The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison, , at sacred-texts.com
OF KING GASLARK, AND OF THE COMING OF THE SENDING UPON THE DEMONS ON THE HIGH SEAS; WITH HOW THE LORD JUSS BY THE EGGING ON OF HIS COMPANIONS WAS PERSUADED TO AN UNADVISED RASHNESS.
THE next morning following that night when King Gorice XII. sat crowned in Carcë as is aforesaid, was Gaslark a-sailing on the middle sea, homeward from the east. Seven ships of war he had, and they steered in column south-westward close hauled on the starboard tack. Greatest and fairest among them was she who led the line, a great dragon of war painted azure of the summer sea with towering head of a worm, plated with gold and wrought with overlapping scales, gaping defiance from her bows, and a worm's tail erect at the poop. Seventy and five picked men of Goblinland sailed on that ship, clad in gay kirtles and byrnies of mail and armed with axes, spears, and swords. Their shields, each with his device, hung at the bulwarks. On the high poop sat King Gaslark, his sturdy hands grasping the great
steering paddle. Goodly of mien and well knit were all they of Goblinland that went on that great ship, yet did Gaslark outdo them all in goodliness and strength and all kingliness. He wore a silken kirtle of Tyrian purple. Broad wristlets of woven gold were on his wrists. Dark-skinned was he as one that hath lived all his days in the hot sunshine: clean-cut of feature, somewhat hooky-nosed, with great eyes and white teeth and tight-curled black moustachios. Nought restful was there in his presence and bearing, but rashness and impetuous fire; and he was wild to look on, swift and beautiful as a stag in autumn.
Teshmar, that was the skipper of his ship, stood at his elbow. Gaslark said to him, "Is it not one of the three gallant spectacles of the world, a good ship treading the hastening furrows of the sea like a queen in grace and beauty, scattering up the wave-crests before her stem in a glittering rain?"
"Yea, Lord," answered he; "and what be the other two?"
"One that I most unhappily did miss, whereof but yesterday we had tidings: to behold such a battling of great champions and such a victory as Lord Goldry obtained upon yonder vaunting tyrant."
"The third shall be seen, I think," said Teshmar, "when the Lord Goldry Bluszco shall in your royal palace of Zajë Zaculo, amid pomp and high rejoicing, wed the young princess your cousin: most fortunate lord, that must be lord of her whom all just censure doth acknowledge the ornament of earth, the model of heaven, the queen of beauty."
"Kind Gods hasten the day," said Gaslark. "For truly 'tis a most sweet lass, and those kinsmen of Demonland my dearest friends. But for whose great upholding time and again, Teshmar, in days gone by, where were I today and my kingdom, and where thou and all of you?" The king's brow darkened a little with thought. After a time he began to say, "I must have more great action:
these trivial harryings, spoils of Nevria, chasing of Esamocian black-a-moors, be toys not worthy of our great name and renown among the nations. Something I would enact that shall embroil and astonish the world, even as the Demons when they purged earth of the Ghouls, ere I go down into silence."
Teshmar was staring toward the southern bourne. He pointed with his hand: "There rideth a great ship, O king. And methinks she hath a strange look."
Gaslark gazed earnestly at her for an instant, then straightway shifted his helm and steered towards her. He spake no more, staring ever as he sailed, marking ever as the distance lessened more and more particulars of that ship. Her silken sail fluttered in tatters from the yard; she rowed feebly, as one groping in darkness, with barely strength to stay her from drifting stern-foremost before the wind. So hung she on the sea, as one struck stupid by some blow, doubting which way her harbour lay or which way her course. As a thing which hath been held in the flame of a monstrous candle, so seemed she, singed and besmirched with soot. Smashed was her proud figure-head, and smashed was her high forecastle, and burned and shattered the carved timbers of the poop and the fair seats that were thereon. She leaked, so that a score of her crew must be still a-baling to keep her afloat. Of her fifty oars, half were broken or gone adrift, and many of the ship's company lay wounded and some slain under her thwarts.
And now was King Gaslark ware as he drew near that here was the Lord Juss on her ruined poop a-steering, and by him Spitfire and Brandoch Daha. Their jewelled arms and gear and rich attire were black with most stinking soot, and it was as though admiration and grief and anger were so locked and twined within them that none of these passions might win forth to outward showing on their frozen countenances.
