This is Part Five of LIAM GUILAR’S almost completed epic of Britain. Part One was published in Long Poem Magazine #25 Spring 2021, and Chapters Two, Three and Four in The Brazen Head. For more information about Hengist, Vortigern and the Legendary History, visit www.liamguilar.com
The story so far. Mid Fifth Century; Hengist and his brother Horsa have sailed to Britain where they have been taken on as mercenaries by Vortigern, the newly appointed leader of the Province. Their immediate, shared problem is an army of Picts. In the long term, Hengist’s desire to establish a kingdom must bring him into conflict with the Britons. He is scheming to ensure the conflict will be fought on his terms. Vortigern’s desire to save the Province will bring him into conflict with Hengist, but also with Vortimer, his eldest son and those Britons who resent his even-handed rule, while happily benefitting from it. The story of Thongcaester in this chapter marks the continual shift in the Legendary History between possible history and the world of folk tales.
Snap shot of Hengist
‘Fuck me’, said Horsa,
‘that’s a lot of paint.’
The Pictish horde, a festering
howl of painted bodies, surging
towards the silent lines,
stopping, stepping back,
closer each time,
building the rhythm
of their final charge.
‘We should pray now to Woden, god of all battles?’
‘If you wish’, replies Hengist. ‘I’m betting on our Roman.’
No speeching, no boasting,
no threats of discipline.
Vortigern had explained what needed to be done,
trusting his soldiers would do it.
And wonder of wonder, they trust him.
Hengist admires the choice of ground.
The limited front negates the Pict’s numerical superiority.
The lack of slope, conventionally a disadvantage,
leaves the cavalry who loiter on the flanks
an open field to move across.
The pitch perfect voice steeling the ranks.
In an avalanche of noise, the Picts attack.
‘Hold your lines!’ says the voice.
The Picts shatter like glass hurled against a wall.
Brothers in Arms
After they destroyed the Picts
and massacred the survivors,
after they hunted raiders in the west,
after the spoils had been divided.
‘You’re staring at your spear,’ said Hengist, ‘is something wrong?’
‘It would look better’, says his brother, ‘with his head on it.‘
Hengist smiles. ‘The Picts and Scotti, they are worthy enemies?’
Horsa thinks about it, nods, ‘Bold fighters, yes, strong warriors.’
‘In every battle that we’ve fought’, says Hengist, tiptoeing,
‘we’ve been outnumbered but we’ve held the field,
yet lost so few in doing so?’ Horsa, still imagining his spear
adorned with Vortigern’s head, nods, admitting this is true.
‘We gave him our word that we will serve.’
‘Was it still our word in their birdy babble?
We told our people we would find a home.
How is this home if we don’t give the orders?’
‘Everyone but god takes orders.
Fifty of the best fighters these islands have seen
are sparrow fart in a thunderstorm
if we inherit his enemies and turn
his former friends into our foes.
Either we finish off his enemies
and slaughter all his friends
so you can decorate your spear.
Or we serve him well,
bait our trap and when he’s caught
the hired hand becomes the master’s equal
and our grandsons give the orders.’
‘So we’re sending for my niece?’
‘Soon’, says Hengist, ‘soon,
I’ll be sending for my daughter.’
Vortigern lectures his eldest son on recent history
‘Four hundred years the legion kept us soft.
They broke the tribes, removed
their expertise with point and edge.
Head hunters once, we worried about status,
cultivated roses, practised Latin,
patronised the makers of Mosaic floors.
The legions kept the peace and fought the Empire’s wars.
They were the turtle’s shell and we the soft
delicious flesh barbarians dreamt
of feasting on. Now the legions have gone over
and left us on our own. The forts are empty,
the watchtowers home to nesting birds.
The weapons we kept hidden, heirlooms,
are a language we’ve forgotten how to speak.
Time washed us up, defenceless and alone,
like a turtle stranded on its back.
Now the predators are moving in.
Until we train an army, we hire muscle.’
‘These men are pagans, father.
What kind of world will you build with their help?
We should exterminate them all
and build God’s kingdom on their bones.’
‘Oh child, your Jesus loves us all?
He cares and is compassionate?
He is a just and loving God?
Did your mother deserve her fate?
What terrible crime could she commit
to earn such terror and such pain?
Do you believe the Gods are even handed?
Prayer will not drive the raiders back.’
‘You favour them.
I have no land. I have no income.
I have no household of my own.
They point at me and say,
There goes Vortimer nithing.
His father does not trust him.’
‘What is there in what I’ve done
suggests I do not trust you?’
‘You will not let me fight beside you.
You are keeping me from glory.’
‘There is no glory fighting pirates.
I want you to gather Britons
who are willing to fight.
I want you to help Gloucester train them.’
