Just got home from Life, The Universe, and Everything in Provo, Utah on Sunday.  It was a great weekend; got to hang out with Larry Correia, Jim Curtis, and quite a few others.  The panels might not have been that useful; it was the conversations around the panels that were enlightening.  Several new projects came out of it, including a Maelstrom Rising project that I’ll keep under wraps for the moment, but it’s going to be cool.

For today, this is a bit of a blast from the past.  Since I mentioned in last week’s post that I’m delving into some Fantasy and Science Fiction again, I thought I’d put some of my short work up.  This story appeared in an anthology by Superversive Press entitled Tales of the Once and Future King.  Since Superversive folded recently, and the book is out of print, the story rights reverted to me, so here it is.

Taliesin’s Riddle

The spring rains had cleared away, and the morning of the tenth day after Pentecost was bright and green when Ercwlff, son of Cadwgan, rode out from his father’s holdings astride the horse he had received when he had taken arms at the Feast of the Resurrection.  Aderyn Ddu was a fine black gelding, powerful but even-tempered, and the young Ercwlff was as proud of the horse as he was of the gleaming helm, sword, and silver-trimmed shield he had received at his mother’s hands only a few short weeks before.

He whistled as he rode along the old Roman road, over hills and dells green with spring, the first leaves of the oaks, elms, and poplars fluttering against the blue sky and the puffy white clouds that floated like sheep in a celestial field.  He was young, he was strong, he had just taken his arms, and he was on his way to join Arthur’s Knights at Camulodunum.  There could be no grander life.  His mind drifted to dreams of fair maidens and great songs sung of his heroic deeds.  Arthur himself would look on young Ercwlff with respect, and praise him as the greatest of his Knights, indeed, the greatest that Britain had ever seen since Brutus!

So lost in his daydreams was he that he hardly noticed the man sitting beneath the poplar tree at the crossroads until he was nearly atop him.

“Hail, stranger!” the man called.  Ercwlff started and reached for his sword before he saw that the little, pale man sitting beneath the tree was unarmed.  In fact, he appeared to be little more than a beggar, dressed in a tunic of undyed wool, belted with rope.  He was hollow-cheeked and had a stoop to his shoulders; he looked slightly unwell.  He had a small bundle open beside him, with two crusts of coarse, dark bread and a crudely made clay jug.  “Will you share my repast on this fine morning?  There is enough for two of us.”

Ercwlff looked with distaste at the poor fare and said, “I think not.  I have far better to eat and drink, and far to ride.”

“Tsk, tsk,” the little man said.  “Such haste!  And whither are you bound?”

Ercwlff frowned down at the peasant.  Did the man have no sense of how to address a nobleman, one soon to be the greatest of Arthur’s Knights?  “And who are you to ask my business, fellow?” he asked sternly.

The pale man’s bright blue eyes flashed.  “In centuries past, boy,” he said, his voice suddenly bearing a depth and gravity that belied his humble appearance, “I would be the one who determined the nature of your immortality, whether you lived on as a hero or a scoundrel.  For know that you speak with Taliesin.”  As he spoke, he casually lifted the corner of his deer hide cloak.  The dappled sunlight beneath the tree glinted on the golden frame of a harp.

Ercwlff felt the color drain from his cheeks, and he gulped past a throat gone suddenly dry.  Even in these Christian times, no Briton wished to displease a bard, for a bard could make or break a man’s reputation, even as the little man had said.  And a man seeking to join King Arthur and his Knights would do well not to insult or offend the great Taliesin, Arthur’s bard, who had foretold the rise and fall of kings.

“F-forgive me, honored bard,” he stammered.  “I did not know it was you.”

“Indeed,” Taliesin said dryly.  He coughed.  “You are forgiven.  But since we have rediscovered our manners, come, alight and tell me whither you are bound.  It is yet early in the day, surely you can pass a few moments here beneath the trees.”

Shamefacedly, Ercwlff swung down off of Aderyn Ddu’s back and dropped to the ground.  He led the horse into the shade of the elm, looping the reins over a low-hanging branch before he sat on the ground next to Taliesin, reluctantly accepting the stale crust of bread the bard handed him.  A sip from the jug filled his mouth and nose with a thick, malty beer that nearly made him choke, so unready was he for its strength.

