He woke up while it was yet night, and knew that he had been awakened by a touch; but, like a good hunter and warrior, he forebore to start up or cry out till sleep had so much run off him that he could tell somewhat of what was toward. So now he saw the Lady bending over him, and she said in a kind and very low voice: “Rise up, young man, rise up, Ralph, and say no word, but come with me a little way into the wood ere dawn come, for I have a word for thee.”
So he stood up and was ready to go with her, his heart beating hard for joy and wonder. “Nay,” she whispered, “take thy sword and war-gear lest ill befall: do on thine hauberk; I will be thy squire.” And she held his war-coat out for him to do on. “Now,” she said, still softly, “hide thy curly hair with the helm, gird thy sword to thee, and come without a word.”
Even so he did, and therewithal felt her hand take his (for it was dark as they stepped amidst the trees), and she led him into the Seventh Heaven, for he heard her voice, though it were but a whisper, as it were a caress and a laugh of joy in each word.
She led him along swiftly, fumbling nought with the paths betwixt the pine-tree boles, where it was as dark as dark might be. Every minute he looked to hear her say a word of why she had brought him thither, and that then she would depart from him; so he prayed that the silence and the holding of his hand might last a long while— for he might think of naught save her—and long it lasted forsooth, and still she spake no word, though whiles a little sweet chuckle, as of the garden warbler at his softest, came from her lips, and the ripple of her raiment as her swift feet drave it, sounded loud to his eager ears in the dark, windless wood.
At last, and it was more than half-an-hour of their walking thus, it grew lighter, and he could see the shape of her alongside of him; and still she held his hand and glided on swifter and swifter, as he thought; and soon he knew that outside the wood dawn was giving place to day, and even there, in the wood, it was scarce darker than twilight.
Yet a little further, and it grew lighter still, and he heard the throstles singing a little way off, and knew that they were on the edge of the pine-wood, and still her swift feet sped on till they came to a little grassy wood-lawn, with nought anear it on the side away from the wood save maples and thorn-bushes: it was broad daylight there, though the sun had not yet arisen.
There she let fall his hand and turned about to him and faced him flushed and eager, with her eyes exceeding bright and her lips half open and quivering. He stood beholding her, trembling, what for eagerness, what for fear of her words when he had told her of his desire. For he had now made up his mind to do no less. He put his helm from off his head and laid it down on the grass, and he noted therewith that she had come in her green gown only, and had left mantle and cote hardie behind.
Now he stood up again and was just going to speak, when lo! she put both her palms to her face, and her bosom heaved, and her shoulders were shaken with sobs, and she burst out a weeping, so that the tears ran through her fingers. Then he cast himself on the ground before her, and kissed her feet, and clasped her about the knees, and laid his cheek to her raiment, and fawned upon her, and cried out many an idle word of love, and still she wept a while and spake not. At last she reached her hand down to his face and fondled it, and he let his lips lie on the hand, and she suffered it a while, and then took him by the arm and raised him up and led him on swiftly as before; and he knew not what to do or say, and durst by no means stay her, and could frame no word to ask her wherefore.
So they sped across a waste not much beset with trees, he silent, she never wearying or slacking her pace or faltering as to the way, till they came into the thick wood again, and ever when he would have spoken she hushed him, with “Not yet! Not yet!” Until at last when the sun had been up for some three hours, she led him through a hazel copse, like a deep hedge, into a cleared grassy place where were great grey stones lying about, as if it had been the broken doom-ring of a forgotten folk. There she threw herself down on the grass and buried her face amidst the flowers, and was weeping and sobbing again and he bending over her, till she turned to him and drew him down to her and put her hands to his face, and laid her cheeks all wet with tears to his, and fell to kissing him long and sweetly, so that in his turn he was like to weep for the very sweetness of love.
Then at last she spake: “This is the first word, that now I have brought thee away from death; and so sweet it is to me that I can scarce bear it.”
“Oh, sweet to me,” he said, “for I have waited for thee many days.” And he fell to kissing and clipping her, as one who might not be satisfied. At last she drew herself from him a little, and, turning on him a face smiling with love, she said: “Forbear it a little, till we talk together.” “Yea,” quoth he, “but may I hold thine hand awhile?” “No harm in that,” she said, laughing, and she gave him her hand and spake:
“I spake it that I have brought thee from death, and thou hast asked me no word concerning what and how.” “I will ask it now, then,” said he, “since thou wilt have it so.” She said: “Dost thou think that he would have let thee live?”
“Who,” said he, “since thou lettest me live?”
“He, thy foeman, the Knight of the Sun,” she said. “Why didst thou not flee from him before? For he did not so much desire to slay thee, but that he would have had thee depart; but if thou wert once at his house, he would thrust a sword through thee, or at the least cast thee into his prison and let thee lie there till thy youth be gone—or so it seemed to me,” she said, faltering as she looked on him.
