He went to and fro that day and the next, and none meddled with him; with Redhead he spake not again those days, but had talk with Otter and David, who were blithe enough with him. Agatha he saw not at all; nor the Lady, and still deemed that the white-skinned woman whom he had seen sitting by the Lord after the tilting was the Queen.
As for the Lady she abode in her pavilion, and whiles lay in a heap on the floor weeping, or dull and blind with grief; whiles she walked up and down mad wroth with whomsoever came in her way, even to the dealing out of stripes and blows to her women.
But on the eve before the day of departure Agatha came into her, and chid her, and bade her be merry: “I have seen the Lord and told him what I would, and found it no hard matter to get him to yeasay our plot, which were hard to carry out without his goodwill. Withal the seed that I have sowed two days or more ago is bearing fruit; so that thou mayst look to it that whatsoever plight we may be in, we shall find a deliverer.”
“I wot not thy meaning,” quoth the Lady, “but I deem thou wilt now tell me what thou art planning, and give me some hope, lest I lay hands on myself.”
Then Agatha told her without tarrying what she was about doing for her, the tale of which will be seen hereafter; and when she had done, the Lady mended her cheer, and bade bring meat and drink, and was once more like a great and proud Lady.
On the morn of departure, when Ralph arose, David came to him and said: “My Lord is astir already, and would see thee for thy good.” So Ralph went with David, who brought him to the Tower, and there they found the Lord sitting in a window, and Otter stood before him, and some others of his highest folk. But beside him sat Joyce, and it seemed that he thought it naught but good to hold her hand and play with the fingers thereof, though all those great men were by; and Ralph had no thought of her but that she was the Queen.
So Ralph made obeisance to the Lord and stood awaiting his word; and the Lord said: “We have been thinking of thee, young man, and have deemed thy lot to be somewhat of the hardest, if thou must needs be a thrall, since thou art both young and well-born, and so good a man of thine hands. Now, wilt thou be our man at Utterbol?”
Ralph delayed his answer a space and looked at Otter, who seemed to him to frame a Yea with his lips, as who should say, take it. So he said: “Lord, thou art good to me, yet mayst thou be better if thou wilt.”
“Yea, man!” said the Lord knitting his brows; “What shall it be? say thy say, and be done with it.”
“Lord,” said Ralph, “I pray thee to give me my choice, whether I shall go with thee to Utterbol or forbear going?”
“Why, lo you!” said the Lord testily, and somewhat sourly; “thou hast the choice. Have I not told thee that thou art free?” Then Ralph knelt before him, and said: “Lord, I thank thee from a full heart, in that thou wilt suffer me to depart on mine errand, for it is a great one.” The scowl deepened on the Lord’s face, and he turned away from Ralph, and said presently: “Otter take the Knight away and let him have all his armour and weapons and a right good horse; and then let him do as he will, either ride with us, or depart if he will, and whither he will. And if he must needs ride into the desert, and cast himself away in the mountains, so be it. But whatever he hath a mind to, let none hinder him, but further him rather; hearest thou? take him with thee.”
Then was Ralph overflowing with thanks, but the Lord heeded him naught, but looked askance at him and sourly. And he rose up withal, and led the damsel by the hand into another chamber; and she minced in her gait and leaned over to the Lord and spake softly in his ear and laughed, and he laughed in his turn and toyed with her neck and shoulders.
But the great men turned and went their ways from the Tower, and Ralph went with Otter and was full of glee, and as merry as a bird. But Otter looked on him, and said gruffly: “Yea now, thou art like a song-bird but newly let out of his cage. But I can see the string which is tied to thy leg, though thou feelest it not.”
“Why, what now?” quoth Ralph, making as though he were astonished. “Hearken,” said Otter: “there is none nigh us, so I will speak straight out; for I love thee since the justing when we tried our might together. If thou deemest that thou art verily free, ride off on the backward road when we go forward; I warrant me thou shalt presently meet with an adventure, and be brought in a captive for the second time.” “How then,” said Ralph, “hath not the Lord good will toward me?”
