Read In the House of the Worm Online
Authors: George R. R. Martin
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction
In the House of the Worm
by George R.R. Martin
In the House of the Worm
by George R. R. Martin
In a crumbling underground city on a dying planet, young Annelyn has lived a life of privilege. When he is humiliated at the hands of the crafty groun hunter they call the Meatbringer, he and his high-born friends plot revenge. But Annelyn's plan goes desperately awry, leading him deep into the city's ruins--and to the ugly truth about his forebears' reverence for the mythic White Worm.
IN THE HOUSE OF THE WORM
Copyright © 1976 by George R. R. Martin. All rights reserved.
The Ides of Tomorrow
, ed. Terry Carr, 1976
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In the House of the Worm
By George R.R. Martin
or ages past remembering, the House of the Worm had been lost in decay, and that was as it should be, for decay is but one name of the White Worm himself. So the
, the worm-children, only smiled and went on as always, though the tapestries rotted on the walls of their endless burrows and their numbers dwindled each year, though meat grew ever more scarce, and the very stone around them turned to dust. In the high burrows with slit windows, awash with the red dimness of the vast dying ember above, they came and went and lived their lives. They tended their torches and held their masques, and made the sign of the worm whenever they passed near the dark windowless burrows where the grouns were said to mutter and lie in wait (for the halls and tunnels of the House of the Worm were reputed to be infinite, descending as far below the earth as the black sky ascends above, and the
claimed only a few of its many ancient chambers).
It was taught to the worm-children that the White Worm comes for all in the end, but he crawls most slowly, and in the long decay there is fine feasting and the bright sickly colors of rot. Such wisdom was enforced by the current manworm and his bronze knights, even as their ancestors had enforced it for generations untold. Thus did the House of the Worm endure, though the grouns might crawl below and the sun burn out above.
Every fourth year the brightest and wittiest and highest-born among the
would gather in the Chamber of Obsidian to view the sun and feast in its dying rays. The chamber was the only place for such a brilliant masque. It was high in the House of the Worm, so that all the tunnels leading to it slanted upward, and the floor and ceiling and three of the walls were sheets of fused obsidian, cold and shiny as a mirror and dark as death. For the four-years-less-a-day that passed between the Sun Masques, the lesser-born worm-children, called torch-tenders, worked tirelessly in the chamber, polishing and rubbing, so that when the bronze knights came to fire the torches, their reflections would gleam in the black glass around them. Then the guests would assemble, a thousand strong in gay costumes and fantastic masks, and the obsidian would bend and distort their bright faces and graceful forms, until they were a whirling motley of demons dancing in a great black bottle.
And that was only part of the Chamber of Obsidian. There was more; there was the window. It occupied all of the fourth wall behind the sand-filled hollow where the Manworm coiled; crystal clear the window was, yet stronger than any glass they knew. Nowhere in the House of the Worm was there another window a fraction of its size. The glass, if glass it was, looked out on a dead and desolate plain where no wind stirred; all darkness there, all empty, though there were crumbling stone shapes near the sometimes-seen horizon that might or might not be ruins. It was hard to tell; the light was very bad.
The sun filled half the sky; from one end of the horizon to the other it arched, bulking high enough to touch the zenith. Above it was unending black sky, broken by a handful of stars. The sun itself was a softer black, the color of ash, except in the few places where it still lived. Rivers ran across it, twisting ribbons of glowing red, veins of fire across its tired face. The worm-children had studied them once, in the long-ago years when they played with telescopes, and each of the burning channels had once had a name, though most had been forgotten. Where the rivers met and joined, sometimes smoldering orange lakes could be seen, and there were other places where gleams of red and yellow pulsed beneath the ash-dark crust. Best of all were the seas, two huge oceans of angry red that grew smaller and darker with every masque; one up near the rim continued on the side never seen, and a second burned near the sun’s waist and often outlined the maybe-ruins on the horizon.
