The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison, , at sacred-texts.com
HOW THE LORD GRO, CONDUCTED BY A STRANGE ENAMOURMENT WITH LOST CAUSES, FARED WITH NONE SAVE THIS TO BE HIS GUIDE INTO THE REGIONS OF NEVERDALE, AND THERE BEHELD WONDERS, AND TASTED AGAIN FOR A SEASON THE GOODNESS OF THOSE THINGS HE DID MOST DESIRE.
Ninety days and a day after these doings aforesaid, in the last hour before the dawn, was the Lord Gro a-riding toward the paling east down from the hills of Eastmark to the fords of Mardardale. At a walking pace his horse came down to the water-side, and halted with fetlocks awash: his flanks were wet and his wind gone, as from swift faring on the open fell since midnight. He stretched down his neck, sniffed the fresh river-water, and drank. Gro turned in the saddle, listening, his left hand thrown forward to slack the reins, his right flat-planted on the crupper. But nought there was to hear save the babble of waters in the shallows, the sucking noise of the horse drinking, and the plash and crunch of his hooves when he shifted feet among the pebbles. Before and behind
and on either hand the woods and strath and circling hills showed dim in the obscure gray betwixt darkness and twilight. A light mist hid the stars. Nought stirred save an owl that flitted like a phantom out from a holly-bush in a craggy bluff a bow-shot or more down stream, crossing Gro's path and lighting on a branch of a dead tree above him on the left, where she sat as if to observe the goings of this man and horse that trespassed in this valley of quiet night.
Gro leaned forward to pat his horse's neck. "Come, gossip, we must on," he said; "and marvel not if thou find no rest, going with me which could never find any steadfast stay under the moon's globe." So they forded that river, and fared through low rough grass-lands beyond, and by the skirts of a wood up to an open heath, and so a mile or two, still eastward, till they turned to the right down a broad valley and crossed a river above a watersmeet, and so east again up the bed of a stony stream and over this to a rough mountain track that crossed some boggy ground and then climbed higher and higher above the floor of the narrowing valley to a pass between the hills. At length the slope slackened, and they passing, as through a gateway, between two high mountains which impended sheer and stark on either hand, came forth upon a moor of ling and bog-myrtle, strewn with lakelets and abounding in streams and moss-hags and outcrops of the living rock; and the mountain peaks afar stood round that moorland waste like warrior kings. Now was colour waking in the eastern heavens, the bright shining morning beginning to clear the earth. Conies scurried to cover before the horse's feet: small birds flew up from the heather: some red deer stood at gaze in the fern, then tripped away southward: a moor-cock called.
Gro said in himself, "'How shall not common opinion account me mad, so rash and presumptuous dangerously to put my life in hazard? Nay, against all sound judgement; and this folly I enact in that very season when by patience and courage and my politic wisdom I had won
that in despite of fortune's teeth which obstinately hitherto she had denied me: when after the brunts of divers tragical fortunes I had marvellously gained the favour and grace of the King, who very honourably placed me in his court, and tendereth me, I well think, so dearly as he doth the balls of his two eyes."
He put off his helm, baring his white forehead and smooth black curling locks to the airs of morning, flinging back his head to drink deep through his nostrils the sweet strong air and its peaty smell. "Yet is common opinion the fool, not I," he said. "He that imagineth after his labours to attain unto lasting joy, as well may he beat water in a mortar. Is there not in the wild benefit of nature instances enow to laugh this folly out of fashion? A fable of great men that arise and conquer the nations: Day goeth up against the tyrant night. How delicate a spirit is she, how like a fawn she footeth it upon the mountains: pale pitiful light matched with the primeval dark. But every sweet hovers in her battalions; and every heavenly influence: coolth of the wayward little winds of morning, flowers awakening, birds a-carol, dews a-sparkle on the fine-drawn webs the tiny spinners hang from fern-frond to thorn, from thorn to wet dainty leaf of the silver birch; the young day laughing in her strength, wild with her own beauty; fire and life and every scent and colour born anew to triumph over chaos and slow darkness and the kinless night.
"But because day at her dawning hours hath so bewitched me, must I yet love her when glutted with triumph she settles to garish noon? Rather turn as now I turn to Demonland, in the sad sunset of her pride. And who dares call me turncoat, who do but follow now as I have followed this rare wisdom all my days: to love the sunrise and the sundown and the morning and the evening star? since there only abideth the soul of nobility, true love, and wonder, and the glory of hope and fear."
