly in the midmost of the lists: yet he laid his spear but ill, and as one who would thrust and foin with it rather than letting it drive all it might, so that Ralph turned the point with his shield that it glanced off, but he himself smote the other full on the shoulder, and the shaft brake, but the point had pierced the man's armour, and the truncheon stuck in the wound: yet since the spear was broken he kept his saddle. The Lord cried out, "Well, Black Anselm, this is better done; yet art thou a big man and a well-skilled to be beaten by a stripling."

So the man was helped away and Ralph went back to his place again.

Then another man was gotten to run against Ralph, and it went the same-like way: for Ralph smote him amidst of the shield, and the spear held, so that he fell floundering off his horse.

Six of the stoutest men of Utterbol did Ralph overthrow or hurt in this wise; and then he ran three courses with Otter, and in the first two each brake his spear fairly on the other; but in the third Otter smote not Ralph squarely, but Ralph smote full amidst of his shield, and so dight him that he well-nigh fell, and could not master his horse, but yet just barely kept his saddle.

Then the Lord cried out: "Now make we an end of it! We have no might against this youngling, man to man: or else would Otter have done it. This comes of learning a craft diligently."

So Ralph got off his horse, and did off his helm and awaited tidings; and anon comes to him the surly sergeant, and brought him a cup of wine, and said: "Youngling, thou art to drink this, and then go to my Lord; and I deem that thou art in favour with him. So if thou art not too great a man, thou mightest put in a word for poor Redhead, that first man that did so ill. For my Lord would have him set up, and head down and buttocks aloft, as a target for our bowmen. And it will be his luck if he be sped with the third shot, and last not out to the twentieth."

"Yea, certes," said Ralph, "I will do no less, even if it anger the Lord." "O thou wilt not anger him," said the man, "for I tell thee, thou art in favour. Yea, and for me also thou mightest say a word also, when thou becomest right great; for have I not brought thee a good bowl of wine?" "Doubt it not, man," said Ralph, "if I once get safe to Utterbol: weary on it and all its ways!" Said the sergeant: "That is an evil wish for one who shall do well at Utterbol. But come, tarry not."

So he brought Ralph to the Lord, who still sat in his chair beside that fair woman, and Ralph did obeysance to him; yet he had a sidelong glance also for that fair seeming-queen, and deemed her both proud-looking, and so white-skinned, that she was a wonder, like the queen of the fays: and it was just this that he had noted of the Queen as he stood before her earlier in the day when they first came into the vale; therefore he had no doubt of this damsel's queenship.

Now the Lord spake to him and said: "Well, youngling, thou hast done well, and better than thy behest: and since ye have been playing at sharps, I deem thou would'st not do ill in battle, if it came to that. So now I am like to make something other of thee than I was minded to at first: for I deem that thou art good enough to be a man. And if thou wilt now ask a boon of me, if it be not over great, I will grant it thee."

Ralph put one knee to the ground, and said: "Great Lord, I thank thee: but whereas I am in an alien land and seeking great things, I know of no gift which I may take for myself save leave to depart, which I deem thou wilt not grant me. Yet one thing thou mayst do for my asking if thou wilt. If thou be still angry with the carle whom I first unhorsed, I pray thee pardon him his ill-luck."

"Ill-luck!" said the Lord, "Why, I saw him that he was downright afraid of thee. And if my men are to grow blenchers and soft-hearts what is to do then? But tell me, Otter, what is the name of this carle?" Said Otter, "Redhead he hight, Lord." Said the Lord: "And what like a man is he in a fray?" "Naught so ill, Lord," said Otter. "This time, like the rest of us, he knew not this gear. It were scarce good to miss him at the next pinch. It were enough if he had the thongs over his back a few dozen times; it will not be the first day of such cheer to him."

"Ha!" said the Lord, "and what for, Otter, what for?" "Because he was somewhat rough-handed, Lord," said Otter. "Then shall we need him and use him some day. Let him go scot free and do better another bout. There is thy boon granted for thee, knight; and another day thou mayst ask something more. And now shall David have a care of thee. And when we come to Utterbol we shall see what is to be done with thee."

Then Ralph rose up and thanked him, and David came forward, and led him to his tent. And he was wheedling in his ways to him, as if Ralph were now become one who might do him great good if so his will were.

But the Lord went back again into the Tower.

As to the Lady, she abode in her pavilion amidst many fears and desires, till Agatha entered and said: "My Lady, so far all has gone happily." Said the Lady: "I deemed from the noise and the cry that he was doing well. But tell me, how did he?" "My Lady," quoth Agatha, "he knocked our folk about well-favouredly, and seemed to think little of it."

"And Joyce," said the Lady, "how did she?" "She looked a queen, every inch of her, and she is tall," said Agatha: "soothly some folk stared on her, but not many knew of her, since she is but new into our house. Though it is a matter of course that all save our new-come knight knew that it was not thou that sat there. And my Lord was well-pleased, and now he hath taken her by the hand and led her into the Tower."

The Lady reddened and scowled, and said: "And he... did he come anigh her?" "O yea," said Agatha, "whereas he stood before my Lord a good while, and then kneeled to him to pray pardon for one of our men who had done ill in the tilting: yea, he was nigh enough to her to touch her had he dared, and to smell the fragrance of her raiment. And he seemed to think it good to look out of the corners of his eyes at her; though I do not say that she smiled on him." The Lady sprang up, her cheeks burning, and walked about angrily a while, striving for words, till at last she said: "When we come home to Utterbol, my lord will see his new thrall again, and will care for Joyce no whit: then will I have my will of her; and she shall learn, she, whether I am verily the least of women at Utterbol! Ha! what sayest thou? Now why wilt thou stand and smile on me?—Yea, I know what is in thy thought; and in very sooth it is good that the dear youngling hath not seen this new thrall, this Ursula. Forsooth, I tell thee that if I durst have her in my hands I would have a true tale out of her as to why she weareth ever that pair of beads about her neck."

"Now, our Lady," said Agatha, "thou art marring the fairness of thy face again. I bid thee be at peace, for all shall be well, and other than thou deemest. Tell me, then, didst thou get our Lord to swear immunity for me?" Said the Lady: "Yea, he swore on the edge of the sword that thou mightest say what thou wouldst, and neither he nor any other should lay hand on thee."

"Good," said Agatha; "then will I go to him to-morrow morning, when Joyce has gone from him. But now hold up thine heart, and keep close for these two days that we shall yet abide in Tower Dale: and trust me this very evening I shall begin to set tidings going that shall work and grow, and shall one day rejoice thine heart."

So fell the talk betwixt them.



CHAPTER 38

A Friend Gives Ralph Warning

On the morrow Ralph wandered about the Dale where he would, and none meddled with him. And as he walked east along the stream where the valley began to narrow, he saw a man sitting on the bank fishing with an angle, and when he drew near, the man turned about, and saw him. Then he lays down his angling rod and rises to his feet, and stands facing Ralph, looking sheepish, with his hands hanging down by his sides; and Ralph, who was thinking of other folk, wondered what he would. So he said: "Hail, good fellow! What wouldst thou?" Said the man: "I would thank thee." "What for?" said Ralph, but as he looked on him he saw that it was Redhead, whose pardon he had won of the Lord yesterday; so he held out his hand, and took Redhead's, and smiled friendly on him. Redhead looked him full in the face, and though he was both big and very rough-looking, he had not altogether the look of a rascal.

