Just what she needed, thought Megisa, two young, fiery spirits, with reckless desire spilling from their breathless lips. Bad enough that her scheme to use Lurotriga had been discovered by Catoriga, now these two presented yet another obstacle. Though she did not doubt their passion, their ignorance would put them, their lovers and everyone else in grave danger. What was already a long night was only going to get longer…
“I am Megisa,” she told them. “And you two are fortunate to be alive – only because of Gabinus here.”
“Thank you,” said the elder girl. “Were you one of those we saw yesterday?”
“First then, girls, tell me who you are,” ordered Megisa.
Once the girls told her, the floodgates of inquiry burst open as they sought answers to their many questions.
Holding up an exasperated hand, Megisa said: “Don’t speak; just listen, or you’ll learn nothing!”
When the two fell silent, Megisa began to explain: “You have stumbled into more trouble than you know, for the Durotriges are a divided people. Imagine a camp inside another camp; one man commands the whole camp without realising that it harbours a group of people, with different loyalties who answer to a different leader.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” muttered Inga.
Megisa ached for an end to the whole wretched business. She wondered now whether she should have just ignored the arrival of Ambrosius Aurelianus. But, in her desperation, she had clutched at this one last hope. Something about him – and what little she had heard about him – suggested he might be the man to deliver the Durotriges from their present misery. By offering him Lurotriga, she hoped to bind him to the future of her people: he was to be the hammer to crush her son, the smooth-tongued tyrant, Hargotrix. Yet, Ambrosius seemed less than receptive to the considerable enticements of Lurotriga; and Megisa wondered whether the arrival of the two Saxon girls explained why.
Looking at the fair-haired, blue-eyed Saxon, Inga, Megisa studied her scarred face – what stories could that face tell, she wondered? The girl’s bold attempt to rescue Ambrosius certainly showed a deep commitment on her part, but how important was she to Ambrosius? Would he care if he never saw her again?
Even if Lurotriga was still prepared to bed Ambrosius, the presence of Inga might well make an immediate, formal marriage impossible.
“What are you to Ambrosius?” Megisa asked Inga.
“I am his; he is mine,” replied Inga simply.
Megisa nodded for, as she surmised, Inga was going to present a most regrettable complication. She could, of course, simply hand the pair over to Hargotrix, but that would hardly endear her to Ambrosius. If she had read this man right, he would never forgive her for such a betrayal. Though she was prepared to sacrifice all to secure the future of her people, she knew that Ambrosius must be won over to her cause, not deceived into it.
Yet, delay was impossible for, the moment Vortigern arrived; her one opportunity would be lost.
A sly, dark thought slid into Megisa’s mind; perhaps there was a way to employ these Saxons. If she could get them close enough to her son, might they not do the deed themselves? Hargotrix could never resist new flesh – especially new, young flesh – and she judged that this pair would not surrender their bodies without spilling some blood. Even if they failed, the girls would still be a powerful tool, for the story would almost tell itself: two brave, young girls trying to free the men they loved and perishing at the hands of a cruel ruler.
What might Ambrosius be prepared to do to someone who had killed his lover?
Though Megisa felt a pang of regret that two girls so young must be used so ill, she judged that the fate of a whole people outweighed a few individual lives. All the same, it would need to be done cleverly; Ambrosius must never suspect that she had put the girls in harm’s way.
“I think I might be able to help you,” said Megisa. “Your menfolk are being held by my son, Hargotrix. As you’ve discovered already, you can’t get close enough to free them; but there might be another way of getting them released…”
“We’ve come this far,” said Inga. “Just tell us what we need to do.”
Hargotrix wallowed in his lavishly-decorated quarters, in the knowledge that even this luxury would be far exceeded once he became a valued client of the high king, Vortigern – and all thanks to a renegade Roman who had strayed into his hands. It had taken a little effort, of course, to locate Ambrosius Aurelianus – no effort on Hargotrix’s part, but someone had tracked him down. Then it was just a matter of good timing and some help from God – or fortune – to capture the man with minimal casualties. The agreement with Vortigern would raise his status and thus confirm his position as king of the Durotriges. He was aware of a few malcontents but this would silence them forever.
“Your mother’s planning something,” said Catoriga, deflating his buoyant mood – something she seemed to do increasingly often.
Hargotrix groaned in despair. “That old hag is always scheming with my enemies – nothing new there.”
“She may have failed once with Lurotriga,” continued Catoriga, “but you can be sure that she’s still weaving her hateful web around us.”
“Leave it,” he said, hoping his terse instruction would suffice for once.
