The Worm of the Ages

A myth of Färinor, taken from The Tower of Vargon.


The Loring poked the fire vigorously with a stick, making the flames leap on high and sparks climb dizzily into the night. His bald head seemed to glow in the sudden light, and his dark eyes glittered sorcerously. ‘Has nobody got a story to tell us?’

‘Old or new?’ asked Kataki.

‘Old, to be sure,’ said the Loring. ‘Tales and apples are bitter when picked unripe.’

Mazuj sighed. ‘My grandmother used to tell stories, but I don’t remember them well enough. Avel?’

‘I don’t remember my grandmother at all. I was too young when the reapers took her.’

‘Then it falls to me,’ said the Loring. ‘I never had a grandmother, but I can tell you a tale as old as I am, if that will do.’

Kataki laughed. ‘Were there tales so long ago?’ she asked archly.

‘There were deeds,’ the Loring answered; ‘they were made into tales later.’

Avel looked so eager that he almost seemed to smile. ‘Is it a true tale, Master Loring?’

‘As true as words will allow, child. It will not go easily into your speech, but I shall do the best I can.’ The old man stretched his limbs one by one, then sat cross-legged with his hands on his knees, facing the three children across the fire. ‘Hear and heed,’ he intoned, ‘while I tell of the Worm of the Ages.’

‘I don’t like worms,’ Kataki complained.

‘He means a dragon,’ said Mazuj.

The Loring raised a cautioning finger. ‘Not a worm: the Worm, forebear and fountainhead of dragonkind, whose heartbeats were the days, whose breaths were the seasons, even from the beginning of measured time. In the bitter North it made its lair, and there it slept for years untold amid the eternal snows, hard by the Walls of the Void at the limits of the world. It wrapped itself round the pillar of clear rock that is called Telménedh, making a circle of its long body, with its tail in its mouth—’

‘Why ever did it do that?’ Kataki asked.

‘To keep it from interrupting,’ Mazuj suggested.

‘To keep warm, of course,’ said the Loring mildly. ‘There is no cold like the cold of that place; and though the Ancient Fire was in the belly of the Worm, hotter than any fire that has been kindled since, its tail was far from that heat; and so it caught its tail in its mouth, and warmed it with its breath. The cold would have woken it else, and then its dreams would have ended, and with the waking of the Worm the measure of days and seasons would cease. It was a dire danger, and the powers of the world were not unmindful of it.

‘Now on a time the Worm became restless in its sleep—’

‘Did it yawn, and its tail fell out?’

‘Be quiet, Kat,’ Mazuj growled.

‘—for the spirit whose name is not spoken, the Destroyer of Worlds, whispered to it from the Void in poisoned words, to trouble its dreams and chill its fire. Then the stars faltered in their courses, and the rhythm was broken of the days that were the Worm’s heartbeats, and the seasons that were its breaths—’

‘You told us that before,’ said Kataki. Mazuj threw a shoe at her.

The Loring looked askance at them both, but did not deign to make any other answer. ‘—Until the earth and the heavens,’ he went on, ‘trembled at the brink of dissolution. But the powers of the world were forewarned; and the Keepers of the Light took counsel in their fastness at the heart of the world, in the Isles of Light in the midst of the Sundering Sea. And Lysana the Queen knew that the hour was approaching when the Maker would send his children (even such as yourselves) to walk upon the earth; but the Destroyer would forestall him. Then said the Queen, “Evil is the hour, and desperate the peril. Who will hazard his life against the waking of the Worm? For one of the Keepers must stand forth as our champion, lest the world be broken untimely.”

‘Then some would not stand forth for fear of the Worm, and others for want of power, knowing themselves unequal to the task. And some who stood forth the Queen refused because their strength was less than their courage, and some because their skill was less than their strength, until all were tried and found wanting. Then the Queen cried, “Is there no wight among us who can match the might of the Worm?” And the Keepers answered, “There is none.”

