A Man of Heart – Chapter 11: Things Fall Apart

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.

Congratulations, gentlemen.

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

gentle current.

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,

fractious province,

your father and I

must go to war

as enemies.’

‘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.

Waiting, knowing

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?’

‘Hush lady…’

‘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?’

‘For now.’


Ewch nawr[iv]

‘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.

Now go!’


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,

the short-sighted

and the stupid destroy

everything you built.’

The massed ranks shift and mutter:

Loyalty, Honour, Duty.


The Boys

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.

‘My Lords.’

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?’

‘He killed…

‘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.

The hunt for Merlin

The story so far (Chapters 2-8 inclusive have all previously been published on this site, starting here). The complete poem has just been published as A Man of Heart, by Shearsman.

Mid 5th century Britain. After the legions have withdrawn, the island is facing civil war, a growing number of external enemies and a steady tide of pagan migrants looking for land.

Vortigern has been appointed to protect what’s left of Roman Britain. The precarious balance of power he had established has been destroyed by a British revolt, led by his son. He retreats towards the hills with his wife and the remainder of the Field army.

At this point, the late 12th century narrative I’m following slides into a different version of the past, and any connection with History as understood in the 21st century is lost.  

LIAM GUILAR‘s continues his epic of post-Roman Britain

The Hunt for Merlin

Vortigern, his wife and retinue

have retreated to the green hills

with the grey mountains at their back.

The wizards tell him where to build.

Each day the workmen sweat to raise a wall;

during the night the walls collapse.

(Seven times, not three as you’d expect).

The wise-men mumble together then announce

they need the blood of a fatherless boy.[i]

Find him, they thunder, sprinkle his blood

and your fortress will be impregnable.

Rowena, astonished by stone buildings,

seeing magic in the masons’ every move,

understands the fact of sorcery.

Vortigern, patient, muses:

four centuries of Roman stone

and now we cannot build a wall?

He sends men hunting down the hill

into the wooded valleys.

In the unmeasured space between

an end and a beginning, along a ridge,

scraped drop on either side, to the summit.

Looked down at broken clouds, across to distant,

unknown, crumpled peaks. The valley;

inept geometry of distant fields,

a path falling off the ridge towards the track

that followed the scrawl of infant river.

Companions wearing mail,

thick woollen cloaks, dark red,

held at the shoulder with an ornate brooch,

only their eyes visible in the helmet’s gilded face,

reading the boundaries, a line of trees,

a stream, a standing stone.

Saw the rustler’s pathway peeling off the ridge

to meet the hammered track

leading to the cluster of round huts,

pointed roofs and sagging thatch,

fenced space, the drift of smoke.

The perfectly ordinary settlement.

Entering the village, they walk into a silence

abrupt as the chill slap of a breaking wave.

No child is playing. No woman singing at her work.

Painted figures, fading on the grey wall of the cloud.

No one runs away, or screams, or sounds alarum.

No one is reaching for an axe. They stop.

They watch. They follow, herding the strangers towards

the largest hut, white walls blotched

beneath the inept cone of sagging thatch.

The chieftain waits to greet them,

wrapped in a bear skin, the skull as hood.

The messengers stop to admire the skin,

trying to frame a compliment.

The old man nodded. ‘Old ways.

My dad took me down into the trees.

Gave me a spear, said, good luck son.

Come back with a bear skin or don’t come back.’

They step into the hut.

‘You have come for the child.

He says you will take him to his woman.’

Behind the fire, in the gloom,

a dark stain, small and indistinct.

Something catching the light flicks,

golden. ‘Do not deny your mission.

He knows what happened, what will happen’

-The shape moved, seemed larger-

‘could happen.’

This man, who as a child

went after bear, alone,

armed only with a spear,

is terrified.

A girl came to the entrance.

The boy stood up and left with her.

‘I have sent word to his mother.

She will travel to the King.

We have sheltered the abomination

and in return, he has shown us what we are.

True, he has given us dominion

over the peoples of the valley.

He has kept our cattle healthy,

our crops abundant. Terrified,

our neighbours pay us tribute,

sacrifice their daughters to his lust,

give us gold and precious things

from places far beyond

the eastern limit of the Empire.

Glass bowls, jewelled cups,

silk filigreed with gold.

At first we gloated over our success,

and wallowed in the excess of desire.

But then we realised the price we paid.

We have done foul things at his bidding.

