The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison

XXVI. The Battle of Krothering Side

How Word was Brought Unto the Lord Corinius that the Lords Juss and Brandoch Daha Were Come Again into the Land, and How he Resolved to Give Them Battle on the Side, Under Erngate End; and of the Great Flank March of Lord Brandoch Daha Over the Mountains from Transdale; and of the Great Battle, and of the Issue Thereof.

Laxus and those sons of Corund walked on an afternoon in Krothering home mead. The sky above them was hot and coloured of lead, presaging thunder. No wind stirred in the trees that were livid-green against that leaden pall. The noise of mattock and crow-bar came without intermission from the castle. Where gardens had been and arbours of shade and sweetness, was now but wreck: broken columns and smashed porphyry vases of rare workmanship, mounds of earth and rotting vegetation. And those great cedars, emblems of their lord’s estate and pride, lay prostrate now with their roots exposed, a tangle of sere foliage and branches broken, withered and lifeless. Over this death-bed of ruined loveliness the towers of onyx showed ghastly against the sky.

“Is there not a virtue in seven?” said Cargo. “Last week was the sixth time we thought we had gotten the eel by the tail in yon fly-blown hills of Mealand and came empty home. When think’st, Laxus, shall’s run ’em to earth indeed?”

“When egg-pies shall grow on apple-trees,” answered Laxus. “Nay, the general setteth greater store by his proclamations concerning the young woman (who likely never heareth of them, and assuredly will not be by them ’ticed home again), and by these toys of revenge, than by sound soldiership. Hark! there goeth this day’s work.”

They turned at a shout from the gates, to behold the northern of those two golden hippogriffs totter and crash down the steeps into the moat, sending up a great smoke from the stones and rubble which poured in its wake.

Lord Laxus’s brow was dark. He laid hand on Heming’s arm, saying, “The times need all sage counsel we can reach unto, O ye sons of Corund, if our Lord the King shall have indeed from this expedition into Demonland the victory at last of all his evil-willers. Remember, that was a great miss to our strength when the Goblin went.”

“Out upon the viper!” said Cargo. “Corinius was right in this, not to warrant him the honesty of such slippery cattle. He had not served above a month or two, but that he ran to the enemy.”

“Corinius,” said Laxus, “is yet but green in his estate. Doth he suppose the rest of his reign shall be but play and the enjoying of a kingdom? Those left-handed strokes of fortune may yet o’erthrow him, the while that he streameth out his youth in wine and venery and manageth his private spite against this lady. Slipper youth must be under-propped with elder counsel, lest all go miss.”

“A most reverend old counsellor art thou!” said Cargo; “of six-and-thirty years of age.”

Said Heming, “We be three. Take command thyself. I and my brother will back thee.”

“I will that thou swallow back those words,” said Laxus, “as though they had never been spoke. Remember Corsus and Gallandus. Besides, albeit he seemeth now rather to be a man straught than one that hath his wits, yet is Corinius in his sober self a valiant and puissant soldier, a politic and provident captain as is not found besides in Demonland, no, nor in Witchland neither, and it were not your noble father; and this one in his youthly age.”

“That is true,” said Heming. “Thou hast justly reproved me.”

Now while they were a-talking, came one from the castle and made obeisance unto Laxus saying, “You are inquired for, O king, so please you to walk into the north chamber.”

Said Laxus, “Is it he that was newly ridden from the east country?”

“So it is, so please you,” with a low leg he made answer.

“Hath he not had audience with King Corinius?”

“He hath sought audience,” said the man, “but was denied. The matter presseth, and he urged me therefore seek unto your lordship.”

As they walked toward the castle Heming said in Laxus’s ear, “Knowest thou not this brave new piece of court ceremony? O’ these days, when he hath ’stroyed an hostage to spite the Lady Mevrian, as to-day was ’stroyed the horse-headed eagle, he giveth not audience till sundown. For, the deed of vengeance done, a retireth himself to his own chamber and a wench with him, the daintiest and gamesomest he may procure; and so, for two hours or three drowned in the main sea of his own pleasures, he abateth some little deal for a season the pang of love.”