“So,” Taliesin said jovially, “tell me of yourself.  Where are you going, and what do you seek?”

Ercwlff gulped down the last of the beer’s fumes and said, “I am going to Camulodunum, to become one of Arthur’s Knights!”

“Ah, I see,” Taliesin said.  “And no doubt you will be a great one.”

“I will be the greatest Knight in the history of Britain!” Ercwlff declared, recalling his daydreams on the road.

But the bard merely raised an eyebrow as he took a sip of the heady beer.  “Indeed?” he said mildly.  “That is a noble goal to strive for.  But there are many great Knights in Camulodunum.  Could you best Bedwyr, for example, whose sword and shield felled hundreds at the shores of Tryfrwyd?”

“Perhaps not right away, but there is no longer any man among my father’s who can best me with the rudeus, and I am only sixteen summers old,” Ercwlff replied.  “Someday I will be able to best even Bedwyr.”

“Ah, but can you ride like Gwalchmai, who sits his horse Keincaled like a centaur of the Greeks, and who no man can withstand when he rides against the Saxons?”

Ercwlff was growing irritated by the other man’s sly doubts.  He looked the bard in the eye, noting how small and soft of body he seemed.  Bard or no bard, who was he to question the abilities of the son of Cadwgan?  That was for Arthur to decide.  But he answered, “I have won every horse race on my father’s lands since I was thirteen!”

“Impressive,” Taliesin said.  “But are you as strong as Cai, who can go nine days and nine nights without needing to breathe or sleep, and who beheaded the giant Wrnach with a single blow?”

Lifting his head high, Ercwlff declared, “I lifted the hero stone and carried it three paces this summer last!”  He stared at Taliesin as if daring him to suggest it was not enough, though deep in his heart he knew it was a very little feat, compared to the tales of Cai.

But Taliesin did not mock him.  Instead, he asked, “And have you the greatness of spirit of Trahaern?”

Ercwlff was about to protest haughtily that of course he did, but he stopped, a frown creasing his features.  He had heard tales of the other three, all famous heroes of Arthur’s Round Table, but he knew of no Knight named Trahaern.

Taliesin noticed his frown.  “Have you never heard the tale of Trahaern?” he asked.

Reluctantly, Ercwlff shook his head.  “Ah, well, it is a little-known tale, I suppose,” Taliesin said.   “But I cannot ask if you are comparable to Trahearn if you have not heard it.  Would you like to?”

Ercwlff nodded.  He could not very well refuse.

Taliesin took a deep breath.  “Trahearn distinguished himself at the Battle of Badon, cutting down many Saxons and fighting right at Arthur’s side, when Cadfael was slain.  So great was his bravery that Arthur raised him to Cadfael’s place at the Round Table that very night.

“After the Battle, Britain saw a time of peace, at least for a little while.  The Saxon invasion was thrown back into the sea, though a few small settlements remained on the Saxon Shore, where Vortigern the Traitor had brought the savage heathens Hengist and Horsa to our shores.  Fall came, the harvest was plentiful, and it was a comfortable winter, since the barns were full and the horses and cattle were fat.

“As winter waned, the days grew longer, and the snows gave way to rain, word began to come north to Camulodunum of a newcomer on the Saxon Shore, a man who had braved the sea even in the winter storms.  His name was Bordan, and he was said to be a giant, half again as tall as the tallest Briton.  They said that he wielded a great, iron-shod club, and that he feared no law of Man or God.  He slew men, women, and children alike, even of his own people, if they displeased him.  He was said to fly into such a frenzy in battle that no blade could bite him, and no shield could turn aside his blows.  The rumors said that he had sworn he would tear Arthur’s head from his shoulders with his own two hands.

“In the first light of dawn, on the Feast of the Annunciation, Trahearn came before Arthur, fully armed.  Sinking to his knees before his lord, he begged leave to ride south and challenge this giant.

