Steeped in sorrow, Megisa walked, leaden-footed, past the accusing glare of the torches illuminating the enclosure. Why did every careless flicker of fire seem to veer towards her? Perhaps the wayward flames sought a kindred spirit, knowing she was damned to burn in the eternal furnace of hell. Because, whatever the outcome, there could be no redemption… no forgiveness for her.
Approaching the entrance to the hut where the Romans were incarcerated, she was met by the sullen stares of the guards. They were both her son’s men, so all they saw, when they looked at her, was a dead woman walking. Like Ambrosius, she would not survive long after the coming of Vortigern; with the backing of the high king of Britannia, Hargotrix could also remove, at last, the troublesome opponents that she had encouraged to believe in a miracle.
When the guards stepped grudgingly aside, she eased back the linen cloth and entered.
Ambrosius and Arturus were, of course, expecting her and, for once, they sat together but this time she did not sit down. The discourse would be brief and, she feared, not especially pleasant – but then matters of life and death were rarely pleasant.
“I need your answer,” she told Ambrosius, “your… final answer.”
But even when she uttered the words, she already knew what the answer would be – not from Ambrosius’ expression, for he never gave much away. But his response was written all over the disconsolate face of his comrade.
“Same answer,” confirmed Ambrosius. “Give me a weapon and I’ll do my best for all of you, but I’ll not swear to marry Lurotriga. If Hargotrix gets in my way, then he may fall; but I shan’t seek him out.”
So, there would be no willing alliance with Ambrosius and, without it, the death of Hargotrix would only plunge her people into bloody strife. No doubt others would step forward to replace her son, but all would be driven by greed and a lust for power. Such pretenders would rule the Durotriges no better than Hargotrix.
Yet… his death would apply a long-awaited salve to her open wound, for the murder of his brother would, at last, be avenged. So, in the end, she too would abandon any noble idea of bringing hope to her people and act only from the base motive of personal revenge.
Eyes closed, Megisa took several slow breaths to steady her shuddering, old heart before delivering yet more lies – lies to haunt her to a bitter grave.
Taking out the knife she had concealed in her voluminous robe, she tossed it down to Ambrosius.
“At least you may now die with a weapon in your hand,” she said. “I would have helped you, Ambrosius – helped you to be a king…”
“The knife will be enough,” he told her and she wondered at his bravado.
“You believe you can escape without my help?” she asked.
“I always believe, lady – and I made a promise to you and Lurotriga – I’ll get you out with us if I can.”
With a dismissive shake of the head, she replied: “Don’t bother about me.”
“Where’s Lurotriga?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “You’ll have to find her.”
She turned to go, but there was still that one, cruel, barb to let fly.
“You’re not even the only prisoners here now, it seems,” she murmured, “but I don’t expect you care about any others.”
“What others?” he asked.
“No-one you’d know: just a couple of wretched Saxon girls, but he’s probably bedding them both by now…”
Without waiting to observe his reaction, she swept aside the linen sheet and left. Left? No, she took headlong flight out of the hut, past the startled guards outside. Stumbling away into the night, she sought some dark place to crawl into, to die – because that was what she deserved.
When Egestinus ushered them into a tiny anteroom, Inga could hear, close by, the laughter and drunken shouting coming from Hargotrix’s chamber. How many times had she heard such raucous banter from the bucellarii in Ambrosius’ camp? One cluster of warriors, she supposed, sounded much like another; but, among Dux’s hardened soldiers, she had somehow managed to carve out a place of for herself. How she implored the goddess, Frigg that she might, once again, be part of that fellowship.
“Here you will prepare yourselves to entertain the king,” announced Egestinus. “First, you must be searched, for I have a keen, personal interest in ensuring that no harm comes to the king. Remove all those Saxon rags – there are more… appropriate clothes for you here which will better please the king.”
“Are you going to watch us undress then?” grumbled Inga.
“I most certainly am,” replied Egestinus. “Do you seriously think I’d allow two heathen Saxons to get that close to the king without checking for myself that they have nothing concealed?”
