The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison, , at sacred-texts.com
OF THE COMING OF THE LORDS OF DEMONLAND TO MORNA MORUNA, WHENCE THEY BEHELD THE ZIMIAMVIAN MOUNTAINS, SEEN ALSO BY GRO IN YEARS GONE BY; AND OF THE WONDERS SEEN BY THEM AND PERILS UNDERGONE AND DEEDS DONE IN THEIR ATTEMPT ON KOSHTRA PIVRARCHA, THE WHICH ALONE OF ALL EARTH'S MOUNTAINS LOOKETH DOWN UPON KOSHTRA BELORN; AND NONE SHALL ASCEND UP INTO KOSHTRA BELORN THAT HATH NOT FIRST LOOKED DOWN UPON HER.
Now it is to be said of Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha that they, finding themselves parted from their people in the fog, and utterly unable to find them, when the last sound of battle had died away wiped and put up their bloody swords and set forth at a great pace eastward. Only Mivarsh fared with them of all their following. His lips were drawn back a little, showing his teeth, but he carried himself proudly as one who being resolved to die walks with a quiet mind to his destruction. Day after day they journeyed, sometimes in clear weather, sometimes in mist or sleet, over the changeless desert,
without a landmark, save here a little sluggish river, or here a piece of rising ground, or a pond, or a clump of rocks: small things which faded from sight amid the waste ere they were passed by a half-mile's distance. So was each day like yesterday, drawing to a morrow like to it again. And always fear walked at their heel and sat beside them sleeping: clanking of wings heard above the wind, a brooding hush of menace in the sunshine, and noises out of the void of darkness as of teeth chattering. So came they on the twentieth day to Morna Moruna, and stood at even in the sorrowful twilight by the little round castle, silent on Omprenne Edge.
From their feet the cliffs dropped sheer. Strange it was, standing on that frozen lip of the Moruna, as on the limit of the world, to gaze southward on a land of summer, and to breathe faint summer airs blowing up from blossoming trees and flower-clad alps. In the depths a carpet of huge tree-tops clothed a vast stretch of country, through the midst of which, seen here and there in a bend of silver among the woods, the Bhavinan bore the waters of a thousand secret mountain solitudes down to an unknown sea. Beyond the river the deep woods, blue with distance, swelled to feathery hill-tops with some sharper-featured loftier heights bodying cloudily beyond them. The Demons strained their eyes searching the curtain of mystery behind and above those foot-hills; but the great peaks, like great ladies, shrouded themselves against their curious gaze, and no glimpse was shown them of the snows.
Surely to be in Morna Moruna was to be in the death chamber of some once lovely presence. Stains of fire were on the walls. The fair gallery of open wood-work that ran above the main hall was burnt through and partly fallen in ruin, the blackened ends of the beams that held it jutting blindly in the gap. Among the wreck of carved chairs and benches, broken and worm-eaten, some shreds of figured tapestries rotted, the home now of beetles and spiders. Patches of colour, faded lines, mildewed and damp with the corruption of two hundred
years, lingered to be the memorials, like the mummied skeleton of a king's daughter long ago untimely dead, of sweet gracious paintings on the walls. Five nights and five days the Demons and Mivarsh dwelt in Morna Moruna, inured to portents till they marked them as little as men mark swallows at their window. In the still night were flames seen, and flying forms dim in the moonlit air; and in moonless nights unstarred, moans heard and gibbering accents: prodigies beside their beds, and ridings in the sky, and fleshless fingers plucking at Juss unseen when he went forth to make question of the night.
Cloud and mist abode ever in the south, and only the foot-hills showed of the great ranges beyond Bhavinan. But on the evening of the sixth day before Yule, it being the nineteenth of December when Betelgeuze stands at midnight on the meridian, a wind blew out of the northwest with changing fits of sleet and sunshine. Day was fading as they stood above the cliff. All the forest land was blue with shades of approaching night: the river was dull silver: the wooded heights afar mingled their outlines with the towers and banks of turbulent deep blue vapour that hurtled in ceaseless passage through the upper air. Suddenly a window opened in the clouds to a space of clean wan wind-swept sky high above the shaggy hills. Surely Juss caught his breath in that moment, to see those deathless ones where they shone pavilioned in the pellucid air, far, vast, and lonely, most like to creatures of unascended heaven, of wind and of fire all compact, too pure to have aught of the gross elements of earth or water. It was as if the rose-red light of sundown had been frozen to crystal and these hewn from it to abide to everlasting, strong and unchangeable amid the welter of earthborn mists below and tumultuous sky above them. The rift ran wider, eastward and westward, opening on more peaks and sunset-kindled snows. And a rainbow leaning to the south was like a sword of glory across the vision.
Motionless, like hawks staring from that high place of
prospect, Juss and Brandoch Daha looked on the mountains of their desire.
Juss spake, haltingly as one talking in a dream. "The sweet smell, this gusty wind, the very stone thy foot standeth on: I know them all before. There's not a night since we sailed out of Lookinghaven that I have not beheld in sleep these mountains and known their names."
"Who told thee their names?" asked Lord Brandoch Daha.
"My dream," Juss answered. "And first I dreamed it in mine own bed in Galing when I came borne from guesting with thee last June. And they be true dreams that are dreamed there." And he said, "Seest thou where the foothills part to a dark valley that runneth deep into the chain, and the mountains are bare to view from crown to foot? Mark where, beyond the nearer range, bleak-visaged precipices, cobweb-streaked with huge snow corridors, rise to a rampart where the rock towers stand against the sky. This is the great ridge of Koshtra Pivrarcha, and the loftiest of those spires his secret mountaintop."
As he spoke, his eye followed the line of the eastern ridge, where the towers, like dark gods going down from heaven, plunge to a parapet which runs level above a curtain of avalanche-fluted snow. He fell silent as his gaze rested on the sister peak that east of the gap flamed skyward in wild cliffs to an airy snowy summit, soft-lined as a maiden's cheek, purer than dew, lovelier than a dream.
While they looked the sunset fires died out upon the mountains, leaving only pale hues of death and silence. "If thy dream," said Lord Brandoch Daha, "conducted thee down this Edge, over the Bhavinan, through yonder woods and hills, up through the leagues of ice and frozen rock that stand betwixt us and the main ridge, up by the right road to the topmost snows of Koshtra Belorn: that were a dream indeed."
