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.

A Queen in the Wilderness

LIAM GUILAR‘s epic of post-Roman Britain enters its eighth chapter

The Story So Far (Chapters 2-7 inclusive have all previously been published on this site, starting here). The complete poem will be published as A Man of Heart in 2023, by Shearsman.

Mid Fifth 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. Following standard imperial practice, he has employed Saxon mercenaries led by Hengist. Together they have defeated the immediate threat of an army of Picts and a Northern rebellion and stabilised the province. Vortigern has married Hengist’s daughter.

Part two begins with Vortigern leading the Field Army towards a meeting of the Northern Lords, hoping to convince them that a unified province is in their best interests. The precarious balance of power he has established is about to be destroyed.


Damp woollen clothes,

the itch and stink of them,

never dried, except when smoked

acrid by the heat of a fire.

Rain falls, drifts, batters,

the wind skins the rocks

or drags mist from the hollows

while the clouds smother the hill tops.

Ragged local guides thread

the mounted column

through unmapped valleys.

Occasionally the mountain wall

greyer than the clouds

curves the northern horizon.

Riders keeping below the ridge,

following the main party.

Like guilt, thought Vortigern,

not enough to stop his progress;

a persistent qualification

intent on being noticed.

Confrontation seemed inevitable.

He rode towards it.

The lead rider, Hengist’s latimer,

dismounted, knelt and greeted him.

The second removed the gilded helmet

shook out her hair and said:

‘Wæs hæilVortigern Cyning.’[ii]

The drab hillsides patched with torn cloud,

the finest of drizzle-intensified colours,

the brown horse, the green, rain darkened cape.

Her hair, like dull gold, shaking loose.

Hengist’s delighted chuckle.

A sound so rare,

he turned to see who was behind him.

Dull gold of her hair.

Finger tipping an impossible softness.

He claws for his mind but undressing

            a marvel

                        green eyes


like a diver

assessing the risk


committing herself to gravity.

Fingertipping, soft

            a marvel but

it’s cold here and the escort is waiting.

                        Green eyes

wide open, watching?

Lauerd king wæs hæil;

For þine kime ich æm uæin.

It’s cold here and the escort is waiting.

‘This is no place for a Queen.

I left you safe, with your uncle.

We ride towards a confrontation.

Go home.’

‘My home is with my husband.

I have come to see the lands you gave me.

You are riding I think to a council,

a gathering of the northern tribes.’

‘Go home, lady.

This is no fit place for a Queen.’

He turns back to the valley floor.

The riders follow,

keeping just below the ridge line.

Like guilt, he thinks.

The column camped beside dark water.

He approved the choice of ground,

checked there were skirmishers along the heights,

made sure the baggage train was safely in,

waited for the rear guard to arrive.

See him talking with his officers,

noticing their discipline

making time to hear their stories,

in the bustle of the camp,

where behaviour is defined

as clearly as the perimeter

he rides out to inspect,

ignoring the presence

dragging at his attention.

Tents pitched, guards posted,

before the light began to fade

he wandered through the lines,

through the susurration

of tired conversations

stopping to talk to weary riders

commending them on the care

they gave each other, their arms and horses.

His world, where he was most at home,

contaminated by their shadow,

stopped on higher ground,

erecting simple shelters.

She sits beside the latimer

watching the busy camp below.

‘I stopped counting things I’d never seen before.’

‘There were too many?’

‘Yes. The way

water spills from the cliff top and wavers as it falls.

Clouds and birds below us, in the valley.

My uncle hates mountains,

says they remind him of a heaving sea.

What is the best word to describe

how stray clouds drift across the hillside?’

‘Drift is good.’

‘They remind me of assassins.’

‘In daylight?’

‘Not all assassins wait for darkness.’

Small figures

scrambling towards them,

become Vortigern

and his guard

slithering in the scree.

Keredic removed himself.

A man can turn a hill into a mountain;

an evening stroll into an epic climb.

From the valley floor

he could see a band of rock,

her tethered horse cropping the grass,

the shadow of a cave.

Then the damp fog became the world.

Smooth stones skittering behind him,

stalled in a dreamlike lack of progress.

She was sitting inside the cave.

She did not rise or greet him.

