Jenny: Loved

At last the Guttersnipe, left to her own devices, entered the kitchen. Everyone else, it seemed, had eaten, but there was always something to be dug up on one's own: she procured a pastry, and sat in the warm solitude of one corner of the kitchen, while Frip waited at her feet should she drop a bit of meat from her pocket of dough. The kitchen cat was perched in the window above her, basking in what light there was, just beside the oven shaft which made it warm. She thought that if the world were reduced to a rough shingle slag, the last cat on earth would still find a comfortable place in which to sleep; and not heaven, for love, nor hell, for fear, would disturb it.

"Oh, sir!"

She looked round as one of the maids gave a started wave to Ambrosius, who stood in the doorway. He gave the girl a passing smile to ease her, for it was not often that he walked into his own kitchen, and like a hen she was a little flustered. "Guttersnipe," he called across to her. "When you have finished, come to my room."

He disappeared again as suddenly as he had come, and she was left to wolf down her pastry in confusion. What could he want? She had things to do. She had - good heavens! she had a funeral to prepare for. The thought stopped her as she rose to her feet, quite a blow of shock. She felt alternately sick with guilt and sick with loss. She had forgotten. She had always taken the boy's presence for granted, and now that it was gone, she could not quite believe it. Gone. The word was empty, meaningless. She could not get around it, and she wanted to laugh as if at an ill-timed joke, hoping the laughter would make the sickness go away.

I will be found in him,
I will be known in him.
Onward and onward,
through the vales with dove-bird shadows,
through the woods and flowerless meadows:
homeward and upward -
I press on.
My resurrection.
I press on.
My life is in him,
My life is of him.
Onward, and onward,
heedless of my past of evil things,
reaching for the Christ the King of kings:
homeward and upward -
I press on.
My resurrection.
I press on.
Ah, mm...

It was Portia who sang, idly in the manner of a working girl, as she cut apples to dry them. Yet her song, idle as it was, so softly sung, came to the Guttersnipe as from a far place. The Land of Summer, perhaps, where the apples never dried, where they fell into one's hand as one reached for them. It came to her as red, red as poppies. And she found that, though it still hurt, the gap the boy had left was not so dark.

With Frip at her heels, she followed the hallway to Ambrosius' chamber. She found him at his desk, evidently writing a letter, or a report - he was always a stickler for reports, and Artos even more so - but he turned at her entrance and started up with a smile. "Guttersnipe! I find I have a moment when no one needs me. I want to show you something."

"What is it?" she asked, curious, yet knowing that she could get no answer until the thing was in her hands. She followed him from one end of his room to the other where he had a stack of trunks. She never noticed them, for they never moved. But he stopped at a stack of three, hauled down the top two, and pushed the third toward her. She knelt before it, puzzled, while he restacked the trunks. The trunk he presented her with was unlovely, built of sturdy wood and sealed fast. Looking at the front, she exclaimed, "It has got your seal on it!"

For where the latches came down from the lid to the body, pressed into mounds of wax, were the duplicate letters VIX. Ambrosius crouched down at her side and looked too. "That's because I put the seal on it," he told her. "Do you know what it means?"

She shook her head, wondering that she had never asked before.

He reached out and touched the wax gently. "It is the abbreviation of a legion which served here in Britain, oh, long ago. My father's legion."

A year ago, it might not have meant anything to her. But it was not a year ago, it was now, with half a year of very full months between, and the Guttersnipe sat with her hands in her lap, gazing at the wax, for the moment not seeing the trunk, but seeing other things, seeing things which she only knew of from Gaius' histories and from stories: a time long past; a time, she thought, never to return. And at Ambrosius' last words, and at that thought, her throat constricted. "Amadeus," she said softly. "V - Vortigern told me. He told me the story." She frowned, knowing he had cut his eyes to her quickly, listening intently. "But I want to hear it from your side. You loved him. Vortigern couldn't."

But Ambrosius shook his head. "I never knew him. I was too young to remember when he died. But the stories, those I remember. This - " he touched the torc at his throat " - was his. He was awarded it after his good conduct in the Rebellion of the Wall. Perhaps it is only legend, but the story runs that he and his decurion and the decury were the only ones who stood by Rome in those days. And they, the sole sons of the Victrix, the Northern Legion of Britain, they were victorous."

She frowned into his face. "But the legion - it rebelled. I've heard Gaius talk about it when he tells us our history. Isn't it a bad name?"

"You could say that," said Ambrosius. "Ordinarily, they would have been decimated. But since only just over ten of them remained, and one of them gave up his life in the fighting to save Britain from the chaos of anarchy, so the story goes, I think the powers that be determined the score settled, and the good-conduct medal was awarded."

She nodded, silent, staring again at the trunk and at the images in her head. Perhaps later, when she was quite alone, she would try Seeing these things... But for now she sat and listened to Ambrosius.

"But that was yesterday," he said, "and I did not bring you in here to show you an old musty trunk with my familiar stamp on it. Here." He pulled out his knife and broke the seal; she cupped her hands beneath his own to catch the wax. Then, as she found a napkin in which to put the wax, he pried the old trunk open. Inside was a great length of red cloth, which he took out and flung over one shoulder, and she was able to see what lay beneath it.

The old unlovely trunk housed a gown of white, a gown cut in the old Roman style. It had never been worn. It lay smooth and crisp in its bed, and from its shoulders twinkled the lively lights of silver, peridot, and aquamarine, sea-colours, soft and pale, catching the fitful light and throwing it back at her. She was wholly speechless, and not even when he bent to draw the gown out and hold it to her could she breathe a word. It lay against her as she imagined milk would, if one could weave a dress from milk. The gems sparkled brightly. It left her arms bare, made in the old southern style, but the cloth that gathered with the clasps over her shoulders and tumbled down under her arms at her sides were like swans' wings.

"Oh...!" she managed. All else caught in her chest and choked her.

Ambrosius smiled. "I got it for you ages ago. I thought, one day my little wild filly will catch a man's eye, and she will need something to wear for him... It may be a little cold, though."

"No matter," the Guttersnipe said, recovering. "He will keep me warm enough."

Ambrosius laughed outright, and gave the dress into her arms. "Without a doubt, you are my Guttersnipe. Have Domitia get you into it and see how it fits. You barely reached my waist with the top of your head when I bought it for you. And you are skinny enough - you may need to take it in."

She clutched it close under her chin. "Oh, Ama, it is lovely! I have never seen anything so lovely."

His smiled faded to a bemused quirk on his face. "Have you not, Guttersnipe of mine? Have you not looked at yourself in a mirror before?" He touched her chin with his forefinger.

Far more beautiful was the nest of swans' feathers in which she was set, a nest of love - rough at times, for even the softest feather turned a sharp quill, but secure. It had given her Ambrosius' smile, Artos' laughter, Jason's hand, the swan-white dress: pieces, like down-feathers on the wind from the pure breast of love itself, cupped in a valley to make a nest for her. "Sha!" she said fretfully, and shoved the side of her hand across her eyes.

Ambrosius held out the red cloth. "Best put it away in the trunk for now. I will put it in your room."

She did as he told her to, and she parted reluctantly with the trunk and Ambrosius at the doorway to her bedroom. With a boom and a sliding crash, Ambrosius called, "Don't tell Jason!" because he knew as well as she did how hard it was for her to keep her own secrets.

"Don't tell me what?" the young surgeon asked, coming down the hallway with a handful of soiled rags.

The Guttersnipe laughed hysterically in his face.

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