Catoriga was becoming a bit of a bore and, once he was more firmly established, she would have to go. Aside from her irritating interference, his wife was as barren as a stony moor. Since she had not yet given him an heir, he already decided that he would bed his brother’s widow – the highly desirable, Lurotriga. Either of the women could deliver the support of several Durotriges families but, Lurotriga was younger and, if she proved more fertile, then his marriage to Catoriga would end – very likely with her sudden death. She suspected as much too, which is why she had delighted in revealing Lurotriga’s betrayal to him.
“Megisa has some scheme in mind – I know it,” muttered Catoriga.
“Stop moaning on about my mother!” he snapped. “She’s an embittered, old woman – not much longer for this world. What damage can she do now?”
“She has the backing of some of the men-”
“Men? If any of them were men, they’d have challenged me already. Perhaps she does have one or two loyal outcasts, but any support she has will just wither away once my kingship is confirmed by Vortigern. And let’s not forget the Roman’s blood price – that alone will be enough to distribute a few persuasive bribes among those families that matter.
“But what about that Roman himself though?” persisted Catoriga. “Can you not see that Megisa is trying to use him against you?”
“Yes, of course, but in a day, he’ll be gone!” retorted Hargotrix. “Now that her grubby little scheme with Lurotriga has been exposed, she has nothing left to use against me.”
Seizing his wife by the arm, Hargotrix dragged her across the bed until she sprawled, trembling, under him. “Can you not see, woman,” he snarled, “that you don’t need to prattle away all day? You don’t need words at all, because your only important work can be done on your back – without the aid of any speech!”
Beneath him, Catoriga lay so stiff with fear that all carnal impulses deserted him and he rolled off her. Once this woman had enthralled him, with her heady ambition and boundless appetite for the pleasures of the body; but any lingering desire he might have felt for his ageing wife was dissipating fast. Now, whenever he did lie with her, he thought only of Lurotriga, whose beauty he had long coveted. His brother’s widow, however, had still to be persuaded for she had not yet, despite Catoriga’ s jealous suspicions, invited him into her bed. But she would, once the annoying distraction of Ambrosius was removed.
In the meantime, he had a good number of whores he could use. Endlessly accommodating, they never nagged him about his bitch of a mother – and the wonderful thing about whores was that, if he tired of one, his men could always procure another.
“Are you sure this is the right path, lady?” asked Gabinus.
Since Megisa couldn’t recall the faithful soldier ever questioning her before – upon any matter – his hesitation gave her pause for thought. She already knew that dangling the young Saxon girls before Hargotrix was heinous and unforgivable. Yet, what else was she to do? Stand by and allow her son to destroy the Durotriges? So, as a last resort, she would do the unforgivable, if it was the only way she could bring him down.
“Just do what must be done,” she instructed Gabinus.
“Lady,” he acknowledged and left her.
Shortly, he would sow a seed with Hargotrix’s grovelling acolyte, Egestinus – the king’s provider of slaves and whores. Gabinus would hint that two young Saxons might be procured, should the king be interested in more exciting bedfellows. Interested? She knew her son’s vices all too well; he would be on those poor girls like flies onto shit.
Though the very thought of it revolted her, she consoled herself with the knowledge that it was merely an insurance. She still hoped to persuade Ambrosius to help her, without the need to involve the girls at all. So, thrusting all thoughts of them from her mind, Megisa hurried to the hut where the two Romans were imprisoned.
On the pretence of checking Arturus’ wounds, she was granted access to the prisoners. How Hargotrix must have wanted to keep her from the Romans, yet to forbid her entry would have raised unwanted suspicions among those who still supported her. Even her son knew there were some who resented his corrupt and arbitrary rule. Such people were praying that Megisa could conjure up a way out of their predicament though, as each day passed, her own confidence was waning fast.
Having given Arturus’ wounds a cursory inspection, Megisa gathered her linen gown about her and sat down on the bare earth beside Ambrosius.
“I bring news,” she said.
“Good,” he said. “Arturus and I don’t get out much these days.”
“Catoriga has betrayed Lurotriga.”
“That’s not news,” he replied. “Catoriga took much delight in telling me that herself.”
“That’s not my news,” she told him. “Hargotrix was not pleased with Lurotriga.”
“Hardly surprising,” conceded Ambrosius.
“My son wants Lurotriga for himself – and the possibility of you supplanting him there quite… enraged him.”
“Has he hurt her?” asked Ambrosius.
His immediate show of concern for Lurotriga gave Megisa hope, making it easier to feed him the lie. “She was most cruelly treated.”
“Beaten?” he asked.
“Violated…” Megisa looked away, distraught – not, as Ambrosius probably imagined, because of the alleged harm to Lurotriga – but from the shame she felt for misleading him so cruelly.
“But nothing took place between us…” he said.
“Hargotrix wouldn’t believe that, despite Lurotriga’s protests. I’ve told you before: he’s a brutal master…”
“But I can do nothing against him while I’m in here,” argued Ambrosius. “Give me your help to get out and I swear I’ll take Lurotriga with me – you too, if you wish.”
