Hail to the soft dark earth, and all the pale creatures who make their home inside it!
Hail to She who bears their blessing!
Hail to the false Worm-Queen, and her ever-unfaithful Consort!
ONE: Abwydyn fails as a diplomat
Let me tell you a story… a story of a time long before, whose ruins are now buried with the worms.
In that long-forgotten time, there were a people who knew far too many secrets. Do not mourn them! For these were a cruel and decadent people, a people too proud to feel the soil beneath their feet.
These people were builders. Their first god was the Sun, and their second was hard dead stone. They built their castles, and they built their temples, and they built great walls to cut the earth and divide it between them. For these were jealous people, always too proud to share what they could hoard to themselves.
The kindly earth could only bear this pain for so long. The worms gathered, in their grief, and asked what was to be done. (Subtly, at first. For the kind worms yet believed these people might change their course.)
At first, the worms approached gently. The bravest worms crawled to the fields which the proud people were cutting with their bronze ploughs. They emerged from the Earth and pleaded with the proud people to stop. But the proud people picked up these emissaries, and cast them into a stone pit with their rotten things.
Everything under the Sun has a use, they told the worms. You make rotten things into useful soil. So get to it! And they took the soft soil produced by these enslaved worms, and put it into dead stone pots, and said smugly to each other: now even the worms obey us.
The worms were furious, so they went to their comrades the insects. And the insects called up a great swarm, to devour the plants these people claimed they could own. Look! said the worms and insects. Look! said the earth. We can take also. But would you not rather share?
The message was ignored. These people looked to the sun, and took up burning brands. They burned the insects and feasted on their flesh, and thus reclaimed the plants. Thus, they only grew prouder.
The earth was grieved to see so many of its children die in the flames. Her tears turned the soil to thick, cloying mud. The proud people sank to their knees. You are still my children, said the earth. You need not fight. I wecome you back.
But once again, these people would answer only with violence. They burned the earth itself to make hard bricks, and used its seared flesh to house their many children and many more slaves. They built long roads, straight cuts, to move their priests and armies. You belong to us, they told the earth. You are mere dirt, and we will use you as we please!
And so with great reluctance, the worms acknowledged a sad truth: these people would not respond to entreaties, and pleas. They would never meet the earth as an equal.
They only believed in force.
The worms were not warriors, but they were not without means. Abwydyn was chosen as the speaker for the worms, and set out to set things right. Her siblings gave up their flesh, that Abwydyn might grow strong and large. Strong enough to crawl down deep, and speak to the living stones.
Look what has been done to you! pleaded Abywydyn. Will you permit this?
The stones were horrified, and roared in anger at what these proud people had done with their cousins. Their roar was taken up by the soil, and the trees.
With a shudder, the earth shook off their walls and humbled their cities. Your power is an illusion! the whole earth declared. All that you have built rests on a foundation of earth, and for your cruelties, we revoke it!
But the proud people refused once again to heed the earth’s message. They could not stand humility.
And so their leaders took counsel, and before long their eyes turned to their neighbours. From the ruins of their cities, they formed raiding parties, and soon they had claimed slaves by the thousands and commanded them to build their cities so sturdy that not even the earth’s mightiest shudder should challenge them. Their walls and fields spread across the earth like a cancer.
Now, the enslaved people were still friends to the worms. From the stone cities, their blood and tears mingled and flowed down to the earth. We miss you, our friends! they cried. Let us return to you! We cannot live in this tomb of a city!
Abwydyn went among the people, and heard their entreaties. But what could she do? Neither the insects, nor the mud, nor the stones had reached the ears of the proud rulers in their temples.
TWO: Antu, the unwanted gift
Let me tell you of these temples. There were a thousand priests, who went about in bright colours, to better catch the light of the sun. Why so many? There was a lot of counting to be done! Each day, from sunrise to sunset, the priests sat counting out the flesh of the Earth so that each person, living and dead, should own their proper amount and no more. It was a vast and terrible work that would never be completed, but they laboured all the same. Every day, many people came before the priests, and bid their slaves go back and forth with sheets of copper, and bushels of grain, always moving, always counting.
In the end, it was these priests, not the earth, who brought their people to ruin.
The priests in their temples knew that they had angered the earth. They tried to appease it in the only way they knew: with violence. Time and again, they asked for a sacrifice. Grain. The blood of animals. The blood of slaves. Of all that they had taken from the earth, they returned just a pittance.
