The Laidley Worm
by John & Jean
In a land where fairy tales die hard, it is sometimes no easy task to
discriminate between what is solid historical fact, what is fact,
moss-grown and flower-covered, like an old, old tomb, and what is mere
fantasy, the innocent fancy of a nation in its childhood, turned at last
into stone—a lasting stalactite—from the countless droppings of belief
bestowed upon it by countless generations.
Scientists nowadays crushingly hold prehistoric beasts, or still
existent marsh gas, accountable for dragons and serpents and other fauna
of legendary history; but in certain country districts there are some
animals that no amount of Board School information, nor countless
Science Siftings from penny papers can ever destroy, and to this
invulnerable class belongs the Laidley Worm of Spindleston-Heugh.
High above the yellow sand that borders the fierce North Sea on the
extreme north of the Northumbrian coast still stands the castle of
Bamborough. Many a fierce invasion has it withstood during the thousand
odd years since first King Ida placed his stronghold there. Many a cruel
storm has it weathered, while lordly ships and little fishing cobles
have been driven to destruction by the lashing waves on the rocks down
below. And there it was that, once on a day, there lived a King who,
when his fair wife died and left to him the care of her handsome,
fearless boy, and her beautiful, gentle daughter, did, as is the fashion
of every King of fairy tale, wed again, and wed a wicked wife. To the
south land he went, while his son sailed the seas in search of high
adventure, and his daughter acted as chatelaine in the castle by the
sea, and there he met the woman who came to Bamborough all those many
years ago, and who, they say, remains there still.
As the dawn rose over the grey sea, making even the dark rocks of the
Farnes like a garden where only pink roses grew, the Princess Margaret
would be on the battlements looking out, always looking out, for her
father and brother to return. At sunset, when the sea was golden and the
plain stretched purple away to the south, landward and seaward her eyes
would still gaze. And at night, when the silver moon made a path on the
sea, the Princess would listen longingly to the lap of the waves, and
strain her beautiful eyes through the darkness for the sails of the ship
that should bring the two that she loved safe home again. But when the
day came when the King, her father, returned, and led through the gate
the lady who was his bride, there were many who knew that it would have
been well for the Princess had she still been left in her loneliness.
Gracious indeed was her welcome to her mother's supplanter, for she
loved her father, and this was the wife of his choice.
"Oh! welcome, father," she said, and handed to him the keys of the
castle of which she had kept such faithful ward, and, holding up a face
as fresh and fragrant as a wild rose at the dawn of a June day, she
kissed her step-mother.
"Welcome, my step-mother," she said, "for all that's here is yours."
Many a gallant Northumbrian lord was there that day, and many a lord
from the southern land was in the King's noble retinue. One of them it
was who spoke what the others thought, and to the handsome Queen who had
listened already overmuch to the praises her husband sang of his
daughter, the Princess Margaret, the words were as acid in a wound.
"Meseemeth," said he, "that in all the north country there is no lady so
fair, nor none so good as this most beautiful Princess."
Proudly the Queen drew herself up, and from under drooped eyelids, with
the look of a hawk as it swoops for its prey, she made answer to the
lord from the south.
"I am the Queen," she said; "ye might have excepted me." Then, turning
swift, like a texel that strikes its quarry, she said to the Princess:
"A laidley worm shalt thou be, crawling amongst the rocks; a laidley
worm shalt thou stay until thy brother, Wynd, comes home again."
So impossible seemed such a threat to the Princess that her red lips
parted over her white teeth, and she laughed long and merrily. But those
who knew that the new Queen had studied long all manner of wicked spells
and cruel magic were filled with dread, for greatly they feared that the
fair Princess's joyous days were done.
The Farne Islands were purple-black in a chill grey sea, and the waves
that beat on the rocks beneath the castle seemed to have a more dolorous
moan than common when next evening came. The joyous Princess, jingling
her big bunch of keys and smiling a welcome to her father's guests, had
gone as completely as though she lay buried beside the drowned mariners,
for whom the silting sand under the waves makes a safe graveyard all
along that bleak and rugged coast; but a horror—a crawling, shapeless,
loathsome thing—writhed itself along the pathway from cliff to village,
and sent the terror-striken peasants shrieking into their huts and
battering at the castle gates for sanctuary. The old ballad tells us
"For seven miles east and seven miles west,
And seven miles north and south,
No blade of grass or corn could grow,
So venomous was her mouth."
