Night was at hand before they came to the stream that they sought. They found it cleaving the pine-wood, which held on till the very bank of it, and was thick again on the further side in a few yards’ space. The stream was high-banked and ran deep and strong. Said Ursula as they came up to it: “We may not cross it, but it matters not; and it is to-morrow that we must ride up along it.”
So they abode there, and made a fire by the waterside, and watched there, turn and turn about, till it was broad day. Naught befell to tell of, save that twice in the night Ralph deemed that he heard a lion roar.
They got to horse speedily when they were both awake, and rode up the stream, and began to go up hill, and by noon were come into a rough and shaggy upland, whence from time to time they could see the huge wall of the mountains, which yet seemed to Ralph scarce nigher, if at all, than when he had beheld it ere he had come to Vale Turris. The way was rough day-long, and now and again they found it hard to keep the stream in sight, as especially when it cleft a hill, and ran between sheer cliffs with no low shore on either side.
They made way but slowly, so that at last Ralph lost patience somewhat, and said that he had but little hope of falling in with the Sage that day or any day. But Ursula was of good cheer, and mocked him merrily but sweetly, till his heart was lightened again. Withal she bade him seek some venison, since they were drawing out the time, and she knew not how long it would be ere they came to the Sage’s dwelling. Therefore he betook him to the Turk bow, and shot a leash of heath-fowl, and they supped on the meat merrily in the wilderness.
But if they were merry, they were soon weary; for they journeyed on after sunset that night, since the moon was up, and there was no thick wood to turn dusk into dark for them. Their resting-place was a smooth piece of greensward betwixt the water and a half circle of steep bent that well nigh locked it about.
There then they abode, and in the stillness of the night heard a thundering sound coming down the wind to them, which they deemed was the roaring of distant waters; and when they went to the lip of the river they saw flocks of foam floating by, wherefore they thought themselves to be near some great mountain-neck whereover the water was falling from some high place. But with no to-do they lay down upon the greensward this second night of their fellowship, and waked later than on the day before; for so weary had they been, that they had kept but ill watch in the dark night, and none at all after dawn began to glimmer.
Now Ralph sat up and saw Ursula still sleeping; then he rose to his feet and looked about him, and saw their two horses cropping the grass under the bent, and beside them a man, tall and white bearded, leaning on his staff. Ralph caught up his sword and went toward the man, and the sun gleamed from the blade just as the hoary-one turned to him; he lifted up his staff as if in greeting to Ralph, and came toward him, and even therewith Ursula awoke and arose, and saw the greybeard at once; and she cried out: “Take heed to thy sword, fellow-farer, for, praised be the saints, this is the Sage of Swevenham!”
So they stood there together till the Sage came up to them and kissed them both, and said: “I am glad that ye are come at last; for I looked for you no later than this. So now mount your horses and come with me straightway; because life is short to them who have not yet drunk of the Well at the World’s End. Moreover if ye chance to come on the riders of Utterbol, it shall go hard with you unless I be at hand.”
Ralph saw of him that though he was an old hoar man to look on, yet he was strong and sturdy, tall, and of goodly presence, with ruddy cheeks, and red lips and bright eyes, and that the skin of his face and hands was nowise wrinkled: but about his neck was a pair of beads like unto his own gossip’s gift.
So now they mounted at once, and with no more words he led them about the bent, and they came in a little while into the wood again, but this time it was of beech, with here and there an open place sprinkled about with hollies and thorns; and they rode down the wide slope of a long hill, and up again on the other side.
Thus they went for an hour, and the elder spake not again, though it might have been deemed by his eyes that he was eager and fain. They also held their peace; for the hope and fear of their hearts kept them from words.
They came to the hill-top, and found a plain land, though the close wood still held on a while; but soon they rode into a clearing of some twelve acres, where were fenced crofts with goats therein, and three garths of tillage, wherein the wheat-shocks were yet standing, and there were coleworts and other pot-herbs also. But at the further end, whereas the wood closed in again, was a little house builded of timber, strong and goodly, and thatched with wheat-straw; and beside it was a bubbling spring which ran in a brook athwart the said clearing; over the house-door was a carven rood, and a bow and short spear were leaned against the wall of the porch.
Ralph looked at all closely, and wondered whether this were perchance the cot wherein the Lady of Abundance had dwelt with the evil witch. But the elder looked on him, and said: “I know thy thought, and it is not so; that house is far away hence; yet shalt thou come thereto. Now, children, welcome to the house of him who hath found what ye seek, but hath put aside the gifts which ye shall gain; and who belike shall remember what ye shall forget.”