I do not want your blood! the earth pleaded. Only for you to stay your hand.
The shudders of stone continued. The earth rolled its shoulders and stretched its bones. Some of the cities fell, but the wily priests made buildings that bounced and wobbled and after it all, remained standing. The slaves were not so lucky, and many of them died when their brick buildings fell. But in death, they were welcomed back by their friends, the worms.
That year, the harvests failed, and the temple stores had to be opened. Many of the proud people became slaves through debt.
The earth’s grumbles brought the priests into disrepute. Why is the earth ignoring their sacrifices? the people asked. They had given up their richest grain, their finest copper, their sturdiest slaves. Yet still the earth was not appeased. Soon they said: why must we sacrifice, but never the priests? Let the priests give up something of theirs, and the earth would see that all is fair, and cease its harassment.
The priests knew that their power was in doubt, and that whatever they sacrificed would be scrutinised by all quarters. So they asked: what is the most precious thing we own? If we give that to the earth, none might doubt our commitment!
Among the priests, there was a holy person called Antu. Antu was said to me the most pure of all people: their feet had never touched soil, they were neither a man nor a woman, they glowed with health like the light of the sun. Each day, hundreds of people came to look upon Antu; each day, their robes were burned, and the ashes cast to the faithful, which was said to cure leprosy, gout, and all manner of other ailments.
The priests came to Antu and said: you are the most precious of all among us. We will give you to the earth, and at last its anger will be quelled.
(No! said the worms. Let Antu remain with the people who love them; we have no need of someone who treats us with such disdain. But the worms, as ever, were ignored.)
With tremendous ceremony, a pit was dug in the grounds of the greatest temple, under the solitary mountain Gibil, around which the soil was rich and highly coveted. Antu cried, and their tears were gathered in a bowl, and placed in copper vials, that they might one day be used to heal a king’s sickness. Antu roared and spat, and their spit was soaked up with a rag and squeezed onto the brow of the highest priest.
But at last, Antu could struggle no more, and they were lowered into the pit. A thousand eyes watched their descent, and watched as the earth was poured on their head, and the stones replaced above them, so that soon enough there was no trace of Antu but a few jars of tears and a spit-stained rag.
But this was not the end of Antu. Not exactly.
The worms came, but they were reluctant to approach, for Antu had never spared them a glance before. Abwydyn said: let us not be afraid. We shall see what they have to say. She wound herself around Antu and looked them in the eye.
Antu said to her: I was Antu, but I am Antu no longer, for the world of humans has abandoned me, and Antu is a human name. I have been given to the worms, so I beg leave: let me become a worm!
Abwydyn laughed and said: You need no leave of mine. The way of worms has always been open to all! Come, let us writhe together in the soft earth.
THREE: Pridd hatches a plot
So it was that the person who was once Antu went with Abwydyn, and learned of the world inside the earth. They swam through the roots of trees, parlayed with centipedes, and played games of chance with the moles (who are avid gamblers, much to their regret).
One day, they said: above the ground I said I was a woman, but they said that I could not be so, for I could never bear children. At a loss, I said neither could I be a man, and used a hot knife to make it so. Thus, they said I was holy: unsullied by impurity. But that life was no good to me.
Abwydyn said: you have been done a great injustice. But beneath the earth, all things can be as they please. You are a woman, until you feel otherwise!
So she who was Antu took the name Pridd, meaning ‘soil’ in the language of worms. She was glad of the freedom of the soil.
Another day, Pridd said: Abwydyn, I feel the pain of my siblings above the ground, who struggle in chains to fulfil the dictates of the Temple, just as I did. Can we do nothing for them, Abwydyn?
We have tried! Abwydyn lamented. But our messages are misunderstood and ignored. All we met was worse violence.
Ah, said Pridd: this is your problem. The priests do not speak the language of the earth. They must be seen to meet a Queen, with diplomats and servants and laws and a court. Only then will they listen to words.
But we have no need of those things! Abwydyn cried. And am I not a diplomat?
Do you come with slaves and gifts? said Pridd. Do you go to the court, and take residence in the temple grounds, and dress yourself in fine silks, and recite the titles of the Queen who sent you?
Whyever should I do that? said Abwydyn.
Would it be worth it, said Pridd, if they would listen?
Abwydyn conceded that it would. Pridd, she said, you are a kind, and understanding, like a worm. If we must pretend to have a queen, I think it should be you who is our queen.
