Jenny: Dealing in Blood

Artos pulled himself up on his good leg and hauled his chair round to the table beside Master Lucius. Jason jerked and stirred at the noise, blinking out of his long cat-nap. He set the little block-of-wood horse on the table and stuck his knife down into the worn boards. The Guttersnipe, approaching to put away the draughts board, grimaced and removed the knife. "No, no," he muttered, holding out his hand. "Give the knife back."

"Don't ruin the table," she said.

He waved his hand impatiently. "The table is already ruined..."

As though he were a child, she stowed the knife in her belt and wisked the draughts board away. He glared between her shoulder-blades as she moved away, then sighed and turned back to Master Lucius. "How was your game?"

The young man followed Ambrosius across the room with his eyes, lips set in a thin self-deprecating smile. "He beat me twice. He is cold, calculating, and brutal. He held victory in front of me for almost half an hour before deftly snatching it away without so much as a blink of an eye."

Artos laughed. "He is brutal. I believe I have beat him once, and he denies it. He enjoys a tough game, you can be sure of that; he enjoys winning even more, though." He tucked his hands behind his head as the Guttersnipe passed behind him. "It is a nice little commentary on his military tactics."

"Where did he learn?" asked Master Lucius, tipping his head to one side. "I am not well acquainted with his earlier years."

"Not many people are. Or, if they are, they have forgotten. We don't come from the most illustrious of stock ourselves. We're fairly normal as far as our blood goes: my great-uncle served with Rome against the uprising of the Wall, and he was awarded some metal, but he was just a rank-and-file centurion: typical whipcord material without fine edges or frills. Neither of us have had any training beyond sheer survival tactics. War just comes naturally to us. It's how we see things. We were in a little town just off the South Downs when a raiding party came in - oh, I must have been twelve or thirteen, my uncle would have been just twenty - and I remember him walking to the door of the house where we were staying, looking out into the night where the raiding fires were lit on the horizon. Then he turned around and looked at us a moment. Then he drew his knife, stared at it, then held it up and said, "Two inches, lads." And there we went. He had a knife and I had a knife - I'd never killed more than an otter before - and the two boys of the steading had each short hunting spears. We must have taken down ten raiders that night." Artos leaned forward and stuck his knife into the table as though to toast victory. "We went down to the beach first and killed their guard, then pulled planks out of their boats. It was time consuming, but we had an hour to spare. That done - we couldn't risk warning them by setting the boats on fire, you see - we went up the hill to the house to finish the work.

"My uncle fought like a hunting cat. Quiet, superb... He never made a noise. We had them pinched in the courtyard of the old villa, and once we were in among them doing all the dirty work, there was nowhere for them to go. They fought hard, but we fought harder. Their leader, a big fantastic blond fellow, had my uncle in a bit of a dance at one point. He was hauling his axe like Thor at my uncle, and my uncle was feinting and dodging and poking the man with his knife. The Saxon was so mad. I have never seen a man so mad. His face was set and heavy and bright - livid - purple. Neither one of them said a word. Even when my uncle was thrown over onto his back and the axe came down in the dirt right between his knees, he just made this face at the thing, eyebrows flyaway, and he put his knife away in the Saxon's throat. Then he climbed to his feet, pulled the axe out of the dirt, and said, 'Well, that was a little close,' and that was it. We've been swinging sharp and pointies for Britain ever since."

Across the room, the Guttersnipe slapped her hand to her belt and whirled round, a little choked cry on her lips as she saw the knife in the table. Artos smiled.

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