The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison, , at sacred-texts.com
OF THE LORD SPITFIRE'S BESIEGING OF THE WITCHES IN HIS OWN CASTLE OF OWLSWICK; AND HOW HE DID BATTLE AGAINST CORINIUS UNDER THREMNIR'S HEUGH, AND THE MEN OF WITCHLAND WON THE DAY.
Lord Spitfire sat in his pavilion before Owlswick in mickle discontent. A brazier of hot coals made a pleasant warmth within, and lights filled the rich tent with splendour. From without came the noise of rain steadily falling in the dark autumn night, splashing in the puddles, pattering on the silken roof. Zigg sat by Spitfire on the bed, his hawk-like countenance shadowed with an unwonted look of care. His sword stood between his knees point downward on the floor. He tipped it gently with either hand now to the left now to the right, watching with pensive gaze the warm light shift and gleam in the ball of balas ruby that made the pommel of the sword.
"Fell it out so accursedly?" said Spitfire. "All ten, thou saidst, on Rammerick Strands?"
Zigg nodded assent.
"Where was he that he saved them not?" said Spitfire. "O, it was vilely miscarried!"
Zigg answered, "'Twas a swift and secret landing in the dark a mile east of the harbour. Thou must not blame him unheard."
"What more remain to us?" said Spitfire. "Content: I'll hear him. What ships remain to us, is more to the purpose. Three by Northsands Eres, below Elmerstead: five on Throwater: two by Lychness: two more at Aurwath: six by my direction on Stropardon Firth: seven here on the beach."
"Besides four at the firth head in Westmark," said Zigg. "And order is ta'en for more in the Isles."
"Twenty and nine," said Spitfire, "and those in the Isles beside. And not one afloat, nor can be ere spring. If Laxus smell them out and take them as lightly as these he burned under Volle's nose on Rammerick Strands, we do but plough the desert building them."
He rose to pace the tent. "Thou must raise me new forces for to break into Owlswick. 'Fore heaven!" he said, "this vexes me to the guts, to sit at mine own gate full two months like a beggar, whiles Corsus and those two cubs his sons drink themselves drunk within, and play at cockshies with my treasures."
"O' the wrong side of the wall," said Zigg, "the master-builder may judge the excellence of his own building."
Spitfire stood by the brazier, spreading his strong hands above the glow. After a time he spake more soberly. "It is not these few ships burnt in the north should trouble me; and indeed Laxus hath not five hundred men to man his whole fleet withal. But he holdeth the sea, and ever since his putting out into the deep with thirty sail from Lookinghaven I do expect fresh succours out of Witchland. 'Tis that maketh me champ still on the bit till this hold be won again; for then were we free at least to meet their landing. But 'twere most unfit at this time of the year to carry on a siege in low and watery grounds, the enemy's army being on foot and unengaged. Wherefore, this is my mind, O my friend, that thou go with
haste over the Stile and fetch me supply of men. Leave force to ward our ships a-building, wheresoever they be; and a good force in Krothering and thereabout, for I will not be found a false steward of his lady sister's safety. And in thine own house make sure. But these things being provided, shear up the war-arrow and bring me out of the west fifteen or eighteen hundred men-at-arms. For I do think that by me and thee and such a head of men of Demonland as we shall then command Owlswick gates may be brast open and Corsus plucked out of Owlswick like a whilk out of his shell."
Zigg answered him, "I'll be gone at point of day."
Now they rose up and took their weapons and muffled themselves in their great campaigning cloaks and went forth with torch-bearers to walk through the lines, as every night' ere he went to rest it was Spitfire's wont to do, visiting his captains and setting the guard. The rain fell gentlier. The night was without a star. The wet sands gleamed with the lights of Owlswick Castle, and from the castle came by fits the sound of feasting heard above the wash and moan of the sullen sleepless sea.
When they had made all sure and were come nigh again to Spitfire's tent and Zigg was upon saying goodnight, there rose up out of the shadow of the tent an ancient man and came betwixt them into the glare of the torches. Shrivelled and wrinkled and bowed he seemed as with extreme age. His hair and his beard hung down in elf-locks adrip with rain. His mouth was toothless, his eyes like a dead fish's eyes. He touched Spitfire's cloak with his skinny hand, saying in a voice like the night-raven's, "Spitfire, beware of Thremnir's Heugh."
