The rock on which Master Lucius perched was damp and uncomfortable, and the tablet lay awkwardly over his knees, shifting and flapping whenever he attempted to press down on it. Grimly setting his lips in a line, he took firm hold of the thing and brandished his writing implement. There was no time to be flapping about.
Twelve posts were set up, one at each corner of the area and two between each corner, all hung with clusters of lamps. It seemed large to me at first, more room than men would need, but as the crowd gathered in silence on the outskirts, pressing in to the fringes of the light, giving the enclosure a sense of real urgency, and when the two men stepped into the light, the area seemed tiny.
To describe their faces is the work of another man. The Guttersnipe, perhaps, whose perception lies closer to the heart of things, could do it justice - but not I. Suffice it to say that both men were stripped to their tunics, wearing a single guard upon each forearm, holding in their left hands small bucklers. Cunorix the Mercenary wore his dark red warrior's tunic, which seemed faintly mocking in this assembly, and the Lord of Eryri wore his simple white. Long ago, in the old times, men would bait men this way, and cheer for spilt blood. Even among our forward race are brutal and backward customs. And this night was one of those nights. Forward as Lord Ambrosius is, as Roman as his blood runs, the night was wild and shadow-filled, British as you pleased. He stood to the left end of the enclosure, sword and buckler in hand, the calm and eagerness flickering in his -
But I won't. There was no time wasted. They felt their weapons - Cunorix to learn what sort of sword he carried, Ambrosius for the comfortable show of it - and began the dance which to any man who has not danced it appears awkward. The bucklers flashed in the light as the men moved round and round, watching each other carefully. To one who has not danced, it is hard to understand the strain upon the nerves which each heartbeat brings. There is no idle moment in the whole movement. Everything means something: the ripple of the fingers, the twitch of an eyelid, the purse of the lips, the shift of the ball of a foot in the dirt. These men fight for their lives, and when they fight, there is nothing else in the world.
The whole crowd jerked as one when the two finally sprang together and closed the gap. The valley rang with the collision of their swords and bucklers. They did not draw off. They kept at each other like pitted stallions, both of them elegant, deadly, and furious.
There are plenty of similarities between Ambrosius and Artos which must always be between a father and a son, but where Artos fought like a hammer, Ambrosius truly fought like a dance. His strokes were each slow and sure, each graceful - but even Artos would stagger at times under those blows, and the Merlin is renowned for his arm. As Ambrosius locked into the deadly reel with Cunorix, it was a sight almost as difficult to describe as his countenance. Cunorix's fighting, superb in itself, was much like the Merlins: fast, furious, calculating but hard. The observer feared for a moment that the mercenary's strokes would be too quick for the Hawk's. Yet no matter the speed of Cunorix's blade, Ambrosius met him, and Ambrosius was never hurried. He fought as a lady dances. It was truly beautiful to see.
There is one aspect of countenance worth mentioning. Or, rather, that the observer feels can be mentioned with any accuracy. There was upon the faces of the one, the Lord of Eryri, a certain assurance, an assurance of victory; and upon the face of the other, the reckless assurance of defeat. Throughout the whole fight those expressions never wavered, and it is in my mind that it must be a terrible thing to fight across from either face.
It ended with a movement too fast to see on Cunorix's part, and with the usual slow ease on the part of the Hawk. There was a blur of the former's sword, Ambrosius turned on the ball of one foot, and in his deliberate movements both avoided his adversary's sword and brought his own across the other's neck in the open space left behind. The fight went out of the mercenary in an instant, the lifeblood pooling into his cupped hands, and the observer was too busy writing these things to see Ambrosius stoop to give the mercy stroke. Grateful is the observer.
Wulf touched his shoulder inquiringly. Master Lucius looked up and nodded, having put the last line in for now. Across the enclosure he saw Ambrosius standing with Artos and Jason and the Guttersnipe. He could not see Jason's face, but the Guttersnipe was white and Artos was flushed; Ambrosius did not seem perturbed as he cleaned his hands quietly and gave the rag over to one of the maids to bear away. But Master Lucius, who had seen the constant look upon Ambrosius' face during the fight, a look which he would never forget, nor would he ever share with another soul, knew that the composure was hardly callous ease.
He had never really realized how great a man Ambrosius was until now.
- ▼ November (9)