The Well at the World's End, by William Morris, , at sacred-texts.com
An Adventure by the Way
When morrow dawned they arose betimes and did on their worldly raiment; and when they had eaten a morsel they made them ready for the road, and the elder gave them victual for the way in their saddle-bags, saying: "This shall suffice for the passing days, and when it is gone ye have learned what to do."
Therewithall they gat to horse; but Ralph would have the Elder ride his nag, while he went afoot by the side of Ursula. So the Sage took his bidding, but smiled therewith, and said: "Thou art a King's son and a friendly young man, else had I said nay to this; for it needeth not, whereas I am stronger than thou, so hath my draught of the Well dealt with me."
Thus then they went their ways; but Ralph noted of Ursula that she was silent and shy with him, and it irked him so much, that at last he said to her: "My friend, doth aught ail me with thee? Wilt thou not tell me, so that I may amend it? For thou are grown of few words with me and turnest thee from me, and seemest as if thou heedest me little. Thou art as a fair spring morning gone cold and overcast in the afternoon. What is it then? we are going a long journey together, and belike shall find little help or comfort save in each other; and ill will it be if we fall asunder in heart, though we be nigh in body."
She laughed and reddened therewithal; and then her countenance fell and she looked piteously on him and said: "If I seemed to thee as thou sayest, I am sorry; for I meant not to be thus with thee as thou deemest. But so it is that I was thinking of this long journey, and of thee and me together in it, and how we shall be with each other if we come back again alive, with all things done that we had to do."
She stayed her speech awhile, and seemed to find it hard to give forth the word that was in her; but at last she said: "Friend, thou must pardon me; but that which thou sawest in me, I also seemed to see in thee, that thou wert grown shy and cold with me; but now I know it is not so, since thou hast seen me wrongly; but that I have seen thee wrongly, as thou hast me."
Therewith she reached her hand to him, and he took it and kissed it and caressed it while she looked fondly at him, and they fared on sweetly and happily together. But as this was a-saying and a-doing betwixt them, and a while after, they had heeded the Elder little or not at all, though he rode on the right hand of Ralph. And for his part the old man said naught to them and made as if he heard them not, when they spake thuswise together.
Now they rode the wood on somewhat level ground for a while; then the trees began to thin, and the ground grew broken; and at last it was very rugged, with high hills and deep valleys, and all the land populous of wild beasts, so that about sunset they heard thrice the roar of a lion. But ever the Sage led them by winding ways that he knew, round the feet of the hills, along stream-sides for the most part, and by passes over the mountain-necks when they needs must, which was twice in the day.
Dusk fell on them in a little valley, through which ran a stream bushed about its edges, and which for the rest was grassy and pleasant, with big sweet-chestnut trees scattered about it.
"Now," quoth the Elder; "two things we have to beware of in this valley, the lions first; which, though belike they will not fall upon weaponed men, may well make an onslaught on your horses, if they wind them; and the loss of the beasts were sore to you as now. But the second thing is the chase from Utterbol. As to the lions, if ye build up a big fire, and keep somewhat aloof from the stream and its bushes, and tether you horses anigh the fire, ye will have no harm of them."
"Yea," said Ralph, "but if the riders of Utterbol are anigh us, shall we light a candle for them to show them the way?" Said the Sage: "Were ye by yourselves, I would bid you journey night-long, and run all risk rather than the risk of falling into their hands. But whereas I am your guide, I bid you kindle your fire under yonder big tree, and leave me to deal with the men of Utterbol; only whatso I bid you, that do ye straightway."
"So be it," said Ralph, "I have been bewrayed so oft of late, that I must needs trust thee, or all help shall fail me. Let us to work." So they fell to and built up a big bale and kindled it, and their horses they tethered to the tree; and by then they had done this, dark night had fallen upon them. So they cooked their victual at the fire (for Ralph had shot a hare by the way) and the Sage went down to the stream and fetched them water in a lethern budget: "For," said he, "I know the beasts of the wood and they me, and there is peace betwixt us." There then they sat to meat unarmed, for the Sage had said to them: "Doff your armour; ye shall not come to handystrokes with the Utterbol Riders."