“Arthur hesitated, for Trahearn was one of the youngest of his Knights, and he did not wish to see him risk himself in single combat against such a monster as Bordan.  But Trahearn had earned his place as a Knight at Badon, and Arthur could not deny him his request.  He gave his leave for Trahearn to go.  So the young Knight was shriven by the priest, heard the Mass, received the Holy Wafer, and rode out into the rain.

“He rode across a land turned grey by mists and sheets of driving rain, for the spring was yet young, and winter had not yet fully released its grip on Britain.  The darkness and the mist swirled around him, but he pulled his cloak about him and drove on.

“Finally, after a day’s riding, the dim light of the day was failing toward night, and he began to look for a place to shelter for the night.  Peering through the curtains of rain, he saw a dim, flickering light ahead, and he turned his weary horse toward it.

“He rode warily, for enemies both of this world and the Middle World are known to set traps for those seeking shelter in the wild, but he trusted in God as he rode toward the light.

“Yet when he reached the place where he had seen the light, all he saw was a poor crofter’s hut.  The thatch needed patching, and might have been rotting in places, and the daub on the walls was cracked.  Dismounting, he stood before the oxhide curtain that was all that covered the doorway and called out, his voice deep and strong in the dimness and the wet.

“’Hail the house!’ he called.  ‘I am a Knight of the Round Table, seeking shelter for the night.  I mean you no harm.’

“He heard stirring within the hut, and what sounded like the grunting of a pig.  Then the curtain was drawn aside, and a woman peered out.  She was old and homely, and there was a deep sadness in her tired eyes as she looked over the armored Knight standing without her threshold.

“’You are welcome to share my meager shelter, Sir Knight,’ she said, ‘though I have little else to offer.  My husband has died this last day, and I fear that soon his killers will return to slay me and steal our pig, which is our only remaining possession.’  She held the curtain open, and Trahearn stooped to step inside.

“The hut was small, with little in it except a straw tick where the old woman slept, a stone fire ring in the center, where the rain dripped down through the smoke hole in the roof to hiss on the sputtering fire, and a rude table and bench against one wall.  A pig was indeed tied to a stake in the dirt floor against the far wall.

“Trahearn doffed his helm and set his arms against the crumbling daub of the wall.  The ceiling was so low that he must needs duck his head when he stood anywhere but right next to the fire.  ‘How did your husband die, madam?’ he asked the old woman.

“’He had fallen ill over the winter,’ she told him, as she ladled a thin soup into a wooden bowl for him.  ‘But when Cororuc came to take our pig, he struggled from his bed and fought.  Cororuc and his men beat him to the ground and killed him.’  Her voice never broke, but was laden with a deep and lasting sorrow, tempered by a long life of poverty and suffering.  ‘Now Cororuc says that he will come back in the morning to take the pig, along with the last of our corn.  Then I will have nothing, and I will die.’

“Trahearn reached out and took the old woman’s hands in his.  ‘I promise you, Old Mother,’ he said, ‘that this Cororuc will take nothing from you.  On my honor as Arthur’s man, I will not allow it.”

“He then supped with the crofter’s widow, bringing some of his own provisions inside to add to the poor repast.  They prayed together, and then he rolled himself in his cloak and went to sleep on the floor beside the fire, as the old woman retired to her tick.

“In the morning, Trahearn broke his fast with the crofter’s widow before donning his arms and stepping out into the early light.  The rain had ceased, but the clouds still crowded the sky, lowering their gray bulk toward the green earth, where Cororuc stood waiting.

“The bandit was a tall man, sandy-haired like a Saxon, but with a sallow face and sloping shoulders.  No hero, he; he slunk around the borders of Saxon and Briton both, preying on those who could not defend themselves.  He was surprised to see Trahearn step forth, armed for battle, and his sly, cowardly mind immediately turned to the problem of escape; he had no wish to cross blades with a man greater than he.

“’Hail, warrior!’ he called.  ‘It gladdens my heart to see another come to the old widow’s aid.  We have all been worried about her, since her husband died so suddenly.  Such a loss.’  And he shook his head sorrowfully, letting his lank hair hide his face.

“’She told me that her husband was murdered,’ Trahearn said quietly.

