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…
“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.
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 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 tumbled 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.
Bright shafts of dawn shone through gaping holes in the roof canopy, illuminating the whole sorry hovel in which Ambrosius found himself. Blinking awake, he stared up at the rotten roof timbers above, and wondered how the primitive structure was still standing at all. It took a while, as he lay there, for the bitter memories of his capture to creep back into his muddled head.
They had stripped him above the waist and what he could see of his torso made him wish he hadn’t looked; for the bruises were beginning to darken ominously. Even the parts of him that didn’t appear damaged still ached and he began to devise punishments to inflict upon those who had given him such a beating. When he expected to deliver the retribution, he wasn’t sure; but, as ever, Ambrosius was inclined – even when all was lost – to hope for the best.
Their hut boasted a particularly ripe smell so, either young Arturus had shat himself during the night, or they were imprisoned uncomfortably close to a latrine. The latter seemed more likely, though he recalled that Arturus had groaned a lot, so perhaps he had shat himself after all. Either way, the youth had not yet moved, or even spoken.
As far as Ambrosius could tell, no-one was watching them, so he edged his way across to Arturus.
“Arturus!” he hissed. “Wake up, lad – you’re not with that Saxon vixen now! So move yourself!”
His rebuke brought a sound he had never heard in all the months he had known the lad – even at the most desperate of times. At once, he softened his tone to the sobbing youth. “Arturus?”
When Arturus brought up his knees and curled into a ball, Ambrosius slithered close enough to see the youth’s face. It was far from pretty: both eyes were blackened and closed; the blows had somehow missed his nose but cut deep into his cheeks; his jaw was swollen and at first Ambrosius reckoned that was the main source of pain. It wasn’t; further examination revealed that the lad had sustained many shallow stab wounds all over his upper body and, of course, there were was the obligatory surfeit of bruises.
Ambrosius, affected more than usual by the wounds his young comrade had sustained, wrapped a gentle arm around him. Every blow the youth had taken hurt Ambrosius deeply, for Arturus was like a younger brother to him. The lad had surrendered, yet he had been beaten and cut like a dog…
There would have to be reckoning for that…
Leaving the lad, he rolled painfully into a sitting position and attempted to get to his feet. Failure brought a few more lesions and, fuming with frustration, he resorted to pushing himself with his feet across the beaten earth floor to the hut entrance. Pushing aside, with his head, the tired length of cloth that hung there, he stretched out into the daylight and glimpsed, not a simple settlement of huts, but a row of stone-built buildings. The discovery that he was imprisoned on a villa estate earned him a boot to his forehead.
“Get back in there!” warned the owner of the boot. “Unless you want another beating!”
“My comrade’s badly hurt – he needs help!” snarled Ambrosius. “And I need to speak to your master.”
He received a swift answer – even if another kick to the head was not exactly what he hoped for. Several more well-aimed blows from the boot followed, persuading Ambrosius to roll back into the hut and return to Arturus, who was now wheezing like an old man.
It must have been hours later that the cloth at the doorway was flicked aside and several men entered – spears at the ready.
Glowering up at them, Ambrosius offered his bound hands. “You look like mice watching a cat,” he said, giving free vent to his scorn. “What are you expecting me to do to you, trussed up like this?”
Ignoring his jibe, they waited in silence until another figure swept into the hut: tall, fair and perhaps a little older than Ambrosius – though not by much. Before the fellow uttered a word, Ambrosius recognised the type – for, as a protégé of the great Roman Consul, Aetius, he had learned much about men who sought to wield power. In the man before him he observed the overbearing manner, augmented by a cloak of impatience. Though a spatha hung from his ornate, leather belt, the hands looked soft and the shoulders lacked the muscle to wield such a weapon with any force. No, this was not a warrior; this was a man accustomed to having others do his bidding.
“You are Ambrosius Aurelianus,” the stranger began.
“That’s the part I know already,” replied Ambrosius, “but I’m aching – literally aching – to know who you are.”
And there it was: how to take control of a negotiation… first, wrong-foot your opponent.
“I am Hargotrix, King of the ancient Durotriges people,” announced his captor.
“Never heard of them – or you,” scoffed Ambrosius, “but why?”
“Why?” grumbled Hargotrix. “What do you mean, why?”
“Why am I your prisoner?”
Irritation twitched on Hargotrix’s face. “Because the high king-”
“Vortigern,” interrupted Ambrosius, unsurprised that the vengeful British king was to blame.
“The high king, Vortigern,” continued Hargotrix, “has offered a substantial-”
“Blood price?” suggested Ambrosius, relentlessly keeping the initiative.
“If you don’t hold your tongue, I’ll-”
“You’ll what?” enquired Ambrosius. “Beat me? Cut me? Bind my hands? I think we’re already past that aren’t we? Now, I expect that you’d like to be able to claim your reward by delivering me – alive – to Vortigern, with the least possible trouble. But, that is not going to happen if my comrade’s wounds are not treated.”
“Do you dare to threaten me?” retorted Hargotrix, affecting laughter.
Why was it, wondered Ambrosius, that men so lacking in humour often felt the need to laugh?
“Why do you imagine that Vortigern wants me so badly?” he asked, lowering his voice. “Because he fears me… and, by God, if I can trouble him, ‘King’ Hargotrix, I can certainly trouble you.”
“I rule here,” blustered Hargotrix.
“Good; then you can send someone to care for my comrade – oh, and send some food too…”
Without another word, Hargotrix turned and stalked out of the hut, shouldering aside his guards in his haste.
With a sigh, Ambrosius murmured: “What do you think, Arturus, did I overdo the charm?”
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.