The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison, , at sacred-texts.com
OF THE FURTHERANCE GIVEN BY QUEEN SOPHONISBA, FOSTERLING OF THE GODS, TO LORD JUSS AND LORD BRANDOCH DAHA; WITH HOW THE HIPPOGRIFF'S EGG WAS HATCHED BESIDE THE ENCHANTED LAKE, AND WHAT ENSUED THEREFROM.
Next day the Queen came to Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha and made them go with her, and Mivarsh with them to serve them, over the meadows and down a passage like that whereby they had entered the mountain, but this led downward. "Ye may marvel," she said, "to see daylight in the heart of this great mountain. Yet it is but the hidden work of Nature. For the rays of the sun, striking all day upon Koshtra Belorn and upon her robe of snow, sink into the snow like water, and so soaking through the secret places of the rocks shine again in this hollow chamber where we dwell and in these passages cleft by the Gods to give us our goings out and our comings in. And as sunset followeth broad day with coloured fires, and moonlight or darkness followeth sunset, and dawn followeth night ushering the bright day once more, so these changes of the
dark and light succeed one another within the mountain."
They passed on, ever downward, till after many hours they came suddenly forth into dazzling sunlight. They stood at a cave's mouth on a beach of sand white and clean, that was lapped by the ripples of a sapphire lake: a great lake, sown with islets craggy and luxuriant with trees and flowering growths. Many-armed was the lake, winding everywhere in secret reaches behind promontories that were spurs of the mountains that held it in their bosom: some wooded or green with lush flower-spangled turf to the water's edge, some with bare rocks abrupt from the water, some crowned with rugged lines of crag that sent down scree-slopes into the lake below. It was mid-afternoon, sweet-aired, a day of dappled cloud-shadows and changing lights. White birds circled above the lake, and now and then a kingfisher flashed by like a streak of azure flame. That was a westward facing beach, at the end of a headland that ran down clothed with pine-forests with open primrose glades from a spur of Koshtra Belorn. Northward the two great mountains stood at the head of a straight narrow valley that ran up to the Gates of Zimiamvia. Vaster they seemed than the Demons had yet beheld them, showing at but six or seven miles' distance a clear sixteen thousand feet above the lake. Nor from any other point of prospect were they more lovely to behold: Koshtra Pivrarcha like an eagle armed, shadowing with wings, and Koshtra Belorn as a Goddess fallen a-dreaming, gracious as the morning star of heaven. Wondrous bright were their snows in the sunshine, yet ghostly and unsubstantial to view seen through the hazy summer air. Olive trees, gray and soft-outlined like embodied mist, grew in the lower valleys; woods of oak and birch and every forest tree clothed the slopes; and in the warmer folds of the mountain sides belts of creamy rhododendrons straggled upwards even to the moraines above the lower glaciers and the very margin of the snows.
The Queen watched Lord Juss as his gaze moved to
the left past Koshtra Pivrarcha, past the blunt lower crest of Gôglio, to a great lonely peak many miles distant that frowned over the rich maze of nearer ridges which stood above the lake. Its southern shoulder swept in a long majestic line of cliffs up to a clean sharp summit; northward it fell steeplier away. Little snow hung on the sheer rock faces, save where the gullies cleft them. For grace and beauty scarce might Koshtra Belorn herself surpass that peak: but terrible it looked, and as a mansion of old night, that not high noon-day could wholly dispossess of darkness.
"There standeth a mountain great and fair," said Lord Brandoch Daha, "which was hid in a cloud when we were on the high ridges. It hath the look of a great beast couchant."
Still the Queen watched Lord Juss, who looked still on that peak. Then he turned to her, his hands clenched on the buckles of his breast-plates. She said, "Was it as I think?"
He took a great breath. "It was so I beheld it in the beginning," he said, "as from this place. But here are we too far off to see the citadel of brass, or know if it be truly there." And he said to Brandoch Daha, "This remaineth, that we climb that mountain."