Spitfire said, "What have we here? And which way the devil came he into my camp?"
But that aged man still held him by the cloak, saying, "Spitfire, is not this thine house of Owlswick? And is it not the most strong and fair place that ever man saw in this countree?"
"Filth, unhand me," said Spitfire, "else shall I presently thrust thee through with my sword, and send thee to the[paragraph continues]
Tartarus of hell, where I doubt not the devils there too long await thee."
But that aged man said again, "Hot stirring heads are too easily entrapped. Hold fast, Spitfire, to that which is thine, and beware of Thremnir's Heugh."
Now was Lord Spitfire wood angry, and because the old carle still held him by the cloak and would not let him go, plucked forth his sword, thinking to have stricken him about the head with the flat of his sword. But with that stroke went a gust of wind about them, so that the torch-flames were nigh blown out. And that was strange, of a still windless night. And in that gust was the old man vanished away like a cloud passing in the night.
Zigg spake: "The thin habit of spirits is beyond the force of weapons."
"Pish!" said Spitfire. "Was this a spirit? I hold it rather a simulacrum or illusion prepared for us by Witchland's cunning, to darken our counsel and shake our resolution."
On the morrow while yet sunrise was red, Lord Zigg went down to the sea-shore to bathe in the great rock pools that face southward across the little bay of Owlswick. The salt air was fresh after the rain. The wind that had veered to the east blew in cold and pinching gusts. In a rift between slate-blue clouds the low sun flamed blood-red. Far to the south-east where the waters of Micklefirth open on the main, the low cliffs of Lookinghaven-ness loomed shadowy as a bank of cloud.
Zigg laid down his sword and spear and looked southeast across the firth; and behold, a ship in full sail rounding the ness and steering northward on the larboard tack. And when he had put off his kirtle he looked again, and behold. two more ships a-steering round the ness and sailing hard in the wake of the first. So he donned his kirtle again and took his weapons, and by then were fifteen sail a-steering up the firth in line ahead, dragons of war.
So he fared hastily to Spitfire's tent, and found him yet abed, for sweet sleep yet nursed in her bosom impetuous
Spitfire; his head was thrown back on the broidered pillow, displaying his strong shaven throat and chin; his fierce mouth beneath his bristling fair moustachios was relaxed in slumber, and his fierce eyes closed in slumber beneath their yellow bristling eyebrows.
Zigg took him by the foot and waked him and told him all the matter: "Fifteen ships, and every ship (as I might plainly see as they drew nigh) as full of men as there be eggs in a herring's roe. So cometh our expectation to the birth."
"And so," said Spitfire, leaping from the couch, "cometh Laxus again to Demonland, with fresh meat to glut our swords withal."
He caught up his weapons and ran to a little knoll that stood above the beach over against Owlswick Castle. And all the host ran to behold those dragons of war sail up the firth at dawn of day.
"They dowse sail," said Spitfire, "and put in for Scaramsey. 'Tis not for nothing I taught these Witchlanders on the Rapes of Brima. Laxus, since he witnessed that down-throw of their army, now accounteth islands more wholesomer than the mainland, well knowing we have nor sails nor wings to strike across the firth at him. Yet scarcely by skulking in the islands shall he break up the siege of Owlswick."
Zigg said, "I would know where be his fifteen other ships."
"In fifteen ships," said Spitfire, "it is not possible he beareth more than sixteen hundred or seventeen hundred men of war. Against so many I am strong enough to-day, should they adventure a landing, to throw 'em into the sea and still contain Corsus if be make a sally. If more be added, I am the less secure. Therefore occasion calleth but the louder for thy purposed faring to the west."
So the Lord Zigg called him out a dozen men-at-arms and went a-horseback. By then were all the ships rowed ashore under the southern spit of Scaramsey, where is good anchorage for ships. They were there hidden from view, all save their masts that showed over the spit, so that
the Demons might observe nought of their disembarking. Spitfire rode with Zigg three miles or four, as far as the brow of the descent to the fords of Ethreywater, and there bade him farewell. "Lightning shall be slow to my basting," said Zigg, "till I be back again. Meantime, I would have thee be not too scornfully unmindful of that old man."
