The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison

VII. Guests of the King in Carcë

Of the Two Banquet Halls that Were in Carcë, The Old and the New, and of the Entertainment Given by King Gorice XII. In the One Hall to Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha and in the Other to the Prince La Fireez; and of Their Leave-Taking when the Banquet was Done.

THE morrow of that battle dawned fair on Carcë. Folk lay long abed after their toil, and until the sun was high nought stirred before the walls. But toward noon came forth a band sent by King Gorice to bring in the spoil; and they took up the bodies of the slain and laid them in howe on the right bank of the river Druima half a mile below Carcë, Witches, Demons, and Goblins in one grave together, and raised up a great howe over them.

Now was the sun’s heat strong, but the shadow of the great keep rested still on the terrace without the western wall of the palace. Cool and redolent of ease and soft repose was that terrace, paved with flagstones of red jasper, with spleenwort, assafoetida, livid toadstools, dragons’ teeth, and bitter moon-seed growing in the joints.

On the outer edge of the terrace were bushes of arbor vitae planted in a row, squat and round like sleeping dormice, with clumps of choke-pard aconite in the interspaces. Many hundred feet in length was the terrace from north to south, and at either end a flight of black marble steps led down to the level of the inner ward and its embattled wall.

Benches of green jasper massily built and laden with velvet cushions of many colours stood against the palace wall facing to the west, and on the bench nearest the Iron Tower a lady sat at ease, eating cream wafers and a quince tart served by her waiting-women in dishes of pale gold for her morning meal. Tall was that lady and slender, and beauty dwelt in her as the sunshine dwells in the red floor and gray-green trunks of a beech wood in early spring. Her tawny hair was gathered in deep folds upon her head and made fast by great silver pins, their heads set with anachite diamonds. Her gown was of cloth of silver with a knotted cord-work of black silk embroidery everywhere decked with little moonstones, and over it she wore a mantle of figured satin the colour of the wood-pigeon’s wing, tinselled and overcast with silver threads. White-skinned she was, and graceful as an antelope. Her eyes were green, with yellow fiery gleams. Daintily she ate the tart and wafers, sipping at whiles from a cup of amber, artificially carved, white wine cool from the cellars below Carcë; and a maiden sitting at her feet played on a seven-stringed lute, singing very sweetly this song:

Aske me no more where Jove bestowes,

When June is past, the fading rose;

For in your beautie’s orient deepe,

These flowers, as in their causes, sleepe.

Aske me no more whether doth stray

The golden atomes of the day;

For in pure love heaven did prepare

Those powders to inrich your haire.

Aske me no more whether doth hast

The nightingale when May is past;

For in your sweet dividing throat

She winters and keepes warme her note.

Aske me no more where those starres light,

That downewards fall in dead of night;

For in your eyes they sit, and there

Fixed become as in their sphere.

Aske me no more if east or west

The Phenix builds her spicy nest;

For unto you at last Shi flies,

And in your fragrant bosome dyes.

“No more,” said the lady; “thy voice is cracked this morning. Is none abroad yet thou canst find to tell me of last night’s doings? Or are all gone my lord’s gate, that I left sleeping still as though all the poppies of all earth’s gardens breathed drowsiness about his head?”

“One cometh, madam,” said the damosel.

The lady said, “The Lord Gro. He may resolve me. Though were he in the stour last night, that were a wonder indeed.”

Therewith came Gro along the terrace from the north, clad in a mantle of dun-coloured velvet with a collar of raised work of gold upon silver purl; and his long black curly beard was perfumed with orange-flower water and angelica. When they had greeted one another and the lady had bidden her women stand apart, she said, “My lord, I thirst for tidings. Recount to me all that befell since sundown. For I slept soundly till the streaks of morning showed through my chamber windows, and then I awoke from a flying dream of sennets sounding to the onset, and torches in the night, and war’s alarums. And there were torches indeed in my chamber lighting my lord to bed, that answered me no word but straightway fell asleep as in utter weariness. Some slight scratches he hath, but else unhurt. I would not wake him, for balm is in slumber; also is he ill to do with if one wake him so. But the tattle and wild surmise of the servants bloweth as ever to all points of wonder: as that a great armament of Demonland is disembarked at Tenemos, and all routed last night by my lord and by Corinius, and Goldry Bluszco slain in single combat with the King. Or that Juss hath set a charm on Laxus and all our fleet, making them sail like parricides against this land, Juss and the other Demons leading them; and all slain save Laxus and Goldry Bluszco, but these brought bound into Carcë, stark mad and frothing at the lips, and Corinius dead of his wounds after slaying of Brandoch Daha. Or, foolishly,” and her green eyes lightened dangerously, “that it was my brother risen in revolt to wrest Pixyland from the overlordship of Gorice, and joined with Gaslark to that end, and their army overthrown and both ta’en prisoner.”

Gro laughed and said, “Surely, O my Lady Prezmyra, truth masketh in many a strange disguise when she rideth rumour’s broomstick through kings’ palaces. But somewhat of herself hath she shown thee, if thou conclude that an event was brought to birth betwixt dark and sunrise to stagger the world, and that the power of Witchland bloomed forth this night into unbeholden glory.”

“Thou speakest big, my lord,” said the lady. “Were the Demons in it?”

“Ay, madam,” he said.

“And triumphed on? and slain?”

“All slain save Juss and Brandoch Daha, and they taken,” said Gro.

“Was this my lord’s doing?” she asked.

“Greatly, as I think,” said Gro; “though Corinius claimeth for himself, as commonly, the main honour of it.”

Prezmyra said, “He claimeth overmuch.” And she said, “There were none in it save Demons?”

Gro, knowing her thought, smiled and made answer, “Madam, there were Witches.”

“My Lord Gro,” she cried, “thou dost ill to mock me. Thou art my friend. Thou knowest the Prince my brother proud and sudden to anger. Thou knowest it chafeth him to have Witchland over him. Thou knowest the time is many days overpast when he should bring his yearly tribute to the King.”

