Soon the wood grew very thick of pine-trees, though there was no undergrowth, so that when the sun sank it grew dark very speedily; but he still rode on in the dusk, and there were but few wild things, and those mostly voiceless, in the wood, and it was without wind and very still. Now he thought he heard the sound of a horse going behind him or on one side, and he wondered whether the chace were up, and hastened what he might, till at last it grew black night, and he was constrained to abide. So he got off his horse, and leaned his back against a tree, and had the beast’s reins over his arm; and now he listened again carefully, and was quite sure that he could hear the footsteps of some hard-footed beast going nowise far from him. He laughed inwardly, and said to himself: “If the chacer were to pass but three feet from my nose he should be none the wiser but if he hear me or my horse.” And therewith he cast a lap of his cloak over the horse’s head, lest he should whinny if he became aware of the other beast; and so there he stood abiding, and the noise grew greater till be could hear clearly the horse-hoofs drawing nigh, till they came very nigh, and then stopped.
Then came a man’s voice that said: “Is there a man anigh in the wood?”
Ralph held his peace till he should know more; and the voice spake again in a little while: “If there be a man anigh let him be sure that I will do him no hurt; nay, I may do him good, for I have meat with me.” Clear was the voice, and as sweet as the April blackbird sings. It spake again: “Naught answereth, yet meseemeth I know surely that a man is anigh; and I am aweary of the waste, and long for fellowship.”
Ralph hearkened, and called to mind tales of way-farers entrapped by wood-wives and evil things; but he thought: “At least this is no sending of the Lord of Utterbol, and, St. Nicholas to aid, I have little fear of wood-wights. Withal I shall be but a dastard if I answer not one man, for fear of I know not what.” So he spake in a loud and cheerful voice: “Yea, there is a man anigh, and I desire thy fellowship, if we might but meet. But how shall we see each other in the blackness of the wildwood night?”
The other laughed, and the laugh sounded merry and sweet, and the voice said: “Hast thou no flint and fire-steel?” “No,” said Ralph. “But I have,” said the voice, “and I am fain to see thee, for thy voice soundeth pleasant to me. Abide till I grope about for a stick or two.”
Ralph laughed in turn, as he heard the new-comer moving about; then he heard the click of the steel on the flint, and saw the sparks showering down, so that a little piece of the wood grew green again to his eyes. Then a little clear flame sprang up, and therewith he saw the tree-stems clearly, and some twenty yards from him a horse, and a man stooping down over the fire, who sprang up now and cried out: “It is a knight-at-arms! Come hither, fellow of the waste; it is five days since I have spoken to a child of Adam; so come nigh and speak to me, and as a reward of thy speech thou shalt have both meat and firelight.”
“That will be well paid,” said Ralph laughing, and he stepped forward leading his horse, for now the wood was light all about, as the fire waxed and burned clear; so that Ralph could see that the new-comer was clad in quaintly-fashioned armour after the fashion of that land, with a bright steel sallet on the head, and a long green surcoat over the body armour. Slender of make was the new-comer, not big nor tall of stature.
Ralph went up to him hastily, and merrily put his hand on his shoulder, and kissed him, saying: “The kiss of peace in the wilderness to thee!” And he found him smooth-faced and sweet-breathed.
But the new comer took his hand and led him to where the firelight was brightest and looked on him silently a while; and Ralph gave back the look. The strange-wrought sallet hid but little of the new comer’s face, and as Ralph looked thereon a sudden joy came into his heart, and he cried out: “O, but I have kissed thy face before! O, my friend, my friend!”
Then spake the new-comer and said: “Yea, I am a woman, and I was thy friend for a little while at Bourton Abbas, and at the want-ways of the Wood Perilous.”
Then Ralph cast his arms about her and kissed her again; but she withdrew her from him, and said: “Help me, my friend, that we may gather sticks to feed our fire, lest it die and the dark come again so that we see not each other’s faces, and think that we have but met in a dream.”
Then she busied herself with gathering the kindling; but presently she looked up at him, and said: “Let us make the wood shine wide about, for this is a feastful night.”
