Horses And Other Equines

Headed for the chapel, Cathair saw Aithne coming up from the cloister and he fell in with her. "Feeling any better, gra?"

She gave him a half-smile. "Some. It did me good to stay alone awhile." She took his arm and rested her head on his shoulder.

Cathair raised an eyebrow. "Really? That's unusual for you. Unusual for you to admit, at least." This earned a punch in the arm, and he pretended it hurt, yelping. She giggled- a small one, but an unexpected sound after the past day- and he took heart.

"Well then, I think we should talk before we go back."


"Talk? What about?" She pulled back to look at him, guessing what he would say.

"I spoke with Kay and Bedwyr after you left. Explained how things seemed to you. They advised me..." He hesitated, then straightened and looked as though he was attempting sternness. "He said you should change your lead."

"I should what?" Her puzzlement was obvious.

"Er... change your lead. It's a horse term. I think."

She gave him a look of mixed confusion, amusement, and mild annoyance. "I know it's a horse term. I'm wondering why I was being refered to as a horse."

Now it was Cathair's turn to be confused. "What? I didn't..." He exhaled. "If it helps any, he was talking about both of us, not just you."

She nodded. "So then, when in Britain, do as the British do, yes?"


Storm abated. For a moment he feared her temper would flare into life and all the quiet day's work would be ruined.

"Something like that, I suppose."

Heaving a sigh, she dropped her head against his chest, rather like some people banged their heads against walls. "Easier for a horse to change his lead. But I'll try. Again."

"That's what I love about you." He said, quietly.

She must have missed the edge of mischief in his voice, because all she said was "Hmm?" with her head still buried in his jerkin.

"You're as stubborn as a donkey."

Her head flew up, narrowly missing his jaw. "Brute!"

Next thing he knew, she was running up to the villa, and he was chasing after.

Jenny: Where I Can't Follow

"What is bothering you?"

"Whatever is bothering you."

The bootlace thunked as Ambrosius jerked it from its metal latch. The boot came off, and so did the other, carefully set aside to be cleaned. They had got mucked up rather badly: the snow had turned to mud in most places. The Guttersnipe watched his movements in introspective quiet. The dark had fallen; the two lamps and the brazier cast very little light in the chamber, and Ambrosius sat nearly on the outside of the well of gold, the light catching only his ring, his buckles, his eyes. It turned him badger-like, for out of the darkness of his hair she could see the faint streaks of silver at his temples. It was Albion's whiteness, she always thought. The badger straightened, staring at her out of the edges of the panther-dark, the electrum uncanny in his eyes.

"That is a rather large thing for you to bother about. Are you sure you know what all it is?"

The Guttersnipe stroked Champion's feathers. The Bird twisted on its perch - she wore one of Ambrosius' hawking gloves, which was much too big for her - and ruffled its nose-feathers against her hand. "It does not matter. It is bothering you, and so it bothers me."

The badger smiled, showing its teeth. "I wonder," he said.

"What was it that Lord Alan said? Have we any chance?"

He shrugged. "We have as much chance as we ever did. Alan and Lucius and I will do everything that we can, but..." His voice lingered on the silence a moment. "I may have to go before the Council in the spring."

Distaste crawled across her face. "Shahou!" she hissed. Champion snapped out his wings and fluttered, regaining his balance. "But why? They're only silly fat men with silly fat thoughts, and they know nothing of Britain and nothing of war and nothing of anything but silliness and fat. If I were a man I would tell them what I thought - I would tell them what I thought with my sword, and make them leave you alone."

"I am sure that you would," said Ambrosius soothingly. "But for some reason you are not a man, and, for their credit, they do a little more than think of silliness and running to fat."

"There is no running to it," she replied sulkily. "They have got there already." She added, still more sulkily, "I don't like fat."

"Nor I, but let us be charitable."

She looked sidewise at the badger in the shadows, her hands still methodically stroking the Bird. He was hiding something, she could see it in the way the silver of his eyes grew darker, and the careful way he kept his face, always smooth, always gentle, as a man might walk when stepping barefoot across a shelly beach. She wanted to say something, but she could not think what and her throat unexpectedly tightened at the last moment.

The badger rose and padded across the room to shutter the window and put on a sleeping tunic. With the hypocaust empty, the floor was pleasantly warm and the bite of the chill was taken out of the room. The Guttersnipe breathed constantly the scent of woodsmoke, which was to her the smell of colder months.


He looked up from adjusting his ring. She had swallowed the tightness, but it kept coming back. He waited without a sense of bewilderment. She wondered if he could feel, as though it were in his own, the tightness of her throat. She did not know how to say it, or if she wanted to say it - as if it might be unlucky - or even if he would understand.

"Don't go."

A spasm of agony passed over his face, and vanished almost at once. "I'm sorry, pigeon. I'll do my best."

So, he had understood.

