The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison

X. The Marchlands of the Moruna

Of the Journey of the Demons from Salapanta to Eshgrar Ogo: Wherein is Set Down Concerning the Lady of Ishnain Nemartra, and Other Notable Matters.

Mivarsh Faz came betimes on the morrow to the lords of Demonland, and found them ready for the road. So he asked them where their journey lay, and they answered, “East.”

“Eastward,” said Mivarsh, “all ways lead to the Moruna. None may go thither and not die.”

But they laughed and answered him, “Do not too narrowly define our power, sweet Mivarsh, restraining it to thy capacities. Know that our journey is a matter determined of, and it is fixed with nails of diamond to the wall of inevitable necessity.”

They took leave of him and went their ways with their small army. For four days they journeyed through deep Woods carpeted with the leaves of a thousand autumns, where at midmost noon twilight dwelt among hushed Woodland noises, and solemn eyeballs glared nightly between the tree-trunks, gazing on the Demons as they marched or took their rest.

The fifth day, and the sixth and the seventh, they journeyed by the southern margin of a gravelly sea, made all of sand and gravel and no drop of water, yet ebbing and flowing alway with great waves as another sea doth, never standing still and never at rest. And always by day and night as they came through the desert was a great noise very hideous and a sound as it were of tambourines and trumpets; yet was the place solitary to the eye, and no living thing afoot there save their company faring to the east.

On the eighth day they left the shore of that waterless sea and came by broken rocky ground to the descent to a wide vale, shelterless and unfruitful, with the broad stony bed of a little river winding in the strath. Here, looking eastward, they beheld in the lustre of a late bright-shining sun a castle of red stone on a terrace of the fell-side beyond the valley. Juss said, “We can be there before nightfall, and there will we take guesting.” When they drew near they were ware, betwixt sunset and moonlight, of one sitting on a boulder in their path about a furlong from the castle, as if gazing on them and awaiting their coming. But when they came to the boulder there was no such person. So they passed on their way toward the castle, and when they looked behind them, lo, there was he sitting on the boulder bearing his head in his hands: a strange thing, which would cause any man to abhor.

The castle gate stood open, and they entered in, and so by the court-yard to a great hall, with the board set as for a banquet, and bright fires and an hundred candles burning in the still air; but no living thing was there to be seen, nor voice heard in all that castle. Lord Brandoch Daha said, “In this land to fail of marvels only for an hour were the strangest marvel. Banquet we lightly and so to bed.” So they sat down and ate, and drank of the honey-sweet wine, till all thoughts of war and hardship and the unimagined perils of the wilderness and Corund’s great army preparing their destruction faded from their minds, and the spirit of slumber wooed their weary frames.

Then a faint music, troublous in its voluptuous wild sweetness, floated on the air, and they beheld a lady enter on the dais. Beautiful she seemed beyond the beauty of mortal women. In her dark hair was the likeness of the horned moon in honey-coloured cymophanes every stone whereof held a straight beam of light imprisoned that quivered and gleamed as sunbeams quiver wading in the clear deeps of a summer sea. She wore a coat-hardy of soft crimson silk, close fitting, so that she did truly apparel her apparel and with her own loveliness made it more sumptuous. She said, “My lords and guests in Ishnain Nemartra, there be beds of down and sheets of lawn for all of you that be aweary. But know that I keep a sparrow-hawk sitting on a perch in the eastern tower, and he that will wake my sparrow-hawk this night long, alone without any company and without sleep, I shall come to him at the night’s end and shall grant unto him the first thing that he will ask me of earthly things.” So saying she departed like a dream.

Brandoch Daha said, “Cast we lots for this adventure.”

But Juss spake against it, saying, “There’s likely some guile herein. We must not in this accursed land suffer aught to seduce our minds, but follow our set purpose. We must not be of those who go forth for wool and come home shorn.”

Brandoch Daha and Spitfire mocked at this, and cast lots between themselves. And the lot fell upon Lord Brandoch Daha. “Thou shalt not deny me this,” said he to Lord Juss, “else will I never more do thee good.”

I never could yet deny thee anything,” answered Juss. “Art not thou and I finger and thumb? Only forget not, whatsoe’er betide, wherefore we be come hither.”

“Art not thou and I finger and thumb?” said Brandoch Daha. “Fear nothing, O friend of my heart. I’ll not forget

So while the others slept, Brandoch Daha waked the sparrow-hawk, night-long in the eastern chamber. For all that the cold hillside without was rough with hoar-frost the air was warm in that chamber and heavy, disposing strongly to sleep. Yet he closed not an eye, but still beheld the sparrow-hawk, telling it stories and tweaking it by the tail ever and anon as it grew drowsy. And it answered shortly and boorishly, looking upon him malevolently.

