The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison

XXXI. The Demons Before Carcë

How Gorice the King, Albeit So Strong a Sorcerer, Elected that by the Sword, and Chiefly by the Lord Corund His Captain General, Should Be Determined as for this Time the Event of These High Matters; and How Those Twain, the King and the Lord Juss, Spake Face to Face at Last; and of the Bloody Battle Before Carcë, And what Fruit was Garnered There And what Made Ripe Against Harvest.

Gorice the king sate in his chamber the thirteenth morning after these tidings brought to Carcë. On the table under his hand were papers of account and schedules of his armies and their equipment. Corund sate at the King’s right hand, and over against him Corinius.

Corund’s great hairy hands were clasped before, him on the table. He spoke without book, resting his gaze on the steady clouds that sailed across the square of sky seen through the high window that faced him. “Of Witchland and the home provinces, O King, nought but good. All the companies of soldiers which were appointed to repair to this part by the tenth of the month are now come hither, save some bands of spearmen from the south, and some from Estreganzia. These last I expect to-day; Viglus writeth they come with him with the heavy troops from Baltary I sent him to assemble. So is the muster full as for these parts: Thramnë, Zorn, Permio, the land of Ar, Trace, Buteny, and Estremerine. Of the subject allies, there’s less good there. The kings of Mynia and Gilta: Olis of Tecapan: County Escobrine of Tzeusha: the king of Ellien: all be here with their contingents. But there’s mightier names we miss. Duke Maxtlin of Azumel hath flung off’s allegiance and cut off your envoy’s ears, O King; ’tis thought for some supposed light part of the sons of Corsus done to his sister. That docketh us thirty score stout fighters. The lord of Eushtlan sendeth no answer, and now are we advertised by Mynia and Gilta of his open malice and treason, who did stubbornly let them the way hither through his country while they hastened to do your majesty’s commands. Then there’s the Ojedian levies, should be nigh a thousand spears, ten days overdue. Heming, that raiseth Pixyland in Prezmyra’s name, will bring them in if he may. Who also hath order, being on his way, to rouse Maltraëny to action, from whom no word as yet; and I do fear treachery in ’em, Maltraëny and Ojedia both, they have been so long of coming. King Barsht of Toribia sendeth flat refusal.”

“It is known to you besides, O King,” said Corinius, “that the king of Nevria came in last night, many days past the day appointed, and but half his just complement.”

The King drew back his lips. “I will not dash his spirits by blaming him at this present. Later, I’ll have that king’s head for this.”

“This is the sum,” said Corund. “Nay, then, I had forgot the Red Foliot with’s folk, three hundred perchance, came in this morning.”

Corinius thrust out his tongue and laughed: “One hen-lobster such as he shall scarce afford a course for this banquet.”

“He keepeth faith,” said Corund, “where bigger men turn dastards. ’Tis seen now that these forced leagues be as sure as they were sealed with butter. Your majesty will doubtless give him audience.”

The King was silent awhile, studying his papers. “What strength to-day in Carcë?” he asked.

Corund answered him, “As near as may be two score hundred foot and fifty score horse: five thousand in all. And, that I weigh most, O King, big broad strong set lads of Witchland nigh every jack of ’em.”

The King said, “’Twas not well done, O Corund, to bid thy son delay for Ojedia and Maltraëny. He might else have been in Carcë now with a thousand Pixylanders to swell our strength.”

“I did that I did,” answered Corund, “seeking only your good, O King. A few days’ delay might buy us a thousand spears.”

“Delay,” said the King, “hath favoured mine enemy. This we should have done: at his first landing give him no time but wink, set on him with all our forces, and throw him into the sea.”

“If luck go with us that may yet be,” said Corund.

The King’s nostrils widened. He crouched forward, glaring at Corund and Corinius, his jaw thrust out so that the stiff black beard on it brushed the papers on the table before him. “The Demons,” said be, “landed i’ the night at Ralpa. They come on with great journeys northward. Will be here ere three days be spent.”

Both they grew red as blood. Corund spake: “Who told you these tidings, O King?”

“Care not thou for that,” said the King. “Enough for thee, I know it. Hath it ta’en you napping?”

“No,” answered he. “These ten days past we have been ready, with what strength we might make, to receive ’em, come they from what quarter they will. So it is, though, that while we lack the Pixyland succours Juss hath by some odds the advantage over us, if, as our intelligence saith, six thousand fighting men do follow him; and these forced besides with some that should be ours.’

“Thou wouldst,” said the King, “await these out of Pixyland, with that else Heming may gather, afore we offer them battle?”

Said Corund, “That would I. We must look beyond the next turn of the road, O my Lord the King.”

“That would not I,” said Corinius.

“That is stoutly said, Corinius,” said the King. “Yet remember, thou hadst the greater force on Krothering Side, yet wast overborne.”

“’Tis that standeth in my mind, Lord,” said Corund. “For well I know, had I been there I’d a fared no better.”

