This story crops up from time to time in many cultures, but this version comes from County Durham in the North East of England.
Story goes that the Earl of Lambton had a son - as you might hope - but the boy, who we shall call John in this telling of the story, was not all a father might hope for in his heir. The boy was a scofflaw, inattentive to his tutors, shy of work and lacking in respect for his father … and worst of all he was an impious brat, who flagrantly missed Mass on Sundays to go fishing in the River Wear.
Now one Sunday he went fishing as normal, but the river was unusually empty that day and all he caught was an unusual looking eel - some say no bigger than his thumb, others that it was as long as an arrow, but all agree that it was uglier even than the common run of eels.
Disappointed in his catch, young John threw the beast away on his way home … most say in a well, others in a fishpond … regardless he threw it away and forgot about it. And the years went by and, thanks be to God the boy grew to repent his evil ways and, in due course took the Cross and went to the Holy Land on Crusade for remission of his sins.
Years later he returned home to find the place much changed - the eel had grown into a huge, terrible worm that devastated the surrounding countryside and required prodigious offerings of food on a daily basis to keep it's wrath in check. It was so large that it could wrap itself seven times around a local hill - now called Worm Hill, where it is said that the marks of its body can be seen to this day. Seeing the beast from afar John recognised it as the eel that he had caught many years before and was ashamed, knowing that he must put right the consequences of his youthful wickedness.
The worm had already killed several knights who had tried to fight it, and after each battle had caused a great deal of damage by way of retribution. It was said that the worms wounds closed as fast as they were made and that parts of it that were cut off simply slithered back to rejoin the whole. In great trepidation John sought out a local wise woman and, acting on her advice, had hundreds of spear points welded to his armour before he rode out to confront the beast.
John fought the worm in the river, so that the fast flowing waters of the Wear washed away the pieces that he cut off and when the enraged creature finally threw its coils around him to crush him to death, all it suceeded in doing was driving itself further and further onto the spikes of his armour. Eventually the worm's self inflicted wounds undid it, and the coils relaxed in death, allowing him to struggle free.
However, all did not end happily ever after … some say the wise woman was, in fact, a witch and witch boons are never all they seem, and others simply say that there is always a price to be paid. Regardless, the wise woman had told him that once the worm was dead, he must not fail to kill the next living creature that he met as well, or a terrible curse would fall on the family, and so he had arranged for his father and the master of hounds to wait neaby and, once the worm was slain he would blow his horn so they could release a hunting dog that would come running to him and allow him to fulfil the bargain. But having slain the worm John was so bruised and weary that he could barely stand, let alone sound his horn and his father, seeing him struggling to climb out of the river, ran to his aid, and since John could not bear to kill his father, he incurred the curse instead and it is said that the next nine generations of the family neither lived to see old age, nor died peacefully or of natural causes.
It seems the lessons we are meant to learn from this
- Problems are best dealt with before they grow out of control.
- Likewise, problems are very rarely solved by walking away from them.
- When you take expert advice … remember to follow it.
- We do not always live happily ever after. And finally…
- Never go fishing when you should be in Church.
Game and Story Use
- Going hunting or fishing on the Sabbath instead of attending Mass was a traditional source of bad things in medieval legends - some say that that is how Black Fulk of Anjou met his mysterious bride. Feel free to introduce a similar effect … or superstition … into your campaign.
- Perhaps young John never returned from the Outremer and the old Earl has to turn to outsiders for help.
- Could just be flavour that the PCs find out when doing background research on a "freshwater sea serpent" that they're hunting.
- The method used in the story could be used to beat grapple-heavy monsters.
- Something like this could make a good origin story for a family curse. The ancestor did a heroic deed (whether cleaning up after himself or not) with help, and failed to pay for the help correctly. Can the PCs (one or more of whom might be affected) set things right?
- A promise to kill the next living thing you see, and an attempt to get around it likely only making things worse? Definitely shades of Judges 11…
- He found a small worm that grew into a larger worm, and then the bits he cut off of the large worm were small worms themselves. Might there be more Worms around somewhere?