The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison

II. The Wrastling for Demonland

Of the Prognosticks which Troubled Lord Gro Concerning the Meeting Between the King of Witchland and the Lord Goldry Bluszco; and How They Met, and of the Issue of that Wrastling.

How could I have fallen asleep?” cried Lessingham. “Where is the castle of the Demons, and how did we leave the great presence chamber where they saw the Ambassador?” For he stood on rolling uplands that leaned to the sea, treeless on every side as far as the eye might reach; and on three sides shimmered the sea, kissed by the sun and roughened by the salt glad wind that charged over the downs, charioting clouds without number through the illimitable heights of air.

The little black martlet answered him, “My hippogriff travelleth as well in time as in space. Days and weeks have been left behind by us, in what seemeth to thee but the twinkling of an eye, and thou standest in the Foliot Isles, a land happy under the mild regiment of a peaceful prince, on the day appointed by King Gorice to wrastle with Lord Goldry Bluszco. Terrible must be the wrastling betwixt two such champions, and dark the issue thereof. And my heart is afraid for Goldry Bluszco, big and strong though he be and unconquered in war; for there hath not arisen in all the ages such a wrastler as this Gorice, and strong he is, and hard and unwearying, and skilled in every art of attack and defence, and subtle withal, and cruel and fell like a serpent.”

Where they stood the down was cut by a combe that descended to the sea, and overhanging the combe was the palace of the Red Foliot, rambling and low, with many little towers and battlements, built of stones hewn from the wall of the combe, so that it was hard from a distance to discern what was palace and what native rock. Behind the palace stretched a meadow, flat and smooth, carpeted with the close wiry turf of the downs. At either end of the meadow were booths set up, to the north the booths of them of Witchland, and to the south the booths of the Demons. In the midst of the meadow was a space marked out with withies sixty paces either way for the wrastling ground.

Only the birds of the air and the sea-wind were abroad as then, save those that walked armed before the Witches’ booths, six in company, harnessed as for battle in byrnies of shining bronze, with greaves and shields of bronze and helms that glanced in the sun. Five were proper slender youths, the eldest of whom had not yet beard full grown, black-browed and great of jaw; the sixth, huge as a neat, topped them by half a head. Age had flecked with gray the beard that spread over his big chest to his belt stiffened with studs of iron, but the vigour of youth was in his glance and in his voice, and in the tread of his foot, and in his fist so lightly handling his burly spear.

“Behold, wonder, and lament,” said the martlet, “that the innocent eye of day should be enforced still to look upon the children of night everlasting. Corund of Witchland and his cursed sons.”

Lessingham thought, “A most fiery politician is my little martlet: damned fiends and angels and nothing betwixt for her. But I’ll dance to none of their tunes, but wait for these things’ unfolding.”

So walked those back and forth as caged lions before the Witches’ booths, until Corund halted and leaning on his spear said to one of his sons, “Go in and seek out Gro that I may speak with him.” And the son of Corund went, and returned anon with Lord Gro, that came with furtive step yet goodly and fair to behold. The nose of him was hooked like a sickle and his eyes great and fair like the eyes of an ox, inscrutable as they. Lean and spare was his frame. Pale was his face and pale his delicate hands, and his long black beard was tightly curled and bright as the coat of a black retriever.

Corund said, “How is it with the King?”

Gro answered him, “He chafeth to be at it; and to pass away the time he playeth at dice with Corinius, and the luck goeth against the King.”

“What makest thou of that?” asked Corund.

And Gro said, “The fortune of the dice jumpeth not commonly with the fortune of war.”

Corund grunted in his beard, and laying his large hand on Lord Gro’s shoulder, “Speak to me a little apart,” he said; and when they were private, “Darken not counsel,” said Corund, “to me and my sons. Have I not these four years past been as a brother unto thee, and wilt thou still be secret toward us?”

But Gro smiled a sad smile and said, “Why should we by words of ill omen strike yet another blow where the tree tottereth?”