"All this it showed me," said Juss, "up to the lowest rocks of the great north buttress of Koshtra Pivrarcha,
that must first be scaled by him that would go up to Koshtra Belorn. But beyond those rocks not even a dream hath ever climbed. Ere the light fades, I'll show thee our pass over the nearer range." He pointed where a glacier crawled betwixt shadowy walls down from a torn snow-field that rose steeply to a saddle. East of it stood two white peaks, and west of it a sheer-faced and long-backed mountain like a citadel, squat and dark beneath the wild sky-line of Koshtra Pivrarcha that hung in air beyond it.
"The Zia valley," said Juss, "that runneth into Bhavinan. There lieth our way: under that dark bastion called by the Gods Tetrachnampf."
On the morrow Lord Brandoch Daha came to Mivarsh Faz and said, "It is needful that this day we go down from Omprenne Edge. I would for no sake leave thee on the Moruna, but 'tis no walking matter to descend this wall. Art thou a cragsman?"
"I was born," answered he, "in the high valley of Perarshyn by the upper waters of the Beirun in Impland. There boys scarce toddle ere they can climb a rock. This climb affrights me not, nor those mountains. But the land is unknown and terrible, and many loathly ones inhabit it, ghosts and eaters of men. O devils transmarine, and my friends, is it not enough? Let us turn again, and if the Gods save our lives we shall be famous for ever, that came unto Morna Moruna and returned alive."
But Juss answered and said, "O Mivarsh Faz, know that not for fame are we come on this journey. Our greatness already shadoweth all the world, as a great cedar tree spreading his shadow in a garden; and this enterprise, mighty though it be, shall add to our glory only so much as thou mightest add to these forests of the Bhavinan by planting of one more tree. But so it is, that the great King of Witchland, practising in darkness in his royal palace of Carcë such arts of grammarie and sendings magical as the world hath not been grieved with
until now, sent an ill thing to take my brother, the Lord Goldry Bluszco, who is dear to me as mine own soul. And They that dwell in secret sent me word in a dream, bidding me, if I would have tidings of my dear brother, inquire in Koshtra Belorn. Therefore, O Mivarsh, go with us if thou wilt, but if thou wilt not, why, fare thee well. For nought but my death shall stay me from going thither."
And Mivarsh, bethinking him that if the mantichores of the mountains should devour him along with those two lords, that were yet a kindlier fate than all alone to abide those things he wist of on the Moruna, put on the rope, and after commending himself to the protection of his gods followed Lord Brandoch Daha down the rotten slopes of rock and frozen earth at the head of a gully leading down the cliff.
For all that they were early afoot, yet was it high noon ere they were off the rocks. For the peril of falling stones drove them out from the gully's bed first on to the eastern buttress and after, when that grew too sheer, back to the western wall. And in an hour or twain the gully's bed grew shallow and it narrowed to an end, whence Brandoch Daha gazed between his feet to where, a few spear's lengths below, the smooth slabs curved downward out of sight and the eye leapt straight from their clean-cut edge to shimmering tree-tops that showed tiny as mosses beyond the unseen gulf of air. So they rested awhile; then returning a little up the gully forced a way out on to the face and made a hazardous traverse to a new gully westward of the first, and so at last plunged down a long fan of scree and rested on soft fine turf at the foot of the cliffs.
Little mountain gentians grew at their feet; the path, less forest lay like the sea below them; before them the mountains of the Zia stood supreme: the white gables of Islargyn, the lean dark finger of Tetrachnampf nan Tshark lying back above the Zia Pass pointing to the sky, and west of it, jutting above the valley, the square bastion of Tetrachnampf nan Tsurm. The greater mountains
were for the most part sunk behind this nearer range, but Koshtra Belorn still towered above the Pass. As a queen looking down from her high window, so she overlooked those green woods sleeping in the noon-day; and on her forehead was beauty like a star. Behind them where they sat, the escarpment reared back in cramped perspective, a pile of massive buttresses cleft with ravines leading upward from that land of leaves and waters to the hidden wintry flats of the Moruna.
That night they slept on the fell under the stars, and next day, going down into the woods, came at dusk to an open glade by the waters of the broad-bosomed Bhavinan. The turf was like a cushion, a place for elves to dance in. The far bank full half a mile away was wooded to the water with silver birches, dainty as mountain nymphs, their limbs gleaming through the twilight, their reflections quivering in the depths of the mighty river. In the high air day lingered yet, a faint warmth tingeing the great outlines of the mountains, and west ward up the river the young moon stooped above the trees. East of the glade a little wooded eminence, no higher than a house, ran back from the river bank, and in its shoulder a hollow cave.
"How smiles it to thee?" said Juss. "Be sure we shall find no better place than this thou seest to dwell in until the snows melt and we may on. For though it be summer all the year round in this fortunate valley, it is winter on the great hills, and until the spring we were mad to essay our enterprise."
"Why then," said Brandoch Daha, "turn we shepherds awhile. Thou shalt pipe to me, and I'll foot thee measures shall make the dryads think they ne'er went to school. And Mivarsh shall be a goat-foot god to chase them; for to tell thee truth country wenches are long grown tedious to me. O, 'tis a sweet life. But ere we fall to it, bethink thee, O Juss: time marcheth, and the world waggeth:
what goeth forward in Demonland till summer be come and we home again?"
"Also my heart is heavy because of my brother Spitfire," said Juss. "Oh, 'twas an ill storm, and ill delays."
"Away with vain regrettings," said Lord Brandoch Daha. "For thy sake and thy brother's fared I on this journey, and it is known to thee that never yet stretched I out mine hand upon aught that I have not taken it, and had my will of it."
So they made their dwelling in that cave beside deep-eddying Bhavinan, and before that cave they ate their Yule feast, the strangest they had eaten all the days of their lives: seated, not as of old, on their high seats of ruby or of opal, but on mossy banks where daisies slept and creeping thyme; lighted not by the charmed escarbuncle of the high presence chamber in Galing, but by the shifting beams of a brushwood fire that shone not on those pillars crowned with monsters that were the wonder of the world but on the mightier pillars of the sleeping beechwoods. And in place of that feigned heaven of jewels self-effulgent beneath the golden canopy at Galing, they ate pavilioned under a charmed summer night, where the great stars of winter, Orion, Sirius, and the Little Dog, were raised up near the zenith, yielding their known courses in the southern sky to Canopus and the strange stars of the south. When the trees spake, it was not with their winter voice of bare boughs creaking, but with whisper of leaves and beetles droning in the fragrant air. The bushes were white with blossom, not with hoar-frost, and the dim white patches under the trees were not snow, but wild lilies and wood anemones sleeping in the night.