Therewith he brought them into the house, and into a chamber, the plenishing whereof was both scanty and rude. There he bade them sit, and brought them victual, to wit, cheese and goats’ milk and bread, and they fell to speech concerning the woodland ways, and the seasons, and other unweighty matters. But as for the old man he spoke but few words, and as one unused to speech, albeit he was courteous and debonair. But when they had eaten and drunk he spake to them and said:
“Ye have sought to me because ye would find the Well at the World’s End, and would have lore of me concerning the road thereto; but before I tell you what ye would, let me know what ye know thereof already.”
Quoth Ralph: “For me, little enough I know, save that I must come to the Rock of the Fighting Man, and that thou knowest the way thither.”
“And thou, damsel,” quoth the long-hoary, “what knowest thou? Must I tell thee of the way through the mountains and the Wall of the World, and the Winter Valley, and the Folk Innocent, and the Cot on the Way, and the Forest of Strange Things and the Dry Tree?”
“Nay,” she said, “of all this I wot somewhat, but it may be not enough.”
Said the Sage: “Even so it was with me, when a many years ago I dwelt nigh to Swevenham, and folk sought to me for lore, and I told them what I knew; but maybe it was not enough, for they never came back; but died belike or ever they had seen the Well. And then I myself, when I was gotten very old, fared thither a-seeking it, and I found it; for I was one of those who bore the chaplet of the seekers. And now I know all, and can teach all. But tell me, damsel, whence hadst thou this lore?”
Said Ursula: “I had it of a very fair woman who, as it seemeth, was Lady and Queen of the Champions of Hampton under the Scaur, not far from mine own land.”
“Yea,” quoth the Sage, “and what hath befallen her?...Nay, nay,” said he, “I need not ask; for I can see by your faces that she is dead. Therefore hath she been slain, or otherwise she had not been dead. So I ask you if ye were her friends?”
Quoth Ursula; “Surely she was my friend, since she befriended me; and this man I deem was altogether her friend.”
Ralph hung his head, and the Sage gazed on him, but said naught. Then he took a hand of each of them in his hands, and held them a while silently, and Ralph was still downcast and sad, but Ursula looked on him fondly.
Then spake the Sage: “So it is, Knight, that now I seem to understand what manner of man thou art, and I know what is between you two; whereof I will say naught, but will let the tree grow according to its seed. Moreover, I wot now that my friend of past years would have me make you both wise in the lore of the Well at the World’s End; and when I have done this, I can do no more, but let your good hap prevail if so it may. Abide a little, therefore.”
Then he went unto an ark, and took thence a book wrapped in a piece of precious web of silk and gold, and bound in cuir-bouilly wrought in strange devices. Then said he: “This book was mine heritage at Swevenham or ever I became wise, and it came from my father’s grandsire: and my father bade me look on it as the dearest of possessions; but I heeded it naught till my youth had waned, and my manhood was full of weariness and grief. Then I turned to it, and read in it, and became wise, and the folk sought to me, and afterwards that befell which was foredoomed. Now herein amongst other matters is written of that which ye desire to know, and I will read the same to you and expound it. Yet were it not well to read in this book under a roof, nay, though it be as humble and innocent as this. Moreover, it is not meet that ye should hearken to this wisdom of old times clad as ye are; thou, knight, in the raiment of the manslayer, with the rod of wrath hanging at thy side; and thou, maiden, attired in the garments of the tyrant, which were won of him by lying and guile.”
Then he went to another ark, and took from it two bundles, which he gave, the one to Ralph, the other to Ursula, and said: “Thou, maiden, go thou into the inner chamber here and doff thy worldly raiment, and don that which thou wilt find wrapped in this cloth; and thou, knight, take this other and get thee into the thicket which is behind the house, and there do the like, and abide there till we come to thee.”
So Ralph took the bundle, and came out into the thicket and unarmed him, and did on the raiment which he found in the cloth, which was but a long gown of white linen, much like to an alb, broidered about the wrists and the hems and collar with apparels of gold and silk, girt with a red silk girdle. There he abode a little, wondering at all these things and all that had befallen him since he had left Upmeads.
Anon the two others came to him, and Ursula was clad in the same-like raiment and the elder had the book in his hand. He smiled on Ralph and nodded friendly to him. As to Ursula, she flushed as red as a rose when she set eyes on him, for she said to herself that he was as one of the angels which she had seen painted in the choir of St. Mary’s at Higham.