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 horses,” 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.
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…”
Ishild’s knife left its sheath like a pike escaping a trap while Inga’s bow held an arrow poised to fly. But more threatening than either was the low rumble of malice that emanated from Ferox who, having spent several, fruitless hours sniffing for small prey in the ditch, now sensed the arrival of something much more substantial to sink his teeth into.
“Wait!” hissed Inga and the quivering beast held back, though not without a sullen glare at his mistress.
The longer she peered at the two specimens of manhood – no more than a dozen yards from her – the less apprehensive Inga became. Though darkness hid their features, neither man attempted to draw a weapon, or threaten them in any way. True, any man confronted by a monstrous Molussian war dog – not to mention two armed and, apparently very hostile, young women, was probably wise to exercise caution.
Were they from the nearby settlement, she wondered and, if so, why had they not raised the alarm at once? Perhaps they too were strangers and not from the village at all. Whatever the reason, the four of them could hardly stand there, facing each other down, all night. Aside from any other considerations, the impatient Ferox was unlikely to comply with her wishes for more than a few minutes longer.
Instinct persuaded Inga to take a risk and she lowered her bow a little. Ishild, following her lead, put away her blade, though with some reluctance. Ferox, however, remained a bulwark of belligerence and she knew that the slightest wrong move by either of the men would persuade the dog to attack.
She was still puzzling over why the strangers had not attempted to alert those in the village, when – perhaps in response to Inga’s gesture – they stepped back, as if inviting the girls to pass them by. It occurred to her that the pair might simply be enticing them forward with ill-intent. Where she stood now, her bow would still be lethal but, if she got any closer, it would be rendered useless. Indecision gnawed at Inga, for Ishild was staring at her, wild-eyed, and Ferox’s black body tensed as he prepared to spring forward.
Putting what she hoped was a calming hand upon Ferox’s head, Inga took a pace to her right – away from both the settlement and the two men. By walking away and maintaining a safe distance, she hoped to reduce the tension on both sides. Thankfully, the strangers seemed reassured by her actions and moved off, without a word or gesture, towards the settlement.
Neither she nor Ishild spoke until they reached the sanctuary of the dense stand of trees where their horse was hobbled. Even then, the encounter remained a mystery which posed several questions but offered no answers.
“Did I imagine it,” said Ishild, “or did those two climb over a low part of the earth bank and go inside?”
“But, why would anyone from inside, just leave us be? It must have been obvious that we were up to no good.”
“I know, it makes no sense,” agreed Inga, “unless… they too were up to no good. But, for us, it changes nothing: we still need to get in there.”
“But what if they warn folk we’re coming?”
“If they didn’t before, why would they now?” said Inga.
Too weary to think, she insisted that they rest for the remaining hours of darkness but, so exhausted were the pair of them, that they slept on long past dawn, undisturbed by the morning chatter of the forest birds. When Ferox finally nudged Inga awake, with Ishild still nestled against her, a glimpse of the high sun told her that the morning was almost over. Perhaps it was for the best, she decided for, if they intended to breach the ditch and bank that night, they would need to be at their best.
“Get off me, Ferox!” she grumbled. “I know where that snout’s been!”
A groan from Ferox was followed by a sigh from Ishild, as Inga contemplated managing the pair of them for yet another day. The coming night would test them all and the responsibility would rest heavily upon her. Ishild would need to curb her natural inclination to hasty action and, most of all, Ferox would be required to remain outside the village bank and wait for them. Within a few moments, half a dozen possible problems occurred to her – after which, she shut them from her mind and began to work through a detailed plan.
Wrestling with her task all afternoon, Inga encountered only problem upon problem. By the time the last glimmer of sunset vanished, she was convinced that a rescue was impossible. Even assuming that they could actually find the captives in a settlement about which they knew nothing, how could they free them? There were certain to be guards and how could they overcome them without disturbing the whole village? And what about their escape, for Ambrosius and Arturus would need horses?
As if all that was not enough to worry about, there was also the unpredictable bundle of savage brutality that was Ferox. They might intend to work in silence, but Ferox would consider no such limitation.
“Ready?” asked Ishild, bright as steel.
