Jenny: A Veil of Cotton

The Guttersnipe had laid everything out in order. He had only to drag his harness over his head, careful not to raise up the red anger in his leg any more than necessary, grimly memorizing in the back of his mind what would happen if he could not grip Nutmeg's barrel with both knees. Behind the cool soldier's movements throbbed the cold sickness of anxiety. There was nothing he could do, nothing except give up his own life, but again and again he had to push away the cold sickness with a calm fury.

A strap ducked into its buckle like a rabbit into its warren.

Catching up his helmet, black horse-hair crest spraying, he strode out with a little limp to the atrium, head up, pulling in the electric scent of battle in the air. Someone stopped at the sight of him, face alternately paling and reddening as he passed by. He knew what they were all thinking, watching him, and he felt the weight of their dependence like his cloak upon his shoulders. They looked to him and his uncle as their champions. Without them, all was lost.

How could he tell them all was lost, even so?

Snippet was standing by his mare's head in the yard, face down into the muzzle, whispering soft, crooning things. She tossed up her head, eyes wide, as he approached, and he noticed she was pale. Her hands twitched; she wanted to fling her arms around his neck and hold him as she had done as a child when he had gone away. But she held her ground, chin up, and only reached out to take the helmet from him as he went to mount. The light seemed to pool around her, flashing off her amber and off the coral-studding of Nutmeg's bridle. Small, pretty things that one noticed before battle: they might be the last things one ever remembered in this world.

She held Meg's head as he hauled himself astride, a familiar move made awkward by the stiffness in his leg. But the stitching held, and the anger in the wound only shifted like a sleeping dragon, and he settled in to the creaking leather. When he took up the reins the Guttersnipe jumped aside as the war-mare came to life beneath him. For a moment everything hung in the balance as he fought to use his bad leg, then the world steadied, and he was firmly in his seat, breathing out a heavy breath.

"Don't you get yourself killed," the Guttersnipe told him in a voice rather louder than normal.

Taking his helmet from her, he saw the paleness again, and how tight her countenance was, as though she had drawn a veil of Egyptian cotton over her fear so that he would not see. But the cotton was Egyptian, and he did see; and it came to him, very clearly and quietly, quite unattached to the present urgency, that she was proud of him. And it was the quiet part of him that reached down and touched her cheek, touched the flimsy veil of cotton. "Best you lend your hands to Jason, Snippet. He will be needing them."

She stood stalwart in the yard, the torchlight flaming golden around her, and nodded without a word. She lingered so a moment, a thing of the night and the glow, and then she stepped back and turned to be swallowed up in the fierce light of the vestibule doorway where her man was waiting.

His knuckle had come away damp.

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