LIAM GUILAR is Poetry Editor of The Brazen Head, and the author of several poetry collections including Lady Godiva and Me, From Rough Spun to Close Weave and, most recently, A Man of Heart
This is the last installment of the story of Vortigern. Chapter two onwards can be read on the Brazen Head site. Chapters One and Twelve appeared in Long Poem Magazine. The full story is published by Shearsman UK as A Man of Heart
The story so far. Fifth Century Britain. The legions have gone, leaving the Britons to fend for themselves. Despite his success in uniting the province and bringing peace, Vortigern’s sons have led a rebellion against him. He now faces three problems: the remnants of his sons’ rebellion, the return of Aurelius and Uther, sons of the deposed King, and Hengist who wants revenge for his brother’s death during the rebellion.
Things Fall Apart
In the midnight forest,
in the moonstained tower.
the princess stares towards the morning
while her sleeping lord
dreams of a desperate hunt,
racing, branch whipped,
though the trees. His dogs,
white coats shining, red ears shining,
howling after a milk white stag.
The stag is walking, unconcerned,
and his sweating horse
cannot close the distance.
Could you feel the moonlight on your skin?
She wanders the circuit of the room,
orbiting the bed, watching the sleeper
twitch, hearing him mutter orders
to the slavering pack
who pay him no attention.
Inside the winter forest of his dream,
the bored stag stops beside the river,
and turns to face the dogs
who cower from his indifference.
He’s standing on the river wall,
with London burning at his back.
The mighty silver river turned to silt.
The child with golden eyes
emerging from the smoke and shadows
holds the coin he’s worn around his neck
since he found it in the mud.
‘I know what lies beyond the ninth wave,’
says the child, ‘I know the age of the wind.
I know why Gwydion sang an eagle from an oak.
Why Math wouldn’t sell his mouse…’
on and on as the child grew older,
the mountains rising, like an insult,
to cut the road that fades into the fields,
the road to Lincoln, overgrown, baffled
by vertical grey stone veined by snow,
barriers of rock and ice blocking the horizon.
He is laughing at the boy, who hasn’t stopped.
‘Do you know why the gods allow humans to suffer?
Why wise men fail and fools succeed?
Why good men die and bad ones prosper?’
‘No,’ said the boy, flicking the coin
so it drifted like an ember in the smoke.
‘I do ,‘ he says, as they watch it settle in the silt
and the dirty waters swirl and cover it.
He wakes, feeling for the coin,
reassured, but it’s a dream within a dream.
‘You did come back?’ ‘Oh foolish man’
she says, ’when will you ever learn?’
He turns to the golden boy.
‘Because there are no gods,
only Fortune and her wheel
and she’s a brutal mistress
destroying all she favours.’
All winter Saxons from Thongcaester
and loyal northern tribes
had raided south, while Vortigern
from his own estates,
coordinating every detail,
had harried from the west,
‘til Vortimer’s writ no longer ran
north of Watling street or west of Dere.
They’d kept him bottled up and shaken,
watching his following dissolve.
The plan had been to wait ‘til spring
and then with Hengist sweep him off the map.
Yesterday the news. Keeping his promise,
Hengist had returned and landed fifty ships,
and then the twist: on the southern coast.
Hearing Gloucester had retreated to his own lands,
Hengist’s army was rampaging north and west,
undisciplined, voracious, hunting British heads,
like the Pictish horde that he’d been hired to stop[i].
There was death and destruction
to rival Boudica’s march on London.
Some of Vortigern’s supporters
had been mauled, their lands ransacked.
Another fleet led by Hengist’s sons,
had landed in the north
between the stone wall and the turf.
The Britons had sent a cautious embassy:
‘Your son, my lord is dead.’
‘My son died to me the day that he rebelled.’
He says the words again,
in private, surprised to find
wispy echoes drifting over nothing.
A dull sense of relief?
He will not humiliate his eldest son
destroying the rabble
he could not lead,
nor order his execution
after his inevitable defeat.
Their story is he killed himself,
playing the defeated Roman.
The ambassadors shuffle and fidget.
They won’t look him in the eye.
They say ‘He measures us for burial.’
‘Tell Gloucester if he comes to me,
and will submit, I will forgive him.’
It’s not the answer they expected.
They would have served him Adolf
on a golden platter,
stuffed and garnished to his taste.
‘As for the other matter,
I will reply tomorrow morning.
Until then, go, you are messengers,
you are safe, enjoy our hospitality.