“It’s hopeless,” muttered Inga.
But Ishild simply grinned back at her. “It always was impossible, though, wasn’t it?”
Of course it was, thought Inga. They had been destined to fail before they even set off; but what was always left unsaid was that both women would rather die than lose the men they loved.
“I want Hargotrix!” shouted Ambrosius, the words catching in a dry throat, already hoarse from his previous attempts.
As before, there was no response from outside the hut, though he knew at least one guard must be there – more likely two.
Dragging himself to the entrance on badly-callused hands, he used a door post to keep his balance, as he shuffled out past the linen sheet and glanced around at the nearby buildings.
“Hargotrix!” he bellowed once more – loud enough for the devil to hear.
He sensed the blow coming, rather than saw it – a cudgel that began its journey from just outside his field of vision and aimed to crack into his head. Ducking under it proved a major success, with only the cost of a grazed forehead. But, as he congratulated himself and swivelled to face his assailant, a second guard struck him down from behind.
The sudden impact of ice-cold water hurled at his face shocked him, aching and groaning, back to consciousness. Though his head hurt, it appeared that his persistent demand had been granted for, looking down upon him with unconcealed contempt, was Hargotrix.
“I truly wonder why Vortigern is so keen to have you in his hands,” grumbled Hargotrix. “He told me you were a fearsome warrior, but I’ve-”
“I’m flattered,” mumbled Ambrosius, whose interruption earned him a sharp kick under the ribs.
“I’ve seen nothing yet that persuades me you are anyone special at all,” said Hargotrix.
“I’ll have to try harder then,” said Ambrosius, before a second, harder kick landed.
“Well, try not to provoke my men into killing you, because as long as you stay alive, I get my payment. Vortigern is on his way now – he’ll be here within two days. But, Roman, if you leave this hut again, I’ll have you whipped until you’re standing in a pool of your own foul blood!”
Hargotrix already had his back turned when Ambrosius asked him: “What about your mother? What does Megisa think about your actions?”
When Hargotrix turned slowly back, ashen-faced, to face Ambrosius, he was holding himself as tight as a barrel of fish.
“That old hag is no concern of yours,” snarled Hargotrix, eyes bulging with indignation. “Vortigern didn’t say you had to be able to speak; so, mention her name again and I’ll have your tongue torn out!”
The King of the Durotriges stormed out of the hut before Ambrosius could utter another word – which, he reckoned, was just as well in case he was tempted to bait the man further.
When the guards went out, Arturus asked: “And what was the purpose of all that, Dux?”
“The purpose was several-fold,” Ambrosius told his comrade, giving his bruised ribs a gentle rub. “I wanted to have another look outside – to remind myself exactly where in this place they’re holding us.”
“And what did you learn?”
With a satisfied nod, Ambrosius replied: “I learned where the stables are – and how far away the gate is – not very far, as it happens.”
“But what was all that about his mother?”
“As you’ve seen, Hargotrix – as I suspected – is strangely afraid of his mother.”
“But surely he could snuff out one old lady if he wanted to,” argued Arturus.
“Ah, but we’ve already seen that it’s not just her son that fears her; I suspect that ‘one old lady’ wields a lot more influence than we know, or understand.”
“I don’t see how,” concluded Arturus.
“Let’s see what Lurotriga has to say about her when she comes tonight – if she comes…”
Ambrosius waited all evening into the small hours of the night for Lurotriga but in the end he had to concede that he had frightened her away after all. But then, just as he had settled down to rest, he was awoken by the arrival of Catoriga, accompanied by one of the guards who had clubbed him down earlier. The latter’s presence warned him that this was by no means a personal visit.
“Expecting someone else?” asked Catoriga. “Well, Lurotriga isn’t coming to you tonight – or any other night.”
“What’s become of her?” he growled.
“Oh, such concern for the woman,” said Catoriga. “But don’t worry: she’s quite safe – just helping my husband to father an heir, I should think; because he really was very angry to discover how she’d deceived him.”
“If harm comes to her…”
“Oh dear, no unlikely threats, please – oh, and Hargotrix said to remind you that Vortigern will be here very, very soon. Sleep well, Roman.”
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.”