Gro’s great ox-eyes were soft as he looked upon the Lady Prezmyra, saying, “Most assuredly am I thy friend, madam. Belike, if truth were told, thou and thy lord are all the true friends I have in waterish Witchland: you two, and the King: but who sleepeth safe in the favour of kings? Ah, madam, none of Pixyland stood in the battle yesternight. Therefore let thy soul be at ease. But my task it was, standing on the battlements beside the King, to smile and smile while Corinius and our fighting men made a bloody havoc of four or five hundred of mine own kinsfolk.”

Prezmyra caught her breath and was silent a moment. Then, “Gaslark?”

“The main force was his, it appeareth,” answered Lord Gro. “Corinius braggeth himself his banesman, and certain it is he felled him to earth. But I am secretly advertised he was not among the dead taken up this morning.”

“My lord,” she said, “my desire for news drinks deep while thou art fasting. Some, bring meat and wine for my Lord Gro.” And two damosels ran and returned with sparkling golden wine in a beaker, and a dish of lampreys with hippocras sauce. So Gro sat him down on the jasper bench and, while he ate and drank, rehearsed to the Lady Prezmyra the doings of the night.

When he had ended she said, “How hath the King dealt with those twain, Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha?”

Gro answered, “He hath them clapped up in the old banqueting hall in the Iron Tower.” And his brow darkened, and he said, “’Tis pity thy lord lay thus long abed, and so came not to the council, where Corsus and Corinius, backed by thy step-sons and the sons of Corsus, egged on the King to use shamefully these lords of Demonland. True is that distich which admonisheth us —

Know when to speak, for many times it brings

Danger to give the best advice to Kings;

and little for my health, and little gain withal, had it been had I then openly withstood them. Corinius is ever watchful to fling Goblin in my teeth. But Corund weigheth in their councils as his hand weigheth in battle.”

Now as Gro spake came the Lord Corund on the terrace, calling for still wine to cool his throat withal. Prezmyra poured forth to him: “Thou art blamed to me for keeping thy bed, my lord, that shouldst have been devising with the King touching our enemies ta’en captive in this night gone by.”

Corund sat by his lady on the bench and drank. “If that be all, madam,” said be, “then have I little to charge my conscience withal. For nought lies readier than strike off their heads, and so bring all to a fit and happy ending.”

“Far otherwise,” said Gro, “hath the King determined. He let drag before him Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha, and with many fleers and jibes, ‘Welcome,’ he saith, ‘to Carcë. Your table shall not lack store of delicates while ye are my guests; albeit ye come unbidden.’ Therewith he let drag them to the old banquet hall. And he bade his smiths drive great iron staples into the wall, whereon he let hang up the Demons by their wrists, spread-eagled against the wall, making both wrists and ankles fast to the staples with gyves of iron. And the King let dight the table before their feet as for a banquet, that the sight and the savour might torment them. And he called all us to his council thither that we might praise his conceit and mock them anew.”

Said Prezmyra, “A great king should rather be a dog that killeth clean, than a cat that patteth and sporteth with his prey.”

“True it is,” said Corund, “that they were safer slain.” He rose from his seat. “’Twere not amiss,” he said, “that I had word with the King.”

“Wherefore so?” asked Prezmyra.

“He that sleepeth late,” said Corund, eyeing her humorously, “sometimes hath news for her that riseth betimes to sit on the western terrace. And this was I come to tell thee, that I but now behold eastward from our chamber window, riding toward Carcë out of Pixyland down the Way of Kings —”

“La Fireez?” she said.

“Mine eyes be strong enow and clear enow,” said Corund, “but thou’dst scarce require me swear to mine own brother at three miles’ distance. And as for thine, I leave thee the swearing.”

“Who should ride down the Way of Kings from Pixyland,” cried Prezmyra, “but La Fireez?”

“That, madam, let Echo answer thee,” said Corund. “And it sticketh in my mind, that the Prince my brother-in-law is one that tieth to his heartstrings the remembrance of past benefits. This too, that none did him ever a greater benefit than Juss, that saved his life six winters back in Impland the More. Wherefore, if La Fireez be to share our revels this night, needful it is that the King command these gabblers to keep silence touching our entertainment of these lords in the old banquet hall, and in general touching the share of Demonland in this fighting.”

Prezmyra said, “Come, I’ll go with thee.”

They found the King on the topmost battlements above the water-gate with his lords about him, gazing eastaway toward the long low hills beyond which lay Pixyland. But when Corund began to open his mind to the King, the King said, “Thou growest old, O Corund, and like a good-for-nothing chapman bringest not thy wares to market ere the market be done. I have already ta’en order for this, and straitly charged my people that nought befell last night save a faring of the Goblins against Carcë, and their overthrow, and my chasing of them with a great slaughter into the sea. Whoso by speech or sign shall reveal to La Fireez that the Demons were in it, or that these enemies of mine are thus entertained by me to their discomfort in the old banquet hall, he shall lose nothing but his life.”

Corund said, “It is well, O King.”

The King said, “Captain general, what is our strength?” Corinius answered, “Seventy and three were slain, and the others for the most part hurt: I among them, that am thus one-handed for the while. I will not engage to find you, O King, fifty sound men in Carcë.”

“My Lord Corund,” said the King, “thine eyes pierced ever a league beyond the best among us, young or old. How many makest thou yon company?”

Corund leaned on the parapet and shaded his eyes with his hand that was broad as a smoked haddock and covered on the back with yellow hairs growing somewhat sparsely, as the hairs on the skin of a young elephant. “He rideth with three score horse, O King. One or two more I give you for good luck, but if a have a horseman fewer than sixty, never love me more.”

The King muttered an imprecation. “It is the curse of chance bringeth him thus pat when I have my powers abroad and am left with too little strength to awe him if he prove irksome. One of thy sons, O Corund, shall take horse and ride south to Zorn and Permio and muster a few score fighting men from the herdsmen and farmers with what speed he may. It is commanded.”