Corund groaned. “Omens,” said he, “increase upon us from that time forth when the King accepted the challenge, evilly, and flatly against thy counsel and mine and the counsel of all the great ones in the land. Surely the Gods have made him fey, having ordained his destruction and our humbling before these Demons.” And he said, “Omens thicken upon us, O Gro. First, the night raven that went widdershins round about the palace of Carcë, that night when the King accepted this challenge, and we were all drunken with wine after our great feasting and surfeiting in his halls. Next, the stumbling of the King whenas he went upon the poop of the long ship which bare us on this voyage to these islands. Next, the squint-eyed cup-bearer that poured out unto us yesternight. And throughout, the devilish pride and bragging humour of the King. No more: he is fey. And the dice fall against him.”

Gro spake and said, “O Corund, I will not hide it from thee that my heart is heavy as thy heart under shadow of ill to be. For as I lay sleeping betwixt the strokes of night, a dream of the night stood by my bed and beheld me with a glance so fell that I was all adrad and quaking with fear. And it seemed to me that the dream smote the roof above my bed, and the roof opened and disclosed the outer dark, and in the dark travelled a bearded star, and the night was quick with fiery signs. And blood was on the roof, and great gouts of blood on the walls and on the cornice of my bed. And the dream screeched like the screech-owl, and cried, Witchland from thy hand, O King! And methought the whole world was lighted in a lowe, and with a great cry I awoke out of the dream.”

“Thou art wise,” said Corund; “and belike the dream was a true dream, sent thee through the gate of horn, and belike it forebodeth events great and evil for the King and for Witchland.”

Gro said, “Disclose it not to the others, for none can strive with Fate and gain the victory, and it would but cast down their hearts. But it is fitting we be ready against evil hap. If (which yet may the Gods forfend) ill come of this wrastling bout, fail not every one of you ere you act on any enterprise to take counsel of me. ‘Bare is back without brother behind it.’ Together must we do that we do.”

“Thou hast my firm assurance on’t,” said Corund.

Now began a great company to come forth from the palace and take their stand on, either side of the wrastling ground. The Red Foliot sate in his car of polished ebony, drawn by six black horses with flowing manes and tails; before him went his musicians, pipers and minstrels doing their craft, and behind him fifty spearmen, weighed down with armour and ponderous shields that covered them from chin to toe. Their armour was stained with madder, in such wise that they seemed bathed in blood. Mild to look on was the Red Foliot, yet kingly. His skin was scarlet like the head of the green woodpecker. He wore a diadem of silver and robes of scarlet trimmed with black fur.

So when the Foliots were assembled, one stood forth with a horn at the command of the Red Foliot and blew three blasts. Therewith came forth from their booths the lords of Demonland and their men-at-arms, Juss, Goldry, Spitfire, and Brandoch Daha, all armed as for battle save Goldry, who was muffled in a cloak of cloth of gold with great hearts worked thereon in red silk thread. And from their booths in turn came the lords of Witchland all armed, and their fighting men, and little love there was in the glances they and the Demons cast upon each other. In the midst stalked the King, his great limbs muffled, like Goldry’s, in a cloak: and it was of black silk lined with black bearskin, and ornamented with crabs worked in diamonds. The crown of Witchland, fashioned like a hideous crab and encrusted with jewels so thickly that none might discern the iron whereof it was framed, weighed on his beetling brow. His beard was black and bristly, spade-shaped and thick: his hair close cropped. His upper lip was shaved, displaying his sneering mouth, and from the darkness below his eyebrows looked forth eyes that showed a green light, like those of a wolf. Corund walked at the King’s left elbow, his giant frame an inch less in stature than the King. Corinius went on the right, wearing a rich cloak of sky-blue tissue over his shining armour. Tall and soldier-like was Corinius, and young and goodly to look upon, with swaggering gait and insolent eye, thick-lipped withal and somewhat heavy of feature, and the sun shone brightly on his shaven jowl.