"Chirking of sparrows!" said Spitfire. "I have forgot his brabble." Nevertheless his glance shifted southward beyond Owlswick to the great bluff of tree-hung precipice that stands like a sentinel above the meadows of Lower Tivarandardale, leaving but a narrow way betwixt its lowest crags and the sea. He laughed: "O my friend, I am yet a boy in thine eyes it seemeth, albeit I am well-nigh twenty-nine years old."
"Laugh at me and thou wilt," said Zigg. "Without this word said I could not leave thee."
"Well," said Spitfire. "to lull thy fears, I'll not go a-birdsnesting on Thremnir's Heugh till thou come back again."
Now for a week or more was nought to tell of save that Spitfire's army sat before Owlswick, and they on the island sent ever and again three or four ships to land suddenly about Lookinghaven or at the head of the firth, or southaway beyond Drepaby, as far as the coastlands under Rimon Armon, harrying and burning. And as oft as force was gathered against them, they fared aboard again and sailed back to Scaramsey. In those days came one from the west with an hundred men and joined him with Spitfire.
The eighth day of November the weather worsened, and clouds gathered from the west and south, till all the sky was a welter of huge watery leaden clouds, separated one from another by oily streaks of white. The wind grew fitful as the day wore. The sea was dark like dull iron. Rain began to fall in big drops. The mountains showed monstrous and shadowy: some dark inky blue, others in the west like walls and bastions of clotted
mist against the hueless mist of heaven behind them. Evening closed with thunder and rain and lightning-torn banks of vapour. All night long the thunder roared in sullen intermission, and all night long new banks of thunder-cloud swung together and parted and swung together again. And the light of the moon was abated, and no light seen save the levin-brand, and the camp-fires before Owlswick, and the light of revelry within. So that the Demons camped before the castle were not ware of those fifteen ships that put out from Scaramsey on that wild sea and landed two or three miles to the southward by the great bluff of Thremnir's Heugh. Nor were they ware at all of them that landed from the ships: fifteen or sixteen hundred men-at-arms with Heming of Witchland and his young brother Cargo for their leaders. And the ships rowed back to Scaramsey through the loud storm and fury of the weather, all save one that foundered in Bothrey Sound.
But on the morn, when the tempest was abated, might all behold the putting forth of fourteen ships of war from Scaramsey, every ship of them laden with men-at-arms. They had passage swiftly over the firth, and came aland two miles south of Owlswick. And the ships stood off again from the land, but the army marshalled for battle on the meads above Mingarn Hope.
Now Lord Spitfire let draw up his men and moved out southward from the lines before Owlswick. When they were come within some half mile's distance of the Witchland army, so that they might see clearly their russet kirtles and their shields and body-armour of bronze, and the dull glint of their sword-blades and the heads of their spears, Volle, that rode by Spitfire, spake and said, "Markest thou him, O Spitfire, that rideth back and forth before their battle, marshalling them? So ever rode Corinius; and well mayst thou know him even afar off by his showiness and jaunting carriage. Yet see a great wonder now: for who ever heard tell of this young hotspur giving back from the fight? And now, or ever we be gotten within spear-shot----"
"By the bright eye of day," cried Spitfire, "'tis so! Will he baulk me quite of a battle? I'll loose a handful of horse upon them to delay their haste ere they be flown beyond sight and finding."
Therewith he gave command to his horsemen to ride forth upon the enemy. And they rode forth with Astar of Rettray, that was brother-in-law to Lord Zigg, for their leader. But the Witchland horse met them by the shallows of Aron Pow and held them in the shallows while Corinius with his main army won across the river. And when the main body of the Demons were come up and the passage forced, the Witchlanders were gotten clean away across the water-meadows to the pass betwixt the shore and the steeps of Thremnir's Heugh.
Then said Spitfire, "They stay not to form even i' the narrow way 'twixt the sea and the Heugh. And that were their safety, if they had but the heart to turn and stand us." And he shouted with a great shout upon his men to charge the enemy, and suffer not a Witch to overlive that slaughter.
So the footmen caught hold of the stirrup-leathers of the horsemen, and running and riding they poured into the narrow pass; and ever was Spitfire foremost among his men, hewing to left and to right among the press, riding on that whelming battle-tide that seemed to bear him on to triumph.