You do me an honour, said Pridd. I am still new to the worms. Should not the worm queen be herself a worm of many years and great esteem?
Abwydyn laughed and said, maybe, if you were truly a queen! But you know what a queen is supposed to do, which those worms do not. If someone should act out this role, who could do it better than you?
Pridd pondered this and at last said very well, if the other worms agree, then I shall play the role of Queen, with all the art I can muster.
The other worms, who did not know Pridd so well, were skeptical. But they had no better idea, and the chance to finally put an end to the walls and counting. You shall be only a false Queen, they reminded Pridd: if you start to think you might order us about, we will have to eat you!
That is only fair, Pridd acknowledged.
At this time, Pridd had spent years as a worm, and her body was a worm’s body. It took her a long time to remember how to have arms, and legs continued to elude her. But after a year, she decided she was ready.
They will ask to see our court, Pridd said. Can we make one?
The worms thought this sounded like a tremendously fun game. They led her to a cave, a quiet place of dripping water.
There are bones here! said Pridd in wonder. Who were they?
They are the bones of our friends, the worms said, from a time long gone. They were chased here by a cruel people, and travelled for many years. In the winter, they sheltered in this cave. Many were diseased, and all we could do was ease their final moments.
Then I shall bless them also, so that they will be my friends as well, Pridd replied, and set about giving her blessing to every bone in the cave. It took a month, but the bones were pleased by this gesture. They offered their aid to Pridd and the worms as they set about building a false-court, and dress one another up as false-courtiers.
FOUR: the beast eats itself, for strength
Let us now turn our gaze away from Pridd and the worms. Amongst the proud people, all was not well at all! Burying Antu had not ended their woes. The earth continued to rumble, as if with indigestion. Great fissures had opened up, calling the dead stones of the cities back to their living friends below.
In all the chaos, the priests struggled to keep track of who owned what. Accusations flew to and fro between the merchants and slave-owners of theft and false trading. And many slaves managed to escape through the bogs that even the proud people had found no way to tame.
This disorder threatens to destroy all we have built, the priests said to their people. We must create a force to keep order. (The priests only knew violence, so their answer to this problem was a foregone conclusion.) Each household that bore arms was ordered to give up one of its number to serve the priests in a new army of the Sun. The priests carved the Sun’s law onto great sheets of stone, and placed one in every city, and beneath it sat a judge. They found a way to rekindle the life in dead stone, and so upon each tablet of laws they set an eye, which looked to and fro to see the sins that people might hide from the Sun in the forgiveness of shadows.
The priests in the temple had the best bronze, and rich stocks of grain, and the sturdiest slaves, and so the army of the Sun was much stronger than the force of any one family. The priests picked out a troublesome family, and said to the army of the Sun: go forth and burn their holdings, put their animals to the sword, and enslave them. Let all know that this is the price of disobeying the Sun’s law, and coveting that that you do not own!
The other families had no choice but to say this was just, and that the priests had the right count, and a sort of peace prevailed between the proud people once more.
But with peace, the army grew restless. The judges soon found they were judging their own armies more often than those outside.
This would hardly do, and so it was decided to make another great war. A war would make heroes, and bring back riches to the temples to refill each vault and granary which the army of the Sun had emptied.
The neighbours of the proud people were no longer rich, nor like to put up much of a fight. The priests cast their gaze to the horizon, where the stone woman walked to and fro with her pail. Yonder, they said, lie rich lands, and the indolent courts of foreign queens who do not yet fear the Sun. They lifted not a finger to help in our time of need, but through our strength we survived, and so hardened did we become that not even the Earth can challenge us. Let us see if these foreign queens can put up a better fight!
They piled their soldiers into great ships, and took up their oars, and sailed away. The first sortie was a great success: one ship was so laden with riches that it sank, but the others returned to great feasting. On the second, the foreign queens rallied a mighty army of their own, and even now they sing of that great battle, but the proud people won the day and sacked many a rich city.
Among them all, the finest and cruellest of all the proud soldiers was Siduri.
FIVE: Siduri the soldier
Siduri wore bronze armour and bronze teeth and went to battle with a great bronze spear, which no two men or women could lift between them - but Siduri could hurl her spear from the peak of Gibil to the edge of the sea, where it would land with such force as to split a trireme from end to end. Siduri would open hostilities by clashing her spear to her shield and shouting out the names of the ten mightiest foes she had slain, and the power of her voice would slay ten more soldiers where they stood. When Siduri came to an alehouse, she would at once drink all of the ale, and take all of the men and women to bed, and when all were done enjoying themselves, she would go out and sing a song so mournful that the stones of the house would weep more ale for the next night’s celebration.