All the creatures of the forest came to that feast, for they were without fear, having never looked upon the face of man. Little tree-apes, and popinjays, and titmouses, and coalmouses, and wrens, and gentle round-eyed lemurs, and rabbits, and badgers, and dormice, and pied squirrels, and beavers from the streams, and storks, and ravens, and bustards, and wombats, and the spider-monkey
with her baby at her breast: all these came to gaze with curious eye upon those travellers. And not these alone, but fierce beasts of the woods and wildernesses: the wild buffalo, the wolf, the tiger with monstrous paws, the bear, the fiery-eyed unicorn, the elephant, the lion and she-lion in their majesty, came to behold them in the firelight in that quiet glade.
"It seems we hold court in the woods to-night," said Lord Brandoch Daha. "It is very pleasant. Yet bold thee ready with me to put some fire-brands amongst 'em if need befall. 'Tis likely some of these great beasts are little schooled in court ceremonies."
Juss answered, "And thou lovest me, do no such thing. There lieth this curse upon all this land of the Bhavinan, that whoso, whether he be man or beast, slayeth in this land or doeth here any deed of violence, there cometh down a curse upon him that in that instant must destroy and blast him for ever off the face of the earth. Therefore it was I took away from Mivarsh his bow and arrows when we came down from Omprenne Edge, lest he should kill game for us and so a worse thing befall him."
Mivarsh harkened not, but sat all a-quake, looking intently on a crocodile that came ponderously out upon the bank. And now he began to scream with terror, crying, "Save me! let me fly! give me my weapons! It was foretold me by a wise woman that a cocadrill-serpent must devour me at last!" Whereat the beasts drew back uneasily, and the crocodile, his small eyes wide, startled by Mivarsh's cries and violent gestures, lurched with what speed he might back into the water.
Now in that place Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha and Mivarsh Faz abode for four moons' space. Nothing they lacked of meat and drink, for the beasts of the forest, finding them well disposed, brought them of their store. Moreover, there came flying from the south, about the ending of the year, a martlet which alighted in Juss's bosom and said to him, "The gentle[paragraph continues]
Queen Sophonisba, fosterling of the Gods, had news of your coming. And because she knoweth you both mighty men of your hands and high of heart, therefore by me she sent you greeting."
Juss said, "O little martlet, we would see thy Queen face to f ace, and thank her."
"Ye must thank her," said the bird, "in Koshtra Belorn."
Brandoch Daha said, "That shall we fulfil. Thither only do our thoughts intend."
"Your greatness," said the martlet, "must approve that word. And know that it is easier to lay under you all the world in arms than to ascend up afoot into that mountain."
"Thy wings were too weak to lift me, else I'd borrow them," said Brandoch Daha.
But the martlet answered, "Not the eagle that flieth against the sun may alight on Koshtra Belorn. No foot may tread her, save of those blessed ones to whom the Gods gave leave ages ago, till they be come that the patient years await: men like unto the Gods in beauty and in power, who of their own might and main, unholpen by magic arts, shall force a passage up to her silent snows."
Brandoch Daha laughed. "Not the eagle?" he cried, "but thou, little flitter-jack?"
"Nought that hath feet," said the martlet. "I have none."
The Lord Brandoch Daha took it tenderly in his hand and held it high in the air, looking to the high lands in the south. The birches swaying by the Bhavinan were not more graceful nor the distant mountain-crags behind them more untameable to behold than he. "Fly to thy Queen," he said, "and say thou spakest with Lord Juss beside the Bhavinan and with Lord Brandoch Daha of Demonland. Say unto her that we be they that were for to come; and that we, of our own might and main, ere spring be well turned summer, will come up to her if Koshtra Belorn to thank her for her gracious sendings."
Now when it was April, and the sun moving among the signs of heaven was about departing out of Aries and entering into Taurus, and the melting of the snows in the high mountains had swollen all the streams to spate, filling the mighty river so that he brimmed his banks and swept by like a tide-race, Lord Juss said, "Now is the season propitious for our crossing of the flood of Bhavinan and setting forth into the mountains."
"Willingly," said Lord Brandoch Daha. "But shall's walk it, or swim it, or take to us wings? To me, that have many a time swum back and forth over Thunderfirth to whet mine appetite ere I brake my fast, 'tis a small matter of this river stream howso swift it runneth. But with our harness and weapons and all our gear, that were far other matter."
"Is it for nought we are grown friends with them that do inhabit these woods?" said Juss. "The crocodile shall bear us over Bhavinan for the asking."
"It is an ill fish," said Mivarsh; "and it sore dislikes me."
"Then here thou must abide," said Brandoch Daha. "But be not dismayed, I will go with thee. The fish may bear us both at a draught and not founder."
"It was a wise woman foretold it me," answered Mivarsh, "that such a kind of serpent must be my bane. Yet be it according to your will."
So they whistled them up the crocodile; and first the Lord Juss fared over Bhavinan, riding on the back of that serpent with all his gear and weapons of war, and landed several hundred paces down stream for the stream was very strong; and thereafter the crocodile returning to the north bank took the Lord Brandoch Daha and Mivarsh Faz and put them across in like manner. Mivarsh put on a gallant face, but rode as near the tail as might be, fingering certain herbs from his wallet that were good against serpents, his lips moving in urgent supplication to his gods. When they were come ashore they thanked the crocodile and bade him farewell and went their way swiftly through the woods. And[paragraph continues]
Mivarsh, as one new loosed from prison, went before them with a light step, singing and snapping his fingers.
Now had they for three days or four a devious journey through the foot-hills, and thereafter made their dwelling for forty days space in the Zia valley, above the gorges. Here the valley widens to a flat-floored amphitheatre, and lean limestone crags tower heavenward on every side. High in the south, couched above great gray moraines, the Zia glacier, wrinkle-backed like some dragon survived out of the elder chaos, thrusts his snout into the valley. Here out of his caves of ice the young river thunders, casting up a spray where rainbows hover in bright weather. The air blows sharp from the glacier, and alpine flowers and shrubs feed on the sunlight.