Said Ralph: “How could I depart when thou wert with him? Didst thou not see me there? I was deeming that thou wouldst have me abide.”
She looked upon him with such tender love that he made as if he would cast himself upon her; but she refrained him, and smiled and said: “Ah, yes, I saw thee, and thought not that thou wouldst sunder thyself from me; therefore had I care of thee.” And she touched his cheek with her other hand; and he sighed and knit his brows somewhat, and said: “But who is this man that he should slay me? And why is he thy tyrant, that thou must flee from him?”
She laughed and said: “Fair creature, he is my husband.”
Then Ralph flushed red, and his visage clouded, and he opened his mouth to speak; but she stayed him and said: “Yet is he not so much my husband but that or ever we were bedded he must needs curse me and drive me away from his house.” And she smiled, but her face reddened so deeply that her grey eyes looked strange and light therein.
But Ralph leapt up, and half drew his sword, and cried out loud: “Would God I had slain him! Wherefore could I not slay him?” And he strode up and down the sward before her in his wrath. But she leaned forward to him and laughed and said: “Yet, O Champion, we will not go back to him, for he is stronger than thou, and hath vanquished thee. This is a desert place, but thou art loud, and maybe over loud. Come rest by me.”
So he came and sat down by her, and took her hand again and kissed the wrist therof and fondled it and said: “Yea, but he desireth thee sorely; that was easy to see. It was my ill-luck that I slew him not.”
She stroked his face again and said: “Long were the tale if I told thee all. After he had driven me out, and I had fled from him, he fell in with me again divers times, as was like to be; for his brother is the Captain of the Dry Tree; the tall man whom thou hast seen with me: and every time this baron hath come on me he has prayed my love, as one who would die despaired if I granted it not, but O my love with the bright sword” (and she kissed his cheek therewith, and fondled his hand with both her hands), “each time I said him nay, I said him nay.” And again her face burned with blushes.
“And his brother,” said Ralph, “the big captain that I have come across these four times, doth he desire thee also?” She laughed and said: “But as others have, no more: he will not slay any man for my sake.”
Said Ralph: “Didst thou wot that I was abiding thy coming at the Castle of Abundance?” “Yea,” she said, “have I not told thee that I bade Roger lead thee thither?” Then she said softly: “That was after that first time we met; after I had ridden away on the horse of that butcher whom thou slayedst.”
“But why camest thou so late?” said he; “Wouldst thou have come if I had abided there yet?” She said: “What else did I desire but to be with thee? But I set out alone looking not for any peril, since our riders had gone to the north against them of the Burg: but as I drew near to the Water of the Oak, I fell in with my husband and that other man; and this time all my naysays were of no avail, and whatsoever I might say he constrained me to go with them; but straightway they fell out together, and fought, even as thou sawest.” And she looked at him sweetly, and as frankly as if he had been naught but her dearest brother.
But he said: “It was concerning thee that they fought: hast thou known the Black Knight for long?”
“Yea,” she said, “I may not hide that he hath loved me: but he hath also betrayed me. It was through him that the Knight of the Sun drave me from him. Hearken, for this concerneth thee: he made a tale of me of true and false mingled, that I was a wise-wife and an enchantress, and my lord trowed in him, so that I was put to shame before all the house, and driven forth wrung with anguish, barefoot and bleeding.”
He looked and saw pain and grief in her face, as it had been the shadow of that past time, and the fierceness of love in him so changed his face, that she arose and drew a little way from him, and stood there gazing at him. But he also rose and knelt before her, and reached up for her hands and took them in his and said: “Tell me truly, and beguile me not; for I am a young man, and without guile, and I love thee, and would have thee for my speech-friend, what woman soever may be in the world. Whatever thou hast been, what art thou now? Art thou good or evil? Wilt thou bless me or ban me? For it is the truth that I have heard tales and tales of thee: many were good, though it maybe strange; but some, they seemed to warn me of evil in thee. O look at me, and see if I love thee or not! and I may not help it. Say once for all, shall that be for my ruin or my bliss? If thou hast been evil, then be good this one time and tell me.”
She neither reddened now, nor paled at his words, but her eyes filled with tears, and ran over, and she looked down on him as a woman looks on a man that she loves from the heart’s root, and she said: “O my lord and love, may it be that thou shalt find me no worse to thee than the best of all those tales. Forsooth how shall I tell thee of myself, when, whatever I say, thou shalt believe every word I tell thee? But O my heart, how shouldest thou, so sweet and fair and good, be taken with the love of an evil thing? At the least I will say this, that whatsoever I have been, I am good to thee—I am good to thee, and will be true to thee.”
He drew her down to him as he knelt there, and took his arms about her, and though she yet shrank from him a little and the eager flame of his love, he might not be gainsayed, and she gave herself to him and let her body glide into his arms, and loved him no less than he loved her. And there between them in the wilderness was all the joy of love that might be.