“’Did she?’ Cororuc said, with mock surprise.  ‘Well, you know how women can be when they are distraught!  The loss has surely unhinged her mind.’  But his eyes shifted from side to side as he spoke, and Trahearn knew him to be false.  He drew his sword.

“’I name you liar, robber, and murderer, Cororuc,’ he said, his eyes hard as he stared at his foe.  ‘Stand and fight me here, or flee and save your rotten skin.  But if you flee, you must never return or disturb the old widow again.’

“Cororuc dared to look Trahearn in the eye only once, and he saw there only his death should he stand his ground.  With a snarl, he drew his knife, but then hurled it at Trahearn’s head.  The young Knight batted it aside with his shield, even as the robber turned on his heel and fled, scampering into the woods.

“Trahearn watched him flee, his sword still in his hand, his eyes narrowed as he gazed at the surrounding woods and fields, searching for his foes.  For despite his words, Trahearn knew Cororuc for the base and ignoble man that he was, and knew that he would not honor the bond that Trahearn had put upon him.

“Finally, he turned back to the hut, where the old woman watched from the doorway.  ‘I have pressing business in the south, near the Saxon Shore,’ he told her, ‘but I think that I might stay here for another day.  There is much that I might do to help you before I go.’  She said nothing, but only bowed gratefully.  She greatly feared Cororuc’s return.

“Stripping off his armor, though he kept his weapons close at hand, Trahearn set out to do what he could to repair the leaking roof and patch the worst cracks in the daub.  Always his eyes strayed to the surrounding lands, watching for his enemies.

“As night fell, he drew water from the well and watered his horse and the pig, before washing away the dirt of the day’s labors.  He once again shared his provisions with the crofter’s widow before they retired for the night.

“When he arose and donned his armor the next morning, there were three men standing a stone’s throw outside the hut.  They were dirty and ragged, with rusty axes and knives in their hands.  He knew at once that Cororuc had sent them.  In fact, he had been expecting them.

“He stood tall and straight in the door, the morning sun gleaming off his mail and his helm like fire.  He said not a word, but raised his sword in salute.

“With a wordless roar, as if to steel their courage to face the shining figure who denied them, all three of the ragged outlaws charged.

“Trahearn stepped to meet them, deflecting one man aside to stumble and fall to the ground with a blow of his shield, while his sword flashed in the morning sun to crash down upon the head of the next.  The dead man fell onto the last brigand, who staggered and fell.

“Stepping back to the doorway, Trahearn faced the first man, who had come back to his feet and swung his axe wildly at the Knight’s head.  He ducked beneath the blow and ran the man through before dragging his blade clear and pivoting to meet the third man.

“That one looked at his two companions, one dead, the other dying, then dropped his seax and fled.

“Trahearn waited until he was gone, then turned to the man he had stabbed.  He gave him water, pillowed his head on his own cloak, and prayed over him until he breathed no more.  Then he buried both brigands some way from the hut.

“’My errand in the south is still pressing,’ he told the widow, ‘but there is still much I might do to help you.  I think I might spare another day.’  For he still expected Cororuc to return.

“Once again, he worked about the croft, mending what he could, and kept watch.  In the evening, he supped and prayed with the widow, before she went to her straw tick and he to the floor.

“At the dawn of the third day, he once again prayed and donned his mail.  When he stepped out of the hut, his sword and shield in hand, he faced Cororuc and fully twenty men, all as ragged and filthy as the three he had faced the day before, armed with spears, axes, and bills.

“’It need not have ended this way, warrior,’ Cororuc called out.

“’Indeed not,’ Trahearn answered.  ‘Had you let the widow be, as I bid, you would have lived far longer.  Come now, dogs, and meet your judgement.’

“With a shout, they charged him, all twenty men at once.  But he held his ground, his back to the hut, and laid about him with his flashing sword.  He laid the brigands down in heaps, each blow reaping another robber’s life.  Yet he was badly outnumbered, and soon his mail was in tatters, and he bled from many wounds.

“The robbers fell back, and he leaned on his sword, surrounded by the bodies of his foes.  His breath heaved from his chest as he watched Cororuc and his remaining robbers.  He said nothing more.  There was nothing more to be said.