Now was the afternoon wearing to evening when the Prince La Fireez was come in with all his company, and greetings done, and the tribute safe bestowed, and sleeping room appointed for him and his. And now ere all gathered together in the great banquet hall that was built by Gorice XI., when he was first made King, in the southeast corner of the palace; and it far exceeded in greatness and magnificence the old hall where Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha were held in duress. Seven equal walls it had, of dark green jasper, specked with bloody spots. In the midst of one wall was the lofty doorway, and in the walls right and left of this and in those that inclosed the angle opposite the door were great windows placed high, giving light to the banquet hall. In each of the seven angles of the wall a caryatide, cut in the likeness of a three-headed giant from ponderous blocks of black serpentine, bowed beneath the mass of a monstrous crab hewn out of the same stone. The mighty claws of those seven crabs spreading upwards bare up the dome of the roof, that was smooth and covered all over with paintings of battles and hunting scenes and wrastling bouts in dark and smoky colours answerable to the gloomy grandeur of that chamber. On the walls beneath the windows gleamed weapons of war and of the chase, and on the two blind walls were nailed up all orderly the skulls and dead bones of those champions which had wrastled aforetime with King Gorice XI. or ever he appointed in an evil hour to wrastle with Goldry Bluszco. Across the innermost angle facing the door was a long table and a carven bench behind it, and from the two ends of that table, set square with it, two other tables yet longer and benches by them on the sides next the wall stretched to within a short space of the door. Midmost of the table to the right of the door was a high seat of old cypress wood, great and fair, with cushions of black velvet broidered with gold, and facing it at the opposite table another high seat, smaller, and the cushions of it sewn with silver. In the space betwixt the tables five iron braziers, massive and footed with claws like an eagle’s, stood in a row, and behind the benches on either side were nine great stands for flamboys to light the hall by night, and seven behind the cross bench, set at equal distances and even with the walls. The floor was paved with steatite, white and creamy, with veins of rich brown and black and purples and splashes of scarlet. The tables resting on great trestles were massy slabs of a dusky polished stone, powdered with sparks of gold as small as atoms.

The women sat on the cross-bench, and midmost of them the Lady Prezmyra, who outwent the rest in beauty and queenliness as Venus the lesser planets of the night. Zenambria, wife to Duke Corsus, sat on her left, and on her right Sriva, daughter to Corsus, strangely fair for such a father. On the upper bench, to the right of the door, the lords of Witchland sat above and below the King’s high seat, clad in holiday attire, and they of Pixyland had place over against them on the lower bench. The high seat on the lower bench was set apart for La Fireez. Great plates and dishes of gold and silver and painted porcelain were set in order on the tables, laden with delicacies. Harps and bagpipes struck up a barbaric music, and the guests rose to their feet, as the shining doors swung open and Gorice the King followed by the prince his guest entered that hall.

Like a black eagle surveying earth from some high mountain the King passed by in his majesty. His byrny was of black chain mail, its collar, sleeves, and skirt edged with plates of dull gold set with hyacinths and black opals. His hose were black, cross-gartered with bands of sealskin trimmed with diamonds. On his left thumb was his great signet ring fashioned in gold in the semblance of the worm Ouroboros that eateth his own tail: the bezel of the ring the head of the worm, made of a peach-coloured ruby of the bigness of a sparrow’s egg. His cloak was woven of the skins of black cobras stitched together with gold wire, its lining of black silk sprinkled with dust of gold. The iron crown of Witchland weighed on. his brow, the claws of the crab erect like horns; and the sheen of its jewels was many-coloured like the rays of Sirius on a clear night of frost and wind at Yule-tide.

The Prince La Fireez went in a mantle of black sendaline sprinkled everywhere with spangles of gold, and the tunic beneath it of rich figured silk dyed deep purple of the Pasque flower. From the golden circlet on his head two wings sprung aloft exquisitely fashioned in plates of beaten copper veneered with jewels and enamels and plated with precious metals to the semblance-of the wings of the oleander hawk-moth. He was something below the common height, but stout and strong and sturdily knit, with red crisp curly hair, broad-faced and ruddy, clean-shaved, with high wide-nostrilled nose and bushy red heavy eyebrows, whence his eyes, most like his lady sister’s, sea-green and fiery, shot glances like a lion’s.

When the King was come into his high seat, with Corund and Corinius on his left and right in honour of their great deeds of arms, and La Fireez facing him in the high seat on the lower bench, the thralls made haste to set forth dishes of pickled grigs and oysters in the shell, and whilks, snails, and cockles fried in olive oil and swimming in red and white hippocras. And the feasters delayed not to fall to on these dainties, while the cupbearer bore round a mighty bowl of beaten gold filled with sparkling wine the hue of the yellow sapphire, and furnished with six golden ladles resting their handles in six half-moon shaped nicks in the rim of that great bowl. Each guest when the bowl was brought to him must brim his goblet with the ladle, and drink unto the glory of Witchland and the rulers thereof.

Somewhat greenly looked Corinius on the Prince, and whispering Heming, Corund’s son, in the ear, who sat next him, he said, “True it is that La Fireez is the showiest of men in all that belongeth to gear and costly array. Mark with what ridiculous excess he affecteth Demonland in the great store of jewels he flaunteth, and with what an apish insolence he sitteth at the board. Yet this lobcock liveth only by our sufferance, and I see a hath not forgot to bring with him to Witchland the price of our hand withheld from twisting of his neck.”

Now were borne round dishes of carp, pilchards, and lobsters, and thereafter store enow of meats: a fat kid roasted whole and garnished with peas on a spacious silver charger, kid pasties, plates of neats’ tongues and sweetbreads, sucking rabbits in jellies, hedgehogs baked in their skins, hogs’ haslets, carbonadoes, chitterlings, and dormouse pies. These and other luscious meats were borne round continually by thralls who moved silent on bare feet; and merry waxed the talk as the edge of hunger became blunted a little, and the cockles of men’s hearts were warmed with wine.

“What news in Witchland?” asked La Fireez.

‘I have heard nought newer,” said the King, “than the slaying of Gaslark.” And the King recounted the battle in the night, setting forth as in a frank and open honesty every particular of numbers, times, and comings and goings; save that none might have guessed from his tale that any of Demonland had part or interest in that battle.

La Fireez said, “Strange it is that he should so attack you. An enemy might smell some cause behind it.”

“Our greatness,” said Corinius, looking haughtily at him, “is a lamp whereat other moths than he have been burnt. I count it no strange matter at all.”

Prezmyra said, “Strange indeed, were it any but Gaslark. But sure with him no wild sudden fancy were too light but it should chariot him like thistle-down to storm heaven itself.”

“A bubble of the air, madam: all fine colours without and empty wind within. I have known other such,” said Corinius, still resting his gaze with studied insolence on the Prince.

