The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison, , at sacred-texts.com
HOW THE LADY PREZMYRA CAME TO THE KING ON AN ERRAND OF STATE, AND HOW SHE PROSPERED THEREIN: WHEREIN IS ALSO SEEN WHY THE KING WOULD SEND THE DUKE CORSUS INTO DEMONLAND; AND HOW ON THE FIFTEENTH DAY OF JULY THESE LORDS, CORSUS, LAXUS, GRO, AND GALLANDUS, SAILED WITH A FLEET FROM TENEMOS.
On the morn came the Lady Prezmyra to pray audience of the King, and being admitted to his private chamber stood before him in great beauty and splendour, saying, "Lord, I came to thank you as occasion served not for me fitly so to do last night i' the banquet hall. Sure, 'tis no easy task, since when I thank you as I would, I must seem too unmindful of Corund's deserving who hath won this kingdom: but if I speak too large of that, I shall seem to minish your bounty, O King. And ingratitude is a vice abhorred."
"Madam," said the King, "thou needest not to thank me. And to mine ears great deeds have their own trumpets."
So now she told him of her letters received from Corund out of Impland. "It is well seen, Lord," said she, "how in these days you do beat down all peoples under you, and do set up new tributary kings to add to your great praise in Carcë. O King, how long must this ill weed of Demonland offend us, going still untrodden under feet?"
The King answered her not a word. Only his lip showed a gleam of teeth, as of a tiger's troubled at his meal.
But Prezmyra said with great hardiness, "Lord, be not angry with me. Methinks it is the part of a faithful servant honoured by his master to seek new service. And where lieth likelier service Corund should do you than west over seas, to lead presently an army naval thither and make an end of them, ere their greatness stand up again from the blow wherewith last May you did strike them?"
"Madam," said the King, "this charge is mine. I'll tell thee when I need thy counsel, which is not now." And standing up as if to end the matter, he said, "I do intend some sport to-day. They tell me thou hast a falcon gentle towereth so well she passeth the best Corinius hath. 'Tis clear calm weather. Wilt thou take her out to-day and show us the mounty at a heron?"
She answered, "Joyfully, O King. Yet I beseech you add this favour to all your former goodness, to hear me yet one word. Something persuades me you have already determined of this enterprise, and by your putting of me off I do fear your majesty meaneth not Corund shall undertake it but some other."
Dark and immovable as his own dark fortress facing the bright morning, Gorice the King stood and beheld her. Sunshine streaming through the eastern casement lighted red-gold smouldering splendours in the heavy coils of that lady's hair, and flew back in dazzling showers from the diamonds fastened among those coils. After a space he said, "Suppose I am a gardener. I go not to the butterfly for counsel. Let her be glad that there be rose-trees there and red stonecrops for her delight; which
if any be lacking I'll give her more for the asking, as I'll give thee more masques and revels and all brave pleasures in Carcë. But war and policy is not for women."
"You have forgot, O King," said the Lady Prezmyra, "Corund made me his ambassador." But seeing a blackness fall upon the King's countenance she said in haste, "But not in all, O King. I will be open as day to you. The expedition he strongly urged, but not for himself the leading on't."
The King looked evilly upon her. "I am glad to hear it," he said. Then, his brow clearing, "Know thou it for thy good, madam, order is ta'en for this already. Ere winter-nights return again, Demonland shall be my footstool. Therefore write to thy lord I gave him his wish beforehand."
Prezmyra's eyes danced triumph. "O the glad day!" she cried. "Mine also, O King?"
"If thine be his," said the King.
"Ah," said she, "you know mine outgallops it."
"Then school thine, madam," said the King, "to run in harness. Why think'st thou I sent Corund into Impland, but that I knew he had excellent wit and noble courage to govern a great kingdom? Wouldst have me a wilful child snatch Impland from him like a sampler half stitched?"
Then, taking leave of her with more gracious courtesy, "We shall look to see thee then, madam, o' the third hour before noon," he said, and smote on a gong, summoning the captain of his guard. "Soldier," he said, "conduct the Queen of Impland. And bid the Duke Corsus straight attend me."
The third hour before noon the Lord Gro met with Prezmyra in the gate of the inner court. She had a riding-habit of dark green tiffany and a narrow ruff edged with margery-pearls. She said, "Thou comest with us, my lord? Surely I am beholden to thee. I know thou lovest not the sport, yet to save me from Corinius I must have thee.[paragraph continues]
He plagueth me much this morning with strange courtesies; though why thus on a sudden I cannot tell."