‘Lady. This is not wise or safe.’

‘Not safe? Here?

In the green world, in the wind and rain.

There are no dangers here that can’t be faced.

But stranded in a hut, hedged

by brutal threats and body parts?

No reason to greet the day

or welcome the night?

This is not safety but burial,

alive, behind locked doors

until the stallion calls to rut. 

I am not ‘Hengist’s daughter’

live bait to trap a wary fox.

I am myself. And I chose you.’

When he had finished,

she waited for him to leave

but he lay beside her,

on one side of the causeway

looking to the mythic landfall

on the other side.

He had heard the stories

of the cottage in the woods.

A stand of body parts

and heads that shrieked

if anyone approached.

What had she recognised in him?

He had done nothing to earn

this devotion.


The rain intensifies.

A man is speaking quietly,

someone laughs.

Keredic is singing.

His song sounds older than the rocks.

She is no longer Hengist’s daughter.

Or the wife of Vortigern the King.

She is like rock, tree or river,

as certain as the mountains

and as patient, waiting

for his act of recognition.

Half way across, and no more stones. 

He can go back, he’s always done before.

Rise, fumble for his clothes.

Or he can brave the distance to the other side.

If it’s a choice?

A man stands in the cathedral ruins

looking at the sky.

The bombed reality softened by a memory

of upright walls, unbroken roof.

Even if ghosts and stray dogs

scuffle in the garbage

he can remember people in the pews,

the drift of sacred music,

the certainties of ritual.

Easier to live here,

where the shattered past

still feels like home than leap into a world

that’s blank and waiting to be born?

No maps, no rules, no precedent.

When a Queen rides, armed, in the wilderness

this is an unimagined world.

‘Lady, may I stay with you tonight?

And tomorrow, would you ride with me?’

They say: her smile is like the sunrise;

the slow spread of light and promise

after the horrors of the night,

but she never smiled at ‘them’ like this.

And later, she says, ‘But tomorrow night

we find a bed with fewer stones?’


Teetering over the river

the complex was scattered,

across the flat hill top

like bad teeth in a jawbone; 

great hall like a strange squat wooden tent

with a scattering of huts

surrounded by a ditch and palisade.

A growth on the land,

like hanging smoke,

beside a barrow

where the ancestors slept.

A chaos of temporary shelters

festering down the slope;

banners and stacked spears,

horses, mules, carts.

Men clustered around small fires,

watching as they pass.

After days in the dripping quiet of the hills,

they were ambushed by noise and movement

crashing the private space she had begun to craft. 

The bellowing of slaughtered cattle.

Carpenters hammering and sawing

as huts went up to hold guests;

the smiths at work. Everyone

with a job to do and a place to be

swirling them into public routines.

She watched the Lords accumulate to greet him.

Then he was gone, as though the sea had surged

and dragged him off the beach into the rip

that sped him out towards the sky line

leaving her bereft and stranded.

Wives and daughters came to greet her,

took the bridle, set off in procession,

leading her towards an isolated hut.

Slaves brought silver bowls

with steaming water,

sweet smelling oils;

the women bobbed and fussed,

admired how beautiful she was,

then left and closed the door.

Next day, in the great hall,

Vortigern accepted homage,

dispensed gifts, discussed plans,

handed down judgements.

Alone in a hut that smelt

of smoke and fresh cut timber,

she was prowling from wall to wall.

Dressed in the finest silk

provided by their hosts,

hair dressed, jewels shining,

a predatory goddess

no slaughter could appease.

The silver dishes

scattered to the corners,

fine white towels thrown across the room,

the servants fled in terror.

She was waiting for the horns

that would summon her to the feast

when Keredic entered

to escort her to the hall.

Wall hangings flicking the firelight.

A tripod burning something fragrant.

No loom, no Mother Gothel.

I will hone my knife and hunt him down.

‘If I am Queen: this is my country?

Should I not be there when they discuss its future?’

Impossible to explain,

not one man in ten thousand

would have taken her to the gathering

and of that number, not one in a million

would have listened to a word she said.

‘Twenty four paces from hut to hall?

The door shut and guards all round.

Twenty four paces from where I should be.

