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.”
Inga’s despairing hand slid from the knife hilt, her wild lunge slamming her into Hargotrix’s chest. When her head struck something harder than flesh or bone, she realised the wary king was wearing a breastplate. Though Hargotrix shot out a restraining hand, her oiled body slipped from his grasp to roll down onto the dais beside his chair. His guards, too slow to stop her initial assault, now sought to redeem themselves by capturing her.
Knowing she could move fast when she had to, Inga still hoped to escape, but something was badly amiss. As soon as she moved, the royal chamber swayed alarmingly, but still she managed to stagger to her feet. When Hargotrix caught her by the arm, she lashed out blindly, feeling her nails rake across his face. Cursing, he released his grip on her. She tried to run, but after several, unsteady steps, fell headlong. Powerful arms raised her up and Hargotrix, clutching at his bleeding face, railed his venom at her before she passed out.
Ice cold water stung her face and her weeping eyes blinked open in shock. Even now, the world was still swaying around her. To and fro she lurched, almost passing out again with the pain of her arm muscles tearing and her shoulders afire with agony. Only then did her dull senses register that she was hanging in mid-air, suspended by a length of coarse rope, bound around her wrists, and tied to a roof beam above her head.
“Ah, the murderous Saxon awakes!” proclaimed Hargotrix, touching his scarred cheek. “We don’t get many of you Saxon bitches around here and those we do get, don’t live long.”
“Who’d want to live under your rule for a moment?” groaned Inga, her voice a rasping croak .
“I was suspicious of you from the start!” he declared. “I always see where betrayal lies and I never lowered my guard. Ha, I was certainly too quick for a slow-witted Saxon.”
“You were lucky, not swift,” Inga spat out the accusation. “The gouged furrows on your face tell the world I’m not so slow!”
But defiance came at a price and her sluggish reactions were amply demonstrated when she failed to evade a spear shaft cracked against her head.
“Your last few moments will be a little easier for you,” advised Hargotrix, “if you keep your whore’s mouth shut.”
“If you’re going to kill me!” railed Inga. “Just do it! Stop talking about it and do it.”
“Oh, we can’t do that yet,” laughed Hargotrix, “for that would spoil all the pleasure – and I seem to recall that you promised me a lot of pleasure.”
“I came here to kill you!” snarled Inga.
“Yes, I saw that,” said the king, “but then I asked myself why. Why would a strange woman- even a foolish Saxon – just turn up in our settlement and murder its king? I thought: she must have a reason…”
“I‘d heard all about you from some of those who’ve fled your reign,” declared Inga.
Ignoring her reply, he said: “Then one of my warriors saw you hanging there and said he’d seen you before… when we attacked that abandoned village and… well, I’m clever enough to work out the rest.”
Deflated, Inga could think of no more sharp barbs to hurl at him and remained silent.
“So we’re waiting,” continued Hargotrix. “And I’ve summoned as many of my loyal folk as I can, to wait with me. Any idea what – or who – we’re waiting for?”
She wished there were no tears adorning her reddened cheeks, proclaiming her despair. Yet, in some twisted way, it gave her strength, knowing that he would come.
“Ambrosius will come,” she murmured.
“Oh, I’m certain of it!” laughed Hargotrix. “And he’ll be here very soon, I’m told…”
As soon as Ambrosius saw Lurotriga at Gabinus’ house, he regretted going there. When she came to him before, he was convinced that his attraction to her that night arose from some dread sorcery woven around them by the crafty Megisa. But that veil fell away at a single glance from Lurotriga for, once more, she kindled a fire in him and he struggled to resist the sudden rush of desire. Yet, he was not some fifteen-year old, whose cock chased every woman’s scent – and what need did he have of Lurotriga, when he had the beautiful… magnificent Inga?
“Ambrosius?” said Gabinus.
“If Megisa is dead,” said Ambrosius, “who pulls your strings now?”
“It was never like that, Ambrosius,” said Lurotriga. “We all had but one aim-”
“But for Megisa, it was personal, wasn’t it?” His tone was savage, recalling the web she had woven around him.
“It was personal for all of us!” argued Lurotriga. “Every family represented here has suffered at the hands of Hargotrix. Megisa might have been wrong, but-”
“Might have been?” he scoffed. “She used me as a weapon – and she was more than willing to use you as a whore!”
Laying a gentle hand on his arm, Lurotriga said: “But I knew all that… and so did you – or why else are you here now?”
“I shouldn’t be here!” he retorted, shrugging off her hand. “But here are my terms: you help us to free our women and we’ll help you to overthrow your king – but I will not be the next one! Now, accept those terms – or go hang yourselves for all I care!”
“We accept,” said Lurotriga at once .
Gabinus nodded. “I’ll gather the men.”
“Go now then,” Ambrosius urged, moving towards the door. “But I’ll not wait another moment.”
Arturus grasped his arm. “Hold Dux, it surely makes more sense to go together.”
And, it did make more sense, Ambrosius knew, except the longer he stayed there, the more he would drink from the cup of Lurotriga. Every passing moment, he beheld another, seductive feature: the subtle green of her eyes, the high, delicate cheekbones and the hint of her breasts beneath the simple robe…
“Dux?” said Arturus.
“Yes, very well,” he replied. “We’ll await our allies…”
While they did so in uneasy silence, Arturus must have realised at some point, that the other two souls in the room were unaware of his existence. Spluttering an excuse, he hurried out.
The silence continued, but only until they exchanged a glance.
“I feel your resentment like a hot iron on my skin,” she murmured, taking a hesitant step closer to him. “Do you blame me for this?”
“Yes,” he whispered, “for you colluded with Megisa to entrap me…”
She moved closer, until she stood only inches from him. “But Megisa is dead and, if you feel trapped, it is not I who binds you. I ask nothing more of you than your help for my people.”
“And that’s all I’ll give you,” he said, meeting her eyes, so close to his.
“Yet,” she murmured, “something still lies between us…”
“What lies between us, lady… is an ocean of trouble.”
“Even oceans can be crossed – if we live through this,” she said. “Or you could just ride away with your Saxon girl…”
The door slammed open and Gabinus announced: “All are ready!”
“Very well,” replied Ambrosius. “Give us a moment more, if you please.”
Gabinus, who seemed unsurprised that it was Ambrosius who now wanted to delay, went outside again.
Her hand touched his rough, unshaven cheek and somehow his arms encircled her waist. She granted him a smile and, at once, he craved another; but Lurotriga pulled away.
“It’s as well you must go to fight,” she said, her voice huskier than before. “Whatever you choose to do afterwards, I’ll accept; but please, just make sure there is an afterwards…”
It was hard not to look at her again as he made for the door; but he focussed his mind upon what needed to happen next. As he was so fond of telling his comrades, you must meet the first problem first…
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?
Day 25 – Concluding Part
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.