"That can ye never do," said the Queen.
"That shall be shown," said Brandoch Daha.
"List," said she. "Nameless is yonder mountain upon earth, for until this hour, save only for me and you, the eye of living man hath not looked upon it. But unto the Gods it hath a name, and unto the spirits of the blest that do inhabit this land, and unto those unhappy souls that are held in captivity on that cold mountain top: Zora Rach nam Psarrion, standing apart above the noiseless lifeless snow-fields that feed the Psarrion glaciers; loneliest and secretest of all earth's mountains, and most accursed. O my lords," she said, "think not to climb up Zora. Enchantments ring round Zora, so that ye should not get so near as to the edges of the snow-fields at her feet ere ruin gathered you."
Juss smiled. "O Queen Sophonisba, little thou knowest our mind, if thou think this shall turn us back."
"I say it," said the Queen, "with no such vain purpose; but to show you the necessity of that way I shall now tell you of, since well I know ye will not give over this attempt. To none save to a Demon durst I have told it, lest heaven should hold me answerable for his death. But unto you I may with the less danger commit this dangerous counsel if it be true, as I was taught long ago, that the hippogriff was seen of old in Demonland."
"The hippogriff?" said Lord Brandoch Daha. "What else is it than the emblem of our greatness? A thousand years ago they nested on Neverdale Hause, and there abide unto this day in the rocks the prints of their hooves and talons. He that rode it was a forefather of mine and of Lord Juss."
"He that shall ride it again," said Queen Sophonisba, "he only of mortal men may win to Zora Rach, and if he be man enough of his hands may deliver him we wot of out of bondage."
"O Queen," said Juss, "somewhat I know of grammarie and divine philosophy, yet must I bow to thee for such learning, that dwellest here from generation to generation and dost commune with the dead. How shall we find this steed? Few they be, and high they fly above the world, and come to birth but one in three hundred years."
She answered, "I have an egg. In all lands else must such an egg lie barren and sterile, save in this land of Zimiamvia which is sacred to the lordly races of the dead. And thus cometh this steed to the birth: when one of might and heart beyond the wont of man sleepeth in this land with the egg in his bosom, greatly desiring some high achievement, the fire of his great longing hatcheth the egg, and the hippogriff cometh out therefrom, weak-winged at first as thou hast seen a butterfly new-hatched out his chrysalis. Then only mayst thou mount him, and if thou be man enow to turn him to thy
will he shall bear thee to the uttermost parts of earth unto thine heart's desire. But if thou be aught less than greatest, beware that steed, and mount only earthly coursers. For if there be aught of dross within thee, and thine heart falter, or thy purpose cool, or thou forget the level aim of thy glory, then will he toss thee to thy ruin."
"Thou hast this thing, O Queen?" said Lord Juss.
"My lord," she said softly, "more than an hundred years ago I found it, while I rambled on the cliffs that are about this charmed Lake of Ravary. And here I hid it, being taught by the Gods what thing I had found and knowing what was foreordained, that certain of earth should come at last to Koshtra Belorn. Thinking in my heart that he that should come might be of those who bare some great unfulfilled desire, and might be of such might as could ride to his desire on such a steed."
They abode, talking little, by the charmed lake's shore till evening. Then they arose, and went with her to a pavilion by the lake, built in a grove of flowering trees. Ere they went to rest, she brought them the hippogriff's egg, great as a man's body, yet light of weight, rough and coloured like gold. And she said, "Which of you, my lords?"
Juss answered, "He, if might and a high heart should only count; but I, because my brother it is that we must free from his dismal place."
So the Queen gave the egg to Lord Juss; and he, bearing it in his arms, bade her good-night, saying, "I need no other laudanum than this to make me sleep."
And the ambrosial night came down. And gentle sleep, softer than sleep is on earth, closed their eyes in that pavilion beside the enchanted lake.
