The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison

XXII. Aurwath and the Switchwater

How the Lady Mevrian Beheld from Krothering Walls the Witchland Army and the Captains Thereof: And of the Tidings Brought Her There of the War in the West Country, of Aurwath Field and the Great Slaughter on Switchwater Way.

THE fourth day after these doings aforewrit, the Lady Mevrian walked on the battlements of Krothering keep. A blustering wind blew from the north-west. The sky was cloudless: clear blue overhead, all else pearl-gray, and the air a little misty. Her old steward, stalwart and soldier-like, greaved and helmed and clad in a plated jerkin of bull’s hide, walked with her.

“The hour should be about striking,” said she. “’Tis to-day or to-morrow my Lord Zigg named to me when they were here a-guesting. If but Goblinland keep tryst it were the prettiest feat, to take them so pat.”

“As your ladyship might clap a gnat ’twixt the palms of your two hands,” said the old man; and he gazed again southward over the sea.

Mevrian set her gaze in the same quarter. “Nothing but mist and spray,” she said after a few minutes’ searching. “I’m glad I sent Lord Spitfire those two hundred horse. He must have every man can be scraped up, for such a day. How thinkest thou, Ravnor: if King Gaslark come not, hath Lord Spitfire force enow to cope them alone?”

Ravnor chuckled in his beard. “I think and my lord your brother were here be should tell your highness ‘ay’ to that. Since first I bowled a hoop, they taught me a Demon was under-matched against five Witches.”

She looked at him a little wistfully. “Ah,” she said, “were he at home. And were Juss at home.” Then on a sudden she faced round northward, pointing to the camp. “Were they at home,” she cried, “thou shouldst not see outlanders insulting in arms on Krothering Side, sending me shameful offers, caging me like a bird in this castle. Have such things been in Demonland, until now?”

Now came a boy running along the battlements from the far side of the tower, crying that ships were hove in sight sailing from the south and east, “And they make for the firth.”

“Of what land?” said Mevrian, while they hastened back to look.

“What but Goblinland?” said Ravnor.

“O say not so too hastily!” cried she. They came round the turret wall, and the sea and Stropardon Firth opened wide and void before them. “I see nought,” she said; “or is yon flight of sea-mews the fleet thou sawest?”

“He meaneth Thunderfirth,” said Ravnor, who had gone on ahead, pointing to the west. “They shape their course toward Aurwath. ’Tis King Gaslark for sure. Mark but the blue and gold of his sails.”

Mevrian watched them, her gloved hand drumming nervously on the marble battlement. Very stately she seemed, muffled in a flowing cloak of white watered silk collared and lined with ermine. “Eighteen ships!” she said. “I dreamed not Goblinland might make so great a force.”

“Your ladyship may see,” said Ravnor, walking back along the wall, “whether the Witchlanders have slept while these ships sailed to port.”

She followed and looked. Great stir there was in the Witchland army, marshalling before the camp; there was coming and going and leaping on horseback, and faintly on the wind their trumpets’ blare was borne to Mevrian’s ears as she beheld them from her high watch-tower. The host moved forth down the meadows, all orderly, aglitter with bronze and steel. Southward they came, passing at length through the home-meads of Krothering, so near that each man was plainly seen from the battlements, as they rode beneath.

Mevrian leaned forward in an embrasure, one hand on either battlement at her left and right. “I would know their names,” said she. “Thou, that hast oft fared to the wars, mayst teach me. Gro I know, with a long beard; and heart-heaviness it is to see a lord of Goblinland in such a fellowship. What’s he beside him, yon bearded gallant, with a winged helm and a diadem about it, like a king’s, and beareth a glaive crimson-hafted? He looketh a proud one.”

The old man answered, “Laxus of Witchland: the same that was admiral of their fleet against the Ghouls.”

“’Tis a brave man to look on, and worthy a better cause. What’s he rideth now below us, heading their horse: ruddy and swarthy and light of build, hath a brow like the thunder-cloud, and weareth armour from neck to toe?”

Ravnor answered, “Highness, I know him not certainly, the sons of Corund so favour one another. But methinks ’tis the young prince Heming.”

