Worms Of the Earth by Robert Ervin Howard Follow story

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Bran Mak Morn, King of the Picts, vows revenge on the Roman governor Titus Sulla after witnessing the crucifixion of a fellow Pict. He seeks forbidden aid from the Worms of the Earth, a race of creatures who were once men but after generations of living underground have become monstrous and semi-reptilian. He secures their help after stealing a religious item of theirs from a barrow, trading it back in return for them delivering Sulla to him for a battle to the death. However, Sulla's mind is broken from his contact with the horrific Worms of the Earth and Bran Mak Morn slays him in mercy rather than vengeance, realising that some weapons are too foul to use, even against Rome.


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Chapter 1

"Strike in the nails, soldiers, and let our guest see the reality

of our good Roman justice!"

The speaker wrapped his purple cloak closer about his powerful

frame and settled back into his official chair, much as he might have

settled back in his seat at the Circus Maximus to enjoy the clash of

gladiatorial swords. Realization of power colored his every move.

Whetted pride was necessary to Roman satisfaction, and Titus Sulla was

justly proud; for he was military governor of Eboracum and answerable

only to the emperor of Rome. He was a strongly built man of medium

height, with the hawk-like features of the pure-bred Roman. Now a

mocking smile curved his full lips, increasing the arrogance of his

haughty aspect. Distinctly military in appearance, he wore the golden-

scaled corselet and chased breastplate of his rank, with the short

stabbing sword at his belt, and he held on his knee the silvered

helmet with its plumed crest. Behind him stood a clump of impassive

soldiers with shield and spear--blond titans from the Rhineland.

Before him was taking place the scene which apparently gave him so

much real gratification--a scene common enough wherever stretched the

far-flung boundaries of Rome. A rude cross lay flat upon the barren

earth and on it was bound a man--half-naked, wild of aspect with his

corded limbs, glaring eyes and shock of tangled hair. His executioners

were Roman soldiers, and with heavy hammers they prepared to pin the

victim's hands and feet to the wood with iron spikes.

Only a small group of men watched this ghastly scene, in the dread

place of execution beyond the city walls: the governor and his

watchful guards; a few young Roman officers; the man to whom Sulla had

referred as "guest" and who stood like a bronze image, unspeaking.

Beside the gleaming splendor of the Roman, the quiet garb of this man

seemed drab, almost somber.

He was dark, but he did not resemble the Latins around him. There

was about him none of the warm, almost Oriental sensuality of the

Mediterranean which colored their features. The blond barbarians

behind Sulla's chair were less unlike the man in facial outline than

were the Romans. Not his were the full curving red lips, nor the rich

waving locks suggestive of the Greek. Nor was his dark complexion the

rich olive of the south; rather it was the bleak darkness of the

north. The whole aspect of the man vaguely suggested the shadowed

mists, the gloom, the cold and the icy winds of the naked northern

lands. Even his black eyes were savagely cold, like black fires

burning through fathoms of ice.

His height was only medium but there was something about him which

transcended mere physical bulk--a certain fierce innate vitality,

comparable only to that of a wolf or a panther. In every line of his

supple, compact body, as well as in his coarse straight hair and thin

lips, this was evident--in the hawk-like set of the head on the corded

neck, in the broad square shoulders, in the deep chest, the lean

loins, the narrow feet. Built with the savage economy of a panther, he

was an image of dynamic potentialities, pent in with iron self-

control.

At his feet crouched one like him in complexion--but there the

resemblance ended. This other was a stunted giant, with gnarly limbs,

thick body, a low sloping brow and an expression of dull ferocity, now

clearly mixed with fear. If the man on the cross resembled, in a

tribal way, the man Titus Sulla called guest, he far more resembled

the stunted crouching giant.

"Well, Partha Mac Othna," said the governor with studied

effrontery, "when you return to your tribe, you will have a tale to

tell of the justice of Rome, who rules the south."

"I will have a tale," answered the other in a voice which betrayed

no emotion, just as his dark face, schooled to immobility, showed no

evidence of the maelstrom in his soul.

"Justice to all under the rule of Rome," said Sulla. "Pax Romana!

Reward for virtue, punishment for wrong!" He laughed inwardly at his

own black hypocrisy, then continued: "You see, emissary of Pictland,

how swiftly Rome punishes the transgressor."

"I see," answered the Pict in a voice which strongly-curbed anger

made deep with menace, "that the subject of a foreign king is dealt

with as though he were a Roman slave."

"He has been tried and condemned in an unbiased court," retorted

Sulla.

