Jenny: Devil-in-the-Dusk

He knew what she met, but he wondered if she really understood. The little fighting cock sat primly in her feathers surrounded by her familiar people - warm, friendly people, Master Lucius considered - and seemed a world apart from the half-stripped, barbaric little creature which had led them in the woods. It's the native in her, he supposed. They touch things so far back they do not even know how they do it. Still, when had she ever taken the welcome-cup and found it poisoned? When had a friend's smile turned to wolfish fangs in the dark for her? Just then she cast up a brown-flecked, open face, smiling, to Artos above her: wholly disarming and sweet. Despite all, her gold had never turned to dragonfire in her hands.

Now, Ambrosius... He turned his head as the lord entered the atrium, Gaius behind him. Ambrosius had tasted that cup and found that wolf-face smiling back at him through the dark. Artos too, for the two were one in everything. There was something between the two of them now, something dark and secretive, which had only got worse as the week went by. Not having the vast distractions of the world to deal with, Master Lucius had sat and watched the thoughtful brooding tension between the two of them. Quite naturally, Vortigern's bid for power through bloodshed would set the two lords on their toes; but it was something else that Master Lucius felt. He could not put a finger on it, nor did he ever dare to ask though he had sat by Artos' bedside for many hours through the week. He missed Gwenhywfar coming to him and confiding in him; he found he missed the challenge. Tacitus was all well and good, and Pliny was company enough for hours, and he knew he would never break open all of Paul's philosophical eggs in a lifetime. But he missed knowing. Unlike the others, he found himself rather dreading the pending winter. They could come and go as they pleased, free with two solid legs apiece: he was a prisoner almost constantly, confined to his wandering mind, hedged in by the thorny walls of fierce, quiet pain. They could come and go and appreciate the restful winter, knowing they could go out again in the spring: to him it was just another compounding of his prison.

"Are we all here?" Lord Ambrosius had stopped at the end of the hearth, thumbs in his belt, looking them over. Instinctively, Master Lucius glanced round; Gaius was sliding onto the bench by Bedwyr, and they did seem to all be assembled. Jason broke off his talk with Artos and pulled his stool around to face Ambrosius. The Guttersnipe laid aside her flowers, her face rather pale. Satisfied that he had their attention, Ambrosius went on. "There are several developments of which I want you all to be aware. We not only have Vortigern to worry about. In the space of a week - nay, less - it is entirely possible that the whole of Britain has turned against us."

Master Lucius was vividly aware of a violent gesture Kay made with his knife.

"Among the men who came to kill us and burn our roof down over our heads was my brother, Artorius. Not only that, but a knife of mine has gone missing."

There were quizzical, guessing looks from everyone but Gaius and Artos. The hand that the Guttersnipe reached out to Jason with was trembling.

"Some of you will have met Lord Alan - Jason and the Guttersnipe won't have, but the rest of you know him well. Some years ago, I received a gift from him, the gift of a knife. I nearly lost possession of it shortly after I got it, and I did everything in my power to retrieve it. It was no ordinary knife. Bound up in the hilt was an edict from Stilicho. You are all aware that my father served under Theodosius' reign. Theodosius was a good man, and under him Stilicho rose in the ranks. I would have nothing against Stilicho, save this: while he held to the Nicean documents, he remained superstitious and suspicious of anything remotely smelling of paganism. This edit which he issued was as follows:

" 'That all executors of arts unlawful, harmful, devious, unnatural, magical, spiritual, and demonic - namely, witches, warlocks, occultists, diviners, seers, and druids - must by royal decree be cut off and executed themselves by decapitation or by burning, as is lawful for the souls given to the fires of hell.' "

There was a long moment of silence. Master Lucius understood it immediately, but he saw the comprehension slowly creep into the faces of the others. He could not wait for them. He turned back on Lord Ambrosius. "But sir, Stilicho has been dead for years. The whole mess in Rome and Italy saw him killed. How can you be sure the edict would hold?"

"It will hold," Ambrosius said grimly. "There are people who will see that it holds."

"I am not understanding," the Guttersnipe said in a thin, brittle voice. "I am not understanding. What do witches and warlocks have to do with us?"

Artos gave a swift, bitter laugh. "You beautiful!" he said. "You innocent. You don't see that people look on us as magical, as though we trained the powers of air to see for us? Who can look us in the eye? The wolf will sooner spring than look a man in the eye for long: he knows his overlords. And who is persecuted so hotly as the man who has done nothing wrong?"

"We are not witches!" the Guttersnipe protested, as though she had not heard the Merlin's truth. Master Lucius turned his head away, unable to look at the stark, blood-drained horror on the girl's face.

"Hold fast, Guttersnipe," her Lord Ambrosius said. "There is not much we can do but pray. It may be that our hour in Britain is coming to an end, and God has given the White Isle over to darkness at last. But I hope not - I pray not. We are in the twilight, and all we can do is keep the beacons burning for as long as we stand."

"But it is hard," Caleb said gently, "when our own fires burn us."

Lord Ambrosius nodded wordlessly.

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