The Well at World's End 3-17
CHAPTER 17: THEY COME THROUGH THE WOODLAND TO THE THIRSTY DESERT
So they ride their ways, and when they were come well into the wildwood past the house, and had spoken but few words to each other, Ralph put forth his hand, and stayed Ursula, and they gat off their horses under a great-limbed oak, and did off their armour, and sat down on the greensward there, and loved each other dearly, and wept for joy of their pain and travail and love. And afterwards, as they sat side by side leaning up against the great oak-bole, Ralph spake and said: “Now are we two once again all alone in the uttermost parts of the earth, and belike we are not very far from the Well at the World’s End; and now I have bethought me that if we gain that which we seek for, and bear back our lives to our own people, the day may come when we are grown old, for as young as we may seem, that we shall be as lonely then as we are this hour, and that the folk round about us shall be to us as much and no more than these trees and the wild things that dwell amongst them.”
She looked on him and laughed as one over-happy, and said: “Thou runnest forward swiftly to meet trouble, beloved! But I say that well will it be in those days if I love the folk then as well as now I love these trees and the wild things whose house they are.”
And she rose up therewith and threw her arms about the oak-bole and kissed its ruggedness, while Ralph as he lay kissed the sleekness of her feet. And there came a robin hopping over the leaves anigh them, for in that wood most of the creatures, knowing not man, were tame to him, and feared the horses of those twain more than their riders. And now as Ursula knelt to embrace Ralph with one hand, she held out the other to the said robin who perched on her wrist, and sat there as a hooded falcon had done, and fell to whistling his sweet notes, as if he were a-talking to those new-comers: then Ursula gave him a song-reward of their broken meat, and he flew up and perched on her shoulder, and nestled up against her cheek, and she laughed happily and said: “Lo you, sweet, have not the wild things understood my words, and sent this fair messenger to foretell us all good?”
“It is good,” said Ralph laughing, “yet the oak-tree hath not spoken yet, despite of all thy kissing: and lo there goes thy friend the robin, now thou hast no more meat to give him.”
“He is flying towards the Well at the World’s End,” she said, “and biddeth us onward: let us to horse and hasten: for if thou wilt have the whole truth concerning my heart, it is this, that some chance-hap may yet take thee from me ere thou hast drunk of the waters of the Well.”
“Yea,” said Ralph, “and in the innermost of my heart lieth the fear that mayhappen there is no Well, and no healing in it if we find it, and that death, and the backward way may yet sunder us. This is the worst of my heart, and evil is my coward fear.”
But she cast her arms about him and kissed and caressed him, and cried out: “Yea, then fair have been the days of our journeying, and fair this hour of the green oak! And bold and true thine heart that hath led thee thus far, and won thee thy desire of my love.”
So then they armed them, and mounted their horses and set forward. They lived well while they were in the wood, but on the third day they came to where it thinned and at last died out into a stony waste like unto that which they had passed through before they came to the House of the Sorceress, save that this lay in ridges as the waves of a great sea; and these same ridges they were bidden to cross over at their highest, lest they should be bewildered in a maze of little hills and dales leading no whither.
So they entered on this desert, having filled their water-skins at a clear brook, whereat they rejoiced when they found that the face of the wilderness was covered with a salt scurf, and that naught grew there save a sprinkling of small sage bushes.
Now on the second day of their riding this ugly waste, as they came up over the brow of one of these stony ridges, Ralph the far-sighted cried out suddenly: “Hold! for I see a man weaponed.”
“Where is he?” quoth Ursula, “and what is he about?” Said Ralph: “He is up yonder on the swell of the next ridge, and by seeming is asleep leaning against a rock.”
Then he bent the Turk bow and set an arrow on the string and they went on warily. When they were down at the foot of the ridge Ralph hailed the man with a lusty cry, but gat no answer of him; so they went on up the bent, till Ralph said: “Now I can see his face under his helm, and it is dark and the eyes are hollow: I will off horse and go up to him afoot, but do thou, beloved, sit still in thy saddle.”
