There were about a dozen of them in all, Ambrosius reckoned; how the foolish Megisa ever imagined she had enough support to win a kingdom was quite beyond him. But they were well-armed and, to a man, their faces shone with determination. These were not men pressed into reluctant service; they believed in their cause. Perhaps, he thought, a few such committed men might be worth a score of others.
“If you fight with me,” Ambrosius told them, “there’ll be no butchery here tonight – no old scores settled. The women will be released and Hargotrix will be deposed. That’s it.”
Though he heard some murmurings of dissent, he ignored them – desperate to keep his mind upon the main task and not be drawn – any more than he already was – into what seemed to him like local civil war. They moved swiftly to the king’s dwelling – a cluster of buildings and outhouses sprawling over perhaps a quarter of the entire settlement. As was Ambrosius’ way, they marched straight to the main entrance which was flanked by two guards.
To his astonishment, as his company approached, the guards disappeared inside; but then he heard the commotion within – an uproar which featured the truly bloodcurdling sound of a war dog bred from Molussian ancestors.
“Get inside now!” he ordered. “But don’t kill the dog!”
At the sudden entrance of a dozen warriors from among their own people, the king’s men looked to their master for instructions. Nor did Hargotrix disappoint, for though he was one of several men thrusting spears to drive the slavering Ferox back, he took one look at Ambrosius and bellowed: “Kill them! Kill all of them!”
Transfixed for an instant by the sight of Inga hanging from a roof beam, Ambrosius hesitated. She was facing him, screaming at him, but guilt made him turn away.
“Gabinus!” he ordered. “Take two men and cut down the Saxon woman! The rest of you disarm the guards and Arturus, you’re with me!”
Ambrosius made for Hargotrix – the man who had set his woman dangling in agony and the one who had widowed Lurotriga. But was it rabid revenge that hurled him towards the king, or lurking desire?
Crashing into one of the king’s guards, Ambrosius expected to batter him into meek submission; but these men were powerful warriors – chosen men of the royal bodyguard – who would not buckle at the first attack. So be it, decided Ambrosius and, unleashing his warrior rage, he launched a merciless assault upon the man before him. Skill and courage counted for little in the face of Ambrosius’ relentless power and, step by step, his opponent was beaten back towards Hargotrix.
With Arturus working his spear by his side, Ambrosius swept the king’s man aside and slammed into another. Hurling abuse at his adversary, Ambrosius brought his spatha down in a crushing blow that split neck from shoulder and sent blood arcing across his face. Tasting a few flecks of blood upon his lips did not sate Ambrosius’ thirst and he drove on.
Seeing Ambrosius closing upon him fast, Hargotrix, his scratched face now ravaged by fear, fell back with several other soldiers, but the snarling Ferox stood in his path. Though the belligerent beast leapt at one man, a spear lacerated his back and, with a yelp, he staggered away. Distracted by the animal’s fall, Ambrosius was wounded by a sword slashing across his unprotected torso and dropped to his knees. Arturus stood close to defend his master with his own bloodied spear.
Around the chamber, Ambrosius saw that the fight was by no means won, nor yet lost. As he got awkwardly to his feet, he was relieved to see Gabinus cut the rope restraining Inga and drag her away. For his trouble, the old man received a spear thrust through his thigh. Pushing Inga away, Argetrus went to the aid of his father, his angry spatha eviscerating the hapless spear bearer.
Beside Inga, the fiery Ishild appeared, swinging a wild axe to and fro, to keep the king’s men at bay.
“Dux!” cried Arturus, finding himself Ambrosius’ only support.
Puzzled that Hargotrix had made no move yet against him, he realised that the king’s guards were dwindling. Perhaps Argetrus and his young comrades were beginning to gain the upper hand. Blood from his wound was trickling all the way down his leg, which meant he had only a few minutes until the blood loss began to weaken him.
Another man might have waited, defended by Arturus, until Hargotrix was taken and dealt with by the Durotriges, but still, the outcome was by no means certain and the fight would be bitter, with no quarter given by either side. What leader, worth more than a pot of piss, would stand by while others bled in his name? Ambrosius calculated that, only by taking the fight to Hargotrix, could he ensure that the small band around Argetrus would succeed.
Sucking in a deep breath, he said: “Come on, Arturus; stop waving that spear about like a third leg and kill someone with it!”
Surging forward, he took his opponents – who thought him out of the fight – utterly by surprise. Heedless of the blood he was losing, Ambrosius hacked with his spatha, bullying them towards Argetrus. When the royal guards split into two small groups, only belatedly did Ambrosius realise that the clever Hargotrix was fighting a retreat towards the chamber entrance.
