Jenny: At the Back of the North Wind

On her way through the atrium, the Guttersnipe saw firstly Domitia, fast asleep on a cot, and the fellow she had run into earlier. He sat, like a concentrated, malignant toad, in one corner with the shiny curve of a bowl upheld to his face, and he was using a surgeon's knife to carve delicately away at the beard that clung desperately to his cheeks. She paused to watch him, some of Vortimer's honey-laziness having rubbed off on her, with a feeling of muted interest, waiting to see if there would be any blood, for the knife was sharp enough to cut through a cow's hide. But he seemed to know his way around his own face, and shaved off the curly dark hair with the skill of a seamstress making her tiny stitches. Faintly disappointed, she went on to Ambrosius' chambers.

All was quiet in his room. She left a world of bustling activity behind, stepping into a white world of quiet, as though she stepped into the lee of the north wind, into the shadow of a swan's wings. Little pieces of silver - an ornamental knife, part of a bridle, a full breastplate - sparkled at her as if in greeting. There was a fine glass bowl upon the table which held a whole handful of pearls, some white, some marbled with silver, some nearly black. She recalled playing with them as a very young child. And, as always, there was that lingering scent of rose-petals which reached out to her, which made the sense of the room being Elsewhere all the stronger.

But for the silver-winging hair at his temples, Ambrosius looked like Artos in that first moment. He lay in a sound sleep on his couch, a sheet of Egyptian cotton thrown over him adding to the soft white splendour of the room. He had one arm flung back under his head, and the other lay across his, the hand in his lap; and in his hand, very stark amid the white and silver, was his knife, which was of ivory and gold and the blade of dark Damascus steel - the prettiest weapon he ever carried. The hand was loose about it, but she knew better: he would have full possession of it, and perhaps even have it in a foe, before he had fully woken.

She took up her skirt and stepped up on the dais to approach his side. She hated to wake him. Why did she have to wake everyone out of such beautiful sleep this morning? And why did she not have any beautiful sleep herself? She sighed and touched his shoulder. "Ama," she murmured coaxingly. "Ama, it's time to wake up."

He surfaced with perfect clarity, and looking in his open eyes was like looking at the blue-and-black reflection of the sky and forest in a meandering river. "Must it be?" he asked softly.

"I am afraid so," she said. She sat down and took the knife out of his hands.

When he flung back the sheet and swung to the edge of the couch, she saw him as few had privilege to: as a man newly awake, running his hands over his face and through his hair, taking in the time of day by the wash of light coming in through his window. A man, almost like any other man, in an ordinary tunic of white which softened his harsh edges. Strange, she thought, how one could see inside a person so clearly in those first moments after waking when the person was just coming back to their rested body, and the door was not yet fully shut.

He turned to face her, the light playing on his torc. "How is Artos?"

"He slept all night," she reported. "He gave but one cry, a single cry, and that was all - he did not wake. He is still feverish, but otherwise he sleeps stationary. Master Lucius is with him now, and Jason is on his way up."

Ambrosius looked at her for a few moments, wordless. She knew she did not have to tell him that she had slept poorly. She felt as though she were holding them all in her hands, like the pearls, like the petals, and in her sleep she might let them slip. He sighed and held out his arm to her, and she put her head in the hollow of his shoulder, worn out. "It's been a long march," he murmured, rocking her a little. "A long, long march..."

She began to drift in the magic of his warm, solid presence. The Hawk's wings were white, so white, white as Champion, and in their cool, cushioning folds she fancied she found a far country of gold and green and white, flecked through with the red of poppies and the high, clear sound of a loved voice. It fell like water over her ears, hanging as she was in that place between sleeping and waking. It distilled, presently, into Jason's voice, as warm as the sun on the poppies, as cool as the feathers around her.

"Poor chit," he was saying. "She has had a hard time of it."

"Harder, I think, than even she knows," said the Wings.

"Well, I'm proud of her. She's done well," the sun-touched poppies said adamantly. Then there was a pressure on her face as if the west wind had kissed her, and a softness as of cloud draped itself over her. The poppies made a pillow for her in a hollow of pearls.

No comments:

Post a Comment