Prezmyra’s eye danced. “O my Lord Corinius,” said she, “change first thine own fashion, I pray thee, ere thou convince gay attire of inward folly, lest beholding thee we misdoubt thy precept — or thy wisdom.”

Corinius drank his cup to the drains and laughed. Somewhat reddened was his insolent handsome face about the cheeks and shaven jowl, for surely was none in that hall more richly apparelled than he. His ample chest was cased in a jerkin of untanned buckskin plated with silver scales, and he wore a collar of gold that was rough lined with smaragds and a long cloak of sky-blue silk brocade lined with cloth of silver. On his left wrist was a mighty ring of gold, and on his head a wreath of black bryony and sleeping nightshade. Gro whispered Corund in the ear, “He bibbeth it down apace, and the hour is yet early. This presageth trouble, since ever with him indiscretion treadeth hard on the heels of surliness as he waxeth drunken.”

Corund grunted assent, saying aloud, “To all peaks of fame might Gaslark have climbed, but for this same rashness. Nought more pitiful hath been heard to tell of than his great sending into Impland, ten years ago, when, on a sudden conceit that a should lay all Impland under him and become the greatest king in all the world, he hired Zeldornius and Helteranius and Jalcanaius Fostus —”

“The three most notable captains found on earth,” said La Fireez.

“Nothing is more true,” said Corund. “These he hired, and brought ’em ships and soldiers and horses and such a clutter of engines of war as hath not been seen these hundred years, and sent ’em-whither? To the rich and pleasant lands of Beshtria? No. To Demonland? Not a whit. To this Witchland, where with a twentieth part the power a hath now risked all and suffered death and doom? No! but to yonder hell-besmitten wilderness of Upper Impland, treeless, waterless, not a soul to pay him tribute: had he laid it under him save wandering bands of savage Imps, with more bugs on their bodies than pence in their purses, I warrant you. Or was he minded to be king among the divels of the air, ghosts, and hob-thrushes that be found in that desert?”

“Without controversy there be seventeen several sorts of divels on the Moruna,” said Corsus, very loud and sudden, so that all turned to look on him; “fiery divels, divels of the air, terrestrial divels, as you may say, and watery divels, and subterranean divels. Without controversy there be seven seen sorts, seventeen several sorts of hob-thrushes, and several sorts of divels, and if the humour took me I could name them all by rote.”

Wondrous solemn was the heavy face of Corsus, his eyes, baggy underneath and somewhat bloodshed, his pendulous cheeks, thick blubber upper-lip, and bristly gray moustachios and whiskers. He had eaten, mainly to provoke thirst, pickled olives, capers, salted almonds, anchovies, fumadoes, and pilchards fried with mustard, and now awaited the salt chine of beef to be a pillow and a resting place for new potations.

The Lady Zenambria asked, “Knoweth any for certain what fate befell Jalcanaius and Helteranius and Zeldornius and their armies?”

“Heard I not,” said Prezmyra, “that they were led by Will-o’-the-Wisps to the regions Hyperborean, and there made kings?”

“Told thee by the madge-howlet, I fear me, sister,” said La Fireez. “Whenas I fared through Impland the More, six years ago, there was many a wild tale told me hereof, but nought within credit.”

Now was the chine served in amid shallots on a great dish of gold, borne by four serving men, so weighty was the dish and its burden. Some fight there glowed in the dull eye of Corsus to see it come, and Corund rose up with brimming goblet, and the Witches cried, “The song of the chine, O Corund!” Great as a neat stood Corund in his russet velvet kirtle, girt about with a broad belt of crocodile hide edged with gold. From his shoulders hung a cloak of wolf’s skin with the hair inside, the outside tanned and diapered with purple silk. Daylight was nigh gone, and through a haze of savours rising from the feast the flamboys shone on his bald head set about with thick grizzled curls, and on his keen gray eyes, and his long and bushy beard. He cried, “Give me a rouse, my lords! and if any fail to bear me out in the refrain, I’ll ne’er love him more.” And he sang this song of the chine in a voice like the sounding of a gong; and all they roared in the refrain till the piled dishes on the service tables rang:

Bring out the Old Chyne, the Cold Chyne to me,

And how Ile charge him come and see,

Brawn tusked, Brawn well sowst and fine,

With a precious cup of Muscadine:

How shall I sing, how shall I look,

In honour of the Master-Cook?

The Pig shall turn round and answer me,

Canst thou spare me a shoulder? a wy, a wy.

The Duck, Goose, and Capon, good fellows all three

Shall dance thee an antick, so shall the Turkey:

But O! the Cold Chyne, the Cold Chyne for me:

How shall I sing, how shall I look,

In honour of the Master-Cook?

With brewis Ile noynt thee from head to th’ heel,

Shal make thee run nimbler than the new oyld wheel;

With Pye-crust wee’l make thee

The eighth wise man to be;

But O! the Old Chyne, the Cold Chyne for me:

How shall I sing, how shall I look,

In honour of the Master-Cook?

When the chine was carved and the cups replenished, the King issued command saying, “Call hither my dwarf, and let him act his antick gestures before us.”

Therewith came the dwarf into the hall, mopping and mowing, clad in a sleeveless jerkin of striped yellow and red mockado. And his long and nerveless tail dragged on the floor behind him.

“Somewhat fulsome is this dwarf,” said La Fireez.

“Speak within door, Prince,” said Corinius. “Know’st not his quality? A hath been envoy extraordinary from King Gorice XI. of memory ever glorious unto Lord Juss in Galing and the lords of Demonland. And ’twas the greatest courtesy we could study to do them, to send ’em this looby for our ambassador.”

The dwarf practised before them to the great content of the lords of Witchland and their guests, save for his japing upon Corinius and the Prince, calling them two peacocks, so like in their bright plumage that none might tell either from other; which somewhat galled them both.

And now was the King’s heart waxen glad with wine, and he pledged Gro, saying, “Be merry, Gro, and doubt not that I will fulfil my word I spake unto thee, and make thee king in Zajë Zaculo.”

“Lord, I am yours for ever,” answered Gro. “But methinks I am little fitted to be a king. Methinks I was ever a better steward of other men’s fortunes than of mine own.”

