Wednesday, May 9, 2007

King Arthur's Raid on Hell - Part III

The story continues...

Three and three hundred horses swiftly ran
with Arthur, Kai, and Bedwyr in the van.
Beside them Mabon rode, a gold-haired boy,
beardless and slender; bright he shone with joy
to leave his prison, even for a while.
He face was fair, and Arthur saw no guile
within him. – ‘Lad, tell me if you do know,
where are we riding, and who is our foe?’ —
‘His name is Hafgan. He with you will fight
before his castle. Many are his knights
and strong his walls. You’ll never come within
unless you slay him, and the battle win.’
All day the horses bore them o’er the plains
of that wide land, which neither snow nor rain
can wet. They camped that night; at dawn rode on.
So passed three days, until they saw upon
a hill ahead of them a castle gray.
An army stood before it in their way.
Before he reached them, Arthur stopped his men
and set them in good order. Slowly then
he rode ahead with Mabon by his side.
A knight came out to meet him in his pride.
His armor shone, gold-crowned his helmet was.
‘Who are you, lord,’ he cried, ‘and with what cause
do you come here?’ — ‘If Hafgan is your name,
we ride to slay you and your land to claim.
My name is Arthur – far across the sea
I’ve come to fight, and with my blood to free
this boy.’ — ‘Have I no choice?’ asked Hafgan then. —
‘No choice.’ — ‘Then draw, and straightway we’ll begin!’
Mabon lifted a horn and blew it long,
and at its sound the force three hundred strong
charged forward shouting. Arthur drew his sword
and it met Hafgan’s. Not another word
they spoke between them all that bloody day,
but each one strove the other king to slay.
In the first hour, Kai slew a hundred men.
Bedwyr rode singing through the battle’s din
and left two hundred corpses on the field.
None could withstand him; shattered were their shields.
Menw mab Teirgwaed slew three score and one
before he fell, and Gwarthgydd, Caw’s last son,
slew twice as many. Four score men and two
was Rheiddwn’s count, and Ysgawd son of Glew
clove five-score shields before his own blood flowed.
Isgofan Hael six score and three men mowed
with his great sword before he felt death’s chill,
and Isgawn son of Ban died on a hill
of bodies; Gwydre cut two hundred down,
and splintered shields he scattered on the ground.
Gwrgi Aur Gwallt was fighting like a fiend,
blood to his thighs. No mother’s son has seen
such valor since, as they displayed that day:
mighty the price they did for Mabon pay.
Arthur was laughing, though his blood did flow;
Caledfwlch sang as she paid blow with blow.
Hafgan still fought. Long since he’d cast aside
his shattered shield, but still his fierce pride
upheld him, though his blood in rivers ran.
Of all his army scarce was left a man.
His sword-stroke missed, and Caledfwlch came down
like lightning striking. On the bloody ground
she laid him dying. As he breathed his last
Arthur struck off his head, and tied it fast
beside his saddle by its blood-soaked hair,
then raised his eyes and looked on Hafgan’s caer.
Its gates stood closed; within he could not go
for Annwn’s treasures, till he laid them low.
Grim was the evening on that field of blood.
Silk banners and bright weapons in the mud
and filth lay mingled. Wide-eyed bodies stared
as ravens gathered. None was left who cared.
Before the iron-barred gates of Hafgan’s caer
those who lived gathered. Of three hundred there
but six remained – Arthur, Bedwyr and Kai,
Mabon the Young, and Manawyd whose eye
could see for leagues, and Gwrgi Golden-Hair:
no more survived the fight for Hafgan’s caer,
and none of these without some wound or blow.
Said Arthur, ‘Back from here we cannot go
without the treasures we were sent to find.’
Then spoke Manawyd – ‘Can you bring to mind
their names and uses? For I cannot now.’ —
‘An ox, a sword, a cauldron – and somehow
this door we needs must open.’ — ‘By God’s Word,
that is the key – Llemnawg’s – no, Hafgan’s sword!
Slung on your saddle by his bloody head.’ —
‘Then we will try it,’ Arthur grimly said,
‘and pray you’re right.’ He drew it from its sheath
and faced the oaken door that stood beneath
the stone-built gatehouse, hefted once the blade,
then swung it, and sliced through that barricade
