The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison, , at sacred-texts.com
OF THE UPRISING OF THE WARS OF KING GORICE XII. IN DEMONLAND; WHEREIN IS SEEN HOW IN AN OLD MAN OF WAR STIFFNECKEDNESS AND TYRANNY MAY OVERLIVE GOOD GENERALSHIP, AND HOW A GREAT KINGS DISPLEASURE DURETH ONLY SO LONG AS IT AGREETH WITH HIS POLICY.
Nought befell to tell of after the sailing of the fleet from Tenemos till August was nigh spent. Then came a ship of Witchland from the west and sailed up the river to Carcë and moored by the water-gate. Her skipper went straight aland and up into the royal palace in Carcë and the new banquet hall, whereas was King Gorice XII. eating and drinking with his folk. And the skipper gave letters into the hand of the King.
By then was night fallen, and all the bright lights kindled in the hall. The feast was three parts done, and thralls poured forth unto the King and unto them that sat at meat with him dark wines that crown the banquet. And they set before the feasters sweetmeats wondrous fair: bulls and pigs and gryphons and other, made all of sugar paste, some wines and spigots in their bellies to
taste of, every one with his silver fork. Mirth and pleasure was that night in the great hall in Carcë; but now were all fallen silent, looking on the King's countenance while he read his letters. But none might read the countenance of the King, that was inscrutable as the high blind walls of Carcë brooding on the fen. So in that waiting silence, sitting in his great high seat, he read his letters, which were sent by Corsus, and writ in manner following:
"Renouned Kinge and moste highe Prince and Lorde, Goreiyse Twelft of Wychlonde and of Daemounlonde and of all kingdomes the sonne dothe spread his bemes over, Corsus your servaunte dothe prosterate miself befoare your Greateness, evene befoare the face of the erthe. The Goddes graunte unto you moste nowble Lorde helthe and continewance and saffetie meny yeres. After that I hadde receaved my dispache and leave fram your Majestie wherby you did of your Royall goodnes geave and graunt unto mee to be cheefe commaundere of al the warlyke foarces furneshed and sent by you into Daemonlond, hit may please your Majestic I did with haiste carry mine armie and all wepons municions vittualls and othere provicions accordingly toward those partes of Daemonlonde that lye coasted against the estern seas. Here with xxvij schyppes and the moare partt of my peopell I sayling upp ynto the Frith Micklefrith did fynde x or xi Daemouns schyppes asayling whereof had Vol the commaundemente withowt the herborough of Lookingehaven, and by and by did mak syncke all schyppes of the sayd Voll withowt excepcioun and did sleay the maist paart of them that were with hym, and hys ashipboard.
"Nowe I lette you onderstande O my Lorde the Kyng that or ever wee made the landfalle I severinge my armye ynto ij trowpes had dispatched Gallandus with xiij schyppes north-abowt to lande with xv honderede menne at Eccanois, with commande that hee shoulde thenceawaye fare upp ynto the hylles thorow Celyalonde and
soe sease the passe calld the Style because none schoulde cum overe fram the west; for that is a gode fyghtynge stede as a man myghte verry convenably hould ageyrist gret nomberes yf he bee nat an asse.
"So havinge ridd me wel of Vol, and by my hoep and secreat intilligence these were thayr entire flete that was nowe al sonken and putt to distruccioun by mee, and trewly hit was a paltry werk and light, so few they were agaynst my foarce agaynst them, I dyd comme alande att the place hyghte Grunda by the northe perte of the frith wher the watere owt of Breakingdal falleth into the se. Here I made make my campe with the rampyres thereof reachynge to the schore of the salt se baithe befoare and behynde of me, and drew in supplies and brent and slawe and sent forth hoarsmen to bryng mee in intelligence. And on the iv daie hadd notise of a gret powre and strengtht cumming at me from sowth out of Owlesyke to assaille mee in Grunda. And dyd fyghte agaynst them and dyd flinge them backe beinge iv or v thowsand souldiers. Who returning nexte daie towarde Owlswyke I dyd followe aftir, and so toke them facynge me in a plaise cauled Crosbie Owtsykes where they did make shifte to kepe the phords and passages of Ethrey river very stronge. Heare was bifaln an horable great murtheringe battell where Thy Servaunte dyd oppresse and over-throwe with mitch dexteritee those Daemons, makynge of them so bluddie and creuell a slawghter as hathe not been sene afore not once nor twice in mans memorye, and blythely I tel you of Vizze theyr cheefe capitaine kild and ded of strips taken at Crosby felde.
