Ralph Readeth in a Book Concerning the Well at the World’s End
Fairly written was that book, with many pictures therein, the meaning of which Ralph knew not; but amongst them was the image of the fair woman whom he had holpen at the want-ways of the wood, and but four days ago was that, yet it seemed long and long to him. The book told not much about the Well at the World’s End, but much it told of a certain woman whom no man that saw her could forbear to love: of her it told that erewhile she dwelt lonely in the wildwood (though how she came there was not said) and how a king’s son found her there and brought her to his father’s kingdom and wedded her, whether others were lief or loth: and in a little while, when the fame of her had spread, he was put out of his kingdom and his father’s house for the love of her, because other kings and lords hankered after her; whereof befel long and grievous war which she abode not to the end, but sought to her old place in the wildwood; and how she found there another woman a sorceress, who made her her thrall; and tormented her grievously with toil and stripes. And how again there came a knight to that place who was seeking the Well at the World’s End, and bore her away with him; and how the said knight was slain on the way, and she was taken by tyrants and robbers of the folk: but these being entangled in her love fought amongst themselves and she escaped, and went seeking that Well, and found it at the long last, and drank thereof, and throve ever after: and how she liveth yet, and is become the servant of the Well to entangle the seekers in her love and keep them from drinking thereof; because there was no man that beheld her, but anon he was the thrall of her love, and might not pluck his heart away from her to do any of the deeds whereby men thrive and win the praise of the people.
Ralph read on and on till the short night waned, and the wax-lights failed one after the other, and the windows of the hall grew grey and daylight came, and the throstles burst out a-singing at once in the castle pleasaunce, and the sun came up over the wood, and the sound of men-folk bestirring themselves a-field came to his ears through the open windows; and at last he was done with the tale, and the carline came not near him though the sun had clomb high up the heavens. As for Ralph, what he had read was sweet poison to him; for if before he was somewhat tormented by love, now was his heart sick and sore with it. Though he knew not for certain whether this tale had to do with the Lady of the Forest, and though he knew not if the Lady who should come to the castle were even she, yet he needs must deem that so it was, and his heart was weary with love, and his manhood seemed changed.
Ralph Meeteth a Man in the Wood