Mivarsh slept not. Small joy had he of that Lake of Ravary, caring for none of its beauties but mindful still of certain lewd hulks he had seen basking by its shores all through the golden afternoon. He had questioned one
of the Queen's martlets concerning them, who laughed at him and let him know that these were crocodiles, wardens of the lake, tame and gentle toward the heroes of bliss who resorted thither to bathe and disport themselves. "But should such an one as thou," she said, "adventure there, they would chop thee up at a mouthful." This saddened him. And indeed, little ease of heart had he since he came out of Impland, and dearly he desired his home, though it were sacked and burnt, and the men of his own blood, though they should prove his foes. And well he thought that if Juss should fly with Brandoch Daha mounted on hippogriff to that cold mountain top where souls of the great were held in bondage, he should never win back alone to the world of men, past the frozen mountains, and the mantichores, and past the crocodile that dwelt beside Bhavinan.
He lay awake an hour or twain, weeping quietly, until out of the giant heart of midnight came to him with fiery clearness the words of the Queen, saying that by the heat of great longing in his heart that claspeth it must that egg be hatched, and that that man should then mount and ride on the wind unto his heart's desire. Therewith Mivarsh sat up, his hands clammy with mixed fear and longing. It seemed to him, awake and alone among the sleepers in that breathless night, that no longing could be greater than his longing. He said in his heart, "I will arise, and take the egg privily from the devil transmarine and clasp it myself. I do him no wrong thereby, for said she not it was perilous? Also every man raketh the embers to his own cake."
So he arose, and came secretly to Juss where he lay with his strong arms circling the egg. A beam of the moon came in by a window, shining on the face of Juss, that was as the face of a God. Mivarsh bent over him and teased the egg gently from his embrace, praying fervently the while. And, for Juss was in a profound slumber, his soul mounting in vision far from earth, far from that shore divine, to lone regions where Goldry watched still in frozen mournful patience on the heights
of Zora, at last Mivarsh gat the egg and bare it to his bed. Very warm it was, crackling to his ear as he embraced it, as of a power moving from withinwards.
In such wise Mivarsh fell asleep, clasping the egg as a man should clasp his dearest. And a little before dawn it hatched in his arms and fell asunder, and he started awake, his arms about the neck of a strange steed. It went forth into the pale light before the sunrise, and he with it, holding it fast. The sheen of its hair was like the peacock's neck; its eyes like the changing fires of a star of a windy night. Its nostrils widened to the breath of the dawn. Its wings unfolded and grew stiff, their feathers like the tail-feathers of the peacock pheasant, white with purple eyes, and hard to the touch as iron blades. Mivarsh was mounted on its back, seizing the shining mane with both hands, trembling. And now was he fain to descend, but the hippogriff snorted and reared, and he, fearing a great fall, clung closer. It stamped with its silver hoofs, flapping its wings, ramping like a lioness, tearing up the grass with its claws. Mivarsh screamed, torn between hope and fear. It plunged forward and leaped into the air and flew.
The Demons, waked by the whirring of wings, rushed from the pavilion, to behold that marvel flown against the obscure west. Wild was its flight, like a snipe dipping and plunging. And while they looked, they saw the rider flung from his seat and heard, some moments after, a dull flop and splash of a body fallen in the lake.
The wild steed vanished, winging toward the upper air. Rings ran outward from the splash, troubling the surface of the lake, marring the dark reflection of Zora Rach mirrored in the sleeping waters.
"Poor Mivarsh!" cried Lord Brandoch Daha. "After all the weary leagues I made him go with me." And he threw off his cloak, took a dagger in his teeth, and swam with great overarm strokes out to the spot where Mivarsh fell. But nought he found of Mivarsh. Only he saw near by on an island beach a crocodile, big and bloated, that eyed him guiltily and stayed not for his
coming, but lumbering into the water dived and disappeared. So Brandoch Daha turned and swam ashore again.
Lord Juss stood as a man stricken to stone. As one despaired he turned to, the Queen, who now came forth to them wrapped in a mantle of swansdown; yet high he held his head. "O Queen Sophonisba, here is that secret glome or bottom of our days, come when we sniffed the sweetness of the morning."