The Lord Corinius, whose brow had darkened with the naming of his defeat, looked cheerfully now and said, “I pray you but consider, O my Lord the King, that here at home is no room for such a sleight or gin as that whereby in their own country they took me. When Juss and Brandoch Daha and their stinking gaberlunzies do cry huff at us on Witchland soil, ’tis time to give ’em a choke-pear. Which with your leave, Lord, I will promise now to do, other else to lose my life.”

“Give me thy hand,” said Corund. “Of all men else would I a chosen thee for such a day as this, and (were’t to-day to meet the whole power of Demonland in arms) to stand perdue with thee for this bloody service. But let us hear the King’s commands: which way soe’er he choose, we shall do it right gladly.”

Gorice the King sat silent. One lean hand rested on the iron serpent-head of his chair’s arm, the other, with finger outstretched against the jutting cheekbone, supported his chin. Only in the deep shadow of his eye-sockets a lambent light moved. At length he started, as if the spirit, flown to some unsounded gulfs of time or space, had in that instant returned to its mortal dwelling.

He gathered the papers in a heap and tossed them to Corund.

“Too much lieth on it,” said he. “He that hath many peas may put more in the pot. But now the day approacheth when I and Juss must cast up our account together, and one or all shall be brought to death and bane.” He stood up from his chair and looked down on those two, his chosen captains, great men of war raised up by him to be kings over two quarters of the world. They watched him like little birds under the eye of a snake. “The country hereabout,” said the King, “is not good for horsemanship, and the Demons be great horsemen. Carcë is strong, and never can it be forced by assault. Also under mine eye should my men of Witchland acquit themselves to do the greatest deeds. Therefore will we abide them here in Carcë, until young Heming come and his levies out of Pixyland. Then shall ye fall upon them and never make an end till the land be utterly purged of them, and all the lords of Demonland be slain.”

Corinius said, “To hear is to obey, O King. Howsoever, not to dissemble with you, I’d liever at ’em at once, ’stead of let them sit awhile and refresh their army. Occasion is a wanton wench, O King, that is quick to beckon another man if one look coldly on her. Moreover, Lord, could you not by your art, in small time, with certain compositions? ——”

But the King brake in upon him saying, “Thou knowest not what thou speakest. There is thy sword; there thy men; these my commands. See thou perform them punctually when time shall come.”

“Lord,” said Corinius, “you shall not find me wanting.” Therewith he did obeisance and went forth from before the King.

The King said unto Corund, “Thou hast manned him well, this tassel-gentle. There was some danger he should so mislike subjection unto thee in these acts martial as it should breed some quarrel should little speed our enterprise.”

“Think not you that, O King,” answered Corund. “’Tis grown like an almanac for the past year, past date. A will feed out of my hand now.”

“Because thou hast carried it with him,” said the King, “in so honourable and open plainness. Hold on the road thou hast begun, and be mindful still that into thine hand is given the sword of Witchland, and therein have I put my trust for this great hour.”

Corund looked upon the King with gray and quick eyes shining like unto the eagle’s. He slapped his heavy sword with the flat of his hand: “’Tis a tough fox, O my Lord the King; will not fail his master.”

Therewith, glad at the King’s gracious words, he did obeisance unto the King and went forth from the chamber.

The same night there appeared in the sky impending over Carcë a blazing star with two bushes. Corund beheld it in an open space betwixt the clouds as he went to his chamber. He said nought of it to his lady wife, lest it should trouble her; but she too had from her window seen that star, yet spake not of it to her lord for a like reason.

And King Gorice, sitting in his chamber with his baleful books, beheld that star and its fiery streamers, which the King rather noted than liked. For albeit he might not know of a certain what way that sign intended, yet was it apparent to one so deeply learned in nigromancy and secrets astronomical that this thing was fatal, being of those prodigies and ominous prognosticks which fore-run the tragical ends of noble persons and the ruins of states.

The third day following, watchmen beheld from Carcë walls in the pale morning the armies of the Demons that filled the whole plain to southward. But of the succours cut of Pixyland was as yet no sign at all. Gorice the King, according as he had determined, held all his power quiet within the fortress. But for passing of the time, and because it pleased his mind to speak yet face to face with the Lord Juss before this last mortal trial in arms should be begun betwixt them, the King sent Cadarus as his herald with flags of truce and olive-branches into the Demons’ lines. By which mission it was concluded that the Demons should withdraw their armies three bowshots from the walls, and they of Witchland should abide all within the hold; only the King with fourteen of his folk unarmed and Juss with a like number unarmed should come forth into the midst of the bateable ground and there speak together. And this meeting must be at the third hour after noon.

So either party came to this parley at the hour appointed. Juss went bare-headed but, save for that, all armed in his shining byrny with gorget and shoulder-plates demasked and embossed with wires of gold, and golden leg-harness, and rings of red gold upon his wrists. His kirtle was of wine-dark silken tissue, and he wore that dusky cloak the sylphs had made for him, the collar whereof was stiff with broidery and strange beasts worked thereon in silver thread. According to the compact he bare no weapon; only in his hand a short ivory staff inlaid with precious stones, and the head of it a ball of that stone which men call Belus’ eye, that is white and hath within it a black apple, the midst whereof a man shall see to glitter like gold. Very masterful and proud he stood before the King, carrying his head like a stag that sniffs the morning. His brethren and Brandoch Daha remained a pace or two behind him, with King Gaslark and the lords Zigg and Gro, and Melchar and Tharmrod and Styrkrnir, Quazz with his two sons, and Astar, and Bremery of Shaws: goodly men and lordly to look on, unweaponed all; and wondrous was the sparkle of their jewels that were on them.

