The Well at World's End 3-4
CHAPTER 4: THEY RIDE THE WOOD UNDER THE MOUNTAINS
When Ralph woke on the morrow it was broad day as far as the trees would have it so. He rose at once, and looked about for his fellow, but saw her not, and for some moments of time he thought he had but dreamed of her; but he saw that the fire had been quickened from its embers, and close by lay the hauberk and strange-fashioned helm, and the sword of the damsel, and presently he saw her coming through the trees barefoot, with the green-sleeved silken surcoat hanging below the knees and her hair floating loose about her. She stepped lightly up to Ralph with a cheerful smiling countenance and a ruddy colour in her cheeks, but her eyes moist as if she could scarce keep back the tears for joy of the morning’s meeting. He thought her fairer than erst, and made as if he would put his arms about her, but she held a little aloof from him, blushing yet more. Then she said in her sweet clear voice: “Hail fellow-farer! now begins the day’s work. I have been down yonder, and have found a bright woodland pool, to wash the night off me, and if thou wilt do in likewise and come back to me, I will dight our breakfast meantime, and will we speedily to the road.” He did as she bade him, thinking of her all the while till he came back to her fresh and gay. Then he looked to their horses and gave them fodder gathered from the pool-side, and so turned to Ursula and found her with the meat ready dight; so they ate and were glad.
When they had broken their fast Ralph went to saddle the horses, and coming back found Ursula binding up her long hair, and she smiled on him and said: “Now we are for the road I must be an armed knight again: forsooth I unbound my hair e’en now and let my surcoat hang loose about me in token that thou wottest my secret. Soothly, my friend, it irks me that now we have met after a long while, I must needs be clad thus graceless. But need drave me to it, and withal the occasion that was given to me to steal this gay armour from a lad at Utterbol, the nephew of the lord; who like his eme was half my lover, half my tyrant. Of all which I will tell thee hereafter, and what wise I must needs steer betwixt stripes and kisses these last days. But now let us arm and to horse. Yet first lo you, here are some tools that in thine hands shall keep us from sheer famine: as for me I am no archer; and forsooth no man-at-arms save in seeming.”
Therewith she showed him a short Turk bow and a quiver of arrows, which he took well pleased. So then they armed each the other, and as she handled Ralph’s wargear she said: “How well-wrought and trusty is this hauberk of thine, my friend; my coat is but a toy to it, with its gold and silver rings and its gemmed collar: and thy plates be thick and wide and well-wrought, whereas mine are little more than adornments to my arms and legs.”
He looked on her lovingly and loved her shapely hands amidst the dark grey mail, and said: “That is well, dear friend, for since my breast is a shield for thee it behoves it to be well covered.” She looked at him, and her lips trembled, and she put out her hand as if to touch his cheek, but drew it back again and said: “Come now, let us to horse, dear fellow in arms.”
So they mounted and went their ways through a close pine-wood, where the ground was covered with the pine-tree needles, and all was still and windless. So as they rode said Ursula: “I seek tokens of the way to the Sage of Swevenham. Hast thou seen a water yesterday?” “Yea,” said Ralph, “I rode far along it, but left it because I deemed that it turned north overmuch.” “Thou wert right,” she said, “besides that thy turning from it hath brought us together; for it would have brought thee to Utterbol at last. But now have we to hit upon another that runneth straight down from the hills: not the Great Mountains, but the high ground whereon is the Sage’s dwelling. I know not whether the ride be long or short; but the stream is to lead us.”
On they rode through the wood, wherein was little change for hours; and as they rested Ursula gave forth a deep breath, as one who has cast off a load of care. And Ralph said: “Why sighest thou, fellow-farer?” “O,” she said, “it is for pleasure, and a thought that I had: for a while ago I was a thrall, living amongst fears that sickened the heart; and then a little while I was a lonely wanderer, and now...Therefore I was thinking that if ever I come back to mine own land and my home, the scent of a pine-wood shall make me happy.”
Ralph looked on her eagerly, but said naught for a while; but at last he spoke: “Tell me, friend,” said he, “if we be met by strong-thieves on the way, what shall we do then?”
“It is not like to befall,” she said, “for men fear the wood, therefore is there little prey for thieves therein: but if we chance on them, the token of Utterbol on mine armour shall make them meek enough.” Then she fell silent a while, and spoke again: “True it is that we may be followed by the Utterbol riders; for though they also fear the wood, they fear it not so much as they fear their Lord. Howbeit, we be well ahead, and it is little like that we shall be overtaken before we have met the Sage; and then belike he shall provide.”
“Yea,” said Ralph, “but what if the chase come up with us: shall we suffer us to be taken alive?” She looked on him solemnly, laid her hand on the beads about her neck, and answered: “By this token we must live as long as we may, whatsoever may befall; for at the worst may some road of escape be opened to us. Yet O, how far easier it were to die than to be led back to Utterbol!”
A while they rode in silence, both of them: but at last spake Ralph, but slowly and in a dull and stern voice: “Maybe it were good that thou told me somewhat of the horrors and evil days of Utterbol?” “Maybe,” she said, “but I; will not tell thee of them. Forsooth there are some things which a man may not easily tell to a man, be he never so much his friend as thou art to me. But bethink thee” (and she smiled somewhat) “that this gear belieth me, and that I am but a woman; and some things there be which a woman may not tell to a man, nay, not even when he hath held her long in his arms.” And therewith she flushed exceedingly. But he said in a kind voice: “I am sorry that I asked thee, and will ask thee no more thereof.” She smiled on him friendly, and they spake of other matters as they rode on.