He said: "Fair lord, I would that I might do something for thine avail, and perchance I may: but it is hard to do good deeds in Hell, especially for one of its devils."

"Yea, is it so bad as that?" said Ralph. "For thee not yet," said Redhead, "but it may come to it. Hearken, lord, there is none anigh us that I can see, so I will say a word to thee at once. Later on it may be over late: Go thou not to Utterbol whatever may betide."

"Yea," said Ralph, "but how if I be taken thither?" Quoth Redhead: "I can see this, that thou art so favoured that thou mayst go whither thou wilt about the camp with none to hinder thee. Therefore it will be easy for thee to depart by night and cloud, or in the grey of morning, when thou comest to a good pass, whereof I will tell thee. And still I say, go thou not to Utterbol: for thou art over good to be made a devil of, like to us, and therefore thou shalt be tormented till thy life is spoilt, and by that road shalt thou be sent to heaven."

"But thou saidst even now," said Ralph, "that I was high in the Lord's grace." "Yea," said Redhead, "that may last till thou hast command to do some dastard's deed and nay-sayest it, as thou wilt: and then farewell to thee; for I know what my Lord meaneth for thee." "Yea," said Ralph, "and what is that?" Said Redhead; "He hath bought thee to give to his wife for a toy and a minion, and if she like thee, it will be well for a while: but on the first occasion that serveth him, and she wearieth of thee (for she is a woman like a weather-cock), he will lay hand on thee and take the manhood from thee, and let thee drift about Utterbol a mock for all men. For already at heart he hateth thee."

Ralph stood pondering this word, for somehow it chimed in with the thought already in his heart. Yet how should he not go to Utterbol with the Damsel abiding deliverance of him there: and yet again, if they met there and were espied on, would not that ruin everything for her as well as for him?

At last he said: "Good fellow, this may be true, but how shall I know it for true before I run the risk of fleeing away, instead of going on to Utterbol, whereas folk deem honour awaiteth me."

Said Redhead: "There is no honour at Utterbol save for such as are unworthy of honour. But thy risk is as I say, and I shall tell thee whence I had my tale, since I love thee for thy kindness to me, and thy manliness. It was told me yester-eve by a woman who is in the very privity of the Lady of Utterbol, and is well with the Lord also: and it jumpeth with mine own thought on the matter; so I bid thee beware: for what is in me to grieve would be sore grieved wert thou cast away."

"Well," said Ralph, "let us sit down here on the bank and then tell me more; but go on with thine angling the while, lest any should see us."

So they sat down, and Redhead did as Ralph bade; and he said: "Lord, I have bidden thee to flee; but this is an ill land to flee from, and indeed there is but one pass whereby ye may well get away from this company betwixt this and Utterbol; and we shall encamp hard by it on the second day of our faring hence. Yet I must tell thee that it is no road for a dastard; for it leadeth through the forest up into the mountains: yet such as it is, for a man bold and strong like thee, I bid thee take it: and I can see to it that leaving this company shall be easy to thee: only thou must make up thy mind speedily, since the time draws so nigh, and when thou art come to Utterbol with all this rout, and the house full, and some one or other dogging each footstep of thine, fleeing will be another matter. Now thus it is: on that same second night, not only is the wood at hand to cover thee, but I shall be chief warder of the side of the camp where thou lodgest, so that I can put thee on the road: and if I were better worth, I would say, take me with thee, but as it is, I will not burden thee with that prayer."

"Yea," said Ralph, "I have had one guide in this country-side and he bewrayed me. This is a matter of life and death, so I will speak out and say how am I to know but that thou also art going about to bewray me?"

Redhead lept up to his feet, and roared out: "What shall I say? what shall I say? By the soul of my father I am not bewraying thee. May all the curses of Utterbol be sevenfold heavier on me if I am thy traitor and dastard."

"Softly lad, softly," said Ralph, "lest some one should hear thee. Content thee, I must needs believe thee if thou makest so much noise about it."

Then Redhead sat him down again, and for all that he was so rough and sturdy a carle he fell a-weeping.

"Nay, nay," said Ralph, "this is worse in all wise than the other noise. I believe thee as well as a man can who is dealing with one who is not his close friend, and who therefore spareth truth to his friend because of many years use and wont. Come to thyself again and let us look at this matter square in the face, and speedily too, lest some unfriend or busybody come on us. There now! Now, in the first place dost thou know why I am come into this perilous and tyrannous land?"

Said Redhead: "I have heard it said that thou art on the quest of the Well at the World's End."

"And that is but the sooth," said Ralph. "Well then," quoth Redhead, "there is the greater cause for thy fleeing at the time and in the manner I have bidden thee. For there is a certain sage who dwelleth in the wildwood betwixt that place and the Great Mountains, and he hath so much lore concerning the Mountains, yea, and the Well itself, that if he will tell thee what he can tell, thou art in a fair way to end thy quest happily. What sayest thou then?"

Said Ralph, "I say that the Sage is good if I may find him. But there is another cause why I have come hither from Goldburg." "What is that?" said Redhead. "This," said Ralph, "to come to Utterbol." "Heaven help us!" quoth Redhead, "and wherefore?"

Ralph said: "Belike it is neither prudent nor wise to tell thee, but I do verily trust thee; so hearken! I go to Utterbol to deliver a friend from Utterbol; and this friend is a woman—hold a minute—and this woman, as I believe, hath been of late brought to Utterbol, having been taken out of the hands of one of the men of the mountains that lie beyond Cheaping Knowe."

Redhead stared astonished, and kept silence awhile; then he said: "Now all the more I say, flee! flee! flee! Doubtless the woman is there, whom thou seekest; for it would take none less fair and noble than that new-come thrall to draw to her one so fair and noble as thou art. But what availeth it? If thou go to Utterbol thou wilt destroy both her and thee. For know, that we can all see that the Lord hath set his love on this damsel; and what better can betide, if thou come to Utterbol, but that the Lord shall at once see that there is love betwixt you two, and then there will be an end of the story."

"How so?" quoth Ralph. Said Redhead: "At Utterbol all do the will of the Lord of Utterbol, and he is so lustful and cruel, and so false withal, that his will shall be to torment the damsel to death, and to geld and maim thee; so that none hereafter shall know how goodly and gallant thou hast been."

"Redhead," quoth Ralph much moved, "though thou art in no knightly service, thou mayst understand that it is good for a friend to die with a friend."

"Yea, forsooth," said Redhead, "If he may do no more to help than that! Wouldst thou not help the damsel? Now when thou comest back from the quest of the Well at the World's End, thou wilt be too mighty and glorious for the Lord of Utterbol to thrust thee aside like to an over eager dog; and thou mayst help her then. But now I say to thee, and swear to thee, that three days after thou hast met thy beloved in Utterbol she will be dead. I would that thou couldst ask someone else nearer to the Lord than I have been. The tale would be the same as mine."

Now soothly to say it, this was even what Ralph had feared would be, and he could scarce doubt Redhead's word. So he sat there pondering the matter a good while, and at last he said: "My friend, I will trust thee with another thing; I have a mind to flee to the wildwood, and yet come to Utterbol for the damsel's deliverance." "Yea," said Redhead, "and how wilt thou work in the matter?" Said Ralph; "How would it be if I came hither in other guise than mine own, so that I should not be known either by the damsel or her tyrants?"