Lys: Banshee

Aithne awoke with a start. Somewhere in her prayers she had apparently drifted off. "I'm sorry, Christos. I did not mean to sleep..."

The chapel seemed darker than before. She rose and peeked out the door, confirming her suspicions that it was mid-afternoon. The sky was already darkening- winter days were always shorter, and a wind blew up, making her shiver. She was grateful, though. Wind would dry the ground a bit and make it easier to build.

So she pulled her cloak tighter around her head and smiled, leaving the building to make her way to her room and her comb.

"I am not vain, but I will not go back to the villa looking like a banshee."

Jenny: Marigold

A log snapped in the fire, sending out a gusty spray of sparks and a rich scent of burnt wood. The Guttersnipe, who had been staring all this while into the heart of it, having finished her breakfast, came out of her reverie with a little jolt. She could not remember what she had been thinking about, or why she had lapsed into quiet while Artos and Jason talked to each other beside her. The Bird was perched on the back of her chair; his feathers stroked the nape of her neck in a very real and annoying way. She reached up hastily to brush the feeling away.

She took a look round the atrium. It was only the three of them seated at the table with Champion, and old Minna rocking on a low three-legged stool in the coldest corner of the room, humming to herself, sweet native words murmuring out through her crooked teeth. She had a wooden hoop in her hands, and she was weaved brightly coloured cloth in patterns in the middle of it. There was a very deep, vibrant green amongst the other colours, and it made her think of Master Lucius.

The Guttersnipe turned back to the two men at the table. "Has Master Lucius eaten?" she asked, ignorant of cutting in on their talk.

Artos stopped midsentence and frowned. "His man Wulf came through, but I didn't see him with any food."

"I'd better take him something."

She got up, and Jason, with an indescribable little gesture, offering no excuse, rose and came with her. Behind them, she heard Artos throw another log on the fire. The corridors were very cold to her shoulders; she wrapped her mantle close as she walked through the dimly pale-lit hallways. Master Lucius' door was, as always, wide open, and she could see him through the doorway bundled up on his couch, heavily feathered in papers. He seemed to be in deep and worried concentration. The Guttersnipe hesitated at the door.

In a moment Master Lucius looked up, faintly startled. When he noticed the food in her hands, he smiled. "I seem to need a lot of looking after, don't I?"

"A little and a little," purred the Guttersnipe. She crossed the room and set the food down by his elbow.

Master Lucius hardly gave the food a glance. He swept a handful of papers up into one fist. "Guttersnipe, there seems to be a discrepancy..." His gaze was suddenly coy. "I had always assumed that Lord Ambrosius had always been a member of the Council, but now I realize he was not. What precipitated his advancement, and what allowed him to enter the Council before he was a member?"

She was taken faintly aback by his questions. She had never asked Ambrosius herself - she had never known it. The Council, a shapeless, formless idea of shadowy figures on the very edge of her world, did not concern her. She thought it should, now it posed a threat to them, but when her mind turned to it, it was almost entirely obscured in an upward rush of hot fury. She touched her tongue to her dry lips. "I really don't know. I never asked, and he never told." She looked to Jason, but he, too, had nothing to add. "Why, is there something very missing?"

"Oh, well, I can get on," said Master Lucius, recoiling instantly behind his battery of papers. "I'll just put it down on my growing list of things to ask him when I see him again."

The two of them dropped into silence. The Greek was busy looking over his work, and the Guttersnipe retreated within herself in the hopes that her fears would not come pressing up close again like some jungle panther, purring an eerie low death-tune in her ear. She took a deep breath and willfully crushed down what was almost an involuntary shudder.

Breaking the quiet, Jason asked, "Your book of herbs, sir - do you mind if I borrow it?"

Master Lucius looked up, blinking owlishly. "No, I don't mind in the least. Watch the middle leaves - they fall out."

A shock of yellow papers slid in exemplary fashion onto the floor at the Guttersnipe's feet. A charcoal sketch of marsh marigold, one of Britain's fiercest little plants, looked up at her. She swallowed, composed herself, and reached down to pick it up.

Lys: A Miracle Granted

Aithne had spent the day in the chapel, praying, thinking, even sleeping a little. It was cold, yes, but not terribly so. Aithne thought there might be some semblance of a hypocaust, or else the many candles were giving off more heat than usual. Or perhaps it was simply that focusing her mind on God made the cold seem less intimidating.

Cathair had brought her food once or twice, and when he did she felt for a moment like a homeless waif, hiding lest she be discovered and tossed out. But sitting and eating with him quickly took that feeling away. Aithne could not remember the last time the two of them had had a quiet meal together. It felt homey and comfortable, even on a cold bench in a sparsely-furnished church. In truth, they'd not spent all that much time together at all of late. They saw each other at mealtimes and in the evenings in the atrium, but even then one or the other would have some task that kept them from spending the amount of time they would've liked.

