Now was the night worn to the time appointed, for it was two hours after midnight, so he stepped out of his tent clad in all his war gear, and went straight to the doddered oak, and found Redhead there with but one horse, whereby Ralph knew that he held to his purpose of going his ways to Utterbol: so he took him by the shoulders and embraced him, rough carle as he was, and Redhead kneeled to him one moment of time and then arose and went off into the night. But Ralph got a-horseback without delay and rode his ways warily across the highway and into the wood, and there was none to hinder him. Though it was dark but for the starlight, there was a path, which the horse, and not Ralph, found, so that he made some way even before the first glimmer of dawn, all the more as the wood was not very thick after the first mile, and there were clearings here and there.
So rode Ralph till the sun was at point to rise, and he was about the midst of one of those clearings or wood-lawns, on the further side whereof there was more thicket, as he deemed, then he had yet come to; so he drew rein and looked about him for a minute. Even therewith he deemed he heard a sound less harsh than the cry of the jay in the beech-trees, and shriller than the moaning of the morning breeze in the wood. So he falls to listening with both ears, and this time deems that he hears the voice of a woman: and therewith came into his mind that old and dear adventure of the Wood Perilous; for he was dreamy with the past eagerness of his deeds, and the long and lonely night. But yet he doubted somewhat of the voice when it had passed his ears, so he shook his rein, for he thought it not good to tarry.
Scarce then had his horse stepped out, ere there came a woman running out of the thicket before him and made toward him over the lawn. So he gat off his horse at once and went to meet her, leading his horse; and as he drew nigh he could see that she was in a sorry plight; she had gathered up her skirts to run the better, and her legs and feet were naked: the coif was gone from her head and her black hair streamed out behind her: her gown was rent about the shoulders and bosom, so that one sleeve hung tattered, as if by the handling of some one.
So she ran up to him crying out: “Help, knight, help us!” and sank down therewith at his feet panting and sobbing. He stooped down to her, and raised her up, and said in a kind voice: “What is amiss, fair damsel, that thou art in such a plight; and what may I for thine avail? Doth any pursue thee, that thou fleest thus?”
She stood sobbing awhile, and then took hold of his two hands and said: “O fair lord, come now and help my lady! for as for me, since I am with thee, I am safe.”
“Yea,” said he, “Shall I get to horse at once?” And I therewith he made as if he would move away from her; but she still held his hands, and seemed to think it good so to do, and she spake not for a while but gazed earnestly into his face. She was a fair woman, dark and sleek and lithe...for in good sooth she was none other than Agatha, who is afore told of.
Now Ralph is somewhat abashed by her eagerness, and lets his eyes fall before hers; and he cannot but note that despite the brambles and briars of the wood that she had run through, there were no scratches on her bare legs, and that her arm was unbruised where the sleeve had been rent off.
At last she spake, but somewhat slowly, as if she were thinking of what she had to say: “O knight, by thy knightly oath I charge thee come to my lady and help and rescue her: she and I have been taken by evil men, and I fear that they will put her to shame, and torment her, ere they carry her off; for they were about tying her to a tree when I escaped: for they heeded not me who am but the maid, when they had the mistress in their hands.” “Yea,” said he, “and who is thy mistress?” Said the damsel: “She is the Lady of the Burnt Rock; and I fear me that these men are of the Riders of Utterbol; and then will it go hard with her; for there is naught but hatred betwixt my lord her husband and the tyrant of Utterbol.” Said Ralph: “And how many were they?” “O but three, fair sir, but three,” she said; “and thou so fair and strong, like the war-god himself.”
Ralph laughed: “Three to one is long odds,” quoth he, “but I will come with thee when thou hast let go my hands so that I may mount my horse. But wilt thou not ride behind me, fair damsel; so wearied and spent as thou wilt be by thy night.”
She looked on him curiously, and laid a hand on his breast, and the hauberk rings tinkled beneath the broidered surcoat; then she said: “Nay, I had best go afoot before thee, so disarrayed as I am.”
Then she let him go, but followed him still with her eyes as he gat him into the saddle. She walked on beside his horse’s head; and Ralph marvelled of her that for all her haste she had been in, she went somewhat leisurely, picking her way daintily so as to tread the smooth, and keep her feet from the rough.