Here they gathered them good store of food. And every morning they were afoot before the sunrise, to ascend the mountains and make sure their practice ere they should attempt the greater peaks. So they explored all the spurs of Tetrachnampf and Islargyn, and those peaks themselves; the rock peaks of the lower Nuanner range overlooking Bhavinan; the snow peaks east of Islargyn: Avsek, Kiurmsur, Myrsu, Byrshnargyn, and Borch Mehephtharsk, loftiest of the range, by all his ridges, dwelling a week on the moraines of the Mehephtharsk glacier above the upland valley of Foana; and westward the dolomite group of Burdjazarshra and the great wall of Shilack.
Now were their muscles by these exercises grown like bands of iron, and they hardy as mountain bears and sure of foot as mountain goats. So on the ninth day of May they crossed the Zia Pass and camped on the rocks under the south wall of Tetrachnampf nan Tshark. The sun went down, like blood, in a cloudless sky. On either hand and before them, the snows stretched blue and silent. The air of those high snowfields was bitter cold. A league and more to the south a line of black cliffs bounded the glacier-basin. Over that black wall, twelve miles away, Koshtra Belorn and Koshtra Pivrarcha towered against an opal heaven.
While they supped in the fading light, Juss said, "The wall thou seest is called the Barriers of Emshir. Though over it lieth the straight way to Koshtra Pivrarcha, yet is it not our way, but an ill way. For, first, that barrier hath till now been held unclimbable, and so proven even by half-gods that alone assayed it."
"I await not thy second reason," said Brandoch Daha. "Thou hast had thy way until now, and now thou shalt give me mine in this, to come with me to-morrow and show how thou and I make of such barriers a puff of smoke if they stand in the path between us and our fixed ends."
"Were it only this," answered Juss, "I would not gainsay thee. But not senseless rocks alone are we set to deal with if we take this road. Seest thou where the Barriers end in the east against yonder monstrous pyramid of tumbled crags and hanging glaciers that shuts out our prospect east-away? Menksur men call it, but in heaven it hath a more dreadful name: Ela Mantissera, which is to say, the Bed of the Mantichores. O Brandoch Daha, I will climb with thee what unsealed cliff thou list, and I will fight with thee against the most grisfullest beasts that ever grazed by the Tartarian streams. But both these things in one moment of time, that were a rash part and a foolish."
But Brandoch Daha laughed, and answered him, "To nought else may I liken thee, O Juss, but to the sparrow-camel. To whom they said, 'Fly,' and it answered, 'I cannot, for I am a camel'; and when they said, 'Carry,' it answered, 'I cannot, for I am a bird.'"
"Wilt thou egg me on so much?" said Juss.
"Ay," said Brandoch Daha, "if thou wilt be assish."
"Wilt thou quarrel?" said Juss.
"Thou knowest me," said Brandoch Daha.
"Well," said Juss, "thy counsel hath been right once and saved us, for nine times that it hath been wrong, and my counsel saved thee from an evil end. If ill behap us, it shall be set down that it had from thy peevish will
original." And they wrapped them in their cloaks and slept.
On the morrow they rose betimes and set forth south across the snows that were crisp and hard for the frosts of the night. The Barriers, as it were but a stone's-throw removed, stood black before them; starlight swallowed up size and distance that showed only by walking, as still they walked and still that wall seemed no nearer nor no larger. Twice and thrice they dipped into a valley or crossed a raised-up fold of the glacier; till they stood at break of day below the smooth blank wall frozen and bleak, with never a ledge in sight great enough to bear snow, barring their passage southward.
They halted and ate and scanned the wall before them. And ill to do with it seemed. So they searched for an ascent, and found at last a spot where the glacier swelled higher, a mile or less from the western shoulder of Ela Mantissera. Here the cliff was but four or five hundred feet high; yet smooth enow and ill enow to look on; yet their likeliest choice.
Some while it was ere they might get a footing on that wall, but at length Brandoch Daha, standing on Juss's shoulder, found him a hold where no hold showed from below, and with great travail fought a passage up the rock to a stance some hundred feet above them, whence sitting sure on a broad ledge great enough to hold six or seven folk at a time he played up Lord Juss on the rope and after him Mivarsh. An hour and a half it cost them for that short climb.
"The north-east buttress of Ill Stack was children's gruel to this," said Lord Juss.
"There's more aloft," said Lord Brandoch Daha, lying back against the precipice, his hands clasped behind his head, his feet a-dangle over the ledge. "In thine ear, Juss: I would not go first on the rope again on such a pitch for all the wealth of Impland."
"Wilt repent and return?" said Juss.
"If thou'lt be last down," he answered. "If not, I'd
liever risk what waits untried above us. If it prove worse, I am confirmed atheist."
Lord Juss leaned out, holding by the rock with his right hand, scanning the wall beside and above them. An instant he hung so, then drew back. His square jaw was set, and his teeth glinted under his dark moustachios something fiercely, as a thunder-beam betwixt dark sky and sea in a night of thunder. His nostrils widened, as of a war-horse at the call of battle; his eyes were like the violet levin-brand, and all his body hardened like a bowstring drawn as he grasped his sharp sword and pulled it forth grating and singing from its sheath.
Brandoch Daha sprang afoot and drew his sword, Zeldornius's loom. "What stirreth?" he cried. "Thou look'st ghastly. That look thou hadst when thou tookest the helm and our prows swung westward toward Kartadza Sound, and the fate of Demonland and all the world beside hung in thine hand for wail or bliss."
"There's little sword-room," said Juss. And again he looked forth eastward and upward along the cliff.
Brandoch Daha looked over his shoulder. Mivarsh took his bow and set an arrow on the string.
"It hath scented us down the wind," said Brandoch Daha.
