Ralph stayed her speech now, and said: “When I asked of thee in the Land of Abundance, there were some who seemed to say that thou hast let more men love thee than one: and it was a torment to me to think that even so it might be. But now when thine own mouth telleth me of one of them it irks me little. Dost thou think it little-hearted in me?”
“O friend,” she said, “I see that so it is with thee that thou wouldst find due cause for loving me, whatever thou foundest true of me. Or dost thou deem that I was another woman in those days? Nay, I was not: I can see myself still myself all along the way I have gone.” She was silent a little, and then she said: “Fear not, I will give thee much cause to love me. But now I know thy mind the better, I shall tell thee less of what befell me after I left the wilderness; for whatever I did and whatever I endured, still it was always I myself that was there, and it is me that thou lovest. Moreover, my life in the wilderness is a stranger thing to tell thee of than my dealings with the folk, and with Kings and Barons and Knights. But thereafter thou shalt hear of me what tales thou wilt of these matters, as the days and the years pass over our heads.
“Now on the morrow we would not depart at once, because there we had some victual, and the king’s son was not yet so well fed as he should be; so we abode in that fair place another day, and then we went our ways westward, according to the rede of the carline; and it was many days before we gat us out of the wilderness, and we were often hard put to it for victual; whiles I sat behind my knight a-horseback, whiles he led the beast while I rode alone, and not seldom I went afoot, and that nowise slowly, while he rode the white horse, for I was as light-foot then as now.
“And of the way we went I will tell thee nought as now, because sure it is that if we both live, thou and I shall tread that road together, but with our faces turned the other way; for it is the road from the Well at the World’s End, where I myself have been, or else never had thine eyes fallen on me.”
Ralph said, “Even so much I deemed by reading in the book; yet it was not told clearly that thou hadst been there.” “Yea,” she said, because the said book was made not by my friends but my foes, and they would have men deem that my length of days and the endurance of my beauty and never-dying youth of my heart came from evil and devilish sources; and if thou wilt trust my word it is not so, for in the Well at the World’s End is no evil, but only the Quenching of Sorrow, and Clearing of the Eyes that they may behold. And how good it is that they look on thee now. And moreover, the history of that book is partly false of intention and ill-will, and partly a confused medley of true and false, which has come of mere chance-hap.
“Hearken now,” she said, “till I tell thee in few word what befell me before I came to drink the Water of the Well. After we had passed long deserts of wood and heath, and gone through lands exceeding evil and perilous, and despaired of life for the horror of those places, and seen no men, we came at last amongst a simple folk who dealt kindly with us, yea, and more. These folk seemed to me happy and of good wealth, though to my lord they seemed poor and lacking of the goods of the world. Forsooth, by that time we lacked more than they, for we were worn with cold and hunger, and hard life: though for me, indeed, happy had been the days of my wayfaring, but my lord remembered the days of his riches and the kingdom of his father, and the worship of mighty men, and all that he had promised me on the happy day when I first beheld him: so belike he was scarce so happy as I was.
“It was springtime when we came to that folk; for we had worn through the autumn and winter in getting clear of the wilderness. Not that the way was long, as I found out afterwards, but that we went astray in the woodland, and at last came out of it into a dreadful stony waste which we strove to cross thrice, and thrice were driven back into the greenwood by thirst and hunger; but the fourth time, having gotten us store of victual by my woodcraft, we overpassed it and reached the peopled country.
“Yea, spring was on the earth, as we, my lord and I, came down from the desolate stony heaths, and went hand and hand across the plain, where men and women of that folk were feasting round about the simple roofs and woodland halls which they had raised there. Then they left their games and sports and ran to us, and we walked on quietly, though we knew not whether the meeting was to be for death or life. But that kind folk gathered round us, and asked us no story till they had fed us, and bathed us, and clad us after their fashion. And then, despite the nakedness and poverty wherein they had first seen us, they would have it that we were gods sent down to them from the world beyond the mountains by their fathers of old time; for of Holy Church, and the Blessed Trinity, and the Mother of God they knew no more than did I at that time, but were heathen, as the Gentiles of yore agone. And even when we put all that Godhood from us, and told them as we might and could what we were (for we had no heart to lie to such simple folk), their kindness abated nothing, and they bade us abide there, and were our loving friends and brethren.
“There in sooth had I been content to abide till eld came upon me, but my lord would not have it so, but longed for greater things for me. Though in sooth to me it seemed as if his promise of worship of me by the folk had been already fulfilled; for when we had abided there some while, and our beauty, which had been marred by the travail of our way-faring, had come back to us in full, or it maybe increased somewhat, they did indeed deal with us with more love than would most men with the saints, were they to come back on the earth again; and their children would gather round about me and make me a partaker of their sports, and be loth to leave me; and the faces of their old folk would quicken and gladden when I drew nigh: and as for their young men, it seemed of them that they loved the very ground that my feet trod on, though it grieved me that I could not pleasure some of them in such wise as they desired. And all this was soft and full of delight for my soul: and I, whose body a little while ago had been driven to daily toil with evil words and stripes, and who had known not what words of thanks and praise might mean!
“But so it must be that we should depart, and the kind folk showed us how sore their hearts were of our departure, but they gainsaid us in nowise, but rather furthered us all they might, and we went our ways from them riding on horned neat (for they knew not of horses), and driving one for a sumpter beast before us; and they had given us bows and arrows for our defence, and that we might get us venison.