I might as well be stranded on an island

staring at the cliffs and cut off by the tide,

locked here until he wants to fuck

his princess titznkuntnhair.’


If you were listening,

you could hear Dame Fortune

spin her wheel

and smile.

‘Chieftain,’ said his host,

‘God smiles on you.

Lords of the North,

retinues like honed blades

ready for war,

secure in their indifference

came here to talk.

Bishops and book-learned men

recording their agreements.

3 weeks, and not one death.

You have sold them an idea:

the priest safe with his flock,

the famer will go to his field,

the merchant to the market.

Ships bringing goods to our ports

and our roads busy with trade.

Chieftain, you are truly blest.

3 weeks we’ve feasted.

The bards of the north

have come to compete

for praise and honeyed mead.

Magnificent stories,

music to gladden the heart

and the last three nights

your wife as my companion at the table.

On God’s wide earth she has no match

for wit and wisdom. She knows

more stories than my poet.

Tells them better too.

No wonder men will follow you.’

Commotion at the gate.

First the messengers. Then the refugees.

Confusion, contradiction, disbelief.

Vortimer had slaughtered Hengist’s men.

Britons had crowned him King.

Horsa was dead. Vortimer this,

Vortimer that, massacre and murder.

Saxons hunted like wild pigs.

A bounty of ten silver coins for every Saxon head.

Its weight in gold for Hengist or his daughter’s.

            Slack mouthed the heads still speak:

            This will be our second child…on a stick;

            We were desperate, we were lucky…on a stick;

            He’d go off to work, and then come back…on a stick;

            If a man steers clear of strife, his children have a chance….on a stick.

Those considered loyal had died.

            You’re the best man for the job.

            The house smashed, the bodies…on a stick.

Pogroms and purges and a rising body count.

Vortigern thinking he had underestimated his son

until the name of Gloucester or his men

were noticed in every successful action.

But what was he doing? Vortimer, upright Christian boy,

exasperated by the heathens, wanting to protect his church,

deluded, predictable. But Gloucester

had both eyes open and could see

this was a war he couldn’t win.

The last messenger to arrive knelt before his King.

‘Speak up man, we do not punish the messenger for the message.’

But he muttered on, so Vortigern leant forward

and they all heard the oath,

saw the blade, saw him lunging for the King.

The host leapt between them.

Hengist’s seax stabbing the assassin’s throat.

Both men fell; Vortigern unhurt.

Rowena entering, breathless,

as the corpse was dragged away.

The assassin’s knife had skidded

off the King’s mail shirt

and pricked the host’s arm.

‘The knife is poisoned,’ said Rowena,

who knew about such things.

‘Lord,’ she said, ‘you have my gratitude

but find a priest and come to terms

with whatever God you worship.

You will be dead before the sun sets.’

Saxons preparing to ride, grim and resolute.

Experts in the rules that govern vengeance.

Rowena standing by her father, dressed to travel.

Despite the foul weather, there are ships beating north,

to risk the crossing and take them home.

As his world unravels.

Hengist making plans, seeing the scale of the disaster.

‘I will return with fifty ships of first rate fighters.

I will avenge my people and this insult to your rule.’

Vortigern walks the perimeter.

The short day is coming to an end.

His men are waiting his instructions.

The northern lords are waiting for instructions,

already wondering if they can be ignored.

There are no answers in the landscape.

It is as dull and littered as his mind.

As blank as the coin he’s turning in his hand.

All year watching Vortimer, Gloucester and their friends.

Sifting rumours of revolt, looking for sinew under insolence.

But the rebellion should have happened late in summer

or in the early spring next year. When the summer faded

they’d left Horsa on the coast, in striking distance

of any army mustering in the south. How could

he have been so wrong? He walks amongst the details,

picking over the pieces, asking why the building fell.

Since he was old enough to understand

he knew one day would find him:

Shipwrecked, broken and alone.

But that was not today.

This was another problem he could solve.

He had stumbled to the clarity beyond,

like the survivor of a shipwreck,

washed overboard,

surprised by solid ground,

looks back to see the surf that trashed him,

doesn’t break the skyline

and his tattered ship’s still floating in the bay.

He still had the field army.