"Soe have I nowe in the holow of my hand by thys victorie the conquest and possession of al thys lande of Daemonlande, and doe nowe purpose to dele with thayr castels villages riches cattell howssys and poepell in my waye on al thys estren seaborde within L miells compas with rapes and murtheres and burnyngs and all harsche dyscypline according to your Majesties wille. And do stande with mine armie befoare Owleswyk, bluddie Spitfyer's notable great castel and forteres that alone yet
liveth in this lande of your daungerous grivious and malitious arche enymies, and the same Spitfire being att my cominge fledde into the mowntaynes all do submytt and become your Majesties vassalls. But I wyll nat conclud nor determyn of peace no not with man weoman nor chyld of them but kyll them al, havinge always befoare my minde the satisfactioun of your Princely Pleasure.
"Lest I be too large I leve here to tel you of many rare and remarcable occurants and observacions whych never the less I laye by in my mynde to aquent you with agaynst my coming home or by further writinge. Laxus bearing a kings name do puffe himself up alledging he wan the sefight but I shall satisfy your Majestie to the contrary. Gro followeth the wars in as goode sort as his lean spare bodey will wel beare. Of Gallandus I nedes must saye he do meddyl too much in my counsailles, still desyring me do thus and thus but I will nat. Heretofore in the like unrespective manner he hath now and then used mee which I have swolewed but will not no more. Who if hee go about to calumniate me in any thinge I praye you Lorde let mee know it though I despise baithe him and all such. And in acknowledgement of Your highe favors unto meward do kiss your Majesties hand.
"Most humbly and reverently untoe my Lorde the Kynge, undir my seal.
The King put up the writing in his bosom. "Bring me Corsus's cup," said he.
They did so, and the King said, "Fill it with Thramnian wine. Drop me an emerald in it to spawn luck i' the cup, and drink him fortune and wisdom. in victory."
Prezmyra, that had watched the King till now as a mother watches her child in the crisis of a fever, rose up radiant in her seat, crying, "Victory!" And all they fell a-shouting and smiting on the boards till the roof-beams shook with their great shouting, while the King drank first and passed on the cup that all might drink in turn.
But Gorice the King sat dark among them as a cliff of
serpentine that frowns above dancing surges of a spring-tide summer sea.
When the women left the banquet hall the Lady Prezmyra came to the King and said, "Your brow is too dark, Lord, if indeed this news is all good that lights your heart and mind from withinward."
The King answered and said, "Madam, it is very good news. Yet remember that hard it is to lift a full cup without spilling."
Now was summer worn and harvest brought in, and on the twenty-seventh day after these tidings afore-writ came another ship of Witchland out of the west sailing over the teeming deep, and rowed on a full tide up Druima and through the Ergaspian Mere, and so anchored below Carcë an hour before supper time. That was a calm clear sunshine evening, and King Gorice rode home from his hunting at that instant when the ship made fast by the water-gate. And there was the Lord Gro aboard of her; and the face of him as he came up out of the ship and stood to greet the King was the colour of quicklime a-slaking.
The King looked narrowly at him, then greeting him with much outward show of carelessness and pleasure made him go with him to the King's own lodgings. There the King made Gro drink a great stoup of red wine, and said to him, "I am all of a muck sweat from the hunting. Go in with me to my baths and tell me all while I bathe me before supper. Princes of all men be in greatest danger, for that men dare not acquaint them with their own peril. Thou look'st prodigious. Know that shouldst thou proclaim to me all my fleet and army in Demonland brought to sheer destruction, that should not dull my stomach for the feast to-night. Witchland is not so poor I might not pay back such a loss thrice and four times and yet have money in my purse."
So speaking, the King was come with Gro into his great bath chamber, walled and floored with green serpentine, with dolphins carved in the same stone to belch
water into the baths that were lined with white marble and sunken in the floor, both wide and deep, the hot bath on the left and the cold bath, many times greater, on the right as they entered the chamber. The King dismissed all his attendants, and made Gro sit on a bench piled with cushions above the hot bath, and drink more wine. And the King stripped off his jerkin of black cowhide and his hose and his shirt of white Beshtrian wool and went down into the steaming bath. Gro looked with wonder on the mighty limbs of Gorice the King, so lean and yet so strong to behold, as if he were built all of iron; and a great marvel it was how the King, when he had put off his raiment and royal apparel and went down stark naked into the bath, yet seemed to have put off not one whit of his kingliness and the majesty and dread which belonged to him.
So when he had plunged awhile in the swirling waters of the bath, and soaped himself from head to foot and plunged again, the King lay back luxuriously in the water and said to Gro, "Tell me of Corsus and his sons, and of Laxus and Gallandus, and of all my men west over seas, as thou shouldest tell of those whose life or death in our conceit importeth as much as that of a scarab fly. Speak and fear not, keeping nothing back nor glozing over nothing. Only that should make me dreadful to thee if thou shouldst practise to deceive me."