“It is not to be said that we did not encounter perils; but thereof I will tell thee naught as now. We came to other peoples, richer and mightier than these, and I saw castles, and abbies, and churches, and walled towns, and wondered at them exceedingly. And in these places folk knew of the kingdom of my lord and his father, and whereas they were not of his foes (who lay for the more part on the other side of his land), and my lord could give sure tokens of what he was, we were treated with honour and worship, and my lord began to be himself again, and to bear him as a mighty man. And here to me was some gain in that poverty and nakedness wherewith we came out of the mountains and the raiment of the simple folk; for had I been clad in my poor cloth and goat-skins of the House of the Sorcerer, and he in his brave attire and bright armour, they would have said, it is a thrall that he is assotted of, and would have made some story and pretence of taking me from him; but they deemed me a great lady indeed, and a king’s daughter, according to the tale that he told them. Forsooth many men that saw me desired me beyond measure, and assuredly some great proud man or other would have taken me from my lord, but that they feared the wrath of his father, who was a mighty man indeed.
“Yea, one while as we sojourned by a certain town but a little outside the walls, a certain young man, a great champion and exceeding masterful, came upon me with his squires as I was walking in the meadows, and bore me off, and would have taken me to his castle, but that my lord followed with a few of the burghers, and there was a battle fought, wherein my lord was hurt; but the young champion he slew; and I cannot say but l was sorry of his death, though glad of my deliverance.
“Again, on a time we guested in a great baron’s house, who dealt so foully by us that he gave my lord a sleeping potion in his good-night cup, and came to me in the dead night and required me of my love; and I would not, and he threatened me sorely, and called me a thrall and a castaway that my lord had picked up off the road: but I gat a knife in my hand and was for warding myself when I saw that my lord might not wake: so the felon went away for that time. But on the morrow came two evil men into the hall whom he had suborned, and bore false witness that I was a thrall and a runaway. So that the baron would have held me there (being a mighty man) despite my lord and his wrath and his grief, had not a young knight of his house been, who swore that he would slay him unless he let us go; and whereas there were other knights and squires there present who murmured, the baron was in a way compelled. So we departed, and divers of the said knights and squires went with us to see us safe on the way.
“But this was nigh to the kingdom of my lord’s father, and that felon baron I came across again, and he was ever after one of my worst foes.
“Moreover, that young champion who had first stood up in the hall rode with us still, when the others had turned back; and I soon saw of him that he found it hard to keep his eyes off me; and that also saw my lord, and it was a near thing that they did not draw sword thereover: yet was that knight no evil man, but good and true, and I was exceedingly sorry for him; but I could not help him in the only way he would take help of me.
“Lo you, my friend, the beginnings of evil in those long past days, and the seeds of ill-hap sown in the field of my new life even before the furrow was turned.
“Well, we came soon into my lord’s country, and fair and rich and lovely was it in those days; free from trouble and unpeace, a happy abode for the tillers of the soil, and the fashioners of wares. The tidings had gone to the king that my lord was come back, and he came to meet him with a great company of knights and barons, arrayed in the noblest fashion that such folk use; so that I was bewildered with their glory, and besought my lord to let me fall back out of the way, and perchance he might find me again. But he bade me ride on his right hand, for that I was the half of his life and his soul, and that my friends were his friends and my foes his foes.
“Then there came to me an inkling of the things that should befall, and I saw that the sweet and clean happiness of my new days was marred, and had grown into something else, and I began to know the pain of strife and the grief of confusion: but whereas I had not been bred delicately, but had endured woes and griefs from my youngest days, I was not abashed, but hardened my heart to face all things, even as my lord strove to harden his heart: for, indeed, I said to myself that if I was to him as the half of his life, he was to me little less than the whole of my life.
“It is as if it had befallen yesterday, my friend, that I call to mind how we stood beside our horses in the midst of the ring of great men clad in gold and gleaming with steel, in the meadow without the gates, the peace and lowly goodliness whereof with its flocks and herds feeding, and husbandmen tending the earth and its increase, that great and noble array had changed so utterly. There we stood, and I knew that the eyes of all those lords and warriors were set upon me wondering. But the love of my lord and the late-learned knowledge of my beauty sustained me. Then the ring of men opened, and the king came forth towards us; a tall man and big, of fifty-five winters, goodly of body and like to my lord to look upon. He cast his arms about my lord, and kissed him and embraced him, and then stood a little aloof from him and said: ‘Well, son, hast thou found it, the Well at the World’s End?’
“‘Yea,’ said my lord, and therewith lifted my hand to his lips and kissed it, and I looked the king in his face, and his eyes were turned to me, but it was as if he were looking through me at something behind me.
“Then he said: ‘It is good, son: come home now to thy mother and thy kindred.’ Then my lord turned to me while the king took no heed, and no man in the ring of knights moved from his place, and he set me in the saddle, and turned about to mount, and there came a lord from the ring of men gloriously bedight, and he bowed lowly before my lord, and held his stirrup for him: but lightly he leapt up into the saddle, and took my reins and led me along with him, so that he and the king and I went on together, and all the baronage and their folk shouted and tossed sword and spear aloft and followed after us. And we left the meadow quiet and simple again, and rode through the gate of the king’s chief city, wherein was his high house and his castle, the dwelling-place of his kindred from of old.