They rode not above a dozen miles that day, and pitched their tents and pavilions in the fair meadows by the wayside looking into the thick of the forest. There this betid to tell of, that when Ralph got off his horse, and the horse-lads were gathered about the men-at-arms and high folk, who should take Ralph’s horse but Redhead, who made a sign to him by lifting his eyebrows as if he were asking him somewhat; and Ralph took it as a question as to whether his purpose held to flee on the morrow night; so he nodded a yeasay, just so much as Redhead might note it; and naught else befell betwixt them.
When it was barely dawn after that night, Ralph awoke with the sound of great stir in the camp, and shouting of men and lowing and bleating of beasts; so he looked out, and saw that the wains and the flocks and herds were being got on to the road, so that they might make good way before the company of the camp took the road. But he heeded it little and went to sleep again.
When it was fully morning he arose, and found that the men were not hastening their departure, but were resting by the wood-side and disporting them about the meadow; so he wandered about amongst the men-at-arms and serving-men, and came across Redhead and hailed him; and there was no man very nigh to them; so Redhead looked about him warily, and then spake swiftly and softly: “Fail not to-night! fail not! For yesterday again was I told by one who wotteth surely, what abideth thee at Utterbol if thou go thither. I say if thou fail, thou shalt repent but once—all thy life long to wit.”
Ralph nodded his head, and said: “Fear not, I will not fail thee.” And therewith they turned away from each other lest they should be noted.
About two hours before noon they got to horse again, and, being no more encumbered with the wains and the beasts, rode at a good pace. As on the day before the road led them along the edge of the wildwood, and whiles it even went close to the very thicket. Whiles again they mounted somewhat, and looked down on the thicket, leagues and leagues thereof, which yet seemed but a little space because of the hugeness of the mountain wall which brooded over it; but oftenest the forest hid all but the near trees.
Thus they rode some twenty miles, and made stay at sunset in a place that seemed rather a clearing of the wood than a meadow; for they had trees on their left hand at a furlong’s distance, as well as on their right at a stone’s throw.
Ralph saw not Redhead as he got off his horse, and David according to his wont went with him to his tent. But after they had supped together, and David had made much of Ralph, and had drank many cups to his health, he said to him: “The night is yet young, yea, but new-born; yet must I depart from thee, if I may, to meet a man who will sell me a noble horse good cheap; and I may well leave thee now, seeing that thou hast become a free man; so I bid thee goodnight.”
Therewith he departed, and was scarce gone out ere Redhead cometh in, and saith in his wonted rough loud voice: “Here, knight, here is the bridle thou badest me get mended; will the cobbling serve?” Then seeing no one there, he fell to speaking softer and said: “I heard the old pimp call thee a free man e’en now: I fear me that thou art not so free as he would have thee think. Anyhow, were I thou, I would be freer in two hours space. Is it to be so?”
“Yea, yea,” said Ralph. Redhead nodded: “Good is that,” said he; “I say in two hours’ time all will be quiet, and we are as near the thicket as may be; there is no moon, but the night is fair and the stars clear; so all that thou hast to do is to walk out of this tent, and turn at once to thy right hand: come out with me now quietly, and I will show thee.”
They went out together and Redhead said softly: “Lo thou that doddered oak yonder; like a piece of a hay-rick it looks under the stars; if thou seest it, come in again at once.”
Ralph turned and drew Redhead in, and said when they were in the tent again: “Yea, I saw it: what then?”
Said Redhead: “I shall be behind it abiding thee.” “Must I go afoot?” said Ralph, “or how shall I get me a horse?” “I have a horse for thee,” said Redhead, “not thine own, but a better one yet, that hath not been backed to-day. Now give me a cup of wine, and let me go.”
Ralph filled for him and took a cup himself, and said: “I pledge thee, friend, and wish thee better luck; and I would have thee for my fellow in this quest.”
“Nay,” said Redhead, “it may not be: I will not burden thy luck with my ill-luck...and moreover I am seeking something which I may gain at Utterbol, and if I have it, I may do my best to say good-night to that evil abode.”
“Yea,” said Ralph, “and I wish thee well therein.” Said Redhead, stammering somewhat; “It is even that woman of the Queen’s whereof I told thee. And now one last word, since I must not be over long in thy tent, lest some one come upon us. But, fair sir, if thy mind misgive thee for this turning aside from Utterbol; though it is not to be doubted that the damsel whom thou seekest hath been there, it is not all so sure that thou wouldst have found her there. For of late, what with my Lord and my Lady being both away, the place hath been scant of folk; and not only is the said damsel wise and wary, but there be others who have seen her besides my Lord, and who so hath seen her is like to love her; and such is she, that whoso loveth her is like to do her will. So I bid thee in all case be earnest in thy quest; and think that if thou die on the road thy damsel would have died for thee; and if thou drink of the Well and come back whole and safe, I know not why thou shouldest not go straight to Utterbol and have the damsel away with thee, whosoever gainsay it. For they (if there be any such) who have drunk of the Well at the World’s End are well looked to in this land. Now one more word yet; when I come to Utterbol, if thy damsel be there still, fear not but I will have speech of her, and tell of thee, and what thou wert looking to, and how thou deemedst of her.”
Therewith he turned and departed hastily.
But Ralph left alone was sorely moved with hope and fear, and a longing that grew in him to see the damsel. For though he was firmly set on departure, and on seeking the sage aforesaid, yet his heart was drawn this way and that: and it came into his mind how the damsel would fare when the evil Lord came home to Utterbol; and he could not choose but make stories of her meeting of the tyrant, and her fear and grief and shame, and the despair of her heart. So the minutes went slow to him, till he should be in some new place and doing somewhat toward bringing about the deliverance of her from thralldom, and the meeting of him and her.