The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison, , at sacred-texts.com
OF NEWS BROUGHT UNTO GORICE THE KING IN CARCË OUT OF THE SOUTH, WHERE THE LORD LAXUS LYING IN THE STRAITS WITH HIS ARMADA HELD THE FLEET OF DEMONLAND PRISONED IN THE MIDLAND SEA.
ON a night of late summer leaning towards autumn, eight weeks after the sailing of the Demons out of Muelva as is aforewrit, the Lady Prezmyra sate before her mirror in Corund's lofty bed-chamber in Carcë The night without was mild and full of stars. Within, yellow flames of candles burning steadily on either side of the mirror rayed forth tresses of tinselling brightness in twin glories or luminous spheres of warmth. In that soft radiance grains as of golden fire swam and circled, losing themselves on the confines of the gloom where the massy furniture and the arras and the figured hangings of the bed were but cloudier divisions and congestions of the general dark. Prezmyra's hair caught the beams and imprisoned them in a tawny tangle of splendour that swept about her head and shoulders down to the emerald clasps of her girdle. Her eyes resting idly on her own fair image
in the shining mirror, she talked light nothings with her woman of the bed-chamber who, plying the comb, stood behind her chair of gold and tortoise-shell.
"Reach me yonder book, nurse, that I may read again the words of that serenade the Lord Gro made for me, the night when first we had tidings from my lord out of Impland of his conquest of that land, and the King did make him king thereof."
The old woman gave her the book, that was bound in goat-skin chiselled and ornamented by the gilder's art, fitted with clasps of gold, and enriched with little gems, smaragds and margery-pearls, inlaid in the panels of its covers. Prezmyra turned the page and read:
You meaner Beauties of the Night,
That poorly satisfie our Eies,
More by your number then your light,
You Common-people of the Skies;
What are you when the Moone shall rise?
You Curious Chanters of the Wood,
That warble forth Dame Natures layes,
Thinking your Passions understood
By your weake accents; what's your praise
When Philomell her voyce shall raise?
You Violets that first apeare,
By your pure purpel mantles knowne,
Like the proud Virgins of the yeare,
As if the Spring were all your own;
What are you when the Rose is blowne?
So, when my Princess shall be seene
In form and Beauty of her mind,
By Vertue first, then Choyce a Queen,
Tell me, if she were not design'd
Th' Eclypse and Glory of her kind.
She abode silent awhile. Then, in a low sweet voice
where all the chords of music seemed to slumber: "Three years will be gone next Yule-tide," she said, "since first I heard that song. And not yet am I grown customed to the style of Queen."
"'Tis pity of my Lord Gro," said the nurse.
"Mirth sat oftener on your face, O Queen, when he was here, and you were used to charm his melancholy and make a pish of his phantastical humorous forebodings."
"Oft doubting not his forejudgement," said Prezmyra, "even the while I thripped my fingers at it. But never saw I yet that the louring thunder hath that partiality of a tyrant, to blast him that faced it and pass by him that quailed before it."
"He was most deeply bound servant to your beauty," said the old woman. "And yet," she said, viewing her mistress sidelong to see how she would receive it, "that were a miss easily made good."
She busied herself with the comb awhile in silence. After a time she said, "O Queen, mistress of the hearts of men, there is not a lord in Witchland, nor in earth beside, you might not bind your servant with one thread of this hair of yours. The likeliest and the goodliest were yours at an eye-glance."
The Lady Prezmyra looked dreamily into her own sea-green eyes imaged in the glass. Then she smiled mockingly and said, "Whom then accountest thou the likeliest and the goodliest man in all the stablished earth?"
The old woman smiled. "O Queen," answered she, "this was the very matter in dispute amongst us at supper only this evening."
"A pretty disputation!" said Prezmyra. "Let me be merry. Who was adjudged the fairest and gallantest by your high court of censure?"
"It was not generally determined of, O Queen. Sonic would have my Lord Gro."
"Alack, he is too feminine," said Prezmyra.
"Others our Lord the King."
"There is none greater," said Prezmyra, "nor more worshipful. But for an husband, thou shouldst as well wed with a thunder-storm or the hungry sea. Give me some more."
"Some chose the lord Admiral."