But we have seen him part the clouds,

make running water turn to ice in summer.

He has raised a hand and brought down hail,

fist sized, to smash our enemies

and ten feet from them not one of us was touched.

We have done too much to keep him happy.’

Outside someone was sobbing.

‘You are the King’s men.

That makes you loyal and brave.

You stayed when all the others ran.

Take the boy to Vortigern the King

He rarely speaks, he seldom asks…’

The old man’s voice was melting.

‘I would rather face a bear again,

with only these old hands,

than risk the anger of that child.

But warn your King, tell him: take care.

The child will give him anything he wants

but his price will be beyond imagining.

When news spreads that he is gone

our enemies will devastate this village,

take not one slave, touch not one woman.

They will kill everyone and then

erase this stinking cess pit from the landscape.

When they arrive, we shall not fight.

Death will bring a fine forgetting.’ 


The villagers gathered in the fog,

the women clutching their children,

like failed approximations of the living.

The men stranded in poses of dejection.

The chieftain led them along the path

towards the rising hills. As the ground

sloped steeply upwards he left them.

‘You will need a week to reach your King.

By then, if your mind is still intact,

you will believe everything I’ve said.’

On the first day,

they followed the track upstream to the ridge

in fog so thick they never saw the sun.

The boy did not speak.

He didn’t greet them in the morning,

nor wish them well at night.

On the second day they picked their way downstream,

the slopes of scree like broken shards of fog,

scattered in shining fields that clattered away downhill.

On the third day he said;

‘We will go no further in this valley.

My enemies are waiting. 

We must climb that ridge.

On the other side is a village,

where there are horses.

You will kill their owners,

then you will take me to my woman.’

Vortigern had trained them well.

Their plan was clear and simple.

Entering the settlement, first

they would ask for horses

in the King’s name. Then

they would offer to pay.

If this was refused, then,

and only then, the killing would begin.

The boy had other plans.

Eyes closed, swaying, lips mumble,

hands move, an unexpected squall

drives rain against the window

and blurs a clear view. Or on high ground

the clouds move in so fast the outlines disappear

and there’s only vagueness and sudden dark.

Swinging axe and stabbing spear,

cutting through to the surprise

of scattered bodies, bloodied edge.

They were saddling the horses.

‘Where is the boy?’

‘With the women.’
‘I thought we killed them all?’

‘We did.’

There was the rain

and somewhere was the night.

Each man huddled in his own cloak

and endured the darkness

until the boy made a pile of sticks.

A movement of his hands, a black flame,

tinged silver at the edges,

sprang upward like an army

leaping from its place of ambush.

They huddled closer. No light,

but their sodden cloaks began to steam,

their frozen hands unclenched.

The wood was not consumed.

The escort saw the landscape

as passage, difficult or easy;

shelter, safety, risk. The boy?

Scree was the outrider of his enemies,

the scattered boulders sentries for his army,

waiting for the signal to advance.

Only the water was patron and friend,

escorting him towards his woman.

In the woods their passage slowed.

He must greet every tree he passed,

laying his palms flat on each trunk,

lips moving to shape words no one recognized.

If no blossom sprang beneath his hands

that was worse than the making of fire.

3. Merlin’s Mother

Care has worn her face into perfected sorrow.

But even in the habit of a nun,[ii]

she is sensuality incarnate,

a delirious possibility of carnal bliss.

‘Tell me lady, who is the father of this child?’

‘I am a King’s daughter, Conan was his name,

before the Saxon’s came, before they killed him.

I do not know the father of this child.’

‘You were raped? No? So tell me, lady,

tell me, how did you get this child?’

Rowena wraps her cloak around the sobbing woman,

leads her away from the armoured men,

settles down to listen, seeing images.

…summer flies in clouds above the shattered brightness of the pool.

Girl children playing: armoured guards like dirty statues in the shade

along the rocky shore.

‘Beneath my father’s palace a stream snaked between the trees

and upstream of where it cut the path leading from the fort

our childish secret place, a spring running from a carved grey stone,

with swirling snakes coiling around an open mouth

and a broken headless statue.

(We blushed the first time that we saw it, erect, enormous.

Imagine that? And other silly chatter).

My slave girl trying to be important,

told us pagans worshipped this forest god, this half-man, half-goat,

and if a maiden, toying with herself, close to this place of power,

spoke his name three times, he would appear and pleasure her.

