Therewithal they gat to horse and rode away through that stony land, wherein was no river, but for water many pools in the bottoms, with little brooks running from them. But after a while they came upon a ridge somewhat high, on the further side whereof was a wide valley well-grassed and with few trees, and no habitation of man that they might see. But a wide river ran down the midst of it; and it was now four hours after noon. Quoth Roger: “The day wears and we shall by no means reach harbour before dark night, even if we do our best: art thou well used to the water, lord?” “Much as a mallard is,” said Ralph. Said Roger: “That is well, for though there is a ford some mile and a half down stream, for that same reason it is the way whereby men mostly cross the water into the wildwood; and here again we are more like to meet foes than well-wishers; or at the least there will be question of who we are, and whence and whither; and we may stumble in our answers.” Said Ralph: “There is no need to tarry, ride we down to the water.”
So did they, and took the water, which was deep, but not swift. On the further side they clomb up a hill somewhat steep; at the crown they drew rein to give their horses breath, and Ralph turned in his saddle and looked down on to the valley, and as aforesaid he was clear-sighted and far-sighted; now he said: “Fellow-farer, I see the riding of folk down below there, and meseems they be spurring toward the water; and they have weapons: there! dost thou not see the gleam?”
“I will take thy word for it, fair sir,” said Roger, “and will even spur, since they be the first men whom we have seen since we left the thickets.” And therewith he went off at a hand gallop, and Ralph followed him without more ado.
They rode up hill and down dale of a grassy downland, till at last they saw a wood before them again, and soon drew rein under the boughs; for now were their horses somewhat wearied. Then said Ralph: “Here have we ridden a fair land, and seen neither house nor herd, neither sheep-cote nor shepherd. I wonder thereat.”
Said Roger: “Thou wouldst wonder the less didst thou know the story of it.” “What story?” said Ralph. Quoth Roger: “A story of war and wasting.” “Yea?” said Ralph, “yet surely some bold knight or baron hath rights in the land, and might be free to build him a strong house and gather men to him to guard the shepherds and husbandmen from burners and lifters.” “Sooth is that,” said Roger; “but there are other things in the tale.” “What things?” said Ralph. Quoth Roger: “Ill hap and sorrow and the Hand of Fate and great Sorcery.” “And dastards withal?” said Ralph. “Even so,” said Roger, “yet mingled with valiant men. Over long is the tale to tell as now, so low as the sun is; so now ride we on with little fear of foemen. For look you, this wood, like the thickets about the Burg of the Four Friths, hath an evil name, and few folk ride it uncompelled; therefore it is the safer for us. And yet I will say this to thee, that whereas awhile agone thou mightest have departed from me with little peril of aught save the stumbling on some of the riders of the Burg of the Four Friths, departing from me now will be a hard matter to thee; for the saints in Heaven only know whitherward thou shouldest come, if thou wert to guide thyself now. This a rough word, but a true one, so help me God and Saint Michael! What sayest thou; art thou content, or wilt thou cast hard words at me again?”
So it was that for all that had come and gone Ralph was light-hearted and happy; so he laughed and said: “Content were I, even if I were not compelled thereto. For my heart tells me of new things, and marvellous and joyous that I shall see ere long.”
“And thine heart lieth not,” said Roger, “for amidst of this wood is the house where we shall have guesting to-night, which will be to thee, belike, the door of life and many marvels. For thence have folk sought ere now to the WELL AT THE WORLD’S END.”
Ralph turned to him sharply and said: “Many times in these few days have I heard that word. Dost thou know the meaning thereof? For as to me I know it not.” Said Roger: “Thou mayest well be as wise as I am thereon: belike men seek to it for their much thriving, and oftenest find it not. Yet have I heard that they be the likeliest with whom all women are in love.”
Ralph held his peace, but Roger noted that he reddened at the word.
Now they got on horseback again, for they had lighted down to breathe their beasts, and they rode on and on, and never was Roger at fault: long was the way and perforce they rested at whiles, so that night fell upon them in the wood, but the moon rose withal. So night being fairly come, they rested a good while, as it would be dawn before moonset. Then they rode on again, till now the summer night grew old and waned, but the wood hid the beginnings of dawn.
At last they came out of the close wood suddenly into an open plain, and now, as the twilight of the dawn was passing into early day, they saw that wide grassy meadows and tilled fields lay before them, with a little river running through the plain; and amidst the meadows, on a green mound, was a white castle, strong, and well built, though not of the biggest.
Roger pointed to it, and said, “Now we are come home,” and cried on his wearied beast, who for his part seemed to see the end of his journey. They splashed through a ford of the river and came to the gate of the castle as day drew on apace; Roger blew a blast on a great horn that hung on the gate, and Ralph looking round deemed he had never seen fairer building than in the castle, what he could see of it, and yet it was built from of old. They waited no long while before they were answered; but whereas Ralph looked to see armed gatewards peer from the battlements or the shot window, and a porter espying them through a lattice, it happened in no such way, but without more ado the wicket was opened to them by a tall old woman, gaunt and grey, who greeted them courteously: Roger lighted down and Ralph did in likewise, and they led their horses through the gate into the court of the castle; the old woman going before them till they came to the hall door, which she opened to them, and taking the reins of their horses led them away to the stable, while those twain entered the hall, which was as goodly as might be. Roger led Ralph up to a board on the dais, whereon there was meat and drink enow, and Ralph made his way-leader sit down by him, and they fell to. There was no serving-man to wait on them nor a carle of any kind did they see; the old woman only, coming back from the horses, served them at table. Ever as she went about she looked long on Ralph, and seemed as if she would have spoken to him, but as often, she glanced at Roger and forbore.
So when they were well nigh done with their meat Ralph spake to the carline and said: “Belike the lord or the lady of this house are abed and we shall not see them till the morrow?”
Ere the carline could speak Roger broke in and said: “There is neither lord nor lady in the castle as now, nor belike will there be to-morrow morning, or rather, before noon on this day; so now ye were better to let this dame lead thee to bed, and let the next hours take care of themselves.”
“So be it,” said Ralph, who was by this time heartily wearied, “shall we two lie in the same chamber?”
“Nay,” said the carline shortly, “lodging for the master and lodging for the man are two different things.”
Roger laughed and said nought, and Ralph gave him good night, and followed the carline nothing loth, who led him to a fair chamber over the solar, as if he had been the very master of the castle, and he lay down in a very goodly bed, nor troubled himself as to where Roger lay, nor indeed of aught else, nor did he dream of Burg, or wood, or castle, or man, or woman; but lay still like the image of his father’s father on the painted tomb in the choir of St. Laurence of Upmeads.