Mevrian laughed. “Prince quotha?”

“So moveth the world, your highness. Since Gorice set Corund in kingdom in Impland ——”

Said Mevrian, “Name him prithee Heming Faz: I warrant they trap them now with barbarous additions. Heming Faz, good lack! lording it now in Demonland.

“The prime huff-cap of all,” said she after a little, “holdeth aback it seemeth. O here he comes. Sweet heaven, what furious horsemanship! Troth, and he can sit a horse, Raynor, and hath the great figure of an athlete. Look where he gallopeth bare-headed down the line. I ween he’ll need more than golden curls to keep his head whole ere he have done with Gaslark, ay, and our own folk gathering from the north. I see he beareth his helm at the saddle-bow. To ape us so!” she cried as he drew nearer. “All silks and silver. Thou’dst have sworn none but a Demon went to battle so costly apparelled. O, for a scissors to cut his comb withal!”

So speaking she leaned forward all she might, to watch him. And he, galloping by below, looked up; and marking her so watching, reined mightily his great chestnut horse, throwing him with the check well nigh on his haunches. And while the horse plunged and reared, Corinius hailed her in a great voice, crying, “Mistress, good-morrow!” crying, “Wish me victory, and swift to thine arms!”

So near below was he a-riding, she might scan the very lineaments of his face and read it as he looked up and shouted to her that greeting. He saluted with his sword, and spurred onward to overtake Gro and Laxus in the van.

As if sickened on a sudden, or as if she had been ready to tread on a deadly stinging adder, the Lady Mevrian leaned against the marble of the battlements. Ravnor stepped towards her: “Is your ladyship ill? Why, what’s the matter?”

“A silly qualm,” said Mevrian faintly. “If thou’dst medicine it, show me the sheen of Spitfire’s spears to the northward. The blank land dazzles me.”

So wore the afternoon. Twice and thrice Mevrian went upon the walls, but could see nought save the sea and the firths and the mountain-bosomed plain fair and peaceful in the spring-time: no sign of men or of war’s alarums, save only the masts of Gaslark’s ships seen over the land’s brow three miles or more to the south-west. Yet she knew surely that near those ships beside Aurwath harbour must be desperate fighting toward, Gaslark the king engaged at heavy odds against Laxus and Corinius and the spears of Witchland. And the sun wheeled low over the dark pines of Westmark, and still no sign from the north.

“Thou didst send one forth for tidings?” she said to Ravnor, the third time she went on the wall.

He answered, “Betimes this morning, your highness. But ’tis slow faring until a be a mile or twain clear of the castle, for a must elude their small bands that go up and down guarding the countryside.”

“Bring him to me o’ the instant of his return,” said she.

With a foot on the stair, she turned back. “Ravnor,” she said.

He came to her.

“Thou,” she said, “hast been years enow my brother’s steward in Krothering, and our father’s before him, to know what mind and spirit dwelleth in them of our line. Tell me, truly and sadly, what thou makest of this. Lord Spitfire is too late: other else, Goblinland too sudden-early (and that was his fault from of old). What seest thou in it? Speak to me as thou shouldst to my Lord Brandoch Daha were it he that asked thee.”

“Highness,” said the old man Ravnor, “I will answer you my very thought: and it is, woe to Goblinland. Since my Lord Spitfire cometh not yet from the north, only the deathless Gods descending out of heaven can save the king. The Witches number at an humble reckoning twice his strength; and man to man you were as well pit a hound against a bear, as against Witches Goblins. For all that these be fierce and full of fiery courage, the bear hath it at the last.”

Mevrian listened, looking on him with sorrowful steady eyes. “And he so generous-noble flown to comfort Demonland in the blackness of her days,” she said at last. “Can fate be so ungallant? O Ravnor, the shame of it! First La Fireez, now Gaslark. How shall any love us any more? The shame of it, Ravnor!”

“I would not have your highness,” said Ravnor, “too hasty to blame us. If their plan and compact have gone amiss, ’tis likelier King Gaslark’s misprision than Lord Spitfire’s. We know not for sure which day was set for this landing.”