So they gathered a heap of wood and made the fire great; and then Ralph did off his helm and hauberk and the damsel did the like, so that he could see the shapeliness of her uncovered head. Then they sat down before the fire, and the damsel drew meat and drink from her saddle-bags, and gave thereof to Ralph, who took it of her and her hand withal, and smiled on her and said: “Shall we be friends together as we were at Bourton Abbas and the want-ways of the Wood Perilous?” She shook her head and said: “If it might be! but it may not be. Not many days have worn since then; but they have brought about changed days.” He looked on her wistfully and said: “But thou wert dear to me then.”
“Yea,” she said, “and thou to me; but other things have befallen, and there is change betwixt.”
“Nay, what change?” said Ralph.
Even by the firelight he saw that she reddened as she answered: “I was a free woman then; now am I but a runaway thrall.” Then Ralph laughed merrily, and said, “Then are we brought the nigher together, for I also am a runaway thrall.”
She smiled and looked down: then she said: “Wilt thou tell me how that befell?”
“Yea,” said he, “but I will ask thee first a question or two.” She nodded a yeasay, and looked on him soberly, as a child waiting to say its task.
Said Ralph: “When we parted at the want-ways of the Wood Perilous thou saidst that thou wert minded for the Well at the World’s End, and to try it for life or death. But thou hadst not then the necklace, which now I see thee bear, and which, seest thou! is like to that about my neck. Wilt thou tell me whence thou hadst it?”
She said: “Yea; it was given unto me by a lady, mighty as I deem, and certainly most lovely, who delivered me from an evil plight, and a peril past words, but whereof I will tell thee afterwards. And she it was who told me of the way to the Well at the World’s End, and many matters concerning them that seek it, whereof thou shalt wot soon.”
Said Ralph: “As to how thou wert made a thrall thou needest not to tell me; for I have learned that of those that had to do with taking thee to Utterbol. But tell me; here are met we two in the pathless wilds, as if it were on the deep sea, and we two seeking the same thing. Didst thou deem that we should meet, or that I should seek thee?”
Now was the fire burning somewhat low, but he saw that she looked on him steadily; yet withal her sweet voice trembled a little as she answered: “Kind friend, I had a hope that thou wert seeking me and wouldst find me: for indeed that fairest of women who gave me the beads spake to me of thee, and said that thou also wouldst turn thee to the quest of the Well at the World’s End; and already had I deemed thine eyes lucky as well as lovely. But tell me, my friend, what has befallen that lady that she is not with thee? For in such wise she spake of thee, that I deemed that naught would sunder you save death.”
“It is death that hath sundered us,” said Ralph.
Then she hung her head, and sat silent a while, neither did he speak till she had risen up and cast more wood upon the fire; and she stood before it with her back towards him. Then he spake to her in a cheerful voice and said: “Belike we shall be long together: tell me thy name; is it not Dorothy?” She turned about to him with a smiling face, and said: “Nay lord, nay: did I not tell thee my name before? They that held me at the font bid the priest call me Ursula, after the Friend of Maidens. But what is thy name?”
“I am Ralph of Upmeads,” quoth he; and sat a while silent, pondering his dream and how it had betrayed him as to her name, when it had told him much that he yet deemed true.
She came and sat down by him again, and said to him: “Thy questions I have answered; but thou hast not yet told me the tale of thy captivity.” Her voice sounded exceeding sweet to him, and he looked on her face and spake as kindly as he knew how, and said: “A short tale it is to-night at least: I came from Whitwall with a Company of Chapmen, and it was thee I was seeking and the Well at the World’s End. All went well with me, till I came to Goldburg, and there I was betrayed by a felon, who had promised to lead me safe to Utterness, and tell me concerning the way unto the Well. But he sold me to the Lord of Utterbol, who would lead me to his house; which irked me not, at first, because I looked to find thee there. Thereafter, if for shame I may tell the tale, his lady and wife cast her love upon me, and I was entangled in the nets of guile: yet since I was told, and believed that it would be ill both for thee and for me if I met thee at Utterbol, I took occasion to flee away, I will tell thee how another while.”
She had turned pale as she heard him, and now she said: “It is indeed God’s mercy that thou camest not to Utterbol nor foundest me there, for then had both we been undone amidst the lusts of those two; or that thou camest not there to find me fled, else hadst thou been undone. My heart is sick to think of it, even as I sit by thy side.”
