The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison, , at sacred-texts.com
HOW THE LORD CORINIUS WOULD TAKE UNTO HIMSELF A QUEEN IN DEMONLAND, AND MADE HIM A BRIDAL FEAST THERETO: WHEREIN IS A NOTABLE INSTANCE HOW UNTO THEM WHICH THE GODS DO LOVE HELPERS ARE RAISED UP AND COMFORTERS EVEN IN THE MIDST OF THEIR ENEMIES.
That same evening Corinius let dight a banquet in the Chamber of the Moon for some two score of his chiefest men, a very pompous and kingly entertainment; and conceiving that he might now very well avail to accomplish his pleasure touching the Lady Mevrian, he sent her word by one of his gentlemen that she should attend him there. And she sending answer to tell him gently all else in the castle was at his service, but for herself she was quite fordone and greatly desired rest and sleep that night, he fell a-laughing immoderately and saying, "A most unseasonable desire, and one that smacketh besides of mockery, since well she knoweth what this night I do intend. Wish her to repair to us, and that right swiftly, lest I fetch her."
To that message sent her came she in a short while herself to answer, dressed all in funereal black, her gown and close-fitting bodice of black sendal slashed with black sarcenett, and about her throat a chain of sapphires darkly lustrous. Very nobly she carried her head. Framed with the piled and braided masses of her night-dark hair, her face showed pale indeed, but unruffled and undismayed.
All at her coming in stood up to greet her; and Corinius said, "Lady, thou didst change thy mind quickly since thou didst first affirm thou never wouldst yield up Krothering unto me."
"As quickly as I might, my lord," said she, "for I saw I was wrong."
He abode silent a minute. his eyes like amorous surfeiters over-running her fair form. Then said he, "Thou didst wish to purchase safety for thy friends?"
She answered, "Yes."
"For thine own self," said Corinius, "it had made no jot of difference. Be witness unto me the omnisciency of the Gods, whereunto is nothing concealable, I mean thee only good."
"My lord," said she, "I embrace the comfort of that word. And know that good to me is mine own freedom: not conditions of any man's choosing."
Whereto be, being well tippled with wine, framing the most lovely countenance he might, made answer, "I doubt not but to-night, madam, thou shalt be well advised to choose that highest condition, and till to-day unknown, which I shall proffer thee: to be Queen of Demonland."
She thanked him in her best manner, but said she was minded to forgo that supposedly pleasing eminence.
"How?" said he. "Is it too little a thing for thee? Or is it as I think, that thou laughest?"
She said, "My lord, it should little beseem me that am of the seed of men of war since long generations to trap my mind with the false shows of a greatness that is gone. Yet I pray you forget not this: the dominion of the Demons
hath used to soar a pitch above common royalty, and like the eye of day regarded kings from above. And for this style of Queen thou offerest me, I say unto thee it is an addition I desire not, who am sister unto him that writ that writing above the gate that all ye had tasted the truth thereof had he been here to meet with you."
Corinius said, "True it is, some have out-bragged the world, yet I ere this have used them like knaves. My jackboot hath known things in Carcë, madam, I'll not gall thy heart to tell thee of." But perceiving a great lowe of disdainful anger blaze in Mevrian's eye, "Cry you mercy," said he, "incomparable lady; this was beside the mark. I would not sully our new friendship with memories of----- Ho there! a chair beside me for the Queen."
But Mevrian made them set it on the far side of the board, and there sat her down, saying, "I pray thee, my Lord Corinius, unsay that word. Thou knowest it dislikes me."
He looked on her in silence for a minute, leaned forward across the board, his lips parted a little and between them his breath coming and going thick and swift. "Well," he said, "sit there, and it like thee, madam, and manage my delights by stages. Last year the wide world betwixt us: this year the mountains: yestereve Krothering walls: to-night a table's breadth: and ere night be done, not so much as-----"
Gro saw the wild-deer look in Lady Mevrian's eyes. She said, "This is talk I have not learned to understand, my lord. "
"I shall learn it thee," said Corinius, his face aflame. "Lovers live by love as larks by leeks. By Satan, I do love thee as thou wert the heart out of my body."
