The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison, , at sacred-texts.com
WHEREIN IS SHOWN HOW WARLIKE POLICY AND A PICTURE PAINTED DREW THE WAR WESTWARD: AND HOW THE LORD GRO WENT ON AN EMBASSAGE TO KROTHERING GATES, AND OF THE ANSWER HE GAT THERE.
Now it is to be said of Zigg that he failed not to fulfil Spitfire's behest, but gathered hastily an army of more than fifteen hundred horse and foot out of the northern dales and the habitations about Shalgreth Heath and the pasture-lands of Kelialand and Switchwater Way and the region of Rammerick, and came in haste over the Stile. But when Corinius knew of this faring from the west, he marched three thousand strong to meet them above Moonmere Head, to deny them the way to Galing. But Zigg, being yet in the upper defiles of Breakingdale, now for the first time had advertisement of the great slaughter at Thremnir's Heugh, and how the forces of Spitfire and Volle were broken and scattered and themselves fled up into the mountains; and, so deeming it small gain with so little an army to give battle to Corinius, he turned back without more ado and returned hastily over the Stile
whence he came. Corinius sent light forces to harry his retreat, but being not minded as then to follow them into the west country, let build a burg in the throat of the pass in a place of vantage, and stationed there sufficient men to ward it, and so came again to Owlswick.
They that were with Corinius in Demonland numbered now more than five thousand fighting, men: a great and redoubtable army. With these, the weather being fine and open, he in a short time laid under him all eastern Demonland, save Galing alone. Bremery of Shaws with but seventy men held Galing for Lord Juss against all assaults. So that Corinius, thinking this fruit should ripen later and drop into his hand when the rest had been gathered, resolved at winter's end to march with his main army into the west country, leaving a small force to hold down the eastlands and contain Bremery in Galing. To this determination he was led by all arguments of sound soldiership, most happily seconding his own inclinations. For besides this of warlike policy two scarce weaker lodestones drew him westward: first the old cankered malice he bare in his heart against the Lord Brandoch Daha, that made Krothering his dearest prey; and next, his own lustful desires most outrageously burning for the Lady Mevrian. And this only for the sight of her picture, found by him in Spitfire's closet among his pens and inkstands and other trinkets, which once looked on he swore that with Heaven's will (ay, or without if so it must be) she should be his paramour.
So on the fourteenth day of March, of a bright frosty morn, he with his main army marched up Breakingdale and over the Stile, by that same road that Lord Juss fared by and Lord Brandoch Daha, that summer's day when they went to take counsel in Krothering before the Impland expedition. So came the Witches down to the watersmeet and turned aside to Many Bushes. There they found not Zigg nor his lady wife nor any of his folk, but found the house desolate. So they robbed and burned and went their way. And a famous castle of Juss's they sacked and burned in the confines of Kelialand, and an
other on Switchwater Way, and a summer palace of Spitfire's on a little hill above Rammerick Mere. In such wise they marched victoriously down Switchwater Way, and there was none to dispute their progress but all fled at the approach of that great army and hid themselves in the secret places of the mountains, avoiding death and fate.
When he was come through the straits of Gashterndale up on to Krothering Side, Corinius let pitch his camp under Erngate End, at the foot of the scree-strewn slopes that rise steeply to the high western face of the mountain, where the lean embattled crags far aloft stand like a wall against high heaven.
Corinius came to Lord Gro and said to him, "To thee will I entrust mine embassage to this Mevrian. Thou shalt go with a flag of truce to gain thee entry to the castle; or if they will not admit thee, then bid her parley with thee without the wall. Then shalt thou use what fantastic courtier's jargon nature and thine invention shall lightliest counsel thee, and say, 'Corinius, by the grace of the great King and the might of his own hand king of Demonland, sitteth as thou well mayst see in power invincible before this castle. But he willed me let thee know that he is not come for to make war against ladies and damosels, and be thou of this sure, that neither to thee nor to none of thy fortress he will nought say nor hurt. Only this honour he proffereth thee, to wed thee in sweet marriage and make thee his queen in Demonland.' Whereto if she say yea, well and good, and we will go up peaceably into Krothering and possess it and the woman. But if she deny me this, then shalt thou say unto her right fiercely that I will set on against the castle like a lion, and neither rest nor give over until I have beaten it all to a ruin about her ears and slain the folk with the edge of the sword. And that which she refuseth me to have in peaceful love and kindness I will have of my own violent deed, that she and her stiff-necked Demons may know that I am their king, and master of all that is theirs, and their own bodies but chattels to serve my pleasure."
Gro said, "My Lord Corinius, choose I pray thee another who shall be fitter than I to do this errand for thee;" and so for a long time most earnestly besought him. But Corinius, the more he perceived the duty hateful to Gro, the firmer became his resolution that none but Gro should undertake it. So that in the end Gro perforce consented, and in the same hour went with eleven up to the gates of Krothering, and a white flag of truce was borne before him.