‘And the Queen said: “Then we must try a new thing. Send for Telkon the Smith: for the making of new things is in his care.” And Telkon was taken from his smithy and brought before the Queen; and she told him where the Worm lay, and what were its size and strength, and the armament of its claws and teeth, and the armour of its scales, and every other thing that was known to her concerning the Worm. Then Telkon cast his hammer at his feet, and stood a night and a day in thought.

‘Then Telkon spoke at last, saying: “No strength is like unto the Worm’s strength, and no armament like unto its armament. In all the earth there is but one power that approaches it, and that is Ynd Urenn, the Tree of the World. Yet even Ynd Urenn cannot overcome the Worm.”

‘ “Then we are lost,” said the Queen.’

‘It does seem a poor lookout,’ said Kataki. ‘Are you sure this is a true story?’

The two boys glared at her, but the Loring seemed to take no notice. ‘ “I said not so,” said Telkon. “Of its unaided nature the Tree cannot quell the Worm; but haply of its wood I may fashion such a tooth that even the Worm will feel its bite.” And this the Queen bade him do.

‘Then Telkon took up his hammer and went unto Alenna, the midmost of the Isles, where Ynd Urenn grew among the pools and fountains of the stored and garnered Light, with its roots in the deep places of the earth and its branches upholding the sky. And he cut a branch from the Tree, and bore it away to his smithy in the island of Ión Tela, in his own country. Long he wrought upon it, forging it in the secret fires of Ión Tela, only less than the Ancient Fire that was in the belly of the Worm; and the wood was changed beneath his hammer, until at last he wrought a blade of purest adamant, harder than the bones of the earth, imperishable as the Light itself.’

‘What’s adamant?’ Kataki asked.

‘A kind of jewel,’ said Mazuj, glad of the chance to show off. ‘Clear as water, but harder than bronze or carbuncle. I bet it would even crack open your silly head. I’ve seen little ones before.’

The Loring bore this interruption with tranquil patience. As soon as Mazuj was done speaking, he went on: ‘That was the blade Tan-an-Nydh, which Telkon bore ever after. But in the hour of its making he brought it unto the Queen and put it in her hand. And the Queen said: “Who now will stand forth, and bear this blade as our champion against the waking of the Worm?” But again none stood forth; and some among the Keepers answered the Queen, saying, “What hand should bear it but the one that was its maker?”

‘Then Telkon was wroth, and cried, “Have I not done enough? Is there no other hand that can wield this weapon? Cannot Bringúr the bold, or Orandel the mighty? Are there no warriors among us?” But none answered him; and the Queen gave him the blade again, saying, “Already thy service is beyond all price. Yet serve but a little longer, and fame beyond the ending of the world shall be thy guerdon.” ’

(Here Kataki looked as if she might ask what a guerdon was, but since Mazuj seemed not to know either, she kept silent instead.)

‘ “O Queen,” said Telkon, “your promise would be the greater if you pledged to speak well of me on the morrow: for the ending of the world may be past by then. But if none other of the Keepers will do this thing, then I will bear the burden, even as I have forged the blade: and let it stand to their everlasting shame that none of my people helped.” And with that saying, he turned on his heel and strode from the presence of the Queen without taking leave.

‘Then some of the Keepers were wroth, and one who stood at hand said: “Punish this insolence, O Queen!” But the Queen answered: “If he succeed at this jeopardy, he will earn the right to what insolence he pleases. If he fail, there will be punishment enough for us all.” ’

‘I could do without these Keepers,’ said Mazuj. ‘They remind me of my brother. Talk bigger than they act, and they use the word punish a lot.’

‘Child,’ said the Loring, ‘you could not. The Light must be kept, and so Keepers there must be.’

‘Ah,’ said Avel knowingly. ‘They’re needed, so they can get away with things. Like the reapers.’

‘Hush, both of you,’ said Kataki. ‘I want to hear the rest of the story. Did Telkon go after the Worm?’

