The Well at the World's End, by William Morris, , at sacred-texts.com
Ralph Cometh To the Vale of the Tower
But when it was morning Ralph awoke, and saw that the sun was shining brightly; so he cast his shirt on him, and went out at once, and turned his face eastward, and, scarce awake, said to himself that the clouds lay heavy in the eastward heavens after last night's haze: but presently his eyes cleared, and he saw that what he had taken for clouds was a huge wall of mountains, black and terrible, that rose up sharp and clear into the morning air; for there was neither cloud nor mist in all the heavens.
Now Ralph, though he were but little used to the sight of great mountains, yet felt his heart rather rise than fall at the sight of them; for he said: "Surely beyond them lieth some new thing for me, life or death: fair fame or the forgetting of all men." And it was long that he could not take his eyes off them.
As he looked, came up the Captain Otter, and said: "Well, Knight, thou hast seen them this morn, even if ye die ere nightfall." Said Ralph: "What deemest thou to lie beyond them?"
"Of us none knoweth surely," said Otter; "whiles I deem that if one were to get to the other side there would be a great plain like to this: whiles that there is naught save mountains beyond, and yet again mountains, like the waves of a huge stone sea. Or whiles I think that one would come to an end of the world, to a place where is naught but a ledge, and then below it a gulf filled with nothing but the howling of winds, and the depth of darkness. Moreover this is my thought, that all we of these parts should be milder men and of better conditions, if yonder terrible wall were away. It is as if we were thralls of the great mountains."
Said Ralph, "Is this then the Wall of the World?" "It may well be so," said Otter; "but this word is at whiles said of something else, which no man alive amongst us has yet seen. It is a part of the tale of the seekers for the Well at the World's End, whereof we said a word that other day."
"And the Dry Tree," said Ralph, "knowest thou thereof?" said Ralph. "Such a tree, much beworshipped," said Otter, "we have, not very far from Utterbol, on the hither side of the mountains. Yet I have heard old men say that it is but a toy, and an image of that which is verily anigh the Well at the World's End. But now haste thee to do on thy raiment, for we must needs get to horse in a little while." "Yet one more word," said Ralph; "thou sayest that none alive amongst you have seen the Wall of the World?" "None alive," quoth Otter; "forsooth what the dead may see, that is another question." Said Ralph: "But have ye not known of any who have sought to the Well from this land, which is so nigh thereunto?" "Such there have been," said Otter; "but if they found it, they found something beyond it, or came west again by some way else than by Utterbol; for they never came back again to us."
Therewith he turned on his heel, and went his ways, and up came David and one with him bringing victual; and David said: "Now, thou lucky one, here is come thy breakfast! for we shall presently be on our way. Cast on thy raiment, and eat and strengthen thyself for the day's work. Hast thou looked well on the mountains?" "Yea," said Ralph, "and the sight of them has made me as little downhearted as thou art. For thou art joyous of mood this morning." David nodded and smiled, and looked so merry that Ralph wondered what was toward. Then he went into his tent and clad himself, and ate his breakfast, and then gat to horse and rode betwixt two of the men-at-arms, he and Otter; for David was ridden forward to speak with the Lord. Otter talked ever gaily enough; but Ralph heeded him little a while, but had his eyes ever on the mountains, and could see that for all they were so dark, and filled up so much of the eastward heaven, they were so far away that he could see but little of them save that they were dark blue and huge, and one rising up behind the other.
Thus they rode the down country, till at last, two hours before noon, coming over the brow of a long down, they had before them a shallow dale, pleasanter than aught they had yet seen. It was well-grassed, and a little river ran through it, from which went narrow leats held up by hatches, so that the more part of the valley bottom was a water-meadow, wherein as now were grazing many kine and sheep. There were willows about the banks of the river, and in an ingle of it stood a grange or homestead, with many roofs half hidden by clumps of tall old elm trees. Other houses there were in the vale; two or three cots, to wit, on the slope of the hither down, and some half-dozen about the homestead; and above and beyond all these, on a mound somewhat away from the river and the grange, a great square tower, with barriers and bailey all dight ready for war, and with a banner of the Lord's hanging out. But between the tower and the river stood as now a great pavilion of snow-white cloth striped with gold and purple; and round about it were other tents, as though a little army were come into the vale.
So when they looked into that fair place, Otter the Captain rose in the stirrups and cast up his hand for joy, and cried out aloud: "Now, young knight, now we are come home: how likest thou my Lord's land?"