So brooding he rode at an easy pace bearing east and a little north across the moor, falling because of the strange harmony that was between outward things and
the inward thoughts of his heart into a deep study. So came he to the moor's end, and entered among the skirts of the mountains beyond, crossing low passes, threading a way among woods and water-courses, up and down, about and about. The horse led him which way that he would, for no heed nor advice had he of aught about him, for cause of the deep contemplation that he had within himself.
It was now high noon. The horse and his rider were come to a little dell of green grass with a beck winding in the midst with cool water flowing over a bed of shingle. About the dell grew many trees both tall and straight. Above the trees high mountain crags a-bake in the sun showed ethereal through the shimmering heat. A murmur of waters, a hum of tiny wings flitting from flower to flower, the sound of the horse grazing on the lush pasture: there was nought else to hear. Not a leaf moved, not a bird. The hush of the summer noon-day, breathless, burnt through with the sun, more awful than any shape of night, paused above that lonely dell.
Gro, as if waked by the very silence, looked quickly about him. The horse felt belike in his bones his rider's unease; he gave over his feeding and stood alert with wild eye and quivering flanks. Gro patted and made much of him; then, guided by some inward prompting the reason whereof he knew not, turned west by a small tributary beck and rode softly toward the wood. Here he was stopped with a number of trees so thickly placed together that he was afraid he should with riding through be swept from the saddle. So he lighted down, tied his horse to an oak, and climbed the bed of the little stream till he was come whence he might look north over the tree-tops to a green terrace about at a level with him and some fifty paces distant along the hillside, shielded from the north by three or four great rowan trees on the far side of it, and on the terrace a little tarn or rock cistern of fair water very cool and deep.
He paused, steadying himself with his left hand by a
jutting rock overgrown with rose-campion. Surely no children of men were these, footing it on that secret lawn beside that fountain's brink, nor no creatures of mortal kind. Such it may be were the goats and kids and soft-eyed does that on their hind-legs merrily danced among them; but never such those others of manly shape and with pointed hairy ears, shaggy legs, and cloven hooves, nor those maidens white of limb beneath the tread of whose feet the blue gentian and the little golden cinquefoil bent not their blossoms, so airy-light was their dancing. To make them music, little goat-footed children with long pointed ears sat on a hummock of turf-clad rock piping on pan-pipes, their bodies burnt to the hue of red earth by the wind and the sun. But, whether because their music was too fine for mortal ears, or for some other reason, Gro might hear no sound of that piping. The heavy silence of the waste white noon was lord of the scene, while the mountain nymphs and the simple genii of sedge and stream and crag and moorland solitude threaded the mazes of the dance.
The Lord Gro stood still in great admiration, saying in himself, "What means my drowsy head to dream such fancies? Spirits of ill have I heretofore beheld in their manifestations; I have seen fantasticoes framed and presented by art magic; I have dreamed strange dreams a-nights. But till this hour I did account it an idle tale of poets' faining, that amid woods, forests, fertile fields, sea-coasts, shores of great rivers and fountain brinks, and also upon the tops of huge and high mountains, do still appear unto certain favoured eyes the sundry-sorted nymphs and fieldish demigods. Which thing if I now verily behold, 'tis a great marvel, and sorteth well with the strange allurements whereby this oppressed land hath so lately found a means to govern mine affections." And he thought awhile, reasoning thus in his mind: "If this be but an apparition, it hath no essence to do me a hurt. If o' the contrary these be very essential beings, needs must they joyfully welcome me and use me well, being themselves the true vital spirits of many-mountained[paragraph continues]
Demonland; unto whose comfort and the restorement of her old renown and praise I have with such a strange determination bent all my painful thoughts and resolution."
So on the motion he discovered himself and hailed them. The wild things bounded away and were lost among the flanks of the hill. The capripeds, leaving on the instant their piping or their dancing, crouched watching him with distrustful startled eyes. Only the Oreads still in a dazzling drift pursued their round: quiet maiden mouths, beautiful breasts, slender lithe limbs, hand joined to delicate hand, parting and closing and parting again, in rhythms of unstaled variety; here one that, with white arms clasped behind her head where her braided hair was as burnished gold, circled and swayed with a languorous motion; here another, that leaped and paused hovering a-tiptoe, like an arrow of the sun shot through the leafy roof of an old pine-forest when the warm hill-wind stirs the tree-tops and opens a tiny window to the sky.