"In this," said Lord Gro, "as in greater matters, I am thy servant, O Queen. 'Tis yet time enough, though. This half hour the King will not be ready. I left him closeted with Corsus, that setteth presently about his arming against the Demons. Thou hast heard?"
"Am I deaf," said Prezmyra, "to a bell clangeth through all Carcë?"
"Alas," said Gro, "that we waked too long last night, and lay too long abed i' the morning!"
Prezmyra answered, "That did not I. And yet I'm angry with myself now that I did not so."
"How? Thou sawest the King before the council?"
She bent her head for yes.
"And he nay-said thee?"
"With infinite patience," said she, "but most irrevocably. My lord must hold by Impland till it be well broke to the saddle. And truly, when I think on't, there's reason in that."
Gro said, "Thou takest it, madam, with that clear brow of nobleness and reason I had looked for in thee."
She laughed. "I have the main of my desire, if Demonland shall be put down. Natheless, it maketh a great wonder the King picketh for this work so rude a bludgeon when so many goodly blades lie ready to his hand. Behold but his armoury."
For, standing in the gateway at the head of the steep descent to the river, they beheld where the lords of Witchland were met beyond the bridge-gate to ride forth to the hawking. And Prezmyra said, "Is it not brave, my Lord Gro, to dwell in Carcë? Is it not passing brave to be in Carcë, that lordeth it over all the earth?"
Now came they. down and by the bridge to the Way of Kings to meet with them on the open mead on the left bank of Druima. Prezmyra said to Laxus that rode on a black gelding full of silver hairs, "I see thou hast thy goshawks forth to-day, my lord."
"Ay, madam," said he. "There is not a stronger hawk
than these. Withal they are very fierce and crabbed, and I must keep them private lest they slay all other sort."
Sriva, that was by, put forth a hand to stroke them. "Truly," she said, "I love them well, thy goshawks. They be stout and kingly." And she laughed and said, "Truly to-day I look not lower than on a King."
"Thou mayst look on me, then," said Laxus, "albeit I bear not my crown i' the field."
"'Tis therefore I'll mark thee not," said she.
Laxus said to Prezmyra, "Wilt thou not praise my hawks, O Queen?"
"I praise them," answered she, "circumspectly. For methinks they fit thy temper better than mine. These be good hawks, my lord, for flying at the bush. I am for the high mountee."
Her step-son Heming, black-browed and sullen-eyed, laughed in his throat, knowing she mocked and thought on Demonland.
Meanwhile Corinius, mounted on a great white liard like silver with black ear-tips, mane, and tail, and all four feet black as coal, drew up to the Lady Sriva and spoke with her apart, saying secretly so that none but she might hear, "Next time thou shalt not carry it so, but I will have thee when and where I would. Thou mayst gull. the Devil with thy perfidiousness, but not me a second time, thou lying cozening vixen."
She answered softly, "Beastly man, I did perform the very article of mine oath, and left thee an open door last night. If thou didst look to find me within, that were beyond aught I promised. And know for that I'll seek a greater than thou, and a nicer to my liking: one less ready to swap each kitchen slut on the lips. I know thy practice, my lord, and thy conditions."
His face flamed red. "Were that my custom, I'd now amend it. Thou art so true a runt of their same litter, they shall all be loathly to me as thou art loathly."
"Mew!" said she, "wittily spoke, i' faith; and right in the manner of a common horse-boy. Which indeed thou art."
Corinius struck spurs into his horse so that it bounded aloft; then cried out and said to Prezmyra, "Incomparable lady, I shall show thee my new horse, what rounds, what bounds, what stop he makes i' the full course of the gallop galliard." And therewith, trotting up to her, made his horse fetch a close turn in a flying manner upon one foot, and so away, rising to a racking pace, an amble, and thence after some double turns returning at the gallop and coming to a full stop by Prezmyra.
"'Tis very pretty, my lord," said she. "Yet I would not be thy horse."
"So, madam?" he cried. "Thy reason?"
"Why," said she, "were I the most temperate, strongest, and of the gentlest nature i' the world, of the heat of the ginger, most swift to all high curvets and caprioles, I'd fear my crest should fall i' the end, tired with thy spur-galling."
