The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison, , at sacred-texts.com
OF THE COUNSEL TAKEN BY THE WITCHES TOUCHING THE CONDUCT OF THE WAR: WHEREAFTER IN THE FIFTH ASSAULT THE CASTLE OF LORD BRANDOCH DAHA WAS MADE A PREY UNTO CORINIUS.
Now was little time for debate or conjecture, but with the morrow's morn came the Witchland army once more before Krothering, and a herald sent by Corinius to bid Mevrian yield up the castle and her own proper person lest a worse thing befall them. Which she stoutly refusing, Corinius let straight assault the castle, but won it not. And in the next three days following he thrice assaulted Krothering, and, failing with some loss of men to win an entry, closely invested it.
And now summoned he those other lords of Witchland to talk with him. "How say ye? Or what rede shall we take? They be few only within to man the walls; and great shame it is to us and to all Witchland if we get not this hold taken, so many as we be here gone up against it, and so great captains."
Laxus said, "Thou art king in Demonland. Thine it is to
take order what shall be done. "But if thou desire my rede, then shall I give it thee."
"I desire each one of you," said Corinius, "to show forth to me frankly and freely his rede. And well ye know I strive for nought else but for Witchland's glory and to make firm our conquest here."
"Well," said Laxus, "I told thee once already my counsel, and thou wast angry with me. Thou madest a mighty victory on Switchwater Way; which had we followed up, pushing home the sword of our advantage till the hilts came clap against the breastplate of our adversary, we might now have exterminated from the land the whole nest of them, Spitfire, Zigg, and Volle. But now are they gotten away the devil knows whither, for the preparing of fresh thorns to prick our sides withal."
Corinius said, "Claim not wisdom after the event, my lord. 'Twas not so thou didst advise. Thou didst bid me let go Krothering: a thing I will not do, once I have set mine hand to it."
Laxus answered him, "Not only did I so advise thee as I have said, but Heming was by, and will hear me out, that I did offer that he or I with a small force should keep this comfit-box shut for thee till thou shouldst have done the main business."
"'Tis so," said Heming.
But Corinius said, "'Tis not so, Heming. And were it so, 'tis easily seen why he or thou shouldst hanker for first suck at this luscious fruit. Yet not so easy to see why I should yield it you."
"That," said Laxus, "is very ill said. I see thy memory needs jogging, and thou art sliding into ingratitude. How many such like fruits hast thou enjoyed since we came out hither, that we had all the pains and plucking of?"
"O cry thee mercy, my lord," said Corinius, "I should have remembered, dreams of Sriva's moist lips keep thee from straying. But enough of this fooling: to the matter." Lord Laxus flushed. "By my faith," said he, "this is very much to the matter. 'Twere well, Corinius, if thy loose thoughts were kept from straying. Spend men on a
fortress? Better assay Galing, then: that were a prize worth more to our safety and our lordship here."
"Ay," said Heming. "Seek out the enemy. 'Tis therefore we came hither: not to find women for thee."
Thereupon the Lord Corinius struck him across the table a great buffet in the face. Heming, mad wroth, snatched out a dagger; but Gro and Laxus catching him one by either hand restrained him. Gro said, "My fords, my lords, you must not word it so dangerous ill. We have but one heart and mind here, to magnify our Lord the King and his glory. Thou, Heming, forget not the King hath put authority in the hand of Corinius, so that thy dagger set against him setteth most treasonably against the King's majesty. And thou, my lord, I pray be temperate in thy power. Sure, for want of open war it is that our hands be so ready for these private brawls."
When by fair words this stew was cooled again, Corinius bade Gro say forth his mind, what he thought lay next to do. Gro answered, "My lord, I am of Laxus's opinion. Abiding here by Krothering, we fare as idle cooks toying with sweetmeats while the roast spoils. We should seek out power and destroy it where still it fareth free, lest it swell again to a growth may danger us: wheresoever these lords be fled, think not they'll be slack to prepare a mischief for us."
"I see," said Corinius, "ye be all three of an accord against me. But there is no one beam of these thoughts your discourse hath planted in me, but is able to discern a greater cloud than you do go in."
"It is very true," said Laxus, "that we do think somewhat scornfully of this war against women."
"Ay, there's the cover off the dish!" said Corinius, "and a pretty mess within. Y'are woman-mad, every jack of you, and this blears your eyes to think me sick o' the same folly. Thou and thy little dark-eyed baggage, that I dare swear hath months ago forgot thee for another. Heming here and I know not what sweet maid his young heart doteth on. Gro, ha! ha!" and he fell a-laughing. "Wherefore the King saddled me with this Goblin, he
only knoweth, and his secretary the Devil: not I. By Satan, thou hast a starved look i' the eyes giveth me to think the errand I sent thee to Krothering gates did thee no good. My cat's leering look showeth me that my cat goeth a catterwawing. Dost now find the raven's wing a seemlier hue In a wench's hair to set thy cold blood a-leaping than tawny red? Or dost think this one hath a softer breast than thy Queen's to cushion thy perfumed locks?"
With that word spoken, all three of them leaped from their seats. Gro, with a face ashen gray, said, "At me thou mayst spit what filth thou wilt. I am schooled to bear with it for Witchland's sake and until thine own venom choke thee. But this shalt thou not do whiles I live, thou or any other: to let thy bawdy tongue meddle with Queen Prezmyra's name."
