On the edge of the band of trees, Inga stopped to confront Ferox. It required every scrap of her frayed nerves to crouch there in front of him, feeling the dog’s rancid breath upon her face. Ensuring that her eyes were locked upon his, she spoke gently, but firmly, using the word ‘stay’ countless times, but without any conviction that the animal understood her meaning – let alone cared. While she addressed her earnest words to him, Ferox contrived to emit a low, monotone groan from the base of his throat. She should have known: Ferox was more of a talker than a listener…
Nevertheless, she put their absurd exchange to the test at once: instructing the dog to stay – to stay right there in the woods. Fully expecting him to ignore her, she turned her back and strode away from him.
“Don’t look back,” she murmured to Ishild, who just grinned.
“This is no matter to laugh at!” hissed Inga. “If Ferox follows us, who knows what he’ll do?”
“I think we both know what he’ll do,” said Ishild.
Nevertheless, to Inga’s relief, Ferox chose not follow them as they approached the earth rampart. She could only pray to Frigg that the animal’s patience would stretch until she returned to him.
“So, remember,” she told Ishild, “we go in as quiet as two little shrews; and do our best to avoid folk while we look for where Ambrosius and Arturus might be held. Is that clear?”
A roll of blue-green Saxon eyes gave her the only answer she was going to get. Ishild, she could see, was trembling with trepidation – as was she – but if either acknowledged their fear, they would probably never set foot in the village at all. Instead, they clasped hands in a pledge of common purpose; for if death lay within, there would be no chance later on for farewells.
Then, encouraging each other with forced smiles, they began to clamber up a damaged stretch of the bank, hands clawing at the crumbling earth until their heads peeped out above the top. Since it was dark, only a handful of flickering torches offered any light at all – which suited them fine. Small, wavering pools of light would be more than enough to chart their passage through the settlement.
With the bow across her shoulder and a hand resting upon the hilt of her knife, Inga led her companion down the bank. Some of the buildings, she noted, had stone foundations – one or two even a low wall – but most were no more than huts of simple timber construction. As she had supposed, if this was a villa, it was a very rudimentary one.
“They’ll be held in one of the more common huts, I’d have thought,” she whispered.
Ghosting along beside the nearest of the timber huts, she hoped to be able to steal a look inside, but as they rounded a corner to approach the door, they came face to face with two guards. Quickly, Inga hauled Ishild away, hoping that the men would assume they were only village girls and ignore them. Darting between two more huts, they scampered away another dozen yards or so, before flattening themselves against a wall of rough-hewn timber boards.
Fearing that, at any moment, angry voices, or cries of pursuit, would shatter the night calm, Inga offered up yet another prayer to Frigg. A long period of quiet followed, disturbed only by the occasional cry of a far-off owl. With renewed hope, she gave Ishild’s hand a reassuring squeeze and stepped out of the building’s shadow.
“That was the place,” hissed Ishild. “The place they’re in – must be, because of the guards… We’ve found it straight away!”
“Perhaps,” said Inga, moving one cautious pace at a time, back towards the guarded hut.
“Stay there!” The barked command crushed Inga’s hopes in an instant. One of the guards must have followed them and waited – still and silent – until they emerged.
Prodding them each in turn with his spear, he said: “Stand against that wall – face to the wall!”
Inga shuddered at the mere thought of further captivity – yet, here they were, lined up again, like slaves at an auction.
“Where have you come from then?” demanded the guard. “By Christ, I swear there’s more whores here every day!”
When he gave an explosive grunt of annoyance, Inga feared the worst, but next moment, the spear bearer was lying on the ground at their feet.
“You can turn around,” said a gruff, though not unpleasant, voice.
When Inga and Ishild did turn around, they were more confounded than ever. A fellow, not unlike the guard, stood facing them, cudgel in hand. But beside him, was an old woman with a fixed, sour expression and a cruel twist in her back.
“Come,” she said. Hers was a careworn voice which inspired little confidence, but they had no choice but to follow her. She led them past some more crudely-built dwellings that Inga knew could only be the slave quarter. They were then ushered into a hovel where a single candle burned – luxury for such folk, she imagined.
“My name’s Pravita,” said the woman. “There is no door to keep you here, but please stay – because there is someone who would speak with you.”
Left alone, Inga and Ishild exchanged a look of bewilderment. At once, Ishild crept to the doorway and peered out.
“Stay, or make a run for it?” she asked.
“Stay,” said Inga. “I want to know what’s going on. One guard takes us and another releases us; it doesn’t make any sense. But, if someone cares enough to talk to us, best we at least listen.”
But it was not to be a short wait and very soon, Ishild became restless. “No-one’s coming, are they?” she pointed out. “We should just get out – while we can.”
“We’ll have learned nothing if we leave,” said Inga.
“We’re not learning much just now, are we?”
“But you will,” announced a voice from the doorway.
There was, thought Inga, a certain dignity about the elderly lady, dressed in white linen that was followed in by Pravita and the soldier who had rescued them.
“By God,” exclaimed the woman, “you two don’t have a spit of patience between you, do you? If you’ve waited this long to find out what’s happened to your menfolk – then you can surely wait a little longer.”