No one believed her rubbish.

We were children,

girls in their white shifts splashing in a pool,

drifting through the summer heat.

A long hot summer.

Maybe five years after we had found the stone.

The river shrivelled to a chain of stagnant ponds.

 Unmarried, un-promised

with maids to the river bank.

Tents in the shade of the trees.

Guards? Of course.

On the hottest night,

aware of sweat beading and running

like grazing insects,

aware of my own body,

humming its lust.

 Images of a future husband,

a constriction in the throat,

the heat became intense.

I murmured the god’s name,

opened my eyes to the golden man,

the carving of Priapus come to life.

His eyes blazed golden in the shade.

The frost burn of pleasure.

All night delirium, the rhythms of flesh,

exhausted, weeping with delight, I fell asleep.

In the morning, in the river, trails of blood,

signs of the night’s excesses

but no signs anyone had slipped into my tent.

That afternoon I dreamt

church doors were shut against me.

I saw the priest and congregations

stone a woman in the field

and knew that she was me.

But until the Golden Man returned,

my body crooned for him.

 My mind a swamp of images of what we’d done.

3 nights the Golden Man appeared and played with me.

3 nights of ecstasy I’ll never know again.

Then no more.

I prayed for him. I prayed to him, but the nights were a rack

and I despised the sunrise confirming that he had not come.

I sickened. After three days, my clothes were tight

and food was hateful to me.

In three weeks I gave birth:

 a child with golden eyes.

As they laid it on my breast,

he smiled at me and said:

‘Daddy sends you greetings

You will not meet again.’

And that lady is how I got my child.

Must I stay ‘til it arrives?’

‘You fear your own son?’

‘Speaking his crimes would rot my mouth.

Remembering them is penance enough.’

Rowena let her go.

Vortigern asks: ‘Is it believable?

She wouldn’t be the first maid

who snuck away to meet her lover

and then made up such a story

when she found out she was pregnant.’

‘No. Her fear is genuine.

Whatever he did is so foul she won’t speak it.’ 

4. A Fatherless Boy

The messengers, staggering, 

bring the boy before the King.

Like a dead bird on a wire

animated by the breeze,

a stain gaining definition

as it strikes, the boy,

brushing aside the soothsayers,

swooping towards Rowena.

‘Blessed is the well below the valley.’

He strokes her breast. She recoils,

hands tying invisible knots, speaking

words that no one present understands.

The boy stumbles, recovers, laughs,

brushing flies from his face.

Reluctantly, he turns to Vortigern.

An old man’s voice,

with rust at its edges

and rot at its core.

‘I have loosed the bands of Orion.

I can summon leviathan.

He will make a covenant with me.

I have gone down to hell

and freed the rider in the clouds.

When he’s enthroned upon his mountain

he will bow before me as my slave.

I can harness the unicorn to the plough.

I can make you Emperor.’

‘Of what?

The Empire’s gone.’

‘It can be rebuilt.

For you.

For a price.’

‘And you want my soul?’

‘I wouldn’t wipe my arse on it.

I want your wife.’

Vortigern hears Rowena hiss,

senses she has stepped back,

holding seax in a steady hand.

‘She doesn’t want you.’

‘Look fool!’ Vortigern sees his province,

refined to a detailed map.

To the south, the shrinking stain

of Vortimer’s rabble and across the Channel,

the scum filled puddle of The Boys’ growing horde.

The black plague of uncountable ships,

swarm the coast, or burrow up river

like maggots attacking a corpse.

‘Give me your wife.

I will annihilate your enemies.

I will be a tempest in a field of corn.

The plans that they have nurtured,

their dreams and ambitions, I will ruin

as they watch, like patient farmers

as hail destroys their crops,

announcing their starvation.

Give me your wife.’

‘Child, she is not mine to give.’

Time thickens like a river freezing.

There is only the voice;

a wind from nowhere,

and the images of burning homes,

pestilence, atrocities, famine.

Vortigern sees his kingdom.

The dead lie where they fell,

crops rotting in the fields,

the starving cattle wander free.

He could see misery,

surging over the land and drowning it.

‘I can put an end to this.

That’s what you want;

peace, order, stability.

Give me your wife.’

He sees himself in gold embroidered silk,

seated on a marble throne,

in a many columned hall.

The cities flourishing again,

merchants on the roads,

ships safe in the harbour. He hears

the grateful people speak his name.