He sent his herald up to the gate to desire speech of the Lady Mevrian. And in a while the gates were opened, and she came down attended to meet Lord Gro in the open garden before the bridge-gate. It was by then late afternoon, and the burning sun swam low amid streaked level clouds incarnadine, setting aflame the waters of Thunderfirth with the reflection of his beams. From the horizon, high beyond the pine-clad hills of Westmark, a range of clouds reared themselves, solid and of an iron hue; so hard-edged against the vapoury sky of sunset, that they seemed substantial mountains, not clouds: unearthly mountains (a man might fancy) divinely raised up for Demonland, for whom not all her ancient hills gave any longer refuge against her enemies. Here, in Krothering gates, wintersweet and the little purple daphne bush that blooms before the leaf breathed fragrance abroad. Yet was it not this sweetness in the air that troubled the Lord Gro, nor that western glory burning that dazzled his eyes; but to look upon that lady standing in the gate, white-skinned and dark, like the divine Huntress, tall and proud and lovely.
Mevrian, seeing him speechless, said at last, "My lord, I heard thou hadst some errand to declare unto me. And seeing a great camp of war gathered under Erngate End, and having heard of robbers and evil-doers rife about the land these many moons, I look not for soft speech. Take heart, therefore, and declare plainly what ill thou meanest."
Gro answered and said, "Tell me first if thou that speakest art in truth the Lady Mevrian, that I may know
whether to human kind I speak or to some Goddess come down from the shining floor of heaven."
She answered, "Of thy compliments I have nought to do. I am she thou namest."
"Madam," said Lord Gro, "I would not have brought your highness this message nor delivered it, but that I know full well that did I refuse it another should bear it thee full speedily, and with less compliment and less sorrow than I."
She nodded gravely, as who should say, Proceed. So, with what countenance he might, he rehearsed his message, saying when it was ended, "Thus, madam, saith Corinius the king: and thus he charged me deliver it unto your highness."
Mevrian heard him attentively with head erect. When he had done she was silent a little, still studying him. Then she spake: "Methinks I know thee now. Thou art Lord Gro of Goblinland that bearest me this message."
Gro answered, "Madam, he thou namest went years ago from this earth. I am Lord Gro of Witchland."
"So it seemeth, from thy talk," said she; and was silent again.
The steady contemplation from that lady's eyes was like a knife scraping his tender skin, so that he was ill at ease well nigh past bearing.
After a little she said, "I remember thee, my lord. Let me stir thy memory. Eleven years ago, my brother went to war in Goblinland against the Witches, and overcame them on Lormeron field. There slew he the great King of Witchland in single combat, Gorice X., that until that day was held for the mightiest man-at-arms in all the world. My brother was as then but eighteen winters old, and that was the first blazing up of his great fame and glory. So King Gaslark made great feasting and great rejoicing in Zajë Zaculo because of the ridding of his land of the oppressors. I was at those revels. I saw thee there, my lord; and being but a little maid of eleven summers, sat on thy knee in Gaslark's halls. Thou didst show me books, with pictures in strange colours of gold and green and
scarlet, of birds and beasts and distant countries and wonders of the world. And I, being a little harmless maid, thought thee good and kind of heart, and loved thee."
She ceased, and Gro, like a man hath taken some drowsy drug, stood looking on her confounded.
"Tell me," said she, "of this Corinius. Is he such a fighter as men say?"
"He is," said Gro, "one of the most famousest captains that ever was. That might not his worst enemies gainsay."
Mevrian said, "A likely consort, think'st thou, for a lady of Demonland? Remember, I have said nay to crowned kings. I would know thy mind, for doubtless he is thy very familiar friend, since he made thee his go-between."
Gro saw that she mocked, and be was troubled at heart. "Madam," said he, and his voice shook somewhat, "take not in too great scorn this vile part in me. Verily this I brought thee is the most shamefullest message, and flatly against my will did I deliver it unto thee. Yet with such constraint upon me, how could I choose but strike my forehead into dauntless marble and word by word deliver my charge?"
"Thy tongue," said Mevrian, "hath struck hot irons in my face. Go back to thy master. If he look for an answer, tell him he may read it in letters of gold above the gates."
"Thy noble brother, madam," said Gro, "is not here to make good that answer." And he came near to her, saying in a low voice so that only they two should hear it, "Be not deceived. This Corinius is a naughty, wicked, and luxurious youth, that will use thee without any respect if once he break in by force into Krothering Castle. It were wiselier carried to make some open show to receive him; so by fair words and putting of him off thou mayst yet escape."
But Mevrian said, "Thou hast mine answer. I have no ears to his request. Say too that my cousin the Lord Spitfire hath healed his wounds, and hath an army afoot
shall whip these Witches from my gates ere many days be passed by."
So saying she returned in great scorn within the castle.
But the Lord Gro returned again to the camp and to Corinius, who asked him how he had sped.
He answered, she did utterly refuse it.
"So," said Corinius; "doth the puss thump me off? Then pause my hot desires an instant, only the more thunderingly to clap it on. For I will have her. And this coyness and pert rejection hath the more fixedly confirmed me."