Said Redhead: "There were peril in that; yet hope also. Yea, and in one way thou mightest do it; to wit, if thou wert to find that Sage, and tell him thy tale: if he be of good will to thee, he might then change not thy gear only, but thy skin also; for he hath exceeding great lore."

"Well," said Ralph, "Thou mayst look upon it as certain that on that aforesaid night, I will do my best to shake off this company of tyrant and thralls, unless I hear fresh tidings, so that I must needs change my purpose. But I will ask thee to give me some token that all holds together some little time beforehand." Quoth Redhead: "Even so shall it be; thou shalt see me at latest on the eve of the night of thy departure; but on the night before that if it be anywise possible."

"Now will I go away from thee," said Ralph, "and I thank thee heartily for thine help, and deem thee my friend. And if thou think better of fleeing with me, thou wilt gladden me the more." Redhead shook his head but spake not, and Ralph went his ways down the dale.



CHAPTER 39

The Lord of Utterbol Makes Ralph a Free Man

He went to and fro that day and the next, and none meddled with him; with Redhead he spake not again those days, but had talk with Otter and David, who were blithe enough with him. Agatha he saw not at all; nor the Lady, and still deemed that the white-skinned woman whom he had seen sitting by the Lord after the tilting was the Queen.

As for the Lady she abode in her pavilion, and whiles lay in a heap on the floor weeping, or dull and blind with grief; whiles she walked up and down mad wroth with whomsoever came in her way, even to the dealing out of stripes and blows to her women.

But on the eve before the day of departure Agatha came into her, and chid her, and bade her be merry: "I have seen the Lord and told him what I would, and found it no hard matter to get him to yeasay our plot, which were hard to carry out without his goodwill. Withal the seed that I have sowed two days or more ago is bearing fruit; so that thou mayst look to it that whatsoever plight we may be in, we shall find a deliverer."

"I wot not thy meaning," quoth the Lady, "but I deem thou wilt now tell me what thou art planning, and give me some hope, lest I lay hands on myself."

Then Agatha told her without tarrying what she was about doing for her, the tale of which will be seen hereafter; and when she had done, the Lady mended her cheer, and bade bring meat and drink, and was once more like a great and proud Lady.

On the morn of departure, when Ralph arose, David came to him and said: "My Lord is astir already, and would see thee for thy good." So Ralph went with David, who brought him to the Tower, and there they found the Lord sitting in a window, and Otter stood before him, and some others of his highest folk. But beside him sat Joyce, and it seemed that he thought it naught but good to hold her hand and play with the fingers thereof, though all those great men were by; and Ralph had no thought of her but that she was the Queen.

So Ralph made obeisance to the Lord and stood awaiting his word; and the Lord said: "We have been thinking of thee, young man, and have deemed thy lot to be somewhat of the hardest, if thou must needs be a thrall, since thou art both young and well-born, and so good a man of thine hands. Now, wilt thou be our man at Utterbol?"

Ralph delayed his answer a space and looked at Otter, who seemed to him to frame a Yea with his lips, as who should say, take it. So he said: "Lord, thou art good to me, yet mayst thou be better if thou wilt."

"Yea, man!" said the Lord knitting his brows; "What shall it be? say thy say, and be done with it."

"Lord," said Ralph, "I pray thee to give me my choice, whether I shall go with thee to Utterbol or forbear going?"

"Why, lo you!" said the Lord testily, and somewhat sourly; "thou hast the choice. Have I not told thee that thou art free?" Then Ralph knelt before him, and said: "Lord, I thank thee from a full heart, in that thou wilt suffer me to depart on mine errand, for it is a great one." The scowl deepened on the Lord's face, and he turned away from Ralph, and said presently: "Otter take the Knight away and let him have all his armour and weapons and a right good horse; and then let him do as he will, either ride with us, or depart if he will, and whither he will. And if he must needs ride into the desert, and cast himself away in the mountains, so be it. But whatever he hath a mind to, let none hinder him, but further him rather; hearest thou? take him with thee."

Then was Ralph overflowing with thanks, but the Lord heeded him naught, but looked askance at him and sourly. And he rose up withal, and led the damsel by the hand into another chamber; and she minced in her gait and leaned over to the Lord and spake softly in his ear and laughed, and he laughed in his turn and toyed with her neck and shoulders.

But the great men turned and went their ways from the Tower, and Ralph went with Otter and was full of glee, and as merry as a bird. But Otter looked on him, and said gruffly: "Yea now, thou art like a song-bird but newly let out of his cage. But I can see the string which is tied to thy leg, though thou feelest it not."

"Why, what now?" quoth Ralph, making as though he were astonished. "Hearken," said Otter: "there is none nigh us, so I will speak straight out; for I love thee since the justing when we tried our might together. If thou deemest that thou art verily free, ride off on the backward road when we go forward; I warrant me thou shalt presently meet with an adventure, and be brought in a captive for the second time." "How then," said Ralph, "hath not the Lord good will toward me?"

Said Otter: "I say not that he is now minded to do thee a mischief for cruelty's sake; but he is minded to get what he can out of thee. If he use thee not for the pleasuring of his wife (so long as her pleasure in thee lasteth) he will verily use thee for somewhat else. And to speak plainly, I now deem that he will make thee my mate, to use with me, or against me as occasion may serve; so thou shalt be another captain of his host." He laughed withal, and said again: "But if thou be not wary, thou wilt tumble off that giddy height, and find thyself a thrall once more, and maybe a gelding to boot." Now waxed Ralph angry and forgat his prudence, and said: "Yea, but how shall he use me when I am out of reach of his hand?" "Oho, young man," said Otter, "whither away then, to be out of his reach?"

"Why," quoth Ralph still angrily, "is thy Lord master of all the world?" "Nay," said the captain, "but of a piece thereof. In short, betwixt Utterbol and Goldburg, and Utterbol and the mountains, and Utterbol and an hundred miles north, and an hundred miles south, there is no place where thou canst live, no place save the howling wilderness, and scarcely there either, where he may not lay hand on thee if he do but whistle. What, man! be not downhearted! come with us to Utterbol, since thou needs must. Be wise, and then the Lord shall have no occasion against thee; above all, beware of crossing him in any matter of a woman. Then who knows" (and here he sunk his voice well nigh to a whisper) "but thou and I together may rule in Utterbol and make better days there."

Ralph was waxen master of himself by now, and was gotten wary indeed, so he made as if he liked Otter's counsel well, and became exceeding gay; for indeed the heart within him was verily glad at the thought of his escaping from thralldom; for more than ever now he was fast in his mind to flee at the time appointed by Redhead.

So Otter said: "Well, youngling, I am glad that thou takest it thus, for I deem that if thou wert to seek to depart, the Lord would make it an occasion against thee."

"Such an occasion shall he not have, fellow in arms," quoth Ralph. "But tell me, we ride presently, and I suppose are bound for Utterness by the shortest road?" "Yea," said Otter, "and anon we shall come to the great forest which lieth along our road all the way to Utterness and beyond it; for the town is, as it were, an island in the sea of woodland which covers all, right up to the feet of the Great Mountains, and does what it may to climb them whereso the great wall or its buttresses are anywise broken down toward our country; but the end of it lieth along our road, as I said, and we do but skirt it. A woeful wood it is, and save for the hunting of the beasts, which be there in great plenty, with wolves and bears, yea, and lions to boot, which come down from the mountains, there is no gain in it. No gain, though forsooth they say that some have found it gainful."