Gro went toward them along the grassy hillside. When he was come a dozen paces the strength was gone from his limbs. He kneeled down crying out and saying, "Divinities of earth! deny me not, neither reject me, albeit cruelly have I till now oppressed your land, but will do so no more. The footsteps of mine overtrodden virtue lie still as bitter accusations unto me. Bring me of your mercy where I may find out them that possessed this land and offer them atonement, who were driven forth because of me and mine to be outlaws in the woods and mountains."
So spake he, bowing his head in sorrow. And he heard, like the trembling of a silver lute-string, a voice in the air that cried:
North 'tis and north 'tis!
Why need we further?
He raised his eyes. The vision was gone. Only the noon
and the woodland, silent, solitary, dazzling, were about and above him.
Lord Gro came now to his horse again, and mounted and rode northaway through the fells all that summer afternoon, full of cloudy fancies. When it was eventide his way was high up along the steep side of a mountain between the screes and the grass, following a little path made by the wild sheep. Far beneath in the valley was a small river tortuously flowing along a bouldery bed amid hillocks of old moraines which were like waves of a sea of grass-clad earth. The July sun wheeled low, flinging the shadows of the hills far up the westward-facing slopes where Gro was a-riding, but where he rode and above him the hillside was yet aglow with the warm low sunshine; and the distant peak that shut in the head of the valley, rearing his huge front like the gable of a house, with sweeping ribs of bare rock and scree and a crest of crag like a great breaker frozen to stone in mid career, bathed yet in a radiance of opalescent light.
Turning the shoulder of the hillside at a place where the hill was cut by a shallow gully, he saw before him a hollow or sheltered nook. There, protected by the great body Of the hill from the blasts of the east and north, two rowan trees and some hollies grew in the clefts of the rock above the watercourse. Under their shadow was a cave, not large but so big as a man might well abide in and be dry in wild weather, and beyond it on the right a little waterfall, so beautiful it was a wonder to behold. This was the fashion of it: a slab of rock, twice a man's height, tilted a little forward from the hill, so that the water fell clear from its upper edge in a thin stream into a rocky basin. The water in the basin was clear and deep, but a-churn always with bubbles from the plunging jet from above; and over all the rocks about it grew mosses and lichens and little water-flowers, nourished by the stream at root and refreshed by the spray.
The Lord Gro said in his heart, "Here would I dwell for ever had I but the art to make myself little as an eft. And I would build me an house a span high beside yonder
cushion of moss emerald-hued, with those pink foxgloves to shade my door which balance their bells above the foaming waters. This shy grass of Parnassus should be my drinking cup, with pure white chalice poised on a hair-thin stem; and the curtains of my bed that little thirsty sandwort which, like a green heaven sown with milk-white stars, curtains the shady sides of these rocks."
Resting in this imagination he abode long time looking on that fairy place, so secretly bestowed in the fold of the naked mountain. Then, unwilling to depart from so fair a spot, and bethinking him, besides, that after so many hours his horse was weary, he dismounted and lay down beside the stream. And in a short while, having his spirits sublimed with the sweet imagination of those wonders he had beheld, he was fain to suffer the long dark lashes to droop over his large and liquid eyes. And deep sleep overcame him.
When he awoke, all the sky was afire with the red of sunset. A shadow was betwixt him and the western light: the shape of one bending over him and saying in masterful wise, yet in accents wherein the echoes and memories of all sweet sounds seemed mingled and laid up at rest for ever, "Lie still, my lord, nor cry not a rescue. Behold, thine own sword; and I took it from thee sleeping." And he was ware of a sharp sword pointed against his throat where the big veins lie beneath the tongue.
He stirred not at all, neither spake aught, only looking up at her as at some vision of delight strayed from the fugitive flock of dreams.
The lady said, "Where be thy company? And how many? Answer me swiftly."
He answered her like a dreamer, "How shall I answer thee? How shall I number them that be beyond all count? Or how name unto your grace their habitation which are even very now closer to me than hand or feet, yet o' the next instant are able to transcend a main wilder belike than even a starbeam hath journeyed o'er?'
She said, "Riddle me no riddles. Answer me, thou wert best."
"Madam," said Gro, "these that I told thee of be the company of mine own silent thoughts. And, but for mine horse, this is all the company that came hither with me."
"Alone?" said she. "And sleep so securely in thine enemies' country? That showed a strange confidence."
"Not enemies, if I may," said he.
But she cried, "And thou Lord Gro of Witchland?"
"That one sickened long since," he answered, "of a mortal sickness; and 'tis now a day and a night since he is dead thereof."
"What art thou, then?" said she.
He answered, "If your grace would so receive me, Lord Gro of Demonland."