Now the Red Foliot let sound the horn again, and standing in his ebony car he read out the conditions, as thus: “O Gorice XI., most glorious King of Witchland, and O Lord Goldry Bluszco, captain of the hosts of Demonland, it is compact betwixt you, and made fast by mighty oaths whereof I, the Red Foliot, am keeper, that ye shall wrastle three falls together on these conditions, namely, that if Gorice the King be victorious, then hath he that glory and withal full liberty to enforce with the sword his claims of lordship over many-mountained Demonland: but if victory fall to the Lord Goldry Bluszco, then shall the Demons let the Witches abide in peace, and they them, and the Witches shall forswear for ever their claims of lordship over the Demons. And you, O King, and you, O Goldry Bluszco, are likewise bound by oath to wrastle fairly and to abide by the ruling of me, the Red Foliot, whom ye are content to choose as your umpire. And I do swear to judge justly between you. And the laws of your wrastling are that neither shall strangle his adversary with his hands, nor bite him, nor claw nor scratch his flesh, nor poach out his eyes, nor smite him with his fists, nor do any other unfair thing against him, but in all other respects ye shall wrastle freely together. And he that shall be brought to earth with hip or shoulder shall be accounted fallen.”

The Red Foliot said, “Have I spoken well, O King, and do you swear to these conditions?”

The King said, “I swear.”

The Red Foliot asked in like manner, “Dost thou swear to these conditions, O Lord Goldry Bluszco?”

And Goldry answered him, “I swear.”

Without more ado the King stepped into the wrastling ground on his side, and Goldry Bluszco on his, and they cast aside their rich mantles and stood forth naked for the wrastling. And folk stood silent for admiration of the thews and sinews of those twain, doubting which were mightier of build and likelier to gain the victory. The King stood taller by a little, and was longer in the arm than Goldry. But the great frame of Goldry showed excellent proportions, each part wedded to each as in the body of a God, and if either were brawnier of chest it was he, and he was thicker of neck than the King.

Now the King mocked Goldry, saying, “Rebellious hound, it is fit that I make demonstration unto thee, and unto these Foliots and Demons that witness our meeting, that I am thy King and Lord not by virtue only of this my crown of Witchland, which I thus put by for an hour, but even by the power of my body over thine and by my might and main. Be satisfied that I will not have done with thee until I have taken away thy life, and sent thy soul squealing bodiless into the unknown. And thy skull and thy marrow-bones will I have away to Carcë, to my palace, to be a token unto all the world that I have been the bane of an hundredth great champion by my wrastling, and thou not least among them that I have slain in that exercise. Thereafter, when I have eaten and drunken and made merry in my royal palace at Carcë, I will sail with my armies over the teeming deep to many-mountained Demonland. And it shall be my footstool, and these other Demons the slaves of me, yea, and the slaves of my slaves.”

But the Lord Goldry Bluszco laughed lightly and said to the Red Foliot, “O Red Foliot, I am not come hither to contend with the King of Witchland in windy railing, but to match my strength against his, sinew against sinew.”

Now they stood ready, and the Red Foliot made a sign with his hand, and the cymbals clashed for the first bout.

At the clash the two champions advanced and clasped one another with their strong arms, each with his right arm below and left arm above the other’s shoulder, until the flesh shrank beneath the might of their arms that were as brazen bands. They swayed a little this way and that, as great trees swaying in a storm, their legs planted firmly so that they seemed to grow out of the ground like the trunks of oak trees. Nor did either yield ground to other, nor might either win a master hold upon his enemy. So swayed they back and forth for a long time, breathing heavily. And now Goldry, gathering his strength, gat the King lifted a little from the ground, and was minded to swing him round and so dash him to earth. But the King, in that moment when he found himself lifted, leaned forward mightily and smote his heel swiftly round Goldry’s leg on the outside, striking him behind and a little above the ankle, in such wise that Goldry was fain to loosen his hold on the King; and greatly folk marvelled that he was able in that plight to save himself from being thrown backward by the King. So they gripped again until red wheals rose on their backs and shoulders by reason of the grievous clasping of their arms. And the King on a sudden twisted his body sideways, with his left side turned from Goldry; and catching with his leg Goldry’s leg on the inside below the great muscle of the calf, and hugging him yet closer, he lurched mightily against him, striving to pull Goldry backward and so f all upon him and crush him as they fell to earth. But Goldry leaned violently forward, ever tightening his hold on the King, and so violently bare he forward in his strength that the King was baulked of his design; and clutched together they fell both to earth side by side with a heavy crash, and lay bemused while one might count half a score.

