The Well At The World's End, by William Morris

Chapter 31

The Beginning of the Road To Utterbol

Early next morning Ralph arose and called Bull Shockhead to him and said: “So it is, Bull, that thou art my war-taken thrall.” Bull nodded his head, but frowned therewithal. Said Ralph: “If I bid thee aught that is not beyond reason thou wilt do it, wilt thou not?” “Yea,” said Bull, surlily. “Well,” quoth Ralph, “I am going a journey east-away, and I may not have thee with me, therefore I bid thee take this gold and go free with my goodwill.” Bull’s face lighted up, and the eyes glittered in his face; but he said: “Yea, king’s son, but why wilt thou not take me with thee?” Said Ralph: “It is a perilous journey, and thy being with me will cast thee into peril and make mine more. Moreover, I have an errand, as thou wottest, which is all mine own.”

Bull pondered a little and then said: “King’s son, I was thinking at first that our errands lay together, and it is so; but belike thou sayest true that there will be less peril to each of us if we sunder at this time. But now I will say this to thee, that henceforth thou shalt be as a brother to me, if thou wilt have it so, and if ever thou comest amongst our people, thou wilt be in no danger of them: nay, they shall do all the good they may to thee.”

Then he took him by the hand and kissed him, and he set his hand to his gear and drew forth a little purse of some small beast’s skin that was broidered in front with a pair of bull’s horns: then he stooped down and plucked a long and tough bent from the grass at his feet (for they were talking in the garden of the hostel) and twisted it swiftly into a strange knot of many plies, and opening the purse laid it therein and said: “King’s son, this is the token whereby it shall be known amongst our folk that I have made thee my brother: were the flames roaring about thee, or the swords clashing over thine head, if thou cry out, I am the brother of Bull Shockhead, all those of my kindred who are near will be thy friends and thy helpers. And now I say to thee farewell: but it is not altogether unlike that thou mayst hear of me again in the furthest East.” So Ralph departed from him, and Clement went with Ralph to the Gate of Goldburg, and bade him farewell there; and or they parted he said: “Meseems I have with me now some deal of the foreseeing of Katherine my wife, and in my mind it is that we shall yet see thee at Wulstead and Upmeads, and thou no less famous than now thou art. This is my last word to thee.” Therewith they parted, and Ralph rode his ways.

He came on his way-leader about a bowshot from the gate and they greeted each other: the said guide was clad no otherwise than yesterday: he had saddle-bags on his horse, which was a strong black roadster: but he was nowise armed, and bore but a satchel with a case of knives done on to it, and on the other side a fiddle in its case. So Ralph smiled on him and said: “Thou hast no weapon, then?” “What need for weapon?” said he; “since we are not of might for battle. This is my weapon,” said he, touching his fiddle, “and withal it is my field and mine acre that raiseth flesh-meat and bread for me: yea, and whiles a little drink.”

So they rode on together and the man was blithe and merry: and Ralph said to him: “Since we are fellows for a good while, as I suppose, what shall I call thee?” Said he, “Morfinn the Minstrel I hight, to serve thee, fair lord. Or some call me Morfinn the Unmanned. Wilt thou not now ask me concerning that privy word that I had for thy ears?” “Yea,” said Ralph reddening, “hath it to do with a woman?” “Naught less,” said Morfinn. “For I heard of thee asking many questions thereof in Goldburg, and I said to myself, now may I, who am bound for Utterness, do a good turn to this fair young lord, whose face bewrayeth his heart, and telleth all men that he is kind and bounteous; so that there is no doubt but he will reward me well at once for any help I may give him; and also it may be that he will do me a good turn hereafter in memory of this that I have done him.”

“Speak, wilt thou not,” said Ralph, “and tell me at once if thou hast seen this woman? Be sure that I shall reward thee.” “Nay, nay, fair sir,” said Morfinn; “a woman I have seen brought captive to the House of Utterbol. See thou to it if it be she whom thou seekest.”

He smiled therewith, but now Ralph deemed him not so debonnaire as he had at first, for there was mocking in the smile; therefore he was wroth, but he refrained him and said: “Sir Minstrel, I wot not why thou hast come with a tale in thy mouth and it will not out of it: lo you, will this open the doors of speech to thee” (and he reached his hand out to him with two pieces of gold lying therein) “or shall this?” and therewith he half drew his sword from his sheath.