From noon, when the Sun Masque commenced (all times were arbitrary with the worm-children, for the light was the same, day and night), until midnight, all the feasters would be masked, even the Manworm, and long curtains of heavy red velvet would be drawn across the great window, to hide the sun. Silent torch-tenders would bring out the feast on black iron trays, and arrange it on the long table: heavy mushrooms in cream sauce, subtly flavored puffballs, tiny slugs wrapped in bacon, fragrant green wine alive with struggling spiceworms, fried crawlers, roast hole-hogs from the Manworm’s royal larder, hot mushroom bread, a thousand other delicacies. And, as a centerpiece, if they were lucky, a plump six-limbed groun-child (or two!), just below the age of puberty, basted with care and served whole, its meat white and juicy. The guests would eat until they could eat no more, joke and laugh through their veils and dominoes, then dance beneath the torches for hours on end while obsidian ghosts mocked their movements in the walls and floor. When midnight finally came, the unmasking began. And when all had bared their faces, the bronze knights would carry the reigning Manworm to the fourth wall, and he would pull the curtain cord (if he still had hands—if not, the knights would pull it) and unmask the sun.
The Manworm that year was the Second Vermentor, fourteenth of his line to rule the
from the High Burrow in the House of the Worm. He had reigned a dozen years already, and soon his time would be at an end, for the priest-surgeons had done their holy work all that while, and there was nothing left to purify but the too-human head that lolled atop the sinuous writhing torso. Soon he would be one with the White Worm. But his son was ready.
The bronze knight Groff, huge and stiff in armor, carried Vermentor to the window and acted as his hands. The velvet slid back smoothly, and the old sun was revealed as the Manworm intoned the ancient worship words and the worm-children gathered round to look.
Annelyn, surrounded by his friends and acolytes, was one of the closest to the glass, as was fitting. Annelyn was always to the front. He was a slim and glorious youth, tall and graceful. All the highborn
had soft mocha skins, but Annelyn’s was the softest of them all. Most of his fellows had blond or red-blond hair, but Annelyn’s was the brightest yellow-gold; it crowned his head in delicate sculptured ringlets. Many worm-children had blue eyes, but none so blue and deep as Annelyn’s.
He was the first to speak after the curtains were drawn. “The black parts grow,” he observed to those around him, in a light, clear voice. “Soon our curtains will not be needed. The sun now masks itself.” He laughed.
“It dies,” said Vermyllar, a gaunt boy with hollow cheeks and flaxen hair who worried far too much. “My grandfather told me once that there was a time when the black plains were smoky red and the seas and rivers were white fire, painful to look upon.” Vermyllar’s grandfather had been second son of the Manworm, and thus knew all sorts of things that he passed on to his grandson.
“Perhaps it was so,” Annelyn said, “but not in his time, I would wager, or even that of his grandfather.” Annelyn had no blood ties with the line of the Manworm, no secret sources of knowledge, but he was always quite sure of his opinions, and his friends—Vermyllar and stout Riess and beautiful Caralee—thought him the wisest and wittiest of men. Once he had killed a groun.
“Don’t you worry about the sun dying?” Caralee asked him, tossing blond curls easily as she turned to face him. She looked enough like Annelyn to be his sister-twin; perhaps that was why he wanted her so. “About the burrows growing cold?”
Annelyn laughed again, and Riess laughed with him. (Riess
laughed with Annelyn, though Annelyn suspected that the fat boy seldom understood the joke.) “The sun was dying long before I came into the House of the Worm, and it will continue dying long after I have left,” he said, turning away from the window. He was splendid that night, in his costume of pale blue silk and spidergray with the crest of theta stitched above his breast.
“As for the cold,” Annelyn continued, as he led his three companions back toward the feasting table, “I don’t believe that the old sun has anything to do with heat, one way or the other.”
“It does,” said Vermyllar, who had come in brown rags like a mushroom farmer. He and Caralee matched Annelyn stride for stride across the obsidian, their images hurrying at their feet. Riess puffed along behind, struggling to keep up in the mock armor of a bronze knight.
“Did your grandfather tell you that?” Annelyn asked. Riess laughed.
“No,” Vermyllar said, frowning. “But notice, Annelyn, how the sun resembles a hot coal stolen from a firebox?”
“Perhaps,” Annelyn said. He paused beside the wine-bowl and filled two cut-crystal goblets with the rich green wine, fishing in the bowl until he found two worms tied in a writhing knot. He scooped them into Caralee’s drink, and she smiled at the proposition when he handed her the glass. The second goblet, with a single worm, he sipped himself as he turned back to Vermyllar.
“If the sun is nothing but a large coal,” Annelyn continued, “then we need not worry, since we have plenty of smaller coals on hand, and the torch-tenders can always fetch up more from the dark.”
Riess giggled. He had set his knight’s helm on the table and was now munching from a platter of spiced spiders.
