Jenny: A Gift

The Guttersnipe woke to the spangled fingers of cool autumnal morning light streaming through the crown of white overhead. The heavy dew was laden with the ashy scent of the dead fire. Across the open wood rang the mocking call of a woodpecker.

She rolled over and propped herself up on her elbows. There was still a faint stream of smoke coming out of the grey heap that had been the fire of last night. Several dandelions lay shriveled and scorched on the rim, rattling dismally in the early morning breeze. At a distance, the horses were grazing in the shadows of the trees, their noises carrying across the lawn with the softness of the river. Wulf was awake, minding Cu; Master Lucius was still curled up in his sleeping place like a small, thin animal in its winter nest, still clutching the Oikonomikos to his chest. She quirked a smile, then looked for Domitia.

The girl was nowhere to be seen. She was on her feet in an instant, treading lightly off her cloak and through the dewy grass. She followed the girl's flight out of the clearing, and presently came upon her curled up in the grassless patch under an oak, fast asleep. With a breathless, mirthless laugh, the Guttersnipe let her be and returned to the camp.

The morning was glorious. There was a faint trace of woodsmoke lingering in the air from some other fire in the distance, probably another horseman for they were in horse-country now, if only the fringes of it. The birds were tuning up to a spectacular racket in the trees, and far off roared the river, little more than a murmur of surf-sound in her ears now. Pausing, thinking on it, it reminded her of the soldiers when they saw Artos and her Lord Ambrosius, how the wave of sound rose to an almost impossible height, shaking and thundering like the angry heavens. How she had gloried in it! She, who was little more than the Guttersnipe, but she had shared in the glory in some way she could not describe, tied to it in a way she was not really clear about herself.

And with those thoughts and the distance surf-sound of the river, the flurry of almost-panic came jangling back under her breastbone as it had the night before, an almost-panic she could not suppress. Her mouth was suddenly full, and she swallowed back and went for her sleeping-place.

She had been using it for a pillow all this time, not really thinking about it, the rough tan wolfskin bundle that Gwenhywfar had thrust into her hands over a week ago when she had found herself walking down the long dark barrow for the pinprick of light outside. Now the pinprick had fanned out and was ready to swallow up the darkness behind her - a darkness which seemed all the more dark as she approached the end of the barrow - and now she could turn and look at the thing which she had not had time to think of before.

In a little she found herself a distance from the camp with the surf-sound of water turned to a roar in her ears. She was standing in a little enclosure of hawthorn, not remembering how she got there, holding the bundle in her hands. And despite the sound of the water and the noise of the birds overhead, a sudden quiet had taken her inside, and a curious potency had come into the square, unlovely thing she had carried with her. She had always been angry at Gwenhywfar for staying behind, even when she had told Domitia that things would be fine, that Gwenhywfar would take care of herself. The anger she had nursed almost unconsciously deep inside herself; but now, holding the thing, the anger dropped away.

The grass was too wet to kneel on. She cupped the bundle in the crook of one arm and undid the leather knots with the other hand. Throwing away the binding, she turned back the folds of tawny skin, and then blinked, and then started, when she saw the thing inside.

Patches of saucy black showed up in the sunlight, glowing on a field of almost gold fur. Heavy scents of oleander and lavender poured from the bundle. She shook it out, dropping the wolfskin, to see that it was a gown of leopard-skin, finely cut, and suddenly her mind was full of the things she had learned from Gaius, of worlds far away where the winters are mild, where the grapes grow thick on the vine, where ships with rolling eyes skim across damson-waves - the world of the old heroes, of Achilles and Hector, Aeneas and Achates.

And then, unbidden, she was seeing Jason in a patch of dappled sunlight under the apples, his head tipped back as he laughed at her, teeth flashing, and she knew why Gwenhywfar had done it.

She might have laughed, but it was too solemn to laugh at. She slipped off her tattered scarlet and squeezed into the leopard-skin. The sunlight made the fur and the beads on her earrings shine, and for a moment she just stood there, curious with herself almost like a young child, and the panic in her chest eased a little.

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