Our Island Story  by H. E. Marshall

Hengist's Treachery

T HE Britons were very glad to see the last of these heathen Saxons, and Vortimer began to restore order, and rebuild the towns and churches, which Hengist and Horsa and their men had destroyed.

Vortimer was a very good king and his people loved him and obeyed him. But there was one person in the land who hated him. That person was his stepmother, Rowena. She hated him because he had driven her father, Hengist, and all her countrymen away.

Rowena tried in many ways to kill Vortimer, but she could not succeed. His people loved him so much that they guarded him well. At last, however, she found a wicked man who, because she promised him a great sum of money, agreed to poison Vortimer. So one day the people were told the sad news that their good king was dead. After this we do not hear very much more of Rowena, nor do we know if she was ever punished for her wickedness.

As soon as Vortigern heard that his son was dead, he came from the castle in Wales where he had been hiding, and made himself king again.

Then Rowena sent messengers to her father, and he gathered all his ships and men together, and came sailing over the sea to Britain once more.

When the Britons heard that Hengist was coming, they were very angry, and prepared to fight. Vortigern was frightened too. He sent a message to Hengist telling him that he must go away again. "The Britons are ready for battle," he said, "and you and your men will all be killed if you try to land."

But Hengist was as cunning as ever. He sent back a message to Vortigern saying that he did not know that Vortimer was dead. "I came to fight for you, to help you to regain your throne," he said. "But now that you are King again there is no need to fight. Let us be friends. Let us all, Britons and Saxons, meet together at a great feast. Let us forget our quarrels and make peace. Then I will go home again with my soldiers."

Vortigern told the British nobles that Hengist wanted to make friends. The Britons really did not wish to fight any more, so they readily agreed to meet Hengist in a friendly way on the Plain of Salisbury, and feast together.

A day was fixed. It was in May. The grass was green and the sky blue, and the birds sang on this bright spring day. From all sides came the British nobles in their gayest holiday clothes, wearing no armour and carrying no weapons.

The Saxons, too, came gaudily clad and seemingly unarmed.

There was laughter, and talk and friendly greeting, and the feast began. Suddenly, over the noise of the feasting, the voice of Hengist sounded loud, "Draw your daggers."

Then every Saxon drew his dagger, which he had hidden in his stocking, and stabbed the Briton next to him. The Britons fought and struggled bravely, but they had no chance. They had only their bare hands with which to defend themselves, for they had not dreamed of such treachery.

Only two of all the Britons were saved. One was Vortigern, the king, because Hengist had ordered his soldiers not to kill him; the other was Edol, Earl of Gloucester. He found a wooden stake lying on the ground, and defended himself so bravely with it that, it is said, he killed seventy of the Saxons, and then escaped with his life.

After this wicked and cowardly slaughter of unarmed men, Hengist took possession of Britain. His wild, heathen soldiers swarmed all over the land, killing people, burning towns and making terrible havoc everywhere. The Britons fled in terror to the mountains and forests. Vortigern himself fled into a lonely part of Wales. There he built a strong castle in which to hide, for he was very much afraid. He was afraid of Hengist and the Saxons, and he was afraid of the Britons. He was also afraid of Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon, the two brothers of King Constans. For by this time they were no longer little boys, but had grown up into brave men.

Vortigern had need to be afraid of Aurelius and Uther, for, hearing how Hengist had taken possession of Britain, they thought it was now time to fight for their country. So they gathered ships and soldiers together, and came sailing over from France to Britain.

When the Britons heard that Aurelius Ambrosius and his brother had landed, they took heart again. They came out from the places in which they had been hiding from the Saxons. Joyfully they offered themselves to fight under the banner of the brothers.

As soon as Aurelius and Uther had collected their army, they marched straight to Wales to besiege Vortigern in his castle. They had not forgotten that he had murdered their brother, Constans, and they meant to punish him.

But the castle was very, very strong. Try how they might, the Britons could not take it. Vortigern sat behind the thick walls, and laughed at all their efforts.

At last the Britons fell upon a plan. They cut down trees and gathered dry sticks and leaves from the forests round about. These they piled high round the castle. Day by day Vortigern watched the pile of wood rising, and wondered what was going to happen.

When the Britons had gathered enough wood, they set fire to it in several places at once. So one morning Vortigern awoke to hear the crackle, crackle of newly-lit fires. He looked out and saw smoke and flames all around him. Wherever he looked he saw little tongues of fire. Soon the little tongues grew longer and longer. Higher and higher leapt the flames. Fiercer and fiercer grew the heat. Vortigern's laughter was turned to wild shrieks. In vain he prayed the Britons to have mercy on him and let him escape. "Had you any mercy on our brother, Constans?" said Ambrosius and Uther. "Had you any mercy on our fathers and brothers when you let Hengist slay them on Salisbury Plain?" asked the Britons. "You had no mercy. You shall find none."

The roar of the fire drowned all else. The flames leaped higher. With a crash the roof of the strong castle fell in. Vortigern, the betrayer of his people, was dead.