“But Cororuc knew that his men’s courage was faltering.  ‘Look!’ he exclaimed.  ‘The interloper weakens and bleeds!  One more charge will finish him!’  And he suited actions to words, lifting his pitted axe and running at Trahearn.

“Cororuc was a better fighter than his rabble, and their weapons clashed again and again.  Stroke and counterstroke fell on blade, haft, and shield, and the fields echoed with the noise of their blows.  Three times they fell back from one another, gasping with weariness and bleeding from their many wounds, only to crash together again three times.

“On the third clash, Cororuc swung low, and his axe slid beneath Trahearn’s shield, to bite deeply into his leg, even as Trahearn’s sword crashed down upon Cororuc’s unarmored head.  The robber’s spirit fled to its final judgement, even as his men fled to the woods in panic at the sight of their leader’s death.

“Trahearn knew he had taken his death wound at the last.  Looking up to Heaven, he prayed his act of contrition, before he lay down and died.”

Taliesin fell silent.  Ercwlff had been listening intently, his eyes afar off as he pictured the valiant battles of the Knight, but now he started, realizing that the story was over.  “But, he did not find and battle Bordan!” he protested.  “I thought you said that he was a great Knight!”

“He was,” Taliesin replied mildly.  “Can you truly not see why?”

“But he died for nothing!” Ercwlff protested.  “He died fighting some ragged robbers over a crofter’s hut!”  When Taliesin simply looked at him with a raised eyebrow, he suddenly had an idea.  “The old woman!” he exclaimed.  “She was a princess magically disguised, or a saint!”  He straightened ever so slightly, proud that he had figured it out.

But Taliesin only shook his head.  “No, she was no princess,” he replied.  “She was exactly what she appeared to be; a poor crofter’s widow.  And a rather ugly one, at that.  As for whether she was a saint?”  He rubbed his chin.  “It is possible, certainly, though I know of no miracles attached to her name.”

“She died?” Ercwlff asked, even more confused and upset.

“Indeed,” Taliesin said.  “That very night, she stumbled and struck her head on the hearth.  She never woke.”

Ercwlff threw his hands in the air.  “Then Trahearn’s death becomes even more meaningless!” he exclaimed.  “He fought and died for a woman who only died the same day anyway!”

“Meaningless?” Taliesin said, a stern note entering his voice.  “Do you really think so?”

Ercwlff racked his mind for the answer, growing somewhat desperate that he did not understand the bard’s tale.  He knew that it was a test, and one that he feared he was failing.  “The pig!” he exclaimed.  “The pig was enchanted, or, or, it was an Oracular Pig, that could speak prophecy!  That was why it was so valuable!  Trahearn must have known it, somehow, when he entered the hut the first night.”

Taliesin only shook his head sadly, looking down at the grass.  “No, the pig was only a pig.  In time, it pulled itself loose and ran off into the woods to root for acorns.  I imagine it is still there, unless a hunter or a wolf took it.”

He looked up and met Ercwlff’s eyes, and there was an icy fire in his gaze.  “Turn around, son of Cadwgan,” he said, his voice deep and ringing with authority.  “Return to your father’s house.  If you do not understand the lesson of the Tale of Trahearn, then you are not ready to seek Knighthood in Camulodunum.”

His head hanging, Ercwlff rose slowly and untied Aderyn Ddu, fighting back tears of rage and disappointment.  He had failed before he had even reached his destination, just like Trahearn.  He did not think of gainsaying the bard; one angered any bard at one’s peril, let alone Arthur’s bard.

As he swung into the saddle, however, Taliesin called out to him.  “Should you discover the meaning of my tale, young Ercwlff,” he said, “return here in a year and a day.  Then we shall see if you are ready.”

Ercwlff felt the bright blue eyes of the bard on his back as he rode away.

 

On the eleventh day after Pentecost, the next year, an older, more weathered Ercwlff rode along the same road.  The weather was not as fine, this time.  There was a chill bite to the breeze, and clouds scudded across the sky.  The sun still shone dappled gold on the land beneath the puffs of white and gray, though, and Ercwlff did not see the weather as an omen.  He rode with hope in his heart.

