This is Part 3 of LIAM GUILAR’s still-being-written epic of Britain. Chapter 1 was published in Long Poem Magazine #25 Spring 2021, and you can read Chapter 2 in the previous issue of The Brazen Head.
The story so far: 449 AD. The Roman province of Britannia is tottering. The Legions have long gone and raiders and civil war are becoming endemic as central authority breaks down. The Ruling Council has sent Adolf of Gloucester 1 on a mission to establish contact with the new war lords in the North and call them to a meeting. After that he is to continue further north to investigate the rumor of a lost legion. The Council intend to use such an army to protect the province. Adolf has other plans. Adolf’s main rival is called Vortigern. You can find out more about Vortigern and the Legendary History at www.liamguilar.com
Chapter Three: Playing Dress up in the Ruins.
Ghosts on the great north road
moth-eaten capes, tarnished brass:
pretend Romans on a fading track
its edges blurred, the landscape
creeping back, erasing the affront.
The old Cursus Publicus.
No one waited with a change of horses
to speed them on their errand.
No patient slaves were waiting
to lead them to a bath house.
Stunned groups struggling south,
unable to say where they were going.
Some with belongings. Some
begging for food, or running
at the first sight of armed men.
The worst were those too tired to run
who simply stood or sat and waited.
All day darkness, and the sky fouled with smoke,
as though the north itself were burning.
They were grateful for the rain.
An abandoned temple gave them shelter.
Gloucester imagines ordered lines
stepping towards the incoherent mob.
Discipline against barbarian chaos
the grateful blood stained victors
chanting their general’s name.
A legion at his back? Why not?
It worked for Constantine.
His men are camped outside.
More scared of ghosts than rain.
But in this world of broken shadows
even the ghosts are now afraid.
You’ve met these two before:
They are there to prove how great the victory
how terrible the defeat. Until recently
nobody bothered with their stories.
They’ve been around since wars began.
They’ll grumble on until there are no wars.
Two faces in the firelight, sharing food.
Veterans of the service, though the service
in their eyes, is looking very shabby.
‘All punishment and no discipline.
Innocent or guilty, capable or clumsy
makes little difference to this Adolf.’
‘When that rider came…’
…’The gibberer?’ ‘Him.’
‘What did he say?
A raiding party running for The Wall?’
‘Burdened with loot and captives.’
‘Wagons loaded down with loot he said.’
‘Pushing wagons loaded down with loot.
But Gloucester says They’re heading east.
Our orders take us west.’ ‘That’s true though isn’t it?’
‘Yes, indeed it is, but consider this.
Can you imagine Vortigern letting them escape?
Or being insulted at that hill fort
and turning tail? He’d have burnt it round their ears.’
Two days earlier….
The hill fort had been recently reoccupied.
The path rose, cutting a labyrinth of bank and ditch
until they were confronted by a well-made wall.
Everything was squared, trim, and even.
They waited in the shadow of the gate house
Then a voice, like the north wind coming off a glacier,
speaking British in defiance of their uniforms and banners.
‘Is Vortigern the Thin amongst you?’ 2
‘I am the Magister Militum,
Count of the Saxon Shore.’
‘Pretty titles for these ugly times.’
‘The Council summons you to London.’
‘Whatever your titles meant
when you left home,
here you are unwelcome.
There is no legion at your back,
nothing to ratify your idle names.
We can slaughter you and no one
no one, will come to bury you
let alone avenge your deaths.
Turn back, we will not follow.
Go home, we know the place
to break a column of toy soldiers
but we have better things to do.
‘We should have burnt it down around their ears.
They have sent a boy out on a man’s errand.’
Gloucester continued north.
Torch light and candle light
lamplight and firelight
and never enough light
to stop the darkness
so the edges blurred.
A marching camp, smoke rising,
the usual signs of occupation.
The bank is sagging underneath the wooden wall.
The platform like a discarded party streamer.
No man could hold his ground on such a footing.
From a gate tower creaking in the breeze,
the watchman said, ‘No more than four.’
Gloucester and the Proconsul
are escorted to a timber building
with not one right angle in the joints.
In the middle, facing the smouldering fire,
whoever calls himself king of this rank and smoky space.
A cloak of raven’s feathers, bright rings, armbands, native paint.
The protocols of embassy and messenger are swept aside.
He insists they kneel. When they refuse, he rises:
‘I am the risen Christ and you will worship me!’
Only the years of discipline stop Gloucester’s laughter.
This silly little man in this squalid little barn:
Christ how the world has shrunk
if fools expect such folly to be taken seriously.
The women are attractive, desirable but hesitant.
Eager to please their messiah. The apostles
are playground bullies in patchwork armour.
The proconsul is a bald, grey bearded man
who in his youth…etc. etc.
But now has the power…etc, etc.
It’s all implied and understood.
‘We’re all familiar with the law.’
‘This is the law,’ said the kinglet,
his fist smashing the bewildered face.
He asks the sprawling body:
‘Who will enforce your law?’
He knifes the writhing man.
‘I will’, he says, in the bloody silence
that is so profound, you can hear it
hold its breath and bleed.
Gloucester grabs a log from the woodpile
and swings it hard against the Saviour’s head.
Blowing the hunting horn around his neck,
his men break through the flimsy wall.
The risen Christ and his disciples
soon lie scattered on the dirty floor.
Impressive but redundant marker,
of a boundary the land ignored.
Camped at a central fort,
Gloucester waited for his scouting parties.