Small time was there to ponder. Swinging from hold to hold across the dizzy precipice, as an ape swingeth from bough to bough, the beast drew near. The shape of it was as a lion, but bigger and taller, the colour a dull red, and it had prickles lancing out behind, as of a porcupine; its face a man's face, if aught so hideous might be conceived of human kind, with staring eyeballs, low wrinkled brow, elephant ears, some wispy mangy likeness of a lion's mane, huge bony chaps, brown blood-stained gubber-tushes grinning betwixt bristly lips. Straight for the ledge it made, and as they braced them to receive it, with a great swing heaved a man's height above them and leaped down upon their ledge from aloft betwixt Juss and Brandoch Daha ere they were well aware of its changed course. Brandoch Daha smote at it a great swashing
blow and cut off its scorpion tail; but it clawed Juss's shoulder, smote down Mivarsh, and charged like a lion upon Brandoch Daha, who, missing his footing on the narrow edge of rock, fell backwards a great fall, clear of the cliff, down to the snow an hundred feet beneath them.
As it craned over, minded to follow and make an end of him, Juss smote it in the hinder parts and on the ham, shearing away the flesh from the thigh bone, and his sword came with a clank against the brazen claws of its foot. So with a horrid bellow it turned on Juss, rearing like a horse; and it was three heads greater than a tall man in stature when it reared aloft, and the breadth of its chest like the chest of a bear. The stench of its breath choked Juss's mouth and his senses sickened, but he slashed it athwart the belly, a great round-armed blow, cutting open its belly so that the guts fell out. Again he hewed at it, but missed, and his sword came against the rock, and was shivered into pieces. So when that noisome vermin fell forward on him roaring like a thousand lions, Juss grappled with it, running in beneath its body and clasping it and thrusting his arms into its inward parts, to rip out its vitals if so he might. So close he grappled it that it might not reach him with its murthering teeth, but its claws sliced off the flesh from his left knee down ward to the ankle bone, and it fell on him and crushed him on the rock, breaking in the bones of his breast. And Juss, for all his bitter pain and torment, and for all he was well nigh stifled by the sore stink of the creature's breath and the stink of its blood and puddings blubbering about his face and breast, yet by his great strength wrastled with that fell and filthy man-eater. And ever he thrust his right hand, armed with the hilt and stump of his broken sword, yet deeper into its belly until he searched out its heart and did his will upon it, slicing the heart asunder like a lemon and severing and tearing all the great vessels about the heart until the blood gushed about him like a spring. And like a caterpillar the beast curled up and straightened out in its death
spasms, and it rolled and fell from that ledge, a great fall, and lay by Brandoch Daha, the foulest beside the fairest of all earthly beings, reddening the pure snow with its blood. And the spines that grew on the hinder parts of the beast went out and in like the sting of a new-dead wasp that goes out and in continually. It fell not clean to the snow, as by the care of heaven was fallen Brandoch Daha, but smote an edge of rock near the bottom, and that strook out its brains. There it lay in its blood, gaping to the sky.
Now was Juss stretched face downward as one dead, on that giddy edge of rock. Mivarsh had saved him, seizing him by the foot and drawing him back to safety when the beast fell. A sight of terror he was, clotted from head to toe with the beast's blood and his own. Mivarsh bound his wounds and laid him tenderly as he might back against the cliff, then peered down a long while to know if the beast were dead indeed.
When he had gazed downward earnestly so long that his eyes watered with the strain, and still the beast stirred not, Mivarsh prostrated himself and made supplication saying aloud, "O Shlimphli, Shlamphi, and Shebamri, gods of my father and my father's fathers, have pity of your child, if as I dearly trow your power extendeth over this far and forbidden country no less than over Impland, where your child hath ever worshipped you in your holy places, and taught my sons and my daughters to revere your holy names, and made an altar in mine house, pointed by the stars in manner ordained from of old, and offered up my seventh-born son and was minded to offer up my seventh-born daughter thereon, in meekness and righteousness according to your holy will; but this I might not do, since you vouchsafed me not a seventh daughter, but six only. Wherefore I beseech you, of your holy names' sake, strengthen my hand to let down this my companion safely by the rope, and thereafter bring me safely down from this rock, howsoever he be a devil and an unbeliever; O save his life, save both their lives. For I am sure that if these be not
saved alive, never shall your child return, but in this far land starve and die like an insect that dureth but for a day."
So prayed Mivarsh. And belike the high Gods were moved to pity of his innocence, hearing him so cry for help unto his mumbo-jumbos, where no help was; and belike they were not minded that those lords of Demonland should there die evilly before their time, unhonoured, unsung. Howsoever, Mivarsh arose and made fast the rope about Lord Juss, knotting it cunningly beneath the arms that it might not tighten in the lowering and crush his breast and ribs, and so with much ado lowered him down to the foot of the cliff. Thereafter came Mivarsh himself down that perilous wall, and albeit for many a time he thought his bane was upon him, yet by good cragsmanship spurred by cold necessity he gat him down at last. Being down, he delayed not to minister to his companions, who came to themselves with heavy groaning. But when Lord Juss was come to himself he did his healing art both on himself and on Lord Brandoch Daha, so that in a while they were able to stand upon their feet, albeit something stiff and weary and like to vomit. And it was by then the third hour past noon.
While they rested, beholding where the beast mantichora lay in his blood, Juss spake and said, "It is to be said of thee, O Brandoch Daha, that thou to-day hast done both the worst and the best. The worst, when thou wast so stubborn set to fare upon this climb which hath come within a little of spilling both thee and me. The best, whenas thou didst smite off his tail. Was that by policy or by chance?"
"Why," said he, "I was never so, poor a man of my hands that I need turn braggart. 'Twas handiest to my sword, and it disliked me to see it wagging. Did aught lie on it?"
"The sting of his tail," answered Juss, "were competent for thine or my destruction, and it grazed but our little finger."
"Thou speakest like a book," said Brandoch Daha.[paragraph continues]
"Else might I scarce know thee for my noble friend, being berayed with blood as a buffalo with mire. Be not angry with me, if I am most at ease to windward of thee."
Juss laughed. "If thou be not too nice," he said, "go to the beast and dabble thyself too with the blood of his bowels. Nay, I mock not; it is most needful. These be enemies not of mankind only, but each of other: walking every one by himself, loathing every one his kind living or dead, so that in all the world there abideth nought loathlier unto them than the blood of their own kind, the least smell whereof they do abhor as a mad dog abhorreth water. And 'tis a clinging smell. So are we after this encounter most sure against them."