"That," said Prezmyra., "was a nearer stroke. No skip-jack nor soft marmalady courtier, but a brave, tall, gallant gentleman. Ay, but too watery a planet burned at his nativity. He is too like a statua of a man. No, nurse, thou must bring me better than be."
The nurse said, "True it is, O Queen, that most were of my thinking when I gave 'em my choice: the king of Demonland."
"Fie on thee!" cried Prezmyra. "Name him not so that was too unmighty to hold that land against our enemies."
"Folk say it was by foxish arts and practices magical a was spilt on Krothering Side. Folk say 'twas divels and not horses carried the Demons down the mountain at us."
"They say!" cried Prezmyra. "I say to thee, he hath found it apter to his bent to flaunt his crown in Witchland than make 'em give him the knee in Galing. For a true king both knee and heart do truly bow before him. But this one, if he had their knee 'twas in the back side of him he had it, to kick him home again."
"Fie, madam?" said the nurse.
"Hold thy tongue, nurse," said Prezmyra. "It were good ye were all well whipped for a bunch of silly mares that know not a horse from an ass."
The old woman watching her in the glass counted it best keep silence. Prezmyra said under her breath as if talking to herself, "I know a man, should not have miscarried it thus." The old nurse that loved not Lord Corund and his haughty fashions and rough speech and Wine-bibbing, and was besides jealous that so rude a stock should wear so rich a jewel as was her mistress, followed not her meaning.
After some time, the old woman spake softly and said, "You are full of thoughts to-night, madam."
Prezmyra's eyes met hers in the mirror. "Why may I not be so and it likes me?" said she.
That stony look of the eyes struck like a gong some twenty-year-old memory in the nurse's heart: the little wilful maiden, ill to goad but good to guide, looking out from that Queen's face across the years. She knelt down suddenly and caught her arms about her mistress's waist. "Why must you wed then, dear heart?" said she, "if you were minded to do what likes you? Men love not sad looks in their wives. You may ride a lover on the curb, madam, but once you wed him 'tis all t'other way: all his way, madam, and beware of 'had I wist."'
Her mistress looked down at her mockingly. "I have been wed seven years to-night. I should know these things."
"And this night!" said the nurse. "And but an hour till midnight, and yet he sitteth at board."
The Lady Prezmyra leaned back to look again on her own mirrored loveliness. Her proud mouth sweetened to a smile. "Wilt thou learn me common women's wisdom?" said she, and there was yet more voluptuous sweetness trembling in her voice. "I will tell thee a story, as thou hast told them me in the old days in Norvasp to wile me to bed. Hast thou not heard tell how old Duke Hilmanes of Maltraëny, among some other fantasies such as appear by night unto many in divers places, had one in likeness of a woman with old face of low and little stature or body, which did scour his pots and pans and did such things as a maid servant ought to do, liberally and without doing of any harm? And by his art he knew this thing should be his servant still, and bring unto him whatsoever he would, so long time as he should be glad of the things it brought him. But this duke, being a foolish man and a greedy, made his familiar bring him at once all the year's seasons and their several goods and pleasures, and all good things of earth at one time. So as in six months' space, he being sated with these and all good things, and having no good thing remaining unto him to expect or to desire, for very weariness
did hang himself. I would never have ta'en me an husband, nurse, and I had not known that I was able to give him every time I would a new heaven and a new earth, and never the same thing twice."
She took the old woman's hands in hers and gathered them to her breast, as if to let them learn, rocked for a minute in the bountiful infinite sweetness of that place, what foolish fears were these. Suddenly Prezmyra clasped the hands tighter in her own, and shuddered a little. She bent down to whisper in the nurse's ear, "I would not wish to die. The world without me should be summer without roses. Carcë without me should be a night without the star-shine."
Her voice died away like the night breeze in a summer garden. In the silence they heard the dip and wash of oar-blades from the river without; the sentinel's challenge, the answer from the ship.
Prezmyra stood up quickly and went to the window. She could see the ship's dark bulk by the water-gate, and comings and goings, but nought clearly. "Tidings from the fleet," she said. "Put up my hair."
And ere that was done, came a little page running to her chamber door, and when it was opened to him, stood panting from his running and said, "The king your husband bade me tell you, madam, and pray you go down to him i' the great hall. It may be ill news, I fear."
"Thou fearest, pap-face?" said the Queen. "I'll have thee whipped if thou bringest thy fears to me. Dost know aught? What's the matter?"