Corinius sat still in his chair in a posture of studied ease, but his sword was ready. His great jowl was set, his insolent blue eyes scornfully looked from one to another of those lords where they stood menacing him. "Pshaw!" said he, at fast. "Who brought her name into it but thyself, my Lord Gro? not I."
"Thou wert best not bring it in again, Corinius," said Heming. "Have we not well followed thee and upheld thee? And so shall we do henceforth. But remember, I am King Corund's son. And if thou speak this wicked lie again, it shall cost thee thy life if I may."
Corinius threw out his arms and laughed. "Come," said he, standing up, with much show of jolly friendliness, "'twas but a jest; and, I freely acknowledge, an ill. jest. I'm sorry for it, my lords.
"And now," said he, "come we again to the matter. Krothering Castle will I not forgo, since 'tis not my way to turn back for any man on earth, no not for the Gods almighty, once I have ta'en my course. But I will make a bargain with you, and this it is: that we to-morrow do assault the hold a last time, using all our men and all our might. And if, as I think is most unlikely and most
shameful, we get it not, then shall we fare away and do according to thy counsel, O Laxus."
"'Tis now four days lost," said Laxus. "Thou canst not retrieve them. Howso, be it as thou wilt."
So brake up their council. But the mind and heart of the Lord Gro was nought peaceful within him, but tumultuous with manifold imaginings of hopes and fears and old desires, that intertwined like serpents twisting and contending. So that nought was clear to him save the unclear trouble of his discontent; and it was as if the conscience of a secret grant his inward mind made had suddenly cast a vail betwixt his thoughts and him that he durst not pluck aside.
Betimes on the morrow Corinius let fare against Krothering with all his host, Laxus from the south, Heming and Cargo from the east against the main gates, and himself from the west where the walls and towers showed strongest but the natural strength of the place weaker than elsewhere. Now they within were few, because of Mevrian's sending of those two hundred horse to follow Zigg and those came not back after Switchwater; and as the day wore, and still the battle went forward, and still were wounds given and taken, the odds swung yet heavier against them of Demonland, and more and more must the castle hold of its own strength only, for there were not whole men left enow to man the walls. And now had Corinius well nigh won the castle, faring up on the walls west of the donjon tower where he and his fell to clearing the battlements, rushing on like wolves. But Astar of Rettray stayed him there with so great a sword-stroke on the helm that he overthrew him all astonied down without the wall and into the ditch; but his men drew him forth and saved him. So was the Lord Corinius put out of the fight; but greatly still he egged on his men. And about the fifth hour after noon the sons of Corund gat the main gate.
Lady Mevrian bare in that hour with her own hand a stoup of wine to Astar in a lull of the battle. While he
drank, she said, "Astar, the hour demandeth that I pledge thee to obedience, even as I pledged mine own folk and Ravnor that here commandeth my garrison in Krothering."
"My Lady Mevrian," answered he, "under your safety, I shall obey you."
She said, "No conditions, sir. Harken and know. First I will thank thee and these valiant men that so mightily warded us and golden Krothering against our enemies. This was my mind, to ward it unto the last, because it is my dear brother's house, and I count it unworthy Corinius should stable his horses in our chambers, and carousing amid his drunkards do hurt to our fair banquet hall. But now, by hard necessity of disastrous war, hath this thing come to pass, and all fallen into his hand save only this keep alone."
"Alas, madam," said he, "to our shame I may not deny it."
"O trample out any thought of shame," said she. "A score of them against every one of us: the glory of our defence shall be for ever. But now 'tis for me mainly he still beareth against Krothering so great and peisant strokes as thick as rain falleth from the sky. And now must ye obey me and do my commandment; else must we perish, for even this tower we are not enough to hold against him many days."
"Divine Lady," said Astar, "but once shall one pass the cruel pass of death. I and your folk will defend you unto that end."
"Sir," said she, standing like a queen before him, "I shall now defend myself and our precious things in Krothering more certainly than ye men of war may do." And she showed him shortly that this was her design, to yield up the keep unto Corinius under promise of a safe conduct for Astar and Ravnor and all her men.
"And submit thee to this Corinius?" said Astar. But she answered, "Thy sword hath likely cut his claws for awhile. I fear him not."
Of all this would Astar at first have nought to do, and
the old steward withal was well nigh mutinous. But so firm of purpose was she, and withal showed them so plainly that this was the only hope to save herself and Krothering, and the Witches must else sack the house of Krothering and in a few days win the keep, "and then, snaky despair; and the fault on't not in fortune but in ourselves, that could not frame ourselves to our fortune"; that at last with heavy hearts they consented to do her bidding.
Without more ado, was a parley called, Mevrian speaking for herself from a high window opening on the court and Gro for Corinius. In which parley it was articled that she should render up the tower; and that the fighting men which were within should have peace and safe passage whither they would; and that there should be no scathe nor outrage done to Krothering neither to the lands thereof; and that all this should be writ down and sealed under the hands of Corinius, Gro, and Laxus, and the gates opened to the Witches and all keys delivered up within an half hour of the giving of the sealed writing into Mevrian's hand.
Now was all this performed accordingly, and Krothering keep rendered to the Lord Corinius. Astar and Ravnor and their men would have abided as prisoners for Mevrian's sake, but Corinius would not suffer it, vowing with bloody imprecations that he would let slay out of hand any man of them he should take after an hour's space within three miles of Krothering. So, under Mevrian's strait commands, they departed.