"It is a fair land," said Ralph; "but is there not come some one to bid thy Lord battle for it? or what mean the tents down yonder?"
Said Otter, laughing: "Nay, nay, it hath not come to that yet. Yonder is my Lord's lady-wife, who hath come to meet him, but in love, so to say, not in battle—not yet. Though I say not that the cup of love betwixt them be brim-full. But this it behoveth me not to speak of, though thou art to be my brother-in-arms, since we are to tilt together presently: for lo! yonder the tilt-yard, my lad."
Therewith he pointed to the broad green meadow: but Ralph said: "How canst thou, a free man, be brother-in-arms to a thrall?" "Nay, lad," quoth Otter, "let not that wasp sting thee: for even such was I, time was. Nay, such am I now, but that a certain habit of keeping my wits in a fray maketh me of avail to my Lord, so that I am well looked to. Forsooth in my Lord's land the free men are of little account, since they must oftenest do as my Lord and my Lord's thralls bid them. Truly, brother, it is we who have the wits and the luck to rise above the whipping-post and the shackles that are the great men hereabouts. I say we, for I deem that thou wilt do no less, whereas thou hast the lucky look in thine eyes. So let to-day try it."
As he spake came many glittering figures from out of those tents, and therewithal arose the sound of horns and clashing of cymbals, and their own horns gave back the sound of welcome. Then Ralph saw a man in golden armour of strange, outlandish fashion, sitting on a great black horse beside the Lord's litter; and Otter said: "Lo! my Lord, armed and a-horseback to meet my lady: she looketh kinder on him thus; though in thine ear be it said, he is no great man of war; nor need he be, since he hath us for his shield and his hauberk."
Herewith were they come on to the causeway above the green meadows, and presently drew rein before the pavilion, and stood about in a half-ring facing a two score of gaily clad men-at-arms, who had come with the Lady and a rout of folk of the household. Then the Lord gat off his horse, and stood in his golden armour, and all the horns and other music struck up, and forth from the pavilion came the Lady with a half-score of her women clad gaily in silken gowns of green, and blue, and yellow, broidered all about with gold and silver, but with naked feet, and having iron rings on their arms, so that Ralph saw that they were thralls. Something told him that his damsel should be amongst these, so he gazed hard on them, but though they were goodly enough there was none of them like to her.
As to the Queen, she was clad all in fine linen and gold, with gold shoes on her feet: her arms came bare from out of the linen: great they were, and the hands not small; but the arms round and fair, and the hands shapely, and all very white and rosy: her hair was as yellow as any that can be seen, and it was plenteous, and shed all down about her. Her eyes were blue and set wide apart, her nose a little snubbed, her mouth wide, full-lipped and smiling. She was very tall, a full half-head taller than any of her women: yea, as tall as a man who is above the middle height of men.
Now she came forward hastily with long strides, and knelt adown before the Lord, but even as she kneeled looked round with a laughing face. The Lord stooped down to her and took her by both hands, and raised her up, and kissed her on the cheek (and he looked but little and of no presence beside her:) and he said: "Hail to thee, my Lady; thou art come far from thine home to meet me, and I thank thee therefor. Is it well with our House?"
She spake seeming carelessly and loud; but her voice was somewhat husky: "Yea, my Lord, all is well; few have done amiss, and the harvest is plenteous." As she spake the Lord looked with knit brows at the damsels behind her, as if he were seeking something; and the Lady followed his eyes, smiling a little and flushing as if with merriment.
But the Lord was silent a while, and then let his brow clear and said: "Yea, Lady, thou art thanked for coming to meet us; and timely is thy coming, since there is game and glee for thee at hand; I have cheapened a likely thrall of Morfinn the Unmanned, and he is a gift to thee; and he hath given out that he is no ill player with the spear after the fashion of them of the west; and we are going to prove his word here in this meadow presently."
The Lady's face grew glad, and she said, looking toward the ring of new comers: "Yea, Lord, and which of these is he, if he be here?"
The Lord turned a little to point out Ralph, but even therewith the Lady's eyes met Ralph's, who reddened for shame of being so shown to a great lady; but as for her she flushed bright red all over her face and even to her bosom, and trouble came into her eyes, and she looked adown. But the Lord said: "Yonder is the youngling, the swordless one in the green coat; a likely lad, if he hath not lied about his prowess; and he can sing thee a song withal, and tell a piteous tale of old, and do all that those who be reared in the lineages of the westlands deem meet and due for men of knightly blood. Dost thou like the looks of him, lady! wilt thou have him?"
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.