Tell your masters, when you return,
their folly has undone our wisdom.’
In the circular room,
at the top of their tower,
he curls against her
watching the rough-hewn stones
liquid in the fire’s light.
The way she moved could turn his world to water.
That nameless place where neck and shoulder meet.
This bewildering encounter with intelligence and affection.
Everything changes, nothing stays the same.
Unless you’re Vortigern the King?
Moonlight picking out a patch of floor.
We were sunlight dancing on water,
dazzling and scattered,
now gathered, still,
carried on a darker
The world can be forgotten.
He could drift along beside her.
But the day will have its answers.
‘If I accept their offer,
become again the ruler
of this fractured,
your father and I
must go to war
‘How many times?
Your friends are my friends;
your enemies are mine.’
‘We don’t have the numbers
to stand against the force he’s raised.’
‘Adolf has an army.’
‘Adolf’s mob of whining British lords
will be fighting over precedent and office
after Hengist’s warriors strip their corpses
and leave them on the battlefield to rot.’
‘We have allies. They’ve stood by us all winter.
Why would they desert you now?’
‘Fear and Economics.
Fifty ships, a thousand men,
that rabble doesn’t care
for Hengist’s oath.
Without a commissariat,
he can’t feed a horde that size.
They’ll plunder every village
and estate and town
that’s on their route.
No one dares come south
with your brothers
camped between the walls.
Your father rides a tidal wave.
He can point it at his enemy
but it won’t discriminate
between the British lords
who joined in the revolt
and those who fought against it.’
The patch of moonlight fades.
‘He told me a story about your uncle.
Caught in a monster storm,
he turned his ship and surfed
straight down a wave face
three times higher than his mast.’
‘That sounds like him,
howling jubilant defiance at his Gods.’
‘His ship was overwhelmed.
The crew were drowned.
Your uncle swam ashore.
Hengist will crash into Gloucester and his army
and bury them. But The Boys have landed
and there will be a mighty showdown.’
Wylaf wers, tawaf wedy[ii]
She finds him on the roof,
staring towards the east.
‘They’re coming like the sunrise,
like a wave bearing down on a straw hut.
We have a month at most.’
Whatever he is trying to say,
she will not help him.
She watches night shapes
assume their daylight forms.
there is cruelty in her silence.
He will not look at her.
‘Go to your father.
He will keep you safe.‘
In a hut ringed with body parts.[iii]
‘Hengist will trade me to the necessary ally.
Slightly soiled, one previous owner,
still worth fifty ships.
I will not become a sex toy for Aurelius.’
‘If you stay; you die.’
‘And you will play the Roman and fall upon your sword,
be Stilicho and go so quietly for the greater good,
dignified and honest in an age devoid of both?’
‘No. I will not hush!
I will not weep and then be silent!
I will not be the loyal wife
proudly watching as her man
acts with atypical stupidity.
What possible profit is there in your death?
Do you think they’ll tell your story straight after you’re dead?
They cannot, will not, do it when you’re still alive.
What does it matter what they think about you in a thousand years?
If bookish men still scrutinize your life, searching for the truth,
they will not find it. We will be figures dancing
on the limits of their comprehension,
simplified for story’s sake.’
She gestured to the hilltops to the west.
‘Who would bother chasing us?
There will be a place to raise this child.
We can carve ourselves a kingdom,
and if defeat becomes a fact
when there is no escape…’
A golden ampule in her palm.
‘There is enough for two.
We go to sleep: we don’t wake up.’
‘How do you know it works?’
‘Old Mother Gothel gave it to me,
before I sailed for Britain.
I made her prove that it was painless and effective.’
‘Who was Mother Gothel?’
‘You never met her:
she was honest.’
‘We will need bodies.
At least one must be a woman’s.’
‘There is a village in the next valley.
They have not offered us their help.
Anyone we cannot trust must die.’
‘Better dead friends than live enemies?’
‘Go now,’ she said, ‘I set you free.
Go find my father, tell our story,
tell it straight.’ Keredic objects:
‘No lady, I have come this far
and I will stay with you.’
‘Do as I tell you, nithing.
It would sadden me to have you killed.
We cannot hold against an army.
But we will die facing our enemies.
We have been good to you.
For the ashes of your fathers, and the temples of whose gods?[v]
Dark rider on the riverbank at dusk;
he can smell how cold the water is,
listening to it hurry past,
a pale stain between the overhanging trees.
A stale moon behind sick clouds.
The flickering army on the other bank,
dead ancestors, mustering against his crossing.
