The Well at the World's End, by William Morris, , at sacred-texts.com
Ralph Happens on Evil Days
Early on the morrow they departed, and now in the morning light and the sun the minstrel seemed glad again, and talked abundantly, even though at whiles Ralph answered him little.
As they rode, the land began to get less fertile and less, till at last there was but tillage here and there in patches: of houses there were but few, and the rest was but dark heathland and bog, with scraggy woods scattered about the country-side.
Naught happened to tell of, save that once in the afternoon, as they were riding up to the skirts of one of the woods aforesaid, weaponed men came forth from it and drew up across the way; they were a dozen in all, and four were horsed. Ralph set his hand to his sword, but the minstrel cried out, "Nay, no weapons, no weapons! Pull out thy let-pass again and show it in thine hand, and then let us on."
So saying he drew a white kerchief from his hand, and tied it to the end of his riding staff, and so rode trembling by Ralph's side: therewith they rode on together towards those men, whom as they drew nearer they heard laughing and jeering at them, though in a tongue that Ralph knew not.
They came so close at last that the waylayers could see the parchment clearly, with the seal thereon, and then they made obeisance to it, as though it were the relic of a saint, and drew off quietly into the wood one by one. These were big men, and savage-looking, and their armour was utterly uncouth.
The minstrel was loud in his mirth when they were well past these men; but Ralph rode on silently, and was somewhat soberly.
"Fair sir," quoth the minstrel, "I would wager that I know thy thought." "Yea," said Ralph, "what is it then?" Said the minstrel: "Thou art thinking what thou shalt do when thou meetest suchlike folk on thy way back; but fear not, for with that same seal thou shalt pass through the land again." Said Ralph: "Yea, something like that, forsooth, was my thought. But also I was pondering who should be my guide when I leave Utterbol." The minstrel looked at him askance; quoth he: "Thou mayst leave thinking of that awhile." Ralph looked hard at him, but could make naught of the look of his face; so he said: "Why dost thou say that?" Said Morfinn: "Because I know whither thou art bound, and have been wondering this long while that thou hast asked me not about the way to the WELL at the WORLD'S END: since I told thy friend the merchant that I could tell thee somewhat concerning it. But I suppose thou hast been thinking of something else?"
"Well," said Ralph, "tell me what thou hast to say of the Well." Said Morfinn: "This will I tell thee first: that if thou hast any doubt that such a place there is, thou mayst set that aside; for we of Utterness and Utterbol are sure thereof; and of all nations and peoples whereof we know, we deem that we are the nighest thereto. How sayest thou, is that not already something?" "Yea, verily," said Ralph.
"Now," said Morfinn, "the next thing to be said is that we are on the road thereto: but the third thing again is this, lord, that though few who seek it find it, yet we know that some have failed not of it, besides that lord of Goldburg, of whom I know that thou hast heard. Furthermore, there dwelleth a sage in the woods not right far from Utterbol, a hermit living by himself; and folk seek to him for divers lore, to be holpen by him in one way or other, and of him men say that he hath so much lore concerning the road to the Well (whether he hath been there himself they know not certainly), that if he will, he can put anyone on the road so surely that he will not fail to come there, but he be slain on the way, as I said to thee in Goldburg. True it is that the said sage is chary of his lore, and if he think any harm of the seeker, he will show him naught; but, fair sir, thou art so valiant and so goodly, and as meseemeth so good a knight per amours, that I deem it a certain thing that he will tell thee the uttermost of his knowledge."
Now again waxed Ralph eager concerning his quest; for true it is that since he had had that story of the damsel from the minstrel, she had stood in the way before the Well at the World's End. But now he said: "And canst thou bring me to the said sage, good minstrel?" "Without doubt," quoth Morfinn, "when we are once safe at Utterbol. From Utterbol ye may wend any road."
"Yea," said Ralph, "and there are perils yet a few on the way, is it not so?" "So it is," said the minstrel; "but to-morrow shall try all." Said Ralph: "And is there some special peril ahead to-morrow? And if it be so, what is it?" Said his fellow: "It would avail thee naught to know it. What then, doth that daunt thee?" "No," said Ralph, "by then it is nigh enough to hurt us, we shall be nigh enough to see it." "Well said!" quoth the minstrel; "but now we must mend our pace, or dark night shall overtake us amid these rough ways."
Wild as the land was, they came at even to a place where were a few houses of woodmen or hunters; and they got off their horses and knocked at the door of one of these, and a great black-haired carle opened to them, who, when he saw the knight's armour, would have clapped the door to again, had not Ralph by the minstrel's rede held out the parchment to him, who when he saw it became humble indeed, and gave them such guesting as he might, which was scant indeed of victual or drink, save wild-fowl from the heath. But they had wine with them from the last guest-house, whereof they bade the carle to drink; but he would not, and in all wise seemed to be in dread of them.