‘He did,’ said the Loring. ‘From the council of the Keepers he went straightway to the Daughters of Cómar on their strand of pearl, and besought of them a vessel to bear him across the seas to the bitter North. And they gave him a coracle of willow and hazel, stretched over with the skin of a great shark that they had taken on the shore. And they themselves guided him over the Sundering Sea, being wise in all the lore of their father, who was its lord. Swiftly he passed, with neither storm nor calm to stay him; and he beached the coracle on the icy strand, and left it in their keeping, for the Daughters of Cómar cannot go far from the seas of their father.’

‘Now behold.’ The Loring’s voice fell almost to a whisper; the children leant forward to hear him better. ‘All is silent on the frozen shore. No sound is there but the creak of his feet upon the snow as Telkon strides the bitter leagues beneath the stars. He rests not, nor breaks his journey; for he has come without fire, lest it waken the Worm, or warn it of his presence. Though the Keepers are immortal, their flesh is flesh withal, even as yours or mine; and the cold of that land is death to all flesh. He who sleeps there without fire, sleeps for ever.’

Mazuj yawned. ‘I could sleep for ever, but I’d rather have the fire.’

‘Be quiet,’ said Kataki.

‘Now Telkon draws nigh the pillar of Telménedh, where the Worm still lies in fitful slumber. No other living thing is in the land; only snow and ice, and the shards of great rocks riven by frost. Nearer and nearer the Worm he creeps, and Tan-an-Nydh is in his hand. His one thought is to come upon the monster ere it wakes, and plunge the blade into its heart. But he is betrayed by the gleam of it in the starlight, and by the soft creak of his footfalls. A mighty eye blinks open, and its clear gaze falls upon him. The Worm awakes!’

‘I knew it,’ said Avel. Kataki glared at him.

‘Red and gold shone the Ancient Fire in the eyes of the Worm, as the beast bestirred itself; but all other lights went out. The stars stopped in their courses, flickered and failed. Beyond the little circle illumined by the Worm, all was as dark as the Void. And by fate or ill-chance, Telkon had come upon the Worm head first, far from its heart where he thought to strike, all too near the jaws of iron and the nostrils of burning brimstone.

‘Now the tail of the Worm was loosed, and its jaws began to open. Mighty was Telkon and great of stature, according to your measure or mine; but the mouth of the Worm yawned like a cavern. In another moment it would swallow him whole, and all hope would be ended, and the world dissolve in darkness. With desperate strength, the Smith of Ión Tela struck at the only place he could reach. Tan-an-Nydh bit deep into the tail of the Worm, and severed it from the body.

‘Now the jaws of the Worm opened wide indeed, but not to bite. It gave such a cry of anguish as the world never heard before or since. It was heard even in the Isles of Light, and the tortured rocks of the Worm’s cold lair were shivered to rubble. Deaf from the noise was Telkon, and battered by the blast of the Worm’s breath; but he clung as for life to the tail, and so held his stead. And before the Worm could lift its head to strike, he pushed with all his might, and lodged the tail deep in the Worm’s throat.’

‘Clever, that,’ said Mazuj.

‘Now the Ancient Fire was stopped within the Worm, and its teeth were sunk into its own severed flesh; and its claws were yet far away. Before it could bring them to bear, Telkon threw himself with desperate strength upon its neck, and smote its golden scales; and he held fast to the Worm, though it darted its head to and fro, trying in vain to throw him free; and it crushed his leg against the shivered rocks, so that he went halt of one foot ever after. Long time they strove, either against other, but Telkon was the victor. With his last strength he clove through the Worm’s hide, and the snows of Telménedh were dyed with the fount of its scarlet blood. Then he swooned, and lay long in the dark beside his fallen foe.