Whereat the Duke Corsus, that was sprawled on the table well nigh asleep, cried out in a great voice but husky withal, “A brace of divels broil me if thou sayest not sooth! If thine own fortunes come off but bluely, care not a rush. Give me some wine, a full weeping goblet. Ha! Ha! whip it away! Ha! Ha! Witchland! When wear you the crown of Demonland, O King?”

“How now, Corsus,” said the King, “art thou drunk?”

But La Fireez said, “Ye sware peace with the Demons in the Foliot Isles, and by mighty oaths are ye bound to put by for ever your claims of lordship over Demonland. I hoped your quarrels were ended.”

“Why so they are,” said the King.

Corsus chuckled weakly. “Ye say well: very well, O King, very well, La Fireez. Our quarrels are ended. No room for more. For, look you, Demonland is a ripe fruit ready to drop me thus in our mouth.” Leaning back he gaped his mouth wide open, suspending by one leg above it an hortolan basted with its own dripping. The bird slipped through his fingers, and fell against his cheek, and so on to his bosom, and so on the floor, and his brazen byrny and the sleeves of his pale green kirtle were splashed with the gravy.

Whereat Corinius let fly a great peal of laughter; I but La Fireez flushed with anger and said, scowling, “Drunkenness, my lord, is a jest for thralls to laugh at.”

“Then sit thou mum, Prince,” said Corinius, “lest thy quality be called in question. For my part I laugh at my thoughts, and they be very choice.”

But Corsus wiped his face and fell a-singing:

Whene’er I bib the wine down,

Asleepe drop all my cares.

A fig for fret,

A fig for sweat,

A fig care I for cares.

Sith death must come, though I say nay,

Why grieve my life’s days with all affaires?

Come, bib we then the wine down

Of Bacchus faire to see;

For alway while we bibbing be,

Asleepe drop all our cares.

With that, Corsus sank heavily forward again on the table. And the dwarf, whose japes all else in that company had taken well seven when themselves were the mark thereof, leaped up and down, crying, “Hear a wonder! This pudding singeth. When with two platters, thralls! ye have served it o’ the board without a dish. One were too little to contain so vast a deal of bullock’s blood and lard. Swift, and carve it ere the vapours burst the skin.”

“I will carve thee, filth,” said Corsus, lurching to his feet; and catching the dwarf by the wrist with one hand he gave him a great box on the ear with the other. The dwarf squealed and bit Corsus’s thumb to the bone, so that he loosed his hold; and the dwarf fled from the hall, while the company laughed pleasantly.

“So flieth folly before wisdom which is in wine,” said the King. “The night is young: bring me botargoes, and caviare and toast. Drink, Prince. The red Thramnian wine that is thick like honey wooeth the soul to divine philosophy. How vain a thing is ambition. This was Gaslark’s bane, whose enterprises of such pitch and moment have ended thus, in a kind of nothing. Or what thinkest thou, Gro, thou which art a philosopher?”

“Alas, poor Gaslark,” said Gro. “Had all grown to his mind, and had he ’gainst all expectation gotten us overthrown, even so had he been no nearer to his heart’s desire than when he first set forth. For he had of old in Zajë Zaculo eating and drinking and gardens and treasure and musicians and a fair wife, all soft ease and contentment all his days. And at the last, howsoe’er we shape our course, cometh the poppy that abideth all of us by the harbour of oblivion hard to cleanse. Dry withered leaves of laurel or of cypress tree, and a little dust. Nought else remaineth.”

“With a sad brow I say it,” said the King: “I hold him wise that resteth happy, even as the Red Foliot, and tempteth not the Gods by over-mounting ambition to his dejection.”

La Fireez had thrown himself back in his high seat with his elbows resting on its lofty arms and his hands dangling idly on either side. With head held high and incredulous smile he harkened to the words of Gorice the King.

Gro said in Corund’s ear, “The King hath found strange kindness in the cup.”

“I think thou and I be clean out o’ fashion,” answered Corund, whispering, “that we be not yet drunken; the cause whereof is that thou drinkest within measure, which is good, and me this amethyst at my belt keepeth sober, were I never so surfeit-swelled with wine.”

La Fireez said, “You are pleased to jest, O King. For my part, I had as lief have this musk-million on my shoulders as a head so blockish as to want ambition.”

“If thou wert not our princely guest,” said Corinius, I had called that spoke in the right fashion of a little man. Witchland affecteth not such vaunts, but can afford to speak as our Lord the King in proud humility. Turkey cocks do strut and gobble; not so the eagle, who holdeth the world at his discretion.”

“Pity on thee,” cried the Prince, “if this cheap victory turn thee so giddy. Goblins!”

Corinius scowled. Corsus chuckled, saying to himself but loud enough for all to hear, “Goblins, quotha? They were small game had they been all. Ay, there it is: had they been all.”

The King’s brow was like a foul black cloud. The women held their breath. But Corsus, blandly insensible of these gathering thunders, beat time on the table with his cup, drowsily chanting to a most mournful air:

When birds in water deepe do lie,

And fishes in the air doe flie,

When water burns and fire doth freeze,

And oysters grow as fruits on trees —

A resounding hecup brought him to a full close.

The talk had died down, the lords of Witchland. ill at case, studying to wear their faces to the bent of the King’s looks. But Prezmyra spake, and the music of her voice came like a refreshing shower. “This song of my Lord Corsus,” she said, “made me hopeful for an answer to a question in philosophy; but Bacchus, you see, hath ta’en his soul into Elysium for a season, and I fear me nor truth nor wisdom cometh from his mouth to-night. And this was my question, whether it be true that all animals of the land are in their kind in the sea? My Lord Corinius, or thou, my princely brother, can you resolve me?”

“Why, so it is received, madam,” said La Fireez. “And inquiry will show thee many pretty instances: as the sea-frog, the sea-fox, the sea-dog, the sea-horse, the sea-lion, the sea-bear. And I have known the barbarous people of Esamocia eat of a conserve of sea-mice mashed and brayed in a mortar with the flesh of that beast named bos marinus, seasoned with salt and garlic.”

“Foh! speak to me somewhat quickly,” cried the Lady Sriva, “ere in imagination I taste such nasty meat. Prithee, yonder gold peaches and raisins of the sun as an antidote.”