Whereat the Lady Sriva fell a-laughing.
Now came Gorice the King among them with his austringers and falconers and his huntsmen with setters and spaniels and great fierce boar-hounds drawn in a string. He rode upon a black mare with eyes fire-red, so tall a tall man's head scarce topped her withers. He wore a leather gauntlet on his right hand, on the wrist whereof an eagle sat, hooded and motionless, gripping with her claws. He said, "It is met. Corsus goeth not with us: I fly him at higher game. His sons attend him, losing not an hour in preparation for this journey. The rest, take pleasure in the chase."
So they praised the King, and rode forth with him castaway. The Lady Sriva whispered Corinius in the ear, "Enchantery, my lord, ruleth in Carcë, and this it must be bringeth it about that none may see nor touch me 'twixt midnight hour and cock-crow save he that must be King in Demonland."
But Corinius made as not to hear her, turning toward the Lady Prezmyra, that turned thence toward Gro. Sriva laughed. Merry of heart she seemed that day, eager as the small merlin sitting on her fist, and willing at every
turn to have speech with King Gorice. But the King heeded her not at all, and gave her not a look nor a word.
So rode they awhile, jesting and discoursing, toward the Pixyland border, rousing herons by the way whereat none made better sport than Prezmyra's falcons, flown from her fist at many hundred paces as the quarry rose, and mounting with it to the clouds in corkscrew flights, ring upon ring, up and up till the fowl was but a speck in the upper sky, and her falcons two lesser specks beside it.
But when they were come to the higher ground and the scrub and underwood, then the King whistled his eagle off his fist. She flew from him as if she would never have turned head again, yet presently upon his shout came in; then soaring aloft waited on above his head, till the hounds started a wolf out of the brake. Thereon she swooped sudden as a thunderbolt; and the King lighted down and helped her with his hunting-knife; and so again, thrice and four times till four wolves were slain. And that was the greatest sport.
The King made much of his eagle, giving her the last wolf's lights and liver to gorge herself withal. And he gave her over to his falconer, and said, "Ride we now into the flats of Armany, for I will fly my haggard: my haggard eagle caught this March in the hills of Largos. Many a good night's rest hath she cost me, to wake her and man her and teach her to know my call and be obedient. I will fly her now at the big black boar of Largos that afflicteth the farmers hereabout these two years past and bringeth them death and loss. So shall we see good sport. if she be not too coy and wild."
So the King's falconer brought the haggard and the King took her on his fist. A black eagle she was, red-beaked and glorious to look on. Her jesses were of red leather with little silver varvels whereon the crab of Witchland was engraved in small. Her hood was of red leather tasselled with silver. First she bated from the fist of the King, screaming and flapping her wings, but soon was quiet. And the King rode forth, sending, his great brindled
hounds before him to put up the boar; and all his company followed after.
In no long time they roused the boar, that turned red-eyed and moody-mad on the King's hounds, and charged among them ripping up the foremost so that her bowels gushed out. The King unhooded his eagle and flew her off his fist. But she, wild and ungentle, fastened not upon the boar but on a hound that held him by the ear. She fixed her cruel claws in the hound's neck and picked his eyes out ere a man might speak two curses on her.
Gro, that was by the King, muttered, "O, I like not that. 'Tis ominous."
By then was the King ridden up, and thrust the boar through with his spear, piercing him above and a little behind the shoulder so that the blade went through the heart of him and he sank down dying in his blood. Then the King smote his eagle in his wrath with the butt of his spear-shaft, but smote' her lightly and with a glancing blow, and away she flew and was lost to sight. And the King was angry, for all that the boar was slain, for the loss of his hound and his haggard, and for her ill behaviour. So he bade his huntsmen skin the boar and bring home his skin to be a trophy, and so turned homeward.
After a while the King called to him the Lord Gro to ride forward a little with him and out of earshot of the rest. The King said to him, "Thou hast a discontented look. Is it that I send not Corund into Demonland to crown the work he began at Eshgrar Ogo? Thou babblest besides of omens."
Gro answered, "My Lord the King, pardon my fears. For omens, indeed 'tis oft as the saw sayeth, 'As the fool thinketh, so the bell blinketh.' I spake in haste. Who shall weep Fate from her determined purpose? But since you did name Corund's name----"
"I named him," said the King, "because I am still ringing in the ears with women's talk. Whereto also I doubt not thou art privy."