Over against them, attending on the King, were these: Corund king of Impland, and Corinius called king of Demonland, Hacmon and Viglus Corund’s sons, Duke Corsus and his sons Dekalajus and Gorius, Eulien king of Mynia, Olis lord of Tecapan, Duke Avel of Estreganzia, the Red Foliot, Erp the king of Ellien, and the counts of Thramnë and Tzeusha; unweaponed, but armoured to the throat, big men and strong the most of them and of lordly bearing, yet none to match with Corinius and Corund.

The King, in his mantle of cobra-skins, his staff-royal in his hand, topped by half a head all those tall men about him, friend and foe alike. Lean and black he towered amongst them, like a thunder-blasted pine-tree seen against the sunset.

So, in the golden autumn afternoon, in the midst of that sad main of sedgelands where between slimy banks the weed-choked Druima deviously winds toward the sea, were those two men met together for whose ambition and their pride the world was too little a place to contain them both and peace lying between them. And like some drowsy dragon of the elder slime, squat, sinister, and monstrous, the citadel of Carcë slept over all.

By and by the King spake and said: “I sent for thee because I think it good I and thou should talk together while yet is time for talking.”

Juss answered, “I quarrel not with that, O King.”

“Thou,” said the King, bending his brow upon him, “art a man wise and fearless. I counsel thee, and all these that be with thee, turn back from Carcë. Well I see the blood thou didst drink in Melikaphkhaz will not allay thy thirst, and war is to thee thy pearl and thy paramour. Yet, if it be, turn back from Carcë. Thou standest now on the pinnacle of thine ambition; wilt leap higher, thou fall’st in the abyss. Let the four corners of the earth be shaken with our wars, but not this centre. For here shall no man gather fruit, but and if it be death he gather; or if, then this fruit only, that Zoacum, that fruit of bitterness, which when he shall have tasted of, all the bright lights of heaven shall become as darkness and all earth’s goodness as ashes in his mouth all his life’s days until he die.”

He paused. The Lord Juss stood still, quailing not at all beneath that dreadful gaze. His company behind him stirred and whispered. Lord Brandoch Daha, with mockery in his eye, said somewhat to Goldry Bluszco under his breath.

But the King spake again to the Lord Juss, “Be not deceived. These things I say unto thee not as labouring to scare you from your set purpose with frights and fairy-babes: I know your quality too well. But I have read signs in heaven: nought clear, but threatful unto both you and me. For thy good I say it, O Juss, and again (for that our last speech leaveth the firmest print) be advised: turn back from Carcë or it be too late.”

Lord Juss harkened attentively to the words of Gorice the King, and when he had ended, answered and said, “O King, thou hast given us terrible good counsel. But it was riddlewise. And hearing thee, mine eye was still on the crown thou wearest, made in the figure of a crab-fish, which, because it looks one way and goes another, methought did fitly pattern out thy looking to our perils but seeking the while thine own advantage.”

The King gave him an ill look, saying, “I am thy lord paramount. With subjects it sits not to use this familiar style unto their King.”

Juss answered, “Thou dost thee and thou me. And indeed it were folly in either of us twain to bend knee to t’other, when the lordship of all the earth waiteth on the victor in our great contention. Thou hast been open with me, Witchland, to let me know thou art uneager to strike a field with us. I will be open too, and I will make an offer unto thee, and this it is: that we will depart out of thy country and do no more unpeaceful deeds against thee (till thou provoke us again); and thou, of thy part, of all the land of Demonland shalt give up thy quarrel, and of Pixyland and Impland beside, and shalt yield me up Corsus and Corinius thy servants that I may punish them for the beastly deeds they did in our land whenas we were not there to guard it.”

He ceased, and for a minute they beheld each other in silence. Then the King lifted up his chin and smiled a dreadful smile.

Corinius whispered mockingly in his ear, “Lord, you may lightly give ’em Corsus. That were easy composition, and false coin too methinks.”

“Stand back i’ thy place,” said the King, “and hold thy peace.” And unto Lord Juss he said, “Of all ensuing harm the cause is in thee; for I am now resolved never to put up my sword until of thy bleeding head I may make a football. And now, let the earth be afraid, and Cynthia obscure her shine: no more words but mum. Thunder and blood and night must usurp our parts, to complete and make up the catastrophe of this great piece.”

