The Well at World's End 1-23
CHAPTER 23: THE LEECHCRAFT OF THE LADY
Meanwhile she went to Ralph and stood by him, who now began to stir again; and she knelt down by him and kissed his face gently, and rose up hastily and stood a little aloof again.
Now Ralph sat up and looked about him, and when he saw the Lady he first blushed red, and then turned very pale; for the full life was in him again, and he knew her, and love drew strongly at his heart-strings. But she looked on him kindly and said to him: “How fares it with thee? I am sorry of thy hurt which thou hast had for me.” He said: “Forsooth, Lady, a chance knock or two is no great matter for a lad of Upmeads. But oh! I have seen thee before.” “Yea,” she said, “twice before, fair knight.” “How is that?” he said; “once I saw thee, the fairest thing in the world, and evil men would have led thee to slaughter; but not twice.”
She smiled on him still more kindly, as if he were a dear friend, and said simply: “I was that lad in the cloak that ye saw in the Flower de Luce; and afterwards when ye, thou and Roger, fled away from the Burg of the Four Friths. I had come into the Burg with my captain of war at the peril of our lives to deliver four faithful friends of mine who were else doomed to an evil death.”
He said nought, but gazed at her face, wondering at her valiancy and goodness. She took him by the hand now, and held it without speaking for a little while, and he sat there still looking up into her face, wondering at her sweetness and his happiness. Then she said, as she drew her hand away and spake in such a voice, and so looking at him, that every word was as a caress to him: “Thy soul is coming back to thee, my friend, and thou art well at ease: is it not so?”
“O yea,” he said, “and I woke up happily e’en now; for me-dreamed that my gossip came to me and kissed me kindly; and she is a fair woman, but not a young woman.”
As he spoke the knight, who had come nearly noiselessly over the grass, stood by them, holding his helm full of water, and looking grimly upon them; but the Lady looked up at him with wide eyes wonderingly, and Ralph, beholding her, deemed that all he had heard of her goodness was but the very sooth. But the knight spake: “Young man, thou hast fought with me, thou knowest not wherefore, and grim was my mood when thou madest thine onset, and still is, so that never but once wilt thou be nigher thy death than thou hast been this hour. But now I have given thee life because of the asking of this lady; and therewith I give thee leave to come thy ways with us: nay, rather I command thee to come, for thou art my prisoner, to be kept or ransomed, or set free as I will. But my will is that thou shalt not have thine armour and weapons; and there is a cause for this, which mayhappen I will tell thee hereafter. But now I bid thee drink of this water, and then do off thine helm and hauberk and give me thy sword and dagger, and go with us peaceably; and be not overmuch ashamed, for I have overcome men who boasted themselves to be great warriors.
So Ralph drank of the water, and did off his helm, and cast water on his face, and arose, and said smiling: “Nay, my master, I am nought ashamed of my mishaps: and as to my going with thee and the Lady, thou hast heard me say under thy dagger that I would not forbear to follow her; so I scarce need thy command thereto.” The knight scowled on him and said: “Hold thy peace, fool! Thou wert best not stir my wrath again.” “Nay,” said Ralph, “thou hast my sword, and mayst slay me if thou wilt; therefore be not word-valiant with me.”
Said the Knight of the Sun: “Well, well, thou hast the right of it there. Only beware lest thou try me overmuch. But now must we set forth on our road; and here is work for thee to do: a hundred yards within the thick wood in a straight line from the oak-tree thou shalt find two horses, mine and the knight’s who fell before me; go thou and bring them hither; for I will not leave thee with my lady, lest I have to slay thee in the end, and maybe her also.”
Ralph nodded cheerfully, and set off on his task, and was the readier therein because the Lady looked on him kindly and compassionately as he went by her. He found the horses speedily, a black horse that was of the Black Knight, and a bay of the Knight of the Sun, and he came back with them lightly.