Thus they went on, into the thicket and through it, and the damsel put the thorns and briars aside daintily as she stepped, and went slower still till they came to a pleasant place of oak-trees with greensward beneath them; and then she stopped, and turning, faced Ralph, and spoke with another voice than heretofore, whereas there was naught rueful or whining therein, but somewhat both of glee and of mocking as it seemed. “Sir knight,” she said, “I have a word or two for thy ears; and this is a pleasant place, and good for us to talk together, whereas it is neither too near to her, nor too far from her, so that I can easily find my way back to her. Now, lord, I pray thee light down and listen to me.” And therewith she sat down on the grass by the bole of a great oak.
“But thy lady,” said Ralph, “thy lady?” “O sir,” she said; “My lady shall do well enough: she is not tied so fast, but she might loose herself if the need were pressing. Light down, dear lord, light down!”
But Ralph sat still on his horse, and knit his brows, and said: “What is this, damsel? hast thou been playing a play with me? Where is thy lady whom thou wouldst have me deliver? If this be but game and play, let me go my ways; for time presses, and I have a weighty errand on hand.”
She rose up and came close to him, and laid a hand on his knee and looked wistfully into his face as she said: “Nay then, I can tell thee all the tale as thou sittest in thy saddle; for meseems short will be thy farewell when I have told it.” And she sighed withal.
Then Ralph was ashamed to gainsay her, and she now become gentle and sweet and enticing, and sad withal; so he got off his horse and tied him to a tree, and went and stood by the damsel as she lay upon the grass, and said: “I prithee tell thy tale and let me depart if there be naught for me to do.”
Then she said: “This is the first word, that as to the Red Rock, I lied; and my lady is the Queen of Utterbol, and I am her thrall, and it is I who have drawn thee hither from the camp.”
The blood mounted to Ralph’s brow for anger; when he called to mind how he had been led hither and thither on other folk’s errands ever since he left Upmeads. But he said naught, and Agatha looked on him timidly and said: “I say I am her thrall, and I did it to serve her and because she bade me.” Said Ralph roughly: “And Redhead, him whom I saved from torments and death; dost thou know him? didst thou know him?”
“Yea,” she said, “I had from him what he had learned concerning thee from the sergeants and others, and then I put words into his mouth.” “Yea then,” quoth Ralph, “then he also is a traitor!” “Nay, nay,” she said, “he is a true man and loveth thee, and whatever he hath said to thee he troweth himself. Moreover, I tell thee here and now that all that he told thee of the affairs of Utterbol, and thine outlook there, is true and overtrue.”
She sprang to her feet therewith, and stood before him and clasped her hands before him and said: “I know that thou seekest the Well at the World’s End and the deliverance of the damsel whom the Lord ravished from the wild man: now I swear it by thy mouth, that if thou go to Utterbol thou art undone and shalt come to the foulest pass there, and moreover that so going thou shalt bring the uttermost shame and torments on the damsel.”
Said Ralph: “Yea, but what is her case as now? tell me.”
Quoth Agatha: “She is in no such evil case; for my lady hateth her not as yet, or but little; and, which is far more, my lord loveth her after his fashion, and withal as I deem feareth her; for though she hath utterly gainsaid his desire, he hath scarce so much as threatened her. A thing unheard of. Had it been another woman she had by this time known all the bitterness that leadeth unto death at Utterbol.” Ralph paled and he scowled on her, then he said: “And how knowest thou all the privity of the Lord of Utterbol? who telleth thee of all this?” She smiled and spake daintily: “Many folk tell me that which I would know; and that is because whiles I conquer the tidings with my wits, and whiles buy it with my body. Anyhow what I tell thee is the very sooth concerning this damsel, and this it is: that whereas she is but in peril, she shall be in deadly peril, yea and that instant, if thou go to Utterbol, thou, who art her lover...” “Nay,” said Ralph angrily, “I am not her lover, I am but her well-willer.” “Well,” quoth Agatha looking down and knitting her brows, “when thy good will towards her has become known, then shall she be thrown at once into the pit of my lord’s cruelty. Yea, to speak sooth, even as it is, for thy sake (for her I heed naught) I would that the lord might find her gone when he cometh back to Utterbol.”
“Yea,” said Ralph, reddening, “and is there any hope for her getting clear off?” “So I deem,” said Agatha. She was silent awhile and then spake in a low voice: “It is said that each man that seeth her loveth her; yea, and will befriend her, even though she consent not to his desire. Maybe she hath fled from Utterbol.”
