The Celtic Dragon
The following is a story based on the Mabinogion tale of Lludd and Llevelys. The story has been modified for literary purposes but the heart of this ancient Celtic tale remains true.
Darkness nestled over the land of Britannia as its people slept peacefully under their thatched roofing. A soft wind whispered through the moonlit fields. Crickets sung a tranquil song while the owls hunted silently in the nearby woods. The crackling of hearth fires had long since diminished to a soft quiet glow. Every man, woman, and child dreamt pleasant dreams of the Beltain celebrations to come.
Their peace was shattered when an unnatural scream of pain and despair thundered across the land. Like a storm-churned sea it roared, sending a terrible tremor through the earth. The night suddenly became alive as birds fled from the trees, wolves barked and howled in fright, animals both domestic and wild cried out and ran blindly into the night in a desperate attempt to escape whatever fearsome creature had made the sound.
King Lludd awoke with terror. He sat up suddenly and drew his blankets to his chest. King Lludd was a warrior and afraid of nothing, but something about this loud eerie cry sent a chill to his bones. He began to shake uncontrollably and almost whimpered like a child. He thought about getting up to take his sword, but panic had taken him. He was afraid to move, let alone cry out.
As King Lludd sat shivering in the darkness with unnatural fear, the city of Caerludd began to stir with the sounds of sobbing women, screaming children, and groaning men. King Lludd sat up all night in anticipation of an attack, but the source of the cry was never revealed. He seemed to remember this loud scream being heard before, but that was at least a year ago. It never revealed itself then either and King Lludd had soon forgotten all about it.
It was a dreary morning when the inexplicable fear finally left him and King Lludd was able to get out of bed. Knowing his people would be concerned about the terrible noise they heard in the night, King Lludd went out to meet them. He came upon the center of their stronghold to find it crowded with people waiting for him. Women pleaded for his assistance with the sudden misery that had fallen upon them. Men angrily demanded that action be taken immediately against the treacherous act. The complaints so filled King Lludd’s ears that he could only make out a few of their words.
“What is going on here?” King Lludd asked his closest friend, Cyric. Cyric was shorter than King Lludd, but still a tall man. He was a broad-shouldered warrior with great arms. His hair and beard was a dark shade of blond, his brows bushy and his eyes dark. He had almost a raptor gaze as he looked beyond the earthen walls of the stronghold to the land beyond.
“Did you not hear that terrible sound last night, my King?”
“I heard a bit of a noise but went back to sleep,” King Lludd lied. He was a king and supposed to always be strong and brave, not cowering in his bed like a whipped dog.
“Went back to sleep?!” Cyric proclaimed. “How could you have gone to sleep? I was awake all night expecting the heavens to come crashing down upon me at any moment.”
“We’ve heard this noise before,” King Lludd said dismissively. “Nothing ever harmed us then.”
“No, but something harmed the land. The people are saying that their crops have been destroyed again. Barley and hay that was healthy the day before has wilted and rotted. This is the second year in a row. I’m not sure how much more we can take before we all go hungry. Especially when the food in the royal larders keeps disappearing.”
“What about the women and children?” King Lludd asked. “Did the same happen to them?”
“Yes, my King. I have heard women crying that they have miscarried or that their children have gone mad.”
King Lludd frowned darkly in frustration. “Do you think the Coranieid had anything to do with this?” The Coranieid were a magical race of invaders that had been nothing but trouble for the past year or so. Somehow, these people, if they could be called people, managed to overhear every plan the King had made to stop them. And in doing so, they thwarted the King while becoming more and more invincible.
“I’m not certain, my King,” Cyric shrugged. “It wouldn’t surprise me with the wicked magic that they possess.”
“Did any of the warriors find any clues as to what caused this when they went out to scout?”
For a moment, Cyric said nothing. He looked to the ground shamefully as he replied, “None have ventured out, my King.”
King Lludd would have reprimanded him, but then he recalled his own unwillingness to even get out of bed. The terribly cry last night was an unholy sound, most likely imbibed with magic that had men fainting with unnatural terror.
