Darkness was never the soldier’s friend, thought Ambrosius, as he considered how to respond to the challenge. Peering to left and right, he could not tell how many lurked in the shadows, nor how well-armed they might be. Though his knife was in his hand, his spatha still languished in its leather scabbard – and then there was young Arturus… The lad was brave enough, but how well would he manage his spear against an unseen enemy?
“Drop your weapons,” repeated the voice, which came from just behind him to his right. It was a soldier’s voice, no doubt about that but, if Ambrosius was any judge, not one that carried much iron behind it. Decisions… always mortal decisions to be made…
Making an elaborate show of sheathing his knife, he murmured to Arturus: “Be ready to your front – do not lower your spear – and the moment someone comes close, stab them.”
Raising his voice, he announced: “Alright, I’m taking my spatha out to surrender.”
Slowly he eased the sword out with his left hand and crouched to lay the recently-acquired weapon upon the ground. As he anticipated, several men now emerged out of the night.
“Who do you serve?” asked Ambrosius, his weapon still inches above the stone flags.
Moving forward more confidently, the soldiers’ spokesman addressed Ambrosius, as if talking to a fool: “Who else would we serve but Hargotrix?”
“Pity,” replied Ambrosius and only then did the soldier realise his peril.
Tossing the spatha from left to right hand, Ambrosius swept it up in a wide arc, catching his opponent at the very moment he darted forward to strike with his spear. The spatha knocked aside the spear haft and its tip raked across the Briton’s chest, slicing through his leather coat. Without pause, Ambrosius swung the blade back higher, carving through neck and throat – a fatal, bloody stroke.
Though he was worried about the inexperienced Arturus, a darted glance told him that the nimble youth was holding his own against the increasingly desperate spear thrusts of his opponent. Two more spearmen rushed at Ambrosius together, using their longer reach to drive him back. With no protective leather coat, never mind mail, he would feel every cut.
While he would back himself every time against a single spear, two sometimes meant trouble. Drawing his knife in his left hand allowed him to defend more confidently but, the longer the fight lasted, the more others would be attracted to it.
“Help here!” cried one of the Britons, which only served to persuade Ambrosius that he must finish matters swiftly.
Though his two adversaries were doing their best to work together by thrusting with their spears at exactly the same time, this tactic soon played into Ambrosius’ hands. What every soldier hated most was an unpredictable opponent and these men were quite the opposite. Waiting for their next concerted strike, Ambrosius swatted aside one spear and, evading the other, moved in close. Jabbing his knife blade twice, in quick succession, into the belly of one opponent, he deflected the other’s second spear thrust with his spatha.
The surviving Briton backed away, but Ambrosius dared not let him escape to warn Hargotrix. A slash from Ambrosius sliced across the fellow’s arm and, tendons hanging loose from his forearm, the Briton could not grip his spear. Abandoning it, he fled away into the darkness while Ambrosius could only curse – certain that the wounded man would raise the alarm. But the cry for help had already brought others to the fray and one of them gored the fleeing soldier like a cook skewering meat.
One look at Arturus and the bloodied corpse at his feet, brought a grim smile from Ambrosius. He felt a certain pride that the lad he was still training was able to meet his first true challenge, not only with courage, but a good measure of skill too.
Eyeing the half dozen newcomers warily, he noted that these were not men who had rushed from their huts, grabbing the nearest weapon to hand; they had come prepared for battle. Most wore hide jackets and held shields and spears, while one or two, wearing old mail coats, brandished spathas. It was one of the latter, a man older than anyone else there, who broke the silence.
“Ambrosius Aurelianus?” he enquired.
“I’m guessing that it’s not difficult to tell us from your fellow Britons,” replied Ambrosius. “And you are?”
“Gabinus,” he replied, “and this is my son, Argetrus. All the others here have chosen to support you.”
“Why?” demanded Ambrosius. “I told Megisa this evening that I wanted no part of her scheme!”
His terse response brought worried looks from those about him, but Gabinus suggested: “Please, Ambrosius, won’t you at least hear me out? Megisa is dead; follow us to my house, so that we can talk about this, more privately… if you will.”
“I’ve more urgent business,” snapped Ambrosius, “for your king holds our women.”
“I know that,” conceded Gabinus, “but two of you alone won’t free them. We’re ready to act with you, but we must gather all our men, or it won’t be enough. Now, come, please.”
The compulsion to find and rescue Inga coursed through him like a river torrent – too strong to be denied for long – but the restraining touch of Arturus’ hand upon his arm gave him pause and he nodded in agreement.
“I’ll give you a few moments,” he growled at Gabinus, “after that we will go to Hargotrix – with, or without, your assistance.”