“Lord Gro will instruct thee better than I,” said La Fireez. “For my part, albeit I think nobly of philosophy, yet have I little leisure to study it. Oft have I hunted the badger, yet never answered that question of the doctors whether he hath the legs of one side shorter than of the other. Neither know I, for all the lampreys I have eat, how many eyes the lamprey hath, whether it be nine or two.”

Prezmyra smiled: “O my brother, thou art too too smoored, I fear me, in the dust of action and the field to be at accord with these nice searchings. But be there birds under the sea, my Lord Gro?”

Gro made answer, “In rivers, certainly, though it be but birds of the air sojourning for a season. As I myself have found them in Outer Impland, asleep in winter time at the bottom of lakes and rivers, two together, mouth to mouth, wing to wing. But in the spring they revive again, and by and by are the woods full of their singing. And for the sea, there be true sea cuckows, sea-thrushes, and sea-sparrows, and many more.”

“It is passing strange,” said Zenambria.

Corsus sang:

When sorcerers do leave their charme,

When spiders do the fly no harme.

Prezmyra turned to Corund saying, “Was there not a merry dispute betwixt you, my lord, concerning the toad and the spider, thou maintaining that they do poisonously destroy one another, and my Lord Gro that he would show thee to the contrary?”

“’Twas even so, lady,” said Corund, “and it is yet in controversy.”

Corsus sang:

And when the blackbird leaves to sing,

And likewise serpents for to sting,

Then you may saye, and justly too,

The old world now is turned anew:

and so sank back into bloated silence.

“My Lord the King,” cried Prezmyra, “I beseech you give order for the ending of this difference between two of your council, ere it wax to dangerous heat. Let them be given a toad, O King, and spiders without delay, that they may make experiment before this goodly company.”

Therewith all fell a-laughing, and the King commanded a thrall, who shortly brought fat spiders to the number of seven and a crystal wine-cup, and inclosed with them beneath the cup a toad, and set all before the King. And all beheld them eagerly.

“I will wager two firkins of pale Permian wine to a bunch of radishes,” said Corund, “that victory shall be given unto the spiders. Behold how without resistance they do sit upon his head and pass all over his body.”

Gro said, “Done.”

“Thou wilt lose the wager, Corund,” said the King. “This toad taketh no hurt from the spiders, but sitteth quiet out of policy, tempting them to security, that upon advantage he may swallow them down.”

While they watched, fruits were borne in: queen-apples, almonds, pomegranates and pistick nuts; and fresh bowls and jars of wine, and among them a crystal flagon of the peach-coloured wine of Krothering vintaged many summers ago in the vineyards that stretch southward toward the sea from below the castle of Lord Brandoch Daha.

Corinius drank deep, and cried, “’Tis a royal drink, this wine of Krothering! Folk say it will be good cheap this summer.”

Whereat La Fireez shot a glance at him, and the King marking it said in Corinius’s ear, “Wilt thou be prudent? Let not thy pride flatter thee to think aught shall avail thee, any more than my vilest thrall, if by thy doing this Prince smell out my secrets.”

By then was the hour waxing late, and the women took their leave, lighted to the doors in great state by thralls with flamboys. In a while, when they were gone, “A plague of all spiders!” cried Corund. “Thy toad hath swallowed one already.”

“Two more!” said Gro. “Thy theoric crumbleth apace, O Corund. He hath two at a gulp, and but four remain.”

The Lord Corinius, whose countenance was now aflame with furious drinking, held high his cup and catching the Prince’s eye, “Mark well, La Fireez,” he cried, “a sign and a prophecy. First one; next two at a mouthful; and early after that, as I think, the four that remain. Art not afeared lest thou be found a spider when the brunt shall come?”

“Hast drunk thyself horn-mad, Corinius?” said the King under his breath, his voice shaken with anger.

“He is as witty a marmalade-eater as ever I conversed with,” said La Fireez, “but I cannot tell what the dickens he means.”

“That,” answered Corinius, “which should make thy smirking face turn serious. I mean our ancient enemies, the haskardly mongrels of Demonland. First gulp, Goldry, taken heaven knows whither by the King’s sending in a deadly scud of wind —”

“The devil damn thee!” cried the King, “what drunken brabble is this?”

But the Prince La Fireez waxed red as blood, saying, “This it is then that lieth behind this hudder mudder, and ye go to war with Demonland? Think not to have my help therein.”

“We shall not sleep the worse for that,” said Corinius. “Our mouth is big enough for such a morsel of marchpane as thou, if thou turn irksome.”

“Thy mouth is big enough to blab the secretest intelligence, as we now most laughably approve,” said La Fireez. “Were I the King, I would draw lobster’s whiskers on thy skin, for a tipsy and a prattling popinjay.”

“An insult!” cried the Lord Corinius, leaping up. I would not take an insult from the Gods in heaven. Reach me a sword, boy! I will make Beshtrian cut-works in his guts.”

“Peace, on your lives!” said the King in a great voice, while Corund went to Corinius and Gro to the Prince to quiet them. “Corinius is wounded in the wrist and cannot fight, and belike his brain is fevered by the wound.”

“Heal him, then, of this carving the Goblins gave him, and I will carve him like a capon,” said the Prince.

“Goblins!” said Corinius fiercely. “Know, vile fellow, the best swordsman in the world gave me this wound. Had it been thou that stood before me, I had cut thee into steaks, that art caponed already.”

But the King stood up in his majesty, saying, “Silence, on your lives!” And the King’s eyes glittered with wrath, and he said, “For thee, Corinius, not thy hot youth and rebellious blood nor yet the wine thou hast swilled into that greedy belly of thine shall mitigate the rigour of my displeasure. Thy punishment I reserve unto to-morrow. And thou, La Fireez, look thou bear thyself more humbly in my halls. Over pert was the message brought me by thine herald at thy coming hither this morning, and too much it smacked of a greeting from an equal to an equal, calling thy tribute a gift, though it, and thou, and all thy principality are mine by right to deal with as seems me good. Yet did I bear with thee: unwisely, as I think, since thy pertness nourished by my forbearance springeth up yet ranker at my table, and thou insultest and brawlest in my halls. Be advised, lest my wrath forge thunderbolts against thee.”