"My Lord Corinius," said she, "we ladies of the north have little stomach for these fashions, howe'er they commend them in waterish Witchland. If thou'lt have my friendship, bring me service therefor, and that in season. This is no fit table-talk."
"Why there," said he, "we're in fast agreement. I'll blithely show thee all this, and a quainter thing beside, in
thine own chamber. But 'twas beyond my hopes thou'dst grant me that so suddenly. Are we so happy?"
In great shame and anger the Lady Mevrian stood up from the table. Corinius, something unsteadily, leaped to his feet. For all his bigness, so tall she was she looked him level in the eye. And he, as when in the face of a night-ranging beast suddenly a man brandishes a bright light, stood stupid under that gaze, the springs of action strangely frozen in him on a sudden, and said sullenly, "Madam, I am a soldier. Truly mine affection standeth not upon compliment. That I am impatient, put the wite on thy beauty not on me. Pray you, be seated."
But Mevrian answered, "Thy language, my lord, is too bold and vicious. Come to me to-morrow if thou wilt; but I'll have thee know, patience only and courtesy shall get good of me."
She turned to the door. He, as if with the turning away of that lady's eyes the spell was broke, cried loudly upon his folk to stay her. But there was none stirred. Therewith he, as one that cannot command his own indecent appetites, o'ersetting bench and board in eager haste to lay hands on her, it so betided that he tripped up with one of these and fell a-sprawling. And ere he was gotten again on his feet, the Lady Mevrian was gone from the hall.
He rose up painfully, proffering from his lips a mudspring of barbarous and filthy imprecations; so that Laxus who helped raise him up was fain to chide him, saying, "My lord, unman not thyself by such a bestial transformation. Are not we yet with harness on our backs in a kingdom newly gained, the old lords thereof discomfited in deed but not yet taken nor slain, studying belike to raise new powers against us? And above such and so many affairs wilt thou make place for the allurements of love"
"Ay!" answered he. "Nor shall such a sapless ninny as thou avail to cross me therein. Ask thy little gamesome Sriva, when thou comest home to wed her, if I be not better able than thou to please a woman. She'll tell
thee! I' the main season meddle not in matters that be too high for such as thou."
Both Gro and the sons of Corund were by and heard those words. The Lord Laxus schooled himself to laugh. He turned toward Gro, saying, "The general is far gone in wine."
Gro, marking Laxus's face flushed red to the ears for all his studied carelessness, answered him softly, "'Tis so, my lord. And in wine is truth."
Now Corinius, bethinking him that it was yet early and the feast barely well begun, let set a guard on all the passages which led to Mevrian's lodgings, to the end that she might not issue therefrom but there wait on his pleasure. That done, he bade renew their feasting.
No stint of luscious meats and wines was there, and the lords of Witchland sat them down again right eagerly to the good banquet. Laxus spoke secretly to Gro: "I wot well thou takest in very ill part these doings. Let it stand firm in thy mind that if thou shouldst deem it fitting to play him a trick and steal the lady from him, I'll not stand i' the way on't."
"In a bunch of cards," said Gro, "knaves wait upon the kings. It were not so ill done and we made it so here. I heard a bird sing lately thou hadst a quarrel to him."
"Thou must not think so," answered Laxus. "I'll give thee still a Roland for thine Oliver, and tell thee 'tis most apparent thyself dost love this lady."
Gro said, "Thou chargest me with a sweet folly is foreign to my nature, being a grave scholar that if ever I did frequent such toys have long eschewed them. Only meseems 'tis an ill thing if she must be given over unto him against her will. Thou knowest him of a rough and mere soldierly mind, besides his dissolute company with other women."
"Tush," said Laxus, "he may go his gate for me, and be as close as a butterfly with the lady. But out of policy, 'twere best rid her hence. I'd not be seen in't. That provided, I'll second thee all ways. If he lie here the summer long in amorous dalliance, justly might the King abraid
us that midst o' the day's sport we gave his good hawk a gorge, and so lost him the game."