No enemies, assassins

outrage or complaints?

This time, he laughs.

The ice breaks.

The river moves.

‘Child, this is not yours to give.

There will always be wars. Always

people who starve while others feast.’

‘You will die alone.

The sky will rain fire.

You will be vilified

for eternity unless

you give me your wife.

They will debate your name

and your existence.

Your life will be obscure,

your death will be unknown

unless you give me your wife.

She is blessed amongst women.

The fruit of her womb will be the Messiah:

a Warrior King to end the Saxon threat,

reconquer Rome and found a Reich

to last a thousand years.

His name will never be forgotten.

Nor will mine.’

‘Child, she is not mine to give.’

Vortigern dwarves the chubby boy;

a foul vagueness slithered from a cave,

shrivelling in the unaccustomed light.

‘Go your way.

Take this gold,

my thanks

for the lesson.’

‘We will not meet again,

Vortigern Dead King.

I could have saved you.’

‘No,’ he says,

with the conviction of a rock.

‘No, you could not.’

5. The end of the province of Britannia

Morning, and the mist filling the valley below,

clouds streaking the sky like smoke plumes

streaming from the distant peaks. The sun

cold, bright and ruthlessly indifferent.

His officers accumulate around the wagon.

A baffled Rowena stands beside him,

leaning into whatever happens next.

The remnants of Britannia’s last Field Army.

Faces he remembers from the day they left for Lincoln[iii].

He knows them all; their families, their stories,

which one can improvise, who imitates a wall,

who plays it safe, who takes a chance. 

‘Some of you are angry. Some feel betrayed.

You think you would have danced

to your crucifixion if a comrade could be saved.

We have all lost friends who gave their lives

so we could live. You think I’m selfish

because I wouldn’t trade this woman to a child

to save the province.’ He heaved a sack towards them.

‘There is all the coin that’s left.’ He threw a second,

two malignant lumps shifting as they settled.

‘And there’s the plunder; gold rings, armbands, torques…’

the list is endless and irrelevant, dismissively

he waves his hand towards the chests beside him.

‘The royal treasury. The province. Britannia.

That’s all that’s left of what we swore to serve.

But what we swore to serve

meant so much more than that.

I will not sacrifice another life

for two bags full of shiny trash.

Divide it now amongst yourselves.

See that no man feels aggrieved.

Those who wish to leave: go home.

Or you can take an oath to follow me.

I will not ask you to do anything

I have not asked before,

but I will make you rich,

and give you lands for your old age.’

The sound of swords being drawn,

the rustle of kneeling men.

Later she finds him, on a fallen trunk.

The twisted branches of the stubborn trees

behind him like a web the boy had spun

to trap a king.

‘You are a strange man, Vortigern Cyning.

Locrin locked a woman up and lost his kingdom.

You risked the loss of yours to set one free.

The two sacks are untouched in the grass

and not one man has left.’

‘We’ve clung to the old titles;

adepts of a failed dispensation,

whose rites and formulas

belong to history, repeating

an incantation that’s familiar,

habitual, comforting,

when it’s obvious the gods

have long since left the temple

and the words no longer work.

It’s a strange new world

we’re stepping into;

clean, cruel and honest.

At least until we discover

new reasons for hypocrisy.’

[i] Laȝamon describes this advice as ‘leasing’ (lies.)  The shift from bishops and priests to wise men and soothsayers is in his text.

[ii] Another one of Laȝamon’s anachronisms. The story of Merlin’s birth and conception follows his version.

[iii] See chapter 4

More information about Laȝamon’s world and work, as well as the two published volumes in this project can be found at www.liamguilar.com

Adolf of Gloucester goes to the Wall

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 Gloucester1 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.

Gloucester goes north

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:

History’s statistics.

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.’

The Risen Christ

Gloucester continued north.

Torch light and candle light

lamplight and firelight

and never enough light

to stop the darkness

infecting everything

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.

The Wall

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.

Abandoned huts,

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.

Questions. Disappointment.

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.

Playing dress up in the ruins

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,

the oldies.

They said: “The bastards sailed without us.

They’ll return.’’

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.