That night the King walked late in his chamber in the

Iron Tower alone. These three years past be had seldom resorted thither, and then commonly but to bear away some or other of his books to study in his own lodging. His jars and flasks and bottles of blue and green and purple glass wherein he kept his cursed drugs and electuaries of secret composition, his athals and athanors, his crucibles, his horsebellied retorts and alembics and bainsmaries, stood arow on shelves coated with dust and hung about with the dull spider’s weavings; the furnace was cold; the glass of the windows was clouded with dirt; the walls were mildewed; the air of the chamber fusty and stagnant. The King was deep in his contemplation, with a big black book open before him on the six-sided reading-stand: the damnablest of all his books, the same which had taught him aforetime what he must do when by the wicked power of enchantment he had wanted but a little to have confounded Demonland and all the lords thereof in death and ruin.

The open page under his hand was of parchment discoloured with age, and the writing on the page was in characters of ancient out-of-fashion crabbedness, heavy and black, and the great initial letters and the illuminated borders were painted and gilded in dark and fiery hues with representations of dreadful faces and forms of serpents and toad-faced men and apes and mantichores and succubi and incubi and obscene representations and figures of unlawful meaning. These were the words of the writing on the page which the King conned over and over, falling again into a deep study betweenwhiles, and then conning these words again of an age-old prophetic writing touching the preordinate destinies of the royal house of Gorice in Carcë:

Soo schel your hous stonde and bee

Unto eternytee

Yet walke warilie

Wyttinge ful sarteynlee

That if impiouslie

The secounde tyme in the bodie

Practisinge grammarie

One of ye katched shulle be

By the feyndis subtiltee

And hys liffe lossit bee

Broke ys thenne this serye

Dampned are you thenne eternallie

Yerth shuldestow thenne never more se

Scarsly the Goddes mought reskue ye

Owt of the Helle where you woll lie

Unto eternytee

The sterres tealde hit mee.

Gorice the King stood up and went to the south window. The casement bolts were rusted: he forced them and they flew back with a shriek and a clatter and a thin shower of dust and grit. He opened the window and looked out. The heavy night grew to her depth of quiet. There were lights far out in the marshes, the lights of Lord Juss’s camp-fires of his armies gathered against Carcë. Scarcely without a chill might a man have looked upon that King standing by the window; for there was in the tall lean frame of him an iron aspect as of no natural flesh and blood but some harder colder element; and his countenance, like the picture of some dark divinity graven ages ago by men long dead, bore the imprint of those old qualities of unrelenting power, scorn, violence, and oppression, ancient as night herself yet untouched by age, young as each night when it shuts down and old and elemental as the primaeval dark.

A long while he stood there, then came again to his book. “Gorice VII.,” he said in himself. “That was once in the body. And I have done better than that, but not yet well enough. ’Tis too hazardous, the second time, alone. Corund is a man undaunted in war, but the man is too superstitious and quaketh at that which hath not flesh and blood. Apparitions and urchin-shows can quite unman him. There’s Corinius, careth not for God or man a point. But he is too rash and unadvised: I were mad to trust him in it. Were the Goblin here, it might be carried. Damnable both-sides villain, he’s cast off from me.” He scanned the page as if his piercing eyes would thrust beyond the barriers of time and death and discover some new meaning in the words which should agree better with the thing his mind desired while his judgement forbade it. “He says ‘damned eternally:’ he says that breaketh the series, and ‘earth shouldst thou then never more see.’ Put him by.”

And the King slowly shut up his book, and locked it with three padlocks, and put back the key in his bosom. “The need is not yet,” he said. “The sword shall have his day, and Corund. But if that fail me, then even this shall not turn me back but I will do that I will do.”

In the same hour when the King was but now entered again into his own lodgings, came through a runner of Heming’s to let them know that be, fifteen hundred strong, marched down the Way of Kings from Pixyland. Moreover they were advertised that the Demon fleet lay in the river that night, and it was not unlike the attack should be in the morning by land and water.

All night the King sate in his chamber holding council with his generals and ordering all things for the morrow. All night long he closed not his eyes an instant, but the others he made sleep by turns because they should be brisk and ready for the battle. For this was their counsel, to draw out their whole army on the left bank before the bridge-gate and there offer battle to the Demons at point of day. For if they should abide within doors and suffer the Demons to cut young Heming off from the bridge-gate, then were he lost, and if the bridge-house should fall and the bridge, then might the Demons lightly ship what force they pleased to the right bank and so closely invest them in Carcë. Of an attack on the right bank to sit they had no fear, well knowing themselves able I within doors and laugh at them, since the walls were there inexpugnable. But if a battle were now brought about before the bridge-gate as they were minded, and Heming should join in the fight from the eastward, there was good hope that they should be able to crumple up the battle of the Demons, driving them in upon their centre from the west whilst Heming smote them on the other part. Whereby these should be cast into a great rout and confusion and not be able to escape away to their ships, but there in the fenlands before Carcë should be made a prey unto the Witches.