When they were within hailing distance, Gaslark hailed them. They answered him not, only beholding him with
alien eyes. But they stopped the ship, and Gaslark lay aboard of her and came on board and went up on the poop and greeted them. And he said, "Well met in an ill hour. "What's the matter?"
The Lord Juss made as if to speak, but no word came. Only he took Gaslark by both hands and sat down with a great groan on the poop, averting his face. Gaslark said, "O Juss, for so many a time as thou hast borne part in my evils and succoured me, surely right requireth I have part of thine?"
But Juss answered in a thick, strange voice all unlike himself, "Mine, sayest thou, O Gaslark? What in the stablished world is mine, that am thus in a moment reived of him that was mine own heartstring, my brother, the might of mine arm, the chiefest citadel of my dominion?" And he burst into a great passion of weeping.
King Gaslark's rings were driven into the flesh of his fingers by the grip of Juss's strong hands on his. But he scarce wist of the pain, such agony of mind was in him for the loss of his friend, and for the bitterness and wonder that it was to behold these three great lords of Demonland weep like frightened women, and all their ship's company of tried men of war weeping and wailing besides. And Gaslark saw well that their lordly souls were unseated for a season because of some dreadful fact, the havoc whereof his eyes most woefully beheld, while its particulars were yet dark to him, yet with a terror in darkness that might well make his heart to quail.
By much questioning he was at last well advertised of what had befallen: how they the day before, in broad noon, on such a summer sea, had heard a noise like the flapping of wings outstretched from one edge of the sky to another, and in a moment the calm sea was lifted up and fell again and the whole sea clashed together and roared, yet was the ship not sunken. And there was a tumult about them of thunder and raging waters and black night and wildfire in the night; which presently passing away and the darkness lifting, the sea lay solitary
as far as eye might reach. "And nothing is more certain," said Juss, "than that this is a sending of King Gorice XII. spoken of by the prophets as a great clerk of necromancy beyond all other this world hath seen. And this is his vengeance for the woes we wrought for Witchland in the Foliot Isles. Against such a peril I had provided certain amulets made of the stone alectorian, which groweth in the gizzard of a cock hatched on a moonless night when Saturn burneth in a human sign and the lord of the third house is in the ascendant. These saved us, albeit sorely buffeted, from destruction: all save Goldry alone. He, by some cursed chance, whether he neglected to wear the charm I gave him, or the chain of it was broken in the plunging of the ship, or by some other means 'twas lost: when daylight came again, we stood but three on this poop where four had stood. More I know not."
"O Gaslark," said Spitfire, "our brother that is stolen from us, with us it surely lieth to find him and set him free."
But Juss groaned and said, "In which star of the unclimbed sky wilt thou begin our search? Or in which of the secret streams of ocean where the last green rays are quenched in oozy darkness?"
Gaslark was silent for a while. Then he said, "I think nought likelier than this, that Gorice hath caught away Goldry Bluszco into Carcë, where he holdeth him in duress. And thither must we straightway to deliver him."
Juss answered no word. But Gaslark seized his hand, saying, "Our ancient love and your oft succouring of Goblinland in days gone by make this my quarrel. Hear now my rede. As I fared from the east through the Straits of Rinath I beheld a mighty company of forty sail, bound eastward to the Beshtrian sea. Well it was they marked us not as we lay under the isles of Ellien in the dusk of evening. For touching later at Norvasp in Pixyland we learned that there sailed Laxus with the whole[paragraph continues]
Witchland fleet, being minded to work evil deeds among the peaceful cities of the Beshtrian seaboard. And as well met were an antelope with a devouring lion, as I and my seven ships with those ill-doers in such strength on the high seas. But now, behold how wide standeth the door to our wishes. Laxus and that great armament are safe harrying eastward-ho. I make question whether at this moment more than nine score or ten score fighting men be left in Carcë. I have here of mine own nigh on five hundred. Never was fairer chance to take Witchland with his claws beneath the table, and royally may we scratch his face ere he get them forth again." And Gaslark laughed for joy of battle, and cried, "O Juss, smiles it not to thee, this rede of mine?"
"Gaslark," said Lord Juss, "nobly and with that open hand and heart that I have loved in thee from of old hast thou made this offer. Yet not so is Witchland to be overcome, but after long days of labour only, and laying of schemes and building of ships and gathering of hosts answerable to the strength we bare of late against the Ghouls when we destroyed them."