"The ship's much battered, O Queen. He is closeted with our Lord the King, the skipper. None dare speak else. 'Tis feared the high Admiral-----"
"Feared!" cried she, swinging round for the nurse to put about her white shoulders her mantle of sendaline and cloth of silver, that shimmered at the collar with purple amethysts and was scented with cedar and galbanum and myrrh. She was forth in the dark corridor, down by the winding marble stair, through the mid-court, hasting to the banquet hall. The court was full of folk talking;
but nought certain, nought save suspense and wonder; rumour of a great sea-fight in the south, a mighty victory won by Laxus upon the Demons: Juss and those lords of Demonland dead and gone, the captives following with the morning's tide. And here and there like an undertone to these triumphant tidings, contrary rumours, whispered low, like the hissing of an adder from her shadowy lair: all not well, the lord Admiral wounded, half his ships lost, the battle doubtful, the Demons escaped. So came that lady into the great hall; and there were the lords and captains of the Witches all in a restless quiet of expectation. Duke Corsus lolled forward in his seat down by the cross-bench, his breath stertorous, his small eyes fixed in a drunken stare. On the other side Corund sate huge and motionless, his elbow propped on the table, his chin in his hand, sombre and silent, staring at the wall. Others gathered in knots, talking in low tones. The Lord Corinius walked up and down behind the cross-bench, his hands clasped behind him, his fingers snapping impatiently at whiles, his heavy jaw held high, his glance high and defiant. Prezmyra came to Heming where he stood among three or four and touched him on the arm. "We know nothing, madam," he said. "He is with the King."
She came to her lord. "Thou didst send for me."
Corund looked up at her. "Why, so I did, madam. Tidings from the fleet. Maybe somewhat, maybe nought. But thou'dst best be here for't."
"Good tidings or ill: that shaketh not Carcë walls," said she.
Suddenly the low buzz of talk was hushed. The King stood in the curtained doorway. They rose up all to meet him, all save Corsus that sat drunk in his chair. The crown of Witchland shed baleful sparkles above the darkness of the dark fortress-face of Gorice the King, the glitter of his dread eyeballs, the deadly line of his mouth, the square black beard jutting beneath. Like a tower he stood, and behind him in the shadow was the messenger from the fleet with countenance the colour of wet mortar.
The King spake and said, "My lords, here's tidings touching the truth whereof I have well satisfied myself. And it importeth the mere perdition of my fleet. There hath been battle off Melikaphkhaz in the Impland seas. Juss hath sunken our ships, every ship save that which brought the tidings, sunk, with Laxus and all his men that were with him." He paused: then, "These be heavy news," he said, "and I'll have you bear 'em in the old Witchland fashion: the heavier hit the heavier strike again."
In the strange deformed silence came a little gasping cry, and the Lady Sriva fell a-swooning.
The King said, "Let the kings of Impland and of Demonland attend me. The rest, it is commanded that all do get them to bed o' the instant."
The Lord Corund said in his lady's ear as he went by, taking her with his hand about the shoulder. "What, lass? if the broth's split, the meat remaineth. To bed with thee, and never doubt we'll pay them yet."
And he with Corinius followed the King.
It was past middle night when the council brake up, and Corund sought his chamber in the eastern gallery above the inner court. He found his lady sitting yet at the window, watching the false dawn over Pixyland. Dismissing his lamp-bearers that lighted him to bed, he bolted and barred the great iron-studded door. The breadth of his shoulders when he turned filled the shadowy doorway; his head well nigh touched the lintel. It was hard to read his countenance in the uncertain gloom where he stood beyond the bright region made by the candle-light, but Prezmyra's eyes could mark how care sat on his brow, and there was in the carriage of his ponderous frame kingliness and the strength of some strong determination.
She stood up, looking up at him as on a mate to whom she could be true and be true to her own self. "Well?" she said.
"The tables are set," said he, without moving.
"The King hath named me his captain general in Carcë." "Is it come to that?" said Prezmyra.
"They have hewn a limb from us," answered he. "They have wit to know the next stroke should be at the heart."
"Is it truly so?" said she. "Eight thousand men? twice thine army's strength that won Impland for us? all drowned?"