When it was the cold last hour before the dawn the generals took from the King their latest commands ere they drew forth their armies. Corinius came forth first from the King’s chamber a little while before the rest. In the draughty corridor the lamps swung and smoked, making an uncertain windy light. Corinius espied by the stair-head the Lady Sriva standing, whether watching to bid her father adieu or but following idle curiosity. Whichever it were, not a fico gave he for that, but coming swiftly upon her whisked her aside into an alcove where the light was barely enough to let him see the pale shimmer of her silken gown, dark hair pinned loosely up in deep snaky coils, and dark eyes shining. “My witty false one, have I caught thee? Nay, fight not. Thy breath smells like cinnamon. Kiss me, Sriva.”

“I’ll not!” said she, striving to escape. “Naughty man, am I used thus?” But finding she got nought by struggling, she said in a low voice, “Well, if thou bring back Demonland to-night, then, let’s hold more chat.”

“Harken to the naughty traitress,” said he, “that but last night didst do me some uncivil discourtesies, and now speaketh me fair: and what a devil for? if not ’cause herseemeth I’ll likely not come back after this day’s fight. But I’ll come back, mistress kiss-and-be-gone; ay, by the Gods, and I’ll have my payment too.”

His lips fed deep on her lips, his strong and greedy hands softly mastered her against her will, till with a little smothered cry she embraced him, bruising her tender body against the armour he was girt withal. Between the kisses she whispered, “Yes, yes, to-night.” Surely he damned spiteful fortune, that sent him not this encounter by an half-hour sooner.

When he was departed, Sriva remained in the shadow of the alcove to set in order her hair and apparel, not a little disarrayed in that hot wooing. Out of which darkness she had convenience to observe the leave-taking of Prezmyra and her lord as they came down that windy corridor and paused at the head of the stairs.

Prezmyra had her arm in his. “I know where the Devil keepeth his tail, madam,” said Corund. “And I know a very traitor when I see him.”

“When didst thou ever yet fare ill by following of my counsel, my lord?” said Prezmyra. “Or did I refuse thee ever any thing thou didst require me of? These seven years since I put off my maiden zone for thee; and twenty kings sought me in sweet marriage, but thee I preferred before them all, seeing the falcon shall not mate with popinjays nor the she-eagle with swans and bustards. And will you say nay to me in this?”

She stood round to face him. The pupils of her great eyes were large in the doubtful lamplight, swallowing their green fires in deep pools of mystery and darkness. The rich and gorgeous ornaments of her crown and girdle seemed but a poor casket for that matchless beauty which was hers: her face, where every noble and sweet quality and every thing desirable of earth or heaven had framed each feature to itself: the glory of her hair, like the red sun’s glory: her whole body’s poise and posture, like a stately bird’s new-lighted after flight.

“Though it be very rhubarb to me,” said Corund, “shall I say nay to thee this tide? Not this tide, my Queen.”

“Thanks, dear my lord. Disarm him and bring him in if you may. The King shall not refuse us this to pardon his folly, when thou shalt have obtained this victory for him upon our enemies.”

The Lady Sriva might hear no more, harkened she never so curiously. But when they were now come to the stair foot, Corund paused a minute to try the buckles of his harness. His brow was clouded. At length he spake. “This shall be a battle mortal fierce and doubtous for both parties. ’Gainst such mighty opposites as here we have, ’tis possible: No more; but kiss me, dear lass. And if: tush, ’t will not be; and yet, I’d not leave it unsaid: if ill tide ill, I’d not have thee waste all thy days a-grieving. Thou knowest I am not one of your sour envious jacks, bear so poor a conceit o’ themselves they begrudge their wives should wed again lest the next husband should prove the better man.”

But Prezmyra came near to him with good and merry countenance: “Let me stop thy mouth, my lord. These be foolish thoughts for a great king going into battle. Come back in triumph, and i’ the mean season think on me that wait for thee: as a star waits, dear my lord. And never doubt the issue.”

“The issue,” answered he, “I’ll tell thee when ’tis done. I’m no astronomer. I’ll hew with my sword, love; spoil some of their guesses if I may.”

“Good fortune and my love go with thee,” she said.

Sriva coming forth from her hiding hastened to her mother’s lodging, and there found her that had just bid adieu to her two sons, her face all blubbered with tears. In the same instant came the Duke her husband to change his sword, and the Lady Zenambria caught him about the neck and would have kissed him. But he shook her off, crying out that he was weary of her and her slobbering mouth; menacing her besides with filthy imprecations, that he would drag her with him and cast her to the Demons, who, since they had a strong loathing for such ugly tits and stale old trots, would no doubt hang her up or disembowel her and so rid him of his lasting consumption. Therewith he went forth hastily. But his wife and daughter, either weeping upon other, came down into the court, meaning to go up to the tower above the water-gate to see the army marshalled beyond the river. And on the way Sriva related all she had heard said betwixt Corund and Prezmyra.

In the court they met with Prezmyra’s self, and she going with blithe countenance and light tread and humming a merry tune bade them good-morrow.

“You can bear these things more bravelier than we, madam,” said Zenambria. “We be too gentle-hearted methinks and pitiful.”