Now when Laxus was come forth from talking with the messenger from the east, he fared without delay to Corinius’s chamber. There, thrusting aside the guards, he flung wide the shining doors, and found the Lord Corinius merrily disposed. He was reclined on a couch deep-cushioned with dark green three-pile velvet. An ivory table inlaid with silver and ebony stood at his elbow bearing a crystal flagon already two parts emptied of the foaming wine, and a fair gold goblet beside it. He wore a long loose sleeveless gown of white silk edged with a gold fringe; this, fallen open at the neck, left naked his chest and one strong arm that in that moment when Laxus entered reached out to grasp the wine cup. Upon his knee he held a damosel of some seventeen years, fair and fresh as a rose, with whom he was plainly on the point to pass from friendly converse to amorous privacy. He looked angrily upon Laxus, who without ceremony spoke and said, “The whole east is in a tumult. The burg is forced which we built astride the Stile. Spitfire hath passed into Breakingdale to victual Galing, and hath overthrown our army that sat in siege thereof.”

Corinius drank a draught and spat. “Phrut!” said he. “Much bruit, little fruit. I would know by what warrant thou troublest me with this tittle-tattle, and I pleasantly disposing myself to mirth and recreation. Could it not wait till supper time?”

Ere Laxus might say more, was a great clatter heard without on the stairs, and in came those sons of Corund.

“Am I a king?” said Corinius, gathering his robe about him, “and shall I be forced? Avoid the chamber.” Then marking them stand silent with disordered looks, “What’s the matter?” be said. “Are ye ta’en with the swindle or the turn-sickness? Or are ye out of your wits?”

Heming answered and said, “Not mad, my lord. Here’s Didarus that held the Stile-burg for us, ridden from the east as fast as his horse might wallop, and gotten here hard o’ the heels of the former messenger with fresh and more certain advertisement, fresher by four days than that one’s. I pray you hear him.”

“I’ll hear him,” said Corinius, “at supper time. Nought sooner, if the roof were afire.”

“The land beneath thy feet’s afire!” cried Heming. “Juss and Brandoch Daha home again, and half the country lost thee ere thou heard’st on’t. These devils are home again! Shall we hear that and still be swill-bowls?”

Corinius listened with folded arms. His great jaw was lifted up. His nostrils widened. For a minute he abode in silence, his cold blue eyes fixed as it were on somewhat afar. Then, “Home again?” said he. “And the east in a hubbub? And not unlikely. Thank Didarus for his tidings. He shall sweeten mine ears with some more at supper. Till then, leave me, unless ye mean to be stretched.”

But Laxus, with sad and serious brow, stood beside him and said, “My lord, forget not that you are here the vicar and legate of the King. Let the crown upon your head put perils in your thoughts, so as you may harken peaceably to them that are willing to lesson you with sound and sage advice. If we take order to-night to march by Switchwater, we may very well shut back this danger and stifle it ere it wax to too much bigness. If o’ the contrary we suffer them to enter into these western parts, like enough without let or stay they will overrun the whole country.”

Corinius rolled his eye upon him. “Can nothing,” he said, “prescribe unto thee obedience? Look to thine own charge. Is the fleet in proper trim? For there’s the strength, ease, and anchor of our power, whether for victualling, or to shift our weight against ’em which way we choose, or to give us sure asylum if it were come to that. What ails thee? Have we not these four months desired nought better than that these Demons should take heart to strike a field with us? If it be true that Juss himself and Brandoch Daha have thrown down the castles and strengths which I had i’ the east and move with an army against us, why then I have them in the forge already, and shall now bring them to the hammer. And be satisfied, I’ll choose mine own ground to fight them.”

“There’s yet matter for haste in this,” said Laxus. “A day’s march, and we oppose ’em not, will bring them before Krothering.”

“That,” answered Corinius, “jumpeth pat with mine own design. I’ll not go a league to bar their way, but receive ’em here where the ground lieth most favourable to meet an enemy. Which advantage I’ll employ to the greatest stretch of service, standing on Krothering Side, resting my flank against the mountain. The fleet shall ride in Aurwath haven.”

Laxus stroked his beard and was silent a minute, considering this. Then he looked up and said, “This is sound generalship, I may not gainsay it.”

“It is a purpose, my lord,” said Corinius, “I have long had in myself, stored by for the event. Let me alone, therefore, to do that my right is. There’s this good in it, too, as it befalleth: ’twill suffer that dive-dapper to behold his home again afore I kill him. A shall find it a sight for sore eyes, I think, after my tending on’t.”