"A very practised turncoat," said she. "Belike they also are wearied of thee and thy ways. Alas," she said in an altered voice, "thy gentle pardon! when doubtless it was for thy generous deeds to me-ward they fell out with thee, when thou didst so nobly befriend me."
"I will tell your highness," answered he, "the pure truth. Never stood matters better 'twixt me and all of them than when yesternight I resolved to leave them."
The Lady Mevrian was silent, a cloud in her face. Then, "I am alone," she said. "Therefore think it not little-hearted in me, nor forgetful of past benefits, if I will be further certified of thee ere I suffer thee to rise. Swear to me thou wilt not betray me."
But Gro said, "How should an oath from me avail thee, madam? Oaths bind not an ill man. Were I minded to do thee wrong, lightly should I swear thee all oaths thou mightest require, and lightly o' the next instant be forsworn."
"That is not well said," said Mevrian. "Nor helpeth not thy safety. You men do say that women's hearts be faint and feeble, but I shall show thee the contrary is in me. Study to satisfy me. Else will I assuredly smite thee to death with thine own sword."
The Lord Gro lay back, clasping his slender hands behind
his head. "Stand, I pray thee," said he, "o' the other side of me, that I may see thy face."
She did so, still threatening him with the sword. And he said smiling, "Divine lady, all my days have I had danger for my bedfellow, and peril of death for my familiar friend; whilom leading a delicate life in princely court, where murther sitteth in the wine-cup and in the alcove; whilom journeying alone in more perilous lands than this, as witness the Moruna, where the country is full of venomous beasts and crawling poisoned serpents, and the divels be as abundant there as grasshoppers on a hot hillside in summer. He that feareth is a slave, were he never so rich, were he never so powerful. But he that is without fear is king of all the world. Thou hast my sword. Strike. Death shall be a sweet rest to me. Thraldom, not death, should terrify me."
She paused awhile, then said unto him, "My Lord Gro, thou didst do me once a right great good turn. Surely I may build my safety on this, that never yet did kite bring forth a good flying hawk." She shifted her hold on his sword, and very prettily gave it him hilt-foremost, saying, "I give it thee back, my lord, nothing doubting that that which was given in honour thou wilt honourably use."
But he, rising up, said, "Madam, this and thy noble words hath given such rootfastness to the pact of faith betwixt us that it may now unfold what blossom of oaths thou wilt; for oaths are the blossom of friendship, not the root. And thou shalt find me a true holder of my vowed amity unto thee without spot or wrinkle."
For sundry nights and days abode Gro and Mevrian in that place, hunting at whiles to get their sustenance, drinking of the sweet spring-water, sleeping a-nights she in her cave beneath the holly bushes and the rowans beside the waterfall, he in a cleft of the rocks a little below in the gully, where the moss made cushions soft and resilient as the great stuffed beds in Carcë. In those days she told him of her farings since that night of April when she escaped out of Krothering: how first she found
harbourage at By in Westmark, but hearing in a day or two of a hue and cry fled east again, and sojourning awhile beside Throwater came at length about a month ago upon this cave beside the little fountain, and here abode. Her mind had been to win over the mountains to Galing, but she had after the first attempt given over that design, for fear of companies of the enemy whose hands she barely escaped when she came forth into the lower valleys that open on the eastern coast-lands. So she had turned again to this hiding place in the hills, as secret and remote as any in Demonland. For this dale she let him know was Neverdale, where no road ran save the way of the deer and the mountain goats, and no garth opened on that dale, and the reek of no man's hearthstone burdened the winds that blew thither. And that gable-crested peak at the head of the dale was the southernmost of the Forks of Nantreganon, nursery of the vulture and the eagle. And a hidden way was round the right shoulder of that peak, over the toothed ridge by Neverdale Hause to the upper waters of Tivarandardale.
On an afternoon of sultry summer heat it so befell that they rested below the hause on a bastion of rock that jutted from the south-western slope. Beneath their feet precipices fell suddenly away from a giddy verge, sweeping round in a grand cirque above which the mountain rose like some Tartarian fortress, ponderous, cruel as the sea and sad, scarred and gashed with great lines of cleavage as though the face of the mountain had been slashed away by the axe-stroke of a giant. In the depths the waters of Dule Tarn slept placid and fathomless.