The Prince La Fireez answered and said, “Keep frowns and threats for thine offending thralls, O King, since me they affright not, and I laugh them to scorn. Nor am I careful to answer thine injurious words; since well thou knowest my old friendship unto thine house, O King, and unto Witchland, and by what bands of marriage I am bound in love to the Lord Corund, to whom I gave my lady sister. If it suit not my stomach to proclaim like a servile minister thy suzerainty, yet needest thou not to carp at this, since thy tribute is paid thee, ay, and in over-measure. But unto Demonland am I bound, as all the world knoweth, and sooner shalt thou prevail upon the lamps of heaven to come down and fight for thee against the Demons than upon me. And unto Corinius that so boasteth I say that Demonland hath ever been too hard for you Witches. Goldry Bluszco and Brandoch Daha have shown you this. This is my counsel unto thee, O King, to make peace with Demonland: my reasons, first that thou hast no just cause of quarrel with them, next (and this should sway thee more) that if thou persist in fighting against them it will be the ruin of thee and of all Witchland.”

The King bit his fingers with signs of wonderful anger, and for a minute’s time no sound was in that hall. Only Corund spake privately to the King saying, “Lord, O for all sakes swallow your royal rage. You may whip him when my son Hacmon returneth, but till then he outnumbers us, and your own party so overwhelmed with wine that, trust me, I would not adventure the price of a turnip on our chances if it come to fighting.”

Troubled at heart was Corund, for well he knew how dear beyond account his lady wife held the keeping of the peace betwixt La Fireez and the Witches.

In this moment Corsus, somewhat roused in an evil hour out of lethargy by the loud talk and movement, began to sing:

When all the prisons hereabout

Have justled all their prisoners out,

Because indeed they have no cause

To keepe ’em in by common laws.

Whereat Corinius, in whom wine and quarrelling and the King’s rebukes had lighted a fire of reckless and outrageous malice before which all counsels of prudence or policy were dissipated like wax in a furnace, shouted loudly, “Wilt see our prisoners, Prince, i’ the old banquet hall, to prove thyself an ass?”

“What prisoners?” cried the Prince, springing to his feet. “Hell’s furies! I am weary of these dark equivocations and will know the truth.”

“Why wilt thou rage so beastly?” said the King. “The man is drunk. No more wild words.”

“Thou canst not daff me so. I will know the truth,” said La Fireez.

“So thou shalt,” said Corinius. “This it is: that we Witches be better men than thou and thy hen-hearted Pixies, and better men than the accursed Demons. No need to hide it further. Two of that brood we have laid by the heels, and nailed ’em up on the wall of the old banquet hall, as farmers nail up weasels and polecats on a barn door. And there shall they bide till they be dead: Juss and Brandoch Daha.”

“O most villanous lie!” said the King. “I’ll have thee hewn in pieces.”

But Corinius said, “I nurse your honour, O King. We must no longer skulk before these Pixies.”

“Thou diest for it,” said the King, “and it is a lie.”

Now was dead silence for a space. At last the Prince sat down slowly. His face was white and drawn, and he spake unto the King, slowly and in a quiet voice: “O King, that I was somewhat hot with you, forgive me. And if I have omitted any form of allegiance due to you, think rather that in my blood it is to chafe at such ceremonies than that I had any lack of friendship unto you or ever dreamed of questioning your over-lordship. Aught that you shall require of me and that lieth with mine honour, aught of ceremony or fealty, will I with joy perform. And, save against Demonland, is my sword ready against your enemies. But here, O King, tottereth a tower ready to fall athwart our friendship and pash it in pieces. It is known to you, O King, and to all the lords of Witchland, that my bones were whitening these six years in Impland the More if Lord Juss had not saved me from the barbarous Imps that followed Fax Fay Faz, who besieged me four months with my small following shut up in Lida Nanguna. My friendship shall you have, O King, if you yield me up my friends.”

But the King said, “I have not thy friends.”

“Show me then the old banquet hall,” said the Prince. The King said, “I will show it thee anon.”

“I will see it now,” said the Prince, and he rose from his seat.

“I will dissemble with thee no longer,” said the King. “I do love thee well. But when thou askest me to yield up to thee Juss and Brandoch Daha, thou askest a thing all Pixyland and thy dear heart’s blood were unable to purchase from me. These be my worst enemies. Thou knowest not at what cost of toil and danger I have at last laid hand on them. And now let not thy hopes make thee an unbeliever, when I swear to thee that Juss and Brandoch Daha shall rot and die in prison.”

And for all his gentle speeches, and offers of wealth and rich advantage and upholding in peace and war, might not La Fireez shake the King. And the King said, “Forbear, La Fireez, or thou wilt vex me. They must rot.”

So when the Prince La Fireez saw that he might not move the King by soft words, he took up his fair crystal goblet, egg-shaped with three claws of gold to stand withal welded to a collar of gold about its middle bossed with topazes, and hurled it at Gorice the King, so that the goblet smote him on the forehead, and the crystal was brast asunder with the force of the blow, and the King’s forehead laid open, and the King strook senseless.

Therewith was huge uproar in the banquet hall; nor would Corund that any should have speedier hand therein than he, but catching up his two-edged sword and crying, “Look to the King, Gro! Here’s distressful revels!” he leaped upon the table. And his sons likewise and Gallandus and the other Witches seized their weapons, and in like manner did La Fireez and his men; and there was battle in the great hall in Carcë. Corinius, whose left hand only might as now wield weapon, even so sprang forth in most gallant wise, calling upon the Prince with many vile words to abide his onset. But the fumes of unbridled potations, that being flown to his brain had made him frantic mad, wrought in his legs more foggily, dulling their wonted nimbleness. And his foot sliding in a puddle of spilt wine he fell backward a grievous fall, striking his head against the polished table. And Corsus that was now well nigh speechless and quite stupefied with drink, so that a baby might tell as well as he what meant this hubbub, reeled cup in hand, shouting, “Drunkenness is better for the body than physic! Drink always, and you shall never die!” So shouting he was smitten square in the mouth by a breast of veal flung at him by Elaron of Pixyland, the captain of the Prince’s bodyguard, and so fell like a hog athwart Corinius, and there lay without sense or motion. Then were the tables overset, and wounds given and taken, and swiftly ran the tide of vantage against the Witches. For albeit the Pixies were none such great soldiers as they of Witchland, yet this served them mightily that they were well nigh sober and their foes as so many casks filled with wine, staggering and raving for the most part from their long tippling and quaffing. Nor did Corund’s amethyst avail him throughly, but the wine clogged his veins so that he waxed scant of breath and his strokes lighter and slower than they were wont.