"I see," said Gro, smiling in himself, "thou art a man of sober government and understanding, and thinkest first of Witchland. And that is both just and right."
Now went the feast forward with great surfeiting and swigging of wine. Mevrian's women that were there, much against their own good will, to serve the banquet, set ever fresh dishes before the feasters and poured forth fresh wines, golden and tawny and ruby-red, in the goblets of jade and crystal and hammered gold. The air in the fair chamber was thick with the steam of bake-meats and the vinous breath of the feasters, so that the lustre of the opal lamps burned coppery, and about each lamp was a bush of coppery beams like the beams about a torch that burns in a fog. Great was the clatter of cups, and great the clinking of glass as in their drunkenness the Witches cast down the priceless beakers on the floor, smashing them in shivers. And huge din there was of laughter and song; and amidst of it, women's voices singing, albeit near drowned in the hurly burly. For they constrained Mevrian's damosels in Krothering to sing and dance before them, howsoever woeful at heart. And to other entertainment than this of dance and song was many a black-bearded reveller willing to constrain them; and sought occasion thereto, but this by stealth only, and out of eye-shot of their general. For heavily enow was his wrath fallen on some who rashly flaunted in his face their light disports, presuming to hunt in such fields while their lord went still a-fasting.
After a while Heming, who sat next to Gro, began to say to him in a whisper, "This is an ill banquet."
"Meseems rather 'tis a very good banquet," said Gro.
"Would I saw some other issue thereof," said Heming, "than that he purposeth. Or how thinkest thou?"
"I scarce can blame him," answered Gro. "'Tis a most lovesome lady."
"Is not the man a most horrible open swine? And is it
to be endured that he should work his lewd purpose on so sweet a lady?"
"What have I to do with it?" said Gro.
"What less than I?" said Heming.
"It dislikes thee?" said Gro.
"Art thou a man?" said Heming. "And she that hateth him besides as bloody Atropos!"
Gro looked him a swift searching look in the eye. Then he whispered, his head bowed over some raisins he was a-picking: "If this is thy mind, 'tis well." And speaking softly, with here and there some snatch of louder discourse or jest between whiles lest he should seem too earnestly engaged in secret talk, he taught Heming orderly and clearly what he had to do, discovering to him that Laxus also, being bit with jealousy, was of their accord. "Thy brother Cargo is aptest for this. He standeth about her height, and by reason of his youth is yet beardless. Go find him out. Rehearse unto him word by word all this talking that hath been between me and thee. Corinius holdeth me too deep suspect to suffer me out of his eye to-night. Unto you sons of Corund therefore is the task; and I biding at his elbow may avail to hold him here i' the hall till it be performed. Go; and wise counsel and good speed wait on your attempts."
The Lady Mevrian, being escaped to her own chamber in the south tower, sat by an eastern window that looked across the gardens and the lake, past the sea-lochs of Stropardon and the dark hills of Eastmark, to the stately ranges afar which overhang in mid-air Mosedale and Murkdale and Swartriverdale and the inland sea of Throwater. The last lights of, day still lingered on their loftier summits: on Ironbeak, on the gaunt wall of Skarta, and on the distant twin towers of Dina seen beyond the lower Mosedale range in the depression of Neverdale Hause. Behind them rolled up the ascent of heaven the wheels of quiet Night: holy Night, mother of the Gods, mother of sleep, tender nurse of all little birds and beasts that dwell in the field and all tired hearts and weary
mother besides of strange children, affrights, and rapes, and midnight murders bold.
Mevrian sat there till all the earth was blurred in darkness and the sky a-throb with starlight, for it was yet an hour until the rising of the moon. And she prayed to Lady Artemis, calling her by her secret names and saying, "Goddess and Maiden chaste and holy; triune Goddess, Which in heaven art, and on the earth Huntress divine, and also hast in the veiled sunless places below earth Thy dwelling, viewing the large stations of the dead: save me and keep me that am Thy maiden still."