Gro was stretched on the brink of the cliff, face downward, propped on his two elbows, studying those dark waters. "Surely," he said, "the great mountains of the world are a present remedy if men did but know it against our modern discontent and ambitions. In the hills is wisdom's fount. They are deep in time. They know the ways of the sun and the wind, the lightning's fiery feet, the frost that shattereth, the rain that shroudeth, the snow that putteth about their nakedness a softer coverlet than
fine lawn: which if their large philosophy question not if it be a bridal sheet or a shroud, hath not this unpolicied calm his justification ever in the returning year, and is it not an instance to laugh our carefulness out of fashion? of us, little children of the dust, children of a day, who with so many burdens do burden us with taking thought and with fears and desires and devious schemings of the mind, so that we wax old before our time and fall weary ere the brief day be spent and one reaping-hook gather us home at last for all our pains."
He looked up and she met the gaze of his great eyes; deep pools of night they seemed, where strange matters might move unseen, disturbing to look on, yet filled with a soft slumbrous charm that lulled and soothed.
"Thou'st fallen a-dreaming, my lord," said Mevrian. "And for me 'tis a hard thing to walk with thee in thy dreams, who am awake in the broad daylight and would be a-doing."
"Certes it is an ill thing," said Lord Gro, "that thou, who hast not been nourished in mendicity or poverty but in superfluity of honour and largesse, shouldst be made fugitive in thine own dominions, to lodge with foxes and beasts of the wild mountain."
Said she, "It is yet a sweeter lodging than is to-day in Krothering. It is therefore I chafe to do somewhat. To win through to Galing, that were something."
'What profit is in Galing," said Gro, "without Lord Juss?"
She answered, "Thou wilt tell me it is even as Krothering without my brother."
Looking sidelong up at her, where she sat armed beside him, he beheld a tear a-tremble on her eyelid. He said gently, "Who shall foreknow the ways of Fate? Your highness is better here belike."
Lady Mevrian stood up. She pointed to a print in the living rock before her feet. "The hippogriff's hoofmark!" she cried, "stricken in the rock ages ago by that high bird which presideth from of old over the predestined glory of our line, to point us on to a fame advanced above the
region of the glittering stars. True is the word that that land which is in the governance of a woman only is not surely kept. I will abide idly here no more."
Gro, beholding her so stand all armed on that high brink of crag, setting with so much perfection in womanly beauty manlike valour, bethought him that here was that true embodiment of morn and eve, that charm which called him from Krothering, and for which the prophetic spirits of mountain and wood and field had pointed his path with a heavenly benison, meaning to bid him go northward to his heart's true home. He kneeled down and caught her hand in his, embracing and kissing it as of her in whom all his hopes were placed, and saying passionately, "Mevrian, Mevrian, let me but be armed in thy good grace and I defy whatever there is or can be against me. Even as the sun lighteth broad heaven at noon-day, and that giveth light unto this dreary earth, so art thou the true light of Demonland which because of thee maketh the whole world glorious. Welcome unto me be all miseries, so only unto thee I may be welcome."
She sprang back, snatching away her hand. Her sword leapt singing from the scabbard. But Gro, that was so ravished and abused that he remembered of nothing worldly but only that he beheld his lady's face, abode motionless. She cried, "Back to back! Swift, or 'tis too late!"
He leaped up, barely in time. Six stout fellows, soldiers of Witchland stolen softly upon them at unawares, closed now upon them. No breath to waste in parley, but the clank of steel: he and Mevrian back to back on a table of rock, those six setting on from either side. "Kill the Goblin," said they. "Take the lady unhurt: 'tis death to all if she be touched."
So for a time those two defended them of all their power. Yet at such odds could not the issue stand long in doubt, nor Gro's high mettle make up what he lacked of strength bodily and skill in arms. Cunning of fence indeed was the Lady Mevrian, as they guessed not to their hurt; for the first of them, a great chuff-headed
fellow that thought to bear her down with rushing in upon her, she with a deft thrust passing his guard ran clean through the throat; by whose taking off, his fellows took some lesson of caution. But Gro being at length brought to earth with many wounds, they had the next instant caught Mevrian from behind whiles others engaged her in the face, when in the nick of time as by the intervention of heaven was all their business taken in reverse, and all five in a moment laid bleeding on the stones beside their fellows.
Mevrian, looking about and seeing what she saw, fell weak and faint in her brother's arms, overcome with so much radiant joy after that stress of action and peril; beholding now with her own eyes that home-coming whereof the genii of that land had had foreknowledge and in Gro's sight shown themselves wild with joy thereof: Brandoch Daha and Juss come home to Demonland, like men arisen from the dead.
"Not touched," she answered them. "But look to my Lord Gro: I fear he be hurt. Look to him well, for he hath approved him our friend indeed."