“Our weapons have already been taken,” complained Ishild.
“You might have anything… secreted about your bodies – a phial of poison perhaps.”
So, having slipped off their clothing, they were forced to stand there while they were poked and explored by the sly fingers of Egestinus which, Inga promised herself, she would sever at the very earliest opportunity. Yet, whatever she might plot to do to him in the future, did not diminish the utter humiliation of the inspection. She had half-expected it and forewarned Ishild; thus her impulsive, young companion met the indignity with a steely resolve.
“By Christ!” squealed Egestinus, “I hope you two are going to smile a bit more for Hargotrix, or the entertainment will turn bloody, I can promise you that!”
“We’re not working yet,” said Inga. “A smile from one of us would cost you a fortune, whoremaster.”
“And that jibe will cost you some skin off your back, once our king has finished with you!” snarled Egestinus. “I get the pick of the leavings from his feast.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” retorted Inga, because a woman who had fought off wolves and lived, had no need to fear a mere dog…
As he walked out, he told them: “You can get dressed now.”
More laughter spilled from the adjacent room and Inga wondered whether they would have to entertain the king while others looked on. Well, she had to admit, it wouldn’t be the first time – though she thought she had left that life far behind her. Eyeing the heap of silks on the bench – the room’s only item of furniture – she picked up several items, wrinkling her nose in disgust. All were soiled – some with quite obvious bloodstains – and no item would cover much of her body, which presumably was the intention.
As the two young women slowly helped each other dress, Inga began to worry about how much this evening would demand of Ishild. In her former life, Inga had been obliged to act out all manner of men’s bestial desires, but was Ishild equipped for such work? They would have to let the evening play out for as long as it took for a chance to arise – that single, unguarded moment when they might strike. But by then, they would have endured much – and, of course, even if they took their chance, they would almost certainly never leave the room alive… and Ishild was still so young.
She stared at her young companion who grinned nervously back at her, so perhaps Ishild knew enough about what was coming. “Are you ready, my dear,” asked Inga, as she embraced her one last time.
“I’m ready for whatever the night brings,” declared Ishild, giving her a solemn nod.
Inga smiled. “Good – because you’ll need to be,” she told her. “When you wake up, find Ferox for me…”
By the time Ishild understood what Inga intended, the latter was cracking her head against the timber door post. Inga had only just laid Ishild down onto the floor when Egestinus returned.
“What’s up with her?” he cried, at the sight of Ishild’s prostrate body.
“She suddenly came over all faint,” said Inga. ”So, it’ll have to be just me.”
Egestinus frowned. “Just you? It can’t be just you! He’ll blame me,” he cried. “He was promised two, not one!”
“But I’m very, very experienced at giving pleasure, I assure you,” said Inga, moving closer to stroke her fingers along his thigh. “Your king will have an evening to remember. That, I promise you!”
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.”
Inga expected to be summoned after only a few moments, but she had to wait a little longer before Hargotrix was ready to receive her. Every moment, she expected Ishild to come to and ruin her little scheme. She was thus very relieved when a scowling Egestinus returned to usher her out of the anteroom.
Entering the royal chamber to meet Hargotrix for the first time, she was surprised to find that he was not the tall, impressive warrior she had envisaged. Indeed, he looked utterly unremarkable, which made her more wary than ever; because, if this man had not achieved his status by raw, physical power then he must have done so by stealth, or guile. Hargotrix might be harder to outwit than she thought; nor did he seem in a very welcoming frame of mind. She assumed that Egestinus had broken the disappointing news that there would only be one Saxon for his pleasure rather than two.
In the few, short moments it took her to cross the room, he grumbled: “Is this it?”
“She claims to be very experienced,” said Egestinus, echoing Inga’s boast.
“Experienced?” cried, Hargotrix, aghast. “I am a master of experience myself, you fool! If I wanted experience, I could have visited my own wife! What you promised me was something different – not one scrawny, scar-faced, Saxon whore, but two fresh young girls! And I want what I was promised!”