Like an embodied plague, the bewitched Princess preyed on the people of
her father's kingdom, who daily brought to the cave, where she coiled
herself up at night to sleep, a terrified tribute of the milk of seven
cows. All over the North Country spread the dread of her name, but now
she was no longer the lovely Princess Margaret, but the Laidley Worm of
"Word went east, and word went west,
And word is gone over the sea,
That a Laidley Worm in Spindleston-Heughs
Would ruin the North Countrie."
Far over the sea, with his thirty-three bold men-at-arms, the Princess's
brother, "Childe Wynd," was carving a career for himself with his sword.
Nothing on earth did Childe Wynd fear, yet ever and again, when success
in battle had been his, he would have a heavy heart, dreading he knew
not what, and often he longed to see again the castle on the high rock
by the sea, and the fair little sister with whom so many happy days had
been spent amongst the blue grass and on the yellow sand of the dunes at
Bamborough. To his camp came rumour of the strange monster that was
devastating his father's lands, and down to the coast he hastened with
his men, a great home-sickness dragging at his heart—home-sickness, and
a terror that all was not well with Margaret. Some rough, brown-faced
mariners, whose boat had not long before nearly suffered wreck on the
rocks of the Northumbrian coast, were able to tell the Prince that
rumour spoke truth, and that a laidley worm was laying waste his
father's kingdom. Of the Princess they could give no tidings, but the
Prince needed no words from them to tell him that all was not well.
"We have no time now here to waste,
Hence quickly let us sail:
My only sister Margaret
Something, I fear, doth ail."
And so, with haste, they built a ship, a ship for a Prince of Faery, for
its masts were made of the rowan tree, against which no evil witchcraft
could prevail, and its sails were of fluttering silk. With fair winds
and kindly waves the Prince and his men soon sped across the sea, and
gladly they saw again the square towers of the castle King Ida had
built, proudly looking down on the fields of restless water that only
the bravest of the King's husbandmen durst venture to plough. From her
turret window the Queen watched the sails of the gallant ship gleaming
in the sun, and knew full well that Prince Wynd was nearly home again.
Speedily she summoned all the witch wives along with whom she worked her
wicked magic, and set them to meet the ship, to use every spell they
knew that could bring shipwreck, and disaster, and death, and to rid her
of the youth whom she had always dreaded. But they returned to her
despairingly. No spell was known to them that could work against a ship
whose masts were made of the rowan tree. Then, casting aside magic, the
Witch Queen dispatched a boat-load of armed men to meet the ship, to
board it, and to slay all that they could. Little cared Wynd and his men
for a boat-load of warriors, and few there were left alive in the boat,
and those sore wounded, when Wynd's ship came to anchor in the shallows
under the dark cliff.
But here a more dangerous adversary met Prince Wynd. Threshing through
the water came the horrible, writhing thing that Northumbrians knew as
the Laidley Worm; and ever as they would have beached the ship, the huge
serpent beat them off again, till all the sea round them was a welter of
froth and slime and blood. Then Childe Wynd ordered his men to take
their long oars once more and bring the ship farther down the coast and
beach her on Budle sand. Down the coast they went, while the Queen
eagerly watched from the battlements, and the Laidley Worm followed them
fast along the shore, and all the folk of Bamborough scrambled up the
cliff side, and, holding on by jagged bits of crags and tough clumps of
grass and of yellow tansy, kept a precarious foothold, waiting,
wide-eyed, to see what would be the outcome of the fray. As near the
sandy beach of Budle as they durst venture their ship came Prince Wynd
and his thirty-three men, then the rowers sat still, and the Prince
leapt out, shoulder deep, into the water, and waded to the shore. Like a
wounded tiger that has been baulked of its prey but gets it into its
power at last, the Laidley Worm came to meet him, and all who watched
thought his last hour had come. But like the white flash of a sea-bird's
wings as it dives into the blue sea, the Prince's broad sword gleamed
and fell on the loathsome monster's flat, scaly head, and in a great
voice he cried aloud on all living things to witness that if this
creature of evil magic did him any harm, he would strike her dead. Then
there befell a great wonder, for in human voice, but all hoarse and
strange and ugly, as though almost too great were the effort for human
soul to burst through brute form, the Laidley Worm spoke to her
conqueror: "Oh! quit thy sword and put aside thy bow!" it moaned—so
moans the sea through the crash of the waves on nights when the storm
strews the beach of the North Country with wreckage—"Oh! quit thy
sword, for, poisonous monster though I be, no scaith will I do thee."