Gro spake and said, "My Lord the King, you have letters, I think, from Corsus that have told you how we came to Demonland, and how we gat a victory over Volle in the sea-fight, and landed at Grunda, and fought two battles against Vizz and overthrew him in the last, and he is dead."
"Didst thou see these letters?" asked the King.
Gro answered, "Ay."
"Is it a true tale they tell me?"
Gro answered, "Mainly true, O King, though somewhat now and then he windeth truth to his turn, swelling overmuch his own achievement. As at Grunda, where he maketh too great the Demons' army, that by a just
computation were fewer than us, and the battle was not ours nor theirs, for while our left held them by the sea they stormed our camp on the right. And well I think was to enveagle us into country that should be likelier to his purpose that Vizz fell back toward Owlswick in the night. But as touching the battle of Crossby Outsikes Corsus braggeth not too much. That was greatly fought and greatly devised by him, who also slew Vizz with his own hands in the thick of the battle, and made a great victory over them and scattered all their strength, coming upon them at unawares and taking them upon advantage."
So saying Gro stretched forth his delicate white fingers to the goblet at his side and drank. "And now, O King," said he, leaning forward over his knees and running his fingers through the black perfumed curls above his ears, "I am to tell you the uprising of those discontents that infected all our fortunes and confounded us all. Now came Gallandus with some few men down from Breakingdale, leaving his main force of fourteen hundred men or so to hold the Stile as was agreed upon aforetime. Now Gallandus had advertisement of Spitfire come out of the west country where he was sojourning when we came into Demonland, disporting himself in the mountains with hunting of the bears that do there inhabit, but now come hot-foot eastward and agathering of men at Galing. And on Gallandus's urgent asking, was held a council of war three days after Crossby Outsikes, wherein Gallandus set forth his counsel that we should fare north to Galing and disperse them.
"All thought well of this counsel, save Corsus. But he took it mighty ill, being stubborn set to carry out his predetermined purpose, which was to follow up this victory of Crossby Outsikes by so many cruel murthers, rapes, and burnings, up and down the country side in Upper and Lower Tivarandardale and down by Onwardlithe and the southern seaboard, as should show those vermin he was their master whom they did require,
and the scourge in your hand, O King, that must scourge them to the bare bone.
"To which Gallandus making answer that the preparations at Galing did argue something to be done and not afar off, and that 'This were a pretty matter, if Owlswick and Drepaby shall be able to enforce us cast our eyes over our shoulders while those before us' (meaning in Galing) 'strike us in the brains'; Corsus answereth most unhandsomely, 'I will not satisfy myself with this intelligence until I find it more soundly seconded.' Nor would he listen, but said that this was his mind, and all we should abide by it or an ill thing should else befall us: that this south-eastern corner of the land being gained with great terror and cruelty the neck of the wars in Demonland should then be broken, and all the others whether in Galing or otherwhere could not choose but die like dogs; that 'twas pure folly, because of the hardness and naughty ways of the country, to set upon Galing; and that he would quickly show Gallandus he was lord there. So was the council broke up in great discontent. And Gallandus abode before Owlswick, which as thou knowest, O King, is a mighty strong place, seated on an arm of the land that runneth out into the sea beside the harbour, and a paven way goeth thereto that is covered with the sea save at low tide of a spring-tide. And we drew great store of provisions thither against a siege if such should befall us. But Corsus with his main forces went south about the country, murthering and ravishing, on his way to the new house of Goldry Bluszco at Drepaby, giving out that from henceforth should folk speak no more of Drepaby Mire and Drepaby Combust that the Ghouls did burn, but both should shortly be burnt alike as two cinders."
"Ay," said the King, coming out of the bath, "and did he burn it so?"
Gro answered, "He did, O King."
The King lifted his arms above his head and plunged head foremost into the great cold swimming bath. Coming forth anon, he took a towel to dry himself, and
holding an end of it in either hand came and stood by Gro, the towel rushing back and forth. behind his shoulders, and said, "Proceed, tell me more."
"Lord," said Gro, "so it was that they in Owlswick gave up the place at last unto Gallandus, and Corsus came back from the burning of Drepaby Mire. All the folk in that part of Demonland had he brought to misery in her most sharp condition. But now was he to find by sour experience what that neglect had bred him when he went not north to Galing as Gallandus had counselled him to do.