When it was morning early they rode their ways, and the carle seemed glad to be rid of them. After they had ridden a few miles the land bettered somewhat; there were islands of deep green pasture amidst the blackness of the heath, with cattle grazing on them, and here and there was a little tillage: the land was little better than level, only it swelled a little this way and that. It was a bright sunny day and the air very clear, and as they rode Ralph said: "Quite clear is the sky, and yet one cloud there is in the offing; but this is strange about it, though I have been watching it this half hour, and looking to see the rack come up from that quarter, yet it changes not at all. I never saw the like of this cloud."
Said the minstrel: "Yea, fair sir, and of this cloud I must tell thee that it will change no more till the bones of the earth are tumbled together. Forsooth this is no cloud, but the topmost head of the mountain ridge which men call the Wall of the World: and if ever thou come close up to the said Wall, that shall fear thee, I deem, however fearless thou be." "Is it nigh to Utterness?" said Ralph. "Nay," said the minstrel, "not so nigh; for as huge as it seemeth thence."
Said Ralph: "Do folk tell that the Well at the World's End lieth beyond it?" "Surely," said the minstrel.
Said Ralph, his face flushing: "Forsooth, that ancient lord of Goldburg came through those mountains, and why not I?" "Yea," said the minstrel, "why not?" And therewith he looked uneasily on Ralph, who heeded his looks naught, for his mind was set on high matters.
On then they rode, and when trees or some dip in the land hid that mountain top from them, the way seemed long to Ralph.
Naught befell to tell of for some while; but at last, when it was drawing towards evening again, they had been riding through a thick pine-wood for a long while, and coming out of it they beheld before them a plain country fairly well grassed, but lo! on the field not far from the roadside a pavilion pitched and a banner on the top thereof, but the banner hung down about the staff, so that the bearing was not seen: and about this pavilion, which was great and rich of fashion, were many tents great and small, and there were horses tethered in the field, and men moving about the gleam of armour.
At this sight the minstrel drew rein and stared about him wildly; but Ralph said: "What is this, is it the peril aforesaid?" "Yea," quoth the minstrel, shivering with fear. "What aileth thee?" said Ralph; "have we not the let-pass, what then can befall us? If this be other than the Lord of Utterbol, he will see our let-pass and let us alone; or if it be he indeed, what harm shall he do to the bearers of his own pass? Come on then, or else (and therewith he half drew his sword) is this Lord of Utterbol but another name for the Devil in Hell?"
But the minstrel still stared wild and trembled; then he stammered out: "I thought I should bring thee to Utterness first, and that some other should lead thee thence, I did not look to see him. I dare not, I dare not! O look, look!"
As he spake the wind arose and ran along the wood-side, and beat back from it and stirred the canvas of the tents and raised the folds of the banner, and blew it out, so that the bearing was clear to see; yet Ralph deemed it naught dreadful, but an armoury fit for a baron, to wit, a black bear on a castle-wall on a field of gold.
But as Ralph sat on his horse gazing, himseemed that men were looking towards him, and a great horn was sounded hard by the pavilion; then Ralph looked toward the minstrel fiercely, and laughed and said: "I see now that thou art another traitor: so get thee gone; I have more to do than the slaying of thee." And therewith he turned his horse's head, and smote the spurs into the sides of him, and went a great gallop over the field on the right side of the road, away from the gay pavilion; but even therewith came a half-score of horsemen from the camp, as if they were awaiting him, and they spurred after him straightway.
The race was no long one, for Ralph's beast was wearied, and the other horses were fresh, and Ralph knew naught of the country before him, whereas those riders knew it well. Therefore it was but a few minutes till they came up with him, and he made no show of defence, but suffered them to lead him away, and he crossed the highway, where he saw no token of the minstrel.
So they brought him to the pavilion, and made him dismount and led him in. The dusk had fallen by now, but within it was all bright with candles. The pavilion was hung with rich silken cloth, and at the further end, on a carpet of the hunting, was an ivory chair, whereon sat a man, who was the only one sitting. He was clad in a gown of blue silk, broidered with roundels beaten with the Bear upon the Castle-wall.
Ralph deemed that this must be no other than the Lord of Utterbol, yet after all the tales he had heard of that lord, he seemed no such terrible man: he was short of stature, but broad across the shoulders, his hair long, strait, and dark brown of hue, and his beard scanty: he was straight-featured and smooth-faced, and had been no ill-looking man, save that his skin was sallow and for his eyes, which were brown, small, and somewhat bloodshot.