She turned the ring upon her finger and scanned in the gathering gloom the bezel thereof, which was of that chrysoprase that is hid in light and seen in darkness, being as a flame by night but in the day-time yellow or wan. And behold, it palpitated with splendour from withinward, and was as if a thousand golden sparks danced and swirled within the stone.
While she pondered what interpretation lay likeliest on this sudden flowering of unaccustomed splendour within the chrysoprase, behold one of her women of the bedchamber who brought lights, and said, standing before her, "Twain of those lords of Witchland would speak with your ladyship in private."
"Two?" said Mevrian. "There's safety yet in numbers. Which be they?"
"Highness, they be tall and slim of body. They be black-advised. They bear them discreet as dormice, and most commendably sober."
Mevrian asked, "Is it the Lord Gro? Hath he a great black beard, much curled and perfumed?"
"Highness, I marked not that either weareth a beard," said the woman, "nor their names I know not."
"Well," said Mevrian, "admit them. And do thou and thy fellows attend me whiles I give them audience."
So it was done according to her bidding. And there entered in those two sons of Corund.
They greeted her with respectful salutations, and Heming
said, "Our errand, most worshipful lady, was for thine own ear only if it please thee."
Mevrian said to her women, "Make fast the doors, and attend me in the ante-chamber. And now, my lords," said she, and waited for them to begin.
She was seated sideways in the window, betwixt the light and the dark. The crystal lamps shining from within the room showed deeper darknesses in her hair than night's darkness without. The curve of her white arms resting in her lap was like the young moon cradled above the sunset. A falling breeze out of the south came laden with the murmur of the sea, far away beyond fields and vineyards, restlessly surging even in that calm weather amid the sea-caves of Stropardon. It was as if the sea and the night enfolding Demonland gasped in indignation at such things as Corinius, holding himself already an undoubted possessor of his desires, devised for that night in Krothering.
Those brethren stood abashed in the presence of such rare beauty. Heming with a deep breath spake and said, "Madam, what slender opinion soever thou hast held of us of Witchland, I pray thee be satisfied that I and my kinsman have sought to thee now with a clean heart to do thee service."
"Princes," said she, "scarce might ye blame me did I misdoubt you. Yet, seeing that my life's days have been not among ambidexters and coney-catchers but lovers of clean hands and open dealing, not even after that which I this night endured will mine heart believe that all civility is worn away in Witchland. Did I not freely receive Corinius's self when I did open my gates to him, firmly believing him to be a king and not a ravening wolf?"
Then said Heming, "Canst thou wear armour, madam?" Thou art something of an height with my brother. To bring thee past the guard, if thou go armed, as I shall conduct thee, the wine they have drunken shall be thy minister. I have provided an horse. In the likeness of my young brother mayst thou ride forth to-night out of this castle, and win clean away. But in thine own shape thou
mayst never pass from these thy lodgings, for he hath set a guard thereon; being resolved, come thereof what may, to visit thee here this night: in thine own chamber, madam.
The sounds of furious revelry floated up from the banquet chamber. Mevrian heard by snatches the voice of Corinius singing an unseemly song. As in the presence of some dark influence that threatened an ill she might not comprehend, yet felt her blood quail and her heart grow sick because of it, she looked on those brethren.
She said at last, "Was this your plan?"
Heming answered, "It was the Lord Gro did most ingenuously conceive it. But Corinius, as he hath ever held him in distrust, and most of all when he hath drunken overmuch, keepeth him most firmly at his elbow."
Cargo now did off his armour, and Mevrian calling in her women to take this and other gear fared straightway to an inner chamber to change her fashion.
Heming said to his brother, "Thou shalt need to go about it with great circumspection, to come off when we are gone so as thou be not aspied. Were I thou, I should be tempted for the rareness of the jest to await his coming, and assay whether thou couldst not make as good a counterfeit Mevrian as she a counterfeit Cargo."