"How so?" said Ralph. Said Otter: "That way lieth the way to the Well at the World's End, if one might find it. If at any time we were clear of Utterbol, I have a mind for the adventure along with thee, lad, and so I deem hast thou from all the questions thou hast put to me thereabout."

Ralph mastered himself so that his face changed not, and he said: "Well, Captain, that may come to pass; but tell me, are there any tokens known whereby a man shall know that he is on the right path to the Well?"

"The report of folk goeth," said Otter, "concerning one token, where is the road and the pass through the Great Mountains, to wit, that on the black rock thereby is carven the image of a Fighting Man, or monstrous giant, of the days long gone by. Of other signs I can tell thee naught; and few of men are alive that can. But there is a Sage dwelleth in the wood under the mountains to whom folk seek for his diverse lore; and he, if he will, say men, can set forth all the way, and its perils, and how to escape them. Well, knight, when the time comes, thou and I will go find him together, for he at least is not hard to find, and if he be gracious to us, then will we on our quest. But as now, see ye, they have struck our tents and the Queen's pavilion also; so to horse, is the word."

"Yea," quoth Ralph, looking curiously toward the place where the Queen's pavilion had stood; "is not yonder the Queen's litter taking the road?" "Yea, surely," said Otter.

"Then the litter will be empty," said Ralph. "Maybe, or maybe not," said Otter; "but now I must get me gone hastily to my folk; doubtless we shall meet upon the road to Utterbol."

So he turned and went his ways; and Ralph also ran to his horse, whereby was David already in the saddle, and so mounted, and the whole rout moved slowly from out of Vale Turris, Ralph going ever by David. The company was now a great one, for many wains were joined to them, laden with meal, and fleeces, and other household stuff, and withal there was a great herd of neat, and of sheep, and of goats, which the Lord's men had been gathering in the fruitful country these two days; but the Lord was tarrying still in the tower.



CHAPTER 40

They Ride Toward Utterness From Out of Vale Turris

So they rode by a good highway, well beaten, past the Tower and over the ridge of the valley, and came full upon the terrible sight of the Great Mountains, and the sea of woodland lay before them, swelling and falling, and swelling again, till it broke grey against the dark blue of the mountain wall. They went as the way led, down hill, and when they were at the bottom, thence along their highway parted the tillage and fenced pastures from the rough edges of the woodland like as a ditch sunders field from field. They had the wildwood ever on their right hand, and but a little way from where they rode the wood thickened for the more part into dark and close thicket, the trees whereof were so tall that they hid the overshadowing mountains whenso they rode the bottoms, though when the way mounted on the ridges, and the trees gave back a little, they had sight of the woodland and the mountains. On the other hand at whiles the thicket came close up to the roadside.

Now David biddeth press on past the wains and the driven beasts, which were going very slowly. So did they, and at last were well nigh at the head of the Lord's company, but when Ralph would have pressed on still, David refrained him, and said that they must by no means outgo the Queen's people, or even mingle with them; so they rode on softly. But as the afternoon was drawing toward evening they heard great noise of horns behind them, and the sound of horses galloping. Then David drew Ralph to the side of the way, and everybody about, both before and behind them, drew up in wise at the wayside, and or ever Ralph could ask any question, came a band of men-at-arms at the gallop led by Otter, and after them the Lord on his black steed, and beside him on a white palfrey the woman whom Ralph had seen in the Tower, and whom he had taken for the Queen, her light raiment streaming out from her, and her yellow hair flying loose. They passed in a moment of time, and then David and Ralph and the rest rode on after them.

Then said Ralph: "The Queen rideth well and hardily." "Yea," said David, screwing his face into a grin, would he or no. Ralph beheld him, and it came into his mind that this was not the Queen whom he had looked on when they first came into Vale Turris, and he said: "What then! this woman is not the Queen?"

David spake not for a while, and then he answered: "Sir Knight, there be matters whereof we servants of my Lord say little or nothing, and thou wert best to do the like." And no more would he say thereon.



CHAPTER 41

Redhead Keeps Tryst

They rode not above a dozen miles that day, and pitched their tents and pavilions in the fair meadows by the wayside looking into the thick of the forest. There this betid to tell of, that when Ralph got off his horse, and the horse-lads were gathered about the men-at-arms and high folk, who should take Ralph's horse but Redhead, who made a sign to him by lifting his eyebrows as if he were asking him somewhat; and Ralph took it as a question as to whether his purpose held to flee on the morrow night; so he nodded a yeasay, just so much as Redhead might note it; and naught else befell betwixt them.

When it was barely dawn after that night, Ralph awoke with the sound of great stir in the camp, and shouting of men and lowing and bleating of beasts; so he looked out, and saw that the wains and the flocks and herds were being got on to the road, so that they might make good way before the company of the camp took the road. But he heeded it little and went to sleep again.

When it was fully morning he arose, and found that the men were not hastening their departure, but were resting by the wood-side and disporting them about the meadow; so he wandered about amongst the men-at-arms and serving-men, and came across Redhead and hailed him; and there was no man very nigh to them; so Redhead looked about him warily, and then spake swiftly and softly: "Fail not to-night! fail not! For yesterday again was I told by one who wotteth surely, what abideth thee at Utterbol if thou go thither. I say if thou fail, thou shalt repent but once—all thy life long to wit."

Ralph nodded his head, and said: "Fear not, I will not fail thee." And therewith they turned away from each other lest they should be noted.

About two hours before noon they got to horse again, and, being no more encumbered with the wains and the beasts, rode at a good pace. As on the day before the road led them along the edge of the wildwood, and whiles it even went close to the very thicket. Whiles again they mounted somewhat, and looked down on the thicket, leagues and leagues thereof, which yet seemed but a little space because of the hugeness of the mountain wall which brooded over it; but oftenest the forest hid all but the near trees.

Thus they rode some twenty miles, and made stay at sunset in a place that seemed rather a clearing of the wood than a meadow; for they had trees on their left hand at a furlong's distance, as well as on their right at a stone's throw.

Ralph saw not Redhead as he got off his horse, and David according to his wont went with him to his tent. But after they had supped together, and David had made much of Ralph, and had drank many cups to his health, he said to him: "The night is yet young, yea, but new-born; yet must I depart from thee, if I may, to meet a man who will sell me a noble horse good cheap; and I may well leave thee now, seeing that thou hast become a free man; so I bid thee goodnight."

Therewith he departed, and was scarce gone out ere Redhead cometh in, and saith in his wonted rough loud voice: "Here, knight, here is the bridle thou badest me get mended; will the cobbling serve?" Then seeing no one there, he fell to speaking softer and said: "I heard the old pimp call thee a free man e'en now: I fear me that thou art not so free as he would have thee think. Anyhow, were I thou, I would be freer in two hours space. Is it to be so?"

"Yea, yea," said Ralph. Redhead nodded: "Good is that," said he; "I say in two hours' time all will be quiet, and we are as near the thicket as may be; there is no moon, but the night is fair and the stars clear; so all that thou hast to do is to walk out of this tent, and turn at once to thy right hand: come out with me now quietly, and I will show thee."

They went out together and Redhead said softly: "Lo thou that doddered oak yonder; like a piece of a hay-rick it looks under the stars; if thou seest it, come in again at once."

Ralph turned and drew Redhead in, and said when they were in the tent again: "Yea, I saw it: what then?"