Beside him stood Morfinn bowed down with fear and not daring to look either at the Lord or at Ralph. Wherefore he knew for certain that when he had called him traitor even now, that it was no more than the very sooth, and that he had fallen into the trap; though how or why he wotted not clearly. Well then might his heart have fallen, but so it was, that when he looked into the face of this Lord, the terror of the lands, hatred of him so beset his heart that it swallowed up fear in him. Albeit he held himself well in hand, for his soul was waxing, and he deemed that he should yet do great deeds, therefore he desired to live, whatsoever pains or shame of the passing day he might suffer.
Now this mighty lord spake, and his voice was harsh and squeaking, so that the sound of it was worse than the sight of his face; and he said: "Bring the man forth, that I may see him." So they brought up Ralph, till he was eye to eye with the Lord, who turned to Morfinn and said: "Is this thy catch, lucky man?" "Yea," quavered Morfinn, not lifting his eyes; "Will he do, lord?"
"Do?" said the lord, "How can I see him when he is all muffled up in steel? Ye fools! doff his wargear."
Speedily then had they stripped Ralph of hauberk, and helm, and arm and leg plates, so that he stood up in his jerkin and breeches, and the lord leaned forward to look on him as if he were cheapening a horse; and then turned to a man somewhat stricken in years, clad in scarlet, who stood on his other hand, and said to him: "Well, David the Sage, is this the sort of man? Is he goodly enough?"
Then the elder put on a pair of spectacles and eyed Ralph curiously a while, and then said: "There are no two words to be said about it; he is a goodly and well-fashioned a young man as was ever sold."
"Well," said the lord, turning towards Morfinn, "the catch is good, lucky man: David will give thee gold for it, and thou mayst go back west when thou wilt. And thou must be lucky again, moreover; because there are women needed for my house; and they must be goodly and meek, and not grievously marked with stripes, or branded, so that thou hadst best take them, luckily if thou mayst, and not buy them. Now go, for there are more than enough men under this woven roof, and we need no half-men to boot."
Said David, the old man, grinning: "He will hold him well paid if he go unscathed from before thee, lord: for he looked not to meet thee here, but thought to bring the young man to Utterness, that he might be kept there till thou camest."
The lord said, grimly: "He is not far wrong to fear me, maybe: but he shall go for this time. But if he bring me not those women within three months' wearing, and if there be but two uncomely ones amongst them, let him look to it. Give him his gold, David. Now take ye the new man, and let him rest, and give him meat and drink. And look you, David, if he be not in condition when he cometh home to Utterbol, thou shalt pay for it in one way or other, if not in thine own person, since thou art old, and deft of service, then through those that be dear to thee. Go now!"
David smiled on Ralph and led him out unto a tent not far off, and there he made much of him, and bade bring meat and drink and all he needed. Withal he bade him not to try fleeing, lest he be slain; and he showed him how nigh the guards were and how many.
Glad was the old man when he saw the captive put a good face on matters, and that he was not down-hearted. In sooth that hatred of the tyrant mingled with hope sustained Ralph's heart. He had been minded when he was brought before the lord to have shown the letter of the Queen of Goldburg, and to defy him if he still held him captive. But when he had beheld him and his fellowship a while he thought better of it. For though they had abundance of rich plenishing, and gay raiment, and good weapons and armour, howbeit of strange and uncouth fashion, yet he deemed when he looked on them that they would scarce have the souls of men in their bodies, but that they were utterly vile through and through, like the shapes of an evil dream. Therefore he thought shame of it to show the Queen's letter to them, even as if he had shown them the very naked body of her, who had been so piteous kind to him. Also he had no mind to wear his heart on his sleeve, but would keep his own counsel, and let his foemen speak and show what was in their minds. For this cause he now made himself sweet, and was of good cheer with old David, deeming him to be a great man there; as indeed he was, being the chief counsellor of the Lord of Utterbol; though forsooth not so much his counsellor as that he durst counsel otherwise than as the Lord desired to go; unless he thought that it would bring his said Lord, and therefore himself, to very present peril and damage. In short, though this man had not been bought for money, he was little better than a thrall of the higher sort, as forsooth were all the Lord's men, saving the best and trustiest of his warriors: and these were men whom the Lord somewhat feared himself: though, on the other hand, he could not but know that they understood how the dread of the Lord of Utterbol was a shield to them, and that if it were to die out amongst men, their own skins were not worth many days' purchase.
So then David spake pleasantly with Ralph, and ate and drank with him, and saw that he was well bedded for the night, and left him in the first watch. But Ralph lay down in little more trouble than the night before, when, though he were being led friendly to Utterness, yet he had not been able to think what he should do when he came there: whereas now he thought: Who knoweth what shall betide? and for me there is nought to do save to lay hold of the occasion that another may give me. And at the worst I scarce deem that I am being led to the slaughter.