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Friend or Foe?

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Friend or Foe?

Much to everyone’s great relief the departure of Professor Malcolm and his small group of like-minded supporters meant that the UK Advanced Science Institute’s staff could now concentrate on their work in a far more relaxed atmosphere, free from the ridiculous bureaucratic protocols, deliberately created by Malcolm to place endless numbers of impossibly complicated health and safety checks in the path of anyone using the Teleportation Gate.

Since Briggs insisted that he be the guinea pig when his Gate was initially employed, allowing him to witness the opening moves of the Battle of Hastings, two other targets had also now been successfully observed. As a consequence, the relevant historical records concerning the periods in question were soon corrected.

Briggs’ initial trip back in time was soon followed by two others when observers were first sent to seek out Rædwald, the king of the East Angles, and then Harald Hardrada, the king of Norway, slain at the battle of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire. In both instances many anomalies in the historical accounts of both men were ironed out once and for all.

Which individual or event during the Dark Ages (the roughly five hundred year period from when the Romans departed Britain’s shores for the final time in the fifth century, until the invasion of William, Duke of Normandy in the eleventh) should be the next target? Briggs posed the question to the Institute’s entire staff in the canteen while they all ate lunch, the day after he sacked the last of Professor Malcolm’s sycophantic cronies.

vortigern-meets-hengist-and-horsaNow that the Institute was finally free to pursue its true purpose, as far as he was concerned it mattered little what your job was. Literally anyone, from the various academics and lab technicians, researchers and post grad students, to Andrew, the Canadian born history undergraduate who delivered the mail each day within the Institute as well as the cleaners and the canteen staff responsible for their meals were free to make a suggestion.

Briggs made it known that he was also willing to consider anyone as a future observer, providing they had an eye for detail, an attribute he deemed necessary for each trip, mainly to accurately recall all details for the historical research department’s inevitable corrections to the relevant previous histories.

He went on to say, “I would ask you to consider two things before you volunteer your services as observer. First of all, travelling back in time does not mean that you are somehow immortal in the targeted period, far from it in fact. It would be nice if it were possible. But, despite what the writers of science fiction stories may have you believe, you can be killed! No one knows that better than me, when my own Norman ancestor, Gilberte de Brige had his sights set firmly on killing me at the Battle of Hastings. Another thing you need to be aware of is that should you personally kill anyone during your excursion back in time; in all likelihood you will be responsible for terminating someone here in our time by ending the life of their distant direct ancestor. It is a concept difficult to comprehend I know, but never the less it is a fact! Secondly, I would ask you to bear in mind that the roughly five hundred year time period we are currently concerned with was hardly a peaceful one. As an observer, believe me when I tell you that you are placing yourselves directly in the path of danger.”

The canteen fell silent for a few moments as what Briggs said had a sobering effect upon everyone as it slowly sunk in. A quiet voice broke the silence. “You want suggestions from us Doctor Briggs, have you ever thought about taking a look at Hengist and Horsa?”

Briggs almost choked on the spoonful of soup he had just put in his mouth, “who said that?” he enquired. A hand went up from behind the canteen counter. Briggs rose from his chair and went to where the Institute’s canteen manager still stood with her hand held uncertainly in the air.

“Why not, well done Maggie?” Briggs grinned as he leant across the counter to give her a reassuring peck on the cheek, making her blush deeply in the process. “Hengist it is. We stand more chance with him than his brother. Supposedly Horsa was killed soon after arriving here in England while fighting Vortigern. Ladies and gentlemen eat up; we have a lot of work to do beginning this afternoon. I have a feeling that this will prove to be our most challenging target so far. The year the brothers actually arrived on our shores is highly debatable. We know precious little about mid fifth century England. Let’s get to work and find out the truth for Maggie.”

***

 His historical research department had an unenviable task ahead of them over the next few weeks, sifting fact from fiction. For a start, Hengist and Horsa were supposedly the first chiefs among the Angles, Saxons and Jutes here in England according to what Briggs’ team now knew were the debatable Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, and Bede’s highly questionable Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. Both could hardly be considered accurate accounts any more. At best they were third, or even fourth hand tomes, containing a mix of fact and fable with a lot of artistic licence thrown in for good measure by the writers concerned, simply because they were produced hundreds of years after the events contained within their pages actually occurred, long after any first hand witnesses had died.