‘Help him? I am your son.’
‘And you have no experience,
no skill, no proven aptitude.
What do you know of training fighting men?
Survival depends on our success.
This is not a time for-self-appointed experts.
Do this and I shall give you land:
and income for your household.’
‘And should I refuse to second Gloucester?’
Vortigern, saying nothing, leaves.
Snap shot of Hengist #2
Gods roll their dice, or fortune cranks her wheel.
You choose your metaphor to regulate the chaos.
Despite the fragile palisade and ditch,
it’s just another village; the usual beehive huts,
wattle fences, pigs, angry dogs. Hardworking adults.
Dirty children looking up to see the sky collapse.
It’s in Vortigern’s path, where and when it needs to be.
Held by some sad fool who calls himself a King,
who thought he could defy the call to Lincoln.
A stash of weapons and some looted goods
are all excuse he needs to make this place a name
to go before the army to infect his enemies with fear
and curdle resolution. The name will mean,
terrifying cruelty; it will translate annihilation.
Warriors slipped off the leash are happy to oblige.
Vortimer sits on the hillside, with two bound captives.
They will carry the news. They will spread the virus.
Horrified, he had protested to his father:
‘You’re letting pagans murder Christians.’
‘Treason is a crime that must be punished,
regardless of the gods they claim to serve.’
Hengist, bloodless, arriving with Keredic.
‘He has a wife and daughter.’ The irrelevance
confusing father and son into baffled silence.
‘He wants to know if the King is married?’
‘My mother is with God and all his saints.
She worshipped Christ.’ ‘Where was He then
when I buried what was left of her?’
‘Raiders? Saxons?’ ‘Britons,
scratching at old tribal sores.
She wasn’t British.’ Hengist bows.
‘He says he’s sorry for your loss.’
Sincere, but qualified,
even in translation.
Success following success, the age of stone
gives way to wood. See Vortigern the King,
now seated on his wooden throne,
in a wooden hall, smoke filled and dim.
The shadows threaten. The council has dissolved,
he is the one the people look to for solutions
But they remember their grandfathers despised the younger man.
Those who were punished forget how they had sinned.
The sons of those rewarded forget their loyal fathers bled
to earn the lands and titles they inherited.
Vortigern can hear death sharpening her scythe,
scraping in his dreams, the endless ‘help me’.
The whining of the privileged, the weeping of the poor,
silenced as Hengist went down on one knee.
‘Lord’, he said, ‘we have served you well.
We have wives, children, but no home.
We have kept the promises we made.
I ask for land to settle as our own.’
Vortigern, touching the coin he wears,
‘You will dig a ditch and build a palisade.
You will invite your family and your allies
you will forget the promises you made.’
‘We gave our oath that we would serve.
We served, we all bled, many died.
I do not ask for much.’ ’Good dog’,
I’ll give you land,’ Vortimer replied.
The understudy claiming the performance.
He is stepping out to claim the light.
The assembly shoals. Some out of curiosity,
some keen to see the son and father fight.
The King, enthroned, watching,
inscrutable. His silence a surprise.
Gloucester tugging the boy’s sleeve,
whispering, ‘My lord this is unwise.’
‘If it is my land’, this to his father,
‘then I can give it to your dog without your leave.
He only needs enough space for a kennel.
I will give you’, and he pauses,
like a comedian anticipating his applause,
‘as much as you can cover with a flayed bull’s hide.’
Hengist, ignoring insult and insulting laughter,
listening to Keredic, asks: ‘Covered by?
Repeat his promise, but contained in.’
No one notices the switch of verbs.
‘Now make him swear, on all that he holds holy,
that he will give to me as much land
as can be contained within a flayed bull’s hide.’
This nit picking, detracting from his moment,
infuriating Vortimer: ‘I swear by God
and all his saints, by Holy Mother Church,
upon my mother’s grave and on
God’s wounded hands and feet and side
I will give this heathen as much land
as can be contained within a flayed bull’s hide
and freely give him leave, to host as many
as can stand or sit and shit in it.’
Smirking applause from the sycophants,
who may live long enough to learn that Hengist
should not be underestimated.
Or insulted. Nor should Vortigern.
Adolf picking at his cloak
won’t look at anyone.
Hengist, his brother, and their retinue
trailing a growing entourage of British Lords
who thought the joke too good to miss,
wander through Vortimer’s possessions
with a calculated insolence
that worried only Gloucester.
Until they found a hill, wrapped in a river bend,
with steep slopes falling to the water
a fresh spring, clear views, a wood nearby.
While the others camped and drank,
and waited for the punch line to the joke,
the brothers sauntered down the river to the sea.
When they returned they flayed a bull,
to Vortimer’s confusion gave the hide
to the most skilled of all their leather workers,
who sharpened his knives,
and cutting the thinnest of lines,
made a single, long, unbroken thong.