"'Twas the devilish seamanship of these accursed Demons," said Corund. "It appeareth Laxus held the Straits where they must go if ever they should win home again, meaning to fight 'em in the narrows and so crush 'em with the weight of's ships as easy as kill flies, having by a great odds the bigger strength both in ships and men. They o' their part kept the sea without, trying their best to 'tice him forth so they might do their sailor tricks i' the open. A week or more he withstood it, till o' the ninth day (the devil curse him for a fool, wherefore could a not have had patience?) o' the ninth morning, weary of inaction and having wind and tide something in his favour"; the Lord Corund groaned and snapped his fingers contemptuously. "O I'll tell thee the tale to-morrow, madam. I'm surfeited with it to-night. The sum is, Laxus drownded and all that were with him, and Juss with his whole great armament northward bound for Witchland."
"And the wide seas his. And we expect him, any day?"
"The wind hangeth easterly. Any day," said Corund.
Prezmyra said, "That was well done to rest the command in thee. But what of our qualified young gentleman who had that office aforetime. Will he play o' these terms?"
Corund answered, "Hungry dogs will eat dirty puddings. I think he'll play, albeit he showed his teeth i' the first while."
"Let him keep his teeth for the Demons," said she.
"This very ship was ta'en," said Corund, "and sent home by them in a bravado to tell us what betid: a stupid insolent part, shall cost 'em dear, for it hath forewarned us. The skipper had this letter for thee: gave it me monstrous secretly."
Prezmyra took away the wax and opened the letter, and knew the writer of it. She held it out to Corund: "Read it to me, my lord. I am tired with watching; I read ill by this flickering candle-light."
But he said, "I am too poor a scholar, madam. I prithee read it."
And in the light of the guttering candles, vexed with an east wind that blew before the dawn, she read this letter, that was conceived in manner following:
"Unto the right high mighti and doubtid Prynsace the Quen of Implande, one that was your Servaunt but now beinge both a Traitor and a manifiald parjured Traitor, which Heaven above doth abhorre, the erth below detest, the sun moone and starres be eschamed of, and all Creatures doo curse and ajudge unworthy of breth and life, do wish onelie to die your Penytent. In hevye sorrowe doo send you these advisoes which I requyre your Mageste in umblest manner to pondur wel, seeinge ells your manyfest Overthrowe and Rwyn att hand. And albeit in Carcee you reste in securitie, it is serten you are there as saife as he that hingeth by the Leves of a Tree in the end of Autumpne when as the Leves begin to fall. For in this late Battaile in Mellicafhaz Sea hath the whole powre of Wychlande on the sea been beat downe and ruwyned, and the highe Admirall of our whole Navie loste and ded and the names of the great men of accownte that were slayen at the battaile I may not numbre nor the common sorte much lesse by reaisoun that the more part were dround in the sea which came not to Syght. But of Daemounlande not ij schips companies were lossit, but with great puissaunce they doo buske them for Carsee. Havinge with them this Gowldri Bleusco, strangely reskewed from his preassoun-house beyond the toombe, and a great Armey of the moste strangg and fell folke that ever I saw or herd speke of. Such is the Die of Warre. Most Nowble Prynsace I will speke unto you not by a Ryddle or Darck Fygure but playnly that you let not slipp this Occasioun. For I have
drempt an evill Dreeme and one pourtending ruwyn unto Wychlande, beinge in my slepe on the verie eve of this same bataille terrified and smytten with an appeering schape of Laxus armde cryinge in an hyghe voise and lowd, An Ende an Ende an ende of All. Therefore most aernestly I do beseek your Magestie and your nowble Lorde that was my Frend before that by my venemous tresun I loste both you and him and alle, take order for your proper saffetie, and the thinge requyers Haste of your Magestes. And this must you doo, to fare strayght way into your owne cuntrie of Picselande and there raise Force. Be you before these rebalds and obstynates of Demounlande in their Prowd Attempts, to strike at Wychlande and so purchas their Frenshyp who it is verie sertan will in powre invintiable stand before Carsee or ever Wychlande shall have time to putt you downe. This Counsell I give you knowinge full well that the Power and Domynyon of the Demouns standeth now preheminent and not to be withstode. So tarry not by a Sinckinge Schippe, but do as I saye lest all bee loste.
"One thinge more I telle you, that shall haply enforce my counsell unto you, the hevyeste Newes of alle."
"'Tis heavy news that such a false troker as he is should yet supervive so many honest men," said Corund.