‘But the Ancient Fire was failing, and the Worm’s flesh grew cold; and the pinch of the cold awoke Telkon, and he knew his task unfinished. For who would mark the days and the seasons, now that the Worm was no more? For this purpose its flesh and bone were made; and to this purpose they must be restored. So Telkon wrought upon the body of the Worm with all his skill, and all his lore, and all his might; and he made three figures as of men, and fell upon his knees, and besought the Maker to favour his handiwork, and breathe new life into the flesh that he had slain in the extremity of the world’s need. And his prayer was answered.

‘Now these were the three figures that Telkon wrought. From the heart of the Worm he made Eänol, which is Time, the first and eldest: to him fell the task of measuring the hours and days, the years and seasons, as the Worm had done before. When Eänol first drew breath and his eyes were opened, the stars were kindled again to life, and the heavens began once more to turn in their courses; and by this sign, more than any other, the Keepers far away knew that Telkon’s task was accomplished.

‘From the Worm’s eyes he made Alqueron, which is Truth: for the slumber of the Worm was filled with dreams, and in those dreams it knew all things that come to pass under heaven. That duty fell now upon Alqueron, and he awoke with full knowledge of all that had gone before. Nothing that is done in the circles of the world is hidden from him.

‘From the teeth of the Worm, Telkon fashioned a pale and dreadful figure; and that was Vargon, which is Death. It was his doom to see to the ending of lives, and of places, and of the world itself, at the end of the days that were measured for them by Eänol. So from the ruin of the Worm arose these three, Time, Truth, and Death; but Death overreached his purpose. In after times, when mortal men walked upon the earth, he went among them, gathering the souls of the dead; and he perceived their sorrows, and the disorder of their lives, from which those sorrows chiefly sprang; and it came into his thought that he would order their living, even as their dying, and make himself their lord. And he raised up a tower of blackened bones, and cast a deep shadow between the stars and the Western lands, so that no light should fall upon them save by his leave. Those lands you have seen, and from the shadow of his tower you have taken flight.’

Avel’s eyes narrowed, and he gave the Loring a suspicious look. ‘Is all that true?’

‘As true as the shadow yonder.’ The Loring pointed at the western sky, where the stars were blotted out by the bank of ebon cloud. ‘And as true as my eyes and beard.’

‘But how do you know?’

‘Child, it is my place to know.’

‘Look here,’ said Kataki in a tone of deep disapproval. ‘You say Telkon made those three men, or figures, or whatever they were. That used up some bits and pieces of the Worm. What happened to the rest? It wasn’t wasted, was it?’

The Loring smiled. ‘Nothing is wasted, child; though few things are put to the best use they could be. For this, too, Telkon took thought. From the bones of the Worm he made a race of creatures, like the children of the Maker who were to come, but tougher in the fibre and less in stature; these were the helpers of Alqueron, and all things that they have seen or known are carved upon the walls of their deep-dolven mansions. Dwarfs, your people call them. And from the Worm’s flesh he made creatures like unto the Worm itself, the fathers of dragons. But the blood of the Worm sank into the earth, and on it Telkon laid no hand. It also lives, and takes unto itself strange forms.’

‘What kind of forms?’ the children asked.

A troubled look was on the Loring’s face. ‘I cannot say. In all the tongues of Färinor, there are no words for what is done in the deepest places. Even the Dwarfs know little about it. But the blood of the Worm is there, far below us, gnawing at the roots of the world. One day, I fear, it will bring the world to ruin. But that day is far off yet. And all the days before that are the gift of Telkon’s valour, though he got little thanks for it from his own people. They mocked him for his lame foot, and laughed at the tale of his deeds, and went back to their feasting and merrymaking. The world was safe, and they imagined that it had been saved for them.

‘I really don’t like these Keepers,’ said Mazuj. ‘If I could get my hands on them, I’d teach them a thing or two.’

Again the Loring smiled. ‘The Sundering Sea is wide, but not so wide that the Keepers cannot be taught. Perhaps you will do it one day. Who can tell? The future is dark even to me.’