The Red Foliot proclaimed them even in this bout, and each returned to his fellows to take breath and rest for a space.

Now while they rested, a flittermouse flew forth from the Witchland booths and went widdershins round the wrastling ground and so returned silently whence she came. Lord Gro saw her, and his heart waxed heavy within him. He spake to Corund and said, “Needs must that I make trial even at this late hour if there be not any means to turn. the King from further adventuring of himself, ere all be lost.”

Corund said, “Be it as thou wilt, but it will be in vain.”

So Gro stood by the King and said, “Lord, give over this wrastling. Great of growth and mightier of limb than any that you did overcome aforetime is this Demon, yet have you vanquished him. For you did throw him, as we plainly saw, and wrongfully hath the Red Foliot adjudged you evenly matched because in the throwing of him your majesty’s self did fall to earth. Tempt not the fates by another bout. Yours is the victory in this wrastling: and now we, your servants, wait but your nod to make a sudden onslaught on these Demons and slay them, as we may lightly overcome them taken at unawares. And for the Foliots, they be peaceful and sheep-like folk, and will be held in awe when we have smitten the Demons with the edge of the sword. So may you depart, O King, with pleasure and great honour, and afterward fare to Demonland and bring it into subjection.”

The King looked sourly upon Lord Gro, and said, “Thy counsel is unacceptable and unseasonable. What lieth behind it?”

Gro answered, “There have been omens, O King.”

And the King said, “What omens?”

Gro answered and said, “I will not hide it from you, O my Lord the King, that in my sleep about the darkest hour a dream of the night came to my bed and beheld me with a glance so fell that the hairs of my head stood up and pale terror gat hold upon me. And methought the dream smote up the roof above my bed, and the roof yawned to the naked air of the midnight, that laboured with fiery signs, and a bearded star travelling in the houseless dark. And I beheld the roof and the walls one gore of blood. And the dream screeched like the screech-owl, crying, Witchland from thy hand, O King! And therewith the whole world seemed lighted in one flame, and with a shout I awoke sweating from the dream.”

But the King rolled his eyes in anger upon Lord Gro and said “Well am I served and faithfully by such false scheming foxes as thou. It ill fits your turn that I should carry this deed to the end with mine own hand only, and in the blindness of your impudent folly ye come to me with tales made for scaring of babes, praying me gently to forgo my glory that thou and thy fellows may make yourselves big in the world’s eyes by deeds of arms.”

Gro said, “Lord, it is not so.”

But the King would not hear him, but said, “Methinks it is for loyal subjects to seek greatness in the greatness of their King, nor desire to shine of their own brightness. As for this Demon, when thou sayest that I have overcome him thou speakest a gross and impudent lie. In this bout I did but measure myself with him. But thereby know I of a surety that when I put forth my might he will not be able to withstand me; and all ye shall shortly behold how, as one shattereth a stalk of angelica, I will break and shatter the limbs of this Goldry Bluszco. As for thee, false friend, subtle fox, unfaithful servant, this long time am I grown weary of thee slinking up and down my palace devising darkly things I know not: thou, that art nought akin to Witchland, but an outlander, a Goblin exile, a serpent warmed in my bosom to my hurt. But these things shall have an end. When I have put down this Goldry Bluszco, then shall I have leisure to put down thee also.”

And Gro bowed in sorrow of heart before the anger of the King, and held his peace.

