by Lord Dunsany
, written in 1906.
The village of Allathurion is troubled by terrible dreams, and men praise Satan openly with their lips. The village magician tries his strongest magic, having power over all humans and all beasts, a spell of forty lines in many languages, both living and dead, with a word that causes elephants to trumpet, and a word wherewith the people of the plains curse their camels, and every line ended in a rhyme for "wasp". But to no avail. So the village magician knew that the evil dreams came from Gaznak.
Gaznak is the greatest magician of the spaces of the stars, and every 230 years visits the Earth upon a comet, and builds a mighty fortress. He is immortal, and may not be slain, save by Sacnoth. Leofric, son of the lord of the village, asks of Sacnoth, and the magician tells him that Sacnoth is a strip of steel in the spine of Tharagavverug, a terrible dragon who lives in the marshes and feeds on its inhabitants. Its only weakness is its leaden nose.
Leofric takes a staff and faces Tharagavverug in battle, keeping him from his prey for three days and nights, till he dies. Then his corpse is burned leaving only Sacnoth, and an eye with which to sharpen it, and another to fasten on it for protection. Leofric finds the mighty fortress, whereon in letters of brass is writ The Fortress Unvanquishable, save for Sacnoth. He hews his way through the outer door, which is named the Porte Resonant, the Way of Egress for War.
He fights his way through, and comes to a banqueting room whereat sit many Queens and Princes, and between them and the door stand two hundred footmen. A prince passes up a message through the footmen asking what the disturbance is. This is the part of the story I have always found most compellingly memorable. Leofric answers that he bears Sacnoth. Each pair of footmen passes on the message to the next, "It is Sacnoth", then runs screaming. And so Leofric passes through.
Next he comes to a part of the fortress unvanquishable, save for Sacnoth, so huge that the vault above him is not visible, and below him on either side of a narrow stone bridge are abysses so deep that the stars of the Southern Hemisphere are visible through them. At last he encounters Gaznak dreaming gargoyles of marble, and they fight to the death.
And others again say that there hath been no town of Allathurion, and that Leofric never lived.
Peace to them. The gardener hath gathered up this autumn's leaves. Who shall see them again, or who wot of them? And who shall say what hath befallen in the days of long ago?