The Skull in the Clouds
|←Poems by Robert Ervin Howard||The Skull in the Clouds (1929)
Alternative title: "Reuben’s Birthright"
The Black Prince scowled above his lance, and wrath in his hot eyes lay,
"I would rather you rode with the spears of France and not at my side today.
"A man may parry an open blow, but I know not where to fend;
"I would that you were an open foe, instead of a sworn friend.
"You came to me in an hour of need, and your heart I thought I saw;
"But you are one of a rebel breed that knows not king or law.
"You -- with your ever smiling face and a black heart under your mail—
"With the haughty strain of the Norman race and the wild, black blood of the Gael.
"Thrice in a night fight's close-locked gloom my shield by merest chance
"Has turned a sword that thrust like doom—I wot 'twas not of France!
"And in a dust-cloud, blind and red, as we charged the Provence line
"An unseen axe struck Fitzjames dead, who gave his life for mine.
"Had I proofs, your head should fall this day or ever I rode to strife.
"Are you but a wolf to rend and slay, with naught to guide your life?
"No gleam of love in a lady's eyes, no honor or faith or fame?"
I raised my faces to the brooding skies and laughed like a roaring flame.
"I followed the sign of the Geraldine from Meath to the western sea
"Till a careless word that I scarcely heard bred hate in the heart of me.
"Then I lent my sword to the Irish chiefs, for half of my blood is Gael,
"And we cut like a sickle through the sheafs as we harried the lines of the Pale.
"But Dermod O'Connor, wild with wine, called me a dog at heel,
"And I cleft his bosom to the spine and fled to the black O'Neil.
"We harried the chieftains of the south; we shattered the Norman bows.
"We wasted the land from Cork to Louth; we trampled our fallen foes.
"But Conn O'Neill put on me a slight before the Gaelic lords,
"And I betrayed him in the night to the red O'Donnell swords.
"I am no thrall to any man, no vassal to any king.
"I owe no vow to any clan, nor faith to any thing.
"Traitor—but not for fear or gold, but the fire in my own dark brain;
"For the coins I loot from the broken hold I throw to the winds again.
"And I am true to myself alone, through pride and the traitor's part.
"I would give my life to shield your throne, or rip from your breast, the heart.
"For a look or a word, scarce thought or heard, I follow a fading fire.
"Past bead and bell and the hangman's cell, like a harp-call of desire.
"I may not see the road I ride for the witch-fire lamps that gleam;
"But phantoms glide at my bridle-side, and I follow a nameless Dream."
The Black Prince shuddered and shook his head, then crossed himself amain:
"Go, in God's name, and never," he said, "ride in my sight again."
The starlight silvered my bridle-rein; the moonlight burned my lance
As I rode back from the wars again through the pleasant hills of France,
As I rode to tell Lord Amory of the dark Fitzgerald line
If the Black Prince dies, it needs must be by another hand than mine.