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The Well at the World's End Volume II
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The Well at the World's End Volume II

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Author: William Morris
Publisher: Ballantine Books, 1970
Series: The Well at the World's End: Book 2

0. The Well at the World's End
1. The Well at the World's End Volume I
2. The Well at the World's End Volume II

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

The second half of The Well at the World's End (Books Three and Four)

Using language with elements of the medieval tales which were his models, Morris tells the story of Ralph of Upmeads, the fourth and youngest son of a minor king, who sets out, contrary to his parents' wishes, to find knightly adventure and seek the Well at the World's End, a magic well which will confer a near-immortality and strengthened destiny on those who drink from it. The well lies at the edge of the sea beyond a wall of mountains called "The Wall of the World" by those on the near side of them but "The Wall of Strife" by the more peaceful and egalitarian people who live on the seaward side.

Ralph meets a mysterious lady who has drunk from the well, and they become lovers. Together and separately, they face many foes and dangers including brigands, slave traders, unscrupulous rulers and treacherous fellow travellers. The lady is killed, but with the help of Ursula, another maiden whom Ralph meets upon the way, and the Sage of Sweveham, an ancient hermit who has also drunk of the well, Ralph eventually attains the Well, after many more adventures. The outward journey takes more than a year. Returning from the well, Ralph, Ursula and the Sage find that some of the poor oppressed folk they had helped on the way to the well have righted grave wrongs, increased prosperity and reduced the level of strife in the city-state kingdoms along the way. The wayfarers must now decide whether they can settle down to a righteous but stodgy life at Ralph's home kingdom now that they have learned so much and become near-immortal, or are called to further heroism in the wider world.


Excerpt

Now was the night worn to the time appointed, for it was two hours after midnight, so he stepped out of his tent clad in all his war gear, and went straight to the doddered oak, and found Redhead there with but one horse, whereby Ralph knew that he held to his purpose of going his ways to Utterbol: so he took him by the shoulders and embraced him, rough carle as he was, and Redhead kneeled to him one moment of time and then arose and went off into the night. But Ralph got a-horseback without delay and rode his ways warily across the highway and into the wood, and there was none to hinder him. Though it was dark but for the starlight, there was a path, which the horse, and not Ralph, found, so that he made some way even before the first glimmer of dawn, all the more as the wood was not very thick after the first mile, and there were clearings here and there.

So rode Ralph till the sun was at point to rise, and he was about the midst of one of those clearings or wood-lawns, on the further side whereof there was more thicket, as he deemed, then he had yet come to; so he drew rein and looked about him for a minute. Even therewith he deemed he heard a sound less harsh than the cry of the jay in the beech-trees, and shriller than the moaning of the morning breeze in the wood. So he falls to listening with both ears, and this time deems that he hears the voice of a woman: and therewith came into his mind that old and dear adventure of the Wood Perilous; for he was dreamy with the past eagerness of his deeds, and the long and lonely night. But yet he doubted somewhat of the voice when it had passed his ears, so he shook his rein, for he thought it not good to tarry.

Scarce then had his horse stepped out, ere there came a woman running out of the thicket before him and made toward him over the lawn. So he gat off his horse at once and went to meet her, leading his horse; and as he drew nigh he could see that she was in a sorry plight; she had gathered up her skirts to run the better, and her legs and feet were naked: the coif was gone from her head and her black hair streamed out behind her: her gown was rent about the shoulders and bosom, so that one sleeve hung tattered, as if by the handling of some one.

So she ran up to him crying out: "Help, knight, help us!" and sank down therewith at his feet panting and sobbing. He stooped down to her, and raised her up, and said in a kind voice: "What is amiss, fair damsel, that thou art in such a plight; and what may I for thine avail? Doth any pursue thee, that thou fleest thus?"

She stood sobbing awhile, and then took hold of his two hands and said: "O fair lord, come now and help my lady! for as for me, since I am with thee, I am safe."

"Yea," said he, "Shall I get to horse at once?" And therewith he made as if he would move away from her; but she still held his hands, and seemed to think it good so to do, and she spake not for a while but gazed earnestly into his face. She was a fair woman, dark and sleek and lithe...for in good sooth she was none other than Agatha, who is afore told of.

Now Ralph is somewhat abashed by her eagerness, and lets his eyes fall before hers; and he cannot but note that despite the brambles and briars of the wood that she had run through, there were no scratches on her bare legs, and that her arm was unbruised where the sleeve had been rent off.

At last she spake, but somewhat slowly, as if she were thinking of what she had to say: "O knight, by thy knightly oath I charge thee come to my lady and help and rescue her: she and I have been taken by evil men, and I fear that they will put her to shame, and torment her, ere they carry her off; for they were about tying her to a tree when I escaped: for they heeded not me who am but the maid, when they had the mistress in their hands." "Yea," said he, "and who is thy mistress?" Said the damsel: "She is the Lady of the Burnt Rock; and I fear me that these men are of the Riders of Utterbol; and then will it go hard with her; for there is naught but hatred betwixt my lord her husband and the tyrant of Utterbol." Said Ralph: "And how many were they?" "O but three, fair sir, but three," she said; "and thou so fair and strong, like the war-god himself."

Ralph laughed: "Three to one is long odds," quoth he, "but I will come with thee when thou hast let go my hands so that I may mount my horse. But wilt thou not ride behind me, fair damsel; so wearied and spent as thou wilt be by thy night."

She looked on him curiously, and laid a hand on his breast, and the hauberk rings tinkled beneath the broidered surcoat; then she said: "Nay, I had best go afoot before thee, so disarrayed as I am."

Then she let him go, but followed him still with her eyes as he gat him into the saddle. She walked on beside his horse's head; and Ralph marvelled of her that for all her haste she had been in, she went somewhat leisurely, picking her way daintily so as to tread the smooth, and keep her feet from the rough.

Copyright © 1970 by William Morris


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