The third day after these doings, the farmer at Holt stood in his porch that opened westward on Tivarandardale. An old man was he, crooked like a mountain thorn. But a bright black eye he had, and the hair curled crisp yet above his brow. It was late afternoon and the sky overcast. Tousle-haired sheep-dogs slept before the door. Swallows gathered in the sky. Near to him sat a damosel, dainty as a meadow-pipit, lithe as an antelope; and she was grinding grain in a hand-mill, singing the while:

Grind, mill, grind,

Corinius grinds us all;

Kinging it in widowed Krothering.

The old man was furbishing a shield and morion-cap, and other tackle of war lay at his feet.

“I wonder thou wilt still be busy with thy tackle, O my father,” said she, looking up from her singing and grinding. “If ill tide ill again what should an old man do but grieve and be silent?”

“There shall be time for that hereafter,” said the old man. “But a little while is hand fain of blow.”

“They’ll be for firing the roof-tree, likely, if they come back,” said she, still grinding.

“Thou’rt a disobedient lass. If thou’dst but flit as I bade thee to the shiel-house up the dale, I’d force not a bean for their burnings.”

“Let it burn,” said she, “if he be taken. What avail then for thee or for me to be a-tarrying? Thou that art an old man and full of good days, and I that will not be left so.”

A great dog awoke beside her and shook himself, then drew near and laid his nose in her lap, looking up at her with kind solemn eyes.

The old man said, “Thou’rt a disobedient lass, and but for thee, come sword, come fire, not a straw care I; knowing it shall be but a passing storm, now that my Lord is home again.”

“They took the land from Lord Spitfire,” said she.

“Ay, hinny,” said the old man, “and thou shalt see my Lord shall take it back again.”

“Ay?” said she. And still she ground and still she sang:

Grind, mill, grind,

Corinius grinds us all.

After a time, “Hist!” said the old man, “was not that a horse-tread i’ the lane? Get thee within-doors till I know if all be friendly.” And he stooped painfully to take up his weapon. Woefully it shook in his feeble hand.

But she, as one that knew the step, heeding nought else, leapt up with face first red then pale then flushed again, and ran to the gate of the garth. And the sheepdogs bounded before her. There in the gate she was met with a young man riding a weary horse. He was garbed like a soldier, and horse and man were so bedraggled with mire and dust and all manner of defilement they were a sorry sight to see, and so jaded both that scarce it seemed they had might to journey another furlong. They halted within the gate, and all those dogs jumped up upon them, whining and barking for joy.

Ere the soldier was well down from the saddle he had a sweet armful. “Softly, my heart,” said he, “my shoulder’s somewhat raw. Nay, ’tis nought to speak on. I’ve brought thee all my limbs home.”

“Was there a battle?” said the old man.

“Was there a battle, father?” cried he. “I’ll tell thee, Krothering Side is thicker with dead men slain than our garth with sheep i’ the shearing time.”

“Alack and alack, ’tis a most horrid wound, dear,” said the girl. “Go in, and I’ll wash it and lay to it millefoil pounded with honey; ’tis most sovran against pain and loss of blood, and drieth up the lips of the wound and maketh whole thou’dst no credit how soon. Thou hast bled over-much, thou foolish one. And how couldst thou thrive without thy wife to tend thee?”

The farmer put an arm about him, saying, “Was the field ours, lad?”

“I’ll tell you all orderly, old man,” answered he, “but I must stable him first,” and the horse nuzzled his breast. “And ye must ballast me first. God shield us, ’tis not a tale for an empty man to tell.”

“‘Las, father,” said the damosel, “have we not one sweet sippet i’ the mouth, that we hold him here once more? And, sweet or sour, let him take his time to fetch us the next.”

So they washed his hurt and laid kindly herbs thereto, and bound it with clean linen, and put fresh raiment upon him, and made him sit on the bench without the porch and gave him to eat and drink: cakes of barley meal and dark heather-honey, and rough white wine of Tivarandardale. The dogs lay close about him as if there was warmth there and safety whereas he was. His young wife held his hand in hers, as if that were enough if it should last for aye. And that old man, eating down his impatience like a schoolboy chafing for the bell, fingered his partisan with trembling hand.

“Thou hadst the word I sent thee, father, after the fight below Galing?”

“Ay. ’Twas good.”