Prezmyra replied upon her, “’Tis true, madam, I have not the weak sense of some of you soft-eyed whimpering ladies. And by your leave I’ll keep my tears (which be great spoilers of the cheeks beside) until I need ’em.” When they were passed by, “Is it not a stony-livered and a shameless hussy, O my mother?” said Sriva. “And is it not scandalous her laughing and jesting, as I have told it thee, when she did bid him adieu, devising only how best she might coax him to save the life of yonder chambering traitorous hound?”

“With whom,” said Zenambria, “she wont to do the thing I’d think shame to speak on. Truly this foreign madam with her loose and wanton ways doth scandal the whole land for us.”

But Prezmyra went her way, glad that she had not by an eyelid’s flicker let her lord guess what a dread possessed her mind, who had in all the bitter night seen strange and cruel visions portending loss and ruin of all she held dear.

Now, when dawn appeared, was the King’s whole army drawn out in battle array before the bridge-house. Corinius held command on the left. There followed him fifteen hundred chosen troops of Witchland, with the Dukes of Trace and Estreganzia, besides these kings and princes with their outlandish levies: the king of Mynia, Count Escobrine of Tzeusha, and the Red Foliot. Corsus led the centre, and with him went King Erp of Ellien and his green-coated sling-casters, the king of Nevria, Axtacus lord of Permio, the king of Gilta, Olis of Tecapan, and other captains: seventeen hundred men in all. The right the Lord Corund had chosen for himself. Two thousand Witchland troops, the likeliest and best, hardened to war in Impland and Demonland and the southeastern borders, followed his standard, beside the heavy spearmen of Baltary and swordsmen of Buteny and Ar. Viglus his son was there, and the Count of Thramnë, Cadarus, Didarus of Largos, and the lord of Estremerine.

But when the Demons were ware of that great army standing before the bridge-gate, they put themselves in array for battle. And their ships made ready to move up the river under Carcë, if by any means they might attack the bridge by water and so cut off for the Witches their way of retreat.

It was bright low sunshine, and the splendour of the jewelled armour of the Demons and their many-coloured kirtles and the plumes that were in their helms was a wonder to behold. This was the order of their battle. On their left nearest the river was a great company of horse, and the Lord Brandoch Daha to lead them on a great golden dun with fiery eyes. His island men, Melchar and Tharmrod, with Kamerar of Stropardon and Styrkmir and Stypmar, were the chief captains that rode with him to that battle. Next to these came the heavy troops from the east, and the Lord Juss himself their leader on a tall fierce big-boned chestnut. About him was his picked bodyguard of horse, with Bremery of Shaws their captain; and in his battle were these chiefs besides: Astar of Rettray and Gismor Gleam of Justdale and Peridor of Sule. Lord Spitfire led the centre, and with him Fendor of Shalgreth, and Emeron, and the men of Dalney, great spearmen; also the Duke of Azumel, sometime allied with Witchland. There went also with him the Lord Gro, that scanned still those ancient walls with a heavy heart, thinking on the great King within, and with what mastery of intellect and will he ruled those dark turbulent and bloody men who bare sway under him; thinking on Queen Prezmyra. To his sick imagining, the blackness of Carcë which no bright morning light might lighten seemed not as of old the image and emblem of the royal house of Witchland and their high magnificency and power on earth, but rather the shadow thrown before of destiny and death ready to put down that power for ever. Which whether it should so befall or no he did not greatly care, being aweary of life and life’s fevers, wild longings, and exorbitant affects, whereof he thought he had now learned much: that to him, who as it seemed must still adhere to his own foes abandoning the others’ service, fortune through whatever chop could bring no peace at last. On the Demon right the Lord Goldry Bluszco streamed his standard, leading to battle the south-firthers and the heavy spearmen of Mardardale and Throwater. With him was King Gaslark and his army of Goblinland, and levies from Ojedia and Eushtlan, lately revolted from their allegiance to King Gorice. The Lord Zigg, with his light horse of Rammerick and Kelialand and the northern dales, covered their flank to the eastward.

Gorice the King beheld these dispositions from his tower above the water-gate. He beheld, besides, a thing the Demons might not see from below, for a little swelling of the ground that cut off their view: the marching of men far away along the Way of Kings from the eastward: young Heming with the vassalry of Pixyland and Maltraëny. He sent a trusty man to apprise Corund of it.

Now Lord Juss let blow up the battle call, and with the loud braying of the trumpets the hosts of the Demons swung forth to battle. And the clash of those armies when they met before Carcë was like the bursting of a thundercloud. But like a great sea-cliff patient for ages under the storm-winds’ furies, that not one night’s loud wind and charging breakers can wear away, nor yet a thousand thousand nights, the embattled strength of Witchland met their onset, mixed with them, flung them back, and stood unremoved. Corund’s iron battalions bare in this first brunt the heaviest load, and bare it through. For the ships, with young Hesper Golthring in command most fiercely urging them, ran up the river to force the bridge, and Corund whiles he met on his front the onset of the flower of Demonland must still be shot at by these behind. Hacmon and Viglus, those young princes his sons, were charged with the warding of the bridge and walls to burn and break up their ships. And they of all hands bestirring them twice and thrice threw back the Demons when they had gotten a footing on the bridge; until in fine, both sides for a long space fighting very cruelly, it fell out very fatally against Hesper and his power, his ships all lighted in a lowe and the more part of his folk burned or drowned or slain with the sword; and himself after many and grievous wounds in his last attempt left alone on the bridge, and crawling to have got away was stabbed in with a dagger and died.