as if through water. Oaken timbers stout
fell at their feet – nothing now kept them out.
Within were women, servants, old men too,
who cowered back before that gory crew.
Arthur assured them that their lives they’d keep
and set them all to work to delve a deep
wide grave. In this, they laid their friends in rows,
but Hafgan’s men they left to feed the crows.
When all that work was done, and rest and food
they’d taken, on a wagon, wide but crude,
the mighty Cauldron Arthur lifted then –
a feat of strength beyond most mortal men –
harnessed the Speckled Ox to draw the cart,
and set off, though they went with heavy heart.
Long was their journey, for the Ox went slow,
and many a day had passed before they saw
ahead of them the jet-black tower rise
lifting its burning beacon to the skies.
Twice weary were they ere they reached the gate
and dragged within the Cauldron’s mighty weight.
Again the porter led them to the hall,
and there the King awaited. Candles tall
burned in the lanterns, colored hangings bright
glowed on the walls to banish death and night,
and Taliesin in a carven Chair
sat playing on his harp a song most fair.
‘My lord,’ said Arthur, ‘we have kept our word
and brought you back your Cauldron, Ox, and Sword.’ —
The Dark King frowned. ‘Then Hafgan now is dead?’ —
‘He is.’ And Arthur flung the bloody head
before the throne, and drew forth Llemnawg’s Sword.
‘Now give us leave to go, and keep your word.’ —
The Dark King smiled, and spoke a word of power.
The Sword rang on the floor, and Arthur there
stood helpless – he could neither move nor speak.
‘If I wished, Man, in my dark dungeons bleak
I now could chain you. Be glad I do not.
You wanted Mabon – take then what you’ve got,
and leave while you still can. The loser pays –
Mabon may go, but Taliesin stays.’ —
Then Taliesin laid hand on his strings
and said, ‘My Lord, grant me that I may sing
one song for Arthur, ere he does depart.’ —
The Dark King nodded. ‘You’ve a generous heart,
and this one boon, my Bard, I’ll gladly give –
it’s only for your sake I’ve let him live.’
Then Taliesin smiled, and from his strings
such music did he draw as angels’ wings
must make within the choirs of Heaven high –
and as he sang the King began to cry.
The music changed, and mirth ran through the hall;
the Dark King laughed, and of his warders all
felt their hearts light. The music changed once more,
and all the guards fell senseless to the floor.
Upon his throne the Dark King closed his eyes
and slumber took him. Arthur stared surprised,
then turned as Taliesin carefully stood
and softly set his harp upon the wood
of his fine Chair, and there it still played on.
He smiled and said, ‘Let’s leave him to his song.’
They took the Sword, the Ox, the Cauldron, too,
all bought by blood, to pay the debt was due,
and quietly left the Caer while all within
lay sleeping. To the strand they came again,
took ship in Prydwen and in her alone –
upon the beach the red fire gnawed the bones
of her two sisters. Long behind them burned
that silent pyre, but never back they turned.
Seven alone they came to Severn-side
one clear spring night. To Mabon at his side
turned Arthur then. Above them burned the Star,
so high and distant in the heavens far,
and Arthur sighed, and said, ‘I now recall
why we did sail, lad, to that distant hall
to bring you back with us. Can you tell me
what means this star?’ — The boy smiled. ‘Now I’m free,
my Lord, I’ll tell you gladly all I know.
That firedrake burns as you burn here below.
It’s your Red Dragon flaming in the sky –
long as it shines, your legend will not die.’ —
And Arthur said, ‘I knew it long before
within my heart.’ And so they came ashore.”
The Bard was done; the court applauded long.
The King smiled; gold he gave him for his song,
but said, “Good Minstrel, tell me if you can,
if Arthur’s Star still shines above this land.” —
“It does, Sire. Your can see it there tonight.
High in the east now glows its ruddy light
near Arthur’s Sword – Orion, as some men say –
and even so his tales are told today.”
Before he slept the Bard gazed on that star
and smiled, as once he smiled in Annwn’s Caer
where in his Chair his harp it still played on,
and Arawn dreamed in Taliesin’s song.

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