Summer Solstice by Rob Floyd - www.robfloyd.co.uk
Many centuries ago, a thousand years and more before Julius Ceasar came to this isle, a dire and dreadful war broke out between the princes of Britain and Ireland, a clash of arms which lasted ten bloody years, beginning and ending on the same day as the start and finish of the siege of Troy. Victory came at last to the invading British forces, but it was a bitter, barren triumph. They had sailed to Ireland in a fleet of a thousand ships, yet only one was needed to take the survivors back home, and that, like all their ships, had been designed to hold a hundred warriors. Just eight men and one woman now remained out of all that mighty host: King Bran the Blessed, Manawydan his brother, Pryderi son of Pwyll and Rhiannon, Glifiau son of Taran, Taliesin the Poet, Ynawg the Tall, Heilyn son of Gwyn, and Branwen daughter of Llyr, over whom the war had been fought.
Bran gave a last set of instructions to his followers as they boarded the ship: 'Cut off my head,' he said, 'and carry it with you to the Island of the Mighty. Take it first to Harlech and remain with it there for seven years. You will find the head an endless fount of song and story, more so than it has ever been while fastened to my shoulders. You must travel then to Gwales in Penfro, and you can stay there for as long as you wish. In the upper room, behind the High Table, you will behold three doors. Two of them will be open - the door on the left that looks out onto Gaul and the door on the right that looks out at the Northern Lights. But the door in the middle will be shut, and that is the door that looks out onto Aber Henfelen in Cornwall. You do not have to open that door, but as soon as you do open it - if you open it - then you must leave straightaway and head south to London and bury my head there, my face turned towards Europe, five fathoms deep beneath the White Tower. The head will guard this land from that day on, ensuring that men of ill will, be they outside the island or within its sacred precincts, do not succeed in making captives of ourselves or our descendants.'
At this, Bran's followers were aghast. He had led them so well in war and in peace, and they all held a fierce loyalty to his person and his crown. But they knew better than to disobey him - for Bran was said to be a prophet who had walked and talked with God Himself - and at length it was Manawydan, his brother and successor, who drew his sword and severed his head from his shoulders.
Sorrowfully they sailed across the Irish Sea, wondering if they had fallen prey to a collective delirium brought on by the trauma of war. For the head made no sound during the three hours of the voyage and its eyes remained glazed and vacant throughout.
They came into harbour at Aber Alaw in Tal Ebolion. Once there, Branwen looked back across the sea and saw in the distance the smoke still rising from the ruined Irish towns and villages. 'Alas,' she cried, 'that all this destruction should have been wrought on my account.' But Taliesin put his arms around her and comforted her, and they all set out after a short rest towards Harlech.
After half an hour they passed a group of peasants in a field. 'What news?' Manawydan asked. 'Is Caradog, the King's regent, still seated in power in Westminster?'
'My lord,' replied the chief peasant. 'He is not. The land has been wracked with civil strife since 'ere you left. Caswallon, son of Beli, Bran's ancient enemy, rebelled against Caradog, made himself invisible and slew the regent and his men. Now he reigns as tyrant in London and every man, woman and child in Britain suffers for it.'
Branwen wept. 'Not just one land wasted,' she wailed, 'but two.' And she died there and then of a broken heart. The seven men left buried her in a high, square grave, then pushed on mournfully for Harlech.
When they arrived, however, they found a lordly castle waiting for them on the cliffs. Everything was there that they could have hoped for. The gardens were fertile and the hunting runs excellent. But it was the birdsong that softened their hearts with its poignant beauty and moistened their eyes with tears. Far out to sea, they could dimly discern three birds wheeling and circling above the ocean. No other bird did they see all the time they were there, yet the birdsong seemed to be coming from much closer than that - from above, beside, and all around them.
The tears that flowed were tears of grief and mourning for all those who had perished so senselessly in the Irish War. Now the head began to sing too - psalms of lamentation and supplication, invoking the High God to welcome the souls of the departed into the light of his heavenly dwelling. And gradually their spirits started to rise, and they spent those seven years at Harlech in a state of calm, peaceful rest and recollection.
After that they moved on to Gwales in Penfro, and it was the same for them there as at Harlech except even better. Here there was no need to hunt or forage as three times a day - breakfast, dinner and supper - a wonderful meal was provided by invisible hands in the castle's upper room. As they ate and drank on their first night they saw the three doors at the far end of the room - the one looking out onto Gaul, the one looking out at the Northern Lights, and the one in the middle which was shut. 'That is the door we must not open,' said Manawydan. 'The one that looks out onto Cornwall.'
The seven stayed there for eighty years, and it was the happiest, most blissful time any of them had ever known, each year richer and more fulfilling than the one before. They did not age at all throughout this time. On the contrary, the longer they stayed the more youthful and radiant their faces and bodies became. They had forgotten all about the war and everything they had suffered in Ireland. The head sang to them continually, prophecies of extraordinary events to take place in the far-off future. They were astonished, and as there was little need for sleep in that enchanted place they gathered around the High Table as often as they could, day and night, and deeply imbibed the vision and insight pouring forth from King Bran's head.
Then one morning Heilyn son of Gwyn found himself alone in the upper room. The head was silent and the King's eyes shone with a strange light, which puzzled and unsettled Heilyn. He looked up at the middle door and an irresistible compulsion surged up within him to open it wide, bring an end to this episode, and move the story forward.
So Heilyn flung the door open and looked out onto the Cornish coast. For a long time afterwards he hated himself, for the castle straightaway lost its mystic sheen and was now a shabby, run-down semi-ruin. And all the pain and loss of a decade's worth of war and woe came crashing down upon them so that it felt like no time at all had elapsed between the burial of Branwen and the opening of the door. It was all too real and raw once more.
They left that place immediately and took the head with them to London as Bran had instructed. It made no sound now, though they eyes were still open and did not have the glazed, vacant look they had on the voyage back from Ireland. The head was alive, but silent.
So they buried it five fathoms deep beneath the White Tower and came sorrowfully away. Not long afterwards, Caswallon died unexpectedly and the Great Council asked Manawydan to become King in his place. He accepted gladly and began the arduous task of rebuilding the shattered country. When he himself went to God three years later Pryderi was chosen to succeed him, and he reigned for three-score years and transformed Britain into a strong, stable realm and a beacon of prayer, learning and the arts - 'a jewel set in a silver sea,' as Taliesin wrote on the occasion of the King's golden jubilee.
Manawydan and Pryderi had great confidence in what they set out to achieve because they knew the head of Bran the Blessed was guiding and protecting them from deep below. Things stayed this way for a millennium and a half until Arthur, in his pride and hybris, had the head dug up, thinking that he and he alone should have the honour of defending the land from its foes.
Taliesin, who had lived through all these centuries, was there to see this happen, but no-one, himself included, had any idea what Arthur did with the head - whether he tried to destroy it or hid it away somewhere. And Taliesin will be there again when - as Bran prophecied at Gwales in Penfro - the head will reappear at a time when Britain is threatened and almost overcome by a foul, unprecedented darkness. It will carry out the same salvific work then as it did after the ravages of the Irish War - that deep, eternal labour of healing, redemption, restoration, and national transfiguration.