After a long day, and even longer night, the knot of despair Inga felt in her belly twisted tighter. Ambrosius and Arturus were not coming back and the difficult decision of what to do next was not helped by Ishild’s youthful impatience. If it were up to her, the impetuous, young girl would have ridden out already.
“Dux was quite clear,” argued Inga, trying to play the voice of good sense. “If they did not return, we were to ride to Badon.”
With a grim scowl, Ishild declared: “I am not going to Badon.”
“If I say we’re riding to Badon, then that is what we’re doing,” insisted Inga. “Both of us!”
Yet, with every tortured moment, Inga’s heart screamed at her to ignore Ambrosius’ instruction and scour the world to find him.
Taking Inga by the hand, Ishild said: “You don’t want to go there either.”
“And how do you know that?” growled Inga, snatching her hand away.
“Because there’s nothing you want at Badon ,” replied Ishild.
“It would be foolish to ride after them,” murmured Inga, “that’s why he told us not to…”
But still, every word she said to justify abandoning the men, seemed only to pare away her own resolve. The thought of Ambrosius perhaps lying, ripped open, adorning some worthless scrap of earth with his blood, filled her with dread. And if he still breathed, and she did nothing to help him, could she live with that?
“Inga?” prompted Ishild.
“We should fetch the bucellarii from Badon-”
“What if there are no bucellarii?” said Ishild. “What if no-one else escaped alive from the ambush?”
“Some will have survived,” muttered Inga.
“But what if they didn’t?” insisted Ishild. “We’d be pissing away our only chance to save them!”
Reminding herself how very young Ishild was, Inga wrapped consoling arms around her. Ambrosius was right: the girl was too young to have a lover…
“Even if Ambrosius and Arturus have been taken,” she whispered, “and – even if we followed and found them – how, by the gods, could we hope to save them?”
For a long time they remained locked together, foreheads gently touching, as each garnered strength from the other.
“We must not follow them,” said Inga, feeling the girl stiffen at once in her embrace. “Yet… how can we not?”
For a few more moments they stood in silent communion, before mounting their one horse.
The forest was eerily quiet as they rode through it just after dawn, following the clear tracks left by the two horsemen. When, at the forest’s edge, they found more tracks, Inga gasped at the number of horsemen following Ambrosius and Arturus. Biting her lip, she exchanged a solemn glance with Ishild before setting off across the open ground to the north. Without the comforting cloak of woodland, she felt vulnerable, but they had made their choice and now must pray that the gods would watch over them.
Here and there, Inga fancied she caught a trace of wood smoke in the air, but saw no farms or villages. Settlements in Britannia were small – that much, she had gleaned during the few months she had lived there. The days of large villa estates, it seemed, were long gone and their conflict with Vortigern in the winter had taught them that only a wealthy few could afford to employ many workers, or keep large numbers of slaves.
Stretching into the far distance, there was only low scrub and grassland, broken in places by the occasional, narrow band of woodland. Doggedly, the two girls followed the clear trail of hoof marks until they glimpsed a cluster of buildings ahead, surrounded by a ditch and bank.
Curiosity drew them closer, until Inga suddenly saw how exposed they were.
“Ishild!” she hissed and, urging their tired mount to a reluctant gallop, she made for the nearest swathe of forest.
Only when the pair gained the welcome shelter of the trees, did Inga slow down to allow the horse a well-earned rest.
“Do you think anyone saw us?” asked Ishild.
Inga replied with a shrug.
“What now then?” asked Ishild.
“We find a place to rest the horse,” said Inga.
“And then?” pressed Ishild.
“I don’t know yet!” scolded Inga. “Just let me think.”
“Is it a villa?” asked Ishild.
“Perhaps, but I saw no large building in the middle – like many I saw in Gallia,” said Inga. “There’s no wall either, just a ditch… I’m not sure – perhaps it’s just a village.”
“Whatever it is, it’s where the tracks led us,” said Ishild, a fire of hope lighting her eyes.
“I know. I know…”
“We need to get into it,” cried Ishild, “as fast as we can!”
“When it’s dark, we’ll take a look,” said Inga, determined not to be driven into some rash action, for Ambrosius would not thank her for that!
To her relief, Ishild nodded assent and fell silent while Inga led them through the trees in search of a thicket to hide their horse.
The remaining hours of daylight passed like years. Waiting, thought Inga, always waiting – by the gods, women spent half their lives waiting…
When the idle night eventually lowered its shroud, the two young women ventured out of the forest on foot. Inga held her bow at the ready and, observing Ishild’s tight grip on her knife hilt, grimaced with trepidation. She had seen the girl wield that knife – and it was not pretty. Yet, there were few women she would rather have with her in a mortal struggle, for at a vital moment, she knew Ishild would not hesitate.
Reaching the perimeter of the settlement, they peered into the gloomy ditch and explored any place where the ancient, earthen bank appeared low, or damaged. Neither spoke in case there was anyone, lurking just inside the enclosure, who might overhear them. After their scrutiny of the defences, Inga was well-pleased, for this was not a very secure enclosure at all and she could see several places where they might gain entry. Though the risks would be great, she began to feel a little more confident that they might be able to find their men.
“We can do this,” she whispered. “We’ll go in tomorrow night.”
“Why wait?” demanded Ishild. “We still have hours of darkness left.”
“No.” For once, Inga was emphatic. “We have no idea where they are, or even how we’ll escape; we need to plan first,” she said, hoping Ambrosius would be proud of her.
Only when she turned to go back to the forest, did she notice the two men standing in front of them.
“Oh, no…” she muttered.
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