South West Britannia
Ambrosius Aurelianus awoke to the persistent birdsong of the forest dawn. Still, he reflected, they had a roof over their heads at last, having stumbled upon the long-abandoned settlement. Several habitable huts – one quite large – offered enough space for a company of only two score. True, there were rotten timbers, leaking roofs and holes in the walls you could walk through, but it would suffice.
Since landing upon Britannia’s inhospitable shore, they had come a long way. There had been losses – terrible losses – but they had faced the setbacks with resolve and God had played his part of course; though his new Saxon allies might argue about which particular god had favoured them most. The thought of the Saxons made him smile, for who could have predicted that the Roman exiles would form such a close bond with folk they had only ever viewed as enemies?
The bitter wounds of winter were almost all healed now and, with the unfurling leaves of spring, came renewed hope. They would rebuild this ancient place – and fortify it – for somewhere out there was Vortigern, whose venom would be festering away. Sooner or later, he would seek his revenge and there would be others too – some alarmed by the pact with the Saxons, but the rest simply jealous of their horses, their weapons or their women…
Laying his head upon Inga’s shoulder, he wondered at the tortuous road that had brought the pair of them together: the soldier and the slave-whore. He was still staring at her hair, gilded by the dawn light, when the first hint of trouble came.
There was no neighing of nervous horses nor the strangled cry of a sleepy sentry. No, it was a low, malevolent growl from Ferox, the great Molussian war dog, that alerted Ambrosius. The ill-tempered beast insisted upon sleeping at the feet of his mistress, Inga, and even Ambrosius was not brave enough to argue.
When Ferox growled, a wise man paid attention and when the belligerent beast stood up, it was time to draw out your spatha and pray.
Beside him, Inga too heard the dog and sat up.
“Stay here with Ferox,” he told her, extending a hand to pull her up.
Then, without another word, he hastened out of the small hut, clashing his spatha and shield together. “To arms!” he roared. “To arms!”
Answering his call, his sworn warriors – his bucellarii – emerged from the communal hall with weapons in hand.
“What is it, Dux?” cried one, using, out of habit, his old imperial rank.
But what could he tell them? Only that the damned dog appeared to know more than he did!
A spear flew past his right arm, striking one of the Saxons as he left the hall. Catching the warrior unawares, the keen blade tore through him, flinging him onto his back. It was the first of several spears launched from the light-dappled forest and each one seemed to find its target.
It was the double-edged sword of living in a forest; it provided perfect cover but, on the other hand, it provided perfect cover…