Now was the horn blown for the second bout, and they stepped into the wrastling ground. At the clashing of the cymbals the King sprang at Goldry as the panther springeth, and with the rush bare him backward and well nigh forth of the wrastling ground. But when they were carried almost among the Demons where they stood to behold the contest, Goldry swung to the left and strove as before to get the King lifted off his feet; but the King foiled him and bent his ponderous weight upon him, so that Goldry’s spine was like to have been crushed beneath the murthering violence of the King’s arms. Then did the Lord Goldry Bluszco show forth his great power as a wrastler, for, even under the murthering clasp of the King, he by the might that was in the muscles of his brawny chest shook the King first to the right and then to the left; and the King’s hold was loosened, and all his skill and mastery but narrowly saved him from a grievous fall. Nor did Goldry delay nor ponder how next to make trial of the King, but sudden as the lightning he slackened his hold and turned, and with his back under the King’s belly gave a mighty lift; and they that witnessed it stood amazed in expectancy to see the King thrown over Goldry’s head. Yet for all his striving might not Goldry get the King lifted clean off the ground. Twice and three times he strove, and at each trial he seemed further from his aim, and the King bettered his hold. And at the fourth essay that Goldry made to lift the King over his back and fling him headlong, the King thrust him forward and tripped him from behind, so that Goldry was crawled on his hands and knees. And the King clung to him from behind and passed his arms round his body beneath the armpits and so back over the shoulders, being minded to clasp his two hands at the back of Goldry’s neck.

Then said Corund, “The Demon is sped already. By this hold hath the King brought to their bane more than three score famous champions. He delayeth only till his fingers be knit together behind the neck of the accursed Demon to draw the head of him forward until the bones of the neck or the breastbone be bursten asunder.”

“He delayeth over long for my peace,” said Gro.

The King’s breath came out of him in great puffs and grunts as he strained to bring his fingers to meet behind Goldry’s neck. Nor was it aught else than the hugeness of his neck and burly chest that saved the Lord Goldry Bluszco in that hour from utter destruction. Crawled on his hands and knees he could nowise escape from the hold of the King, neither lay hold on him in turn; howbeit because of the bigness of Goldry’s neck and chest it was impossible for the King to fasten that hold upon him, for all his striving.

When the King perceived that this was so, and that he but wasted his strength, he said, “I will loose my hold on thee and let thee up, and we will stand again face to face. For I deem it unworthy to grapple on the ground like dogs.”

So they stood up, and wrastled another while in silence. Soon the King made trial once again of the fall whereby he had sought to throw him in the first bout, twisting suddenly his right side against Goldry, and catching with his leg Goldry’s leg, and therewith leaning against him with main force. And when, as before, Goldry bare forward with great violence, tightening his grip, the King lurched mightily against him, and, being still ill content to have missed his hold that never heretofore had failed him, he thrust his fingers up Goldry’s nose in his cruel anger, scratching and clawing at the delicate inner parts of the nostrils in such wise that Goldry was fain to draw back his head. Therewith the King, lurching against him yet more heavily, gat him thrown a grievous fall on his back, and himself fell atop of him, crushing him and stunning him on the earth.

And the Red Foliot proclaimed Gorice the King victorious in this bout.

Therewithal the King turned him back to his Witches, that loudly acclaimed his mastery over Goldry. He said unto Lord Gro, “It is as I have spoken: the testing first, next the bruising, and in the last bout the breaking and killing.” And the King looked evilly on Gro. Gro answered him not a word, for his soul was grieved to see blood on the nails and fingers of the King’s left hand, and he thought he knew that the King must have been sore bested in this bout, seeing that he must do this beastly deed or ever he might overcome the might of his adversary.

But the Lord Goldry Bluszco when he was come to his senses and had gotten him up from that great fall, spake to the Red Foliot in mickle wrath, saying, “This devil hath overcome me by craft, doing that which it is a shame to do, in that he clawed me with his fingers up my nose.”