His arms and armor were perhaps more worn than they had been a year and a day before.  He bore scars on his arms that he had not that past day.  He hoped that he bore greater wisdom along with them.

Taliesin was waiting at the crossroads, beneath the same elm tree, with the same simple repast laid out beside him.  While Ercwlff was stronger and larger than he had been the last time, the bard seemed to have shrunken.  There was a sickly cast to his skin, and his eyes were now as sunken as his cheeks.  The fire in them was no less bright, however.

“Hail, honored bard,” Ercwlff called.  “May I join you?”

“Certainly, young Ercwlff,” Taliesin called jovially, though his voice was thinner and threadier than it had been.  “Come and share my dinner.”

This time Ercwlff held a sack from his saddle bows as he dropped to the ground and let Aderyn Ddu graze.  He opened it to draw out two apples, wrinkled from a winter in the barrel, but still sound, and a wheel of cheese.  He set them down next to the bard’s bread and beer, and sat on the ground across from the other man.

They gave thanks to God for His bounty, and ate.  Unlike the last time, there was a quiet contentedness to the meal.  Ercwlff felt a faint anxiety about the discussion to come, but his prideful impatience from the last time he had sat there was gone.

“Well, then,” Taliesin said, brushing the last crumbs from his tunic, “what have you learned since last we spoke, son of Cadwgan?”

Ercwlff had not asked how Taliesin knew his name or his father, even though he had, to his shame, realized after he had departed that he had never properly introduced himself.  He did not ask now.

“I believe I know the lesson of the Tale of Trahearn,” he said carefully.  He took a deep breath and met the bard’s bright gaze.

“It did not matter that the widow was only a poor widow who did not even live to enjoy the life that Trahearn had sacrificed his own to save,” he said.  “It did not matter that the pig was only a pig.  It did not matter that Trahearn died before he did great deeds of song and legend, fighting Bordan.  It only mattered that he was a Knight, and that the old woman was in need.  A Knight may not choose his quests based on the glory of this world.  It was right in the eyes of God, and therefore it was his duty.  So, he did it, unto his last breath.”

He waited for a moment, hardly daring to breathe.  But Taliesin smiled widely, and Ercwlff knew he had answered rightly.

“Very good, son of Cadwgan,” Taliesin said.  But he did not say more.

Ercwlff swallowed.  “And I know the other part of the riddle,” he said softly.

The bard raised an eyebrow.  “Indeed?” he replied.

Ercwlff nodded, hardly daring to meet the bard’s eyes now.  “I know why you told me the tale in the first place,” he said.  “Because of my pride.  Not my boastfulness, but my pride.  For I was rude to you.”  He forced himself to look the bard in the eye.  “Not to Taliesin, the Court Bard of King Arthur.  But I was a nobleman seeking to be a Knight, and yet I was rude to a poor man who offered to share what little he had.  Because I thought myself above him.”  He hung his head then, having given words to his shame.

But Taliesin nodded, and reached out to pat his shoulder.  “Indeed, you have learned much in a year and a day, son of Cadwgan,” he said quietly.  “’Many who are first, shall be last, and the last shall be first,’” he quoted.  He stood, looming over the young man suddenly.  Putting his fingers to his lips, he whistled, and a brilliant white horse trotted out of the trees from across the road.

“Come, young Ercwlff,” he said.  “Let us ride to Camulodunum.  You have many trials ahead before Arthur will make you a Knight, but I think that now, at last, you are ready to ask it of him.”

Taliesin’s Riddle
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Peter Nealen

Peter Nealen is a former Reconnaissance Marine and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. He deployed to Iraq in 2005-2006, and again in 2007, with 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Recon Bn. After two years of schools and workups, including Scout/Sniper Basic and Team Leader's Courses, he deployed to Afghanistan with 4th Platoon, Force Reconnaissance Company, I MEF. Since he got out, he's been writing, authoring many articles and 24 books, mostly Action/Adventure and Military Thrillers, with some excursions into Paranormal Fantasy and Science Fiction.

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