“That may be true,” Vermyllar said. “But then you admit the sun is a coal, that it helps to warm the burrows.”
“No,” said Annelyn. “I merely conjectured. In fact, I think the sun is an ornament of sorts, set in the sky by the White Worm to provide us with light and an occasion for masques.”
Suddenly, startlingly, there was laughter, coarse and low. Annelyn’s smile turned abruptly to a frown when he realized that whoever it was laughed not at his wit, but at
. He drew himself up and turned in annoyance.
When he saw who laughed, however, he only raised a glass (and a fine blond eyebrow) in mock salute.
The Meatbringer (so they called him—if he had a truer name, he did not use it) ceased his laughter; there was a silence. He was a low, broad man, a head shorter than Annelyn and uglier than any of the
, with his straight white hair, mottled pink-brown skin, and enormous flat nose. His orange and crimson image etched by torchlight in the obsidian was taller and more handsome than the Meatbringer himself had ever been.
He had come to the Sun Masque alone and out of costume, horribly out of place, admitted only because of the groun-child he had provided. Instead of masque finery, he wore his familiar suit of milk-white leather, sewn from the skin of dead grouns, with a colorless half-cloak of woven grounhair. Throughout the House of the Worm his boast was known: that he dressed in the skin and hair of grouns he had himself slain. He was the Meatbringer, who went alone into deep burrows without windows.
Caralee looked at him very curiously. “Why did you laugh?” she asked.
“Because your friend is funny,” the Meatbringer said. His voice was too low, too coarse. Annelyn felt a trifle absurd, being insulted by a mottled man who grumbled in the manner of a torch-tender. And now a curious knot of people began to gather around them; the
were always interested in the odd, and the Meatbringer was oddest of all. Besides, everyone had grown tired of viewing the sun.
“I’m always pleased to find someone who appreciates wit,” Annelyn said, studiously attempting to turn the Meatbringer’s veiled insult into a compliment.
“I do appreciate wit,” the Meatbringer said. “I wish I could find some. This masque is witless.”
He had no subtlety, Annelyn decided. “Only in comparison,” he said. “You are perhaps accustomed to delightful banter with the grouns?”
Riess giggled, and the Meatbringer smiled savagely at him. “The grouns have more wit than your simpering friend, and more knowledge than you.”
There was stifled laughter around them, whether at the absurdity of the Meatbringer’s words or at the insult, Annelyn could not be sure. “You know groun secrets, then?” he said lightly.
“They have them, yes. And I know them, yes. And more.”
“The grouns are animals,” Vermyllar put in.
“As are you,” said the Meatbringer.
Vermyllar flushed. “I wear rags tonight, but only for the masque. My grandfather was a son of the Manworm.”
“Better your grandfather than you,” the Meatbringer said.
This time Caralee laughed. Annelyn looked at her, horrified that she could find humor in such coarseness. “You mock the honor?” he said. “The great knowledge? The responsibilities?”
have heavier responsibilities,” the Meatbringer said in a level voice. “As do the others who try to go down and bring back groun meat. The Manworm has only musty ritual duties that no one understands. As to his great knowledge, I have more of that too. The
know nothing of themselves or of the House of the Worm except half-truths and distorted lies. And
?” He gestured toward the window. Groff, in his intricately wrought rust-dark armor, still stood stiffly with the Manworm in his arms. Another of the bronze knights was closing the curtains; the dancing had resumed.
“Yes?” Annelyn prompted, blankly.
“The honor is all hideous pain,” the Meatbringer said, and as if to emphasize his statement, the Manworm suddenly lifted his head and his white body began to thrash wildly in Groff’s arms. “Under the knives again and again, each time waking as less of a man. And it ends in deformity and death. Honor?”
Now the crowd around them looked shocked, except for a handful who had listened to the Meatbringer before and knew his amusing irreverence. “The Manworm is purified,” Riess said. (Try as he might, he was dull and orthodox underneath, and they all knew it.) “He is becoming one with the White Worm!”
Annelyn shushed him; he thought of himself as inclined to the cynical and the shocking. “Perhaps you have a point about the honor,” he said to the Meatbringer. “Freethinkers like myself have also questioned the custom, but . . .”
Again the Meatbringer began to laugh at him, throwing his head back and roaring. Annelyn flushed darkly and drained his wine with a snap—worm and all—as he fought to stay calm.