Nor for all his urging might Gaslark move him any whit.
But Spitfire sat by his brother and spake. privately to him: "Kinsman, what ails thee? Is all high heart and swiftness to action crushed out of Demonland, and doth but the unserviceable juiceless skin remain to us? Thou art clean unlike that thou hast ever been, and could Witchland behold us now well might he judge that base fear had ta'en hold upon us, seeing that with the odds of strength so fortunately of our side we shrink from striking at him."
Juss said in Spitfire's ear, "This it is, that I do misdoubt me of the steadfastness of the Goblins. Too like to fire among dead leaves is the sudden flame of their valour, a poor thing to rely on if once they be checked. So do I count it folly trusting in them for our main
strength to go up against Carcë. Also it is but a wild fancy that Goldry hath been transported into Carcë."
But Spitfire leaped up a-cursing, and cried out, "O Gaslark, thou wert best fare home to Goblinland. But we will sail openly to Carcë and crave audience of the great King, entreating him suffer us to kiss his toe, and acknowledging him to be our King and us his ill-conditioned, disobedient children. So may be haply restore unto us our brother, when he hath chastised us, and haply of his mercy send us home to Demonland, there to fawn upon Corsus or vile Corinius, or whomsoever he shall set up in Galing for his Viceroy. For with Goldry hath all manliness departed out of Demonland, and we be milksops that remain, and objects of scorn and spitting."
Now while Spitfire spake thus in wrath and sorrow of heart, the Lord Brandoch Daha fared fore and aft on the gangway about and about, as a caged panther fareth when feeding time is long overdue. And at whiles he clapped hand to the hilt of his long and glittering sword and rattled it in the scabbard. At length, standing over against Gaslark, and eyeing him with a mocking glance, "O Gaslark," he said, "this that hath befallen breedeth in me a cruel perturbation which carries my spirits outwards, stirring up a tempest in my mind and preparing my body to melancholy, and madness itself. The cure of this is only fighting. Wherefore if thou love me, Gaslark, out with thy sword and ward thyself. Fight I must, or this passion will kill me quite out. 'Tis pity to draw upon my friend, but sith we be banned from fighting with our enemies, what choice remaineth?"
Gaslark laughed and seized him playfully by the arms, saying, "I will not fight with thee, how prettily soe'er thou ask it, Brandoch Daha, that savedst Goblinland from the Witches"; but straight grew grave again and said to Juss, "O Juss, be ruled. Thou seest what temper thy friends are in. All we be as hounds tugging against the
leash to be loosed against Carcë in this happy hour, that likely cometh not again."
Now when Lord Juss perceived them all against him, and hot-mouthed for that attempt, be smiled scornfully and said, "O my brother and my friends, what echoes and quailpipes are you become who seem to catch wisdom by imitating her voice? But ye be mad like March hares, every man of you, and myself too. Break ice in one place, 'twill crack in more. And truly I care not greatly for my life now that Goldry is gone from me. Cast we lots, then, which of us three shall fare home to Demonland with this our ship, that is but a lame duck since this sending. And he on whom the lot shall fall must fare home to concert the raising of a mighty fleet and armament to carry on our war against the Witches."
So spake Lord Juss, and all they who had but a short hour ago felt themselves in such point that there was in them no hope of convalescence nor of life, had now their spirits raised in a seeming drunkenness, and thought only on the gladness of battle.
The lords of Demonland marked each his lot and cast it in the helm of Gaslark, and Gaslark shook the helm, and there leapt forth the lot of the Lord Spitfire. Right wrathful was he. So the lords of Demonland did off their armour and their costly apparel that was black with soot, and let cleanse it. Sixty of their fighting men that were unscathed by the sending went aboard one of Gaslark's ships, and the crew of that ship manned the ship of Demonland, and Spitfire took the steering paddle, and the Demons that were hurt lay in the hold of the hollow ship. They brought forth a spare sail and hoisted it in place of that that was destroyed; so in sore discontent, yet with a cheerful countenance, the Lord Spitfire set sail for the west. And Gaslark the king sat by the steering paddle of his fair dragon of war, and by him the Lord Juss and the Lord Brandoch Daha, who was like a war-horse impatient for battle. Her prow swung north and so round eastaway, and her sail broidered with
flower-de-luces smote the mast and filled to the west wind, and those other six fared after her in line ahead with white sails unfurled, striding majestic over the full broad billows.