Said Redhead: "I shall be behind it abiding thee." "Must I go afoot?" said Ralph, "or how shall I get me a horse?" "I have a horse for thee," said Redhead, "not thine own, but a better one yet, that hath not been backed to-day. Now give me a cup of wine, and let me go."

Ralph filled for him and took a cup himself, and said: "I pledge thee, friend, and wish thee better luck; and I would have thee for my fellow in this quest."

"Nay," said Redhead, "it may not be: I will not burden thy luck with my ill-luck...and moreover I am seeking something which I may gain at Utterbol, and if I have it, I may do my best to say good-night to that evil abode."

"Yea," said Ralph, "and I wish thee well therein." Said Redhead, stammering somewhat; "It is even that woman of the Queen's whereof I told thee. And now one last word, since I must not be over long in thy tent, lest some one come upon us. But, fair sir, if thy mind misgive thee for this turning aside from Utterbol; though it is not to be doubted that the damsel whom thou seekest hath been there, it is not all so sure that thou wouldst have found her there. For of late, what with my Lord and my Lady being both away, the place hath been scant of folk; and not only is the said damsel wise and wary, but there be others who have seen her besides my Lord, and who so hath seen her is like to love her; and such is she, that whoso loveth her is like to do her will. So I bid thee in all case be earnest in thy quest; and think that if thou die on the road thy damsel would have died for thee; and if thou drink of the Well and come back whole and safe, I know not why thou shouldest not go straight to Utterbol and have the damsel away with thee, whosoever gainsay it. For they (if there be any such) who have drunk of the Well at the World's End are well looked to in this land. Now one more word yet; when I come to Utterbol, if thy damsel be there still, fear not but I will have speech of her, and tell of thee, and what thou wert looking to, and how thou deemedst of her."

Therewith he turned and departed hastily.

But Ralph left alone was sorely moved with hope and fear, and a longing that grew in him to see the damsel. For though he was firmly set on departure, and on seeking the sage aforesaid, yet his heart was drawn this way and that: and it came into his mind how the damsel would fare when the evil Lord came home to Utterbol; and he could not choose but make stories of her meeting of the tyrant, and her fear and grief and shame, and the despair of her heart. So the minutes went slow to him, till he should be in some new place and doing somewhat toward bringing about the deliverance of her from thralldom, and the meeting of him and her.



BOOK THREE

The Road To The Well At World's End.



CHAPTER 1

An Adventure in the Wood Under the Mountains

Now was the night worn to the time appointed, for it was two hours after midnight, so he stepped out of his tent clad in all his war gear, and went straight to the doddered oak, and found Redhead there with but one horse, whereby Ralph knew that he held to his purpose of going his ways to Utterbol: so he took him by the shoulders and embraced him, rough carle as he was, and Redhead kneeled to him one moment of time and then arose and went off into the night. But Ralph got a-horseback without delay and rode his ways warily across the highway and into the wood, and there was none to hinder him. Though it was dark but for the starlight, there was a path, which the horse, and not Ralph, found, so that he made some way even before the first glimmer of dawn, all the more as the wood was not very thick after the first mile, and there were clearings here and there.

So rode Ralph till the sun was at point to rise, and he was about the midst of one of those clearings or wood-lawns, on the further side whereof there was more thicket, as he deemed, then he had yet come to; so he drew rein and looked about him for a minute. Even therewith he deemed he heard a sound less harsh than the cry of the jay in the beech-trees, and shriller than the moaning of the morning breeze in the wood. So he falls to listening with both ears, and this time deems that he hears the voice of a woman: and therewith came into his mind that old and dear adventure of the Wood Perilous; for he was dreamy with the past eagerness of his deeds, and the long and lonely night. But yet he doubted somewhat of the voice when it had passed his ears, so he shook his rein, for he thought it not good to tarry.

Scarce then had his horse stepped out, ere there came a woman running out of the thicket before him and made toward him over the lawn. So he gat off his horse at once and went to meet her, leading his horse; and as he drew nigh he could see that she was in a sorry plight; she had gathered up her skirts to run the better, and her legs and feet were naked: the coif was gone from her head and her black hair streamed out behind her: her gown was rent about the shoulders and bosom, so that one sleeve hung tattered, as if by the handling of some one.

So she ran up to him crying out: "Help, knight, help us!" and sank down therewith at his feet panting and sobbing. He stooped down to her, and raised her up, and said in a kind voice: "What is amiss, fair damsel, that thou art in such a plight; and what may I for thine avail? Doth any pursue thee, that thou fleest thus?"

She stood sobbing awhile, and then took hold of his two hands and said: "O fair lord, come now and help my lady! for as for me, since I am with thee, I am safe."

"Yea," said he, "Shall I get to horse at once?" And therewith he made as if he would move away from her; but she still held his hands, and seemed to think it good so to do, and she spake not for a while but gazed earnestly into his face. She was a fair woman, dark and sleek and lithe...for in good sooth she was none other than Agatha, who is afore told of.

Now Ralph is somewhat abashed by her eagerness, and lets his eyes fall before hers; and he cannot but note that despite the brambles and briars of the wood that she had run through, there were no scratches on her bare legs, and that her arm was unbruised where the sleeve had been rent off.

At last she spake, but somewhat slowly, as if she were thinking of what she had to say: "O knight, by thy knightly oath I charge thee come to my lady and help and rescue her: she and I have been taken by evil men, and I fear that they will put her to shame, and torment her, ere they carry her off; for they were about tying her to a tree when I escaped: for they heeded not me who am but the maid, when they had the mistress in their hands." "Yea," said he, "and who is thy mistress?" Said the damsel: "She is the Lady of the Burnt Rock; and I fear me that these men are of the Riders of Utterbol; and then will it go hard with her; for there is naught but hatred betwixt my lord her husband and the tyrant of Utterbol." Said Ralph: "And how many were they?" "O but three, fair sir, but three," she said; "and thou so fair and strong, like the war-god himself."

Ralph laughed: "Three to one is long odds," quoth he, "but I will come with thee when thou hast let go my hands so that I may mount my horse. But wilt thou not ride behind me, fair damsel; so wearied and spent as thou wilt be by thy night."

She looked on him curiously, and laid a hand on his breast, and the hauberk rings tinkled beneath the broidered surcoat; then she said: "Nay, I had best go afoot before thee, so disarrayed as I am."

Then she let him go, but followed him still with her eyes as he gat him into the saddle. She walked on beside his horse's head; and Ralph marvelled of her that for all her haste she had been in, she went somewhat leisurely, picking her way daintily so as to tread the smooth, and keep her feet from the rough.

Thus they went on, into the thicket and through it, and the damsel put the thorns and briars aside daintily as she stepped, and went slower still till they came to a pleasant place of oak-trees with greensward beneath them; and then she stopped, and turning, faced Ralph, and spoke with another voice than heretofore, whereas there was naught rueful or whining therein, but somewhat both of glee and of mocking as it seemed. "Sir knight," she said, "I have a word or two for thy ears; and this is a pleasant place, and good for us to talk together, whereas it is neither too near to her, nor too far from her, so that I can easily find my way back to her. Now, lord, I pray thee light down and listen to me." And therewith she sat down on the grass by the bole of a great oak.

"But thy lady," said Ralph, "thy lady?" "O sir," she said; "My lady shall do well enough: she is not tied so fast, but she might loose herself if the need were pressing. Light down, dear lord, light down!"