“I will address the people and afterwards we will go to council,” King Lludd said with a worried look across his brow.
Cyric nodded in understanding and King Lludd took his place before the people. Generally, when the King presented himself everyone went quiet. But not this time. It was a sign of the fear and worry these people felt that kept them from behaving as they normally would.
After trying unsuccessfully to reassure the people, King Lludd gathered with the druids and the elders of the community. It was soon determined that this exact same event occurred exactly one year ago on the eve of May Day. Just like last year the wells went dry, both the land and the animals had become barren, women lost the babes in their womb while their children cried with madness. And all the while the men hid under their covers in fear.
Britannia was being menaced with three plagues: the Coranieid, the troubling scream on the eve of May Day, and the mysterious disappearance of the food in the royal larders. No one had any ideas on what to do. Everything they ever tried had failed.
“Perhaps we should ask your brother, King Llevelys, for help,” one of the elders advised.
King Lludd brightened. “Yes, he would know. He is much wiser than I.”
“Quite true, my King,” Cyric replied. King Lludd glowered at him. Cyric tended to agree with everything the King said, even if it was something insulting. Cyric always proclaimed he didn’t mean to offend him, but King Lludd suspected that Cyric knew exactly what he was saying. However, King Lludd had other concerns to deal with at this time so he let the remark pass.
“How will we contact your brother?” one of the other elders asked. “He is all the way in Gual. It will take months to get word to him and months to get word back.
“Wait!” the wisest of the druids interrupted. “We can’t make any plans without the Coranieid using their magic to overhear it. Whatever we do, it must be kept quiet.”
“Yes, agreed,” King Lludd exclaimed as he smacked his hand upon the table.
With that, the men began to talk with their hands or to draw symbols. With much confusion and misunderstanding, a plan finally became clear. Orders were soon made for the brothers to meet halfway across the channel.
A strong cool wind blew across the sea. King Lludd stood back from the shore with his colorful cloak wrapped around his shoulders. His blond-graying hair fluttered in the wind as waves of cold ocean water rolled onto the beach. The fresh tangy smell of salt filled his nostrils as he watched a crew of men silently and stealthily prepare the ships. Strong Celtic warriors stood guard on the shores, keeping a careful eye out for the crafty Coranieid.
With no mishap, King Lludd and a company of men were on the way. It was tedious travel across the treacherous waters of the channel. The wind was not always in their favor so the ship crews were forced to take down the sails and row instead. Sometimes the waters were calm and sometimes the winds built gigantic swells that one moment put them at the top of the world and another moment almost seemed to swallow them whole.
Eventually, the ships of King Lludd’s brother came into view. King Lludd would have shouted with joy but everyone, including himself, had sworn to keep silent. The Coranieid’s power worked even out at sea since their magic encompassed all matters of nature. King Lludd could not speak for fear that his words would be carried by the wind to his enemies.
The two ships met and King Llevelys transferred to King Lludd’s ship. The two embraced with brotherly affection. King Lludd’s powerful warrior arms squeezed tight around his younger brother’s smaller frame. Llevelys was King Lludd’s favorite brother by far, although the two were quite different from one another. King Lludd was a strong and powerful warrior. He was tall and powerfully built. King Llevelys was also tall, but he was rather lean. While King Lludd was like a great bull on the battlefield possessing great strategy and strenghth, King Llevelys was like the Salmon of Knowledge when it came to people, nature, and magic. King Lludd always thought that his brother would have made a good druid.
As the two brothers stood face to face, it was evident that they had much to say to one another. King Lludd hadn’t thought about how he and his brother would communicate so his look of happiness soon turned to one of confusion. But King Llevelys, the far wiser of the two, pulled from his pack a great horn. He put the horn to his lips and with a gesture motioned his brother to lean his ear to the other side.
King Lludd bent to the wider opening of the horn and listened anxiously as his brother spoke. To his astonishment, instead of a greeting King Llevelys spoke curses. King Lludd straightened in sudden shock and gave his brother a questioning look. King Llevelys’s face did not have the look of one that just spoke angry curses so King Lludd put the horn to his lips and spoke into his brother’s ear. “Why, dear brother, do you speak to me so? Have we not always been the best of friends?”