“This is not just about Lurotriga, or me!” hissed Megisa. “This is about the Durotriges people. We need a leader – man who can overcome Hargotrix. So we need your help; and you need ours. There must be a bargain struck here, Ambrosius – and very soon. Agree to kill Hargotrix, marry Lurotriga and you will rule the Durotriges.”
When he made no reply, she pressed him further. “Is the price of your freedom so very high? I’m offering you kingship!”
“Aye, but a kingship bought with murder and marriage,” he replied, and she could hear the bitterness in his voice.
“Don’t be a child,” she declared. “All kingdoms are won by murder, marriage or both!”
“But I’ve already told you: I don’t want to be a king.”
“Perhaps you don’t,” she replied, “but you do want to be free, don’t you? Vortigern arrives tomorrow and, once he does, we won’t be able to help each other at all!”
Getting up to leave, she said: “I’ll return this evening for your answer. Think hard upon it, Ambrosius.”
Megisa did not return to her home, but instead went to find Gabinus. With time running out and Ambrosius clearly reluctant to take up her offer, she decided that she must set her sights a little lower. If Ambrosius baulked at killing Hargotrix then she might need to set the Saxon girls upon the task. Once Hargotrix was dead, perhaps Ambrosius might yet be persuaded to replace him. It was a vain hope, born of desperation, for the likelihood was that both girls would perish the moment they showed their hand, with Hargotrix surrounded by so many body guards.
Damn Ambrosius and his precious honour! This was his fault! If only he would help, she need not endanger the girls at all.
But, if he would not, then the sooner Inga and Ishild were introduced to Hargotrix, the better.
What will you do, Dux?” asked Arturus, after the old woman had left.
“Why do you still call me ‘Dux’?” grumbled Ambrosius. “I’ve no rank and haven’t had for months.”
With a shrug, the youth replied: “But I’ve always known you as Dux…”
“Habit then – just habit…”
“Alright then, but still: what will you do?”
Ambrosius hardly needed any prompting from Arturus, for it was the only matter on his mind. “I’m still thinking about it,” he replied.
“Not much to think about, is there? Not if you ever intend to get out of here.”
Ambrosius moved closer to his young companion. “You think I should accept Megisa’s offer?” he asked.
“Well, what choice is there?”
Ambrosius made no reply.
“You’d be a king,” said Arturus.
“Aye, but only if I murder a king!” said Ambrosius. “And king of what? A tiny tribe who have somehow survived the end of Roman rule and now live in a scatter of rustic hovels? Is that to be my reward for murder and oath-breaking?”
“It’s what you decide to make of it,” said Arturus. “You’re always talking about recruiting more men anyway – so why not these folk?”
“What? These folk who hold us prisoner? What makes you think they would welcome me as their king anyway?”
“Megisa says they’re divided – that many would welcome you as king,” said Arturus.
“Megisa says a lot! But I’m not sure we can trust her any more than her son,” said Ambrosius. “She could be a deluded old woman and, for all we know, there’s not a single man out there who would support me against Hargotrix.”
“I suppose,” muttered Arturus.
“Alright, my young friend,” said Ambrosius. “Let’s say I do it. Let’s say I kill this Hargotrix. I’ll also have sworn before God to marry Lurotriga, so what do I say to Inga – who I am pledged to for all my days?”
“But you’re not actually married to Inga, are you?” said Arturus. “So, it’s not as if you’re marrying two women.”
“How does that make any difference?” cried Ambrosius. “Whichever woman I choose, I’m forsworn. Either I betray the woman I love, or I break my oath to Lurotriga.”
“Inga will understand that you had no choice – to stay alive!” insisted Arturus. “Inga doesn’t want you dead! Anyway, you could marry Lurotriga and still, you know, be with Inga…”
“Which just goes to show how little you understand, lad,” said Ambrosius. “Try this then: how do you think Ishild would react, if you rode into Badon with another girl and told her you were married but that she was welcome to hang around for the occasional fumble when you felt like it?”
For a moment Arturus was silent then he conceded: “I think she’d probably kill me!”
“So,” said Ambrosius, “now you see.”
“I’ve always understood that, Dux,” argued Arturus, “but that’s the second problem. Whenever we’re in deep shit, you always say: ‘let’s deal with the first problem first.’ Every time, that’s what you say. And surely the first problem now is staying alive!”
With a rueful grin, Ambrosius realised he could not fault the lad. It was always hard when someone used your own arguments against you. And there was some weight to what he said, for Inga was not his wife. Was he prepared to sacrifice the youth’s life, as well as his own, to preserve his promise to Inga?