But after a while Ralph said: “If it were no misease to thee to tell me how thou didst fall into the hands of the men of Utterbol, I were fain to hear the tale.”
She laughed outright, and said: “Why wilt thou be forever harping on the time of my captivity, friend? And thou who knowest the story somewhat already? Howbeit, I may tell thee thereof without heart-burning, though it be a felon tale.”
He said, somewhat shame-facedly: “Take it not ill that I am fain to hear of thee and thy life-days, since we are become fellow-farers.”
“Well,” she said, “this befell outside Utterbol, so I will tell thee.
“After I had stood in the thrall-market at Cheaping Knowe, and not been sold, the wild man led me away toward the mountains that are above Goldburg; and as we drew near to them on a day, he said to me that he was glad to the heart-root that none had cheapened me at the said market; and when I asked him wherefore, he fell a weeping as he rode beside me, and said: ‘Yet would God that I had never taken thee.’ I asked what ailed him, though indeed I deemed that I knew. He said: ‘This aileth me, that though thou art not of the blood wherein I am bound to wed, I love thee sorely, and would have thee to wife; and now I deem that thou wilt not love me again.’ I said that he guessed aright, but that if he would do friendly with me, I would be no less than a friend to him. ‘That availeth little,’ quoth he; ‘I would have thee be mine of thine own will.’ I said that might not be, that I could love but one man alone. ‘Is he alive?’ said he. ‘Goodsooth, I hope so,’ said I, ‘but if he be dead, then is desire of men dead within me.’
“So we spake, and he was downcast and heavy of mood; but thenceforward was he no worse to me than a brother. And he proffered it to lead me back, if I would, and put me safely on the way to Whitwall; but, as thou wottest, I had need to go forward, and no need to go back.
“Thus we entered into the mountains of Goldburg; but one morning, when he arose, he was heavier of mood than his wont, and was restless withal, and could be steadfast neither in staying nor going, nor aught else. So I asked what ailed him, and he said: ‘My end draweth nigh; I have seen my fetch, and am fey. My grave abideth me in these mountains.’ ‘Thou hast been dreaming ugly dreams,’ said I, ‘such things are of no import.’ And I spoke lightly, and strove to comfort him. He changed not his mood for all that; but said: ‘This is ill for thee also; for thou wilt be worser without me than with me in these lands.’ Even so I deemed, and withal I was sorry for him, for though he were uncouth and ungainly, he was no ill man. So against my will I tumbled into the samelike mood as his, and we both fared along drearily. But about sunset, as we came round a corner of the cliffs of those mountains, or ever we were ware we happed upon a half-score of weaponed men, who were dighting a camp under a big rock thereby: but four there were with them who were still a-horseback; so that when Bull Nosy (for that was his name) strove to flee away with me, it was of no avail; for the said horsemen took us, and brought us before an evil-looking man, who, to speak shortly, was he whom thou hast seen, to wit, the Lord of Utterbol: he took no heed of Bull Nosy, but looked on me closely, and handled me as a man doth with a horse at a cheaping, so that I went nigh to smiting him, whereas I had a knife in my bosom, but the chaplet refrained me. To make a short tale of it, he bade Bull sell me to him, which Bull utterly naysaid, standing stiff and stark before the Lord, and scowling on him. But the Lord laughed in his face and said: ‘So be it, for I will take her without a price, and thank thee for sparing my gold.’ Then said Bull: ‘If thou take her as a thrall, thou wert best take me also; else shall I follow thee as a free man and slay thee when I may. Many are the days of the year, and on some one of them will betide the occasion for the knife.’
“Thereat the Lord waxed very pale, and spake not, but looked at that man of his who stood by Bull with a great sword in his fist, and lifted up his hand twice, and let it fall twice, whereat that man stepped back one pace, and swung his sword, and smote Bull, and clave his skull.
“Then the colour came into the Lord’s face again, and he said: ‘Now, vassals, let us dine and be merry, for at least we have found something in the mountains.’ So they fell to and ate and drank, and victual was given to me also, but I had no will to eat, for my soul was sick and my heart was heavy, foreboding the uttermost evil. Withal I was sorry for Bull Nosy, for he was no ill man and had become my friend.
“So they abode there that night, leaving Bull lying like a dog unburied in the wilderness; and on the morrow they took the road to Utterbol, and went swiftly, having no baggage, and staying but for victual, and for rest every night. The Lord had me brought to him on that first evening of our journey, and he saw me privily and spake to me, bidding me do shameful things, and I would not; wherefore he threatened me grievously; and, I being alone with him, bade him beware lest I should slay him or myself. Thereat he turned pale, as he had done before Bull Nosy, yet sent for none to slay me, but only bade me back to my keepers. And so I came to Utterbol unscathed.”
“And at Utterbol,” said Ralph, “what befell thee there?” Ursula smiled on him, and held up her finger; yet she answered: “Utterbol is a very great house in a fair land, and there are sundry roofs and many fair chambers. There was I brought to a goodly chamber amidst a garden; and women servants were given me who led me to the bath and clad me in dainty raiment, and gave me to eat and to drink, and all that I needed. That is all my tale for this time.”