As King Levelys listened, his face turned red with fury. He glared at his brother angrily and opened his mouth to speak. But at the last moment, he closed his mouth and breathed deeply through his flared nostrils in an attempt to calm himself. King Lludd stood dumbly wondering what in the name of the heavens was wrong with his brother. When King Levelys finally composed himself, he spoke into the horn again. At first, King Lludd listened with interest. But as his brother spoke, more curses spewed forth. It was now King Lludd’s turn to be angry. He was about to share a few ugly words of his own with his brother, but King Llevelys made a gesture with his index finger indicating for King Lludd to wait. While King Llevelys snapped his fingers to get the attention of one of the men, King Lludd waited in fuming silence.
King Llevelys signed for the man to bring him a bottle of wine. When it was brought, he opened the bottle and inhaled the wonderfully sweet vapors. As he began to pour the wine through the horn, King Lludd’s anger gave way to curiosity. When King Llevelys was done, he indicated for his brother to listen again. Unsure of what his brother would say next, King Lludd put his ear to the horn with some reluctance.
“My apologies, dear brother,” King Llevelys said. “The horn was possessed by evil spirits. The good words we were sharing with one another were turned into curses. But it seems the sacredness of the wine has cleansed it.”
King Lludd sighed with relief. The two conversed happily for some time thereafter. At first they spoke of pleasant things, of women and wine, of great battles and masterful deeds. But the time for pleasantries soon gave way to King Lludd’s current predicament of the three plagues. To King Lludd’s greatest relief, his wise brother had all the answers.
The early morning sun rose over the hills bathing the land in a warm spring light. The lush green meadows glistened with dew as a cool fresh breeze swept the across the land. Splashes of colorful flowers slowly opened their petals to the sun. King Lludd loved to watch the land come alive with the arrival of spring – especially now that his mind was more at ease. He had rid the lands of the Coranieid quite easily. They would trouble him no more. And the plan to end the devastating scream on May Day Eve was well underway.
The scream, King Llevelys had said, was caused by the Red Dragon of the Celts. This dragon screamed as she was being overcome by the White Dragon of the Saxons. Her cry was in pain and anger as this foreign dragon fought to overcome her.
Whatever the reason for the devastating cries, this dangerous battle had to stop once and for all. After King Llevelys had proposed his plans, King Lludd returned home to implement them. While the Coranieid were being destroyed, King Lludd had sent men to measure the land and find its center. After much debate and many months, the center had been found in the town of Oxenaforda# which was where King Lludd was now.
The King stood on a knoll and watched with grim satisfaction as his people dug a gigantic pit. There was no doubt in his mind that the plan would work. Such mysterious events were usually overcome in unusual ways. And King Lludd trusted his brother’s wisdom.
After the pit was dug, the men began to fill it with mead. King Lludd hated to see all that delicious wine being used on such beasts, especially when his people were famished, but he had little choice. In order for the harvest to not get spoiled this year, this was the sacrifice he and his people had to make. The early years of King Lludd’s reign had been prosperous. But all had nearly been undone with the three menaces plaguing his people’s land.
It was late afternoon by the time the pit was full. The warm and dry air was touched with the tantalizing smell of mead, making King Lludd and his men very thirsty. They had labored all day, roasting and sweating under the balmy spring sky. But the work was not yet done. One last task had yet to be performed.
Everyone watched in anticipation as a group of men unloaded a roll of fine verdant cloth. They lay the bolt on the ground at one end of the pit and slowly unrolled it over the opening. When the task was complete, the people cheered. In celebration of the accomplishment, King Lludd allowed them to drink the mead that had not been used, but only until dark at which time the dragons were expected to come.
The sun sank below the horizon. A ribbon of orange glowed on the horizon as darkness slowly spread across the land. One by one, the stars came to life. King Lludd waited expectantly on a ridge far enough from the pit to be unable to discern the difference between the land and the verdant cloth, but close enough to still be a little heady from the smell of mead.