"Thou," said Cargo, "mayst well laugh and be gay, thou that must conduct her. And art resolved, I dare lay my head to a turnip, to do thy utmost endeavour to despoil Corinius of that felicity he hath to-night decreed him, and bless thyself therewith."
"Thou hast fallen," answered Heming, "into a most barbarous thought. Shall my tongue be so false a traitor to mine heart as to say I love not this lady? Compare but her beauty and my youth together, how should it other be? But with such a height of fervour I do love her that I'd as lief offer violence to a star of heaven, as require of her aught but honest."
Said Cargo, "What said the wise little boy to's elder brother? 'Sith thou'st gotten the cake, brother, I must e'en make shift with the crumbs.' When you are gone,
and all whisht and quiet, and I left here amid the waiting women, it shall go hard but I'll teach 'em somewhat afore good-night."
Now opened the door of the inner chamber, and there stood before them the Lady Mevrian armed and helmed. She said, "'Tis no light matter to halt before a cripple. Think you this will pass i' the dark, my lords?"
They answered, 'twas beyond all commendation excellent.
"I'll thank thee now, Prince Cargo," said she, stretching out her hand. He bowed and kissed it in silence. "This harness," she said, "shall be a keepsake unto me of a noble enemy. Would someday I might call thee friend, for suchwise hast thou borne thee this night."
Therewith, bidding young Cargo adieu, she with his brother went forth from the chamber and through the ante-chamber to that shadowy stairway where Corinius's soldiers stood sentinel. These (as many more be drowned in the beaker than in the ocean), not over-heedful after their tipplings, seeing two go by together with clanking armour and knowing Heming's voice when he answered the challenge, made no question but here were Corund's sons returning to the banquet.
So passed he and she lightly by the sentinels. But as they fared by the lofty corridor without the Chamber of the Moon, the doors of that chamber opening suddenly left and right there came forth torch-bearers and minstrels two by two as in a progress, with cymbals clashing and flutes and tambourines, so that the corridor was fulfilled with the flare of flamboys and the din. In the midst walked the Lord Corinius. The lusty blood within him burned scarlet in all his shining face, and made stand the veins like cords on the strong neck and arms and hands of him. The thick curls above his brow where they strayed below his coronal of sleeping nightshade were a-drip with sweat. Plain it was he was in no good trim, after that shrewd knock on the head Astar that day had given him, to withstand deep quaffings. He went between Gro and Laxus, swaying heavily now on
the arm of this one now of the other, his right hand beating time to the music of the bridal song.
Mevrian whispered to Heming, "Let us bear out a good face so long as we be alive."
They stood aside, hoping to be passed by unnoticed, for retreat nor concealment was there none. But Corinius his eye lighting on them stopped and hailed them, catching them each by an arm, and crying, "Heming, thou'rt drunk! Cargo, thou'rt drunk, sweet youth! 'Tis a damnable folly, drink as drunk as you be, and these bonny wenches I've provided you. How shall I satisfy 'em, think ye, when they come to me with their plaints to-morn, that each must sit with a snoring drunkard's head in her lap the night long?"
Mevrian, as if she had all her part by rote, was leaned this while heavily upon Heming, hanging her head.
Heming could think on nought likelier to say, than, "Truly, O Corinius, we be sober."
"Thou liest," said Corinius. "'Twas ever sign manifest of drunkenness to deny it. Look you, my lords, I deny not I am drunk. Therefore is sign manifest I am drunk, I mean, sign manifest I am sober. But the hour calleth to other work than questioning of these high matters. Set on!"
So speaking he reeled heavily against Gro, and (as if moved by some airy influence that, whispering him of schemings afoot, yet conspired with the wine that he had drunken to make him look all otherwhere for treason than where it lay under his hand to discover it) gripped Gro by the arm, saying, "Bide by me, Goblin, thou wert best. I do love thee very discreetly, and will still hold thee by the ears, to see thou bite me not, nor go no more a-gadding."