Comments

  1. Well told, sir, in the ancient manner.

  2. Scholar-at-Arms says:

    Excellent. I take it this is from the sequel to the End of Earth and Sky? Looking forward to it.

    • From a prequel, actually. It has been in hand for many years, but I have to pick and choose which projects to finish, and in what order. When The Eye of the Maker is done, I hope to return to it.

  3. Wow, That’s amazing. This is the legendary history of your Eye of the Maker series, yes?

    • Quite so. Färinor was the former world from which the Fair Folk (and the ancestors of mortal men) originally came. Later on in The Eye of the Maker, we meet the Old Kell, leader of the Fair Folk, who actually came across at the end of the one world and the beginning of the next, and has seen Färinor with his own eyes.

  4. I remember you telling me about this, ages ago. It’s even better told like this.

  5. sdorman2014 says:

    wow, yes. thanks!

  6. Lovy.

  7. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Applause!

  8. Oh, I like that quite a lot. It has the ring of truth and heavy years upon it.

  9. Stephen K says:

    Very good indeed.
    This might be impertinence, but I immediately started to think of this story’s applicability. I can’t see the name Telkon without thinking ‘Tolkien’ and the story becomes a parable. In this interpretation the tree Ynd Urenn is the corpus of myth, especially Northern myth, of which Tolkien was such a distinguished scholar; the sword Tan-an-Nydh is his scholarly work; the Keepers are the scholars and critics who should have kept the light of the old myths alive in the dark age that we call modernity. The Worm is the powers of chaos, never closer to waking than in that dark age. Since the Keepers wouldn’t help in subduing those powers, Telkon/ Tolkien had to do the job himself; and that renovated retelling and transformation of the myths, their re-creation for the modern world, is the Middle-Earth corpus. For which, of course, he got small thanks from the Keepers/ critics. But he has much honour from those who love the Isles of Light.
    This leaves out a lot of elements, but it seems true to me, perhaps because the themes of the story are eternal.

    • Needless to say, none of that particular application was in my mind when I wrote it, else it would have been a low, mean, ornery allegory. But I rather like the ingenuity with which you have worked it out, and the themes, as you say, if not precisely eternal, are indefinitely recurring.

      The name ‘Telkon’ actually comes from my own invented languages, which are envisioned as an offshoot of ‘Nostratic’ somewhat earlier than the time at which Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Uralic became distinct. Many of the word-roots are familiar to Indo-Europeanists (or Nostraticists), but naturally, some are new coinages. It seemed fitting that *tel-(ek-) should be a root meaning stone, with especial reference to its fixity and permanence; so mostly applied to bedrock, but also to gemstones and the like. Tel-ek-yon > Telkon is ‘He Who Is Of the Rock’, the original stonemason, and also the inventor of metallurgy and the other mineral arts and sciences.

      • Hrodgar says:

        You know, Telkon is also not all that phonetically distant from Tubalcain. That’s kind of nifty.

      • I wanted to say that your story is all wrong, because dragonslayers are by trade either carpenters (the thunder gods and heroes) or shoemakers (the solar gods and heroes), but never smiths. But then I read Hamlet’s Mill of Santillana, and it is all about smiths as dragon-slayers.

Trackbacks

  1. Impendices? says:

    […] have, as it happens, written and posted a couple of things of this kind already: ‘The Worm of the Ages’ and ‘Droll’s Audition’ (both collected in The Worm of the Ages). There is also a lot of […]

  2. […] ‘The Worm of the Ages’ tells how Telkon slew the primaeval dragon, the ouroboros of Färinor, whose heartbeats and breaths measured the days and seasons. From the body of the Worm he fashioned the bodies of divers creatures, and the Maker gave them life: chief among them, dwarfs, dragons, and the three brothers of Wyrd – Eänol, Alqueron, and Vargon, that is Time, Truth, and Death. […]

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