That night they camped at the foot of a spur of Avsek, and set forth at dawn down the long valley eastward. All day they heard the roaring of mantichores from the desolate flanks of Ela Mantissera that showed now no longer as a pyramid but as a long-backed screen, making the southern rampart of that valley. It was ill going, and they somewhat shaken. Day was nigh gone when beyond the eastern slopes of Ela they came where the white waters of the river they followed thundered together with a black water rushing down from the south-west. Below, the river ran east in a wide valley dropping afar to tree-clad depths. In the fork above the watersmeet the rocks enclosed a high green knoll, like some fragment of a kindlier clime that over-lived into an age of ruin.
"Here, too," said Juss, "my dream walked with me. And if it be ill crossing there where this stream breaketh into a dozen branching cataracts a little above the Watersmeet, yet well I think 'tis our only crossing." So, ere the light should fade, they crossed that perilous edge above the water-falls, and slept on the green knoll.
That knoll Juss named Throstlegarth, after a thrush that waked them next morning, singing in a little wind-stunted mountain thorn that grew among the rocks. Strangely sounded that homely song on the cold mountain
side, under the unhallowed heights of Ela, close to the confines of those enchanted snows which guard Koshtra Belorn.
No sight of the high mountains had they from Throstlegarth, nor, for a long while, from the bed of that straight steep glen of the black waters up which now their journey lay. Rugged spurs and buttresses shut them in. High on the left bank above the cataracts they made their way, buffeted by the wind that leaped and charged among the crags, their ears sated with the roaring sound of waters, their eyes filled with the spray blown upward. And Mivarsh followed after them. Silent they fared, for the way was steep and in such a wind and such a noise of torrents a man must shout lustily if he would be heard. Very desolate was that valley, having a dark aspect and a ghastful, such as a man might look for in the infernal glens of Pyriphlegethon or Acheron. No living thing they saw, save at whiles high above them an eagle sailing down the wind, and once a beast's form running in the hollow mountain side. This stood at gaze, lifting up its foul human platter-face with glittering eyes bloody and great as saucers; scented its fellow's blood, started, and fled among the crags.
So fared they for the space of three hours, and so, coming suddenly round a shoulder of the hill, stood on the upper threshold of that glen at the gates of a flat upland valley. Here they beheld a sight to darken all earth's glories and strike dumb all her singers with its grandeur. Framed in the crags of the hillsides, canopied by blue heaven, Koshtra Pivrarcha stood before them. So huge he was that even here at six miles' distance the eye might not at a glance behold him, but must sweep back and forth as over a broad landscape from the ponderous roots of the mountain where they sprang black and sheer from the glacier, up the vast face, where buttress was piled upon buttress and tower upon tower in a blinding radiance of ice-hung precipice and snow-filled gully, to the lone heights where like spears menacing high heaven the white teeth of the summit-ridge cleft
the sky. From right to left he filled nigh a quarter of the heavens, from the graceful peak of Ailinon looking over his western shoulder, to where on the east the snowy slopes of Jalchi shut in the prospect, hiding Koshtra Belorn.
They camped that evening on the left moraine of the High Glacier of Temarm. Long spidery streamers of cloud, filmy as the gauze of a lady's veil, blew eastward from the spires on the ridge, signs of wild weather aloft.
Juss said, "Glassy clear is the air. That forerunneth not fair weather."
"Well, time shall wait for us if need be," said Brandoch Daha. "So mightily my desire crieth unto me from those horns of ice that, having once looked on them, I had as lief die as leave them unclimbed. But of thee, O Juss, I make some marvel. Thou wast bidden inquire in Koshtra Belorn, and sure she were easier won than Koshtra Pivrarcha, going behind Jalchi by the snowfields and so avoiding her great western cliffs."
"There is a saw in Impland," answered Juss, "'Ware of a tall wife.' Even so there lieth a curse on any that shall attempt Koshtra Belorn that hath not first looked down upon her; and he shall have his death or ever he have his will. And from one point only of earth may a man look down on Koshtra Belorn; and 'tis from yonder unascended tooth of ice where thou seest the last beam burn. For that is the topmost pinnacle of Koshtra Pivrarcha. And it is the highest point of the stablished earth."
They were spent a minute's space. Then Juss spake: "Thou wast ever greatest amongst us as a mountaineer. Which way likes thee best for our climbing up him?"
"O Juss," said Brandoch Daha, "on ice and snow thou art my master. Therefore give me thy rede. For mine own choice and pleasure, I have settled it this hour and more: namely to ascend into the gap between the two mountains, and thence turn westward up the east ridge of Pivrarcha."
"It is the fearsomest climb to look on," said Juss,
"and belike the grandest, and for both counts I had wagered it thy choice. That gap hight the Gates of Zimiamvia. It, and the Koshtra glacier that runneth up to it, lieth under the weird I told thee of. It were our death to adventure there ere we had looked down upon Koshtra Belorn; which done, the charm is broke for us, and from that time forth it needeth but our own might and skill and a high heart to accomplish whatsoever we desire."
"Why then, the great north buttress," cried Brandoch Daha. "So shall she not behold us as we climb, until we come forth on the highest tooth and overlook her and tame her to our will."
So they supped and slept. But the wind cried among the crags all night long, and in the morning snow and sleet blotted out the mountains. All day the storm held, and in a lull they struck camp and came down again to Throstlegarth, and there abode nine days and nine nights in wind and rain and battering hail.
On the tenth day the weather abated, and they went up and crossed the glacier and lodged them in a cave in the rock at the foot of the great north buttress of Koshtra Pivrarcha. At dawn Juss and Brandoch Daha went forth to survey the prospect. They crossed the mouth of the steep snow-choked valley that ran up to the main ridge betwixt Ashnilan on the west and Koshtra Pivrarcha on the east, rounded the base of Ailinon, and climbed from the west to a snow saddle some three thousand feet up the ridge of that mountain, whence they might view the buttress and choose their way for their attempt.
"'Tis a two days' journey to the top," said Lord Brandoch Daha. "If night on the ridge freeze us not to death, I dread no other hindrance. That black rib that riseth half a mile above our camp, shall take us clean up to the crest of the buttress, striking it above the great tower at the northern end. If the rocks be like those we camped on, hard as diamond and rough as a
sponge, they shall not fail us but by our own neglect. As I live, I ne'er saw their like for climbing."
"So far, well," said Juss.