"Only so much," answered he, "that this is my thought: he were our best, O King."
"Haply so," said the King. "But wouldst have me therefore hold my stroke in the air while occasion knocketh at the gate? I'll tell thee, I am potent in art magical, but scarce may I stay time's wing the while I fetch Corund out of Impland and pack him westaway."
Gro held his peace. "Well," said the King, "I will hear more from thee."
"Lord," he answered, "I like not Corsus."
The King gave him a frump to his face. Gro held his peace again awhile, but seeing the King would have more, he said, "Since it likes your majesty to demand my counsel, I will speak. You know, Lord, of all your men in Carcë Corinius is least my friend, and if I back him you will be little apt to think me moved by interest. In my clear judgement, if Corund be barred from this journey (as reason is, I freely embrace it, he must bide in Impland, both to harvest there his victories and to deny the road to Juss and Brandoch Daha if haply they return from the Moruna, and besides, time, as you most justly say, O King, calleth for speedy action): if he be barred, you have no better than Corinius. A complete soldier, a tried captain, young, fierce, and resolute, and one that sitteth not down again when once he standeth up till that his will be accomplished. Send him to Demonland."
"No," said the King. "I will not send Corinius. Hast thou not seen hawks that be in their prime and full pride for beauty and goodness, but must be tamed ere they be flown at the quarry? Such an one is he, and I will tame him with harshness and duress till I be certain of him. Also I have sworn and told him, last year when in his drunkenness he betrayed my counsel and o'erset all our plans, broke me from Pixyland and set my prisoners free, that Corund and Corsus and Laxus should be preferred and advanced before him until by quiet service he shall purchase my good will again."
"Give then the glory to Corsus, but to Corinius the
rude work on't for a tiring. Send him as Corsus's secretary, and your work shall be better performed, O King."
But the King said, "No. Thou art a fool to think he would receive it, that being in disgrace could not humble himself but look bigger than before. And certainly I will not ask him, and so give him the glory to refuse it."
"My Lord the King," said Gro, "when I said unto you, I like not Corsus, you did scoff. Yet 'tis no simple niceness made me say it, but because I do fear he shall prove a false cloth: he will shrink in the wetting and can abide no trial."
"By the blight of Sathanas," said the King, "what crazy talk is this? Hast forgot the Ghouls twelve years ago? True, thou wast not here. And yet, what skills it? When the fame hath gone back and forth through all the world of their great spill when Witchland stood i' the greatest strait that ever she stood, and more than any other Corsus was to praise for our delivering. And since then, five years later, when he held Harquem against Goldry Bluszco, and made him at last to give over the siege and go home most ingloriously, and else had all the Sibrion coast been the Demons' appanage not ours."
Gro bowed his head, having nought to say. The King was silent awhile, then bared his teeth. "When I would burn mine enemy's house," he said, "I choose me a good brand, full of pitch and rosin, apt to sputter well i' the fire and fry them. Such an one is Corsus, since he fared to Goblinland ten years ago, on that ill faring which, had I been King, I never had agreed to; when Brandoch Daha took him prisoner on Lormeron field and despitefully used him, stripped him stark naked, shaved him all of one side smooth as a tennis ball and painted him yellow and sent him home with mickle shame to Witchland. Hell devour me, but I think his heart is in this enterprise. I think thou'lt see brave doings in Demonland when he comes thither."
Still Gro was silent, and the King said after awhile, "I have given thee reasons enow, I think, why I send Corsus into Demonland. There is yet this other, that by
itself weigheth not one doit, yet with the others beareth down the balance if more thou lookest for. Unto mine other servants great tasks have I given, and great rewards: to Corund Impland and a king's crown therefor, to Laxus the like in Pixyland, to thee by anticipation Goblinland, for so I do intend. But this old hunting-dog of mine sitteth yet in's kennel with ne'er a bone to busy his teeth withal. That is not well, and shall no longer be neither, since there's no reason for't."
"Lord," said Gro, "in all argument and wise prevision you have quite o'erset me. Yet my heart misgives me. You would ride to Galing. You have ta'en an horse therefor with never a star in's forehead. Instead, I see there is a cloud in's face; and such prove commonly furious, dogged, full of mischief and misfortune."
