But now when it was morning they struck the tents and laded them on wains, and went their ways the selfsame road that Ralph had been minded for yesterday; to wit the road to Utterness; but now must he ride it unarmed and guarded: other shame had he none. Indeed David, who stuck close to his side all day, was so sugary sweet with him, and praised and encouraged him so diligently, that Ralph began to have misgivings that all this kindness was but as the flower-garlands wherewith the heathen times men were wont to deck the slaughter-beasts for the blood-offering. Yea, and into his mind came certain tales of how there were heathen men yet in the world, who beguiled men and women, and offered them up to their devils, whom they called gods: but all this ran off him soon, when he bethought him how little wisdom there was in running to meet the evil, which might be on the way, and that way a rough and perilous one. So he plucked up heart, and spake freely and gaily with David and one or two others who rode anigh.
They were amidst of the company: the Lord went first after his fore-runners in a litter done about with precious cloths; and two score horsemen came next, fully armed after their manner. Then rode Ralph with David and a half dozen of the magnates: then came a sort of cooks and other serving men, but none without a weapon, and last another score of men-at-arms: so that he saw that fleeing was not to be thought of though he was not bound, and save for lack of weapons rode like a free man.
The day was clear as yesterday had been, wherefore again Ralph saw the distant mountain-top like a cloud; and he gazed at it long till David said: “I see that thou art gazing hard at the mountains, and perchance art longing to be beyond them, were it but to see what like the land is on the further side. If all tales be true thou art best this side thereof, whatever thy lot may be.”
“Lieth death on the other side then?” quoth Ralph. “Yea,” said David, “but that is not all, since he is not asleep elsewhere in the world: but men say that over there are things to be seen which might slay a strong man for pure fear, without stroke of sword or dint of axe.”
“Yea,” said Ralph, “but how was it then with him that builded Goldburg?”
“O,” said David, “hast thou heard that tale? Well, they say of him, who certes went over those mountains, and drank of the Well at the World’s End, that he was one of the lucky: yet for all his luck never had he drunk the draught had he not been helped by one who had learned many things, a woman to wit. For he was one of them with whom all women are in love; and thence indeed was his luck....Moreover, when all is said, ’tis but a tale.”
“Yea,” quoth Ralph laughing, “even as the tales of the ghosts and bugs that abide the wayfarer on the other side of yonder white moveless cloud.”
David laughed in his turn and said: “Thou hast me there; and whether or no, these tales are nothing to us, who shall never leave Utterbol again while we live, save in such a company as this.” Then he held his peace, but presently spake again: “Hast thou heard anything, then, of those tales of the Well at the World’s End? I mean others beside that concerning the lord of Goldburg?”
“Yea, surely I have,” said Ralph, nowise changing countenance. Said David: “Deemest thou aught of them? deemest thou that it may be true that a man may drink of the Well and recover his youth thereby?”
Ralph laughed and said: “Master, it is rather for me to ask thee hereof, than thou me, since thou dwellest so much nigher thereto than I have done heretofore.”
David drew up close to him, and said softly: “Nigher? Yea, but belike not so much nigher.”
“How meanest thou?” said Ralph.
Said David: “Is it so nigh that a man may leave home and come thereto in his life-time?”
“Yea,” said Ralph, “in my tales it is.”
Said the old man still softlier: “Had I deemed that true I had tried the adventure, whatever might lie beyond the mountains, but (and he sighed withal) I deem it untrue.”
Therewith dropped the talk of that matter: and in sooth Ralph was loath to make many words thereof, lest his eagerness shine through, and all the story of him be known.
Anon it was noon, and the lord bade all men stay for meat: so his serving men busied them about his dinner, and David went with them. Then the men-at-arms bade Ralph sit among them and share their meat. So they sat down all by the wayside, and they spake kindly and friendly to Ralph, and especially their captain, a man somewhat low of stature, but long-armed like the Lord, a man of middle age, beardless and spare of body, but wiry and tough-looking, with hair of the hue of the dust of the sandstone quarry. This man fell a-talking with Ralph, and asked him of the manner of tilting and courteous jousting between knights in the countries of knighthood, till that talk dropped between them. Then Ralph looked round upon the land, which had now worsened again, and was little better than rough moorland, little fed, and not at all tilled, and he said: “This is but a sorry land for earth’s increase.”
“Well,” said the captain, “I wot not; it beareth plover and whimbrel and conies and hares; yea, and men withal, some few. And whereas it beareth naught else, that cometh of my lord’s will: for deemest thou that he should suffer a rich land betwixt him and Goldburg, that it might sustain an host big enough to deal with him?”
“But is not this his land?” said Ralph.
Said the captain: “Nay, and also yea. None shall dwell in it save as he willeth, and they shall pay him tribute, be it never so little. Yet some there are of them, who are to him as the hounds be to the hunter, and these same he even wageth, so that if aught rare and goodly cometh their way they shall bring it to his hands; as thou thyself knowest to thy cost.”
“Yea,” said Ralph smiling, “and is Morfinn the Unmanned one of these curs?” “Yea,” said the captain, with a grin, “and one of the richest of them, in despite of his fiddle and minstrel’s gear, and his lack of manhood: for he is one of the cunningest of men. But my Lord unmanned him for some good reason.”
Ralph kept silence and while and then said: “Why doth the Goldburg folk suffer all this felony, robbery and confusion, so near their borders, and the land debateable?”
Said the captain, and again he grinned: “Passing for thy hard words, sir knight, why dost thou suffer me to lead thee along whither thou wouldest not?”
“Because I cannot help myself,” said Ralph.
Said the captain: “Even so it is with the Goldburg folk: if they raise hand against some of these strong-thieves or man-stealers, he has but to send the war-arrow round about these deserts, as ye deem them, and he will presently have as rough a company of carles for his fellows as need be, say ten hundred of them. And the Goldburg folk are not very handy at a fray without their walls. Forsooth within them it is another matter, and beside not even our Lord of Utterbol would see Goldburg broken down, no, not for all that he might win there.”
“Is it deemed a holy place in the land, then?” said Ralph.
“I wot not the meaning of holy,” said the other: “but all we deem that when Goldburg shall fall, the world shall change, so that living therein shall be hard to them that have not drunk of the water of the Well at the World’s End.”
Ralph was silent a while and eyed the captain curiously: then he said: “Have the Goldburgers so drunk?” Said the captain: “Nay, nay; but the word goes that under each tower of Goldburg lieth a youth and a maiden that have drunk of the water, and might not die save by point and edge.”
Then was Ralph silent again, for once more he fell pondering the matter if he had been led away to be offered as a blood offering to some of evil gods of the land. But as he pondered a flourish of trumpets was blown, and all men sprang up, and the captain said to Ralph: “Now hath our Lord done his dinner and we must to horse.” Anon they were on the way again, and they rode long and saw little change in the aspect of the land, neither did that cloudlike token of the distant mountains grow any greater or clearer to Ralph’s deeming.