When the two well-dressed women with elaborate hair stumbled into the hut, deep in conversation, Ambrosius assumed they must have arrived there by mistake. But seeing him, crouched upon his knees, beside his young comrade, one asked: “Is that him?”
“Arturus is one that’s wounded,” he confirmed.
“Oh, he’s just a boy!” cried the younger woman, as the pair looked down at Arturus.
“Poor lamb!” said the other, turning back to Ambrosius. “And who are you?”
“I’m Dux Ambrosius Aurelianus,” he said, “and I’m most grateful that you’ve come to help my friend.”
“Oh, we’re not here to… do anything,” replied the older woman, resting a hand upon Ambrosius’ shoulder.
Her companion nodded sympathetically. “No, we just wanted to have a look… Megisa will be along soon.”
“Yes, the old bitch… but don’t let her age fool you; she knows all sorts of things… all sorts… about everything – and everyone…”
“But who are you then?” he asked.
“I am Catoriga, wife of Hargotrix,” replied the older of the two, “and this is Lurotriga – widow of my husband’s elder brother. We are the… ladies of this estate!”
If she expected any awe from Ambrosius, she got none. “So, who is this Megisa?” he enquired.
“Just someone who can tend to your young friend,” replied Lurotriga, her eyes never leaving Ambrosius’ naked chest and shoulders.
“No-one important,” said Catoriga. “And you’re a dux?”
“Is there such a thing as a dux now?” asked Lurotriga. “And are you truly from Rome?”
Both women, he observed, had lost interest in Arturus.
“I was a dux, but I’ve not been in Rome for over a year,” said Ambrosius, “nor wanted to be… I’ve come from Verona.”
“Perhaps you should have stayed there, Roman,” said Catoriga, whose pinched features appeared to soften, if only for a moment.
“Still,” said Lurotriga, “we’ve not seen an actual Roman for a long while…”
There was a weary sadness about both women, he thought. Neither was still in her youth, and it seemed as if their lot in life was gradually wearing them down.
It was unusual for anyone to get close to Ambrosius before he sensed their presence, but Megisa managed it and her appearance confounded him as much as her arrival. Not only did she have a shock of long white hair, but she was dressed from head to toe in white linen – well, it had once been white.
Ghosting past him, she went to kneel beside Arturus and the other women drew back – as if wary of her. But why would the ‘ladies of the estate’, he wondered, fear an old woman of ‘no importance’?
“I suppose your husband did this,” said Megisa, with a scowl.
“I doubt he actually did it himself,” answered Catoriga.
“Men can be such brutes, can’t they?” soothed Lurotriga.
“Hmm,” grunted Megisa, glancing at Ambrosius. “You and your friend are in the wrong place.”
“Not by choice,” he said, indicating the bonds securing his hands and feet. “Blame Hargotrix.”
For an instant, the old woman looked as she had swallowed a turd.
“Hargotrix!” she spat out the word like a gobbet of bile, prompting both Catoriga and Lurotriga to take another pace back.
“Yes,” snapped Megisa, “you two idle magpies can go!”
As Lurotriga passed Ambrosius, she murmured: “I’ll send a slave with food; tell her, if there’s anything else you need…”
When the younger women had left, Megisa rinsed Arturus’ stab wounds with wine and applied a herbal salve. When she had finished, she offered Ambrosius the flask of wine but he looked down at his bound hands. Smiling, she put the flask to his lips. It was rough wine, but it was honey to his dry throat.
“You shouldn’t trust those two,” she said.
“I don’t trust any of you,” he replied, “though I thank you for your care of my comrade – and the wine.”
“Why are you my son’s prisoner?” she asked, and seeing his surprise, added: “Yes, I am responsible for bringing that vile man into this world; God help me!”
When Ambrosius explained who he was and why he had been captured, Megisa gave a knowing nod.
“Is he truly king of the Durotriges?” enquired Ambrosius, as Megisa prepared to leave.
“Since no-one else is, then I suppose he can be,” she replied. “You’ve been here, what, a few months? You’ve surely learned that here, any man can make himself a ‘king’ if he has wealth, or the muscle to back him. Do you have the muscle, Ambrosius?”
“I don’t want to be a king,” he retorted, as she reached the entrance of the hut.
“Don’t you?” she said, staring at him for a moment, before pushing past the linen cloth.