They had no need of Hengist

to trash a mob of lordlings

and their reluctant, ill-armed tenants.

And he hadn’t been alone.

Trust someone because he can,

not because he has to?

In what language do those words make sense?

Dixit Dominus Deus

non est bonum

esse hominem solum

faciamus ei

adiutorium similem sui.[iii]

The sentry on the wall

will swear he heard the Thin One

repeat a Latin phrase

then laugh.

He lies of course, there was no laughter.

‘And I will make an help meet for him.’

It is easier to say ‘he laughed’

than accurately describe the small sound

a stranger made acknowledging

that understanding is redundant

when it’s delivered past its use by date.


Rowena sitting straight backed

staring at her fire.

We see her from behind.

Then her face in profile

as the sound she’s waiting for


Vortigern straightens,

entering the room.

Stalled. Baffled. Wondering.

She rises. ‘Oh foolish man,’

she says, seeing his surprise,

‘when will you ever learn?’

The sound of a door being closed.

Perhaps he managed,

‘I watched you leave’

or, ‘I’m so sorry.’

An awkward blur of mouths,

hands, her hands, his hands, hard to tell.

Nose to nose,

he asks the golden lady,

‘What would you do?’

She had waited for this door to open.

But now the gate’s swung wide,

invited in, she pauses on the threshold;

‘I can taste winter; smell it on the wind.

Ice darkens the edges of puddles,

the thick mud hardens into rut and fold

and the wind tests the walls.

Outdoors everyone has begun to hurry.

The space from dwelling to hall becomes an ordeal.

Soon only the numbed sentry,

counting the cursed hours of his watch,

will stay squinting into the hazed light,

knowing no army moves in winter.’

‘Gloucester knows the northern winter.

He was trapped here on The Wall,

searching for his legion.

We’ve all heard his snowbound stories;

roads they had to swim across,

mud so deep men drowned in it.’

‘They were impatient,

their timing is inept.

Why are you smiling?’

‘Because incompetence is unpredictable.

They went too late or far too early.

The gods look down,

indifferent to our careful planning

and give their blessings to stupidity.’

‘I would go deep into the hills,

find a place we can defend

with half the men we have.

Then wait for Hengist to return.

And if I couldn’t find that place,

I’d build it, quickly.’

‘They‘ll expect us to go north.

We will go south and west and then

prey upon those who have betrayed us.’

‘We’ll plague the sleeping lords,

drunk by their cosy fires.

Burn their homes, steal their cattle,

kill their friends and families

and then come spring,

with Hengist’s help,

brush the remnants off the map.’

Vortigern called his officers together,

explained the friends and places lost,

named those who stood beside them.

‘You have been loyal. Now,

we travel to high country,

hard travelling, constant vigil.

From the mountains in the west,

we will fall upon the rebel lords,

we will reprimand their insolence.

They will learn the price of disobedience.’

The northern lords knelt before him.

‘Send for us when you are ready:

we will ride beside you.

Take our sons as hostages and guides.’

Local guides thread the column

through unmapped valleys.

The mountain wall

greyer than the clouds

leans forward to embrace them. 

[i] Old English Cwēn meant both ‘woman’ and ‘queen’.

[ii] Cyning, Old English for King, is pronounced ku-ning.

[iii] From The Vulgate. Genesis 2:18: ‘The Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him’

Chapter Six. The Wedding

This is chapter Six of LIAM GUILAR’S almost completed epic of Britain. Chapter One was published in Long Poem Magazine #25 Spring 2021, and Chapters TwoThreeFour and Five in The Brazen Head. For more information about Hengist, Vortigern and the Legendary History, see 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. Having defeated an army of Picts, Hengist has tricked Vortigern’s son into giving him land where he has built a stronghold.

Holding a feast to celebrate its completion, he intends to use the opportunity to introduce his daughter, Rowena, to Vortigern.

At which point I part company with the Medieval Story Tellers. I don’t believe a hard-headed war lord would throw away everything he’d worked for in his rush to get his hands on his servant’s daughter. While the story of the King who throws away his kingdom for ‘the wrong woman’ repeats throughout medieval versions of the Legendary History, it’s hard to find an historical ruler of Britain before the thirteenth century who did it.