And with the golden dawn, behold that lady in the shadowy doorway. At her entering in, the sparrow-hawk clicked its wings as in anger, and without more ado tucked its beak beneath its wing and went to sleep. But that bright lady, looking on the Lord Brandoch Daha, spake and said, “Require it of me, my Lord Brandoch Daha, that which thou most desirest of earthly things.”

But he, as one bedazzled, stood up saying, “O lady, is not thy beauty at the dawn of day an irradiation that might dispel the mists of hell? My heart is ravished with thy loveliness and only fed with thy sight. Therefore thy body will I have, and none other thing earthly.”

“Thou art a fool,” she cried, “that knowest not what thou askest. Of all things earthly mightest thou have taken choose; but I am not earthly.”

He answered, “I will have nought else.”

“Thou dost embrace then a great danger,” said she, “and loss of all thy good luck, for thee and thy friends beside.”

But Brandoch Daha, seeing how her face became on a sudden such as are new-blown roses at the dawning, and her eyes wide and dark with love-longing, came to her and took her in his arms and fell to kissing and embracing of her. On such wise they abode for awhile, that he was ware of no thing else on earth save only the sense-maddening caress of that lady’s hair, the perfume of it, the kiss of her mouth, the swell and fall of that lady’s breast straining against his. She said in his ear softly, ‘I see thou art too masterful. I see thou art one who will be denied nothing, on whatsoever thine heart is set. Come.” And they passed by a heavy-curtained doorway into an inner chamber, where the air was filled with the breath of myrrh and nard and ambergris, a fragrancy as of sleeping loveliness. Here, amid the darkness of rich hangings and subdued glints of gold, a warm radiance of shaded lamps watched above a couch, great and broad and downy-pillowed. And here for a long time they solaced them with love and all delight.

Even as all things have an end, he said at the last, “O my lady, mistress of hearts, here would I abide ever, abandoning all else for thy love sake. But my companions tarry for me in thine halls below, and great matters wait on my direction. Give me thy divine mouth once again, and bid me adieu.”

She was lying as if asleep across his breast: smooth-skinned, white, warm, with shapely throat leaned backward against the spice-odorous darknesses of her unbound hair; one tress, heavy and splendid like a python, coiled between white arm and bosom. Swift as a snake she turned, clinging fiercely about him, pressing fiercely again to his her insatiable sweet fervent lips, crying that here must he dwell unto eternity in the intoxication of perfect love and pleasure.

But when in the end, gently constraining her to loose him and let him go, he arose and clothed and armed him, that lady caught about her a translucent robe of silvery sheen, as when the summer moon veils but not hides with a filmy cloud her beauties’ splendour, and so standing before him spake and said, “Go then. This is got by casting of pearls to hogs. I may not slay thee, since over thy body I have no other power. But because thou shalt not laugh overmuch, having required me of that which was beyond the pact and being enjoyed is now slighted of thee and abused, therefore know, proud man, that three gifts I here will grant thee thereto of mine own choosing. Thou shalt have war and not peace. He that thou worst hatest shall throw down and ruin thy fair lordship, Krothering Castle and the mains thereof. And though vengeance shall overtake him at the last, by another’s hand than thine shall it come, and to thine hand shall it be denied.”

Therewith she fell a-weeping. And the Lord Brandoch Daha, with great resolution, went forth from the chamber. And looking back from the threshold he beheld both that and the outer chamber void of lady and sparrow-hawk both. And a great weariness came suddenly upon him. So, going down, he found Lord Juss and his companions sleeping on the cold stones, and the banquet hall empty of all gear and dank with moss and cobwebs, and bats sleeping head-downward among the crumbling roof-beams; nor was any sign of last night’s banqueting. So Brandoch Daha roused his companions, and told Juss how he had fared, and of the weird laid on him by that lady.

And they went greatly wondering forth of the accursed castle of Ishnain Nemartra, glad to come off so scatheless.

On that ninth day of their journey from Salapanta they came through waste lands of stone and living rock, where not so much as an earth-louse stirred with life. Gorges split the earth here and there: rock-walled labyrinths of gloom, unvisited for ever by sunbeam or moonbeam, turbulent in their depths with waters that leaped and churned for ever, never still and never silent. So was that day’s journey tortuous, turning now up now down along those river banks to find crossing places.