"My lord," said she, "the flies hemerae take life with the sun and die with the dew. But thou, if thou be truly great, join not hands with desperation. Let the sad ending of this poor servant of thine be to thee a monument against such folly. Earth is not ruined for a single shower. Come back with me to Koshtra Belorn."
He looked at the grand peak of Zora, dark against the wakening east. "Madam," he said, "thou hast little more than half my years, and yet by another computation thou art seven times mine age. I am not light of will, nor thou shalt not find me a fool to thee. Let us go back to Koshtra Belorn."
They brake their fast quietly and returned by the way they came. And the Queen said, "My lords Juss and Brandoch Daha, there be few steeds of such a kind to carry you to Zora Rach nam Psarrion, and not ye, though ye be beyond the half-gods in your might and virtue, might have power to ride them but if ye take them from the egg. So high they fly, so shy they are, ye should not catch them though ye waited ten men's lifetimes. I will send my martlets to see if there be another egg in the world."
So she despatched them, north and west and south and east. And in due time those little birds returned on weary wing, all save one, without tidings.
"All have come back to me," said the Queen, "save Arabella alone. Dangers attend them in the world: birds of prey, men that slay little birds for their sport. Yet hope with me that she may come back at last."
But the Lord Juss spake and said, "O Queen[paragraph continues]
Sophonisba, to hope and wait lieth not in my nature, but to be swift, resolute, and exact whensoever I see my way before me. This have I ever approved, that the strawberry groweth underneath the nettle still. I will assay the ascent of Zora."
Nor might all her prayers turn him from this rashness, wherein the Lord Brandoch Daha besides did most eagerly second him.
Two nights and two days they were gone, and the Queen abode them in great trouble of heart in her pavilion by the enchanted lake. The third evening came Brandoch Daha back to the pavilion, bringing with him Juss that was like a man at point of death, and himself besides deadly sick.
"Tell me not anything," said the Queen. "Forgetfulness is the only sovran remedy, which with all my art I will strive to induce in thy mind and in his. Surely I despaired ever to see you in life again, so rashly entered into those regions forbid."
Brandoch Daha smiled, but his look was ghastly. "Blame us not overmuch, dear Queen. Who shoots at the mid-day sun, though he be sure he shall never hit the mark, yet as sure he is he shall shoot higher than who aims but at a bush." His voice broke in his throat; the whites of his eyes rolled up; he caught at the Queen's hand like a frightened child. Then with a mighty effort mastering himself, "I pray bear with me a little," he said. "After a little good meats and drinks taken 'twill pass. I pray look to Juss: is a dead, think you?"
Days passed, and months, and the Lord Juss lay yet as it were in the article of death tended by his friend and by the Queen in that pavilion by the lake. At length when winter was gone in middle earth, and the spring far spent, back came that last little martlet on weary wing she they had long given up for lost. She sank in her mistress's bosom, almost dead indeed for weariness. But the Queen cherished her, and gave her nectar, so that she gathered strength and said, "O Queen Sophonisba, fosterling of the Gods, I flew for thee east and south
and west and north, by sea and by land, in heat and frost, unto the frozen poles, about and about. And at the last came to Demonland, to the range of Neverdale. There is a tarn among the mountains, that men call Dule Tarn. Very deep it is, and men that live by bread do hold it for bottomless. Yet hath it a bottom, and on the bottom lieth an hippogriff's egg, seen by me, for I flew at a great height above it."
"In Demonland!" said the Queen. And she said to Lord Brandoch Daha, "It is the only one. Ye must go home to fetch it."
Brandoch Daha said, "Home to Demonland? After we spent our powers and crossed the world to find the way?"
But when Lord Juss knew of it, straightway with hope so renewed began his sickness to depart from him, so that he was in a few weeks' space very well recovered.
And it was now a full year gone by since first the Demons came up into Koshtra Belorn.