The Wasshail ceremony, central to the story of Vortigern, is possibly a memory of a very old English custom. 

Set up

Hengist’s hall, the feast raucous.

New arrivals at the long benches;

long haired, eager, boastful,

beside their wary British guests.

Behind a door, a room in candle light[i].

Shadows, female laughter. The maids

circle, bob and fuss, like dull moons

orbiting a blazing star. Rowena the still

pensive centre as clothing is adjusted.

They have sprinkled gold dust in her hair.

A jewelled necklace drags attention to her breasts.

A golden belt shows off her slender waist

and amplifies the outward flare of hips.

Hengist, watching from the door, sees her

for once, as any man sees any woman.

Knows lust will strangle Vortigern

and side step all his calculations.

Swats the unwanted images

that flicker bodies rutting on the furs.

What father wouldn’t trade his daughter for a kingdom?

What daughter wouldn’t for a crown?

But when she leaves this room,

she is no longer Hengist’s daughter

but the Wife of Vortigern the King.

Time to take the jewelled cup.

Surprised by her own fear,

thrown from this busy room

alone on the anticipated shore.

The boat has gone and left her here

in darkness. In the distance

Aestrild’s ghost grows restless[ii].

Her hands betray her, spilling wine.

The maids cower, apologizing.

While they clean the cup she will not look at him.

The second time her hands don’t shake.

No words. She moves towards the door.

If you would call her back, now is the time.

Hall-noise heralds the death of Hengist Father.

Who knew this could be so painful?

That she was beautiful,

no one who saw her will deny.

That it was beauty in excess

of human expectations,

all who saw her will attest.

That she was clever,

brave and loyal,

is yet to be revealed. 

As she entered the riot of the hall,

she infected it with silence.

A ripple of turning heads,

abandoned conversations.

Every man who saw her wanted her

but as she moved towards the King,

through the swamp of their desire,

their lust was spittle on a white-hot blade.

And though she moved with the grace of a swan on still water

he was a scarecrow staring at a golden avalanche

and she was the tidal wave bearing down on a mud brick wall.

She kneels before him and lifts the cup:

‘Lauerd king wæs hæil; For þine kime ich æm uæin.’

He looks up and she is sunlight exploding in his face,

shattering thought, making everything background 

only except her face in focus, the world its dull penumbra.

Turning to Keredic, who mistranslates shock

as linguistic incompetence

and launches into cultural explanations:

‘It is a custom, in the Saxon’s land

where ever a company gathers to drink,

friend greets friend and says:

Dear friend, be well. The other says, Drinc hail.

The one that has the cup, he drinks it up.

The cup’s refilled. He gives it his companion

and when the cup is brought,

they embrace each other thrice.

This is the practice in the Saxon’s land.

and thought a noble custom throughout Germany.’[iii]

Take the cup, kiss her, drink.

Her breath brushes his cheek.

Her soft lips taste of wine and metal.

Four story tellers all agree[iv]

this is where the Devil puts in an appearance

to mess with Vortigern,

overwhelming his common sense

with lust for a pagan girl.

It’s the adjective that horrifies.

A different Vortigern, emerging from his private earthquake,

green eyes, watching him, soft lips, another drink.

Stumbling out of incoherence,

he understands the myth of the medusa;

how looking at a woman can turn a man to stone.


He has to ask for something he could take:

his servant’s daughter. The power inversion

obvious to both of them, so to preserve the niceties

they pretend this was an accident,

that both of them are taken by surprise.

(No laughing please, this should be serious.)

My daughter? You want to marry her?

Vortigern pretends it is desire that speaks:

how beautiful etc, how desirable etc…

(As if it mattered what she looked like.)

Who would have thought, at his age,

he would be honoured.

Hengist pretending he must ask his brethren.

Then the haggling when they both know Kent

and Thanet are her bride price.

But Vortigern rejects the script.

Her Morning Gift, lands in the west,

in the hill country to its north.

Fine cloths, jewels from the east,

horses, saddles, oils. ‘Kent

is not mine to give.

Thanet’s already yours.

But if your sons will follow me

I will give them all the land

between the turf wall and the stone.’

And that shocks Hengist.