Men sent out along the roads
or following The Wall in both directions.
Stopping in the little villages.
cooking fires still smouldering.
Rarely a furtive native,
perhaps an ancient man or woman
left behind when all the others
had taken to the heather.
Gloucester, in the rain,
supervising his fort’s repair
imagines ranks stepping into incoherent mobs.
The disciplined advance into barbarian chaos.
The grateful victors chanting their general’s name.
His command is leaking men.
Even here, snuggled into winter quarters,
riders don’t return, and patrols sent to find patrols
find nothing. No one. The land is empty.
Did you dream about the other
who would solve your problems?
The pay rise you deserved
to cancel out your debts.
Did you clasp the lotto ticket
dreaming of your new life
if they called your numbers?
Did you throw it in the bin
and swear you’d never bet again?
Or did you keep on betting
long after common sense had called a halt,
and there was nothing in the bank
to fuel the fantasy but a bruising desperation.
Another party rides towards the turf wall further north,
along a broken road no one has bothered to repair.
The surface fractured by the travellers’ wheels
is best avoided. On the hills, blocked culverts,
force the streams to flood and wash away the terrace
and the road it balanced. Beyond all that
right on to the end of marching
past the broken watch towers and abandoned forts
to ditch and bank and sometimes rubble
where squatters huddle in the outline of a camp,
sheep graze and the indifferent, stupid cattle
trip on the remnants of a barracks floor
that once held 30,000 men
and housed the Emperor himself.
Standing on The Wall,
waiting for patrols,
he scans the bleak upland.
It doesn’t roll, it heaves.
The burnt look of moorland
the gullies and abrupt valleys
too untidy for his taste.
No straight lines except the roads
confidently heading south.
Here, at its northern limit,
the whole ruined empire echoing behind him.
Over there the chaos that slighted Rome,
source of the tidal surge threatening to drown them all.
News from the South.
Vortigern this. Vortigern that.
His fifty Germans had erased a raiding party
then seized their ships.
He’d want a Triumph next.
What were fifty tribesmen to his Legion,
forcing the channel crossing,
following their choice of Caesar.
It worked before.
The Western Empire could be saved.
The sun crawls over the horizon,
then slides, embarrassed, to the west.
Winter, immobility and failure,
creep towards him, deaf to threat or reason.
Days when the demented wind
battered them, assaulting roof and wall
while the horizontal rain trashed
anyone who dared to stand outside.
The world was dissolving in rivers of slime.
His soldiers slithered and flopped
as if some magic had removed their bones.
Soon winter would invest the fort,
forcing them indoors to brood beside their fires
and analyse his failures.
Vortigern this. Vortigern that.
The patrols encounter roads
that fade into the heather,
ruins in the glens, tracery of walls,
fear and incomprehension
and neither had an answer.
No violent opposition.
Until one shepherd, caught on the run,
shaking with fear, stammered:
there was a fort in the north west:
it had been repaired.
‘In Wood or stone?’
So much hung upon the answer.
He didn’t know. It was a story he’d been told
by a drover he’d been drinking with.
He wouldn’t even swear that it was true.
Far from any road, overlooking a river
that drained hills to the north.
They watched, while rain was turning into sleet,
the great gate shaking in the wind.
There were guards on the wall.
So they retreated to the ruined vicus
where traders and camp followers had sold their wares
unwrapped their eagle, donned their fathers’ uniforms
and moved in line towards the gate.
It opened, men in armour moving out
a legion on the march. Adolf saw the future:
the roads busy, the towns thriving,
but no legion ever staggered,
ragged arsed into a line that bent.
He rode closer playing Roman.
There was nothing Roman or Imperial on view:
patchworks of rust and improvisation.
Someone whose faded plume suggested rank
stepped forward. Braided hair leaked
from the badly polished helmet.
Only the little gimlets of his twinkling eyes
broke the bearded, tattooed face.
He spoke a mix of Pict and Legion
Gloucester struggled to translate.
Inside the fort, the walls contained a rubbish tip.
Once neatly ordered barrack blocks were patterns in the mud.
Dirty children squabbled in the wreck of the Principia.
Dirty women moved amongst the dirty huts.
Removing bits of armour with relief,
the garrison was every other native they had met.
‘They said that you would come for us,
They said: “The bastards sailed without us.
We buried the last of them so long ago.
My father’s father. Take us back to Rome.
Take us to the bath house and the forum.
The oldies said that Caesar would reward our loyalty.’
They celebrated in the wooden barn
that once had housed the grain.
Perhaps they thought it was a feast.
Perhaps, they thought that this was how
the legions honoured their important guests.
So Gloucester lied about his errand. Pretended
Rome was still unscathed, the Empire
sound but still in need of loyal troops.
Would they drill for him tomorrow?
Those who weren’t too drunk turned out.
He counted less than fifty,
some too old to stand up straight.
Echoes of empire in mangled Latin.
Their drill was comically inept,
like little boys playing dress up
in a misremembered game.
They were no use to anyone.
He couldn’t take them with him.
But they wouldn’t let him leave.
So Gloucester gave instructions.
They rode away.
The wooden buildings smoking in the rain.
The bodies piled into a heap.
The glory that was Rome
left for the raven and the wolf.
LIAM GUILAR is Poetry Editor of the Brazen Head
- Adolf is one of Laȝamon’s oddities. Although he is a British hero, he has a very German name
- He is ‘Vortigern the Thin’ in Welsh tradition