Said Ralph: “Thy last word maketh me afraid and ashamed to ask thee a thing. But tell me first, is that Lord of Utterbol as evil as men’s fear would make him? for no man is feared so much unless he is deemed evil.”
She was silent a while, and then she said: “He is so evil that it might be deemed that he has been brought up out of hell.”
Then Ralph looked sore troubled, and he said: “Dear friend, this is the thing hard for me to say. In what wise did they use thee at Utterbol? Did they deal with thee shamefully?” She answered him quietly: “Nay,” she said, “fear not! no shame befell me, save that I was a thrall and not free to depart. Forsooth,” she said, smiling, “I fled away timely before the tormentors should be ready. Forsooth it is an evil house and a mere piece of hell. But now we are out of it and free in the wildwood, so let us forget it; for indeed it is a grief to remember it. And now once more let us mend the fire, for thy face is growing dim to me, and that misliketh me. Afterwards before we lie down to sleep we will talk a little of the way, whitherward we shall turn our faces to-morrow.”
So they cast on more wood, and pineapples, and sweet it was to Ralph to see her face come clear again from out the mirk of the wood. Then they sat down again together and she said: “We two are seeking the Well at the World’s End; now which of us knows more of the way? who is to lead, and who to follow?” Said Ralph: “If thou know no more than I, it is little that thou knowest. Sooth it is that for many days past I have sought thee that thou mightest lead me.”
She laughed sweetly, and said: “Yea, knight, and was it for that cause that thou soughtest me, and not for my deliverance?” He said soberly: “Yet in very deed I set myself to deliver thee.” “Yea,” she said, “then since I am delivered, I must needs deem of it as if it were through thy deed. And as I suppose thou lookest for a reward therefor, so thy reward shall be, that I will lead thee to the Well at the World’s End. Is it enough?” “Nay,” said Ralph. They held their peace a minute, then she said: “Maybe when we have drunk of that Water and are coming back, it will be for thee to lead. For true it is that I shall scarce know whither to wend; since amidst of my dreaming of the Well, and of...other matters, my home that was is gone like a dream.”
He looked at her, but scarce as if he were heeding all her words. Then he spoke: “Yea, thou shalt lead me. I have been led by one or another ever since I have left Upmeads.” Now she looked on him somewhat ruefully, and said: “Thou wert not hearkening e’en now; so I say it again, that the time shall come when thou shalt lead me.”
In Ralph’s mind had sprung up again that journey from the Water of the Oak-tree; so he strove with himself to put the thought from him, and sighed and said: “Dost thou verily know much of the way?” She nodded yeasay. “Knowest thou of the Rock of the Fighting Man?” “Yea,” she said. “And of the Sage that dwelleth in this same wood?” “Most surely,” she said, “and to-morrow evening or the morrow after we shall find him; for I have been taught the way to his dwelling; and I wot that he is now called the Sage of Swevenham. Yet I must tell thee that there is some peril in seeking to him; whereas his dwelling is known of the Utterbol riders, who may follow us thither. And yet again I deem that he will find some remedy thereto.”
Said Ralph: “Whence didst thou learn all this, my friend?” And his face grew troubled again; but she said simply: “She taught it to me who spake to me in the wood by Hampton under Scaur.”
She made as if she noted not the trouble in his face, but said: “Put thy trust in this, that here and with me thou art even now nigher to the Well at the World’s End than any other creature on the earth. Yea, even if the Sage of Swevenham be dead or gone hence, yet have I tokens to find the Rock of the Fighting Man, and the way through the mountains, though I say not but that he may make it all clearer. But now I see thee drooping with the grief of days bygone; and I deem also that thou art weary with the toil of the way. So I rede thee lie down here in the wilderness and sleep, and forget grief till to-morrow is a new day.”
“Would it were come,” said he, “that I might see thy face the clearer; yet I am indeed weary.”
So he went and fetched his saddle and lay down with his head thereon; and was presently asleep. But she, who had again cast wood on the fire, sat by his head watching him with a drawn sword beside her, till the dawn of the woodland began to glimmer through the trees: then she also laid herself down and slept.