Jenny: The Fox and the Fieldmouse

The Guttersnipe stifled a surprised cry and leapt around the big fellow. She apologized, and he gave her obeisance, but as they moved apart on their separate ways she glanced over his shoulder at him. She could not recall ever having seen him before. She thought she knew all of the Fox's lieutenants; but he had that tough, wiry frame which the Fox liked in his men. Having other things pressing on her mind, she brushed him off like a leaf from her shoulder and went out to find Jason.

She found him in the little surgery at the foot of the southern hill where the worn pasture track converged with the wide worn patch that served for the village square. She had never liked the building in her youth, disliking Gaius poking and prodding her whenever she was sick. Even now her hands clenched involuntarily as she stepped into the front room with the light around her. Everything that fell under her eye was in order. It was always in order. As far back as she could remember, no matter how much the world was in upheaval, this one building was always tidy.

The front room was empty. She passed on to the back room where the supplies were kept, and she found Jason in a chair with his head back against the wall, asleep. She had removed her boots last evening and she stood silent in her bare feet, watching him. In the morning light that washed against his cheek she could see his faint freckles; his tawny hair took the light and glowed like a lion's mane. He must have drifted off as he worked, for a knife and a cloth were in his hands where they lay in his lap. She almost left him so. She felt a mix of emotions, part of which was almost maternal, seeing him sleeping as a child and wanting him to sleep still, deeply and restfully.

He drew in a deeper breath and stirred, turning his head to the doorway. The light reflected from his hazel eyes as he opened them to her. It took him a brief moment to see her through the nimbus of light in the doorway, then he smiled. Switching the knife to his other hand, he reached out to her. She went to him and took his hand, kneeling at his feet. "My little fieldmouse... You look tired," he said.

"I slept poorly," she admitted. "Artos has taken all the sleep as a black star takes all the light, and uses none of it."

He shifted forward, more awake now. "Has he woken?"

She shook her head.

"Mm." With a cat's grimace he rubbed his forehead and yawned, coming close to opening a clean line in his skin with the knife. She watched with silent trepidation until he dropped his hand back to his lap, unscathed. "Is anyone with him now? He should not be left alone."

"Master Lucius sent me out to find you, for I stayed with him all night. He is reading Pliny to Artos, saying that it can only make him sleep more deeply."

Jason gave a ghostly smile. "And Ambrosius?"

"I have not seen him yet this morning, and I have not inquired." She got to her feet and put one arm around him, kneading at the hard shoulders. At the rhythmic motion, Jason threatened to lapse back into sleep. "I feel I am needing to be all places at once."

"The need runs in the family," her man murmured, his eyes closed.

"I should go find him. He is so busy looking after everyone else, I need to look after him."

Jason's eyes came open again, owlish in the morning light. He leaned forward and stretched until the quiet room was filled with the uncanny noises of his back crackling. "We might hold the world together," he said through another broad yawn, "but your fine stitches keep it together. And if you can find a moment, take Frip down to the river. You look as though you slept on a floor all night."

"I did," she said. Then, "Are you going to get up if I leave?"

He gave a noncommittal noise.

"Would you get up if I stayed?"

"Probably not. Why should I? You can always fetch what I need."

"I would," his fieldmouse admitted. "I will be back after my bath."

Jason dragged himself out of the chair. "I should be up at the villa by then. I have my own wounds to see to." He held up his other hand, which was swathed in a neat bandage. "Some war-dogs ran in after you had gone to sleep. They must have got loose of their collars during the night, wherever they had been kept. We killed them all, but one of them took my taste to his dogsome grave."

She told him he would have pretty scars and she would like them, and he assured her he had suffered them just for her. She left him to sink back into his chair once she was out of sight and went back out into the broad sunlight. If she did not look at the pasture, everything looked as it always did. The boys under Caleb were already at work rethatching the Long Barn, taking full advantage of this sunny spell.

She was met halfway up the slope by the bounding, fantastic figure of the Fox. He ran up with the long-legged gait of his namesake and dropped in beside her, accompanying her as if it were his duty. She liked him a great deal, for he was like a character from a story, though whenever she was with him he seemed to emit an overwhelming aura of danger and slyness. When he smiled at her, it was as though a fox smiled; but she had long ago learned to throw back the same smile, and to mean it as toothily as he did, and while they were perhaps the oddest pair, they walked together toward the villa and enjoyed each other's company.

"What chicken coop have you been in?" she asked him. "You look as though you had the rooster, hen, eggs, and all."

He swung about, walking sideways with her, and gave her back: "You look as though a young man has kissed you."

"The young man told me I looked as though I had slept on a floor all night."

"Yes, well, no one is quite the charmer as I am," said the Fox, nodding so that the tail of his hood flashed a saucy dance.

"No, of course not."

"Don't coddle me!" he said. "You're as much a liar as I am, decked out in pretty royal splendour like some fancy bird, when we all know you're just a guttersnipe - and myself I've had to cobble together my own reputation, while everyone knows I'm Vortigern's son. Liars, the both of us. And neither of us care." He smiled thoughtfully. "I like that about you."

She murmured, "And likewise I you."

The Fox looked down at her from his wiry height, the sunlight making his hood glow as a fire. "I am thinking you must be the only girl who is not afraid of me," he said happily.

"I live with the Hawk and the Merlin," she returned dryly. "There is not much to fear."

He flung back his head and laughed, and gave her his arm. They walked together to the courtyard of the villa, but there, suddenly thoughtful, the Guttersnipe asked, "Does your sister fear you?"

Something swept into the Fox's face that she had never seen before. Always it was a honeyed sort of laziness, or the reckless abandon of a fight, which played across his features. Now he looked, for a moment, as though cast in stone, staring down at her. He was not afraid to lapse into perfect stillness and to stare one, like a cat, completely out of countenance. She felt herself flushing under his unmoving, unblinking gaze. But at last he relaxed into movement again. "No," he said quietly. "No, she is afraid of nothing."

He left her at the vestibule and went his way, wherever his way was. She thought the butterfly and the bumblebee had more innate direction than he; she watched him wander away, gazing at and listening to this and that, yet with, for the moment, a more subdued air to his step. He must have felt her watching him, but he did not look back, and presently he was out of sight, and she found herself wondering if she ought to regret what she had said.

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