“There was a council held that night,” said the soldier. “All the great men together in the high hall in Galing, so as it was a heaven to see. I was one of their cupbearers, ’cause I’d killed the standard-bearer of the Witches, in that same battle below Galing. Methought ’twas no great thing I did; till after the battle, look you, my Lord’s self standing beside me; and saith he, ‘Arnod’ (ay, by my name, father), ‘Arnod,’ a saith, ‘thou’st done down-the pennon o’ Witchland that ‘gainst our freedom streamed so proud. ’Tis thy like shall best stead Demonland i’ these dog-days,’ saith he. ‘Bear my cup to-night, for thine honour.’ I would, lass, thou’dst seen his eyes that tide. ’Tis a lord to put marrow in the sword-arm, our Lord.

“They had forth the great map o’ the world, of this Demonland, to study their business. I was by, pouring the wine, and I heard their disputations. ’Tis a wondrous map wrought in crystal and bronze, most artificial, with waters a-glistering and mountains standing substantial to the touch. My Lord points with’s sword. ‘Here,’ a saith, ‘standeth Corinius, by all sure tellings, and budgeth not from Krothering. And, by the Gods, ‘a saith, ‘’tis a wise disposition. For, mark, if we go by Gashterndale, as go we must to come at him, he striketh down on us as hammer on anvil. And if we will pass by toward the head of Thunderfirth,’ and here a pointeth it out with’s sword, ‘down a cometh on our flank; and every-gate the land’s slope serveth his turn and fighteth against us.’

“I mind me o’ those words,” said the young man, “‘cause my Lord Brandoch Daha laughed and said, ‘Are we grown so strange by our travels, our own land fighteth o’ the opposite party? Let me study it again.’

“I filled his cup. Dear Gods, but I’d fill him a bowl of mine own heart’s blood if he required it of me, after our times together, father. But more o’ that anon. The stoutest gentleman and captain without peer.

“But Lord Spitfire, that was this while vaunting up and down the chamber, cried out and said, “Twere folly to travel his road prepared us. Take him o’ that side he looketh least to see us: south through the mountains, and upon him in his rear up from Mardardale.’

“‘Ah,’ saith my Lord, ‘and be pressed back into Murkdale Hags if we miss of our first spring. ’Tis too perilous. `Tis worse than Gashterndale.’

“So went it: a nay for every yea, and nought to please ’em. Till i’ the end my Lord Brandoch Daha, that had been long time busy with the map, said: ‘Now that y’ have threshed the whole stack and found not the needle, I will show you my rede, ‘cause ye shall not say I counselled you rashly.’

“So they bade him say his rede. And he said unto my Lord, ‘Thou and our main power shall go by Switchwater Way. And let the whole land’s face blaze your coming before you. Ye shall lie to-morrow night in some good fighting-stead whither it shall not be to his vantage to move against you: haply in the old shielings above Wrenthwaite, or at any likely spot afore the road dippeth south into Gashterndale. But at point of day strike camp and go by Gashterndale and so up on to the Side to do battle with him. So shall all fall out even as his own hopes and expectations do desire it. But I,’ saith my Lord Brandoch Daha, ‘with seven hundred chosen horse, will have fared by then clean along the mountain ridge from Transdale even to Erngate End; so as when he turneth all his battle northward down the Side to whelm you, there shall hang above the security of his flank and rear that which he ne’er dreamed on. If he support my charging of his flank at unawares, with you in front to cope him, and he with so small an advantage upon us in strength of men: if he stand that, why then, good-night! the Witches are our masters in arms, and we may off cap to ’em and strive no more to right us.’

“So said my Lord Brandoch Daha. But all called him daft to think on’t. Carry an army a-horseback in so small time ’cross such curst ground? It might not be. ‘Well,’ quoth he, ‘sith you count it not possible, so much the more shall he. Cautious counsels never will serve us this tide. Give me but my pick of man and horse to the number of seven hundred, and I’ll so set this masque you shall not desire a better master of the revels.’

“So i’ the end he had his way. And past midnight they were at it, I wis, planning and studying.

“At dawn was the whole army marshalled in the meadows below Moonmere, and my Lord spake among them and told us he was minded to march into the west country and exterminate the Witches out of Demonland; and he bade any man that deemed be had now his fill of furious war and deemed it a sweeter thing to go home to his own place, say forth his mind without fear, and he would let him go, yea, and give him good gifts thereto, seeing that all had done manful service; but he would have no man in this enterprise who went not to it with his whole heart and mind.”