While he so spake, he was looking past her seaward, a little south of the reddest part of the sunset. His eyes widened. He touched her arm and pointed. Sails were hoisted among the masts at Aurwath. Smoke, as of burning, reeked up against the sky. As they watched, the most part of the ships moved out to sea. From those that remained, some five or six, fire leaped and black clouds of smoke. The rest as they came out of the lee of the land, made southward for the open sea under oar and sail.

Neither spake; and the Lady Mevrian leaning her elbows on the parapet of the wall hid her face in her hands.

Now came Ravnor’s messenger at length back from his faring, and the old man brought him in to Mevrian in her bower in the south part of Krothering. The messenger said, “Highness, I bring no writing, since that were too perilous had I fallen in my way among Witches. But I had audience of my Lord Spitfire and my Lord Zigg in the gates of Gashterndale. And thus their lordships commanded me deliver it unto you, that your highness should be at ease and secure, seeing that they do in such sort hold all the ways to Krothering, that the Witchland army cannot escape out of this countryside that is betwixt Thunderfirth and Stropardon Firth and the sea, but and if they will give battle unto their lordships. But if they choose rather to abide here by Krothering, then may our armies close on them and oppress them, since our forces do exceed theirs by near a thousand spears. Which to-morrow will be done whate’er betide, since that is the day appointed for Gaslark the king to land with a force at Aurwath.”

Mevrian said, “They know nought then of this direful miscarriage. and Gaslark here already before his time and thrown back into the sea?” And she said, “We must apprise them on’t, and that hastily and to-night.”

When the man understood this, he answered, “Ten minutes for a bite and a stirrup-cup, and I am at your ladyship’s service.”

And in a short while, that man went forth again secretly out of Krothering in the dusk of night to bring word to Lord Spitfire of what was befallen. And the watchmen watching in the night from Krothering walls beheld northward under Erngate End the camp-fires of the Witches like the stars.

Night passed and day dawned, and the camp of the Witches showed empty as an empty shell.

Mevrian said, “They have moved in the night.”

“Then shall your highness hear great tidings ere long,” said Ravnor.

“’Tis like we may have guests in Krothering to-night,” said Mevrian. And she gave order for all to be made ready against their coming, and the choicest bed-chambers for Spitfire and Zigg to welcome them. So, with busy preparations, the day went by. But as evening came, and still no riding from the north, some shadows of impatience and anxious doubt crept with night’s shades creeping across heaven across their eager expectancy in Krothering. For Mevrian’s messenger returned not. Late to rest went the Lady Mevrian; and with the first peeping light she was abroad, muffled in her great mantle of velvet and swansdown against the eager winds of morning. Up to the battlements she went, and with old Ravnor searched the blank prospect. For pale morning rose on an empty landscape; and so all day until the evening: watching, and waiting, and questioning in their hearts.

So went they at length to supper on this third night after Aurwath field. And ere supper was half done was a stir in the outer courts, and the rattle of the bridge let down, and a clatter of horse-hooves on the bridge and the jasper pavements. Mevrian sate erect and expectant. She nodded to Ravnor who wanting no further sign went hastily out, and returned in an instant hastily and with heavy brow. He spake in her ear, “News, my Lady. It were well you bade him to private audience. Drink this cup first,” pouring out some wine for her.

She rose up, saying to the steward, “Come thou, and bring him with thee.”

As they went he whispered her, “Astar of Rettray, sent by the Lord Zigg with matter of urgent import for your highness’s ear.”

The Lady Mevrian sat in her ivory chair cushioned with rich stuffed silks of Beshtria, with little golden birds and strawberry leaves with the flowers and rich red fruits all figured thereon in gorgeous colours of needlework. She reached out her hand to Astar who stood before her in his battle harness, muddy and bebloodied from head to foot. He bowed and kissed her hand: then stood silent. He held his head high and looked her in the face, but his eyes were bloodshed and his look was ghastly like a messenger of ill.

“Sir,” said Mevrian, “stand not in doubt, but declare all. Thou knowest it is not in our blood to quail under dangers and misfortune.”