The Lady Prezmyra held out the letter to her lord. "Mine eyes dazzle," she said. "Read thou the rest." Corund put his great arm about her as he sat down to the table before the mirror and pored over the writing, spelling it out with one finger. He had little book-learning, and it was some time ere he had the meaning clear. He did not read it out; his lady's face told him she had read all ere he began.
This was the last news Gro's letter told her: the Prince her brother dead in the sea-fight, fighting for Demonland; dead and drowned in the sea off Melikaphkhaz.
Prezmyra went to the window. Dawn was beginning, bleak and gray. After a minute she turned her head.[paragraph continues]
Like a she-lion she looked, proud and dangerous-eyed. She was very pale. Her accents, level and quiet, called to the blood like the roll of a distant drum, as she said, "Succours of Demonland: late or never."
Corund beheld her uneasily.
"Their oaths to me and to him!" said she, "sworn to us that night in Carcë. False friends! O, I could eat their hearts with garlic."
He put his great hands on her two shoulders. She threw them off. "In one thing," she cried, "Gro counselleth us well: to tarry no more on this sinking ship. We must raise forces. But not as he would have it, to uphold these Demons, these oath-breakers. We must away this night."
Her lord had cast aside his great wolfskin mantle. "Come, madam," said he, "to bed's our nearest journey."
Prezmyra answered, "I'll not to bed. It shall be seen now, O Corund, if that thou be a king indeed."
He sat down on the bed's edge and fell to doing off his boots. "Well," he said, "every one as he likes, as the goodman said when he kissed his cow. Day's near dawning; I must be up betimes, and a sleepless night's a poor breeder of invention."
But she stood over him, saying, "It shall be seen if thou be a true king. And be not deceived: if thou fail me here I'll have no more of thee. This night we must away. Thou shalt raise Pixyland, which is now mine by right: raise power in thine own vast kingdom of Impland. Fling Witchland to the winds. What care I if she sink or swim? This only is the matter: to punish these vile perjured Demons, enemies of ours and enemies of all the world."
"We need ride o' no journey for that," said Corund, still putting off his boots. "Thou shalt shortly see Juss and his brethren before Carcë with three score hundred fighting men at's back. Then cometh the metal to the anvil. Come, come, thou must not weep."
"I do not weep," said she. "Nor I shall not weep. But I'll not be ta'en in Carcë like a mouse in a trap."
"I'm glad thou'lt not weep, madam. It is as great pity to see a woman weep as a goose to go barefoot. Come, be not foolish. We must not part forces now. We must bide this storm in Carcë."
But she cried, "There is a curse on Carcë. Gro is lost to us and his good counsel. Dear my lord, I see something wicked that like a thick dark shadow shadoweth all the sky above us. What place is there not subject to the power and regiment of Gorice the King? but he is too proud: we be all too insolent overweeners of our own works. Carcë hath grown too great, and the Gods be offended at us. The insolent vileness of Corinius, the old dotard Corsus that must still be at his boosing-can, these and our own private quarrels in Carcë must be our bane. Repugn not therefore against the will of the Gods, but take the helm in thine own hand ere it be too late."
"Tush, madam," said he, "these be but fray-bugs. Daylight shall make thee laugh at 'em."
But Prezmyra, queening it no longer, caught her arms about his neck. "The odd man to perform all perfectly is thou. Wilt thou see us rushing on this whirlpool and not swim for it ere it be too late?" And she said in a choked voice, "My heart is near broke already. Do not break it utterly. Only thou art left now."
The chill dawn, the silent room, the guttering candles, and that high-hearted lady of his, daunted for an instant from her noble and equal courage, cowering like a bird in his embrace: these things were like an icy breath that passed by and quailed him for a moment. He took her by her two hands and held her off from him. She held her head high again, albeit her cheek was blanched; he felt the brave comrade-grip of her hands in his.
"Dear lass," he said, "I cast me not to be odd with none of these spawn of Demonland. Here is my hand, and the hand of my sons, heavy while breath remaineth us against Demonland for thee and for the King. But sith our lord the King hath made me a king, come wind, come
weet, we must weather it in Carcë. True is that saw, 'For fame one maketh a king, not for long living.'"
Prezmyra thought in her heart that these were fey words. But having now put behind her hope and fear, she was resolved to kick against the wind no more, but stand firm and see what Destiny would do.