But now on a sudden was be, who with but twelve hundred men had so hotly followed fifteen hundred into the strait passage under Thremnir's Heugh, made ware too late that he must have to do with three thousand: Corinius rallying his folk and turning like a wolf in the pass, while Corund's sons, that had landed as aforesaid in the storm in the mirk of night, swept down with their battalions from the wooded slopes behind the Heugh. In such wise that Spitfire wist not sooner of any foreshadowing of disaster than of disaster's self: the thunder of the blow in flank and front and rear.
Then befell great manslaying between the sea-cliffs and the sea. The Demons, taken at that advantage, were like
a man tripped in mid-stride by a rope across the way. By the sore onset of the Witches they were driven down into the shallows of the sea, and the spume of the sea was red with blood. And the Lord Corinius, now that he had done with feigned retreat, fared through the battle like a stream of unquenchable wildfire, that none might sustain his strokes that were about him.
Now was Spitfire's horse slain under him with a spear-thrust, as riding fetlock-deep in the yielding sand he rallied his men to fling back Heming. But Bremery of Shaws brought him another horse, and so mightily went he forth against the Witches that the sons of Corund were fain to give back before his onslaught, and that wing of the Witchland army was pressed back against the broken ground below the Heugh. Yet was that of little avail, for Corinius brake through from the north, thrusting the Demons with great slaughter back from the sea, so that they were penned betwixt him and Heming. Therewith Spitfire turned with some picked companies against Corinius; and well it seemed for awhile that a great force of the Witches must be whelmed or drowned in the salt waves. And Corinius himself stood now in great peril of his life, 'for his horse was bogued in the soft sands and might not win free for all his plunging.
In that nick of time came Spitfire through the stour, with a band of Demons about him, slaying as he came. He shouted with a terrible voice, "O Corinius, hateful to me and mine as are the gates of Hell, now will I kill thee, and thy dead carcase shall fatten the sweet meads of Owlswick."
Corinius answered him, "Bloody Spitfire, last of three whelps, for thy brothers are by now dead and rotten, I shall give thee a choke-pear."
Therewith Spitfire shot a twirl-spear at him. It missed the man but smote the great horse in the shoulder so that he plunged and fell in a heap, hurt to the death. But the Lord Corinius lighting nimbly on his feet caught Spitfire's horse by the bridle rein and smote it on the muzzle, even as he rode at him, so that the horse reared up and
swerved. Spitfire made a great blow at him with an axe, but it came slantwise on the helmet ridge and glented aside in air. Then Corinius thrust up under Spitfire's shield with his sword, and the point entered the big muscle of the arm near the armpit, and glancing against the bone tore up through the muscles of the shoulder. And that was a great wound.
Nevertheless Spitfire slacked not from the fight, but smote at him again, thinking to have hewn off his arm the hand whereof still clutched the bridle-rein. Corinius caught the axe on his shield, but his fingers loosed the rein, and almost he fell to earth under that mighty stroke, and the good bronze shield was dented and battered in.
Now with the loosing of the reins was Spitfire's horse plunged forward, carrying him past Corinius toward the sea. But he turned and hailed him, crying, "Get thee an horse. For I count it unworthy to fight with thee bearing this advantage over thee, I a-horseback and thou on foot."
Corinius cried out and answered, "Come down from thine horse then, and meet me foot to foot. And know it, my pretty throstle-cock, that I am king in Demonland, which dignity I hold of the King of Kings, Gorice of Witchland, mine only overlord. Meet it is that I show thee in combat singular, that vauntest thyself greatest among the rebels yet left alive in this my kingdom, how much greater is my might than thine."
"These be great and thumping words," said Spitfire. "I shall thrust them down thy throat again."
Therewith he made as if to light down from his horse; but as he strove to light down, a mist went before his eyes and be reeled in his saddle. His men rushed in betwixt him and Corinius, and the captain of his bodyguard bare him up, saying, "You are hurt, my lord. You must not fight no more with Corinius, for your highness is unmeet for fighting and may not stand alone."
So they that were about him bare up great Spitfire. And the mellay that was stayed while those lords dealt together in single combat brake forth afresh in that place. But
all the while had furious war swung and ravened below Thremnir's Heugh, and wondrous was the valour of the Demons; for many hundred were slain or wounded to the death, and but a small force were they that yet remained to bear up the battle against the Witches.
