Waiting, decided Gabinus, was the weakest state of man; for a man who waited upon others was powerless to act. As the night scudded by like cloud driven by the west wind, the prospect of a successful rebellion dwindled hour by hour; and still, there was no word from the Lady Megisa. What in the name of God was she doing? If she did not deliver Ambrosius’ final answer soon then, whatever the Roman decided, would no longer matter.
Senses alert to the slightest sound, the light knock upon the outer door snapped Gabinus from his reverie. But it was Pravita who came in, and when he looked up, she gave a sombre shake of the head, extinguishing the spark of hope. A heavily-cloaked Lurotriga followed Pravita into the chamber.
“How is Megisa not here yet?” she gasped. “Where is she?”
When Gabinus simply spread his hands in answer, Lurotriga gripped his arm with trembling fingers. “We’ve come too far now,” she breathed. “I… I cannot return to how it was.”
He understood, of course: she had invested more than anyone in Megisa’s perilous scheme; and, if they failed now, her fate would be more wretched than death itself.
Driven by his growing despair, Gabinus determined that he could wait no longer; he must find Megisa. If he could not then he, along with any others implicated in the plot, would be finished. Their only course, to avoid a bloody death, would be to flee like rats from a burning house. Nor could they leave their families behind, for Hargotrix would not spare the offspring of traitors. Yet, even flight was a false dream. How could they gather what they valued, pluck their children from sleep, restless and confused, and make their escape before dawn without alerting the king? And to where? They would not get far, before Hargotrix hunted them down and made a brutal example of them all.
“Our lives hang upon what Ambrosius Aurelianus has decided – and we don’t even know what that is!” said Lurotriga, whispering as if she feared Hargotrix himself had his ear to their door. “Perhaps you could go to Ambrosius?” she suggested.
“Some chance! I‘d never get past the guards,” replied Gabinus. “They’ll be on their mettle after one of their number was killed the day before.”
“Do you think Hargotrix has finally lost patience with her?” asked Lurotriga. “Could he have… acted against her?”
“No, he’ll wait until the morrow when Vortigern comes. He gains nothing by killing his mother on the eve of the high king’s visit.”
“What then has become of her?” murmured Lurotriga.
“I sent Pravita to her chamber,” said Gabinus, “but the lady has not returned there since the afternoon. Wait here, while I fetch one or two of the others and start a search.”
“We don’t have long,” urged Lurotriga. “Soon I’ll be missed, for my slave reports to Egestinus. Trust me, Gabinus: Hargotrix will not delay; this time they will come for me at once.”
“Stay here until I return,” he told her. “My wife has been forewarned and will be ready to leave, if we must. You can travel with us.”
His attempt at reassurance, however, made little impression upon Lurotriga, who ignored him and set to pacing around the chamber.
With a nod to Pravita, he slipped out of the house into the enclosure and at once joined his son, Argetrus, who was on watch in the shadows. Nor was the youth alone, for several others loitered there with him. Though he could not see their faces, he knew they would be filled with dread, as mounting doubts began to pick at their taut nerves.
“Come with me!” he told Argetrus, and they set off behind the row of houses, taking care to stay as far from the king’s hall as possible. Could she be with Hargotrix? That seemed most unlikely, since neither could bear to be in the same room as the other. Since Pravita had already established that Megisa was not at the house of any other conspirator, Gabinus concentrated upon the places where she usually spent her days. If she was not with her allies and not with Hargotrix, where then? When the answer struck him almost at once, he cursed his folly.
“This way!” he hissed, leading Argetrus away from the row of buildings to the north side of the settlement. Once, there had been a proper, gated entrance there, but under Hargotrix such matters had been let go. At night, only a few guards patrolled within the enclosure ditch at all, so Gabinus and his son had little trouble evading them.
About thirty yards beyond the ditch and earth bank were several old burial mounds left by the ancients. In recent decades, the Durotriges had decided to re-use one of them to bury their kings. Megisa had taken to visiting the site more in recent days and there he found her.
Lying beside the tomb of her murdered son, Megisa still clutched the small, empty phial in her bony fingers.
Argetrus stared at her lifeless body, bewildered. “But why?” he breathed.
With a sigh, Gabinus said: “Well, son, it seems we now have our answer from Ambrosius… Our cause is lost.”