On the morrow the Sage led them straight into the rock-sea whereas it seemed to them at first that he was but bringing them into a blind alley; but at the end of the bight the rock-wall was broken down into a long scree of black stones. There the Sage bade Ralph and Ursula dismount (as for him he had been going afoot ever since that first day) and they led the horses up the said scree, which was a hard business, as they were no mountain beasts. And when they were atop of the scree it was harder yet to get them down, for on that side it was steeper; but at last they brought it about, and came down into a little grassy plain or isle in the rock sea, which narrowed toward the eastern end, and the rocks on either side were smooth and glossy, as if the heat had gone out of them suddenly, when the earth-fires had ceased in the mountains.
Now the Sage showed them on a certain rock a sign cut, whereof they had learned in the book aforesaid, to wit, a sword crossed by a three-leaved bough; and they knew by the book that they should press on through the rock-sea nowhere, either going or returning, save where they should see this token.
Now when they came to the narrow end of the plain they found still a wide way between the rock-walls, that whiles widened out, and whiles drew in again. Whiles withal were screes across the path, and little waters that ran out of the lava and into it again, and great blocks of fallen stone, sometimes as big as a husbandman’s cot, that wind and weather had rent from the rocks; and all these things stayed them somewhat. But they went on merrily, albeit their road winded so much, that the Sage told them, when evening was, that for their diligence they had but come a few short miles as the crow flies.
Many wild things there were, both beast and fowl, in these islands and bridges of the rock-sea, hares and conies to wit, a many, and heathfowl, and here and there a red fox lurking about the crannies of the rock-wall. Ralph shot a brace of conies with his Turk bow, and whereas there were bushes growing in the chinks, and no lack of whin and ling, they had firing enough, and supped off this venison of the rocks.
So passed that day and two days more, and naught befell, save that on the midnight of the first day of their wending the rock-sea, Ralph awoke and saw the sky all ablaze with other light than that of the moon; so he arose and went hastily to the Sage, and took him by the shoulder, and bid him awake; “For meseems the sky is afire, and perchance the foe is upon us.”
The Sage awoke and opened his eyes, and rose on his elbow and looked around sleepily; then he said laughing: “It is naught, fair lord, thou mayst lie down and sleep out the remnant of the night, and thou also, maiden: this is but an earth-fire breaking out on the flank of the mountains; it may be far away hence. Now ye see that he may not scale the rocks about us here without toil; but to-morrow night we may climb up somewhere and look on what is toward.”
So Ralph lay down and Ursula also, but Ralph lay long awake watching the light above him, which grew fiercer and redder in the hours betwixt moonset and daybreak, when he fell asleep, and woke not again till the sun was high.
But on the next day as they went, the aspect of the rock-sea about them changed: for the rocks were not so smooth and shining and orderly, but rose up in confused heaps all clotted together by the burning, like to clinkers out of some monstrous forge of the earth-giants, so that their way was naught so clear as it had been, but was rather a maze of jagged stone. But the Sage led through it all unfumbling, and moreover now and again they came on that carven token of the sword and the bough. Night fell, and as it grew dark they saw the glaring of the earth-fires again; and when they were rested, and had done their meat, the Sage said: “Come now with me, for hard by is there a place as it were a stair that goeth to the top of a great rock, let us climb it and look about us.”
So did they, and the head of the rock was higher than the main face of the rock-sea, so that they could see afar. Thence they looked north and beheld afar off a very pillar of fire rising up from a ness of the mountain wall, and seeming as if it bore up a black roof of smoke; and the huge wall gleamed grey, because of its light, and it cast a ray of light across the rock-sea as the moon doth over the waters of the deep: withal there was the noise as of thunder in the air, but afar off: which thunder indeed they had heard oft, as they rode through the afternoon and evening.
Spake the Sage: “It is far away: yet if the wind were not blowing from us, we had smelt the smoke, and the sky had been darkened by it. Now it is naught so far from Utterbol, and it will be for a token to them there. For that ness is called the Candle of the Giants, and men deem that the kindling thereof forebodeth ill to the lord who sitteth on the throne in the red hall of Utterbol.”
Ralph laid his hand on Ursula’s shoulder and said: “May the Sage’s saw be sooth!”
She put her hand upon the hand and said: “Three months ago I lay on my bed at Bourton Abbas, and all the while here was this huge manless waste lying under the bare heavens and threatened by the storehouse of the fires of the earth: and I had not seen it, nor thee either, O friend; and now it hath become a part of me for ever.”
Then was Ralph exceeding glad of her words, and the Sage laughed inwardly when he beheld them thus.
So they came adown from the rock and lay down presently under the fiery heavens: and their souls were comforted by the sound of the horses cropping the grass so close to their ears, that it broke the voice of the earth-fires’ thunder, that ever and anon rolled over the grey sea amidst which they lay.
On the morrow they still rode the lava like to clinkers, and it rose higher about them, till suddenly nigh sunset it ended at a turn of their winding road, and naught lay betwixt them and that mighty ness of the mountains, save a wide grassy plain, here and there swelling into low wide risings not to be called hills, and besprinkled with copses of bushes, and with trees neither great nor high. Then spake the Sage: “Here now will we rest, and by my will to-morrow also, that your beasts may graze their fill of the sweet grass of these unwarded meadows. which feedeth many a herd unowned of man, albeit they pay a quit-rent to wild things that be mightier than they. And now, children, we have passed over the mighty river that once ran molten betwixt these mountains and the hills yonder to the west, which we trod the other day; yet once more, if your hearts fail you, there is yet time to turn back; and no harm shall befall you, but I will be your fellow all the way home to Swevenham if ye will. But if ye still crave the water of the Well at the World’s End, I will lead you over this green plain, and then go back home to mine hermitage, and abide there till ye come to me, or I die.”
Ralph smiled and said: “Master, no such sorry story shall I bear back to Upmeads, that after many sorrows borne, and perils overcome, I came to the Gates of the Mountains, and turned back for fear of that which I had not proved.”
So spake he; but Ursula laughed and said: “Yea, then should I deem thy friendship light if thou leftest me alone and unholpen in the uttermost wilderness; and thy manhood light to turn back from that which did not make a woman afraid.”
Then the Sage looked kindly on them and said: “Yea, then is the last word spoken, and the world may yet grow merrier to me. Look you, some there be who may abuse the gifts of the Well for evil errands, and some who may use it for good deeds; but I am one who hath not dared to use it lest I should abuse it, I being along amongst weaklings and fools: but now if ye come back, who knows but that I may fear no longer, but use my life, and grow to be a mighty man. Come now, let us dight our supper, and kindle as big a fire as we lightly may; since there is many a prowling beast about, as bear and lynx and lion; for they haunt this edge of the rock-sea whereto the harts and the wild bulls and the goats resort for the sweet grass, and the water that floweth forth from the lava.”
So they cut good store of firing, whereas there was a plenty of bushes growing in the clefts of the rocks, and they made a big fire and tethered their horses anigh it when they lay down to rest; and in the night they heard the roaring of wild things round about them, and more than once or twice, awakening before day, they saw the shape of some terrible creature by the light of the moon mingled with the glare of the earth-fires, but none of these meddled with them, and naught befell them save the coming of the new day.