Astar said, “Zigg, my brother-in-law, gave me this in charge, madam, to tell thee all truly.”

“Proceed,” said she. “Thou knowest our last news. Hour by hour since then, we watched on victory. I have no mean welcome feast prepared against your coming.”

Astar groaned. “My Lady Mevrian,” said he, “you must now prepare a sword, not a banquet. You did send a runner to Lord Spitfire.”

“Ay,” said she.

“He brought us advertisement that night,” said Astar, “of Gaslark’s overthrow. Alas, that Goblinland was a day too soon, and so bare alone the brunt. Yet was vengeance ready to our hand, as we supposed. For every pass and way was guarded, and ours the greater force. So for that night we waited, seeing Corinius’s fires alight in his camp on Krothering Side, meaning to smite him at dawn of day. Now in the night were mists abroad, and the moon early sunken. And true it is as ill it is, that the whole Witchland army marched away past us in the dark.”

“What?” cried Mevrian, “and slept ye all to let them by?”

“In the middle night,” answered he, “we had sure tidings he was afoot, and the fires yet burning in his camp a show to mock us withal. By all sure signs, we might know he was broke forth north-westward, where he must take the upper road into Mealand over Brocksty Hause. Zigg with seven hundred horse galloped to Heathby to head him off, whiles our main force fared their swiftest up Little Ravendale. Thou seest, madam, Corinius must march along the bow and we along the bowstring.”

“Yes,” said Mevrian. “Ye had but to cheek him with the horse at Heathby, and he must fight or fall back toward Justdale where he was like to lose half his folk in Memmery Moss. Outlanders shall scarce find a firm way there in a dark night.”

“Certain it is we should have had him,” said Astar. “Yet certain it is he doubled like a hare and fooled us all to the top of our bent: turned in his tracks, as later we concluded, somewhere by Goosesand, and with all his army slipped back eastward under our rear. And that was the wonderfullest feat heard tell of in all chronicles of war.”

“Tush, noble Astar,” said Mevrian. “Labour not Witchland’s praises, nor imagine not I’ll deem less of Spitfire’s nor Zigg’s generalship because Corinius, by art or fortune’s favour, dodged ’em in the dark.”

“Dear Lady,” said he, “even look for the worst and prepare yourself for the same.”

Her gray eyes steadily beheld him. “Certain intelligence,"’ said he, “was brought us of their faring with all speed they might eastaway past Switchwater; and ere the sun looked well over Gemsar Edge we were hot on the track of them, knowing our force the stronger and our only hope to bring them to battle ere they reached the Stile, where they have made a fortress of great strength we might scarce hope to howster them out from if they should win thither.”

He paused. “Well,” said she.

“Madam,” he said, “that we of Demonland are great and invincible in war, ’tis most certain. But in these days fight we as a man that fighteth hobbled, or with half his gear laid by, or as a man half roused from Sleep. For we be reft of our greatest. Bereft of these, such sorrows befall us and such doom as at Thremnir’s Heugh last autumn shattered our strength in pieces, and now this very day yet more terribly hath put us down on Switchwater Way.”

Mevrian’s cheek turned white, but she said no word, waiting.

“We were eager in the chase,” said Astar. “I have told thee why, madam. Thou knowest how near to the mountains runneth the road past Switchwater, and the shores of the lake hem in the way for miles against the mountain spurs, and woods clothe the lower slopes, and dells and gorges run up betwixt the spurs into the mountain side. The day was misty, and the mists hung by the shores of Switchwater. When we had marched so far that our van was about over against the stead of Highbank that stands on the farther shore, the battle began: greatly to their advantage, since Corinius had placed strong forces in the hills on our right flank, and so ambushed us and took us at unawares. Not to grieve thee with a woful tale, madam, we were most bloodily overthrown, and our army merely brought to not-being. And in the mid rout, Zigg stole an instant to charge me by my love for him ride to Krothering as if my life lay on it and the weal of all of us, and bid you fly hence to Westmark or the isles or whither you will, ere the Witches come again and here entrap you. Since save for these walls and these few brave soldiers you have to ward them, no help standeth any more ’twixt you and these devilish Witches.”