As the onlookers grew silent,
Hengist marked out his new property.
Saxons were soon digging a ditch
building a palisade, hauling timber,
hammering together a fine high hall
for fire and feast and fellowship
and huts, for families, for the ale maker,
a smithy with a forge, wattle fences for the kine.
With a speed the Britons would ascribe to magic,
the Saxons to their own hard work and skill,
the hill was cleared and Hengist’s new home built.
He called it Thongcaester, lest Vortimer forget.
It was not as big as Pevensey or Porchester.
but big enough. Then he sent for his wife
and his sons and his daughter.
Before the wedding
There’s thunder in the east.
Gloucester walks with Vortigern
through the ruins of a villa
and the flicking of the first drops
of a welcome summer shower.
Given jobs that he does well,
Adolf has been generously rewarded,
the benefits of obedience
outweighing the temptation to rebel.
The journey here, past ruined temples,
ruined homes, strung together
by ruined roads reminding Vortigern of Ovid.
So much changes; so little stays the same.
But he is wary of bad metaphors.
Landscapes are not people.
Gloucester is a stouter version
of the up and coming man
most likely to succeed.
Translating his personal ambitions
to devotion to the public cause;
the restoration of the Council,
the unification of the Province.
But hard to tell if he has changed
or if his new clothes are just old clothes
dyed and cut a different way.
‘Are not a problem, yet.’
‘They blame you for their brother’s death.’
‘His retinue got drunk and slaughtered everyone.’
‘A retinue of Picts that you had trained.
‘He sent me away.
When he realised
I‘d stand beside the Council.
When he couldn’t pay,
they killed him.’
‘They claim it was a ruse
to make the Picts afraid,
to force them to rebel.
Because you wanted to be King.’
‘And then I killed them all?
I cleaned up the mess, remember?’
‘To cover up your crime.’
‘That’s not what happened.
What other news?’
‘Hengist’s wife and daughter have arrived.’
A silent Vortigern admires the broken wall
where a rose bush has grown wild.
‘He’s going to pitch her at you.
At this great feast in his new hall.’
What would the owner of this rose
think of the incomers
who built their cooking fires
upon his mosaic floor?
‘We pay him for his service: he’s our servant.
I marry his daughter: he becomes our ally.
My father in law. Our equal.’
‘If you turn her down, he’ll revolt.
The word is fifty keels have landed.’
‘Seventeen. I had them counted.’
‘Seventeen or fifty. Fifty Picts did Constantine.’
The tide rolls in.
There is no dam, dyke, ditch
will keep it back.
What’s seventeen keels,
each day twice as many land
scattering incomers along the coasts
families moving inland
some intent on mayhem
others looking to settle.
If we do not find a way
to make them part of us
they will make us irrelevant.
Take the title, become the title.
The obligations of the office
before personal desire?
‘He will expect a Morning Gift.’
‘Then give him Thanet. It’s already his.
It’s not like she’s deformed,
or old. They say she’s stunning.
You get to break her in.
Teach her a trick or two.’
Golden hair incongruous
against the bishop’s bony knees.
‘I’m marrying a woman or a horse?’
His awkward attempts at blokiness rebuffed
Gloucester withdraws, hurt and baffled,
like a puppy that’s been kicked.
Vortigern watched as summer rain
streamed off the roof. Someone
loved this garden. I had a wife.
The daughter of a Roman General
who had no time for flowers.
She liked things, pretty things.
She married me to guarantee
the hard bright pretty things
and we could have grown old
in comfortable indifference.
Take the title, be the title.
Do what needs be done.
‘And the Church, and the British Lords?
When they hear their King is fornicating
with a heathen, when they see the pagan,
Hengist treated as their equal?’
‘What they think won’t matter when we’re safe.’
‘Outrage is a pastime for the lazy.
A wedding will be one more faggot
for the funeral pyre.
She converts before we marry.’
‘The Bishops won’t baptise a Saxon.’
‘How long would it take
to dunk her in a river
and mutter the usual spells?’
‘Marry the girl. Hengist won’t revolt.
When The Boys return, we’ll have an army.’
How beautiful a garden after rain.
The intensity of colour, the clarity of scent.
Gloucester’s red cloak shrinks into the dusk.
An army I can trust? Unlike the one you’re training?
The word is Gloucester, you’re talking to The Boys.
If you make me choose,
I’d rather stand by Hengist than against him.
Vortigern returns to the rose bush.
Sweet smell of sadness and regret
after the rain, with the light fading.
[i] The sons of Constantine the King, who fled to Britany after their father and eldest brother were assassinated.
LIAM GUILAR is Poetry Editor of the Brazen Head