Now for the love he bare his sister Prezmyra and for his old kindness sake for Witchland, the Prince charged his men to fight only for the overpowering of the Witches, slaying none if so it might be, and on their lives to look to it that the Lord Corund took no hurt. And when they had fairly gotten the mastery, La Fireez made certain of his folk take jars of wine and therewith souse Corund and his men most lustily in the face, while others held them at weapon’s point, until by the power of the wine both within and without they were well brought under. And they barricaded the great doorway of the hall with the benches and table tops and heavy oaken trestles, and La Fireez charged Elaron hold the door with the most of his following, and set guards without each window that none might come forth from the hall.

But the Prince himself took flamboys and went six in company to the old banquet hall, overpowered the guard, brake open the doors, and so stood before Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha that hung shackled to the wall side by side. Something dazzled they were in the sudden torch-light, but Lord Brandoch Daha spake and hailed the Prince, and his mocking haughty lazy accents were scarcely touched with hollowness, for all his hunger-starving and long watching and the cark and care of his affliction. “La Fireez!” he said. “Day ne’er broke up till now. And methought ye were yonder false fitchews fostered in filth and fen, the spawn of Witchland, returned again to fleer and flout at us.”

La Fireez told them how things had gone, and he said, “Occasion gallopeth apace. Upon this bargain do I loose you, that ye come incontinently with me out of Carcë, and seek no revenge to-night upon the Witches.”

Juss said yea to this; and Brandoch Daha laughed, saying, “Prince, I so love thee, I could refuse thee nothing, were it shave half my beard and go in fustian till harvest-time, sleep in my clothes, and discourse pious nothings seven hours a day with my lady’s lap-dog. This night we be utterly thine. An instant only bear with us: this fare shows too good to rest untasted after so much looking on. It were discourteous too to leave it so.” Therewith, their chains being now stricken off, he eat a great slice of turkey and three quails boned and served in jelly, and Juss a dozen plovers’ eggs and a cold partridge. Lord Brandoch Daha said, “I prithee break the egg-shells, Juss, when the meat is out, lest some sorcerer should prick or write thy name thereon, and so mischief thy person.” And pouring out a stoup of wine, he quaffed it off, and filling it again, “Perdition catch me if it be not mine own wine of Krothering! Saw any a carefuller host than King Gorice?” And he pledged Lord fuss in the second cup, saying, “I will drink with thee next in Carcë when the King of Witchland and all the lords thereof are slain.”

Thereafter they took their weapons that lay by on the table, set there to distress their souls and with little expectation they should so take them up again; and glad at heart albeit somewhat stiff of limb they went forth with La Fireez from that banquet hall.

When they were come into the court-yard fuss spake and said, “Herein might honour hold us back even hadst thou made no bargain with us, La Fireez. For great shame it were to us and we fell upon the lords of Witchland when they were drunk and unable to meet us in equal battle. But let us ere we be gone from Carcë ransack this hold for my kinsman Goldry Bluszco, since for his sake only and in hope to find him here we fared on this journey.”

“So you touch no other thing but only Goldry if ye shall find him, I am content,” said the Prince.

So when they had found keys they ransacked all Carcë, even to the dread chamber where the King had conjured and the vaults and cellars below the river. But it availed not.

And as they stood in the court-yard in the torchlight there came forth on a balcony the Lady Prezmyra in her nightgown, disturbed by this ransacking. Ethereal as a cloud she seemed, pavilioned in the balmy night, as a cloud touched by the exhalations of the unrisen moon. “What transformation is this?” said she. “Demons loose in the court?”

“Content thee, dear heart,” said the Prince. “Thy man is safe, and all else beside as I think; save that the King hath a broken head, the which I lament, and will without question soon be healed. They lie all in the banquet hall to-night, being too sleepy-sodden with the feast to take their chambers.”

Prezmyra cried, “My fears are fallen upon me. Art thou broken with Witchland?”

“That may I not forejudge,” he answered. “Tell them to-morrow that nought I did in hatred, and nought but what I was by circumstance enforced to. For I am not such a coward nor so great a villain as leave my friends caged up while strength is left me to work for their setting free.”

“You must straightway forth from Carcë,” said Prezmyra, “and that o’ the instant. My step-son Hacmon, which was sent to gather strength to awe thee if need were, rideth by now from the south with a great company. Thy horses are fresh, and ye may well outdistance the King’s men if they ride after you. If thou wilt not yet raise up a river of blood betwixt us, begone.”

“Why fare thee well, then, sister. And doubt it not, these rifts ’tween me and Witchland shall soon be patched up and forgot.” So spake the Prince with a merry voice, yet grieved at heart. For well he weened the King should never pardon him that blow, nor his robbing him of his prey.

But she said, sadly, “Farewell, my brother. And my heart tells me I shall never see thee more. When thou took’st these from prison, thou didst dig up two mandrakes shall bring sorrow and death to thee and to me and to all Witchland.”

The Prince was silent, but Lord fuss bowed to Prezmyra saying, “Madam, these things be on the knees of Fate. But imagine not that while life and breath be in us we shall leave to uphold the Prince thy brother. His foes be our foes for this night sake.”

“Thou swearest it?” she said.

He answered, “Madam, I swear it unto thee and unto him.”

The Lady Prezmyra withdrew sadly to her chamber. And in short space she heard their horse-hooves on the bridge, and looking forth beheld where they galloped on the Way of Kings dim in the coppery light of a waning moon rising over Pixyland. So sate she by the window of Corund’s lofty bed-chamber gazing through the night, long after her brother and the lords of Demonland and her brother’s men were ridden beyond her seeing, long after their last hoof-beat had ceased to echo on the road. In a while fresh horse-hooves sounded from the south, and a noise as of many riding in company; and she knew it was young Hacmon back from Permio.

ornament

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/e/eddison/er/worm/chapter7.html

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