With Ambrosius closing from one side and Argetrus from the other, the king’s soldiers were slaughtered one by one. The last pair, with Hargotrix, were butchered by a forest of spears with the king almost at the doorway. Ambrosius, his muscles aching, knew he would be too slow to overtake the fleeing king. Argetrus too, having taken a wound, was on his knees.
But then Ambrosius spotted Inga, with Ishild’s axe in her hand, running towards Hargotrix, her face a mask of loathing. Suddenly aware of her presence, the king turned to lunge at her with his spatha, and to avoid the blade, she was forced to throw herself to the floor.
With a triumphant grin, Hargotrix darted to the open doorway where he collided with Lurotriga. Stony-faced, she plunged a knife at his chest, only to see the point slide harmlessly across his breastplate. When he raised his spatha, she slashed at his arm and the weapon dropped from his hand. Seizing her knife hand, he twisted it from her grasp and was still smirking when Inga, with every ounce of force she could muster, buried her axe in his throat.
As he fell, the spurting blood of Hargotrix bathed both women in equal measure; for an instant Lurotriga and Inga stared at each other, before sharing a macabre embrace. In the king’s cavernous chamber, silence fell – broken only by the groans of the wounded. Aided by Arturus, Ambrosius sat down on a bench to rest and was soon joined by Lurotriga and Inga. A moment later, he found himself sitting between them while Inga bound up his wound.
Gabinus had already died from his wounds, as had several others of their company, though his son, Argetrus still lived. Most of Hargotrix’s men had joined him in death, though a few had crawled out of hiding to surrender after the fighting was over. The village, of course, was in turmoil – its peace brutally shattered in the middle of a savage night.
Ambrosius, once his wound was dressed, was glad to escape from between the two bloodstained women and began to take charge. Inga, he noted, went at once to repair the other notable male in her life, Ferox.
“Light more torches!” he ordered.
“Lady Lurotriga, the kingdom is yours,” he told her.
She smiled. “And what would I want with a kingdom?” she asked. “I’ve no royal blood in me – on me, yes, but not in me.”
“I thought that was what you wanted,” he said.
“Did you?” she murmured, “Then how little you know me. I wanted my husband’s killer dead and I wanted to live no longer in fear of a king. I would not live in fear of you, if you were-”
“Give it up,” he said. “It’s not going to happen.”
“What’s not going to happen?” asked Inga, joining the pair with Arturus, as Lurotriga stormed off.
“Oh, he keeps refusing to be king of the Durotriges,” said Arturus.
“Why?” she said, taking Ambrosius’ hand. “Why don’t you rule them? You said you must recruit more men.”
“Not you too,” he sighed.
“I told him he should,” said Arturus.
“Are you my sworn man, or not?” grumbled Ambrosius.
“Then keep quiet,” Ambrosius told him.
“We are all sworn to you, Ambrosius,” said Inga.
“You know I didn’t come to Britannia to garner titles!”
“Oaths are not titles though,” replied Inga.
Before he understood what was happening, Lurotriga was on her knees before him and, with her, she had brought all the men who had fought with him against Hargotrix.
“What?” he said. “What are you doing?”
“We would swear our loyalty to you,” she said.
“No, for tomorrow Vortigern will come and I will be gone!”
“Then we, having sworn an oath, will go with you,” announced Lurotriga, eyes shining up at him.
Dumbfounded, Ambrosius wasn’t sure what terrified him most: the fact that some of the Durotriges wanted to swear oaths to him, or that Lurotriga wanted to leave with him. Yet, it would be foolish for a leader who needed more men to refuse good folk willing to swear an oath to him.
When dawn came, to Ambrosius’ astonishment, it brought a further outbreak of oaths – scores of them – as news of Hargotrix’s death spread. He was forced to concede that, though he might refuse the kingship, he could not refuse so many allies. With the threat of Vortigern still hanging over him, he needed all the support he could muster.
Soon Vortigern would arrive and he was in no state to fight so, almost at once, Ambrosius put their oaths to the test and, as he had promised, ordered them to leave their familiar settlement behind.
By horse, the journey to Badon was not long, but many of the folk travelled on foot and it took several hours to reach the hill where the survivors of his company nervously awaited his arrival. At first they suspected the large body approaching the hill, until they saw Ambrosius at its head and Inga riding beside him on his right hand.
For Ambrosius, what lay before him was no more certain than it had been before his capture, but it would be a new dawn with a much larger community now making its home at Badon Hill. They could build a future there, but he knew it was a future that could only be complicated by the presence of the woman from the Durotriges who rode on his left.