While, for once, Inga hesitated, it was Ishild who saved him.
“Take my horse!” she cried.
Already alongside her, Arturus reached out a hand to steady her as she leapt across to his mount and he grinned the moment her arms encircled his waist.
At once Ambrosius took Ishild’s mount and the three horses sped away into the forest. Weaving a tortuous path through the trees, they aimed to discourage any followers and then ride south. The whole company knew they must gather at the great circles of earthen banks and ditches, known to local folk as Badon.
Yet, every time they headed south, they were intercepted and obliged to turn away northwards. It seemed almost as if every man who had attacked the settlement had chosen those four to hunt down – only them.
After being hounded all day, they ached with exhaustion and were obliged to walk their sweat-drenched mounts. Yet, still they were trapped in the great forest and, as a grim darkness descended, they searched for a place to hide for the night. Finding a thick stand of holly, they led their reluctant horses through the dark, spiny leaves, praying they would offer at least some protection from discovery.
Alert to every woodland sound, Ambrosius slept little that night and, in the mist of morning, was awoken by voices, calling out to each other in the greenwood around them. Ferox opened an eye and groaned while the horses, sensing others close by, grew nervous and shuffled their feet. But, Ambrosius observed, the two young lovers, oblivious of any threat, slept on, entwined together and half-buried among the dead fronds of bracken.
In his arms, Inga stirred and turned her scarred face towards him. Following his gaze, she murmured: “Let them have peace a little longer.”
“Those two are far too young to be doing what they’re doing,” he grumbled.
“But every day their lives are in the hands of the gods – like ours,” she replied. “Who are we to judge them?”
Kissing her forehead, he said: “If we stay here any longer, our enemies will keep pressing in upon us until they find us.”
“The horses are rested, we can outrun them,” she said, bright eyes wide with hope.
“Not with that pair on one horse, we can’t” said Ambrosius. “We’d be too slow.”
“What then?” asked Inga, clasping his hand in hers, “If we can’t stay here?”
“Arturus and I will ride out on the two fittest mounts and draw the searchers away,” said Ambrosius.
Inga’s vehement denial woke Arturus and Ishild.
“What is it?” hissed Arturus.
“You and I are going for a little ride, lad,” Ambrosius told him. “If you can prise yourself loose.”
“No!” said Inga.
“He’s right!” said Arturus.
“I am,” said Ambrosius, pleased that the youth grasped their predicament so readily.
“No, you’re not,” muttered Ishild, lifting her sleepy head up from Arturus’ chest.
“What do you know, boy?” growled Inga.
Ambrosius’ response was stern. “Whatever any of you think, it’s decided,” he said. “Inga, you and Ishild will stay here and let the other horse rest for the day – and you’ll have Ferox to watch over you.”
When Inga opened her mouth to protest again, Ambrosius closed his hand over hers, shaking his head. “You’ll be well-hidden here, once we’ve drawn them away and at nightfall, we’ll try to work our way back to you. ”
“In the dark?” grumbled Inga, her face a mask of misery.
“It’s our best chance,” he told her. “But, if we’re not back by dawn tomorrow, you must ride on south to Badon. We’ll find you there.”
Though Inga gave a curt nod, her fury was plain enough and, when he embraced her, she felt as taut as the string of her bow. Irked that Ishild showed no such inhibitions in her parting from Arturus, Ambrosius turned briskly and swung up onto his horse.
“You coming?” he snapped at Arturus.
After a final kiss with Ishild, the youth mounted swiftly and the two men coaxed their horses out of the thicket of holly and picked their way through a swathe of bracken browned by the ravages of winter. Since their aim was to attract the attention of those watching, they proceeded to make as much noise as possible. Thus, they urged their mounts to greater speed and, whenever they found a forest track, they cantered through the wood scattering dead leaves in their wake.
Soon, to their relief, they were observed but, too late, Ambrosius realised that the trees in front of them were thinning out and, before he could change direction, they shot out of the woodland to find only an expanse of low scrub and grassland ahead.
“Shit!” he muttered. “So much for losing them in the forest!”
Though they increased their speed to a gallop, their enemies were steadily overhauling them. They were herding the pair northwards – no doubt towards a place of their choosing. Though there was nothing he could do about it, Ambrosius took some solace from the large number pursuing them. At least, he reasoned, Inga and Ishild would have a better chance of escape.
When the landscape ahead changed to rolling downland and the riders on their flanks began to close in, he abandoned all hope of outpacing them. In the distance several wayward spirals of smoke marked out a settlement and, yard by yard, mile by mile, they were being driven towards it. Away to the west, Ambrosius found a glimmer of hope in some woodland – if they could reach it…
“To your left, Arturus,” he shouted. “Wheel left!”
But the moment of optimism evaporated as their escape was swiftly cut off when another, smaller band of horsemen emerged from the trees. With a sigh, Ambrosius wrenched out his spatha to carve a path through the newcomers. As he raised his weapon, a spear, hurled from behind him, sliced a furrow along his side. Taken by surprise, he lost his balance and slid sideways from his horse to land on his head. Though his helm absorbed much of the impact, he struggled to rise to his feet and, when he did, the ground simply refused to stop moving.
Pulling up beside him, Arturus reached down a hand, but all Ambrosius saw was a forest of extended arms.
He waved the youth away. “Ride on!” he mumbled. “You can still make it…”
Brushing aside a trickle of blood from his cheek was enough to make him sway like a drunken ox. He staggered around in a circle, hurling incoherent abuse at any man who attempted to disarm him. Finally, bristling with anger, he tossed aside his spatha and dropped to his knees.
Even in his stupor, he understood that Arturus had not ridden away; for the youth surrendered his long blade and knelt down beside him.
“So, now you have us,” Ambrosius snarled up at his captors, “What are going to do with us?
But his defiance was cut short by a welter of savage blows as the pair were struck down with spear shafts, or the flat of a sword.