The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison

VI. The Claws of Witchland

Of King Gaslark’s Leading in the Attempt on Carcë In the Dark, and How he Prospered Therein, and of the Great Stand of Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha.

ON the evening of the third day, whenas they drew near to within sight of the Witchland coast, they brailed up their sails and waited for the night, that so they might make the landfall after dark; for little to their mind it was that the King should have news of their farings. This was their plan, to beach their ships on the lonely shore some two leagues north of Tenemos, whence it was but two hours’ march across the fen to Carcë. So when the sun set and all the ways were darkened they muffled their oars and rowed silently to the low shore that showed strangely near in the darkness, yet ever seemed to flee and keep its distance as they rowed toward it. Coming at length ashore, they drew their ships up on the beach. Some fifty men of the Goblins they left to guard the ships, while the rest took their weapons. And when they were marshalled they marched inland over the sand-dunes and so on to the open fen; and seeing that the most of them by far were of Goblinland, it was agreed between those three, Juss, Brandoch Daha, and Gaslark, that Gaslark should have command of this emprise. So fared they silently across the marshes, that were firm enough for marching so it were done circumspectly, rounding the worst moss-hags and the small lochs that were scattered here and there. For the weather had been fine for a season, and little new water stood on the marsh. But as they drew near to Carcë the weather worsened and fine rain began to fall. And albeit there was little comfort marching through the drizzling murk of night towards that fortress of evil name, yet was Lord Juss glad at the rain, since it favoured surprise, and on surprise hung all their hopes.

About the middle night they halted within four hundred paces of the outer walls of Carcë, that loomed ghostly through the watery curtain, silent as it had been a tomb where Witchland lay in death, rather than the mailed shell wherein so great a power sat waiting. The sight of that vast bulk couched shadowy in the rain lighted the fire of battle in the breast of Gaslark, nor would aught please him save that they should go forthwith up to the walls with all their force, and so march round them seeking where they might break suddenly in and seize the place. Nor would he listen to the counsel of Lord Juss, who would send forth detachments to select a spot for assault and bring back word before the whole force advanced. “Be sure,” said Gaslark, “that they within are all foxed and cupshotten the third night with swilling of wine, in honour of such triumph as he hath gotten by his sending, and but a sorry watch is kept on such night. For who, say they, shall come up against Carcë now that the power of Demonland is stricken in pieces? The scorned Goblins, ha? A motion for laughter and derision. But thine advance guard might give them warning or ever our. main force could seize the occasion. Nay, but as the Ghouls in an evil day coming suddenly upon me in Zajë Zaculo gat my palace taken ere we were well ware of their coming, so must we take this hold of Carcë. And if thou fearest a sally, right hotly do I desire it. For if they open the gate we are enough to force an entry in despite of any numbers they are like to have within.”

Now Juss thought ill of this counsel, yet, for a strange languor that still hung about his wits, he would not gainsay Gaslark. So crept they in stealth near to the great walls of Carcë. Softly ever fell the rain, and breathless stood the cypresses within the outer ward, and blank and dumb and untenanted frowned the black marble walls of that sleeping castle. And dour midnight waited over all.

Now Gaslark issued command, bidding them march warily round the walls northward, for no way was betwixt the lofty walls and the river on the south and east, but to the north-east was he hopeful to find a likely place to win into the hold. In such order went they that Gaslark with an hundred of his ablest men led the van, and after him came the Demons. The main strength of the Goblins followed after, with Teshmar for their captain. Warily they marched, and now were they on the rising ground that ran back north and west from the bluff of Carcë to the fen. Full eager were they of Goblinland and flown with the intoxication of impending battle, and they of the vanguard fared apace, outstripping the Demons, so that Juss was fain to hasten after them lest they should lose touch and fall to confusion. But Teshmar’s men feared greatly to be left behind, nor might he hold them back, but they must run betwixt the Demons and the walls, meaning to join with Gaslark. Juss swore under his breath, saying, “See the unruly rabble of Goblinland. And they will yet be our undoing.”

