Jenny: Baiting Witches

Sizing the girl up, the boy reached for another barley cake. It would be an excellent way of keeping an eye on her, ensuring that she did not make her dog try to eat him again. And if she was a witch, he would be able to keep an eye on her, keeping her from causing any trouble. For now she seemed contrite enough. Hiding his wariness, warming up to her, he pushed a barley cake her way. "All right," he said. "We have a deal."


Caleb collapsed in his own chair. "Speaking of the Fair Folk," he said, unusually slyly, "has Artos told you about the chit he wrangled information out of a winter or so back?"

The Guttersnipe went to shake her head, when Artos flew up to the edge of his seat. "You are not to be telling her that story. That is a camp-side story." But she saw the flush of victory on his face as he said it.

"Surely it is not," said Caleb.

"It is."

"Well, what happened?" asked the Guttersnipe.

"Ah, I am remembering that story," mused Ambrosius, mouth twitching.

The morning light was sparkling in the eyes of the two young men. Seeing the interested look on the Guttersnipe's face, cheeks pink, warming to a new story, he knew she would only get it out of Caleb later, so he flung himself back in his chair, holding onto the ache in his leg. "Very well. But you will not be telling it. I will be telling it. You will only be telling it wrongly."

With his own look of victory, Caleb folded his arms across his chest and leaned back, waiting for the story. Artos sorted it out a moment, carefully watching his Companion, daring him to put it to a tune.

"It was not winter, it was in the early spring when the frost still gathered in the wagon-ways and the horses' frogs. I had left my uncle and pushed on myself for Camulodunum, quite alone, to sniff out the movements of the Saxons in those parts. There were too many crowding in for comfort, and with the kingships of Britain already sparking against each other, waiting for the dry turf to catch, I went to see if the Saxons carried fire-brands among them.

"I found one in particular..."

The young man stepped into the dirty little wine-shop, shaking the windy dark out of the folds of his cloak as he came. The scent of seared boar-flesh and the tang of drink greeted him, and he cast up his head, his teeth showing out of the darkness of his hood. The others looked back at him, taking in his horseman's appearance, and the dark, rough-bearded face that showed when he cast back his hood. They gave him back look for look, and turned back to their drinks and games.

He stepped up to the table around the central fire and took the cup of wine offered him, downing it quickly. It felt good to have the liquid burning down his throat and into his middle again after the driving cold of the road. He leaned a moment on the table, the warmth of the fire on his face, looking around the room. Noting one occupant, he crooked a finger for the owner.

"I'll be needing a warm bed tonight." And he gestured toward the individual.

The owner quirked. "I hope your hobnails are hammered out of gold if you want that one," he replied with a snort.

"Don't judge me by the stubble on my chin."

He swirled the dregs in his cup as the owner shrugged and stalked off to relay his message. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the woman glance up, her golden hair alight with the mellow candles, a tiny smile running like milk down alabaster across her features. She had a fine, high-boned face, a cunning in her eyes, and when she glanced his way the smile curled cat-like to touch her cheeks with warm rose.

"I am told the hobnails of your boots are made of gold," she purred when he shut the door of the little upper room.

He unlatched the bronze-worked belt from about his waist. "Let you find out for yourself," he told her. And with the gesture of one used to the long stockwhip, he lashed it round her and pulled her close, forcing her head up in his big hand. The gesture was violent enough to unnerve her for a moment, and he saw the veil waver behind her eyes. "Do you tell me what I want to know," he whispered, "and I will not kill you and drop your body down the stairs."

"You wouldn't."

"But you know that I would."

Staring back at him, almost level with his eyes - the oversea Saxons were always a tall people - she composed herself, shifting a little in his grasp. "Cold work your masters put you to," she said.

His thumb tightened in the soft of her jaw. "What game is it that Hengist plays with Vortigern?" he asked her. "Your pretty face must turn up in the torchlight of their banquets. What do your vixen-ears hear?"

"Maybe they hear nothing," she replied scornfully. "And maybe it is in the dark, and not the torchlight, that they hear things."

He began tapping his finger on her cheekbone, idly, looking back at those eyes. They were narrow, but bright, bright as the June sky, and so fierce. "Do you know what steel sounds like against bone?" he asked her.

"Perhaps I do."

"Then tell me what your ears have heard among the halls of your great ones, and I will not be reminding you of the sound now."

He could feel her carefully searching at his waist and around the belt for his knife, but he had tucked it into his boot. Failing at that, she said, "They are making a kind of peace with Vortigern, lands for peace, and maybe even promising mercenaries. The western lands are being filled with a strange yellow people, and we are coming east to find new ground. Is that so wicked?"

He gave her no answer to that, knowing that she was lying as a girl will lie, easily and with a laugh. And she must have seen the look in his eyes as he regarded her wordlessly, for of a sudden she jerked backward with an exploding hiss, whirling in his arms. He was down on one knee, digging out his knife as she hurled herself back on him, sinking her teeth into the flesh of his shoulder. He gave a hard grunt of pain and met her temple with the butt of his knife, and she went slack.

He rolled her body off and laid it on the bed, flinging a rug over her. The candlelight glimmered on a necklace at her chest, and bending closer, he saw it was a horse, a horse like the Guttersnipe's but made of white ivory, its legs gathered close. And in a gesture of defiance he knelt and carved a bird into the floorboards, so that when she woke she might know - if she was knowing these sorts of things - who had bested her in the dark and scorned her beauty, so that it might rest bitter in her belly for months to come.

He rattled back down the stairs and into the close warmth of the front room. The owner looked his way, smiling. "Too feisty for your liking?" He nodded toward the bloody tear in his shoulder.

"I am thinking she got the harder end of the deal," the young man replied, and, casting up his hood, ducked back out into the empty windiness of the night.

"Will you pour me another glass of milk, Snippet?" Artos asked.

She got him another cup and handed it over, her teeth showing in her own smile of victory. "You sly fox!" she told him. "Was she very pretty?"

He shrugged thoughtfully. "Yes, but not in the right way. Not as you are," he added, giving one of her bangles a flick. "But nothing has happened yet between Hengist and Vortigern, so either they are both very busy with their own troubles, or the woman was lying in that, too. Are you satisfied, Caleb?"

The Jew was watching the Guttersnipe's indignant, enlivened face. "And that is why," he told her, ignoring Artos' question, "you always have a knife in your boot."

"But I am not wearing boots," she replied. But she sat so, swinging one leg over the floor, a dark little smile on her face so that Artos knew she thought him viciously clever.

"Go make yourself useful," he told her, giving her a push. "And stop daydreaming about the heroes in Caleb's songs. You've given her ideas, Caleb."

"He has not given me ideas," she told him, still indignant. And suddenly she stilled, having risen from her seat, and looked at him, head to one side. "You'll always be the great Merlin, no matter where you wage your battles. I will love all your victories." Then, almost as quickly as it came, the solemnity was gone, and she said, "Rum luck on the girl. Lying cow!" And she went off with a scornful laugh of her own which was, to Artos, somehow an honour on his standard.

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