But Ralph sat still on his horse, and knit his brows, and said: "What is this, damsel? hast thou been playing a play with me? Where is thy lady whom thou wouldst have me deliver? If this be but game and play, let me go my ways; for time presses, and I have a weighty errand on hand."

She rose up and came close to him, and laid a hand on his knee and looked wistfully into his face as she said: "Nay then, I can tell thee all the tale as thou sittest in thy saddle; for meseems short will be thy farewell when I have told it." And she sighed withal.

Then Ralph was ashamed to gainsay her, and she now become gentle and sweet and enticing, and sad withal; so he got off his horse and tied him to a tree, and went and stood by the damsel as she lay upon the grass, and said: "I prithee tell thy tale and let me depart if there be naught for me to do."

Then she said: "This is the first word, that as to the Red Rock, I lied; and my lady is the Queen of Utterbol, and I am her thrall, and it is I who have drawn thee hither from the camp."

The blood mounted to Ralph's brow for anger; when he called to mind how he had been led hither and thither on other folk's errands ever since he left Upmeads. But he said naught, and Agatha looked on him timidly and said: "I say I am her thrall, and I did it to serve her and because she bade me." Said Ralph roughly: "And Redhead, him whom I saved from torments and death; dost thou know him? didst thou know him?"

"Yea," she said, "I had from him what he had learned concerning thee from the sergeants and others, and then I put words into his mouth." "Yea then," quoth Ralph, "then he also is a traitor!" "Nay, nay," she said, "he is a true man and loveth thee, and whatever he hath said to thee he troweth himself. Moreover, I tell thee here and now that all that he told thee of the affairs of Utterbol, and thine outlook there, is true and overtrue."

She sprang to her feet therewith, and stood before him and clasped her hands before him and said: "I know that thou seekest the Well at the World's End and the deliverance of the damsel whom the Lord ravished from the wild man: now I swear it by thy mouth, that if thou go to Utterbol thou art undone and shalt come to the foulest pass there, and moreover that so going thou shalt bring the uttermost shame and torments on the damsel."

Said Ralph: "Yea, but what is her case as now? tell me."

Quoth Agatha: "She is in no such evil case; for my lady hateth her not as yet, or but little; and, which is far more, my lord loveth her after his fashion, and withal as I deem feareth her; for though she hath utterly gainsaid his desire, he hath scarce so much as threatened her. A thing unheard of. Had it been another woman she had by this time known all the bitterness that leadeth unto death at Utterbol." Ralph paled and he scowled on her, then he said: "And how knowest thou all the privity of the Lord of Utterbol? who telleth thee of all this?" She smiled and spake daintily: "Many folk tell me that which I would know; and that is because whiles I conquer the tidings with my wits, and whiles buy it with my body. Anyhow what I tell thee is the very sooth concerning this damsel, and this it is: that whereas she is but in peril, she shall be in deadly peril, yea and that instant, if thou go to Utterbol, thou, who art her lover..." "Nay," said Ralph angrily, "I am not her lover, I am but her well-willer." "Well," quoth Agatha looking down and knitting her brows, "when thy good will towards her has become known, then shall she be thrown at once into the pit of my lord's cruelty. Yea, to speak sooth, even as it is, for thy sake (for her I heed naught) I would that the lord might find her gone when he cometh back to Utterbol."

"Yea," said Ralph, reddening, "and is there any hope for her getting clear off?" "So I deem," said Agatha. She was silent awhile and then spake in a low voice: "It is said that each man that seeth her loveth her; yea, and will befriend her, even though she consent not to his desire. Maybe she hath fled from Utterbol."

Ralph stood silent awhile with a troubled face; and then he said: "Yet thou hast not told me the why and wherefore of this play of thine, and the beguiling me into fleeing from the camp. Tell it me that I may pardon thee and pass on."

She said: "By thine eyes I swear that this is sooth, and that there is naught else in it than this: My lady set her love, when first she set her eyes upon thee—as forsooth all women must: as for me, I had not seen thee (though I told my lady that I had) till within this hour that we met in the wood."

She sighed therewith, and with her right hand played with the rent raiment about her bosom. Then she said: "She deemed that if thou camest a mere thrall to Utterbol, though she might command thy body, yet she would not gain thy love; but that if perchance thou mightest see her in hard need, and evilly mishandled, and mightest deliver her, there might at least grow up pity in thee for her, and that love might come thereof, as oft hath happed aforetime; for my lady is a fair woman. Therefore I, who am my lady's servant and thrall, and who, I bid thee remember, had not seen thee, took upon me to make this adventure, like to a minstrel's tale done in the flesh. Also I spake to my lord and told him thereof; and though he jeered at my lady to me, he was content, because he would have her set her heart on thee utterly; since he feared her jealousy, and would fain be delivered of it, lest she should play some turn to his newly beloved damsel and do her a mischief. Therefore did he set thee free (in words) meaning, when he had thee safe at Utterbol again (as he nowise doubted to have thee) to do as he would with thee, according as occasion might serve. For at heart he hateth thee, as I could see well. So a little before thou didst leave the camp, we, the Queen and I, went privily into a place of the woods but a little way hence. There I disarrayed both my lady and myself so far as was needful for the playing out the play which was to have seemed to thee a real adventure. Then came I to thee as if by chance hap, that I might bring thee to her; and if thou hadst come, we had a story for thee, whereby thou mightest not for very knighthood forbear to succour her and bring her whither she would, which in the long run had been Utterbol, but for the present time was to have been a certain strong-house appertaining to Utterbol, and nigh unto it. This is all the tale, and now if thou wilt, thou mayst pardon me; or if thou wilt, thou mayst draw out thy sword and smite off my head. And forsooth I deem that were the better deed."

She knelt down before him and put her palms together, and looked up at him beseechingly. His face darkened as he beheld her thus, but it cleared at last, and he said: "Damsel, thou wouldst turn out but a sorry maker, and thy play is naught. For seest thou not that I should have found out all the guile at Utterbol, and owed thy lady hatred rather than love thereafter."

"Yea," she said, "but my lady might have had enough of thy love by then, and would belike have let thee alone to fall into the hands of the Lord. Lo now! I have delivered thee from this, so that thou art quit both of the Lord and the lady and me: and again I say that thou couldst scarce have missed, both thou and thy damsel, of a miserable ending at Utterbol."

"Yea," said Ralph, softly, and as if speaking to himself, "yet am I lonely and unholpen." Then he turned to Agatha and said: "The end of all this is that I pardon thee, and must depart forthwith; for when ye two come back to the camp, then presently will the hunt be up."

She rose from her knees, and stood before him humbly and said: "Nay, I shall requite thee thy pardon thus far, that I will fashion some tale for my lady which will keep us in the woods two days or three; for we have provided victual for our adventure."

Said Ralph: "I may at least thank thee for that, and will trust in thee to do so much." Quoth she: "Then might I ask a reward of thee: since forsooth other reward awaiteth me at Utterbol."

"Thou shalt have it," said Ralph. She said: "The reward is that thou kiss me ere we part."

"It must needs be according to my word," said Ralph, "yet I must tell thee that my kiss will bear but little love with it."

She answered naught but laid her hands on his breast and put up her face to him, and he kissed her lips. Then she said: "Knight, thou hast kissed a thrall and a guileful woman, yet one that shall smart for thee; therefore grudge not the kiss nor repent thee of thy kindness."