“Well, there’s only me,” said Inga. “I came here alone.”
“Be quiet, slave! I was speaking to Egestinus!” snapped Hargotrix. “Go and fetch the other one, man – and drag her in here if you must.”
“My lord king,” cried Inga, throwing herself at the king’s feet. “I will make you feel more alive than you’ve ever felt before; I will give you greater pleasure than-”
“Whores don’t give me anything,” interrupted Hargotrix, “I take pleasure where and how I will!”
“I can-” began Inga, but Hargotrix sprang up from his seat to glower over her.
“You can be still!” he ordered. “And I don’t wonder that your face bears so many marks upon it when you don’t seem to know when to remain silent. Egestinus! Get the other one – or do I no longer rule here?”
Egestinus scurried away to the anteroom while Inga braced herself to witness her young friend being hauled in alongside her. If she had just let events unfold, at least she might have avoided angering the king – now she had just made matters worse. A few moments passed, when the only sound in the chamber was the king tapping his impatient foot upon the shallow, wooden dais that bore his chair. The longer she waited, the more Inga conjured up scenes of Egestinus reviving poor Ishild, perhaps beating her – and the whoremaster, she feared, would not be gentle.
But when he did return, Egestinus approached the king, ashen-faced, and without Ishild.
“Well?” demanded Hargotrix.
“She’s not to be found, lord king,” replied Egestinus. “She’s just… vanished!”
“Vanished?” said Hargotrix, upper lip twitching with annoyance. “Perhaps the slave spoke the truth after all and she was never here to start with – did you offer me more than you could procure, Egestinus?”
“No, lord, I’d never presume to do so,” protested Egestinus. “There were two of them; but one must have pretended to faint. If I am at fault then it’s because I’m a fool, not a liar!”
Hargotrix frowned. “That’s true enough,” he conceded. “So, go away and find that girl. I want to see her by the time I’ve finished with this one – unless the other is just ruinous to look at.”
“No, lord king, she’s a rare beauty.”
“Well, find that runaway beauty then, or prepare to lose your hide!” cried Hargotrix, as he slumped back down onto his seat.
Turning his attention back to Inga, who still lay sprawled headlong on the floor at his feet, he told her to come closer.
Inga realised that there was no need now to wait for the best opportunity to strike; the sooner she made her move, the more it would distract attention from the fleeing Ishild. Scouring the chamber for weapons she might use, her eye lighted upon the long knife Hargotrix wore at his belt. Even so, he was flanked by two bodyguards, armed with spears and spathas. Only one, remote possibility seemed to offer itself: she would have to get close enough to the king to slide out his knife and ram it into his breast.
Was Hargotrix quick enough to stop her? She was unsure but, if his guards were alert, she would be impaled upon a spear before she could even make the thrust. If they were half asleep though, she had a slim chance – not a chance of survival, but certainly one of a successful kill. She was ready for it too – spurred on by the possibility at least that Ishild might have escaped.
With a weary sigh, the king said: “Alright, Saxon harlot, while we’re waiting for your companion, let’s see what you have to offer.”
Stretching up her arms, Inga placed her hands upon the seated king’s knees. Then, lifting her head, she arched her back to thrust her barely-covered breast closer to him to whet his appetite. As she did so, the flimsy covering of silk fell away and Hargotrix, despite his churlish mood, gasped in delight.
“My face might be scarred, lord king,” murmured Inga, “but my poor body still holds a few charms, as you can see.”
“I can see two of your charms,” replied Hargotrix, “Pray, show me the rest.”
“Why don’t you reveal them with your own strong hands,” sighed Inga, easing her body between his legs to move within inches of him.
Hargotrix caressed the soft skin of her breasts, before sliding his hands down to her waist.
“Take your time,” she whispered, leaning her upper body into him. “Slow is better in almost everything.”
Except of course, when it came to striking down a man who just might have enough strength to thwart you; then speed was all…
As Hargotrix tore away her final item of clothing, Inga lunged with her right hand to grasp the hilt of his knife.