  1. Adolf is one of Laȝamon’s oddities. Although he is a British hero, he has a very German name []
  2. He is ‘Vortigern the Thin’ in Welsh tradition []

Britannia in peril – an extract from an epic

Brazen Head Poetry Editor LIAM GUILAR is writing a Legendary history of Britain. Chapter One will appear in Long Poem Magazine in June 2021. This is Chapter Two from the story of Vortigern; Chapter Three will appear in the Summer issue. Further details about the Legendary history can be found at www.liamguilar.com

The story so far

In the fifth century, the Roman province of Britannia is now isolated from Europe. A combination of external threats, internal squabbling and two botched coups has left the Province on the verge of ruin.

But it was not only fornication that characterised this time,

but all the vices to which human nature abandons itself:

The people were abandoned by the Romans,

then led astray by vanity and error into a trackless place.

After Gildas, De Excidio, etc. para 20-21

Chapter Two – A Man of Heart?

A Royal Funeral 

…and the rain began to fall

on the polished armour of the honour guard

ornate, ceremonial and useless.

The wind mangling the bishop’s words

threatened to drag the flame from the torches

before they were touched to the pyre.

Vortigern in the place of honour.

You’re looking at the wrong man.

That shining burnished dazzle

is Adolf, Earl of Gloucester.

Breastplate’s modelled on a statue of Augustus

though which campaigns he’s fought in is a mystery.

He’s Magister Militum material.

Just ask him when you’ve got an hour or two.

Thinks his red cloak should be purple

and doesn’t care who knows.

He’d climb a dung heap

to crow above the competition

and call his stinking pile a kingdom

so he could call himself a king.

Vortigern the thin, the grey fox,

stands beside him. Primes inter pares.

Official speak to smooth the ragged fact

that nobody’s in charge.

They say that once this party’s over

the Vicarius will appoint his successor.

Look at the corpse of the King on the piled wood.

The senators in their windblown finest,

the priests and bishops, the civilian crowd

waiting expectantly for the spectacle.

Brigantes, Atrebates, Cats,

still scratching at old tribal sores.

You’d think four centuries of Pax Romana

would have softened the edges.

So you know we’re in for it my friend

the depth and spread and stink of it

when they’re so scared

they put aside their cherished

self-defining hatreds

and try to work together.

Vortigern framed the elegy he’d deliver,

had anyone asked, and honesty were possible.

Let us now praise Constance the King

Ruler of Britain, Father to us all.

Before we light his funeral pyre

before the flames consume the corpse

let us rehearse his virtues:

Son of a murdered usurper,

dim-witted in council, lacking in wisdom

useless in battle, cowering behind a shield

he could barely lift.

When his father was assassinated

the council ripped him from the monastery

because he was a Descendant of Brutus,

last of the Trojans, ‘legitimate rulers of Britannia’.

Not caring that he was indifferent to the law,

despising the church, a drunkard at the feast,

a sly despoiler of other men’s women:

Incompetent, untrustworthy, dead.

His much younger brothers

bundled to Gaul

where their mother will school them

in the arts of resentment.

Now those old men facing the pyre,

will preside over the death throes of Britannia.

These are the Good Old Days

(Name your drug of choice,

power, land, office, sex,

before the evening’s out

someone will make an offer.)

After the incense and the ritual incantations,

after the prayers and the sermonising,

after the God of Love has been

importuned for military victory,

a party to celebrate these coming men:

friends to drink to their success

who’d known them all their lives

although they’d never met, 

hoping to be remembered, hinting at

a son or protégé who might serve

in a minor capacity on their staff.

Then daughters, decorous and decorative,

well-briefed and drilled for the engagement.

Gloucester, good looking, single,

with the gift of the gab,

a tall figure circled by adoring females

pressing him with their attractions

while Vortigern is steered towards a corner

where members of the council

discoursed upon Britannia’s future. 

These old men, hungering for clues,

competing for his gratitude,

or the revelation of a weakness.

(Name your poison, power, titles, office, sex,

if it’s too embarrassing, just hint at it,

someone, with a mainline to the source,

will make an offer before the evening’s out.)

They want to be his friend

despite their previous contempt. 

Confident enough for hints, innuendo.

He’s not looking well, our aging leader.

The times do need a younger man.

Has a successor been appointed? No?

Walk around inside the pauses

and see the possibilities.

Implications dangling bait

for conspiracy or betrayal.

That’s not what I meant at all…

The council, the council must expand.

Of course, become inclusive, reach out

beyond the city walls, reflect the tribal

distribution, equality of representation?

