The Fight at Camlan

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The Fight at Camlan
written by John Masefield
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SOON the two armies were in touch, and soon
Camped, face to face, upon the windy, high,
Thyme-scented barren where the wild bees croon.
Southward and westward was the wrinkled sea
Where Kolgrim's ships lay black.
Now must they treat or battle, since to fly
No longer was a solace that might be.
The season neared midsummer and full moon;
His impulse urged King Arthur to attack.

Then thought, and pity of his son, and hate
Of shedding subjects' blood, made him resolve
To make an offer ere he shut the gate
On every end save battle to the death.
He sent Sir Bedwyr forth
To Modred, to discover what might solve
Their quarrel without quell of living breath.
Modred replied, "Let Arthur abdicate
This southern half the realm, and keep the north.

If he contemn this, say I shall not treat
Or commune, save as King with equal King.
Here is my army, yonder is my fleet;
Cornwall is mine, I can maintain it mine;
I am prepared to fight.
But if my modest terms can end the thing,
And all this southern realm be paid as fine,
We'll choose ambassadors and let them meet
There on that barrow, in the armies' sight."

So, to be brief, both men empowered peers
To make discussion of the terms of peace.
The barrow, of the King of ancient years,
Topped by a thorn tree, was the meeting-place.
There six from either side
Went, while the heralds bade all warfare cease,
No sword to leave its sheath, no bow its case,
The horsemen to dismount and pile their spears
And all keep camp till all were ratified.

The twelve Knights went unarmed up to the howe
Between the armies, to debate together;
They hung a white flag on the hawthorn bough
And started talking, while the troops in camp
Disarmed, and cleaned their gear,
Or stretcht to sleep upon the matted heather;
Or with their comrades sat upon the ramp,
Sure that the quarrel would be settled now;
Each hailed the other side with mock or cheer.

To eastwards of the campments was a mound
Or rise of earth from some old fallen fence
Of ancient village, camp, or cattle-pound;
Three rebels flung themselves upon its top
With Kolgrim, Modred's friend,
Who mocked and said: "These talkers have no sense."
Then, hours later, "Let this folly stop
There goes King Arthur; let us shoot the hound,
Crown Modred King and bring it to an end."

Prone in the heath the four uncased their bows,
They strung them, on each other's bodies stayed;
Then from their quivers each an arrow chose.
Arthur was sitting with Sir Kai in talk,
Making an easy mark.
Back to the ears the arrow-feathers laid,
Then, as the hornet leaves his hollow balk
Humming with evil, so the arrows rose,
Shot from the string to strike the victim stark.

Sweeping the space those shafted barbings sped,
Like golden birds athwart the light they thrilled:
One pierced Kai's bitter heart and struck him dead,
Another cut King Arthur's purple cloak;
Another, by his hand
Stuck quivering in the table till it stilled;
The last struck sideways on a shield and broke
Below the barbs, its venomed fang unfed.
"Quick, mates, again," said Kolgrim to his band.

But as they drew, King Arthur's herald cried:
"Treason! The men are shooting! Quick. Beware."
Then, leaping up, he thrust the King aside
And shouted "Treason! Fall in, Arthur's men."
And as he snatcht a shield
The second fighting shafted through the air
That struck him through and put him out of ken
Of wife and home by pleasant Severnside.
Then trumpets blew and tumult filled the field.

The counsellors upon the barrow fled,
Each to his camp, not knowing what betid;
King Arthur's men into their cohorts sped,
Swearing, "We'll pay these breakers of the truce,
Oath-breaking, treacherous swine."
The black-backt adder to her cavern gild;
Now Modred's archers let their arrows loose,
And many a grey goose-feather was made red,
Ere either army formed a battle-line.

Now the two armies stood as walls of spears
Beneath the ever-passing shriek and strike
Of arrows wavering in their careers.
Modred came swooping as a falcon swoops,
On horseback down his ranks,
Crying: "Behold your sparrows: play the shrike."
The trumpets blared among the rebel troops,
King Arthur galloped to his front with cheers;
He cried: "If fronts are stubborn, try the flanks."

Then as in thunderstorms the wind-vanes shift
On towers, against blackness, with a gleam,
So did his riders' spearheads glitter swift
Above the blowing pennons as they drooped
As one, down to the charge.
Then did the stallions bare their gums and scream,
The bright bits tightened as the riders stooped;
Then like a lightning from a thunder rift
The squadrons clashed together, lance on targe.

For hours they fought: then Arthur, beaten back
From camp and downland to the planted fields,
Steadied his line against the spent attack;
The armies stopped the battle to re-form.
Thirst-broken soldiers quencht
Their thirsts, and dropped their lances and their shields.
There fell the central quiet of the storm,
And spearmen strayed, to rob the haversack
Of friend or rebel prone with muscles clencht.

And while the battle stayed, Sir Modred found
No plenishment of spears and arrows spent
Save what the fight had scattered on the ground;
But Arthur formed upon his waggon-train
That brought him up new gear.
Archers and lancers took fresh armament
And faced to front, resolved to fight again.
Then Arthur heard a distant trumpet sound,
And, looking, saw strange horsemen in his rear.

And as he moved some lancers as a guard,
Thinking that Modred threatened his retreat,
He saw the banner of the golden pard;
Sir Lancelot was riding in to aid
With squadrons of picked horse.
Lancelot said, "Though banisht, let us meet
To put an ending to this renegade:
See, his line wavers: let us push him hard;
He'll break as sure as prickles grow on gorse."

It was now drawing to the summer dusk,
The sun, low fallen, reddened on the sea,
Dog-rose and honeysuckle shed their musk;
Lancelot's troops moved up upon the left,
King Arthur took the right.
It was the hour of the homing bee.
Then up the bright blades glittered on the heft,
The dragon of red battle bared her tusk,
King Arthur's tattering trumpets sounded Fight.

At a slow trot they started, keeping touch,
Elbow to elbow, upon rested horses
That strove to get the bits within their clutch;
Troop after troop the hoof-beat thunder grew;
Slowly the trot increast
As Lammas torrents grow in watercourses;
Then, utterly triumphant trumpets blew
And as a mounting wave, already much,
Mounts mighty ere it smashes into yeast,

So mounted there that billow ere it broke;
Then, at its breaking, Modred, branch and root,
Horseman and footman, scattered like blown smoke
From burning leaves on an October blast.
Then mile on moorland mile,
King Arthur's army had them in pursuit;
Arthur with six Knights followed Modred fast,
Till on a beach he turned to strike a stroke.
Ten, against Arthur's seven, seemed worth while.

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