And what of Lurotriga – was she merely a tool in the hands of Megisa? Yet Megisa was right too, up to a point, for that was Lurotriga’s place in the world. It would not be the first marriage alliance in which she had been used as a lure. She had clearly been eager to play her part the other night when she did her best to excite his interest. And she was undoubtedly a beauty; he could not deny he felt some attraction to her.
If he agreed now to marry her, then he would have to go through with it, for the first act of the new king of the Durotriges could hardly be to set aside the woman he had sworn to marry. But marrying Lurotriga meant rejecting Inga; and, after all they had endured together, it would be like cleaving his soul in two.
So, he faced the age-old dilemma: did he act for the one he loved, or for the good of all the others who were relying upon him?
In a few hours, he would have to decide between love and duty. But it was ever thus…
“So,” concluded Inga, “what you’re telling us is that there is no hope of freeing our loved ones?”
“No, when Vortigern comes tomorrow, your men will be handed over to him – for a blood price.”
“And Vortigern will kill them as he pleases,” murmured Inga. “He will get his revenge upon Ambrosius.”
“How has Ambrosius offended Vortigern so much?” asked Megisa.
“Have you met Ambrosius?” asked Inga.
When Megisa nodded, she said: “He and Vortigern had a… disagreement,” she said, with a sorrowful smile.
“A disagreement?” enquired Megisa.
“A bloody one…”
“Oh,” said Megisa. “But when I went to Ambrosius and asked him to kill Hargotrix, he refused.”
“What did you offer him in return?” asked Inga.
“Why, his freedom – and that he could rule the Durotriges in Hargotrix’s place – yet he refused! I don’t understand why.”
“Well, it’s taken me a long time to know him better,” said Inga. “He was just being Ambrosius…”
Megisa gave an angry shake of the head. “God help me, if I was younger, I’d attempt it myself! But he would not let me get that close now,” she murmured. “Kill my own son? It’s unnatural, isn’t it? What mother would even contemplate such a deed?”
“Why then?” asked Inga.
“Why?” Megisa’s voice wavered, as she visibly struggled to control her emotions. “I could tell you that he’s a thief, that he’s a liar and a rapist, or that he treats anyone who doesn’t worship him as dirt. And I could give you other reasons too, but I would need only one: he killed his brother, my elder son, who was king before him. That is cause enough for me. He robbed my son of his life and his rightful place; he was a good king, who cared what was happening to the Durotriges. If I died killing Hargotrix, I would die content.”
“If only Ambrosius understood what his captor was like-”
But Megisa grimaced in sadness. “No, I fear not. He knows the sort of man my son is, but he will not hear of killing him – perhaps he has changed his mind, but I can’t get in to see him now…”
Inga glanced at Ishild and they exchanged a look of grim determination. “Could you get Ishild and I close to him?” asked Inga. “Because, if you could, we will kill Hargotrix.”
“What, you two slight girls?” Megisa’s bitter laugh pricked at Inga’s pride.
“We can do this!” she declared.
“I’ve done far worse,” growled Ishild.
“But you would have to get very close,” protested Megisa. “With Hargotrix, there’s only one way a girl could do that – and I won’t allow you to be so reckless!”
“It’s our choice, not yours,” said Inga.
“But you’ll be searched for weapons, girls,” pleaded Megisa. “Please don’t even think about doing this.”
“We’ll never free our menfolk as long as Hargotrix rules,” said Inga. “So, either we do this with your help, or without it.”
With a heavy sigh of resignation, Megisa nodded. “Very well, if you’re sure… I’ll arrange for Gabinus to get you in as whores…”
“But make sure it’s clear that we only… work together,” instructed Inga. “You can tell him that two girls give greater pleasure than one!”
Megisa looked shocked. “What made you even think of such an idea?”
With a shrug, Inga looked her in the eye and said: “Well, lady, I have a little more experience as a whore than you might think…”
“Very well then, I’ll make the arrangements,” agreed Megisa, “but it will have to be before Vortigern arrives – and that means tonight.”
“The sooner the better!” said Ishild.
“But remember, never let slip that you know Ambrosius – for, if you do, Hargotrix will take pleasure in killing you while your lovers watch… ”
“Poor lady,” said Inga, after the old woman left. “I think we rather shocked her!”
Ishild darted a smile back at her, but Inga knew the girl well by now: Ishild was good at hiding her true feelings – except of course where Arturus was involved.
“Let’s not persuade ourselves that this will be easy,” Inga cautioned. “Are you sure you’re prepared to go through this? After what you’ve been through already? We risk all in this.”
“I’ll willingly risk all to save Arturus,” she replied. “And what did we come here for, if not to risk our own lives to save theirs?”
Inga embraced her companion and murmured: “We need a plan…”
“You didn’t do very well with the last plan, did you?”
To be continued next week…
“No, I suppose I didn’t – how I wish Ferox was here…”