"How shalt thou suffer?" said he. She looked on him steadfastly a moment, and said: "Farewell! may all good go with thee." Therewith she turned away and walked off slowly through the wood, and somewhat he pitied her, and sighed as he got into his saddle; but he said to himself: "How might I help her? Yet true it is that she may well be in an evil case: I may not help everyone." Then he shook his rein and rode his ways.



CHAPTER 2

Ralph Rides the Wood Under the Mountains

A long way now rode Ralph, and naught befell him but the fashion of the wood. And as he rode, the heart within him was lightened that he had escaped from all the confusion and the lying of those aliens, who knew him not, nor his kindred, and yet would all use him each for his own ends: and withal he was glad that he was riding all alone upon his quest, but free, unwounded, and well weaponed.

The wood was not very thick whereas he rode, so that he could see the whereabouts of the sun, and rode east as far as he could judge it. Some little victual he had with him, and he found woodland fruit ripening here and there, and eked out his bread therewith; neither did water fail him, for he rode a good way up along a woodland stream that cleft the thicket, coming down as he deemed from the mountains, and thereby he made the more way: but at last he deemed that he must needs leave it, as it turned overmuch to the north. The light was failing when he came into a woodlawn amidst of which was a pool of water, and all that day he had had no adventure with beast or man, since he had sundered from Agatha. So he lay down and slept there with his naked sword by his side, and awoke not till the sun was high in the heavens next morning. Then he arose at once and went on his way after he had washed him, and eaten a morsel.

After a little the thick of the wood gave out, and the land was no longer flat, as it had been, but was of dales and of hills, not blinded by trees. In this land he saw much deer, as hart and wild swine; and he happened also on a bear, who was about a honey tree, and had taken much comb from the wild bees. On him Ralph drew his sword and drave him exceeding loth from his purchase, so that the knight dined off the bear's thieving. Another time he came across a bent where on the south side grew vines well fruited, and the grapes a-ripening; and he ate well thereof before he went on his way.

Before nightfall he came on that same stream again, and it was now running straight from the east; so he slept that night on the bank thereof. On the morrow he rode up along it a great way, till again it seemed to be coming overmuch from the north; and then he left it, and made on east as near as he could guess it by the sun.

Now he passed through thickets at whiles not very great, and betwixt them rode hilly land grassed mostly with long coarse grass, and with whin and thorn-trees scattered about. Thence he saw again from time to time the huge wall of the mountains rising up into the air like a great black cloud that would swallow up the sky, and though the sight was terrible, yet it gladdened him, since he knew that he was on the right way. So far he rode, going on the whole up-hill, till at last there was a great pine-wood before him, so that he could see no ending to it either north or south.

It was now late in the afternoon, and Ralph pondered whether he should abide the night where he was and sleep the night there, or whether he should press on in hope of winning to some clear place before dark. So whereas he was in a place both rough and waterless, he deemed it better to go on, after he had rested his horse and let him bite the herbage a while. Then he rode his ways, and entered the wood and made the most of the way.



CHAPTER 3

Ralph Meeteth With Another Adventure in the Wood Under the Mountain

Soon the wood grew very thick of pine-trees, though there was no undergrowth, so that when the sun sank it grew dark very speedily; but he still rode on in the dusk, and there were but few wild things, and those mostly voiceless, in the wood, and it was without wind and very still. Now he thought he heard the sound of a horse going behind him or on one side, and he wondered whether the chace were up, and hastened what he might, till at last it grew black night, and he was constrained to abide. So he got off his horse, and leaned his back against a tree, and had the beast's reins over his arm; and now he listened again carefully, and was quite sure that he could hear the footsteps of some hard-footed beast going nowise far from him. He laughed inwardly, and said to himself: "If the chacer were to pass but three feet from my nose he should be none the wiser but if he hear me or my horse." And therewith he cast a lap of his cloak over the horse's head, lest he should whinny if he became aware of the other beast; and so there he stood abiding, and the noise grew greater till he could hear clearly the horse-hoofs drawing nigh, till they came very nigh, and then stopped.

Then came a man's voice that said: "Is there a man anigh in the wood?"

Ralph held his peace till he should know more; and the voice spake again in a little while: "If there be a man anigh let him be sure that I will do him no hurt; nay, I may do him good, for I have meat with me." Clear was the voice, and as sweet as the April blackbird sings. It spake again: "Naught answereth, yet meseemeth I know surely that a man is anigh; and I am aweary of the waste, and long for fellowship."

Ralph hearkened, and called to mind tales of way-farers entrapped by wood-wives and evil things; but he thought: "At least this is no sending of the Lord of Utterbol, and, St. Nicholas to aid, I have little fear of wood-wights. Withal I shall be but a dastard if I answer not one man, for fear of I know not what." So he spake in a loud and cheerful voice: "Yea, there is a man anigh, and I desire thy fellowship, if we might but meet. But how shall we see each other in the blackness of the wildwood night?"

The other laughed, and the laugh sounded merry and sweet, and the voice said: "Hast thou no flint and fire-steel?" "No," said Ralph. "But I have," said the voice, "and I am fain to see thee, for thy voice soundeth pleasant to me. Abide till I grope about for a stick or two."

Ralph laughed in turn, as he heard the new-comer moving about; then he heard the click of the steel on the flint, and saw the sparks showering down, so that a little piece of the wood grew green again to his eyes. Then a little clear flame sprang up, and therewith he saw the tree-stems clearly, and some twenty yards from him a horse, and a man stooping down over the fire, who sprang up now and cried out: "It is a knight-at-arms! Come hither, fellow of the waste; it is five days since I have spoken to a child of Adam; so come nigh and speak to me, and as a reward of thy speech thou shalt have both meat and firelight."

"That will be well paid," said Ralph laughing, and he stepped forward leading his horse, for now the wood was light all about, as the fire waxed and burned clear; so that Ralph could see that the new-comer was clad in quaintly-fashioned armour after the fashion of that land, with a bright steel sallet on the head, and a long green surcoat over the body armour. Slender of make was the new-comer, not big nor tall of stature.

Ralph went up to him hastily, and merrily put his hand on his shoulder, and kissed him, saying: "The kiss of peace in the wilderness to thee!" And he found him smooth-faced and sweet-breathed.

But the new comer took his hand and led him to where the firelight was brightest and looked on him silently a while; and Ralph gave back the look. The strange-wrought sallet hid but little of the new comer's face, and as Ralph looked thereon a sudden joy came into his heart, and he cried out: "O, but I have kissed thy face before! O, my friend, my friend!"

Then spake the new-comer and said: "Yea, I am a woman, and I was thy friend for a little while at Bourton Abbas, and at the want-ways of the Wood Perilous."

Then Ralph cast his arms about her and kissed her again; but she withdrew her from him, and said: "Help me, my friend, that we may gather sticks to feed our fire, lest it die and the dark come again so that we see not each other's faces, and think that we have but met in a dream."

Then she busied herself with gathering the kindling; but presently she looked up at him, and said: "Let us make the wood shine wide about, for this is a feastful night."

So they gathered a heap of wood and made the fire great; and then Ralph did off his helm and hauberk and the damsel did the like, so that he could see the shapeliness of her uncovered head. Then they sat down before the fire, and the damsel drew meat and drink from her saddle-bags, and gave thereof to Ralph, who took it of her and her hand withal, and smiled on her and said: "Shall we be friends together as we were at Bourton Abbas and the want-ways of the Wood Perilous?" She shook her head and said: "If it might be! but it may not be. Not many days have worn since then; but they have brought about changed days." He looked on her wistfully and said: "But thou wert dear to me then."