"Above," said Brandoch Daha, "I'd drive thee a chariot until we come to the first great kick o' the ridge. That must we round, or ne'er go further, and on this side it showeth ill enough, for the rocks shelve outward. If they be iced, there's work indeed. Beyond that, I'll prophesy nought, O Juss, for I can see nought clear save that the ridge is hacked into clefts and steeples. How we may overcome them must be put to the proof. It is too high and too far to know. This only: where we would go, there have we gone until now. And by that ridge lieth, if any way there lieth, the way to this mountain top that we crossed the world to climb."
Next day with the first paling of the skies they arose all three and set forth southward over the crisp snows. They roped at the foot of the glacier that came down from the saddle, some five thousand feet above them, where the main ridge dips between Ashnilan and Koshtra Pivrarcha. Ere the brighter stars were swallowed in the light of morning they were cutting their way among the labyrinthine towers and chasms of the ice-fall. Soon the new daylight flooded the snowfields of the High Glacier of Temarm, dyeing them green and saffron and palest rose. The snows of Islargyn glowed far away in the north to the right of the white dome of Emshir. Ela Mantissera blocked the view north-eastward. The buttress that bounded their valley on the east plunged it in shadow blue as a summer sea. High on the other side the great twin peaks of Ailinon and Ashnilan, roused by the warm beams out of their frozen silence of the night, growled at whiles with avalanches and falling stones.
Juss was their leader in the ice-fall, guiding them now along high knife-edges that fell away on either hand to unsounded depths, now within the very lips of those chasms, along the bases of the ice-towers. These, five times a man's height, some square, some pinnacled, some
shattered or piled with the ruins of their kind, leaned above the path, as ready to fall and overwhelm the climbers and dash their bones for ever down to those blue-green secret places of frost and silence where the chips of ice chinked hollow as Juss pressed onward, cutting his steps with Mivarsh's axe. At length the slope eased and they walked out on the unbroken surface of the glacier, and passing by a snow-bridge over the great rift betwixt the glacier and the mountain side came two hours before noon to the foot of the rock-rib that they had scanned from Ailinon.
Now was Brandoch Daha to lead them. They climbed face to the rock, slowly and without rest, for sound and firm as the rocks were the holds were small and few and the cliffs steep. Here and there a chimney gave them passage upward, but the climb was mainly by cracks and open faces of rock, a trial of main strength and endurance such as few might sustain for a short while only: but this wall was three thousand feet in height. By noon they gained the crest, and there rested on the rocks too weary to speak, looking across the avalanche-swept face of Koshtra Pivrarcha to the corniced parapet that ended against the western precipices of Koshtra Belorn.
For some way the ridge of the buttress was broad and level. Then it narrowed suddenly to the width of a horse's back, and sprang skyward two thousand feet and more. Brandoch Daha went forward and climbed a few feet up the cliff. It bulged out above him, smooth and holdless. He tried it once and again, then came down saying, "Nought without wings."
Then he went to the left. Here hanging glaciers overlooked the face from on high, and while he gazed an avalanche of ice-blocks roared down it. Then he went to the right, and here the rocks sloped outward, and the sloping ledges were piled with rubbish and the rocks rotten and slippery with snow and ice. So having gone a little way he returned, and, "O Juss," he said, "wilt take it right forth, and that must be by flying, for hold there is none: or wilt go east and dodge the avalanche: or
west, where all is rotten and slither and a slip were our destruction?"
So they debated, and at length decided on the eastern road. It was an ill step round the jutting corner of the tower, for little hold there was, and the rocks were undercut below, so that a stone or a man loosed from that place must fall clear at a bound three or four thousand feet to the Koshtra glacier and there be dashed in pieces. Beyond, wide ledges gave them passage along the wall of the tower, that now swept inward, facing south. Far overhead, dazzling white in the sunshine, the broken glacier-edges and splinters jutted against the blue, and icicles greater than a man hung glittering from every ledge: a sight heavenly fair, whereof they yet had little joy, hastening as they had not hastened in their lives before to be out of the danger of that ice-swept face.
Suddenly was a noise above them like the crack of a giant whip, and looking up they beheld against the sky a dark mass which opened like a flower and spread into a hundred fragments. The Demons and Mivarsh hugged the cliffs where they stood, but there was little cover. All the air was filled with the shrieking of the stones, as they swept downwards like fiends returning to the pit, and with the crash of them as they dashed against the cliffs and burst in pieces. The echoes rolled and reverberated from cliff to distant cliff, and the limbs of the mountain seemed to writhe as under a scourge. When it was done, Mivarsh was groaning for pain of his left wrist sore hurt with a stone. The others were scatheless.
Juss said to Brandoch Daha, "Back, howsoever it dislike thee."
Back they went; and an avalanche of ice crashed down the face which must have destroyed them had they proceeded. "Thou dost misjudge me," said Brandoch
Daha, laughing. "Give me where my life lieth on mine own might and main; then is danger meat and drink to me, and nought shall turn me back. But here on this cursed cliff, on the ledges whereof a cripple might walk
at ease, we be the toys of chance. And it were pure folly to abide upon it a moment longer."
"Two ways be left us," said Juss. "To turn back, and that were our shame for ever; and to essay the western traverse."
"And that should be the bane of any save of me and thee," said Brandoch Daha. "And if our bane, why, we shall sleep sound."
"Mivarsh," said Juss, "is nought so bounden to this adventure. He hath bravely held by us, and bravely stood our friend. Yet here we be come to such a pass, I sore misdoubt me if it were less danger of his life to come with us than seek safety alone."
But Mivarsh put on a hardy face. Never a word he spake, but nodded his head, as who should say, "Forward."
"First I must be thy leech," said Juss. And he bound up Mivarsh's wrist. And because the day was now far spent, they camped under the great tower, hoping next day to reach the top of Koshtra Pivrarcha that stood unseen some six thousand feet above them.
Next morning, when it was light enough to climb, they set forth. For two hours' space on that traverse not a moment passed but they were in instant peril of death. They were not roped, for on those slabbery rocks one man had dragged a dozen to perdition had he made a slip. The ledges sloped outward; they were piled with broken rock and mud; the soft red rock broke away at a hand's touch and plunged at a leap to the glacier below. Down and up and along, and down and up and up again they wound their way, rounding the base of that great tower, and came at last by a rotten gully safe to the ridge above it.