Said Otter: “I say not that he is now minded to do thee a mischief for cruelty’s sake; but he is minded to get what he can out of thee. If he use thee not for the pleasuring of his wife (so long as her pleasure in thee lasteth) he will verily use thee for somewhat else. And to speak plainly, I now deem that he will make thee my mate, to use with me, or against me as occasion may serve; so thou shalt be another captain of his host.” He laughed withal, and said again: “But if thou be not wary, thou wilt tumble off that giddy height, and find thyself a thrall once more, and maybe a gelding to boot.” Now waxed Ralph angry and forgat his prudence, and said: “Yea, but how shall he use me when I am out of reach of his hand?” “Oho, young man,” said Otter, “whither away then, to be out of his reach?”
“Why,” quoth Ralph still angrily, “is thy Lord master of all the world?” “Nay,” said the captain, “but of a piece there of. In short, betwixt Utterbol and Goldburg, and Utterbol and the mountains, and Utterbol and an hundred miles north, and an hundred miles south, there is no place where thou canst live, no place save the howling wilderness, and scarcely there either, where he may not lay hand on thee if he do but whistle. What, man! be not downhearted! come with us to Utterbol, since thou needs must. Be wise, and then the Lord shall have no occasion against thee; above all, beware of crossing him in any matter of a woman. Then who knows” (and here he sunk his voice well nigh to a whisper) “but thou and I together may rule in Utterbol and make better days there.”
Ralph was waxen master of himself by now, and was gotten wary indeed, so he made as if he liked Otter’s counsel well, and became exceeding gay; for indeed the heart within him was verily glad at the thought of his escaping from thralldom; for more than ever now he was fast in his mind to flee at the time appointed by Redhead.
So Otter said: “Well, youngling, I am glad that thou takest it thus, for I deem that if thou wert to seek to depart, the Lord would make it an occasion against thee.”
“Such an occasion shall he not have, fellow in arms,” quoth Ralph. “But tell me, we ride presently, and I suppose are bound for Utterness by the shortest road?” “Yea,” said Otter, “and anon we shall come to the great forest which lieth along our road all the way to Utterness and beyond it; for the town is, as it were, an island in the sea of woodland which covers all, right up to the feet of the Great Mountains, and does what it may to climb them whereso the great wall or its buttresses are anywise broken down toward our country; but the end of it lieth along our road, as I said, and we do but skirt it. A woeful wood it is, and save for the hunting of the beasts, which be there in great plenty, with wolves and bears, yea, and lions to boot, which come down from the mountains, there is no gain in it. No gain, though forsooth they say that some have found it gainful.”
“How so?” said Ralph. Said Otter: “That way lieth the way to the Well at the World’s End, if one might find it. If at any time we were clear of Utterbol, I have a mind for the adventure along with thee, lad, and so I deem hast thou from all the questions thou hast put to me thereabout.”
Ralph mastered himself so that his face changed not, and he said: “Well, Captain, that may come to pass; but tell me, are there any tokens known whereby a man shall know that he is on the right path to the Well?”
“The report of folk goeth,” said Otter, “concerning one token, where is the road and the pass through the Great Mountains, to wit, that on the black rock thereby is carven the image of a Fighting Man, or monstrous giant, of the days long gone by. Of other signs I can tell thee naught; and few of men are alive that can. But there is a Sage dwelleth in the wood under the mountains to whom folk seek for his diverse lore; and he, if he will, say men, can set forth all the way, and its perils, and how to escape them. Well, knight, when the time comes, thou and I will go find him together, for he at least is not hard to find, and if he be gracious to us, then will we on our quest. But as now, see ye, they have struck our tents and the Queen’s pavilion also; so to horse, is the word.”
“Yea,” quoth Ralph, looking curiously toward the place where the Queen’s pavilion had stood; “is not yonder the Queen’s litter taking the road?” “Yea, surely,” said Otter.
“Then the litter will be empty,” said Ralph. “Maybe, or maybe not,” said Otter; “but now I must get me gone hastily to my folk; doubtless we shall meet upon the road to Utterbol.”
So he turned and went his ways; and Ralph also ran to his horse, whereby was David already in the saddle, and so mounted, and the whole rout moved slowly from out of Vale Turris, Ralph going ever by David. The company was now a great one, for many wains were joined to them, laden with meal, and fleeces, and other household stuff, and withal there was a great herd of neat, and of sheep, and of goats, which the Lord’s men had been gathering in the fruitful country these two days; but the Lord was tarrying still in the tower.