But when he came to the oak-tree again, lo, the knight and the Lady both kneeling over the body of the Black Knight, and Ralph saw that the Knight of the Sun was sobbing and weeping sorely, so that he deemed that he was taking leave of his friend that lay dead there: but when Ralph had tied up those other two steeds by Silverfax and drawn rear to those twain, the Knight of the Sun looked up at him, and spake in a cheerful voice: “Thou seemest to be no ill man, though thou hast come across my lady; so now I bid thee rejoice that there is a good knight more in the world than we deemed e’en now; for this my friend Walter the Black is alive still.” “Yea,” said the Lady, “and belike he shall live a long while yet.”
So Ralph looked, and saw that they had stripped the knight of his hauberk and helm, and bared his body, and that the Lady was dressing a great and sore wound in his side; neither was he come to himself again: he was a young man, and very goodly to look on, dark haired and straight of feature, fair of face; and Ralph felt a grief at his heart as he beheld the Lady’s hands dealing with his bare flesh, though nought the man knew of it belike.
As for the Knight of the Sun, he was no more grim and moody, but smiling and joyous, and he spake and said: “Young man, this shall stand thee in good stead that I have not slain my friend this bout. Sooth to say, it might else have gone hard with thee on the way to my house, or still more in my house. But now be of good heart, for unless of thine own folly thou run on the sword’s point, thou mayst yet live and do well.” Then he turned to the Lady and said: “Dame, for as good a leech as ye be, ye may not heal this man so that he may sit in his saddle within these ten days; and now what is to do in this matter?”
She looked on him with smiling lips and a strange light in her eyes, and said: “Yea, forsooth, what wilt thou do? Wilt thou abide here by Walter thyself alone, and let me bring the imp of Upmeads home to our house? Or wilt thou ride home and send folk with a litter to us? Or shall this youngling ride at all adventure, and seek to Sunway through the blind woodland? Which shall it be?”
The knight laughed outright, and said: “Yea, fair one, this is much like to the tale of the carle at the ferry with the fox, and the goat, and the cabbage.”
There was scarce a smile on her face as she said gently: “One thing is to be thought of, that Walter’s soul is not yet so fast in his body that either thou or some rough-handed leech may be sure of healing him; it must be this hand, and the learning which it hath learned which must deal with him for a while. And she stretched out her arm over the wounded man, with the fingers pointing down the water, and reddened withal, as if she felt the hearts’ greediness of the two men who were looking on her beauty.
The big knight sighed, and said: “Well, unless I am to kill him over again, there is nothing for it but our abiding with him for the next few hours at least. To-morrow is a new day, and fair is the woodland-hall of summer-tide; neither shall water fail us. But as to victual, I wot not save that we have none.”
The Lady laughed, and said to Ralph; “Who knoweth what thou mayst find if thou go to the black horse and look into the saddle-bags which I saw upon him awhile agone? For indeed we need somewhat, if it were but to keep the life in the body of this wounded man.”
Ralph sprang up and turned to the horse, and found the saddle-bags on him, and took from them bread and flesh, and a flask of good wine, and brought them to the Lady, who laughed and said: “Thou art a good seeker and no ill finder.” Then she gave the wounded man to drink of the wine, so that he stirred somewhat, and the colour came into his face a little. Then she bade gather store of bracken for a bed for the Black Knight, and Ralph bestirred himself therein, but the Knight of the Sun sat looking at the Lady as she busied herself with his friend, and gloom seemed gathering on him again.
But when the bracken was enough, the Lady made a bed deftly and speedily; and between the three they laid the wounded man thereon, who seemed coming to himself somewhat, and spake a few words, but those nothing to the point. Then the Lady took her gay embroidered cloak, which lay at the foot of the oak tree, and cast it over him and, as Ralph deemed, eyed him lovingly, and belike the Knight of the Sun thought in likewise, for he scowled upon her; and for awhile but little was the joyance by the ancient oak, unless it were with the Lady.