While they climbed, white wispy clouds which had gathered in the high gullies of Ailinon in the morning had grown to a mass of blackness that hid all the mountains to the west. Great streamers ran from it across the gulf below, joined and boiled upward, lifting and sinking
like a full-tided sea, rising at last to the high ridge where the Demons stood and wrapping them in a cloak of vapour with a chill wind in its folds, and darkness in broad noon-day. They halted, for they might not see the rocks before them. The wind grew boisterous, shouting among the splintered towers. Snow swept powdery and keen across the ridge. The cloud lifted and plunged again like some great bird shadowing them with its wings. From its bosom the lightning flared above and below. Thunder crashed on the heels of the lightning, sending the echoes rolling among the distant cliffs. Their weapons, planted in the snow, sizzled with blue flame; Juss had counselled laying them aside lest they should perish holding them. Crouched in a hollow of the snow among the rocks of that high ridge of Koshtra Pivrarcha, Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha and Mivarsh Faz weathered that night of terror. When night came they knew not, for the storm brought darkness on them hours before sun-down. Blinding snow and sleet and fire and thunder, and wild winds shrieking in the gullies till the firm mountain seemed to rock, kept them awake. They were near frozen, and scarce desired aught but death, which might bring them ease from that hellish roundelay.
Day broke with a weak gray light, and the storm died down. Juss stood up weary beyond speech. Mivarsh said, "Ye be devils, but of myself I marvel. For I have dwelt by snow mountains all my days, and many I wot of that have been benighted on the snows in wild weather. And not one but was starved by reason of the cold. I speak of them that were found. Many were not found, for the spirits devoured them."
Whereat Lord Brandoch Daha laughed aloud, saying, "O Mivarsh, I fear me that in thee I have but a graceless dog. Look on him, that in hardihood and bodily endurance against all hardships of frost or fire surpasseth me as greatly as I surpass thee. Yet is he weariest of the three. Wouldst know why? I'll tell thee: all night he hath striven against the cold, chafing not himself only
but me and thee to save us from frost-bite. And be sure nought else had saved thy carcase."
By then was the mist grown lighter, so that they might see the ridge for an hundred paces or more where it went up before them, each pinnacle standing out shadowy and unsubstantial against the next succeeding one more shadowy still. And the pinnacles showed monstrous huge through the mist, like mountain peaks in stature.
They roped and set forth, scaling the towers or turning them, now on this side now on that; sometimes standing on teeth of rock that seemed cut off from all earth else, solitary in a sea of shifting vapour; sometimes descending into a deep gash in the ridge with a blank wall rearing aloft on the further side and empty air yawning to left and right. The rocks were firm and good, like those they had first climbed from the glacier. But they went but a slow pace, for the climbing was difficult and made dangerous by new snow and by the ice that glazed the rocks.
As the day wore the wind was fallen, and all was still when they stood at length before a ridge of hard ice that shot steeply up before them like the edge of a sword. The east side of it on their left was almost sheer, ending in a blank precipice that dropped out of sight without a break. The western slope, scarcely less steep, ran down in a white even sheet of frozen snow till the clouds engulfed it.
Brandoch Daha waited on the last blunt tooth of rock at the foot of the ice-ridge. "The rest is thine," he cried to Lord Juss. "I would not that any save thou should tread him first, for he is thy mountain."
"Without thee I had never won up hither," answered Juss; "and it is not fitting that I should have that glory to stand first upon the peak when thine was the main achievement. Go thou before."
"I will not," said Lord Brandoch Daha. "And it is not so."
So Juss went forward, smiting with his axe great steps
just below the backbone of the ridge on the western side, and Lord Brandoch Daha and Mivarsh Faz followed in the steps.
Presently a wind arose in the unseen spaces of the sky, and tore the mist like a rotten garment. Spears of sunlight blazed through the rifts. Distant sunny lands shimmered in the unimaginable depths to the southward, seen over the crest of a tremendous wall that stood beyond the abyss: a screen of black rock buttresses seamed with a thousand gullies of glistening snow, and crowned as with battlements with a row of mountain peaks, savage and fierce of form, that made the eye blink for their brightness: the lean spires of the summit-ridge of Koshtra Pivrarcha. These, that the Demons had so long looked up to as in distant heaven, now lay beneath their feet. Only the peak they climbed still reared itself above them, clear now and near to view, showing a bare beetling cliff on the north-east, overhung by a cornice of snow. Juss marked the cornice, turned him again to his step-cutting, and in half an hour from the breaking of the clouds stood on that unascended pinnacle, with all earth beneath him.
They went down a few feet on the southern side and sat on some rocks. A fair lake studded with islands lay bosomed in wooded and crag-girt hills at the foot of a deep-cut valley which ran down from the Gates of Zimiamvia. Ailinon and Ashnilan rose near by in the west, with the delicate white peak of Akra Garsh showing between them. Beyond, mountain beyond mountain like the sea.
Juss looked southward where the blue land stretched in fold upon fold of rolling country, soft and misty, till it melted in the sky. "Thou and I," said he, "first of the children of men, now behold with living eyes the fabled land of Zimiamvia. Is that true, thinkest thou, which philosophers tell us of that fortunate land: that no mortal foot may tread it, but the blessed souls do inhabit it of the dead that be departed, even they that were great
upon earth and did great deeds when they were living, that scorned not earth and the delights and the glories thereof, and yet did justly and were not dastards nor yet oppressors?"
"Who knoweth?" said Brandoch Daha, resting his chin in his hand and gazing south as in a dream. "Who shall say he knoweth?"
They were silent awhile. Then Juss spake saying, "If thou and I come thither at last, O my friend, shall we remember Demonland?" And when he answered him not, Juss said, "I had rather row on Moonmere under the stars of a summer's night, than be a King of all the land of Zimiamvia. And I had rather watch the sunrise on the Scarf, than dwell in gladness all my days on an island of that enchanted Lake of Ravary, under Koshtra Belorn."
Now the curtain of cloud that had hung till now about the eastern heights was rent into shreds, and Koshtra Belorn stood like a bride before them, two or three miles to eastward, facing the slanting rays of the sun. On all her vast precipices scarce a rock showed bare, so encrusted were they with a dazzling robe of snow. More lovely she seemed and more graceful in her airy poise than they had yet beheld her. Juss and Brandoch Daha rose up, as men arise to greet a queen in her majesty. In silence they looked on her for some minutes.
Then Brandoch Daha spake, saying, "Behold thy bride, O Juss."