Time crawled slowly along the edge of night and King Lludd began to wonder if the dragons would even come this year. As promising as that sounded, he needed the dragons to turn up this night so that he could be sure this devastation would not meet his people again.
Then just before the stars reached the point of mid night, the land began to vibrate. At first, the movement was subtle. King Lludd did not even notice it until one of his men said something. Then the ground rolled and trembled with such force that King Lludd and half the men lost their footing. Rocks came loose and rolled down the hill, shattering and cracking as they hit other rocks.
King Lludd’s heart leapt to throat and pounded with trepidation. At first when he looked in the distance to where he sensed the quake originated, he saw nothing. But ever so slowly, two forms began to appear. One was pale and seemed to glow as it was bathed in the light of the moon. The other was a dark, darker than the red of blood. The two beasts rolled and tumbled as they fought, slowly making their way towards the pit of mead. Whether they were attracted by the mead’s sweet odor or always fought their battle in the center of the land, King Lludd was unsure. Whatever their reasons, they came.
Snapping and snarling, grappling and clawing, the dragons fought viciously. King Lludd and his men looked upon the great beasts with awe, silently thankful that they did not have to battle these dragons themselves. The Celts were brave when it came to fighting men or hunting animals. But to face such an indomitable creature of magic was best left to trickery and the mysterious workings of Mother Earth.
As the dragons came closer, King Lludd was able to discern the shape of their huge scaly bodies. From the top of their head to the tip of their tail, their bodies were long and lean like that of a worm. Their arms and legs were short and squat like a lizards, but with the great claws of a bird of prey. Their wings were generally folded back but they occasionally spread open to reveal thin leathery webbing like that of a bat. As they opened their mounts, saliva dripped from long gruesome fangs. The rows of teeth were more numerous and sharper than those of the fishy flesh-eaters of the sea.
Little by little, King Lludd noticed a change come over the creatures. As the beasts got closer, their wings seemed to meld to their bodies. Their tails grew shorter and thinner, then began to curl. Their noses shriveled into snouts. The claws fell away leaving stunted hooves. Eventually, their long thin bodies became short and fat. Before anyone realized what was happening, the dragons had turned into pigs. King Lludd was dumbfounded at this incredible feat. Never had he seen such magic.
The now impotent creatures then slowly began to sink. As King Lludd watched, he realized that the pigs had stepped onto the cloth and were now sinking into the mead. But rather than be alarmed at finding themselves in a trap, the pigs seemed to be enjoying this new development. They drank the sweet wine eagerly as they swam and slowly descended to the bottom of the pit.
By the time King Lludd and his men reached the trap, the pigs were fast asleep. Each man grabbed an edge of the cloth and brought it together, enclosing the pigs in the blanket that they would spend the rest of eternity in. King Lludd then had the pigs put in a kistvaen and locked away.
“Take these abominable creatures far into the mountains north of Cymru and bury them,” King Lludd ordered. “I never want to see their likes again.”
As his men eagerly complied, King Lludd stood proudly with his hands on hips. It was his brother’s wisdom that helped him capture the dragons, but his was his physical exertion and brought the plan to its culmination.
“It is done, my King,” the young messenger said. “The creatures were buried in a place they have dubbed Dinas Emrys.”
King Lludd sighed with relief. The dragon scream never came that May Day Eve so their crops flourished. Animals that were once barren became fertile again. Wells that had dried up were now full. Women all over the land of Britannia gave birth to happy healthy children. Everything was back to normal . . . Well, almost everything.
“King Lludd!” one of his people called anxiously, bringing the King out of his reverie. “King Lludd, the royal larders have been emptied again.”
King Lludd sighed again, but this time in frustration. The third menace still had to be dealt with and King Lludd was not looking forward to it. This final plague promised to be the most difficult of all. But that is a story for another day.
The re-telling of this ancient mythical tale is copyrighted by D.R. Ross, 2008.
Note from the author: Please understand that 100% authenticity was not the intention of this tale for nothing could out-do the original telling. Modernized names of people and places were avoided. However, some of the place names may not coincide with the time period.