When they were halted at noon by the deepest rift they had yet beheld, there came one hastening to them and fell down by Juss and lay panting face to earth as breathless from long running. And when they raised him up, behold Mivarsh Faz, harnessed in the gear of a black rider of Jalcanaius Fostus and armed with axe and sword. Great was his agitation, and he speechless for lack of breath. They used him kindly, and gave him to drink from a great skin of wine, Zeldornius’s gift, and anon he said, “He hath armed countless hundreds of our folk with weapons taken from Salapanta field. These, led by the devils his sons, with Philpritz cursed of the gods, be gone before to hold all the ways be-east of you. Night and day have I ridden and run to warn you. Himself, with his main strength of devils ultramontane, rideth hot on your tracks.”

They thanked him well, marvelling much that he should be at such pains to advertise them of their danger. “I have eat your salt,” answered be, “and moreover ye are against this naughty wicked baldhead that came over the mountains to oppress us. Therefore I would do you good. But I can little. For I am poor, that was rich in land and fee. And I am alone, that had formerly five hundred spearmen lodging in my halls to do my pleasure.”

“There’s need to do quickly that we do,” said Lord Brandoch Daha. “How great start of him hadst thou?”

“He must be upon you in an hour or twain,” said Mivarsh, and fell a-weeping.

“To cope him in the open,” said Juss, “were great glory, and our certain death.”

“Give me to think, but a minute’s while,” said Brandoch Daha. And while they busked them he walked musing by the lip of that ravine, switching pebbles over the edge with his sword. Then he said, “This is without doubt that stream Athrashah spoken of by Gro. O Mivarsh, runneth not this flood of Athrashah south to the salt lakes of Ogo Morveo, and was there not thereabout a hold named Eshgrar Ogo?”

Mivarsh answered, “This is so. But never heard I of any so witless as go thither. Here where we stand is the land fearsome enough; but Eshgrar Ogo standeth at the very edge of the Moruna. No man hath harboured there these hundred years.”

“Standeth it yet?” said Brandoch Daha.

“For all I wot of,” answered Mivarsh.

“Is it strong?” he asked.

“In old times it was thought no place stronger,” answered Mivarsh. “But ye were as well die here by the hand of the devils ultramontane, as there be torn in pieces by bad spirits.”

Brandoch Daha turned him about to Juss. “It is resolved?” said he. Juss answered, “Yea;” and forthwith they started at a great pace south along the river. “Methought you should have been gotten clean away ere this,” said Mivarsh as they went. “This is but nine or ten days’ journey, and ’tis now the sixteenth day since ye did leave me on Salapanta Hills.”

Brandoch Daha laughed. “Sixteenth!” said he. “Thou’lt be rich, Mivarsh, if thou reckon gold pieces o’ this fashion thou dost days. This is but our ninth day’s journey.”

But Mivarsh stood stoutly to it, saying that was the seventh day after their departure when Corund first came to Salapanta, “And I fleeing now nine days before his face chanced on your tracks, and now out of all expectation on you.” Nor for all their mocking would he be turned from this. And when, as they still pressed through the desert southward, the sun declined and set in a clear sky, behold the moon a little past her full: and Juss saw that she was seven days older than on that night she was when they came to Ishnain Nemartra. So he showed this wonder to Brandoch Daha and Spitfire, and much they marvelled.

“You are much to thank me,” said Brandoch Daha, “that I kept you not a full year awaiting of me. Beshrew me, but that seven days’ space seemed to me but an hour! ”

“Likely enow, to thee,” said Spitfire somewhat greenly. “But all we slept the week out on the cold stones, and I am half lamed yet with the ache on’t.”

“Nay,” said Juss, laughing; “I will not have thee blame him.”

The moon was high when they came to the salt lakes that lay one a little above the other in rocky basins. Their waters were like rough silver, and the harsh face of the wilderness was black and silver in the moonlight; and it was as a country of dead bones, blind and sterile beneath the moon. Betwixt the lakes a rib of rock rose monstrous to an eminence crag-begirt on every side, with dark walls ringing it round above the cliffs. Thither they hastened, and as they climbed and stumbled among the crags a she-owl squeaked on the battlements and took wing ghost-like above their heads. The teeth of Mivarsh Faz chattered, but right glad were the Demons as they won up the rocks and entered at last into that deserted burg. Without, the night was still; but fires were burning in the desert eastward, and others as they watched were kindled in the west, and soon was the circle joined of twinkling points of red round about Eshgrar Ogo and the lakes.

Juss said, “By an hour have we forestalled them. And behold how he ringeth us about as men ring a scorpion in flame.”

So they made all sure, and set the guard, and slept until past dawn. But Mivarsh slept not, for terror of hob-thrushes from the Moruna.

ornament

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 16:03