In such case stood they, nor were Teshmar’s folk more than twenty paces from the walls, when, sudden as night-lightning, flares were kindled along the walls, dazzling the Goblins and the Demons and brightly lighting them for those that manned the walls, who fell a-shooting at them with spears and arrows and a-slinging of stones. In the same moment opened a postern gate, whence sallied forth the Lord Corinius with an hundred and fifty stout lads of Witchland, shouting, “He that would sup of the crab of Witchland must deal with the nippers ere he essay the shell”; and charging Gaslark’s army in the flank he cut them clean in two. As one wood fared forth Corinius, smiting on either hand with a two-edged axe with heft lapped with bronze; and greatly though the folk of Gaslark outnumbered him, yet were they so taken at unawares and confounded by the sudden onslaught of Corinius that they might not abide him but everywhere gave ground before his onslaught. And many were wounded and some were slain; and with these Teshmar of Goblinland, the master of Gaslark’s ship. For smiting at Corinius and missing of his aim he louted forward with the blow, and Corinius hewed at him with his axe and the blow came on Teshmar’s neck and so hewed off his head. Now Gaslark with the best of his fighting men was Come some way past the postern, but whenas they fell to fighting he turned back straightway to meet Corinius, calling loudly on his men to rally against the Witches and drive them back within the walls. So when Gaslark was gotten through the press to within reach of Corinius, he thrust at Corinius with a spear, wounding him in the arm. But Corinius smote the spear-shaft asunder with his axe, and leapt upon Gaslark, giving him a great wound on the shoulder. And Gaslark took to his sword, and many blows they bandied that made either stagger, till Corinius struck Gaslark on the helm a great down-stroke of his axe, as one driveth a pile with a wooden mallet. And because of the good helm he wore, given by Lord Juss in days gone by as a gift of love and friendship, was Gaslark saved and his head not cloven asunder; for on that helm Corinius’s axe might not bite. Yet with that great stroke were Gaslark’s senses driven forth of him for a season, so that he fell senseless to the earth. And with his fall came dismay upon them of Goblinland.

All this befell in the first brunt of the battle, nor were the lords of Demonland yet fully joined in the mellay, for the great press of Gaslark’s men were between them and the Witches; but now Juss and Brandoch Daha went forth mightily with their following, and took up Gaslark that lay like one dead, and Juss bade a company of the Goblins bear him to the ships, and there was he bestowed safe and sound. But the Witches shouted loudly that King Gaslark was slain; and at this chosen time Corund, that was come privily forth of a hidden door on the western side of Carcë with fifty men, took the Goblins mightily in the rear. So they, still falling back before Corinius and Corund, and their hearts sick at the supposed slaying of Gaslark, waxed full of doubt and dejection; for in the watery darkness they might nowise perceive by how much they outwent in numbers the men of Witchland. And panic took them, so that they broke and fled before the Witches, that came after them resolute, as a stoat holdeth by a rabbit, and slew them by scores and by fifties as they fled from Carcë. Scarce three score men of that brave company of Goblinland that went up with Gaslark against Carcë won away into the marshes and came to their ships, escaping pitiless destruction.

But Corund and Corinius and their main force turned without more ado against the Demons, and bitter was the battle that befell betwixt them, and great the clatter of their blows. And now were the odds clean changed about with the putting of the Goblins out of the battle, since but few of Witchland were fallen, and they were as four to one against the Demons, hemming them in and having at them from every side. And some shot at them from the wall, until a chance shot came that was like to have stove in Corund’s helm, who straightway sent word that when the rout was ended he would make lark-pies of the cow-headed doddipole whosoever he might be that had set them thus a-shooting, spoiling sport for their comrades and endangering their lives. Therewith ceased the shooting from the wall.