Said Morfinn, grinning again: “Nay, I fear not the bare steel in thine hands, Knight; for thou hast not fool written plain in thy face; therefore thou wilt not slay thy way-leader, or even anger him over much. And as to thy gold, the wages shall be paid at the journey’s end. I was but seeking about in my mind how best to tell thee my tale so that thou mightest believe my word, which is true. Thus it goes: As I left Utterbol a month ago, I saw a damsel brought in captive there, and she seemed to me so exceeding fair that I looked hard on her, and asked one of the men-at-arms who is my friend concerning the market whereat she was cheapened; and he told me that she had not been bought, but taken out of the hands of the wild men from the further mountains. Is that aught like to your story, lord?” “Yea,” said Ralph, knitting his brows in eagerness. “Well,” said Morfinn, “but there are more fair women than one in the world, and belike this is not thy friend: so now, as well as I may, I will tell thee what-like she was, and if thou knowest her not, thou mayst give me those two gold pieces and go back again. She was tall rather than short, and slim rather than bigly made. But many women are fashioned so: and doubtless she was worn by travel, since she has at least come from over the mountains: but that is little to tell her by: her hands, and her feet also (for she was a horseback and barefoot) wrought well beyond most women: yet so might it have been with some: yet few, methinks, of women who have worked afield, as I deem her to have done, would have hands and feet so shapely: her face tanned with the sun, but with fair colour shining through it; her hair brown, yet with a fair bright colour shining therein, and very abundant: her cheeks smooth, round and well wrought as any imager could do them: her chin round and cloven: her lips full and red, but firm-set as if she might be both valiant and wroth. Her eyes set wide apart, grey and deep: her whole face sweet of aspect, as though she might be exceeding kind to one that pleased her; yet high and proud of demeanour also, meseemed, as though she were come of great kindred. Is this aught like to thy friend?”

He spake all this slowly and smoothly and that mocking smile came into his face now and again. Ralph grew pale as he spoke and knitted his brows as one in great wrath and grief; and he was slow to answer; but at last he said “Yea,” shortly and sharply.

Then said Morfinn: “And yet after all it might not be she: for there might be another or two even in these parts of whom all this might be said. But now I will tell thee of her raiment, though there may be but little help to thee therein, as she may have shifted it many times since thou hast seen her. Thus it was: she was clad outwardly in a green gown, short of skirt as of one wont to go afoot; somewhat straight in the sleeves as of one who hath household work to do, and there was broidery many coloured on the seams thereof, and a border of flower-work round the hem: and this I noted, that a cantle of the skirt had been rent away by some hap of the journey. Now what sayest thou, fair lord? Have I done well to bring thee this tale?”

“O yea, yea,” said Ralph, and he might not contain himself; but set spurs to his horse and galloped on ahead for some furlong or so: and then drew rein and gat off his horse, and made as if he would see to his saddle-girths, for he might not refrain from weeping the sweet and bitter tears of desire and fear, so stirred the soul within him.

Morfinn rode on quietly, and by then he came up, Ralph was mounting again, and when he was in the saddle he turned away his head from his fellow and said in a husky voice: “Morfinn, I command thee, or if thou wilt I beseech thee, that thou speak not to me again of this woman whom I am seeking; for it moveth me over much.” “That is well, lord,” said Morfinn, “I will do after thy command; and there be many other matters to speak of besides one fair woman.”

Then they rode on soberly a while, and Ralph kept silence, as he rode pondering much; but the minstrel hummed snatches of rhyme as he rode the way.

But at last Ralph turned to him suddenly and said: “Tell me, way-leader, in what wise did they seem to be using that woman?” The minstrel chuckled: “Fair lord,” said he, “if I had a mind for mocking I might say of thee that thou blowest both hot and cold, since it was but half an hour ago that thou badest me speak naught of her: but I deem that I know thy mind herein: so I will tell thee that they seemed to be using her courteously; as is no marvel; for who would wish to mar so fair an image? O, it will be well with her: I noted that the Lord seemed to think it good to ride beside her, and eye her all over. Yea, she shall have a merry life of it if she but do somewhat after the Lord’s will.”