The damosel said, “I wis there was not a man would take that offer.”

“There went up,” said the soldier, “such a shout, with such a stamping, and such a clashing together of weapons, the land shook with’t, and the echoes rolled in the high corries of the Scarf like thunder, of them shouting ‘Krothering!’ ‘Juss!’ ‘Brandoch Daha!’ ‘Lead us to Krothering!’ Without more ado was the stuff packed up, and ere noon was the whole army gotten over the Stile. While we halted for daymeal hard by Blackwood in Amadardale, came my Lord Brandoch Daha a-riding among the ranks for to take his pick of seven hundred of our ablest horse. Nor a would not commit this to his officer, but himself called on each lad by name whenso he saw a likely one, and speered would a ride with him. I trow he gat never a nay to that speering. My heart was a-cold lest he’d o’erlook me, watching him ride by as jaunty as a king. But a reined in’s horse and saith, ‘Arnod, ’tis a bonny horse thou ridest. Could he carry thee to a swine-hunt down from Erngate End i’ the morning?’ I saluted him and said, ‘Not so far only, Lord, but to burning Hell so thou but lead us.’ ‘Come on,’ saith he. “Tis a better gate I shall lead thee: to Krothering hall ere eventide.’

“So now was our strength sundered, and the main army made ready to march westward down Switchwater Way; with the Lord Zigg to lead the horse, and the Lord Volle and my Lord’s self and his brother the Lord Spitfire faring in the midst amongst ’em all. And with them yonder outland traitor, Lord Gro; but I do think him more a stick of sugar-paste than a man of war. And many gentlemen of worth went with them: Gismor Gleam of Justdale, Astar of Rettray, and Bremery of Shaws, and many more men of mark. But there abode with my Lord Brandoch, Daha, Arnund of By, and Tharmrod of Kenarvey, Kamerar of Stropardon, Emeron Galt, Hesper Golthring of Elmerstead, Styrkmir of Blackwood, Melchar of Strufey, Quazz’s three sons from Dalney, and Stypmar of Failze: fierce and choleric young gentlemen, after his own heart, methinks; great horsemen, not very forecasting of future things afar off but entertainers of fortune by the day; too rash to govern an army, but best of all to obey and follow him in so glorious an enterprise.

“Ere we parted, came my Lord to speak with my Lord Brandoch Daha. And my Lord looked into the lift that was all dark cloud and wind; and quoth he, ‘Fail not at the tryst, cousin. ’Tis thy word, that thou and I be finger and thumb; and never more surely than to-morrow shall this be seen.’

“‘O friend of my heart, content thee,’ answereth my Lord Brandoch Daha. ‘Didst ever know me neglect my guests? And have I not bidden you to breakfast with me to-morrow mom in Krothering meads?’

“Now we of the seven hundred turned leftward at the watersmeet up Transdale into the mountains. And now came ill weather upon us, the worst that ever I knew. ’Tis soft enow and little road enow in Transdale, as thou knowest, father, and weary work it was with every deer-track turned a water-course and underfoot all slush and mire, and nought for a man to see save white mist and rain above and about him, and soppy bent and water under’s horse-hooves. Little there was to tell us we were won at last to the top of the pass, and ’twere not the cloud blew thicker and the wind wilder about us. Every man was wet to the breech, and bare a pint o’ water in’s two shoes.

“Whiles we were halted on the Saddle my Lord Brandoch Daha rested not at all, but gave his horse to his man to hold and himself fared back and forth among us. And for every man he had a jest or a merry look, so as ’twas meat and drink but to hear or to behold him. But a little while only would he suffer us to halt; then right we turned, up along the ridge, where the way was yet worse than in the dale had been, with rocks and pits hidden in the heather, and slithery slabs of granite. By my faith, I think no horse that was not born and bred to’t might cross such country, wet or fine; he should be foundered or should break his legs and his rider’s neck ere he should be gotten two hours’ journey along those ridges; but we that rode with my Lord Brandoch Daha to Krothering Side were ten hours riding so, besides our halts to water our horses and longer halts to feed ’em, and the last part o’ the way through murk night, and all the way i’ the wind’s teeth with rain blown on the wind like spray, and hail at whiles. And when the rain was done, the wind veered to the north-west and blew the ridges dry. And then the little bits of rotten granite blew in our faces like hailstones on the wind. There was no shelter, not o’ the lee side of the rocks, but everywhere the storm-wind baffled and buffeted us, and clapped his wings among the crags like thunder. Dear Heaven, weary we were and like to drop, cold to the marrow, nigh blinded man and horse, yet with a dreadful industry pressed on. And my Lord Brandoch Daha was now in the van now in the rear-guard, cheering men’s hearts who marked with what blithe countenance himself did suffer the same hardships as his meanest trooper: like to one riding at ease to some great wedding-feast; crying, ‘What, lads, merrily on! These fen-toads of the Druima shall learn too late what way our mountain ponies do go like stags upon the mountain.’

