Bran lives during Roman times and his people, already in decline from their greatness in former ages, are harassed by Titus Sulla, the military governor of Eboracum, who's made it his purpose to teach the "barbarian" Picts what it means to stand against the might of Rome. Sulla crucifies a Pict found guilty of murder, a crime that the Pictish ambassador, Partha Mac Othna, considers an affront:
"I see," answered the Pict in a voice which strongly-curbed anger made deep with menace, "that the subject of a foreign king is dealt with as though he were a Roman slave."Partha is, in fact, Bran Mak Morn in disguise, hoping to discover some Roman weakness that he might use against them in order to safeguard his people. Swearing by "the black gods of R'lyeh" -- a nod to Lovecraft's Great Old Ones -- Bran quickly realizes that simply slaying Sulla, however much he wishes to do so, is insufficient to achieve the kind of victory of which he dreams for the Picts. If he truly wishes to cast out the hated Romans and preserve the Picts, he needs to consider other, more desperate actions.
"He was tried and condemned in an unbiased court," retorted Sulla.
"Aye! and the accuser was a Roman, the witnesses Roman, the judge Roman! He committed murder? In a moment of fury he struck down a Roman merchant who cheated, tricked and robbed him, and to injury added insult -- aye, and a blow! Is his king but a dog, that Rome crucifies his subjects at will, condemned by Roman courts? Is his king too weak or foolish to do justice, were he informed and formal charges brought against the offender?"
"Well," said Sulla cynically, "you may inform Bran Mak Morn yourself. Rome, my friend, makes no account of her actions to barbarian kings. When savages come among us, let them act with discretion or suffer the consequences."
Bran seeks out Gonar, the priest of the Moon, to ask his advice on how to proceed and the old man attempts to sway his king back from the dark path on which he knows him to be walking.
"King, are you mad, this thought you have thought in your brain?"The Pictish king, however, will not be dissuaded and so he sets out to awaken the Worms of the Earth in order to use against his foes.
"Gonar," answered Bran somberly, "this day I stood still and watched a man of mine die on the cross of Rome. What his name or his rank, I do not know. I do not care. He might have been a faithful unknown warrior of mine, he might have been an outlaw. I only know that he was mine; the first scents he knew were the scents of the heather; the first light he saw was the sunrise on the Pictish hills. He belonged to me, not to Rome. If punishment was just, then none but me should have dealt it. If he were to be tried, none but me should have been his judge. The same blood flowed in our veins; the same fire maddened our brains; in infancy we listened to the same old tales, and in youth we sang the same old songs. He was bound to my heart-strings, as every man and every woman and every child of Pictland is bound. It was mine to protect him; now it is mine to avenge him."
"But in the name of the gods, Bran," expostulated the wizard, "take your vengeance in another way! Return to the heather -- mass your warriors -- join with Cormac and his Gaels, and spread a sea of blood and flame the length of the great Wall!"
"All that I will do," grimly answered Bran. "But now -- now -- I will have a vengeance such as no Roman ever dreamed of! Ha, what do they know of the mysteries of this ancient isle, which sheltered strange life long before Rome rose from the marshes of the Tiber?"
"Bran, there are weapons too foul to use, even against Rome!"
"Worms of the Earth" is a Howardian masterpiece. Purely as an adventure yarn, it's fast paced and exciting, with plenty of action and great characterization. Taken as a horror tale, I wouldn't say that it's frightening in a jump-out-of-your-seat way, but it is quite unnerving. Bran's mad fury drives him to undertake a terrible quest in order to achieve his goal and nothing will stand in his way. He is literally willing to go to hell and back to save his people, something that's at once admirable and horrifying. Along the way he makes a bargain with the half-human Atla, the were-woman of the moors, for assistance in a scene that's probably the most memorable in a story filled with memorable scenes -- showing once again that Bran will do whatever he must to gain revenge against the Romans.
Robert E. Howard, in contrast to his friend H.P. Lovecraft, had no love for the Romans, who represented nearly everything he hated about human civilization. Howard's dislike comes through powerfully in the character of Bran Mak Morn in this story, which likely explains its visceral appeal. Even as the reader recoils from Bran's actions, he is rooting for the Pictish monarch, because Howard has made excellent villains of the Romans, villains upon whom one might genuinely wish to unleash the very powers of hell. To me, that's the real genius of "Worms of the Earth:" the way that it makes Bran's mad plan seem not only rational but just. I can think of few things more frightening.