After this the ships fell back down the river, so many as might avail thereto, and those sons of Corund, their task manfully fulfilled, came forth with their folk to join in the main battle. And the smoke of the burning ships was like incense in the nostrils of the King watching these things from his tower above the water-gate.

Little pause was there betwixt this first brunt and the next, for Heming now bare down from the east, drave in Zigg’s horsemen that were hampered in the heavy ground, and pressed his onset home on the Demon right. Along the whole line from Corund’s post beside the river to the eastern flank where Heming joined Corinius the Witches now set on most fiercely; and now were the odds of numbers, which were at first against them, swung mightily in their favour, and under this great side-blow on his flank not all the Lord Goldry Bluszco’s soldiership nor all the terror of his might in arms could uphold the Demons’ battle-line. Yard by yard they fell back before the Witches, most gloriously maintaining their array unbroken, though the outland allies broke and fled. Meantime on the Demon left Juss and Brandoch Daha most stubbornly withstood that onslaught, albeit they had to do with the first and chosen troops of Witchland. In which struggle befell the most bloody fighting that was yet seen that day, and the stour of battle so asper and so mortal that it was hard to see how any man should come out from it with life, since not a man of either side would budge an inch but die there in his steps if he might not rather slay the foe before him. So the armies swayed for an hour like wrastlers locked, but in the end the Lord Corund had his way and held his ground before the bridge-gate.

Romenard of Dalney, galloping to Lord Juss where he paused a while panting from violence of the battle brought him by Spitfire’s command tidings from the right: telling him Goldry’s self could hold no longer against such odds: that the centre yet held, but at the next onset was like to break, or the right wing else be driven in upon their rear and all overwhelmed: “If your highness cannot throw back Corund, all is lost.”

In these short minutes’ lull (if lull it were when all the time the battle like a sounding sea rolled on with a ceaseless noise of riding and slaying and the clang of arms), Juss chose. Demonland and the whole world’s destinies hung on his choice. He had no counsellor. He had no time for slow deliberation. In such a moment imagination, resolution. swift decision, all high gifts of nature, are nought: swift horses gulfed and lost in the pit which fate the enemy digged in the way before them; except painful knowledge, stored up patiently through years of practice, shall have prepared a road sure and clean for their flying hooves to bear them in the great hour of destiny. So it was from the beginning with all great captains: so with the Lord Juss in that hour when ruin swooped upon his armies. For two minutes’ space he stood silent; then sent Bremery of Shaws galloping westward like one minded to break his neck with his orders to Lord Brandoch Daha, and Romenard eastward again to Spitfire. And Juss himself riding forward among his soldiers shouted among them in a voice that was like a trumpet thundering, that they should now make ready for the fiercest trial of all.

“Is my cousin mad?” said Lord Brandoch Daha, when he saw and understood the whole substance and matter of it. “Or hath he found Corund so tame to deal with he can make shift without me and well nigh half his strength, and yet withstand him?”

“He looseth this hold,” answered Bremery, “to snatch at safety. ’Tis desperate, but all other ways we but wait on destruction. Our right is clean driven in, the left holdeth but hardly. He chargeth your highness break their centre if you may. They have somewhat dangerously advanced their left, and therein is their momentary peril if we be swift enough. But remember that here, o’ this side is their greatest power before us, and if we be ’whelmed ere you can compass it ——”

“No more but Yes,” said Lord Brandoch Daha. “Time gallopeth: so must we.”

Even so in that hour when Goldry and Zigg, giving way step by step before superior odds, were bent back well nigh with their backs to the river, and Corund on the Demons’ left had after a bitter battle checked and held them and threatened now to complete in one more great blow the ruin of them all, Juss, choosing a desperate expedient to meet a danger that else must destroy him, weakened his hard-pressed left to throw Brandoch Daha and well nigh eight hundred horse into Spitfire’s battle to drive a wedge betwixt Corsus and Corinius.

It was now long past noon. The tempest of battle that had quietened awhile for utter weariness roared forth anew from wing to wing as Brandoch Daha hurled his horsemen upon Corsus and the subject allies, while all along the battle-line the Demons rallied to fling back the enemy. For a breathless while, the issue hung in suspense: then the men of Gilta and Nevria broke and fled, Brandoch Daha and his cavalry swept through the gap, wheeled right and left and took Corsus and Corinius in Rank and rear.