Wedding celebrations

Master Wace wrote: ‘He desired her in the morning when they met,

and had her that same night.’ Our Priest, horrified;

‘There were no Christian rites, no priest nor bishop,

he had her in the heathen fashion

took her maidenhead, defiled himself.’

But you don’t expect twelfth century clerics

to sympathise with physical desire.

Or recognise a business proposition.

They will always blame the woman. 

There will be a celebrant and a venue

appropriate for the ritual.

After the prayers and public promises;

feasting, dancing, speeching, drinking,

obligatory fornication with or without an audience.

‘After the feast they slept together’

is how Welsh story tellers described a wedding.

Was she frightened?

Embarrassed by your greed,

or did her own lust

shade the colour of her eyes?

Did you come to trade?

Or did you come to conquer?

There was a door, there must

have been a door. A room

with fittings, shapes, colours.

There was her body, a blur of

detail, memories, green eyes.

Reduced to naked ape with thumping heart.

The gravity of need, the greed of flesh for flesh.

Then clothed, walking in the daylight world

to find the keys to the castle have been pawned.

Bank, ditch and palisade redundant

and in the inner room, behind the locked door,

watched by the sleepless guard who lets no body enter, 

there’s a stranger in the dimmest corner

and a version of yourself you do not own.

Maelgywn of Gwynedd murders every woman

who shares his bed, refusing to accept

the obligations the act implies.

(And still finds willing takers

convinced the risk is worth the prize).

Cunnedagus of the Demetae 

gives such women to his retinue.

He was petrified.

Then she stepped out of her clothes,

stepped towards him,

breaking one spell

casting another.


Familiar words in unfamiliar accents,

soft, golden, fragrant, warm.

We are not children playing in a sandpit

ruling our private universe

with plastic armies that can be replaced,

where cities made of sand can be destroyed

and then rebuilt, forgetting that the adults

will call us in and put an end to all our games.

The world won’t wait for us.

While bodies are engaged,

the mind in search of answers

slips into the darkness

where the Latin titles drift

like burnt pages on the breeze,

past broken statues of dead men

whose names have been forgotten;

through ruined halls and shattered walls:

discarded answers that no longer satisfy.

No matter how delirious the frenzied shoving match

(soft, fragrant, warm) the mind drifts on alone,

in the high passes above the snowline,

looking down into the valleys

to the interminable journey

and fading fast the certainty

that there is an end to travelling

where the answers can be found

soft fragrant adequate and warm.

Stay with me?

He leaves the golden marvel on the furs

and searches for his clothes.

She stretches, mutters, ‘Stay with me.

Sleep here.’ He hesitates.

Locrin tightening his belt,

steps outside the earth house

into the frost of a winter’s morning,

as the whalebone doors slide shut

on his desire.

The great gates of Tintagel grinding shut

behind a man who runs

before his lover can discover who he is.[v]

Both wanting to say, take me back,

before the fog has lifted from the river

or the ice has melted on the castle gate.

Their minds are filled from dawn to dusk

with fantasies of welcome;

blinking, baffled, overjoyed,

as the great gate swings open

the whalebone door is moved aside,

as if the hind will greet the hound

that runs it down to rip its throat out.

He is not suffering from their disease.

Flesh calling to the memory of flesh,

promising oblivion and pleasure.

But there are things he has to do.

[i] This scene, where Hengist watches his daughter being decked out in her finery, although expanded here,  is Laȝamon’s addition to his sources.

[ii] Aestrild’s story is told in A Presentment of Englishry (Shearsman 2020). Rowena hears it in Chapter one and  it haunts her.

[iii] From ‘It is a custom’ to ‘Germany’ is a loose translation of Laȝamon. Even in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s earlier Latin version the words of the ceremony are given in a form of English. It’s possible the custom is very old and also possible it is the origin of ‘wassailing’.

[iv] Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, Laȝamon. The implication in all four is that had Rowena been baptised first, there wouldn’t have been a problem. Vortigern makes this point in the previous chapter.

[v] Locrin’s story is told in A Presentment of Englishry, Uther’s in the next part of this project. Both men endanger their kingdoms through their infatuation.

Chapter Five – An age of wood

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 TwoThree 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.

‘The Boys?’[i]

‘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.