“To horse!” bellowed Ambrosius – as if they needed telling, for everyone in his battle-scarred company knew well enough what to do. Yet, he had seen it before: the sour spectre of panic pervading a settlement to imbue every brave heart with fear.
The sight of Inga emerging from their hut helped to restore his belief for, despite the disarray, she stood like a defiant flint amid a field of chalk. As she made ready the Hun bow she carried, her fellow Saxon, Ishild, rushed to her side. And, wherever that beautiful, young girl went, the lovesick youth, Arturus followed – on this occasion wearing only his worn boots and a long, if threadbare, tunic.
“Fetch our mounts, Arturus!” barked Ambrosius.
Eager to please as ever, Arturus sprinted away across the clearing – but only after exchanging a soulful glance with Ishild.
Watching him go, Ambrosius glimpsed movement in the nearby trees, but was soon distracted by trouble elsewhere. He caught the first whiff of smoke in the air as the cry went up: “The hall’s afire!”
Amber flames were already streaking up the outer timbers of the hall and wretched screams howled from within – screams that bubbled up and spat like molten iron. A woman tumbled out of the fiery interior, her clothing and hair ablaze. Too late, Ambrosius feared, two of his bucellarii enveloped her in a blanket to smother the flames. Soon the hall was a crackling inferno, spewing up fiery embers to defile the pale, blue dawn.
In the smoke-fuelled confusion, Ambrosius tried to do what he always did in times of crisis. Swivelling around, he captured a picture in his mind of who was fleeing where and with whom; where the enemy appeared and in what strength. How often in the past had that ability to swiftly sharpen the detail given him an edge – but not this time. Fleet as a deer, the moment of clarity sped away and chaos prevailed.
Snarling warriors now poured into the small settlement where the smoke was so thick that it was hard to pick out friend from foe. Yet Ambrosius knew that escape was still possible if confusion itself could be harnessed as an ally. But he must look to his own and was reassured to see Inga, still lingering by the hut with the cold-eyed beast, Ferox – so close he might have been fettered to her. For a terrible moment, unable to locate his sister, Lucidia, Ambrosius held his breath. Then he glimpsed her being hustled away by two of his most trusted men. She would be safe – at least as safe as any of them.
By the time Arturus returned, wrestling several wild-eyed horses, Ambrosius was impaling the first of the attackers on the point of his spatha. But several more warriors were making straight for him, their hungry spear points ready to plunge at his heart. Arturus, now mounted, slashed his long knife down across the neck of the first of them. Smoke stung Ambrosius’ eyes as he battered aside the second assailant with his shield, before delivering a killing thrust. But, with a gasp of despair, he saw that neither he, nor Arturus, could turn in time to confront the third, determined warrior.
At murderously close range, an arrow from Inga’s bow punched into the advancing figure, the feathered flight turning crimson as it disappeared into his breast. With a savage grimace upon her face, Inga then clambered up onto one of the horses, while the agile Ishild leapt onto the back of another.
Bringing his mount alongside the two women, Arturus waited only for Ambrosius. The latter, seeing many more opponents coming – too many to fight – hurried to seize the last horse. But, shying away from his grasp, the terrified animal veered in front of him. In doing so, the poor beast saved his life for it took a mighty spear thrust meant for him.
Flinching at the shrieks of the wounded animal at his feet, Ambrosius cast about in vain for another mount.
“Ride!” he urged the others. “In God’s name, ride!”
“Not without you, I won’t!” replied Inga.