Knowing what they did, Briggs and his team wondered why it was that a hard core of eminent historians beyond the Institute’s walls still continued to insist that both works are the definitive historical accounts of the British Isles during the Dark Ages and beyond into what became known as the early Middle Ages, even though the Institute’s findings and corrections were widely known and accepted by the academic historical community in general. Quite simply, their entrenched attitudes defied all logic.

 If the Chronicles and Bede were to be believed, the brothers were invited as mercenaries by Vortigern, king of the Britons to assist him in his fight with the Picts. To sweeten the deal, allegedly he gave them the Isle of Thanet (now no longer an island but part of the Kentish mainland) as their foothold in the land. According to the Chronicles, the brothers arrived sometime in 449AD at the head of a considerable force of Jutes at a place long since vanished from the landscape called Ipwinesfleet, (likely located somewhere on Kent’s north coast) specifically gathered together for the mission from the growing number of inexperienced young warriors in their over populated homeland, anxious to prove themselves.

From what Briggs observers would later be able to confirm as fact, the brothers clearly saw this as a golden opportunity for the expansion of the Jute nation overseas, using their military assistance in Vortigern’s endless fights with the Picts as nothing more than a flimsy pretext for invasion. What better way to conquer a new country relatively unhindered than by being invited in by its ruler?

While the idea of being present at the first of many invasions by the Jutes, Angles, Saxons and other Germanic peoples was undoubtedly of interest to some, the specific event which Briggs and his team wished to know more about concerned what actually happened at the later confrontation between Hengist, Horsa and Vortigern in 455AD, around six years after their arrival. All available historical accounts including the Chronicles and Bede’s work contradict each other on many points about the event in question.

***

No one took much notice of two more warriors walking up from the beach through the early morning mist towards Hengist’s stronghold. By now Briggs had long abandoned his notion of non-participation by his observers, realizing from his own experience that circumstances demand you join in instead of merely standing in the background watching. He asked both Max and Lars if they were prepared to go back in time yet again, realising that it was a silly question under the circumstances. The thought of witnessing history at first hand was their reason for volunteering in the first place. He asked them both to go this time, simply because he sensed that to send a lone observer into a largely unknown and violent situation would be imprudent to say the least. Hopefully they could protect each other, should they get into any kind of tricky situation.

In the intervening six years since he had first arrived, Hengist had taken a wife from among the local Briton families, who bore him a daughter. According to the later accounts in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and by Bede, supposedly it was her seduction of Vortigern that was the cause of what can only be described as the Night of The Long Knives, when her father’s men murdered Vortigern’s Britons during a peace accord. Nothing could be further from the truth. It simply did not add up.

Both the many contributors to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and Bede were only partly right in this instance. The seduction of Vortigern is clearly contentious for several reasons, the chief one being the girl’s age at the time. How the scribes and Bede expected their readers to seriously believe that a four or five year old girl could possibly seduce a grown man, let alone become his lover defies all logic, unless her father and the king of the Britons were nothing more than sick paedophiles trading her for Vortigern’s perverted sexual needs.

Whatever the truth of the situation, Lars and Max now found themselves at the beginning of a bitter war between Hengist, Horsa and their former ally Vortigern.

Since their arrival in the British Isles, both Hengist and his brother had won every battle they ever fought in the name of Vortigern. In that regard they were far more successful than his Britons. Realising their army of Jutes was by far the most dominant fighting force in Kent Hengist began to believe they could actually take the land, making it their own fiefdom.

A pretext had to be found to remove Vortigern from the scene for the brother’s dream to become reality. If they were to rid Kent of the Britons once and for all, they would need help. And so Hengist sent word to the Jutes’ fraternal cousins, the Angles for assistance. After reading Hengist’s account of ‘the worthlessness of the Britons and the richness of the land’, they sent word back that they would soon arrive, bringing with them a band of fierce Scythian mercenaries, recruited from the shores of the Black Sea.  

***

Dawn gradually broke over the peaceful hamlet of Aylesford on the banks of the River Medway. In the open countryside to the east, Max and Lars stood shoulder to shoulder in the Jute’s shield wall in front of Hengist, on the ridgeline above a tributary stream of the river. Not far below where the opposing armies of Jutes and Britons were, they could see Horsa with his combined force of Angles and Scythians, who he had divided up into small commando units, all hidden from Vortigern’s view by a slight dip in the landscape behind the scrubby tangle of briar and brambles growing out of the stream’s northern bank, ready to pounce on the advancing ranks of Britons.