"For now was word of Spitfire marching out from Galing with an hundred and ten score foot and two hundred and fifty horse. Upon which tidings we placed ourselves in very warlike fashion and moved north to meet them, and on the last morn of August fell in with their army in a place called the Rapes of Brima in the open parts of Lower Tivarandardale. All we were blithe at heart, for we held them at an advantage both in numbers (for we were more than three thousand four hundred fighting men, whereof were four hundred a-horseback), and in the goodness of our fighting stead, being perched on the edge of a little valley looking down on Spitfire and, his folk. There we abode for a time, watching what be would do, till Corsus grew weary of this and said, 'We are more than they. I will march north and then east across the head of the valley and so cut them off, that they escape not north again to Galing after the battle when they are worsted by us.'
"Now Gallandus nay-said this strongly, willing him to stand and abide their onset; for being mountaineers they must certainly choose at length, if we kept quiet, to attack us up the slope, and that were mightily to our advantage. But Corsus, that still grew from day to day more hard to deal with, would not hear him, and at last sticked not to accuse him before them all (which was most false) that be did practise to gain the command for himself, and had caused Corsus to be set upon to
have him and his sons murthered as they went from his lodging the night before.
"And Corsus gave order for the march across their front as I have told it you, O King; which indeed was the counsel of a madman. For Spitfire, when he saw our column crossing the dale-head on his right, gave order for the charge, took us i' the flank, cut us in two, and in two hours had our army smashed like an egg that is dropped from a watch-tower on pavement of hard granite. Never saw I so evil a destruction wrought on a great army. Hardly and in evil case we won back to Owlswick with but seventeen hundred men, and of them some hundreds wounded sore. And if two hundred fell o' the other side, 'tis a wonder and past expectation, so great was Spitfire's victory upon us at the Rapes of Brima. And now was our woe worsened by fugitives coming from the north, telling how Zigg had fallen upon the small force that was left to hold the Stile and clean o'erwhelmed them. So were we now shut up in Owlswick and close besieged by Spitfire and his army, who but for the devilish folly of Corsus, had ne'er made head against us.
"An ill night was that, O my Lord the King, in Owlswick by the sea. Corsus was drunk, and both his sons, guzzling down goblet upon goblet of the wine from Spitfire's cellars in Owlswick. Till at last he was fallen spewing on the floor betwixt the tables, and Gallandus standing amongst us all, galled to the quick after this shame and ruin of our fortunes, cried out and said, 'Soldiers of Witchland, I am aweary of this Corsus: a rioter, a lecher, a surfeiter, a brawler, a spiller of armies, our own not our enemies', who must bring us all to hell and we take not order to prevent him.' And he said, 'I will go home again to Witchland, and have no more share nor part in this shame.' But all they cried, 'To the devil with Corsus! Be thou our general.'"
Gro was silent a minute. "O King," he said at last, "if so it be that the malice of the Gods and mine unfortune have brought me to that case that I am part guilty of that which came about, blame me not overmuch. Little[paragraph continues]
I thought any word of mine should help Corsus and the going forward of his bad enterprise. When all they called still upon Gallandus, saying, 'Ha, ha, Gallandus! weed out the weeds, lest the best corn fester! Be thou our general,' he took me aside to speak with him; because he said he would take further judgement of me before he would consent in so great a matter. And I, seeing deadly danger in these disorders, and thinking that there only lay our safety if he should have command who was both a soldier and whose mind was bent to high attempts and noble enterprises, did egg him forward to accept it. So that be, albeit unwilling, said yea to them at last. Which all applauded; and Corsus said nought against it, being too sleepy-sodden as we thought with drunkenness to speak or move.
"So for that night we went to bed. But in the morn, O King, was a great clamour betimes in the main court in Owlswick. And I, running forth in my shirt in the misty gray of dawn, beheld Corsus standing forth in a gallery before Gallandus's lodgings that were in an upper chamber. He was naked to the waist, his hairy breast and arms to the armpits clotted and adrip with blood, and in his hands two bloody daggers. He cried in a great voice, 'Treason in the camp, but I have scotched it. He that will have Gallandus to his general, come up and I shall mix his blood with his and make them familiar.'"
By then had the King drawn on his silken hose, and a clean silken shirt, and was about lacing his black doublet trimmed with diamonds. "Thou tellest me," said he, "two faults committed by Corsus. That first he lost me a battle and nigh half his men, and next did murther Gallandus in a spleen against him when he would have amended this."
'Willing Gallandus in his sleep," said Gro, "and sending him from the shade into the house of darkness."
"Well," said the King, "there be two days in every month when whatever is begun will never reach completion. And I think it was on such a day he did execute his purpose upon Gallandus."
