Jenny: Movements

The sky was tiger-striped with grey rain clouds and the blazing, burnished flanks of a tawny evening sky as Vortimer and his men swung round the curve of the burn and descended on the first lonely farm-steading. The rolling drum of their horses' hooves threw back the crackling thunder of the breaking storm. Water plumed white around them as they cross the stream and made their way up the hill toward the humble buildings. A dog barked, announcing their arrival. A child ran down the grass behind one of the buidings, disappearing from view a moment before emerging full-tilt to see who was coming. The whole place had a peaceful atmosphere to it, at which Vortimer showed his dog-teeth in pleasure.

He reined it at the biggest of the huts, patting his shivering, stamping mare on the neck. "Boy," he called. "Boy! Where are your parents?"

The boy ran up with the dog and stopped in his shadow, squinting up past the glory of the setting sun. "Mama's dead three years past and Father took the cattle on the market-droving. Murna is in the house-place."

He smiled down at the little lanky fellow. "Do you call Murna out to me, then."

The worn circle of courtyard, ringed by the buildings, fell quiet as the boy retired into the house. A horse squealed and tossed its head; one of the men turned aside with a chink and a click to see to his gear. The wild racing shadows of the clouds flew across the hillsides, driven by a high wind. It was one of those evenings that made him feel all the more wild and foxy, and he felt a fire burning in his chest for the glory of the hunt. Come, Murna! he thought. Come give me word of my quarry. I'm to be off on the wind in a moment.

At length Murna came. The bullhide flap of the house-place door was lifted aside, and a tall young woman emerged, very solemn about the large eyes, and as beautiful as a woman used to the hard labour of a farm could be. The sunset ripping through the thunder-wrack showed up her mass of hair as burnish red. She stood just outside the doorway, the flap swinging where she had dropped it behind her, and looked them all over carefully, moving nothing but her head. The boy, unimportant now, did not show himself.

"Surely this is the humblest of my lord's houses," the girl said in the old tongue; "and surely we are the humblest of his servants."

"That is for your lord to judge," Vortimer returned evenly. His mare rocked and shifted beneath him. "Tell me, Murna: have you see any Overseas men within the last two days, coming or going, north or south?"

Nothing flickered in the careful darkness of the girl's eyes as she looked steadfastly back into his face. "Since my father has gone away on the market-droving," she said, "you have been the first men to cross our lands, my lord."

Vortimer glanced back at his second, who nodded once. Coming back round to Murna, he reached into the pack on the side of his saddle and pulled out a fine knife, light and deadly. He gave it a light toss, and Murna, with the deftness of one who knew something of weapons, caught it in one hand. "If you are loyal to your lord, make an end of his enemies if you chance to meet them," he told her. The mare swung aside, ready to be off, but he held it in check a moment, adding, "And strike a blow for your own sake, pretty girl."

The veil behind Murna's eyes shifted just a fraction; but she, like all good British women, stood tall and fast like a queen and did not let him see what secret things she thought. Raising his hand to her, Vortimer gave the signal and the ragged column of riders swung off away from the farm-steading, following the burn down between the hills until they reached the scarlet mass of hawthorn-thicket, and there reined in again.

The horses dug their heels into the gravely dirt as Vortimer thrust up his fist to call the halt. His second's mount leapt a root and spun round to face him. "Well? We have outdistanced the stragglers. What now, sir?"

Under the crimson roof of leaves, the Fox gathered his cubs around him and sat in thought a moment. "There are not enough stragglers to cause much trouble," he said presently. "If they are wounded they will die in ditches somewhere, and the ravens will take care of them. But word will get to Vortigern eventually." He was quiet a moment. "Vortigern will go to Hengist and his pretty golden girl. But it's the runs of the Blue Shield People for us! We'll keep our ears open for his movements meanwhile. It won't be long before he runs to the Saxons, having failed in this bid to crush Ambrosius. Aiyah! what a dysfunctional pack of bedfellows in our Island!"

There was a hoot of laughter among the cubs and they were off again up between the arms of the Welsh hills. Behind them, a thundery, mizzle-strewn wind blew through the thicket and flung out a cloud of cardinal-scarlet leaves, hushing like the ghosts of victories.

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