A lonely grey pencil of smoke drifted slowly upwards to write its sad story on the pale blue canvas overhead. Beneath lay the still smouldering remains of the east wing of Ambrosius’s family farm. The thirty-year-old decurion had arrived at the head of his cavalry squadron shortly before – but two hours too late – to the scene of his own private hell. The only thing he and his men had been in time to do was help the surviving household workers douse the flames, preventing them from spreading to the remainder of the ‘L’-shaped building, making it safe – at last – to go inside.
Squeezing through the partly collapsed doorway, Ambrosius and the farm’s middle-aged herdsman franticly clawed at the heap of charred, fallen timbers within. Despite choking on acrid fumes sent up by the water from a human-chain of buckets, carried from the nearby river Avon, both men persevered in their clearance effort.
“Are you sure she was in here, Jacob?” Ambrosius desperately pleaded, as the two men excavated through hot ash and rubble, blistering their fingers as they went. So intense was the desire to find his wife alive, he was willing to believe she’d been anywhere other than inside this inferno. For though his now deceased mother had always warned him that love was blind – from tears of either joy or sadness – he now found his own vision likewise clouded and unfocussed by smoke, seeing only what he most dearly wished to be true.
“I’m sorry… Ambrose,” came Jacob’s hesitant reply, as he stifled tears of his own. “When we ran from the Saxons, this was the last place she’d been… and nobody saw her come out.” Then, as if to offer some afterthought of comfort, he added: “We searched everywhere else!” But he seemed to stop himself there, as if realising that saying any more might not help the situation.
And perhaps it was best that he added no further details, as the poor soldier could not have dealt with any more; on top of having returned home to find both his parents already slain in the courtyard outside. Whose plain off-white and grey garments were now partly dyed with the sickly purple of congealed blood, giving them the macabre and surreal appearance of having been elevated to the nobility in death.
As Ambrosius briefly turned, to seek any comfort he could find in the old herdsman’s ruddy face, all that greeted him were a downturned gaze and guilty expression. Which seemed to betray a shame at having survived the Saxon raid – only to fail to protect the family he worked for – that understandably hung heavily on his soul.
“We should have done more…” Jacob volunteered, as if making a confession. “We should have… defended them.”
And for the moment, Ambrosius gave no reply, offering tacit agreement. Though he inwardly conceded that he might later feel differently; after the cold light of reason had returned to his normally logical and phlegmatic demeanour. Once he’d accepted that a few unarmed Christian civilians could offer little resistance to a score or more of tooled-up heathen pirates, intent on plunder… and much worse, besides. As the two men worked their way into the small room, a commotion of horses’ hooves from behind them signalled the arrival of Victor, Ambrosius’s younger brother by two years.
Just like his sibling, Victor had worked his way up to the rank of decurion in his own cavalry troop of the Equitum Belgarum from the harbour-fort of Clausentum, defending the nearby estuary of Tribruit. Both of their squadrons, and two others – including one on patrol in the area at the time – had been alerted by locals on horseback to the pirate incursion in the valley of the Avon. But it had taken nearly two hours of hard riding for those other three units of the regiment to get armed and mounted and arrive here, over twenty miles west from their base. And they were left with little better to do than perform such emergency services as this, both here and at the neighbouring farms and hamlets, and to police the aftermath, offering whatever support they could to their surviving fellow countrymen and women.
Having trailed the many signs of destruction higher up the valley, and secured those farmsteads that he could, Victor had followed Ambrosius south, shortly behind him. But the same, sickening realisation now greeted him, too, about what he’d find at his family home; which had lain – like so many others – in the path of the once advancing, but now retreating Saxon raiders.
The new arrivals hurriedly dismounted from their gasping horses and Victor briefly conferred with the troopers outside about the situation, and the location of his brother. He then immediately removed his helmet and unbuckled his sword-belt, rushing over to the almost gutted east wing. Leaning both hands on the still hot doorframe, he peered inside through the smoky gloom. Once his eyes had adjusted, he identified his older sibling, who was already stripped to his linen shirtsleeves within, having removed his mail jerkin to facilitate fighting the fire. “Ambrose! I heard!” he shouted above the clatter of the rubble clearance.