"Aye! And the accuser was a Roman, the witnesses Roman, the judge

Roman! He committed murder? In a moment of fury he struck down a Roman

merchant who cheated, tricked and robbed him, and to injury added

insult--aye, and a blow! Is his king but a dog, that Rome crucifies

his subjects at will, condemned by Roman courts? Is his king too weak

or foolish to do justice, were he informed and formal charges brought

against the offender?"

"Well," said Sulla cynically, "you may inform Bran Mak Morn

yourself. Rome, my friend, makes no account of her actions to

barbarian kings. When savages come among us, let them act with

discretion or suffer the consequences."

The Pict shut his iron jaws with a snap that told Sulla further

badgering would elicit no reply. The Roman made a gesture to the

executioners. One of them seized a spike and placing it against the

thick wrist of the victim, smote heavily. The iron point sank deep

through the flesh, crunching against the bones. The lips of the man on

the cross writhed, though no moan escaped him. As a trapped wolf

fights against his cage, the bound victim instinctively wrenched and

struggled. The veins swelled in his temples, sweat beaded his low

forehead, the muscles in arms and legs writhed and knotted. The

hammers fell in inexorable strokes, driving the cruel points deeper

and deeper, through wrists and ankles; blood flowed in a black river

over the hands that held the spikes, staining the wood of the cross,

and the splintering of bones was distinctly heard. Yet the sufferer

made no outcry, though his blackened lips writhed back until the gums

were visible, and his shaggy head jerked involuntarily from side to

side.

The man called Partha Mac Othna stood like an iron image, eyes

burning from an inscrutable face, his whole body hard as iron from the

tension of his control. At his feet crouched his misshapen servant,

hiding his face from the grim sight, his arms locked about his

master's knees. Those arms gripped like steel and under his breath the

fellow mumbled ceaselessly as if in invocation.

The last stroke fell; the cords were cut from arm and leg, so that

the man would hang supported by the nails alone. He had ceased his

struggling that only twisted the spikes in his agonizing wounds. His

bright black eyes, unglazed, had not left the face of the man called

Partha Mac Othna; in them lingered a desperate shadow of hope. Now the

soldiers lifted the cross and set the end of it in the hole prepared,

stamped the dirt about it to hold it erect. The Pict hung in midair,

suspended by the nails in his flesh, but still no sound escaped his

lips. His eyes still hung on the somber face of the emissary, but the

shadow of hope was fading.

"He'll live for days!" said Sulla cheerfully. "These Picts are

harder than cats to kill! I'll keep a guard of ten soldiers watching

night and day to see that no one takes him down before he dies. Ho,

there, Valerius, in honor of our esteemed neighbor, King Bran Mak

Morn, give him a cup of wine!"

With a laugh the young officer came forward, holding a brimming

wine cup, and rising on his toes, lifted it to the parched lips of the

sufferer. In the black eyes flared a red wave of unquenchable hatred;

writhing his head aside to avoid even touching the cup, he spat full

into the young Roman's eyes. With a curse Valerius dashed the cup to

the ground, and before any could halt him, wrenched out his sword and

sheathed it in the man's body.

Sulla rose with an imperious exclamation of anger; the man called

Partha Mac Othna had started violently, but he bit his lip and said

nothing. Valerius seemed somewhat surprized at him as he sullenly

cleansed his sword. The act had been instinctive, following the insult

to Roman pride, the one thing unbearable.

"Give up your sword, young sir!" exclaimed Sulla. "Centurion

Publius, place him under arrest. A few days in a cell with stale bread

and water will teach you to curb your patrician pride in matters

dealing with the will of the empire. What, you young fool, do you not

realize that you could not have made the dog a more kindly gift? Who

would not rather desire a quick death on the sword than the slow agony

on the cross? Take him away. And you, centurion, see that guards

remain at the cross so that the body is not cut down until the ravens

pick bare the bones. Partha Mac Othna, I go to a banquet at the house

of Demetrius--will you not accompany me?"

The emissary shook his head, his eyes fixed on the limp form which

sagged on the black-stained cross. He made no reply. Sulla smiled

sardonically, then rose and strode away, followed by his secretary who

bore the gilded chair ceremoniously, and by the stolid soldiers, with

whom walked Valerius, head sunken.

The man called Partha Mac Othna flung a wide fold of his cloak

about his shoulder, halted a moment to gaze at the grim cross with its

burden, darkly etched against the crimson sky, where the clouds of

night were gathering. Then he stalked away, followed by his silent

servant.

July 26, 2016, 10:18 a.m. 0 Report Embed 0
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