So they ate their meat in the wilderness, and were nowise ungleeful, for to those twain the world seemed fair, and they hoped for great things. But though they were glad, they were weary enough, for the way had been both rugged and long; so they lay them down to sleep while the night was yet young. But or ever Ralph closed his eyes he saw the Sage standing up with his cloak wrapped about his head, and making strange signs with his right hand; so that he deemed that he would ward them by wizardry. So therewith he turned about on the grass and was asleep at once.
After a while he started and sat up, half awake at first; for he felt some one touch him; and his halfdreams went back to past days, and he cried out: "Hah Roger! is it thou? What is toward?" But therewith he woke up fully, and knew that it was the Sage that had touched him, and withal he saw hard by Ursula. sitting up also.
There was still a flickering flame playing about the red embers of their fire, for they had made it very big; and the moon had arisen and was shining bright in a cloudless sky.
The Sage spake softly but quickly: "Lie down together, ye two, and I shall cast my cloak over you, and look to it that ye stir not from out of it, nor speak one word till I bid you, whate'er may befall: for the riders of Utterbol are upon us."
They did as he bade them, but Ralph got somewhat of an eye-shot out of a corner of the cloak, and he could see that the Sage went and stood up against the tree-trunk holding a horse by the bridle, one on each side of him. Even therewith Ralph heard the clatter of horse-hoofs over the stones about the stream, and a man's voice cried out: "They will have heard us; so spur over the grass to the fire and the big tree: for then they cannot escape us." Then came the thump of horse-hoofs on the turf, and in half a minute they were amidst of a rout of men a-horseback, more than a score, whose armour and weapons gleamed in the moonlight: yet when these riders were gotten there, they were silent, till one said in a quavering voice as if afeard: "Otter, Otter! what is this? A minute ago and we could see the fire, and the tree, and men and horses about them: and now, lo you! there is naught save two great grey stones lying on the grass, and a man's bare bones leaning up against the tree, and a ruckle of old horse-bones on either side of him. Where are we then?"
Then spake another; and Ralph knew the voice for Otter's: "I wot not, lord; naught else is changed save the fire and the horses and the men: yonder are the hills, yonder overhead is the moon, with the little light cloud dogging her; even that is scarce changed. Belike the fire was an earth-fire, and for the rest we saw wrong in the moonlight."
Spake the first man again, and his voice quavered yet more: "Nay nay, Otter, it is not so. Lo you the skeleton and the bones and the grey stones! And the fire, here this minute, there the next. O Otter, this is an evil place of an evil deed! Let us go seek elsewhere; let us depart, lest a worse thing befall us." And so with no more ado he turned his horse and smote his spurs into him and galloped off by the way he had come, and the others followed, nothing loth; only Otter tarried a little, and looked around him and laughed and said: "There goes my Lord's nephew; like my Lord he is not over bold, save in dealing with a shackled man. Well, for my part if those others have sunk into the earth, or gone up into the air, they are welcome to their wizardry, and I am glad of it. For I know not how I should have done to have seen my mate that out-tilted me made a gelded wretch of; and it would have irked me to see that fair woman in the hands of the tormentors, though forsooth I have oft seen such sights. Well, it is good; but better were it to ride with my mate than serve the Devil and his Nephew."
Therewith he turned rein and galloped off after the others, and in a little while the sound of them had died off utterly into the night, and they heard but the voices of the wild things, and the wimbrel laughing from the hill-sides. Then came the Sage and drew the cloak from those two, and laughed on them and said: "Now may ye sleep soundly, when I have mended our fire; for ye will see no more of Utterbol for this time, and it yet lacks three hours of dawn: sleep ye then and dream of each other." Then they arose and thanked the Sage with whole hearts and praised his wisdom. But while the old man mended the fire Ralph went up to Ursula and took her hand, and said: "Welcome to life, fellow-farer!" and he gazed earnestly into her eyes, as though he would have her fall into his arms: but whereas she rather shrank from him, though she looked on him lovingly, if somewhat shyly, he but kissed her hand, and laid him down again, when he had seen her lying in her place. And therewith they fell asleep and slept sweetly.