“When it began to be morning we came to our last halt, and there was our seven hundred horse hid in the corrie under the tall cliffs of Erngate End. I warrant you we went carefully about it, so as no prying swine of Witchland looking up from below should aspy a glimpse of man or horse o’ the skyline. His highness first set his sentinels and let call the muster, and saw that every man had his morning meal and every horse his feed. Then he took his stand behind a crag of rock whence he could overlook the land below. He had me by him to do his errands. In the first light we looked down westward over the mountain’s edge and saw Krothering and the arms of the sea, not so dark but we might behold their fleet at anchor in Aurwath roads, and their camp like a batch of beehives so as a man might think to cast a stone into’t below us. That was the first time I’d e’er gone to the wars with him. Faith, he’s a pretty man to see: leaned forward there on the heather with’s chin on his folded arms, his helm laid aside so they should not see it glint from below; quiet like a cat: half asleep you’d say; but his eyes were awake, looking down on Krothering. ’Twas well seen even from so far away how vilely they had used it.

“The great red sun leaped out o’ the eastern cloudbanks. A stir began in their camp below: standards set up, men gathering thereto, ranks forming, bugles sounding; then a score of horse galloping up the road from Gashterndale into the camp. His highness, without turning his head, beckoned with’s hand to me to call his captains. I ran and fetched ’em. He gave ’em swift commands, pointing down where the Witchland swine rolled out their battle; thieves and pirates who robbed his highness’ subjects within his streams; with standard and pennons and glistering naked spears, moving northward from the tents. Then in the quiet came a sound made a man’s heart leap within him: faint out of the far hollows of Gashterndale, the trumpet of my Lord Juss’s battle-call.

“My Lord Brandoch Daha paused a minute, looking down. Then a turned him about with face that shone like the morning. ‘Fair lords,’ a saith, ‘now lightly on horseback, for Juss fighteth against his enemies.’ I think he was well content. I think he was sure he would that day get his heart’s syth of every one that had wronged him.

“That was a long ride down from Erngate End. With all our hearts’ blood drumming us to haste, we must yet go warily, picking our way i’ that tricky ground, steep as a roof-slope, uneven and with no sure foothold, with sikes in wet moss and rocks outcropping and shifting screes. There was nought but leave it to the horses, and bravely they brought us down the steeps. We were not half way down ere we heard and saw how battle was joined. So intent were the Witchlanders on my Lord’s main army, I think we were off the steep ground and forming for the charge ere they were ware of us. Our trumpeters sounded his battle challenge, Who meddles wi’ Brandoch Daha? and we came down on to Krothering Side like a rock-fall.

“I scarce know what way the battle went, father. ’Twas like a meeting of streams in spate. I think they opened to us right and left to ease the shock. They that were before us went down like standing corn under a hailstorm. We wheeled both ways, some ’gainst their right that was thrown back toward the camp, the more part with my Lord Brandoch Daha to our own right. I was with these in the main battle. His highness rode a hot stirring horse very fierce and dogged; knee to knee with him went Styrkmir of Blackwood o’ the one side and Tharmrod o’ the other. Neither man nor horse might stand up before ’em, and they faring as in a maze now this way now that, amid the thrumbling and thrasting o’ the footmen, heads and arms smitten off, men hewn in sunder from crown to belly, ay, to the saddle, riderless horses maddened, blood splashed up from the ground like the slush from a marsh.

“So for a time, till we had spent the vantage of our onset and felt for the first time the weight of their strength. For Corinius, as it appeareth, was now himself ridden from the vanward where he had beat back for a time our main army, and set on against my Lord Brandoch Daha with horsemen and spearmen; and commanded his sling-casters besides to let freely at us and drive us toward the camp.