Vortigern had drawn up his ranks of tattooed, near naked Britons in three rows on the grassy flood plain on his side of the stream, unaware of the hidden surprise waiting for him when he crossed it. He believed that the assembled Jute army behind their shield wall on the ridge above the stream was his only opposition. For over an hour insults were traded back and forth as the warriors on both sides began psyching themselves up for battle. Meanwhile nearby Aylesford’s residents hastily departed the scene should the forthcoming battle spill over into their hamlet.

What Max and Lars experienced next would make anything either of them encountered on their previous trips back in time, simply pale into insignificance when it came to naked mindless savagery.

At a blast from his horn, Vortigern’s by now almost insane warriors launched themselves towards the stream and the shield wall in the distance, screaming like Banshee’s. As they scrambled up the opposite bank of the stream hampered by the brambles and briar, Horsa’s Scythians and Angles stood up blocking their advance, before mercilessly attacking them as they struggled to untangle themselves from the thorny undergrowth. His commandos hacked limbs and heads from bodies with relish. They cleaved open ribcages with their iron battle axes and split stomachs with their swords, which in turn spilt steaming entrails onto the ground. Vortigern’s warriors didn’t stand a chance. The stream was soon choked with the butchered remains of the majority of Britons.

Unlike the way Hollywood normally portrays their heroes as bulletproof while engaged in spectacularly long battle scenes in their movies, or how television producers make endless numbers of sanitized historical programs depicting wars, specifically designed for broadcast when families are gathered together, the real thing is far more violent and usually over in a matter of minutes. To that end, less than fifteen minutes after the battle had begun Vortigern rapidly retreated from the field with a pitiful handful of survivors.

Horsa had not died that day after all. So when did he die? Max and Lars had to find out. That was the reason for them being here in the first place. They needed to stay.

A few days later, Vortigern’s son Vortimer, sought revenge for his father’s humiliating defeat by beginning a series of sieges against Hengist and Horsa’s fortified stronghold on the Isle of Thanet. In all, he was to take the fight to the Jutes on four separate occasions over the following months. The next encounter after the failed siege attempts at Thanet was at the river Derwent, the third at Epsford, where during the bloody confrontation, Max and Lars witnessed the death of Horsa, and Vortigern’s other son, Catigern.

Vortimer’s last encounter on the battlefield with Hengist was at a place vaguely described as ‘the stone on the shore of the Gallic sea.’ From what Max later related, it was somewhere on Kent’s south-eastern shores near where the English Channel and the North Sea merge, close to present day Dover, or perhaps Deal, not far to the north of the Channel port (he couldn’t be absolutely certain) where Hengist’s army was soundly defeated before the survivors fled to the safety of their ships.

In the end the Jutes prevailed when Hengist sent an invitation to Vortigern to sign a peace accord. The king of the Britons agreed and duly arrived with his entourage, only to witness the slaying of his remaining son Vortimer and his Britons by Hengist’s men. To save his own skin, reluctantly Vortigern ransomed himself by handing over Essex, Sussex and Middlesex as well as a few of his previously conquered lesser territories. Despite the fact that Hengist’s young daughter was nowhere to be seen as she and her mother had not been present, the Chronicles and Bede were at least correct about the massacre.

***

During the obligatory debriefing after their return, Max and Lars were able to confirm a few of the other entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles concerning the brothers as being correct, along with a handful of the assertions made by Bede.

Later after the debriefing was over, the two men sat with Briggs talking in general about their latest brush with history. They were completely astounded when he informed them that despite the fact that a little over fifteen hundred years had passed since the events they witnessed had occurred, most of the long established old families still living in the county today can trace their ancestry directly back to Hengist and Horsa’s Jutes and Vortigern’s Britons through their DNA profiles. The very idea that the present day descendants of Kent’s first inhabitants still lived in the area, oblivious to the fact that back then they and their neighbours in all likelihood would consider one another as either friend or foe, somehow appealed to both Max and Lars…

 

Friend or Foe? was last modified: February 9th, 2013 by Jack Eason

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