Ralph stood silent awhile with a troubled face; and then he said: “Yet thou hast not told me the why and wherefore of this play of thine, and the beguiling me into fleeing from the camp. Tell it me that I may pardon thee and pass on.”
She said: “By thine eyes I swear that this is sooth, and that there is naught else in it than this: My lady set her love, when first she set her eyes upon thee—as forsooth all women must: as for me, I had not seen thee (though I told my lady that I had) till within this hour that we met in the wood.”
She sighed therewith, and with her right hand played with the rent raiment about her bosom. Then she said: “She deemed that if thou camest a mere thrall to Utterbol, though she might command thy body, yet she would not gain thy love; but that if perchance thou mightest see her in hard need, and evilly mishandled, and mightest deliver her, there might at least grow up pity in thee for her, and that love might come thereof, as oft hath happed aforetime; for my lady is a fair woman. Therefore I, who am my lady’s servant and thrall, and who, I bid thee remember, had not seen thee, took upon me to make this adventure, like to a minstrel’s tale done in the flesh. Also I spake to my lord and told him thereof; and though he jeered at my lady to me, he was content, because he would have her set her heart on thee utterly; since he feared her jealousy, and would fain be delivered of it, lest she should play some turn to his newly beloved damsel and do her a mischief. Therefore did he set thee free (in words) meaning, when he had thee safe at Utterbol again (as he nowise doubted to have thee) to do as he would with thee, according as occasion might serve. For at heart he hateth thee, as I could see well. So a little before thou didst leave the camp, we, the Queen and I, went privily into a place of the woods but a little way hence. There I disarrayed both my lady and myself so far as was needful for the playing out the play which was to have seemed to thee a real adventure. Then came I to thee as if by chance hap, that I might bring thee to her; and if thou hadst come, we had a story for thee, whereby thou mightest not for very knighthood forbear to succour her and bring her whither she would, which in the long run had been Utterbol, but for the present time was to have been a certain strong-house appertaining to Utterbol, and nigh unto it. This is all the tale, and now if thou wilt, thou mayst pardon me; or if thou wilt, thou mayst draw out thy sword and smite off my head. And forsooth I deem that were the better deed.”
She knelt down before him and put her palms together, and looked up at him beseechingly. His face darkened as he beheld her thus, but it cleared at last, and he said: “Damsel, thou wouldst turn out but a sorry maker, and thy play is naught. For seest thou not that I should have found out all the guile at Utterbol, and owed thy lady hatred rather than love thereafter.”
“Yea,” she said, “but my lady might have had enough of thy love by then, and would belike have let thee alone to fall into the hands of the Lord. Lo now! I have delivered thee from this, so that thou art quit both of the Lord and the lady and me: and again I say that thou couldst scarce have missed, both thou and thy damsel, of a miserable ending at Utterbol.”
“Yea,” said Ralph, softly, and as if speaking to himself, “yet am I lonely and unholpen.” Then he turned to Agatha and said: “The end of all this is that I pardon thee, and must depart forthwith; for when ye two come back to the camp, then presently will the hunt be up.”
She rose from her knees, and stood before him humbly and said: “Nay, I shall requite thee thy pardon thus far, that I will fashion some tale for my lady which will keep us in the woods two days or three; for we have provided victual for our adventure.”
Said Ralph: “I may at least thank thee for that, and will trust in thee to do so much.” Quoth she: “Then might I ask a reward of thee: since forsooth other reward awaiteth me at Utterbol.”
“Thou shalt have it,” said Ralph. She said: “The reward is that thou kiss me ere we part.”
“It must needs be according to my word,” said Ralph, “yet I must tell thee that my kiss will bear but little love with it.”
She answered naught but laid her hands on his breast and put up her face to him, and he kissed her lips. Then she said: “Knight, thou hast kissed a thrall and a guileful woman, yet one that shall smart for thee; therefore grudge not the kiss nor repent thee of thy kindness.”
“How shalt thou suffer?” said he. She looked on him steadfastly a moment, and said: “Farewell! may all good go with thee.” Therewith she turned away and walked off slowly through the wood, and somewhat he pitied her, and sighed as he got into his saddle; but he said to himself: “How might I help her? Yet true it is that she may well be in an evil case: I may not help everyone.” Then he shook his rein and rode his ways.