“And now in the great swing of the battle were we

SOLDIERS OF DEMONLAND.
SOLDIERS OF DEMONLAND.

carried back to the camp again; and there was a sweet devils’ holiday: horses and men tripping over tent-ropes, tents torn down, crashes of broken crockery, and King Laxus come thither with sailors from the fleet, hamstringing our horses while Corinius charged us from the north and east. That Corinius beareth him in battle more like a devil from Hell than a mortal man. I’ the first two strokes of’s sword he overthrew two of our best captains, Romenard of Dalney and Emeron Galt. Styrkmir, that stood in’s way to stop him, a flung down with’s spear, horse and man. They say he met twice with my Lord Brandoch Daha that day, but each time were they parted in the press ere they might rightly square together.

“I have stood in some goodly battles, father, as well thou knowest: first following my Lord and my Lord Goldry Bluszco in foreign parts, and last year in the great rout at Crossby Outsikes, and again with my Lord Spitfire when he smote the Witches on Brima Rapes, and in the murthering great battle under Thremnir’s Heugh. But never was I in fight like to this of yesterday.

“Never saw I such feats of arms. As witness Kamerar of Stropardon, who with a great two-handed sword hewed off his enemy’s leg close to the hip, so huge a blow the blade sheared through leg and saddle and horse and all. And Styrkmir of Blackwood, rising like a devil out of a heap of slain men, and though’s helm was lossen and a was bleeding from three or four great wounds a held off a dozen o’ the Witches with’s deadly thrusts and sword-strokes, till they had enough and gave back before him: twelve before one, and he given over for dead a while before. But all great deeds seemed trash beside the deeds of my Lord Brandoch Daha. In one short while had he three times a horse slain stark dead under him, yet gat never a wound himself, which was a marvel. For without care he rode through and about, smiting down their champions. I mind me of him once, with’s horse ripped and killed under him, and one of those Witchland lords that tilted at him on the ground as he leaped to’s feet again; how a caught the spear with’s two hands and by main strength yerked his enemy out o’ the saddle. Prince Cargo it was, youngest of Corund’s sons. Long may the Witchland ladies strain their dear eyes, they’ll ne’er see yon hendy lad come sailing home again. His highness swapt him such a swipe o’ the neck-bone as he pitched to earth, the head of him flew i’ the air like a tennis ball. And i’ the twinkling of an eye was my Lord Brandoch Daha horsed again on’s enemy’s horse, and turned to charge ’em anew. You’d say his arm must fail at last for weariness, of a man so lithe and jimp to look on. Yet I think his last stroke i’ that battle was not lighter than the first. And stones and spears and sword-strokes seemed to come upon him with no more impression than blows with a straw would give to an adamant.

‘I know not how long was that fight among the tents. Only ’twas the best fight I ever was at, and the bloodiest. And by all tellings ’twas as great work o’ the other part, where my Lord and his folk fought their way up on to the Side. But of that we knew nothing. Yet certain it is we had all been dead men had my Lord not there prevailed, as certain ’tis he had never so prevailed but for our charging of their flank when they first advanced against him. But in that last hour all we that fought among the tents thought each man only of this, how he might slay yet one more Witch, and yet again one more, afore he should die. For Corinius in that hour put forth his might to crush us; and for every enemy there felled to earth two more seemed to be raised up against us. And our own folk fell fast, and the tents that were so white were one gore of blood.

“When I was a little tiny boy, father, we had a sport, swimming in the deep pools of Tivarandarwater, that one boy would catch ’tother and hold him under till he could no more for want of breath. Methinks there’s no longing i’ the world so sore as the longing for air when he that is stronger than thou grippeth thee still under the water, nor no gladness j’ the world like the bonny sweet air i’ thy lungs again when a letteth thee shoot up to the free daylight. ’Twas right so with us, who had now said adieu to hope and saw all lost save life itself, and that not like to tarry long; when we heard suddenly the thunder of my Lord’s trumpet sounding to the charge. And ere our startled wits might rightly think what that portended, was the whole surging battle whipped and scattered like the water of a lake caught up in a white squall; and that massed strength of the enemy which had invested us round with so great a stream of shot and steel reeled first forward then backward then forward again upon us, confounded in a vast confusion. I trow new strength came to our arms; I trow our swords opened their mouths. For northward we beheld the ensign of Galing streaming like a blazing star; and my Lord’s self in a moment, high advanced above the rout, and Zigg, and Astar, and hundreds of our horse, hewing their way toward us whiles we hewed towards them. And now was reaping time for us, and time of payment for all those weary bloody hours we had held on to life with our teeth among the tents on Krothering Side, while they o’ the other part, my Lord and his, had with all the odds of the ground against them painfully and yard by yard fought out the fight to victory. And now, ere we well wist of it, the day was won, and the victory ours, and the enemy broken and put to so great a rout as hath not been seen by living man.