The sons of Corund raised an uproar at the words of Goldry, loudly crying that he was the greatest liar and dastard; and all they of Witchland shouted and cursed in like manner. But Goldry shouted in a voice like a brazen trumpet that was plain to hear above the clamour of the Witches, “O Red Foliot, judge now fairly betwixt me and King Gorice, as thou art sworn to do. Let him show his finger nails, if there be not blood on them. This fall is void, and I claim that we wrastle it anew. “ And the lords of Demonland in like manner shouted that this fall should be wrastled anew.

Now the Red Foliot had seen somewhat of what was done, and well was he minded to call the bout void. Yet had he forborne to do this out of fear of King Gorice that had looked upon him with a basilisk’s eye, threatening him. And now, while the Red Foliot was troubled in his mind, uncertain between the angry shouts of the Witches and the Demons whether safety lay rather with his honour or with truckling to King Gorice, the King spake a word to Corinius, who went straightway and standing by the Red Foliot spake privily in his ear. And Corinius menaced the Red Foliot, and said, “Beware lest thy mind be swayed by the brow-beating of the Demons. Rightfully hast thou adjudged the victory in this bout unto our Lord the King, and this talk of thrusting of fingers in the nose is but a pretext and a vile imagination of this Goldry Bluszco, who, being thrown fairly before thine eyes and before us all, and perceiving himself unable to stand against the King, now thinketh with his swaggering he can bear it away, and thinketh by cheats and subtleties to avoid defeat. If, against thine own beholding and the witness of us and the plighted word of the King, thou art so hardy as to harken to the guileful persuading of these Demons, yet bethink thee that the King hath overborne ninety and nine great champions in this exercise, and this shall be the hundredth; and bethink thee, too, that Witchland lieth nearer to thine Isles than Demonland by many days’ sailing. Hard shall it be for thee to abide the avenging sword of Witchland if thou do him despite, and against thy sworn oath as umpire incline wrongfully to his enemies in this dispute.”

So spake Corinius; and the Red Foliot was cowed. Albeit he believed in his heart that the King had done what thereof Goldry accused him, yet for terror of the King and of Corinius that stood by and threatened him he durst not speak his thought, but in sore perplexity gave order for the horn to be blown for the third bout.

And it came to pass at the blowing of the horn that the flittermouse fared forth again from the booths of the Witches, and going widdershins round about the wrastling ground returned on silent wing whence she came.

When the Lord Goldry Bluszco understood that the Red Foliot would pay no heed to his accusation, he grew red as blood. A fearsome sight it was to behold how he swelled in his wrath, and his eyes blazed like disastrous stars at midnight, and being wood with anger he gnashed his teeth till the froth stood at his lips and slavered down his chin. Now the cymbals clashed for the onset. Therewith ran Goldry upon the King as one straught of his wits, bellowing as he ran, and gripped him by the right arm with both his hands, one at the wrist and one near the shoulder. And so it was that, before the King might move, Goldry spun round with his back to the King and by his mickle strength and the strength of the anger that was in him he heaved the King over his head, hurling him as one hurleth a ponderous spear, head-foremost to the earth. And the King smote the ground with his head, and the bones of his head and his spine were driven together and smashed, and blood flowed from his ears and nose. With the might of that throw Goldry’s wrath departed from him and left him strengthless, in such sort that he reeled as he went from the wrastling ground. His brethren, Juss and Spitfire, bare him up on either side, and put his cloak of cloth of gold worked with red hearts about his mighty limbs.

Meanwhile dismay was fallen upon the Witches to behold their King so caught up on a sudden and dashed upon the ground, where he lay crumpled in an heap, shattered like the stalk of an hemlock that one breaketh and shattereth. In great agitation the Red Foliot came down from his car of ebony and made haste thither where the King was fallen; and the lords of Witchland came likewise thither stricken at heart, and Corund lifted the King in his burly arms. But the King was stone dead. So those sons of Corund made a litter with their spears and laid the King on the litter, and spread over him Hs royal mantle of black silk lined with bearskin, and set the crown of Witchland on his head, and without word spoken bare him away to the Witches’ booths. And vie other lords of Witchland without word spoken followed after.

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