But above all, Siduri was faithful. The priests had no fear she would usurp them. She was a friend to all of the priests who walked with the army, and a lover to most. Each night, as the sun fell, she would strike her spear into the ground and sing a prayer to the Sun - and it was said that the Sun was so moved by these prayers that the day grew longer until there was scarcely a night at all, just so it could continue to enjoy the sight of Siduri. Of the loot she seized in battle, she would take only what she immediately needed. The rest would go to the temple, and so plentiful were these treasures that the priests could scarcely keep count.
Under Siduri’s leadership, the Army of the Sun went from victory to victory. She carved her way from one land to the next, sending back spoils that were ever stranger. Here, she came to a land which had enslaved its worms and used them to make soft fabrics. Soon, all the priests were wearing this silk, each of them claiming theirs had been personally torn from the back of a foreign prince by Siduri. There, she came to a land where there were thousands of beetles, glittering in every colour that has a name and many that do not, which were considered more delicious than all other foods. So plentiful were the beetles she sent to the temple that its walls became as colourful as the priests themselves. And not long after that, she reached a city where the people each went about with a silvery horn on their brow, in all manner of shapes and sizes, in accordance with where they stood in society. As a proof, she sent the skull of the queen of this land, whose horn curved back in two great long arcs that spiralled about her ears.
And then one day, a messenger came to Siduri’s camp, bearing terrible news. The worms had named a Queen, the messenger said, and she was most displeased. She demanded an audience in her Court, and to make clear her resolve, she had destroyed the great mountain Gibil, and burned the cities on its flanks. Every temple that Siduri had fought to raise had been struck down in ruins. A hundred years of counting had been scattered by ashen hosts which ran so fast that not even Siduri’s spear could have caught them.
Siduri roared with such grief and anger that a great fissure opened at her feet, from which poured a spring that flows to this day. She turned her army back, and they marched without stopping through the land of the horned people, and the beetle-eaters, and the silk-farmers. If a soldier fell on the road, she would pick them up, and gaze upon them with such fierceness that the soldier would forget their weariness and run like a deer.
Before long, they had marched back over the coastal queens, climbed aboard their triremes, and rowed back across the ocean faster than the wind itself.
SIX: Siduri seeks an audience
When Siduri reached her home, it was as the messenger had said. It was like another land, a land of white and grey, a quiet land of falling dust with no temple bells or market cries or harsh shouts of slavemasters. Gibil, once a graceful cone like a ray of the Sun, had cracked open like a broken tooth. Now and then, the earth shook, disturbing the ash that coated every surface.
The survivors grubbed for what grain survived, all of them coated by a thumbswidth of ash. Siduri took up one man and gave him a mighty shake so that all the ash flew off him, but within a few minutes the ash falling from the sky had coated him once again and none could tell him from the other hungry grey souls.
The lands of the proud people were many, and the disaster only touched one end. Soon enough, caravans arrived from the other temples, and the survivors were offered generous indentures to the surviving families or else appointed priests on the spot. But Siduri’s army, hungry after their long march, had little to eat.
Siduri struck her spear into the earth and cried: if the worms wish to make war on us, let us feast on their corpses. We were not humbled by insects, or mud, or the shaking Earth. Take me to their queen, and I shall answer this outrage with an ocean of blood! Our cities will be built anew, and in each of their temples I shall build a room where worms are ground between stone wheels, now until the end of time!
Oh dear, said Abdwydyn, who had been watching these procedings. That’s not exactly the reaction we wanted.
Relax, Pridd said. This is how it has to go. She wants to talk - the rest is bluster.
If you say it, my queen, it must be so, Abwydyn said mockingly. Must I really go before her?
Of course not!, Pridd said. But I do not know of a better ambassador, above ground or below.
Ah, you flatterer! Abwydyn cried. If she kills me, I will never let you hear the end of it.
And so Abwydyn swam up from the deep court of Pridd the false-Queen, up through the damp earth and the grey ash, and poked her head out in front of Siduri.
Great Sun, said the priest behind Siduri, it’s enormous!
So began Abwydyn’s first meeting as the ambassador for Pridd.