Now when it was hard on noon, and they had lain long in that grassy place, Ralph rose up and stood upon his feet, and made as one listening. But the Lady looked on him and said: “It is naught save a hart and his hind running in the wood; yet mayhappen we were best on the road, for it is yet long.” “Yea,” said Ralph, “and it may be that my master will gather folk and pursue us.” “Nay, nay,” she said, “that were to wrong him, to deem that he would gather folk to follow one man; if he come, he will be by himself alone. When he found us gone he doubtless cast himself on Silverfax, my horse, in trust of the beast following after my feet.”
“Well,” said Ralph, “and if he come alone, there is yet a sword betwixt him and thee.”
She was standing up by him now with her hand on his shoulder, “Hear now the darling, the champion! how he trusteth well in his heart and his right hand. But nay, I have cared for thee well. Hearken, if thou wilt not take it amiss that I tell thee all I do, good or evil. I said a word in the ear of Silverfax or ever I departed, and now the good beast knows my mind, and will lead the fierce lord a little astray, but not too much, lest he follow us with his eager heart and be led by his own keen woodcraft. Indeed, I left the horse behind to that end, else hadst thou ridden the woodland ways with me, instead of my wearying thee by our going afoot; and thou with thy weapons and wargear.”
He looked upon her tenderly, and said smiling: “And thou, my dear, art thou not a little wearied by what should weary a knight and one bred afield?” “Nay,” she said, “seest thou not how I walk lightly clad, whereas I have left behind my mantle and cote-hardie?” Thereat she gathered up her gown into her girdle ready for the way, and smiled as she saw his eyes embrace the loveliness of her feet; and she spake as she moved them daintily on the flowery grass: “Sooth to say, Knight, I am no weakling dame, who cannot move her limbs save in the dance, or to back the white palfrey and ride the meadows, goshawk on wrist; I am both well-knit and light-foot as the Wood-wife and Goddess of yore agone. Many a toil hath gone to that, whereof I may tell thee presently; but now we were best on our way. Yet before we go, I will at least tell thee this, that in my knowing of these woods, there is no sorcery at all; for in the woods, though not in these woods, was I bred; and here also I am at home, as I may say.”
Hand in hand then they went lightly through the hazel copse, and soon was the wood thick about them, but, as before, the Lady led unfalteringly through the thicket paths. Now Ralph spake and said: “It is good that thou lead me whither thou wilt; but this I may say, that it is clear to me that we are not on the way to the Castle of Abundance.” “Even so,” said she; “indeed had I come to thee there, as I was minded, I should presently have brought thee on the way which we are wending now, or one nigh to it; and that is that which leadeth to Hampton under Scaur, and the Fellowship of Champions who dwell on the rock.”
Said Ralph: “It is well; yet will I tell thee the truth, that a little sojourn in that fair house had liked me better. Fain had I been to see thee sitting in thine ivory chair in thy chamber of dais with the walls hung round with thee woven in pictures—wilt thou not tell me in words the story of those pictures? and also concerning the book which I read, which was also of thee?”
“Ah,” she said, “thou hast read in the book—well, I will tell thee the story very soon, and that the more since there are matters written wrong in the book.” Therewith she hurried him on, and her feet seemed never tired, though now, to say sooth, he began to go somewhat heavily.
Then she stayed him, and laughed sweetly in his face, and said: “It is a long while now since the beginning of the June day, and meseems I know thy lack, and the slaking of it lieth somewhat nearer than Hampton under Scaur, which we shall not reach these two days if we go afoot all the way.”
“My lack?” said he; “I lack nought now, that I may not have when I will.” And he put his arms about her shoulders and strained her to his bosom. But she strove with him, and freed herself and laughed outright, and said: “Thou art a bold man, and rash, my knight, even unto me. Yet must I see to it that thou die not of hunger.” He said merrily: “Yea, by St. Nicholas, true it is: a while ago I felt no hunger, and had forgotten that men eat; for I was troubled with much longing, and in doubt concerning my life; but now am I free and happy, and hungry therewithal.”
“Look,” she said, pointing up to the heavens, “it is now past two hours after noon; that is nigh two hours since we left the lawn amidst the hazels, and thou longest to eat, as is but right, so lovely as thou art and young; and I withal long to tell thee something of that whereof thou hast asked me; and lastly, it is the hottest of the day, yea, so hot, that even Diana, the Wood-wife of yore agone, might have fainted somewhat, if she had been going afoot as we twain have been, and little is the risk of our resting awhile. And hereby is a place where rest is good as regards the place, whatever the resters may be; it is a little aside the straightest way, but meseems we may borrow an hour or so of our journey, and hope to pay it back ere nightfall. Come, champion!”
Therewith she led north through a thicket of mingled trees till Ralph heard water running, and anon they came to a little space about a brook, grassy and clear of trees save a few big thorn-bushes, with a green ridge or bank on the other side. There she stayed him and said: “Do off thy war-gear, knight. There is naught to fear here, less than there was amidst the hazels.” So did he, and she kneeled down and drank of the clear water, and washed her face and hands therein, and then came and kissed him and said: “Lovely imp of Upmeads, I have some bread of last night’s meal in my scrip here, and under the bank I shall find some woodland meat withal; abide a little and the tale and the food shall come back to thee together.” Therewith she stepped lightly into the stream, and stood therein a minute to let her naked feet feel the cold ripple (for she had stripped off her foot-gear as she first came to the water), and then went hither and thither gathering strawberries about the bank, while he watched her, blessing her, till he well nigh wept at the thought of his happiness.
Back she came in a little while with good store of strawberries in the lap of her gown, and they sat down on the green lip of the brook, and she drew the bread from her scrip and they ate together, and she made him drink from the hollow of her hands, and kissed him and wept over him for joy, and the eagerness of her love. So at last she sat down quietly beside him, and fell to speaking to him, as a tale is told in the ingle nook on an even of Yule-tide.