“That false king Corinius, after he had tarried to see the end of the battle, fled with a few of his men out of the great slaughter, and as it later appeared gat him ashipboard in Aurwath harbour and with three ships or four escaped to sea. But the most of their fleet was burned there in the harbour to save it from our hands.

“My Lord gave command to take up the wounded and tend ’em, friend and foe alike. Among them was King Laxus ta’en up, stunned with a mace-blow or some such. So they brought him before the lords where they rested a little way down the Side above the home meads of Krothering.

“He looked ’em all in the eye, most proud and soldier-like. Then a saith unto my Lord, ‘It may be pain, but no shame to us to be vanquished after so equal and so great a fight. Herein only do I blame my ill luck, that it denied me fall in battle. Thou mayst now, O Juss, strike off my head for the treason I wrought you three years ago. And since I know thee of a courteous and noble nature, I’ll not scorn to ask of thee this courtesy, not to tarry but take it now.’

“My Lord stood there like a war-horse after a breather. He took him by the hand. ‘O Laxus,’ saith he, ‘I give thee not thy head only, but thy sword;’ and here a gave it him hilt-foremost. ‘For thy dealings with us in the battle of Kartadza, let time that hath an art to make dust of all things so do with the memory of these. Since then, thou hast shown thyself still our noble enemy; and so shall we account thee still.’

“Therewith my Lord commanded bring King Laxus down to the sea, and ship him aboard of a boat, for Corinius still held off the land with his ships, waiting no doubt to see if he or any other of his folk could yet be saved.

“But as King Laxus was upon parting, my Lord Brandoch Daha, speaking with great show of carelessness as of some trifling matter a had by chance called to mind, ‘My lord,’ saith he, ‘I ne’er ask favour of any man. Only in a manner of return of courtesies, methought thou mightest be willing to hear my salutations to Corinius, sith I’ve no other messenger.’

“Laxus answereth he would freely do it. Then saith his highness, ‘Say to him I will not blame him that he abode us not i’ the field after the battle was lost, for that had been a simple part, flatly ’gainst all maxims of right soldiership, and but to cast his life away. But freakish Fortune I blame, that twined us one from the other when we should have dealt together this day. He hath borne him in my halls, I am let to know, more i’ the fashion of a swine or a beastly ape than a man. Pray him come ashore ere you sail home, that I and he, with no man else to make betwixt us, may cast up our account. We swear him peace and grith and a safe conduct back to’s ships if he prevail against me or if I so use him that he cry for mercy. If he’ll not take this offer, then is he a dastard; and the whole world shall so acclaim him.’

“‘Sir,’ saith Laxus, ‘I’ll punctually discharge thy message.’

“Whether he did so or no, father, I know not. But if he did, it seemeth it was little to Corinius’s liking. For no sooner had his ship ta’en Laxus aboard, than she hoised sail and put out into the deep, and so good-bye.”

The young man ceased, and they were all three silent awhile. A faint breeze rippled the foliage of the oakwoods of Tivarandardale. The sun was down behind the stately Thornbacks, and the whole sky from bourne to bourne was alight with the sunset glory. Dappled clouds, with sky showing here and there between, covered the heavens, save in the west where a great archway of clear air opened between clouds and earth: air of an azure that seemed to burn, so pure it was, so deep, so charged with warmth: not the harsh blue of noon-day nor the sumptuous deep eastern blue of approaching night, but a bright heavenly blue bordering on green, deep, tender, and delicate as the spirit of evening. Athwart the midst of that window of the west a blade of cloud, hard-edged and jagged with teeth coloured as of live coals and dead, fiery and iron-dark in turn, stretched like a battered sword. The clouds above the arch were pale rose: the zenith like black opal, dark blue and thunderous gray dappled with fire.

ornament

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/e/eddison/er/worm/chapter26.html

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