Into the camp by the hazels I Taliessin came.
The wind was fierce but the December night was clear and crisp, the moon and stars a gallery of glory in the ink-blue sky. I led my chestnut mare up the winding cliff-side path, mounted her at the top, and looked down at the Roman ship turning slowly in the harbour. The golden Chi-Ro on the mainsail stood out so distinctly that it felt for a moment more like midday than midnight.
The ship sailed purposefully away. She had one more man to deposit on these far-flung coasts - Brendan the Prophet - returning after a host of adventures to his native Hibernia, 'Maybe,' I mused, 'maybe one day we will meet again.' I had liked Brendan and had learned a lot from him. But the Emperor had given him a task to fulfil in his own land now and I had a mission to accomplish in mine. In Byzantium we had drunk so deeply together - long deep draughts - from innumerable wellsprings of wisdom and grace. There, the Trinity is embedded and imprinted on all things made by hand, from church and palace to tavern and shop, in stone and wood, metalwork and paint - everything. The Paraclete is in the very air. You can sense him, feel him, catch him in your hand, as it were.
Side by side we stood - Brendan and I - in the Emperor's throne room on the marble floor while the great gong of Hagia Sophia resounded across the bay. But he was wise and experienced, ahead of me in every respect - a seaman and a monk; a saint some say - while I was just a raw teenager, sent by Merlin and his sister in a roadside vision to learn the holy truths - the timeless, sacred mysteries - which my druid youth and childhood, for all its grit and wisdom, glamour and flourish, had been unable to give me.
Hard and fast I rode along the Roman road towards the mount of Yr Widdfa. A caravan of sapphire stars accompanied me. Their shape was different every time I looked - now a cross, now a dolphin, now a bell - but whatever the pattern, the message was the same, and it brought me confidence and hope. The Emperor had kept the promise he made on the Byzantine quay, to protect and watch over me until I arrived at the camp by the hazels.
I needed his help for I was hedged in by enemies, physical and mental, the latter to my left, the former to my right. I wanted to avoid Londinium and Verulanium and the other big settlements to the East. Civil strife was ripping them apart as old King Cradlemas, that Germanic puppet, strained every nerve and sinew to maintain the illusion of power. I saw the flames and smoke and it filled me with sorrow to see such destruction and waste. Sadness overpowered me and I felt my purpose falter. Then I looked up and the stars were in the form of a clenched fist and gloom and despair dissolved in an instant in the face of such raw and unanswerable Imperial vitality.
To my left was the enchanted forest and there I dared not look at all. Out of the corner of my eye I saw them though - those signalling hands; those seductive, beckoning eyes. From there they crept through into the crevices of my mind until a trickle became a flood and the whole thought of Artorius and his Romano-Celtic brotherhood became dim and unreal. The oil the Emperor had recently anointed me with now appeared fantastical in my mind. Had the ceremony even happened? If it had, it was meant for someone else, surely. Even Emperors make mistakes, don't they? It was a man of purpose and direction that he wanted, not a dreamy fop like me. Theirs the kingdom, the power, the glory - mine the webs, the phantasms, the projections of the mind, the self-serving, never-ending loops of Plato's cave.
My pace slowed, my head drooped low and sleep had almost mastered me when a shooting silver comet flashed from East to West like lightning across the firmament. The spell was broken. Just like that. Once more, I looked above and the fist was now a hand, open and expansive, and the Emperor's strength poured down upon me and I tugged at the reins and propelled the mare forward, faster and faster, into the heart of the night.
Day was at hand when the country around me started to rise. The forest thinned and I was in a land of rocky hills and gleaming streams. The stars which had followed me came flaming down to the horizon - six in all - two to the West, two to the East, and two to the South. One alone remained, and that stayed ahead of me always, shifting sometimes left, sometimes right, guiding me to my destiny.
I heard the camp before I saw it - the bells of the Dawn Mass, the jingle of harness and bit - and then, through the hazels, the horsemen swooping by, gathering me into their company and escorting me into the presence of Artorius. Face to face we stood in a tent of red and golden hangings. He was young and beardless - a Divine Child - but the light in his eyes was ancient and primordial. I thought for a moment of Melchizedek and the stories the Emperor had told us as we walked up and down his pavement at night, watch fires burning bright in the dark.
'I am Taliessin,' I declared, 'and I have been sent to write and sing and tell the tale of your coming reign. I am here to serve and to follow but also to bring hope and sustenance to the men and women of the future. For even if your Kingdom fails, the Grail disappears and the Parousia is postponed, even then, and even if you are to blame, your example, your witness and your legacy will be so great that in ages to come when darkness covers the land the Britons of those times will remember your deeds, lift up their hearts, tear off their chains and pull down the Cradlemas of that age.'
There was no need for Artorius to speak. Merlin, Brisen, Brendan and the Emperor had told me everything already. I knew, and Artorius knew that I knew. So he embraced me in silence and we clasped each other tight like comrades and brothers. And a great shift occurred in that moment. I don't know how or why but something electric took place. That's all I know. What can I say? The inner became the outer. History gave way to myth. Britain became Logres. 'Le retour des grands temps,' the Gauls call it. 'The Great Return', say the men of the Wye valley. Both sound right to me.
Adapted from Taliessin's Return to Logres, the second poem in Charles Williams' collection, Taliessin Through Logres (1938).