Then those who heard the wonder felt sure that the Worm sought by
subtilty to destroy their Prince, for still as a white, dead man he
stood, and gazed at the brute that shivered before him like a whipped
dog that would fain lick his master's feet. But again it spoke, in that
terrible, fearsome voice of mortal pain:
"Oh! quit thy sword and bend thy bow,
And give me kisses three;
If I'm not won ere the sun go down,
Won I shall never be."
Brave men, well-proved soldiers, were Childe Wynd's three-and-thirty,
but they cried out aloud to him, and some let go of their oars and
sprang shoulder-deep in the sea that they might drag their lord back
from this noisome horror that would destroy him. Prince Wynd's heart
gave a great stound, and back rushed the blood into his face, that had
been so pale and grim, and none was quick enough to come between him and
what his heart had told his mind, and what his mind most gladly willed.
As though he were kissing for the first time the one he loved, and she
the fairest of the land, so did he bow his head in courtly fashion, and
three times kiss with loving lips the Laidley Worm of Spindleston-Heugh.
And at the third kiss a great cry of wonder rose from his men, for lo,
the Laidley Worm had vanished, as fades an evil dream when one awakes,
and in its place there stood the fairest maid in all England, their own
dear Princess Margaret. With laughter and with tears did Childe Wynd and
his sister then embrace; but when the Princess had told her tale, her
brother's brow grew dark, and on his sword he vowed to destroy the vile
witch who had been his gentle sister's cruel enemy. With tears and with
laughter, and with gladsome shoutings the folk of Bamborough came in
haste to greet their Prince and Princess, and to speed them up to the
castle, where the King, their father, welcomed them full joyously. But
there were angry murmurs from the men of Northumbria, who called for
vengeance on her who had so nearly ruined their dear land, and who had
striven to slay both Prince and Princess. Childe Wynd held up his hand:
"To me belongs the payment," he said, and the men laughed loud when they
saw his stern face, for those were days when grim and bloody deeds were
gaily done, and blithe they were to think of torture for the Witch
Queen. Cowering in a corner of her bower in the turret, white-faced and
haggard, they found her, and dragged her out to Childe Wynd. But no
speedy end by a clean sword blade was to be hers, nor any slower death
by lingering torture.
"Woe be to thee, thou wicked witch!" said the Prince; and she shivered
and whimpered piteously, for well she knew that in far-off lands across
the sea Childe Wynd had studied magic, and that for her were designed
"Woe be to thee, thou wicked witch,
An ill death mayst thou dee;
As thou my sister hast lik'ned,
So lik'ned shalt thou be.
I will turn you into a toad,
That on the ground doth wend;
And won, won, shalt thou never be,
Till this world hath an end."
To the fairy days of long, long ago belong Prince Wynd and the Princess
Margaret and the wicked Witch Wife. But still in the country near
Bamborough, as maids go wandering in the gloaming down by the yellow
sands and the rough grass where the sea-pinks grow, they will be
suddenly startled by a horrible great dun-coloured thing that moves
quickly towards them, as though to do them a harm. With loudly beating
hearts they run home to tell that they have encountered the venomous
toad that hates all virtuous maidens, who once was a queen, her who
created the Laidley Worm of Spindleston-Heugh.