At first, Ishild hid herself, scuttling into a dark corner between two huts to weep her tears of shame. When she fled from the anteroom, she was clothed only in a few pieces of silk – the trappings of the king’s wanton court. During her frantic escape, she had snatched up a cloak and now she pulled it around her, seeking to bury her guilt in its warmth. Warring voices sparred in her head: Inga had given her a chance to flee; she must find Ferox; she must save Inga, but Inga could not be saved; she must seek out Arturus, but where? Which path should she take?
She should have stayed… could have stayed, to fight alongside Inga – she would have stayed, to die with her, but Inga understood. It was not the thought of death which terrified Ishild, but what would come before it. For Inga knew all too well, that Ishild had been dragged along that road before: pawed at and mauled as a plaything of men – and worse, far worse. So her friend – the very bravest of friends – had given Ishild a way out.
Ishild lost track of time, uncertain now how long she had hidden, wrapped in her borrowed cloak. Inga had given her a chance at least, so she had to take it. Binding the cloak tighter, she got to her feet again and began to walk away. The stone flags of the path chilled the soles of her bare feet, but she kept going, flitting from the shadows of one hut on to the next. Several times she tripped, for the large cloak was far too long and she feared a heavy fall.
Expecting at any moment to collide with a sentry, she was surprised to see no-one – no guards, or soldiers at all. Where were they all? But the earth bank lay ahead of her; she was almost there. Sure now that she would escape the enclosure, Ishild wondered if she could ever shrug off the guilt of leaving Inga behind.
Scouring along the inside of the bank, she searched for steps cut into the earth – there should be wooden boards; but finding them proved more difficult than she expected. In her frustration, she began to scramble up on all fours, feeling the damp earth between her fingers and toes. The voluminous cloak was making her task almost impossible, so, shedding it, she clambered on without it.
When, breathless, she crouched on her haunches at the top of the bank, she tried to think where to go next. Inga told her just one thing: find Ferox – but, how? She could whistle – if only she knew how – but she could hardly shout out for the animal.
While she lingered there, undecided and feeling the chill of the night, she glimpsed a familiar, black shape and grinned with relief. The loyal beast was waiting for Inga at the top of the bank, no more than a dozen yards away from her. With Ferox, she might be able to free Inga, but first she would have to break out Arturus and Ambrosius. So, she needed to think how best to do that…
“Ferox!” she hissed across at him.
The great dog trotted towards her, but there his obedience ended. Brushing past her, he was off, skidding down the bank, snout to the ground, exactly where she had climbed up. She called to him in vain as he disappeared – just another shadow joining the darkness.
Ishild’s spirits wilted once more, for the animal would never find Inga that way – or would he? He was following her scent back into the village, but there was no telling what he might do once he got among the houses – especially if he lost the trail. So much, for planning her next move…
With a groan, Ishild turned and started to trudge back down the bank, retrieving her discarded cloak on the way. Stumbling past hut after hut, she called Ferox’s name as loudly as she dared, but to no avail. If he lost the scent, he might return to find Ishild again, but until then, he was just not interested. And here she was, wandering back into the place from which she had just escaped, mostly naked – apart from the cloak, and without even so much as a knife to defend herself.
Hurrying along a small track between two huts, she was relieved to find him, but saw that he was pursuing a clear scent with a determined, stalking tread. When she saw where he was heading, she stopped on the path, unwilling to go any further.
“By the all gods,” she moaned, “I can’t go back in there like this!”
“Ferox!” she hissed in the animal’s wake, terrified the dog would go straight to the main entrance of Hargotrix’s house. But Ferox darted left – of course he did, because he was following where she had come out; the spoor would lead him to the rear of the royal chambers. By the gods, he would find Inga’s scent there and go hurtling through the anteroom and into the royal chamber.
Alone and unarmed, how could she follow him back in there?
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