Ambrosius and Arturus sat in grieving silence long after Megisa left them. Though Ambrosius stared at the gifted blade, glinting in the light of their only torch, he did not move to retrieve it.
“Perhaps, it’s not them,” muttered Arturus.
“We both know it’s them.”
“But you told them to go back to Badon!” cried Arturus, a tear rolling down his cheek.
With a deep sigh, Ambrosius replied: “Yes, my friend, but this is Inga and Ishild we’re talking about. I’m sure they thought about what I told them, before completely ignoring it…”
“But they had Ferox with them,” said Arturus. “If they’d been taken, we’d have heard him making a fight of it, wouldn’t we?”
“Now that, I can’t explain,” agreed Ambrosius.
“So, we have to go and get them, Dux, surely?”
“And we will. But one knife and two men won’t be enough. Curse that cunning, old bitch! She’s been playing her game with us all along.”
“But she said there were some who might help us.”
“Perhaps there are, but no-one’s going to help us while Hargotrix lives – his death is at the heart of her little plan.”
“Why not just kill the bastard then?” cried Arturus.
“Oh, I will, if he touches our women,” declared Ambrosius, “and that scheming old woman knows it – which also means she knows what Inga is to me.”
“But she could only know that if… she had spoken to them.”
“Indeed,” growled Ambrosius. “So, she could have told us they were here before now – that much is certain. But she didn’t, because she knew that we’d have just have tried to free the girls and escape. And Megisa wanted a whole lot more from us than that.”
Finally, Ambrosius picked up the knife with his bound hands and, wedging the hilt between his boots, he worked the ties on his wrist back and forth against the blade. Once free, he swiftly cut their other bonds and the pair crept closer to the doorway.
“What first?” hissed Arturus.
“We find the girls.”
“But Megisa said they‘d likely be with Hargotrix…”
“Yes, but we’ve no damned choice now but to sing that old crone’s song,” snarled Ambrosius. “And she knew it! We’ll have to make straight for Hargotrix to free the girls. Damn the woman! We’ll end up doing her murderous bidding after all.”
“There’s only one knife,” Arturus pointed out.
“Yes. So, first problem… do you think you can cut a man’s throat in silence?”
“Don’t you want the knife?”
“Can you do it – or not, Arturus? Be certain.”
“Yes,” answered the youth.
“Have you ever done it before?”
“Well, no,” said Arturus.
“Only one piece of advice then: cut hard – a man’s throat is tougher than many think. As soon as I take on the first guard, you must silence the other.”
Handing his young comrade the knife, he whispered: “Are you certain you can do this?”
Arturus nodded and Ambrosius prayed the soldier’s son from Gallia could carry it through.
Brushing aside the cloth, he stepped out fast, though his victim was already turning towards him when he seized his head and gave it a savage twist. Hearing a low groan from beside him, he swivelled on the balls of his feet, but faced only Arturus, grinning wildly and waving the bloodied blade in triumph.
Ambrosius merely nodded. “Well done, but don’t enjoy it too much, Arturus. That’s still a man’s life you’ve just taken – someone’s son, eh?”
Though Arturus looked crushed, Ambrosius had learned long ago that the youth would not be subdued for long.
Between them, they dragged both bodies into the hut before relieving the pair of their weapons. With a spatha and knife at his belt, Ambrosius felt much better and he knew that Arturus was handy with a spear. Now, at least, they had half a chance.
“Where do you think Hargotrix will be?” enquired Arturus.
“That’s the easy part: we just listen and follow the noise!”
When Ambrosius peered out into the night, there was no-one else about and all seemed quiet in the neighbouring buildings. But, as he expected, somewhere in the settlement there was at least one place from which shouting and laughter emanated. It took little imagination to guess who would be holding raucous court at this time of night. Nudging Arturus to join him, he set off into the alley between houses, and followed the noise.
Too late, he heard the footsteps and a voice from the darkness warned: “We’re all around you; lay down your weapons now.”