It was already dark when the linen curtain rustled aside and a woman stepped inside. Since there was only moonlight in the hut – and precious little of that – Ambrosius could not see her clearly, though her hunched bearing suggested old age.
Without even looking at Ambrosius, she set down a bowl of bread and a flask of liquid on the floor and then stood up to leave.
“Wait!” he said. “What’s your name?”
The woman hesitated before replying: “Pravita.”
“Did Lurotriga send you?” he asked.
Pravita inclined her head slightly and turned away.
“Your mistress promised to help us,” he said.
Pravita, with her back to him, said nothing. Most likely, he surmised, she was unwilling to be drawn into any complicated arrangement involving the two prisoners and her mistress. She was right to be wary, but he could not afford such a luxury.
“Will you help us?” he asked.
With a shake of the head, she set off for the doorway though Ambrosius whispered after her: “Can you get us a knife – just one knife?”
Making no response, nor any sign that she had even heard him, Pravita continued out of the hut. Perhaps she was hard of hearing; yet, even if she had heard, would she pass on his words to Lurotriga? And even if she did, what would the British woman do about it? Megisa had told him not to trust her, but what choice did he have? There wasn’t a long queue of willing helpers…
Retrieving the bread, he called to Arturus softly and tossed him a chunk of it. With difficulty, he pulled out the stopper of the flask and sniffed at the contents – more wine, he discovered, so there was some consolation at least.
Eating the bread with bound hands involved dropping a great deal of it and then being obliged to try to retrieve all the discarded morsels from the earth floor in the dark. Bread alone, he decided, was hardly likely to restore his comrade’s strength, though the youth seemed in better spirits at least since his wounds had been treated.
“You seem a little brighter, Arturus,” he said.
“Hah!” retorted the youth. “If you mean I’m no longer bawling like an infant then yes, I suppose I am.”
“The old woman, Megisa, must have known what she was doing then,” observed Ambrosius.
“Seemed to know a lot of things,” said Arturus. “What did you make of what she said to you before she left?”
“Ah, you heard that, did you?” said Ambrosius. “That, my lad, was just an old woman spouting nonsense.”
“But, well… she might have a point,” murmured Arturus.
“No,” said Ambrosius.
“But you’d be a better king than that vicious old bastard, Vortigern.”
“Let me make this clear to you, Arturus,” said Ambrosius. “I do not want to be a king – and I will not be a king, at all – ever.”
Later that night, while he lay dozing – half-asleep and half awake – someone else entered the hut. He was beginning to wonder if there was any guard outside at all, since folk seemed to wander in and out at will. The cloaked, hunched figure shook him gently by the shoulder and he sat up, at once alert. A glance across at his young comrade told him Arturus was still sleeping.
“Pravita?” he asked. “What is it?”
But it was not the hand of an old woman that snaked out to caress his cheek. When Lurotriga lifted her hood, her cloak gaped open to reveal her upper body – very little of which was concealed by the fine, linen shift she wore.
Lying down close beside him, she breathed: “You asked for my help; well, here I am.”
“How much… help are you willing to give me?” asked Ambrosius, distracted by the soft pressure of her breast against his shoulder.
“We’ll make a pact,” she told him. “I’ll help you escape – if… you’ll take me with you.”
“You must be desperate to leave here, if you’re willing to put so much trust in a stranger –why?”
“This place and these people are suffocating me; my Irish mother thought the leader of the Durotriges was an excellent match for me and I suppose – while he lived – he was; but his brother, Hargotrix, is a monster. I live in fear of him every day and I would make an alliance with the devil to escape him.”
“If you help us, I’ll do my best to get you out of here,” agreed Ambrosius, peeling away from her, “but I can make no other sort of promise, for my heart belongs to another.”
“Leaving aside your heart,” breathed Lurotriga, “can’t two imprisoned souls offer each other a little warmth in the chill hours of the night?”
Folding her arms around him, she brushed soft lips against his cheek before pressing them to his mouth. While his body responded to her every touch, guilty thoughts stumbled around in his head.
The sudden burst of coughing startled them both. Lurotriga gasped, turning to stone in his arms while, in her eyes, he glimpsed the dark abyss of her fear.
Easing her gently away from him, Ambrosius allowed her a moment to recover her composure. Then he clasped her hand and told her: “If you accept my terms, come to me tomorrow night.”
After a last, distressed look, Lurotriga left so swiftly that he wondered whether he had just spurned their only hope of escape.
“Thank you, Arturus,” he murmured into the darkness. “As ever, subtle as a sodding axe…”