When you ask me of Badon
I see ragged cohorts ranged on the lynchets
After midsummer rain.
Fear-panged boys of the Dunmonii, wet to the thighs,
In a sway of tall grass and cornflowers.
I hear the blackbird’s song
Sewing gold coins along the hillside
And through the ranks waiting in silence
Under the dragon banner.
Three centuries my people had their feet in this red soil,
Yet my soldiers called me The Last Man of Rome.
In that dawn rise on the steeps
Some had daubed Chi Ro on their shields-
Half in honour of me I suppose, the Old General,
And half as a battle charm, or endurance
Of a custom that was slipping from clutches of memory...
Such are the sorrows of a world uprooted.
For in the long shadows of the valley
Strange princes were drawn up, kissing their Saex blades,
And licking oaths on the flutes of the wind
To their one eyed god of the dark trees.
Hungry men with names like hatchets-
Cissa, Cymen and Cenga,
Had left hewn corpses in white ditches
All across the downlands of the Regni.
Now they had come honed for a reckoning
And I wondered if our line would hold.
The Forlorn Hope
The war band from the east
First sent out its Geoguth-
Reckless youths grouped in the dozens
Louping fierce, as if on a stag hunt.
We brought them down quickly.
Our archers were in good order.
Here and there among the thistles
Cock feather fletches prickled the fallen.
Next came their grey-eyed veterans.
This then was the sharp noon moment
And my stomach grew hollow
At the sight of these raging
Easy killers from the sea. Eager men
For the biting task
Who had scoured all the southern shore.
They ran through a volley of arrows
For their mail shirts turned our points
As if iron was velvet.
These Saxons leaped laughing
Over the bodies of their own dead sons,
With blood promises for my pale Dumnonii boys.
The blackbird’s song was quenched
And I knew by the drums under the turf
That they would break us.
Even now I am startled in the memory
Of throating of brass above our spears-
Blenching low emanation, as if from the back of the moon.
I turned to see a boar’s head trumpet,
Ancient relic wavering and trembling
A black tune from before time was counted.
I thought I had been struck
And felt at my chest,
For a blinding man burst from our ranks,
Seen only from the oblique, his golden visor stung my sight,
As if he had split the sun
And he outshone the blazon of Christ on our shields.
When he set the army running in his train
I knew at once,
As they screamed old tribal slogans,
And went down into the melee for skulls and plunder
How remote these misty islands had always been
Beyond the hub of the known.
Also, that the men I had drilled were not the last scraps of the legions,
Not at all,
This eclipsing wrath was not mine.
And Arthur who drove all before him at Badon
In faceless fury
Was the sudden Duke of Battle.
One last image I do recall.
I looked to the crest of our hill
And caught glimpse of a twisted figure
Stark and pale and clawing at the blue sky-
Priest, whitethorn tree, or some other creature
I cannot say.
Illustration - George Wooliscroft Rhead and Louis Rhead (1898)