Being by such happy fortune delivered out of this peril, Heming and Mevrian with what prudent haste they might, and without mishap or hindrance, got them their horses and fared forth of the main gate between the marble hippogriffs, whose mighty forms shone above them stark in the low beams of the rising moon. So they rode
silently through the gardens and the home-meads and thence to the wild woods beyond, quickening now their pace to a gallop on the yielding turf. So hard they rode, the air of the windless April night was lashed into storm about their faces. The trample and thunder of hoofbeats and the flying glimpses of the trees were to young Heming but an undertone to the thunder of his blood which night and speed and that lady galloping beside him knee to knee set a-gallop within him. But to Mevrian's soul, as she galloped along those woodland rides, those moonlight glades, these things and night and the steadfast stars attuned a heavenlier music; so that she waxed momently wondrous peaceful at heart, as with the most firm assurance that not without the abiding glory of Demonland must the great mutations of the world be acted, and but for a little should their evil-willers usurp her dear brother's seat in Krothering.
They drew rein in a clearing beside a broad stretch of water. Pine-woods rose from its further edge, shadowy in the moonshine. Mevrian rode to a little eminence that stood above the water and turned her eyes toward Krothering. Save by her instructed and loving eye scarce might it be seen, many miles away be-east of them, dimmed in the obscure soft radiance under the moon. So sat she awhile looking on golden Krothering, while her horse grazed quietly, and Heming at her elbow held his peace, only beholding her.
At last, looking back and meeting his gaze, "Prince Heming," she said, "from this place goeth a hidden path north-about beside the firth, and a dry road over the marsh, and a ford and an upland horse-way leadeth into Westmark. Here and all-wheres in Demonland I might fare blindfold. And here I'll say farewell. My tongue is a poor orator. But I mind me of the words of the poet where he saith:
My mind is like to the asbeston stone,
Which if it once be heat in flames of fire,
Denieth to becomen cold again.
[paragraph continues] Be the latter issue of these wars in my great kinsmen's victory, as I most firmly trow it shall be, or in Gorice's his, I shall not forget this experiment of your nobility manifested unto me this night."
But Heming, still beholding her, answered not a word.
She said, "How fares the Queen thy step-mother? Seven summers ago this summer I was in Norvasp at Lord Corund's wedding feast, and stood by her at the bridal. Is she yet so fair?"
He answered, "Madam, as June bringeth the golden rose unto perfection, so waxeth her beauty with the years."
"She and I," said Mevrian, "Were playmates, she the elder by two summers. Is she yet so masterful?"
"Madam, she is a Queen," said Heming, nailing his very eyes on Mevrian. Her face half turned towards him, sweet mouth half closed, clear eyes uplifted toward the east, showed dim in the glamour of the moon, and the lilt of her body was as a lily fallen a-dreaming beside some enchanted lake at midnight. With a dry throat he said, "Lady, until to-night I had not supposed there lived on earth a woman more beautiful than she."
Therewith the love that was in him went like a wind and like an up-swooping darkness athwart his brain. As one who has too long, unbold, unresolved, delayed to lift that door's latch which must open on his heart's true home, he caught his arms about her. Her cheek was soft to his kiss, but deadly cold: her eyes like a wild bird's caught in a purse-net. His brother's armour that cased her body was not so dead nor so hard under his hand, as to his love that yielding cheek, that alien look. He said, as one a-stagger for his wits in the presence of some unlooked-for chance, "Thou dost not love me?"
Mevrian shook her head, putting him gently away.
Like the passing of a fire on a dry heath in summer the flame of his passion was passed by, leaving but a smouldering desolation of scornful sullen wrath: wrath at himself and fate.
He said, in a low shamed voice, 'I pray you forgive me, madam."
Mevrian said, "Prince, the Gods give thee good-night. Be kind to Krothering. I have left there an evil steward."
So saying, she reined up her horse's head and turned down westward towards the firth. Heming watched her an instant, his brain a-reel. Then, striking spurs to his horse's flanks so that the horse reared and plunged, he rode away at a great pace east again through the woods to Krothering.