Ralph looked askance at him fiercely, but the other heeded it naught: then said Ralph, “And how if she do not his will?” Said Morfinn, grinning: “Then hath my Lord a many servants to do his will.” Ralph held his peace for a long while; at last he turned a cleared brow to Morfinn and said; “Dost thou tell of the Lord of Utterbol that he is a good lord and merciful to his folk and servants?”

“Fair sir,” said the minstrel; “thou hast bidden me not speak of one woman, now will I pray thee not to speak of one man, and that is my Lord of Utterbol.”

Ralph’s heart fell at this word, and he asked no question as to wherefore.

So now they rode on both, rather more than soberly for a while: but the day was fair; the sun shone, the wind blew, and the sweet scents floated about them, and Ralph’s heart cast off its burden somewhat and he fell to speech again; and the minstrel answered him gaily by seeming, noting many things as they rode along, as one that took delight in the fashion of the earth.

It was a fresh and bright morning of early autumn, the sheaves were on the acres, and the grapes were blackening to the vintage, and the beasts and birds at least were merry. But little merry were the husbandmen whom they met, either carles or queans, and they were scantily and foully clad, and sullen-faced, if not hunger-pinched.

If they came across any somewhat joyous, it was here and there certain gangrel folk resting on the wayside grass, or coming out of woods and other passes by twos and threes, whiles with a child or two with them. These were of aspect like to the gipsies of our time and nation, and were armed all of them, and mostly well clad after their fashion. Sometimes when there were as many as four or five carles of them together, they would draw up amidst of the highway, but presently would turn aside at the sight either of Ralph’s war-gear or of the minstrel’s raiment. Forsooth, some of them seemed to know him, and nodded friendly to him as they passed by, but he gave them back no good day.

They had now ridden out of the lands of Goldburg, which were narrow on that side, and the day was wearing fast. This way the land was fair and rich, with no hills of any size. They crossed a big river twice by bridges, and small streams often, mostly by fords.

Some two hours before sunset they came upon a place where a byway joined the high road, and on the ingle stood a chapel of stone (whether of the heathen or Christian men Ralph wotted not, for it was uncouth of fashion), and by the door of the said chapel, on a tussock of grass, sat a knight all-armed save the head, and beside him a squire held his war-horse, and five other men-at-arms stood anigh bearing halberds and axes of strange fashion. The knight rose to his feet when he saw the wayfarers coming up the rising ground, and Ralph had his hand on his sword-hilt; but ere they met, the minstrel said —

“Nay, nay, draw thy let-pass, not thy sword. This knight shalt bid thee to a courteous joust; but do thou nay-say it, for he is a mere felon, and shalt set his men-at-arms on thee, and then will rob thee and slay thee after, or cast thee into his prison.”

So Ralph drew out his parchment which Morfinn had given into his keeping, and held it open in his hand, and when the knight called out on him in a rough voice as they drew anigh, he said: “Nay, sir, I may not stay me now, need driveth me on.” Quoth the knight, smoothing out a knitted brow: “Fair sir, since thou art a friend of our lord, wilt thou not come home to my house, which is hard by, and rest awhile, and eat a morsel, and drink a cup, and sleep in a fair chamber thereafter?”

“Nay, sir,” said Ralph, “for time presses;” and he passed on withal, and the knight made no step to stay him, but laughed a short laugh, like a swine snorting, and sat him down on the grass again. Ralph heeded him naught, but was glad that his let-pass was shown to be good for something; but he could see that the minstrel was nigh sick for fear and was shaking like an aspen leaf, and it was long ere he found his tongue again.

Forth then they rode till dusk, when the minstrel stayed Ralph at a place where a sort of hovels lay together about a house somewhat better builded, which Ralph took for a hostelry, though it had no sign nor bush. They entered the said house, wherein was an old woman to whom the minstrel spake a word or two in a tongue that Ralph knew not, and straightway she got them victual and drink nowise ill, and showed them to beds thereafter.

In spite of both victuals and drink the minstrel fell silent and moody; it might be from weariness, Ralph deemed; and he himself had no great lust for talk, so he went bedward, and made the bed pay for all.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 22:07