But when he had come nigher, he turned and cried out to her: “The man is dead, come anigh.” So she went up to him and dismounted, and they both together stood over the man, who was lying up against a big stone like one at rest. How long he had lain there none knows but God; for in the saltness of the dry desert the flesh had dried on his bones without corrupting, and was as hardened leather. He was in full armour of a strange and ancient fashion, and his sword was girt to his side, neither was there any sign of a wound about him. Under a crag anigh him they found his horse, dead and dry like to himself; and a little way over the brow of the ridge another horse in like case; and close by him a woman whose raiment had not utterly perished, nor her hair; there were gold rings on her arms, and her shoes were done with gold: she had a knife stuck in her breast, with her hand still clutching the handle thereof; so that it seemed that she had herself given herself death.
Ralph and Ursula buried these two with the heaping of stones and went their ways; but some two miles thence they came upon another dead man-at-arms, and near him an old man unweaponed, and they heaped stones on them.
Thereabout night overtook them, and it was dark, so they lay down in the waste, and comforted each other, and slept two or three hours, but arose with the first glimmer of dawn, and mounted and rode forth onward, that they might the sooner be out of that deadly desert, for fear clung to their hearts.
This day, forsooth, they found so many dead folk, that they might not stay to bury them, lest they themselves should come to lie there lacking burial. So they made all the way they might, and rode on some hours by starlight after the night was come, for it was clear and cold. So that at last they were so utterly wearied that they lay down amongst those dead folk, and slept soundly.
On the morrow morn Ralph awoke and saw Ursula sleeping peacefully as he deemed, and he looked about on the dreary desert and its dead men and saw no end to it, though they lay on the top of one of those stony bents; and he said softly to himself: “Will it end at all then? Surely all this people of the days gone by were Seekers of the Well as we be; and have they belike turned back from somewhere further on, and might not escape the desert despite of all? Shall we turn now: shall we turn? surely we might get into the kindly wood from here.”
So he spake; but Ursula sat up (for she was not asleep) and said: “The perils of the waste being abundant and exceeding hard to face, would not the Sage or his books have told us of the most deadly?” Said Ralph: “Yet here are all these dead, and we were not told of them, nevertheless we have seen the token on the rocks oft-times yesterday, so we are yet in the road, unless all this hath been but a snare and a betrayal.”
She shook her head, and was silent a little; then she said: “Ralph, my lad, didst thou see this token (and she set hand to the beads about her neck) on any of those dead folk yesterday?” “Nay,” said Ralph, “though sooth to say I looked for it.” “And I in likewise,” she said; “for indeed I had misgivings as the day grew old; but now I say, let us on in the faith of that token and the kindness of the Sage, and the love of the Innocent People; yea, and thy luck, O lad of the green fields far away, that hath brought thee unscathed so far from Upmeads.”
So they mounted and rode forth, and saw more and more of the dead folk; and ever and anon they looked to them to note if they wore the beads like to them but saw none so dight. Then Ursula said: “Yea, why should the Sage and the books have told us aught of these dead bodies, that are but as the plenishing of the waste; like to the flowers that are cast down before the bier of a saint on a holy-day to be trodden under foot by the churls and the vicars of the close. Forsooth had they been alive now, with swords to smite withal, and hands to drag us into captivity, it had been another matter: but against these I feel bold.”
Ralph sighed, and said: “Yea, but even if we die not in the waste, yet this is piteous; so many lives passed away, so many hopes slain.”
“Yea,” she said; “but do not folk die there in the world behind us? I have seen sights far worser than this at Utterbol, little while as I was there. Moreover I can note that this army of dead men has not come all in one day or one year, but in a long, long while, by one and two and three; for hast thou not noted that their raiment and wargear both, is of many fashions, and some much more perished than other, long as things last in this Dry Waste? I say that men die as in the world beyond, but here we see them as they lie dead, and have lain for so long.”
He said: “I fear neither the Waste nor the dead men if thou fearest not, beloved: but I lament for these poor souls.”
“And I also,” said she; “therefore let us on, that we may come to those whose grief we may heal.”