We’ll need a leader everyone can trust

That rules out the Brigantes. And the Cats.

And the army? An imbalance in the leadership

to be addressed…Taken aside by senators,

passed around in a game of confidential whispers.

I’ve been watching your career with interest

please don’t misunderstand of course we

The Brigantes, after all I was only joking.

Men who would have lost their lunch

at the thought of living in a hut

now sought security, identity, community,

in a rediscovered tribal heritage

they were busily creating for themselves

made attractive by ignorance and nostalgia.

As though ‘culture’ was a buried hoard

that could be excavated, reused untarnished

not made irrelevant by time.

Their bad jokes advance scouts of a civil war.

What do you call fifty drowned Brigantes?

A good start? One hundred Saxons? Not enough.

Soon they’d rediscover druid lore.

invoking hailstorms against their enemies.

There’d be rumours of strange rituals

in forest clearings, and murders for the right

to put on silly clothes and be ‘Archdruid’.

Men protective of their privileges

their rank, their wealth, their family histories,

so proud of their rhetorical skills,

how they were Romans first and Britons second.

Soon they’d be daubing themselves

and trading their sophistication for survival.

Lamps were lit, slaves ghosting between the diners.

Forced female laughter, twining around Gloucester’s voice,

erupted arrhythmically from the other corner of the room.

Vortigern was wondering how long he had to stay

until an older woman at his elbow said:

‘As if any of them cared.

Did they not see the empty streets?

The ruined houses?

We’ll all be dead within the year

and still they play the same old games,

betting long odds on a future

that ceased to exist before most of us were born.

I’ve heard you read?  Do you study Caesar’s wars?

take notes on Onasander? Who’s your favourite author?’


The most accomplished actress

can be startled into honesty.

The Art of Love? She’s too surprised

to hide her disbelief.

Freed of obligations by the insult,

he laughs at her reaction.

‘’The Metamorphosis. A poem for our times.’

‘Everything changes, nothing stays the same’

‘So much changes; so little stays the same.

More accurate; less memorable.’

Next morning there would be a slave

outside his lodgings with a scroll:

or a rare copy of his favourite text

left discreetly on a table.

Name your poison?

He had nothing she could want.

They chatted about literature,

two educated diners waiting for Ovid 

to come posturing through the doors

and scandalise the rich and bored

four hundred years too late.

‘At least’, she said, before she left,

‘one can choose how and when to die.’

After the ladies and the elderly retired

someone produced ‘the girls’:

courtesans who had been paid

or lesser daughters and more desperate wives.

These two men were poised

before the ladder’s upper rung.

When Survival’s on the auction block

you’ll bid with what you’ve got

even if your daughter’s splendid tits

might be your only asset,

hoping they’d be remembered

if one of these two men succeed.

The evening blurring into heaving flesh

scenes for a fresco on a wall in hell:

two prelates spit-roasting a German slave

the girl’s blonde hair incongruous

against the bishop’s bony knees.

A pretty face, well-practised,

In the amatory arts,

her manoeuvres mindlessly

but expertly performed. 

The Matron’s words:

‘I will not watch my daughters

whore themselves to the barbarians.’

She’d call it family politics

and therefore no lost dignity

if she pimped them to a Latin speaker on the rise?

‘One can at least choose how and when to die.’ 

All evening she had sought for an analogy, 

as though precision would validate her suicide.

The lights had faded, the room

a roiling sludge of limbs.

In the foul smoke of oil lamps

a different thinner face,

dark curls plastered to her forehead.

Shut eyed, languid, sinuous,

movements stuttering to her own satisfaction.

Her final version: ‘We’re players

who turn up to find the theatre

has burnt down, and no one’s left

to watch our well-rehearsed performance.’

He gathered up his clothes

stepped his way towards the door.

The bodies on the floor moved fitfully,

scum on the edges of a stagnant pool

shrugging as the ripples died.

Stepped out into the clarity of early morning.

He would not remember them.

There were far too many dead

already begging his attention.

Vortigern in London

The past’s a broken mirror

making the present looked deformed;

the crook backed limping child

of disappointed parents.

The age of iron rusted out,

our age of stone is almost gone.

Now comes an age of wood

where everything can splinter, rot or burn.

The horizon’s clear of smoke,

nor dotted by wheeling carrion.

But the city is dying into itself.

Here there was noisy spectacle.

Stone humanised by speech

now stone without story

is simply broken stone.