And now grim and woundsome grew the battle, for the Demons mightily withstood the onset of the Witches, and the Lord Brandoch Daha rushed with an onslaught ever and anon upon Corund or upon Corinius, nor might either of these great captains bear up long against him, but every time gave back before Lord Brandoch Daha; and bitterly cursed they one another as each in turn was fain to save himself amid the press of their fighting men. Nor could one hope in one night’s space to behold such deeds of derring-do as were done that night by Lord Brandoch Daha, that played his sword lightly as one handleth a willow wand; yet death sat on the point thereof. In such wise that eleven stout sworders of Witchland were slain by him, and fifteen besides were sorely wounded. And at the last, Corinius, stung by Corund’s taunts as by a gadfly, and well nigh bursting for grief and shame at his ill speeding, leapt upon Lord Brandoch Daha as one reft of his wits, aiming at him a great two-handed blow that was apt enough to cleave him to the brisket. But Brandoch Daha slipped from the blow lightly as a kingfisher flying above an alder-shadowed stream avoideth a branch in his flight, and ran Corinius through the right wrist with his sword. And straight was Corinius put out of the fight. Nor had they greater satisfaction that went against Lord Juss, who mowed at them with great swashing blows, beheading some and hewing some asunder in the midst, till they were fain to keep clear of his reaping. So fought the Demons in the glare and watery mist, greatly against great odds, until all were smitten to earth save those two lords alone, Juss and Brandoch Daha.

Now stood King Gorice on the outer battlements of Carcë, all armed in his black armour inlaid with gold; and he beheld those twain how they fought back to back, and how the Witches beset them on every side Yet nowise might prevail against them. And the King said unto Gro that was by him on the wall, “Mine eyes dazzle in the mist and torchlight. What be these that maintain so bloody an advantage upon my kemperie-men?”

Gro answered him, “Surely, O King, these be none other than Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha of Krothering.”

The King said, “So by degrees cometh my sending home to me. For by my art I have intelligence, albeit not certainly, that Goldry was taken by my sending; so have I my desire on him I hold most in hate. And these, saved by their enchantments from like ruin, have been driven mad to rush into the open mouth of my vengeance.” And when he had gazed awhile, the King sneered and said unto Gro, “A sweet sight, to behold an hundred of my ablest men flinch and duck before these twain. Till now methought there was a sword in Witchland, and methought Corinius and Corund not simple braggarts without power or heart, as here appeareth, since like boys well birched they do cringe from the shining swords of Juss and the vile upstart from Krothering.”

But Corinius, who stood no longer in the battle but by the King, full of spleen and his wrist all bloody, cried out, “You do us wrong, O King. Juster it were to praise my great deed in ambushing this mighty company of our enemies and putting them all to the slaughter. And if I prevailed not against this Brandoch Daha your majesty needs not to marvel, since a greater than I, Gorice X. of memory ever glorious, was lightly conquered by him. Wherin methinks I am the luckier, to have but a gored wrist and not my death. As for these twain, they be stick-frees, on whom no point or edge may bite. And nought were more to be looked for, since we deal with such a sorcerer as this Juss.”

“Rather,” said the King, “are ye all grown milksops. But I have no further stomach for this interlude, but straight will end it.”

Therewith the King called to him the old Duke Corsus, bidding him take nets and catch the Demons therein. And Corsus, faring forth with nets, by sheer weight of numbers and with the death of near a score of the Witches at length gat this performed, and Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha well tangled in the nets, and lapped about as silkworms in their cocoons, and so drawn into Carcë. Soundly were they bumped along the ground, and glad enow were the Witches to have gotten those great fighters scotched at last. For utterly spent were Corund and his men, and fain to drop for very weariness.

So when they were gotten into Carcë, the King let search with torches and bring in them of Witchland that lay hurt before the walls; and any Demons or Goblins that were happed upon in like case he let slay with the sword. And the Lord Juss and the Lord Brandoch Daha, still lapped tightly in their nets, he let fling into a corner of the inner court of the palace like two bales of damaged goods, and set a guard upon them until morning.

As the lords of Witchland were upon going to bed they beheld westward by the sea a red glow, and tongues of fire burning in the night. Corinius said unto Lord Gro, “Lo where thy Goblins burn their ships, lest we pursue them as they flee shamefully homeward in the ship they keep from the burning. One ship sufficeth, for most of them be dead.”

And Corinius betook him sleepily to bed, pausing on the way to kick at the Lord Brandoch Daha, that lay safely swathed in his net powerless as then to do him harm.

ornament

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