"The whole camp," said Lord Gro, was up in a mutiny
against him, being marvellously offended at the murther of so worthy a man in arms. Yet durst they not openly go against him; for his veterans guard his person, and he hath let slice the guts out of some dozen or more that were foremost in murmuring at him, so that the rest are afeared to make open rebellion. I tell you, O King, your army of Demonland is in great danger and peril. Spitfire sitteth down before Owlswick in mickle strength, and there is no expectation that we shall hold out long without supply of men. There is danger too lest Corsus do some desperate act. I see not how, with so mutinous an army as his, he can dare to attempt anything at all. Yet hath he his ears filled with the: continual sound of reputation, and the contempt which will be spread to the disgrace of him if he repair not soon his fault on the Rapes of Brima. It is thought that the Demons have no ships, and Laxus commandeth the sea. Yet hard it is to make any going between betwixt the fleet and Owlswick, and there be many goodly harbours and places for building of ships in Demonland. If they can stop our relieving of Corsus, and prevent Laxus with a fleet at spring, may be we shall be driven to a great calamity."
"How camest thou off?" said the King.
"O King," answered Lord Gro, "after this murther in Owlswick I did daily fear a fig or a knife, so for mine own health and Witchland's devised all the ways I could to come away. And gat at last to the fleet by stealth and there took rede with Laxus, who is most hot upon Corsus for this ill deed of his, whereby all our hopes may end in smoke, and prayed me come to you for him as for myself and for all true hearts of Witchland that do seek your greatness, O King, and not decay, that you might send them succour ere all be shent. For surely in Corsus some wild distraction hath overturned his old condition and spilt the goodness you once did know in him. His luck hath gone from him, and he is now one that would fall on his back and break his nose. I pray you strike, ere Fate strike first and strike us into the hazard."
"Tush!" said the King. "Do not lift me before I fall.[paragraph continues]
'Tis supper time. Attend me to the banquet."
By now was Gorice the King in full festival attire, with his doublet of black tiffany slashed with black velvet and broidered o'er with diamonds, black velvet hose cross. gartered with silver-spangled bands of silk, and a great black bear-skin mantle and collar of ponderous gold. The Iron crown was on his head. He took down from his chamber wall, as they went by, a sword hafted of blue steel with a pommel of bloodstone carved like a dead man's skull. This he bare naked in his hand, and they came into the banquet hall.
They that were there rose to their feet in silence, gazing expectant on the King where he stood between the pillars of the door with that sharp sword held on high, and the jewelled crab of Witchland ablaze above his brow. But most they marked his eyes. Surely the light in the eyes of the King under his beetle brows was like a light from the under-skies shed upward from the pit of hell.
He said no word, but with a gesture beckoned Corinius. Corinius stood up and came to the King, slowly, as a night-walker, obedient to that dread gaze. His cloak of sky-blue silk was flung back from his shoulders. His chest, broad as a bull's, swelled beneath the shining silver scales of his byrny, that was short-sleeved, leaving his strong arms bare to view with golden rings about the wrists. Proudly he stood before the King, his head firm planted above his mighty throat and neck; his proud luxurious mouth, made for wine-cups and for ladies' lips, firm set above the square shaven chin and jaw; the thick fair curls of his hair bound with black bryony; the insolence that dwelt in his dark blue eyes tamed for the while in face of that green bale-light that rose and fell in the steadfast gaze of the King.
When they had so stood silent while men might count twenty breaths, the King spake saying: "Corinius, receive the name of the kingdom of Demonland which thy Lord and King give thee, and make homage to me thereof."
The breath of amazement went about the hall. Corinius kneeled. The King gave him that sword which he held in
his hand, bare for the slaughter, saying, "With this sword, O Corinius, shalt thou wear out this blemish and blot that until now rested upon thee in mine eye. Corsus hath proved haggard. He hath made miss in Demonland. His sottish folly hath shut him up in Owlswick and lost me half his force. His jealousy, too maliciously and bloodily bent against my friends 'stead of mine enemies, hath lost me a good captain. The wonderful disorder and distresses of his army must, if thou amend it not, swing all our fortune at one chop from bliss to bale. If this be rightly handled by thee, one great stroke shall change every deal. Go thou, and prove thy demerits."
The Lord Corinius stood up, holding the sword point-downward in his hand. His face flamed red as an autumn sky when leaden clouds break apart on a sudden westward and the sun looks out between. "My Lord the King," said he, "give me where I may sit down: I will make where I may lie down. Ere another moon shall wax again to the full I will set forth from Tenemos. If I do not shortly remedy for you our fortunes which this bloody fool hath laboured to ruinate, spit in my face, O King, withhold from me the light of your countenance, and put spells upon me shall destroy and blast me for ever."