Your ancestors’ most sacred site,

or random spillage of disjointed rock.

This coin he’d rescued from the mud,

portrait erased; inscription illegible.

Behind him reeking tidal mud.

The wall he stands on killed the port.

Where his grandmother played

burnt timbers, blackened roofs.

The cart tracks overgrown.

This is what time will achieve

when no one bends a back against it.

Late in this afternoon. A merchant ship

backlit by the golden river,

the slow drift of it at odds

with the frantic scurry of the crew.

The bridge has been maintained

but there are few ships on the Thames.

Few traders skirting down the coast,

fewer coming from the continent.

The evening is turning cold,

the city shrunken, huddled

against its inevitable night.

To his left on the hill,

the amphitheatre’s a piece of wall,

water glinting in the ponds

filling the robbed-out pits

between the piles of weed grown rubble.

There have been bad times before.

But the danger was no longer out there, beyond the walls.

It was in the civil men and women pretending

to be outraged by the new graffiti:

‘Romani non Germani!  Britanni non Barbari!’

As though the idiots who daubed those words

didn’t have at least one grandparent

born somewhere in the empire’s furthest reaches.

Aurelius and Uther, fled to Brittany

after their father then their eldest brother

botched their coup, now proclaiming

they could trace their bloodline back to Brutus.

A standard move to add legitimacy and lustre

to a power addicted family on the make.

Ironic given Brutus was a Trojan immigrant

who slaughtered the indigenous inhabitants.

But when did logic play a winning hand in an election?

When a man like Constantine, caught in his lies,

shrugged and claimed the words he’d used

meant only what he wanted them to mean,

then law became impossible, and titles empty.

The steady rumble that replaced the traffic noise was fear.

Not just fear of incomers and raiders

fear of people who had once been neighbours

and were now ‘others’ to be hated.

Any other, anyone who was not a friend

and trust in friend and family was rotting

because when incompetence and talent

are equally dangerous, look to yourself.

One day he wouldn’t hear the assassin

or see the bowmen hiding on a roof

but he has heard Adolf of Gloucester,

coming along the wall.

Count of the Saxon shore.

Man Most Likely to Succeed.

Gloucester coughs, speaks.

‘He’ll see us now.’

It’s meant to be affable,

drinking buddy confidante.

‘What do you think he wants?’

Vortigern shrugs.

Rude or reticent, it’s hard to tell.

He’s wondering why here?

The roads still spin out across the country

but it’s a long way from the danger zones.

An uncharacteristic nostalgia?

Or a final gesture of farewell?

No one alive remembered the Vicarius

in the days of his youth

His parties were notorious

for excessive decadence.

Perhaps that was nostalgia

for another fabricated past,

the court of Caligula and Nero

when any vice was possible

‘Why not’ sufficient reason

and ‘no’ was not an option.

He is dying without an heir.

He has outlasted Constantine and Constance

and sent the Boys to brood upon their rocky headland.

Word is, he’s going to choose.

Why else call the two contenders

for a private meeting?

Cain and Abel taking their offerings to God.

And we know how badly that turned out.

If you define your progress

by the titles you accumulate;

you measure your success

by your graded movement

along a string of words.

What makes them more

than complicated echolalias,

meaningless as infant babble?

Count of the Saxon Shore,

Magister Militium, Consul,

Heir-Apparent, King?

Vortigern, if pushed, defines success

as battles won, problems solved, lessons learnt,

might have asked ‘Heir to what?’

40 emperors in a hundred years

God for a month, then erased

like the portrait on the coin.

Council members shoaling from the building

form self-important, self-regarding groups

who nod to both the soldiers as they pass.

Overseers of the death of meaning,

Peddlers of cancerous euphemisms,

revelling in the endless crisis of definition

that passes for meaningful debate.

Still busy fighting over granddad’s privileges.

Pay attention now and watch how they react,

trying to pick the winner before the dice are rolled.

Some greet Gloucester. He’s done terrible things

to earn their gratitude. But he speaks when spoken to,

can be counted on to say the right things at the right time

and pay his dues when his debts are called.  

Some acknowledge Vortigern.

See how wary they become?

He’s in no-one’s pocket.

But they all know he’s the silent go to man

when the shit’s on the fan.

In this tired world, titles and positions

are still the gifts of slack old men:

ancient relics twinkling in the wreckage

like stagnant ponds in the ruined amphitheatre

catching a fading sun.

