In all this they had enough to be busy with, so that time hung not heavy on their hands, and the shadow of the Quest was nowise burdensome to them, since they wotted that they had to abide the wearing of the days till spring was come with fresh tidings. Their labour was nowise irksome to them, since Ralph was deft in all manner of sports and crafts, such as up-country folk follow, and though he were a king’s son, he had made a doughty yeoman: and as for Ursula, she also was country-bred, of a lineage of field-folk, and knew all the manners of the fields.
Withal in whatsoever way it were, they loved each other dearly, and all kind of speech flowed freely betwixt them. Sooth to say, Ralph, taking heed of Ursula, deemed that she were fain to love him bodily, and he wotted well by now, that, whatever had befallen, he loved her, body and soul. Yet still was that fear of her naysay lurking in his heart, if he should kiss her, or caress her, as a man with a maid. Therefore he forbore, though desire of her tormented him grievously at whiles.
They wore their armour but little now, save when they were about some journey wherein was peril of wild beasts. Ursula had dight her some due woman’s raiment betwixt her knight’s surcoat and doe-skins which they had gotten, so that it was not unseemly of fashion. As for their horses, they but seldom backed them, but used them to draw stuff to their rock-house on sledges, which they made of tree-boughs; so that the beasts grew fat, feeding on the grass of the valley and the wild-oats withal, which grew at the upper end of the bight of the valley, toward the northern mountains, where the ground was sandy. No man they saw, nor any signs of man, nor had they seen any save the Sage, since those riders of Utterbol had vanished before them into the night.
So wore autumn into winter, and the frost came, and the snow, with prodigious winds from out of the mountains: yet was not the weather so hard but that they might go forth most days, and come to no hurt if they were wary of the drifts; and forsooth needs must they go abroad to take venison for their livelihood.
So the winter wore also amidst sweet speech and friendliness betwixt the two, and they lived still as dear friends, and not as lovers.
Seldom they spoke of the Quest, for it seemed to them now a matter over great for speech. But now they were grown so familiar each to each that Ursula took heart to tell Ralph more of the tidings of Utterbol, for now the shame and grief of her bondage there was but as a story told of another, so far away seemed that time from this. But so grievous was her tale that Ralph grew grim thereover, and he said: “By St. Nicholas! it were a good deed, once we are past the mountains again, to ride to Utterbol and drag that swine and wittol from his hall and slay him, and give his folk a good day. But then there is thou, my friend, and how shall I draw thee into deadly strife?”
“Nay,” she said, “whereso thou ridest thither will I, and one fate shall lie on us both. We will think thereof and ask the Sage of it when we return. Who knows what shall have befallen then? Remember the lighting of the candle of Utterbol that we saw from the Rock-sea, and the boding thereof.” So Ralph was appeased for that time.
Oft also they spake of the little lands whence they came, and on a time amidst of such talk Ursula said: “But alas, friend, why do I speak of all this, when now save for my brother, who loveth me but after a fashion, to wit that I must in all wise do his bidding, lad as he is, I have no longer kith nor kin there, save again as all the folk of one stead are somewhat akin. I think, my dear, that I have no country, nor any house to welcome me.”
Said Ralph: “All lands, any land that thou mayst come to, shall welcome thee, and I shall look to it that so it shall be.” And in his heart he thought of the welcome of Upmeads, and of Ursula sitting on the dais of the hall of the High-House.
So wore the days till Candlemass, when the frost broke and the snows began to melt, and the waters came down from the mountains, so that the river rose over its banks and its waters covered the plain parts of the valley, and those two could go dryshod but a little way out of their cavern; no further than the green mound or toft which lay at the mouth thereof: but the waters were thronged with fowl, as mallard and teal and coots, and of these they took what they would. Whiles also they waded the shallows of the flood, and whiles poled a raft about it, and so had pleasure of the waters as before they had had of the snow. But when at last the very spring was come, and the grass began to grow after the showers had washed the plain of the waterborne mud, and the snowdrop had thrust up and blossomed, and the celandine had come, and then when the blackthorn bloomed and the Lent-lilies hid the grass betwixt the great chestnut-boles, when the sun shone betwixt the showers and the west wind blew, and the throstles and blackbirds ceased not their song betwixt dawn and dusk, then began Ralph to say to himself, that even if the Well at the World’s End were not, and all that the Sage had told them was but a tale of Swevenham, yet were all better than well if Ursula were but to him a woman beloved rather than a friend. And whiles he was pensive and silent, even when she was by him, and she noted it and forbore somewhat the sweetness of her glances, and the caressing of her soft speech: though oft when he looked on her fondly, the blood would rise to her cheeks, and her bosom would heave with the thought of his desire, which quickened hers so sorely, that it became a pain and grief to her.