Still she was silent. He said, “Let me not be too hateful to you, most gracious Lady, for this rude tale of disaster. The suddenness of the times bar any pleasant glozing. And indeed I thought I should satisfy you more with plainness, than should opinion of I know not what false courtliness bind me to show you comfort where comfort is not.”

The Lady Mevrian stood up and took him by both hands. Surely the light of that lady’s eyes was like the new light of morning glancing through mists on the gray still surface of a mountain tarn, and the accent of her voice sweet as the voices of the morning as she said, “O Astar, think me not so unhandsome, nor yet so foolish. Thanks, gentle Astar. But thou hast not supped, and sure in a great soldier battle and swift far riding should breed hunger, how ill soever the news he beareth. Thy welcome shall not be the colder because we looked for more than thee, alas, and for far other tidings. A chamber is prepared for thee. Eat and drink; and when night is done is time enough to speak more of these things.”

“Madam,” he said, “you must come now or ’tis too late.”

But she answered him, “No, noble Astar. This is my brother’s house. So long as I may keep it for him against his coming home I will not creep out of Krothering like a rat, but stand to my watch. And this is certain, I shall not open Krothering gates to Witches whiles I and my folk yet live to bar them against them.”

So she made him go to supper; but herself sat late that night alone in the Chamber of the Moon, that was in the donjon keep above the inner court in Krothering. This was Lord Brandoch Daha’s banquet chamber, devised and furnished by him in years gone by; and here he and she commonly sat at meat, using not the banquet hall across the court save when great company was present. Round was that chamber, following the round walls of the tower that held it. All the pillars and the walls and the vaulted roof were of a strange stone, white and smooth, and yielding such a glistering show of pallid gold in it as was like the golden sheen of the full moon of a warm night in midsummer. Lamps that were milky opals self-effulgent filled all the chamber with a soft radiance, in which the bas-reliefs of the high dado, delicately carved, portraying those immortal blooms of amaranth and nepenthe and moly and Elysian asphodel, were seen in all their delicate beauty, and the fair painted pictures of the Lord of Krothering and his lady sister, an d of Lord Juss above the great open fireplace with Goldry and Spitfire on his left and right. A few other pictures there were, smaller than these: the Princess Armelline of Goblinland, Zigg and his lady wife, and others; wondrous beautiful.

Here a long while sat the Lady Mevrian. She had a little lute wrought of sweet sandalwood and ivory inlaid with gems. While she sat a-thinking, her fingers strayed idly on the strings, and she sang in a low sweet voice:

There were three ravens sat on a tree,

They were as black as they might be.

With a downe, derrie down.

The one of them said to his make,

Where shall we our breakefast take?

Downe in yonder greene field,

There lies a knight slain under his shield.

His hounds they lie downe at his feete,

So well they can their master keepe.

His haukes they flie so eagerly,

There’s no fowle dare him come nie.

Downe there comes a fallow doe

As great with yong as she might goe.

She lift up his bloudy hed,

And kist his wounds, that were so red.

She gat him up upon her backe,

And carried him to earthen lake.

She buried him before the prime;

She was dead herselfe ere even-song time.

God send every gentleman

Such haukes, such hounds, and such a leman.

With a downe, derrie down.

With the last sighing sweetness trembling from the strings, she laid aside the lute, saying, “The discord of my thoughts, my lute, doth ill agree with the harmonies of thy strings. Put it by.”

She fell to gazing on her brother’s picture, the Lord Brandoch Daha, standing in his jewelled hauberk laced about with gold, his hand upon his sword. And that lazy laughter-loving yet imperious look of the eyes which in life he had was there, wondrous lively caught by the painter’s art, and the lovely lines of his brow and lip and jaw, where power and masterful determination slumbered, as brazen Ares might slumber in the arms of the Queen of Love.

A long while Mevrian looked on that picture, musing. Then, burying her face in the cushions of the long low seat she sat on, she burst into a great passion of tears.

ornament

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