Now those that were with Spitfire departed with him in the secretest manner that they could out of the fight, wrapping about him a watchet-coloured cloak to hide his shining armour. They stanched the blood that ran from the great wound in his shoulder and bound it up carefully, and carried him a-horseback by Volle's command into Tremmerdale by secret mountain paths up to a desolate corrie east of Sterry Gap, under the great scree-shoot that flanks the precipices of the south summit of Dina. A long time he lay there senseless, like to one dead. For many hurts had he taken in the unequal fight, and greatly was he bruised and battered, but worst of all was the sore hurt Corinius gave him ere they parted betwixt the limits of land and sea.
And when night was fallen and all the ways were darkened, came the Lord Volle with a few companions utterly wearied to that lonely corrie. The night was still and cloudless, and the maiden moon walked high heaven, blackening the shadows of the great peaks that were like sharks' teeth against the night. Spitfire lay on a bed of ling and cloaks in the lee of a great boulder. Ghastly pale was his face in the silver moonlight.
Volle leaned upon his spear looking earnestly upon him. They asked him tidings. And Volle answered, "All lost," and still looked upon Spitfire.
They said, "My lord, we have stanched the blood and bound up the wound, but his lordship abideth yet senseless. And greatly we fear for his life, lest this great hurt yet prove his bane-sore."
Volle kneeled beside him on the cold sharp stones and tended him as a mother might her sick child, applying to the wound leaves of black horehound and millefoil and other healing simples, and giving him to drink out of a
flask of precious wine of Arshalmar, ripened for an age in the deep cellars below Krothering. So that in a while Spitfire opened his eyes and said, "Draw back the curtains of the bed, for 'tis many a day since I woke up in Owlswick. Or is it night indeed? How went the fight, then?"
His eyes stared at the naked rocks and the naked sky beyond them. Then with a great groan be lifted himself on his right elbow. Volle put a strong arm about him, saying, "Drink the good wine, and have patience. There be great doings toward."
Spitfire stared round him awhile, then said violently, "Shall we be foxes and fugitive men to dwell in holes o' the hollow mountain side? So the bright day is done, ha? Then off with these trammels." And he fell a-tearing at the bandage on his wounds.
But Volle prevented him with strong hands, saying, "Bethink thee how on thee alone, O glorious Spitfire, and on thy wise heart and valiant soul that delighteth in furious war, resteth all our hope to ward off from our lady wives and dear children and all our good land and fee the fury of the men of Witchland, and to save alive the great name of Demonland. Let not thy proud heart be capable of despair."
But Spitfire groaned and said, "Certain it was that woe and evil hap must be to Demonland until my kinsmen be gotten home again. And that day I think shall never dawn." And he cried, "Boasted he not that he is king in Demonland? and yet I had not my sword in his umbles. And thou thinkest I'll live in shame?"
Therewithal he strove again to tear off the bandages, but Volle prevented him. And he raved and said, "Who was it forced me from the battle? 'Tis pity of his life, to have abused me so. Better dead than run from Corinius like a beaten puppy. Let me go, false traitors! I will amend this. I will die fighting. Let me go back."
Volle said, "Lift up thine eyes, great Spitfire, and behold the lady moon, how virgin free she walketh the wide fields of heaven, and the glory of the stars of
heaven which in their multitudes attend her. And as little as earthly mists and storms do dim her, but though she be hid awhile yet when the tempest is abated and the sky swept bare of clouds there she appeareth again in her steadfast course, mistress of tides and seasons and swayer of the fates of mortal men: even such is the glory of sea-girt Demonland, and the glory of thine house, O Spitfire. And as little as commotions in the heavens should avail to remove these everlasting mountains, so little availeth disastrous war, though it be a great fight lost as was to-day, to shake down our greatness, that are mightiest with the spear from of old and able to make all earth bow to our glory."
So said Volle. And the Lord Spitfire looked out across the mist-choked sleeping valley to the great rock-faces dim in the moonlight and the lean peaks grand and. silent beneath the moon. He spake not, whether for strengthlessness or as charmed to silence by the mighty influences of night and the mountain solitudes and by Volle's voice speaking deep and quiet in his ear, like the voice of night herself calming earth-born tumults and despairs.
After a time Volle spake once more: "Thy brethren shall come home again: doubt it not. But till then art thou our strength. Therefore have patience; heal thy wounds; and raise forces again. But shouldst thou in desperate madness destroy thy life, then were we shent indeed."