Muttering: Duty, Loyalty, Reputation.
Go forward or go back? Dame Fortune
cranked her wheel to bring him here.
Tell me then,
what purpose does my death serve
at this point in the story?
I have been loyal to my oath of service,
faithful to all that made you great
when those I served were not deserving.
I have done everything I could
as well as I knew how.
Been honest in my dealings
held my office without guilt
I’ve done my duty.
held the line you drew
and seen the selfish,
and the stupid destroy
everything you built.’
The massed ranks shift and mutter:
Loyalty, Honour, Duty.
It takes time to land an army.
Mercenaries mostly, survivors of Chalons,[vi]
who fought beside Attila or against him.
Within the walls of Porchester,
in the clattering busyness, the rattle of voices,
the scurry of patrols, the interruptions of messengers,
the herding of the necessary horses,
The Boys wait for the British lords to come in;
for Gloucester and the army he has promised;
for loyal Britons to welcome their return
and for those who find their names on the wrong list;
dragged away and butchered,
their ragged heads raised on the wall,
staring slack mouthed at a desperate future.
Trying to eat in the organised riot of the camp
at a long table under an awning, with the banners
the ceremonial armour, the purple cloaks,
the servants and all that is necessary to identify kings
to killers in their pay who wouldn’t recognise their faces.
Aurelius, fastidious with his food, was describing
his latest plan for Vortigern. ‘Of all men,
he is surely the most villainous.[vii]
How he will die I have yet to decide
but it will be slow and painful and terrible to behold.’
He’s got him blinded and castrated, flayed and crucified,
then burning when the news arrives to interrupt the catalogue.
According to Gloucester’s messenger,
Adolf had gone, unarmed, to parley
with the Saxons at the great stone ring.
They had drawn their hidden knives,
slaughtering the British lords. Heroically,
alone, Gloucester, had seized a log from a passing carter
and bludgeoned his way to the safety of his town.
‘The fool attempts Imperial diplomacy:
invite your federates to a feast,
wait ‘til they’re drunk,
then slit their throats?
Out thought. Out fought.
And then he ran.’
‘Talking was his only option.
But now we’re down an army.
We can still pick Hengist off,’
says Uther, ‘If we catch him
before he joins the northern horde.’
While they argue,
a man is bundled towards their table.
He is trying to fold himself into nothing,
to become invisible and inaudible
at the centre of their attention.
‘If you bring bad news,
we will not harm you.’
Uther, who doesn’t lie,
often wonders why his brother is so good at it.
‘Merowch the Frank sends you greeting.
The leader of the scouting party?
The man you taxed to find the traitor?
He says, some of his auxiliaries,
over enthusiastic in their loyalty,
torched the tyrant’s fortress.
Soon there was nothing left.
Just cracked stone and charred bones.
They found the villain and his whore
or what was left of them.
As proof, this ancient coin,
the tyrant wore around his neck.’
The British lords are eager to confirm:
‘He’d take it off and stare at it
while making up his mind.’
‘Do you remember, how, before…’
Aurelius isn’t listening.
‘I want to see this tower.’
‘Hengist first,’ says Uther,
‘the tower can wait.
What is this obsession
with yesterday’s man?’
‘I know who he killed.
But why hound the man who saved your kingdom.
Alive or dead, he’s now irrelevant.’
‘Because I want to see his charred remains.’
He wants to mutilate the bodies.
He’s spent years imagining his revenge.
But he also trusts his brother’s judgement.
‘What do we do with Gorlois?’
Thought is annihilated.
like a rabbit struck by a plunging hawk.
A dirty unkempt boy.
The ragged stinking fact of him
infecting the moment.
‘Greetings,’ he says
and smiles his dreamy smile,
blinking those golden eyes.
‘I am Merlin.
You need me.’
[i] See chapter four
[ii] I will weep and then be silent. See Chapter One.
[iii] As he does in chapter One
[iv] Go now. See Chapter One.
[v] A misquotation from ‘Horatio at the Bridge’ by Thomas Macaulay.
[vi] A battle between The Western Empire and Attila the Hun involving hundreds of thousands of combatants. Fought in 451, in modern France, a year or two after the traditional date for the landing of Hengist and Horsa’s three ships in Britain.
[vii] This sentence is a direct quote from Geoffrey of Monmouth. I’ve reduced the rest of his speech, which is almost a page long in Thorpe’s translation, to the next two lines.
LIAM GUILAR is Poetry Editor of the Brazen Head