But not this man, not Ambrosius.

He is the ghost of whatever made the Empire great:

devious, unpredictable and dangerous.

Authority regardless of his titles or his clothes.

Neither clumsy copy nor conscious fake,

the steady pilot who would face whatever storm

to bring the Ark to safety, with Noah’s indifference

to the millions drowning who were not on board.

They bend over a map of Britain.

Gloucester finding this foreplay tedious

wanting to hear the job is his

or know the details of their final test.

Ambrosius, between coughing fits.

‘We asked the Western Emperor for troops.

His Master of Horse tells us to look to ourselves.’


‘There’s rumours that the Huns are on the move.

A half a million men. Attila claims the empire

his by right of promised marriage to Honoria.

If even half that number enters Gaul

the Western Empire’s gone for good.’


‘In Britannia Secunda our writ no longer runs.

We summon them and they refuse.

North of the Humber the cities are abandoned,

two bad harvests and constant raiding have brought famine.

They have begun to squabble for the scraps.

A few armed men, a bit of wall, a tribal hill,

a man’s reach might stretch to the tribal boundary.

There’s no tax collection, so no distribution.

So many starve.’ (More coughing)


‘Picts from the north, overland 

through the ruined gates of the wall.’

Vortigern Interrupts.

‘Some of those Picts are Britons painted blue.

They think it best to hide themselves.

Soon they will forgo pretence.’

Why this might be significant

is lost on Gloucester who continues:

‘Irish slavers down the western coast.

Germanic pirates in the east and south.

If we go east, the west is burnt

If we go north they sack the coastal towns.

Strike and run and be long gone

before a rider brings the news

We need three legions, at the most.’

But no one laughs. 

They remember their grandfather’s stories.

How the forts stapled law and order onto the wilderness.

The map still shows the roads

linking fort to town, town to port,

port to other towns and other forts

on and back across immensity to Rome.

Well-kept roads loud

with merchants and soldiers

messengers, supplicants, embassies

crunching the heartbeat of empire. 


‘We are like a goodwife swatting spot fires,

growing weaker with each victory.

Either we train a national army

or recruit more mercenaries.

One will take time we do not have.

The other, when the pack’s too big

the dogs turn on their master.’

The awkward map confirms their lack of options.

Adolf: conversational, exploratory.

‘You’ve heard the rumour of the legion

that was left behind?’ Vortigern waits,

wondering what revelation is at hand.

‘If they retained their discipline

they will have instructors.’

No revelation, no solution

just the gambler’s dream of the winning card.

‘Limitanei gone native?

Somewhere along which wall?

There were so many forts and marching camps.

and even if we had the time,

we’d never find them all.’

Did the old man change his mind

or had he planned what happened next?

He turns to


‘If you think it’s worth the risk

after our envoy has delivered his messages

take whatever men you need.

Take Eagles too, and trumpets,

search out your fathers’ uniforms.

Appear to them as Roman as they were.’

Gloucester thinks he is the organised man.

A lover of maps, a maker of lists.

Now caught by this unexpected switch,

trying to impress with plans he’s making on the fly.

‘I’ll head to Lincoln, there to meet my scouts.

…we’ll take the inland road.

From York’….and Vortigern, unimpressed, lost interest. 

Three thousand men? How could they be hidden?

Garrisons along the wall had gone native,

and whether you called the garrison commander

Tribune or King made little difference.

Everyone who’d been that way

had met such useless bastardised communities.

When Gloucester left

the old man, staring at the map

keeps Vortigern waiting.

It’s easy for a map to lie.

These forts have long since ceased to function.

The roads are overgrown or braided to confusion.

This is a tidy memory of a dead world.

Not even accurate when it was made.


‘Your father-in-law was my good friend.

He and your father were both honest men:

hard working, loyal, at a time

when all those qualities were out of fashion.’

‘My father-in-law lead an army against the Empire

and left this island undefended.’

‘Your father-in-law led an army

against corruption, greed and inefficiency.

He planned to hold the Rhine and make Britannia safe.’

‘He thought he would look good in purple.’

‘Resentment is an easy hand to play for very little profit. 

Three Saxon ships have landed on Thanet.

They’re asking to be taken into service.

Go there, you’ve dealt with them before.

Use your judgement. Offer the usual conditions.

They might be more useful than a phantom legion.’