"Yea," she said, "and thou to me; but other things have befallen, and there is change betwixt."

"Nay, what change?" said Ralph.

Even by the firelight he saw that she reddened as she answered: "I was a free woman then; now am I but a runaway thrall." Then Ralph laughed merrily, and said, "Then are we brought the nigher together, for I also am a runaway thrall."

She smiled and looked down: then she said: "Wilt thou tell me how that befell?"

"Yea," said he, "but I will ask thee first a question or two." She nodded a yeasay, and looked on him soberly, as a child waiting to say its task.

Said Ralph: "When we parted at the want-ways of the Wood Perilous thou saidst that thou wert minded for the Well at the World's End, and to try it for life or death. But thou hadst not then the necklace, which now I see thee bear, and which, seest thou! is like to that about my neck. Wilt thou tell me whence thou hadst it?"

She said: "Yea; it was given unto me by a lady, mighty as I deem, and certainly most lovely, who delivered me from an evil plight, and a peril past words, but whereof I will tell thee afterwards. And she it was who told me of the way to the Well at the World's End, and many matters concerning them that seek it, whereof thou shalt wot soon."

Said Ralph: "As to how thou wert made a thrall thou needest not to tell me; for I have learned that of those that had to do with taking thee to Utterbol. But tell me; here are met we two in the pathless wilds, as if it were on the deep sea, and we two seeking the same thing. Didst thou deem that we should meet, or that I should seek thee?"

Now was the fire burning somewhat low, but he saw that she looked on him steadily; yet withal her sweet voice trembled a little as she answered: "Kind friend, I had a hope that thou wert seeking me and wouldst find me: for indeed that fairest of women who gave me the beads spake to me of thee, and said that thou also wouldst turn thee to the quest of the Well at the World's End; and already had I deemed thine eyes lucky as well as lovely. But tell me, my friend, what has befallen that lady that she is not with thee? For in such wise she spake of thee, that I deemed that naught would sunder you save death."

"It is death that hath sundered us," said Ralph.

Then she hung her head, and sat silent a while, neither did he speak till she had risen up and cast more wood upon the fire; and she stood before it with her back towards him. Then he spake to her in a cheerful voice and said: "Belike we shall be long together: tell me thy name; is it not Dorothy?" She turned about to him with a smiling face, and said: "Nay lord, nay: did I not tell thee my name before? They that held me at the font bid the priest call me Ursula, after the Friend of Maidens. But what is thy name?"

"I am Ralph of Upmeads," quoth he; and sat a while silent, pondering his dream and how it had betrayed him as to her name, when it had told him much that he yet deemed true.

She came and sat down by him again, and said to him: "Thy questions I have answered; but thou hast not yet told me the tale of thy captivity." Her voice sounded exceeding sweet to him, and he looked on her face and spake as kindly as he knew how, and said: "A short tale it is to-night at least: I came from Whitwall with a Company of Chapmen, and it was thee I was seeking and the Well at the World's End. All went well with me, till I came to Goldburg, and there I was betrayed by a felon, who had promised to lead me safe to Utterness, and tell me concerning the way unto the Well. But he sold me to the Lord of Utterbol, who would lead me to his house; which irked me not, at first, because I looked to find thee there. Thereafter, if for shame I may tell the tale, his lady and wife cast her love upon me, and I was entangled in the nets of guile: yet since I was told, and believed that it would be ill both for thee and for me if I met thee at Utterbol, I took occasion to flee away, I will tell thee how another while."

She had turned pale as she heard him, and now she said: "It is indeed God's mercy that thou camest not to Utterbol nor foundest me there, for then had both we been undone amidst the lusts of those two; or that thou camest not there to find me fled, else hadst thou been undone. My heart is sick to think of it, even as I sit by thy side."

Said Ralph: "Thy last word maketh me afraid and ashamed to ask thee a thing. But tell me first, is that Lord of Utterbol as evil as men's fear would make him? for no man is feared so much unless he is deemed evil."

She was silent a while, and then she said: "He is so evil that it might be deemed that he has been brought up out of hell."

Then Ralph looked sore troubled, and he said: "Dear friend, this is the thing hard for me to say. In what wise did they use thee at Utterbol? Did they deal with thee shamefully?" She answered him quietly: "Nay," she said, "fear not! no shame befell me, save that I was a thrall and not free to depart. Forsooth," she said, smiling, "I fled away timely before the tormentors should be ready. Forsooth it is an evil house and a mere piece of hell. But now we are out of it and free in the wildwood, so let us forget it; for indeed it is a grief to remember it. And now once more let us mend the fire, for thy face is growing dim to me, and that misliketh me. Afterwards before we lie down to sleep we will talk a little of the way, whitherward we shall turn our faces to-morrow."

So they cast on more wood, and pineapples, and sweet it was to Ralph to see her face come clear again from out the mirk of the wood. Then they sat down again together and she said: "We two are seeking the Well at the World's End; now which of us knows more of the way? who is to lead, and who to follow?" Said Ralph: "If thou know no more than I, it is little that thou knowest. Sooth it is that for many days past I have sought thee that thou mightest lead me."

She laughed sweetly, and said: "Yea, knight, and was it for that cause that thou soughtest me, and not for my deliverance?" He said soberly: "Yet in very deed I set myself to deliver thee." "Yea," she said, "then since I am delivered, I must needs deem of it as if it were through thy deed. And as I suppose thou lookest for a reward therefor, so thy reward shall be, that I will lead thee to the Well at the World's End. Is it enough?" "Nay," said Ralph. They held their peace a minute, then she said: "Maybe when we have drunk of that Water and are coming back, it will be for thee to lead. For true it is that I shall scarce know whither to wend; since amidst of my dreaming of the Well, and of...other matters, my home that was is gone like a dream."

He looked at her, but scarce as if he were heeding all her words. Then he spoke: "Yea, thou shalt lead me. I have been led by one or another ever since I have left Upmeads." Now she looked on him somewhat ruefully, and said: "Thou wert not hearkening e'en now; so I say it again, that the time shall come when thou shalt lead me."

In Ralph's mind had sprung up again that journey from the Water of the Oak-tree; so he strove with himself to put the thought from him, and sighed and said: "Dost thou verily know much of the way?" She nodded yeasay. "Knowest thou of the Rock of the Fighting Man?" "Yea," she said. "And of the Sage that dwelleth in this same wood?" "Most surely," she said, "and to-morrow evening or the morrow after we shall find him; for I have been taught the way to his dwelling; and I wot that he is now called the Sage of Swevenham. Yet I must tell thee that there is some peril in seeking to him; whereas his dwelling is known of the Utterbol riders, who may follow us thither. And yet again I deem that he will find some remedy thereto."

Said Ralph: "Whence didst thou learn all this, my friend?" And his face grew troubled again; but she said simply: "She taught it to me who spake to me in the wood by Hampton under Scaur."

She made as if she noted not the trouble in his face, but said: "Put thy trust in this, that here and with me thou art even now nigher to the Well at the World's End than any other creature on the earth. Yea, even if the Sage of Swevenham be dead or gone hence, yet have I tokens to find the Rock of the Fighting Man, and the way through the mountains, though I say not but that he may make it all clearer. But now I see thee drooping with the grief of days bygone; and I deem also that thou art weary with the toil of the way. So I rede thee lie down here in the wilderness and sleep, and forget grief till to-morrow is a new day."

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