Jenny: Baited by Amber

The Guttersnipe hesitated. She was about to explain in very clear terms that only a few people could order her about, and in their present state did Domitia think it wise to be giving orders? Then she reconsidered. Making a face, waving one hand, she acquiesced. "Very well, have it your way," she replied. "But keep close to the others."

In a way, she mused as she strode back up the bank, Domitia really had done her a favour. She crossed the lawn and stopped by Master Lucius's side. He looked up as her shadow fell across his book.

" are in my light," he said with the muffled tone of one who has just awakened from some dream. His hand fluttered over the page. "I cannot see when you are blocking my light."

"You write large enough," she quipped. She moved to one side to let the light back in. "Domitia," she went on, "has ordered me off. I'm to do whatever I like and not think about Vortigern and my Lord Ambrosius and getting us all home in one piece."

Master Lucius hovered a moment between her and his book, thinking on that. "It's almost laughable," he remarked presently.

The amber beads in her ears which Gwenhywfar had given her swung and clamored as she jerked up her head in a wry laugh. "Isn't it?" Then, "I will be upstream with the colt. Send Domitia for me, if you have need of me. Or Cu. I would like to leave in no more than an hour, but that should give you and Domitia some time to rest."

There was the briefest look of gratitude on Master Lucius' face before he was pulled back into his book. The Guttersnipe left him on his rock and singled out the colt, who came willingly now: the long treks seemed to have sobered him. But he gave her bewildered looks as she dismantled his tack, leaving on the halter, and mounted. He moved to her urgings, hesitantly at first, across the open lawn and through the scattered oak-scrub. They followed the bends of the river for several minutes, finally stopped where the bank came almost level with the water in a great half-circle of grass, and the river was smooth and quiet. It was the perfect place.

The Guttersnipe got down and looked about. On either side of the stream were the elms, thin near the water-line and growing denser as they progressed. And save for the constant bubble of the water, it was very quiet. She bent down and began unbuckling her boots.

"The horse has a mind, but it is lesser and in subjection to yours. You must teach it that, for it is not born knowing these things as you are. Teach it that you are the master."

Setting her boots aside, she unlatched her belt and dropped it by the boots.

"Have you found it? Now hold it. Never for a moment drop that lead. Now, make it move with you. Move with the horse. Your will is the will that it does not have. Make it do as you say - but like water in the channel of a stream."

She hauled her tunic over her head and flung it on the grass, left in the supple leather garments across chest and loins that left her limbs free to move. She took hold of the bewildered colt's lead and went down the bank with it. The water came up to meet them, cool, iridescent, tumbling over itself in low, lazy waves. In the middle she stopped and turned to face the horse. It looked back at her out of slow-blinking black eyes. She took up rocks in one hand, and the other hand she placed flat on the bronze muzzle before her. She paused, then flung a rock into the water beside the colt.

He shied, and at once her fingers gripped his nostrils, holding him in place. He quickly stilled, hindquarters fidgeting, and she threw another rock in. Again he plunged, but was unable to fling up his head with her holding his nose. After a few rocks he remained in one place, showing his displeasure with his ears, no more.

"Good boy!" she crowed for him, and kissed him on his sore muzzle, which he seemed to like. "Good boy."

She went round to his side and vaulted up onto his back. He shuddered at the amount of water that flowed down his back, but she soothed him as she got into position. She remembered with a pang of longing teaching Pharaoh how to stand just so as she sat bareback across his withers, their heads up, then to begin a gentle dance in place as she bent over backwards and brought her legs up over her head until she stood on her hands upon his back, swaying with his movements. But the dancing would come later. For now she got into position, still talking to the colt, and began to bend, over, over, bringing her legs up in a pale arch, until the world was upside down and green and black and bronze, shot through with sunlight.

She had been expecting it. There was a squeal of another horse upstream, a ragged splutter of shouts, and the colt gave a mighty heave beneath her. She sprang and tumbled, managing in the brief flicker of time that she had to grab his snapping lead-line and hit the water with her heels dug in. The colt spun at the end of the rope, eyes wide as the strange three horses came bearing down in a spray of water for them.

Three, against a girl and an untrained colt.

But they were no more than brigands, thieves out for what they could grab, and on this she had been banking since coming away upstream. She tumbled to the side away from the foremost horse, digging her knife out of the braided mass of her hair. She laughed, high and cold and scornfully, and she could see the looks of hatred in their faces as she did. And when she said, "Come down and fight me like a man!" the rider in front shoved his laboured mount forward, wielding his cudgel.

Laughing, she dove, around and under the horse's legs, opening a long, fine seam from the man's thigh to his ankle-bone. With the blood pouring into the stream and the leg gone slack, the man hit the water like a rock.

The colt was shivering and squealing at the end of his line. As the two others closed in, she took up the slack, ran to his side, and vaulted upward in a silver spray. Compact, like a frog, she crouched on the colt's back, making use of his wild jolts and sidlings and frantic plungings. There was no telling what he would do next, which threw the brigands into confusion.

An oak-club swung by. The amber flashed in brilliance as she jerked her head away. The heady ecstasy of it all gave her speed, sharpened her eye. She had not thought, months ago, that it was possible to move so quickly, to open up a bloom of scarlet beneath another chin and look back into their pained and confused eyes while feeling nothing oneself. But her life, and the life of her friends, and the very life of Britain had not been at stake months ago, and the fear and hatred of the dark, the love of all things good and bright, changed everything.

She never really remembered how she killed the last one. The first bled out his life in the stream, the second gurgled up blood through the hole in his throat. The third lay face-down, stone-still, and she did not stop to see where the red that pooled around him came from. She slashed the water with her knife, leaving a trail of red, and kicked the colt up the bank. Legs round his barrel, she snatched up her clothing as they tore by. She was vaguely away of the riderless and confused horses meandering through the scrub in her wake. Her one concern was their little camp, fear that there were others, fear that her diversion had not worked.

But when she came plunged out on the lawn all was quiet: the herd was in its place with Wulf and Cu watching over it, and Master Lucius was still reading.

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