They came down now upon the Way of Kings. Westward before them lay the marshes, with the great bulk of Carcë eight or ten miles distant their chiefest landmark, and the towers of Tenemos breaking the level horizon line beyond it. The King, after a long silence, looked down on Gro. His lean rugged countenance was outlined darkly against the sky, terrible and proud. "Thou too," said be, "shalt be in this faring to Demonland. Laxus shall have sway afloat, since that is his element of water. Gallandus shall be secretary to Corsus, and thou shalt be with them in their counsels. But the main command, as I have decreed, lieth in Corsus. I'll not crop his authority, no, not by an hair's breadth. Sith Juss hath called the main, I will go hazard with Corsus. If I throw out with him, Hell rot him for a false die. But 'tis not such a cast shall cast away all my fortune. I have a langret in my purse shall cross-bite for me i' the end and win me all, howsoe'er the Demons cog against me."
So ended that day's sporting. And that day, and the next, and near a month thereafter was the Duke Corsus busied up and down the land preparing his great armament. And on the fifteenth day of July was the fleet busked and boun in Tenemos Roads, and that great army
of five thousand men-at-arms, with horses and all instruments of war, marched from their camp without Carcë down to the sea.
First of them went Laxus with his guard of mariners, he wearing the crown of Pixyland and they loudly acclaiming him as king and Gorice of Witchland as his overlord. A gallant man he seemed, ready-looking and hard, well-armed, with open countenance and bright seaman's eyes, and brown, crisp, curly beard and hair. Next came the main foot army heavy-armed with axe and spear and the short Witchland hanger, yeomen and farmers from the low lands about Carcë or from the southern vineyards or the hill country against Pixyland: burly swashing fellows, rough as bears, hardy as wild oxen, agile as an ape; four thousand fighting men chose out by Corsus up and down the land as best for this great conquest. The sons of Corsus, Dekalajus and Gorius, rode abreast before them with twenty pipers piping a battle song. Surely the tramp of that great army on the paven way was like the tramp of Fate moving from the east. Gorice the King, sitting in state on the battlements above the water-gate, sniffed with his nostrils as a lion at the scent of blood. It was early morn, and the wind hung southerly, and the great banners, blue and green and purple and gold, each with an iron crab displayed above it, flaunted in the sun.
Now came four or five companies of horse, four hundred or more in all, with brazen armour and bucklers and glancing. spears; and last of all, Corsus himself with his picked legion of five hundred veterans to bring up the rear, fierce soldiers of the coast-lands that followed him of old to the eastern main and Goblinland, and had stood beside him in the great days when he smote the Ghouls in Witchland. On Corsus's left and right, a little behind him, rode Gro and Gallandus. Ruddy of countenance was Gallandus, gay of carriage and likely-looking, long of limb, with long brown moustachios and large kind eyes like a dog.
Prezmyra stood beside the King, and with her the
ladies Zenambria and Sriva, watching the long column marching toward the sea. Heming the son of Corund leaned on the battlements. Behind him stood Corinius, scornful-lipped, with folded arms, most glorious in holiday attire, a wreath of dwale about his brows, and wearing on his mighty breast the gold badge of the King's captain general in Carcë.
Corsus, as he rode by beneath them, planted on the point of his sword his great helm of bronze plumed with green-dyed estridge-plumes and raised it high above his head in homage to the King. The sparse gray locks of his hair lifted in the breeze, and pride flamed on the heavy face of him like a November sunset. He rode a dark bay, heavily built like a bear, that stepped ponderously as weighed down by his rider's bulk and the great weight of gear and battle-harness. His veterans marching at his heel lifted their helms on spear and sword and bill, singing their old marching song in time to the clank of their mailed feet marching down the Way of Kings:
When Corsus dwelt at Tenemos,
Beside the sea in Tenemos,
Tirra lirra lay,
The Gowles came downe to Tenemos,
They brent his house in Tenemos,
Downe derie downe day.
But Corsus carved the Gowls
The coarsest meat
They ere did ete,
He made him garters with their bowels.
When bee came home to Tenemos,
Came home agayn to Tenemos,
With a roundelaye.
The King held aloft his staff-royal, returning Corsus his salute, and all Carcë shouted from the walls.
In such wise rode the Lord Corsus down to the ships with his great army that should bring bale and woe to Demonland.