There fell in this onset Axtacus lord of Permio, the kings of Ellien and Gilta, Gorius the son of Corsus, the Count of Tzeusha, and many other noblemen and men of mark. Of the Demons many were hurt and many slain, but none of great note save Kamerar of Stropardon, whose head Corinius swapt off clean with a blow of his battle-axe, and Trentmar whom Corsus smote full in the stomach with a javelin so that he fell down from his horse and was dead at once. Now was all the left and centre of the Witches’ battle thrown into great confusion, and the allies most of all fallen into disorder and fain to yield themselves and pray for mercy. The King, seeing the extent of this disaster, sent a galloper to Corund, who straightway sent to Corsus and Corinius commanding them get them at their speediest with all their folk back into Carcë while time yet served. Himself in the meantime, showing now, like the sun, his greatest countenance in his lowest estate, set on with his weary army to stem the advance of Juss, who now momently gathered fresh force against him, and to keep open for the rest of the King’s forces their way by the bridge-gate into Carcë. Corinius, when he understood it, galloped thither with a band of men to aid Corund, and this did likewise Heming and Dekalajus and other captains of the Witches. But Corsus himself, counting the day lost and considering that he was an old man and had fought now long enough, gat him privily back into Carcë as quickly as he was able. And truly he was bleeding from many wounds.

By this great stand of Corund and his men was time won for a great part of the residue of the army to escape into Carcë. And ever the Witches were put aback and lost much ground, yet ever the Lord Corund by his great valiance and noble heart recomforted his folk, so that they gave back very slowly, most bloodily disputing the ground foot by foot to the bridge-gate, that they also might win in again, so many as might. Juss said, “This is the greatest deed of arms that ever I in the days of my life did see, and I have so great an admiration and wonder in my heart for Corund that almost I would give him peace. But I have sworn now to have no peace with Witchland.”

Lord Gro was in that battle with the Demons. He ran Didarus through the neck with his sword, so that he fell down and was dead.

Corund, when he saw it, heaved up his axe, but changed his intention in the manage, saying, “O landskip of iniquity, shalt thou kill beside me the men of mine household? But my friendship sitteth not on a weather vane. Live, and be a traitor.”

But Gro, being mightily moved with these words, and staring at great Corund wide-eyed like a man roused from a dream, answered, “Have I done amiss? ’Tis easy remedied.” Therewith he turned about and slew a man of Demonland. Which Spitfire seeing, he cried out upon Gro in a great rage for a most filthy traitor, and bloodily rushing in thrust him through the buckler into the brain.

In such wise and by such a sudden vengeance did the Lord Gro most miserably end his life-days. Who, being a philosopher and a man of peace, careless of particular things of earth, had followed and observed all his days steadfastly one heavenly star; yet now in the bloody battle before Carcë died in the common opinion of men a manifold perjured traitor, that had at length gotten the guerdon of his guile.

Now came the Lord Juss with a great rout of men armed on his great horse with his sword dripping with blood, and the battle sprang up into yet more noise and fury, and great man-slaying befell, and many able men of Witchland fell in that stour and the Demons had almost put them from the bridge-gate. But the Lord Corund, rallying his folk, swung back yet again the battle-tide, albeit he was by a great odds outnumbered. And he sought none but Juss himself in that deadly mellay; who when he saw him coming he refused him not but made against him most fiercely, and with great clanging blows they swapped together awhile, until Corund hewed Juss’s shield asunder and struck him from his horse. Juss, leaping up again, thrust up at Corund with his sword and with the violence of the blow brake through the rings of his byrny about his middle and drave the sword into his breast. And Corund felled him to earth with a great down-stroke on the helm, so that he lay senseless.

Still the battle raged before the bridge-gate, and great wounds were given and taken of either side. But now the sons of Corund saw that their father had lost much of his blood and waxed feeble, and the residue of his folk seeing it too, and seeing themselves so few against so many, began to be abashed. So those sons of Corund, riding up to him on either side with a band of men, made him turn back with them and go with them in by the gate to Carcë, the which he did like a man amazed and knowing not what he doeth. And indeed it was a great marvel how so great a lord, wounded to the death, might sit on horseback.

In the great court he was gotten down from his horse. The Lady Prezmyra, when she perceived that his harness was all red with blood, and saw his wound, fell not down in a swoon as another might, but took his arm about her shoulder and so supported, with her step-sons to help her, that great frame which could no more support itself yet had till that hour borne up against the whole world’s strength in arms. Leeches came that she had called for, and a litter, and they brought him to the banquet hall. But after no long while those learned men confessed his hurt was deadly, and all their cunning nought. Whereupon, much disdaining to die in bed, not in the field fighting with his enemies, the Lord Corund caused himself, completely armed and weaponed, with the stains and dust of the battle yet upon him, to be set in his chair, there to await death.

Heming, when this was done, came to tell it to the King, where from the tower above the water-gate he beheld the end of this battle. The Demons held the bridge-house. The fight was done. The King sat in his chair looking down to the battle-field. His dark mantle was about his shoulders. He leaned forward resting his chin in his hand. They of his bodyguard, nine or ten, stood huddled together some yards away as if afraid to approach him. As Heming came near, the King turned his head slowly to look at him. The low sun, swinging blood-red over Tenemos, shone full on the King’s face. And as Heming looked in the face of the King fear gat hold upon him, so that he durst not speak a word to the King, but made obeisance and departed again, trembling like one who has seen a sight beyond the veil.

ornament

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