And so she cherished the meals. Right now, she knew, he was working on their house, ignoring the intermittent snow showers. She wanted to help him, but with the remnants of yesterday's chill still hanging about her, he would have none of it.

"Father-God, show us some way to have this house built quickly. I don't mean to complain, but my room is very cold, and, well, Cathair is very warm. I am wanting a warm fire and my husband, Lord. I'm trying to be patient, but it is getting colder..." She trailed off into silent, wordless prayer after that, begging God for a miracle.


Cathair was working on the house. He had begun, and he would finish. And he would finish as soon as possible. But an idea had come to him- one that he thought would make the house better, but would also mean almost double the work. "How am I ever going to finish this?"

He looked at what he had built so far, and was pleased to see it was coming along more quickly than he expected, even if it was slower than he'd hoped. Then he thought of the purse of coins sitting with his belongings. Coins he did not much need.

Setting his work aside, he made his way back to the barn, fetched the pouch, and walked towards the village. It wasn't long before he found a few of the boys, playing games along the roadside. He did not recognize the game, but there was a ball involved. Is there a boy's game that does not involve a ball or sticks? He hailed them as he came closer. Some of them were nearly old enough to be doing a man's share of work, but not quite. The kind of boys who wish they were. "Is it a good game you play?" A few of the boys nodded. Some gawked, the others tried not to gawk. Cathair knew they all knew who he was- the lone barbarian who was granted grace by Lord Ambrosius, even though his arrow killed one who was most likely a playfellow. Their parents had forgiven him. He hoped they had, as well.

"I came to offer a job to those who would take it." he said. "I cannot pay you in much that is immediately useful- no extra knives, for example. But I do have good gold coins to give, if you wish them."

One of the younger boys giggled, and Cathair wondered if he'd mispronounced something. He pulled a coin from the pouch and held it up. "One each for anyone who wants to help me build a house- such a house as this valley has not seen- and three for the one who does the most work. Good, solid work, mind. No rushing through to win the prize."

The boys considered his offer. They weren't the type to go chasing after shiny things, it seemed. At length, though, four of them agreed, though Cathair was sure the light in their eyes was that of competition- not a wish for the prize so much as the right to it. And perhaps a bit of adventure tossed in. After all, they were to build something that hadn't been seen here before, and that was something not lightly refused.

So Cathair returned to the building with four boys of about thirteen years of age in tow, and thought it a small price to pay for the help and companionship. For in truth, he found himself enjoying their company. It had been many years since he'd seen the world through young eyes- it was refreshing to listen to their tales of the adventures they would one day have, and the adventures they had already had in this very valley. And somewhere along the line, Aithne's words came back to him, "Right now it is a dream, a beautiful dream which, when we awake will turn out to be reality." and he saw himself many years from now, working side-by-side with his own sons. Someday it would be so, and because of these boys now, that someday would come sooner. He smiled and went back to listening to the stories of the valley as they worked.

Jenny: Broom In the Mist

It had been in the midst of May when the chilly weather finally broke up and began to look like spring with warm winds and days of sunshine. Venta had welcomed Ambrosius with a great golden burst of a day, like a primrose opening up and tossing its head. He remembered the anxiety he had felt way down in the pit of his stomach where the primrose saffron could not touch, and the day of the Council had been more accurate to his feelings: a blurred silver morning, quiet with a little cool air and, at odd moments, a sudden howl of wind off the grey South Downs and the river running at the foot of the township looking very bleak under a flat steely sky. There had been light everywhere chasing the shadows, very white light that gave the boy no comfort; the only spot of colour there had been in that bleak raw morning had been a tangle of broom among the heavily-misted hedges growing down near the Callevaward road. He remembered the broom vividly, for it had seemed to call out across the distance to him, a warning of the wild to the wild - but he had had to turn in behind Lord Alan and take his silent and respectful place among the Council Members.

He had been very anxious. Lord Alan had impressed upon him both the unprecedented nature of an in-term war-lord entering the Council, but also how unheard of it was for a boy to attend. "Be respectful," he had said, about the Council in general, and, about Vitalinus, "but not too respectful." He had smiled wanly at the time, and he smiled wanly now, ducking as Cyrus passed under a low-hanging branch and jostled loose snow down his back. In retrospect, he wondered if a bit more respect might have changed anything. Somewhere in the conversation with Vitalinus in the Council quadrangle, with that great white sky shining overhead, he had ceased to be respectful as a boy to an elder, and the firm, bleak war-lord had come out. Would it have done any good to coax Vitalinus instead of prod?

Ambrosius should his head absentmindedly. It would not have done any good. Vitalinus had never liked anything to do with Rome, and the boy who had stood across from him that raw morning had been very Roman.

"Rome has taught us government. Rome has taught us law. Her armies were unconquerable at the height of her glory-days. We have all the teaching we need to help Britain stand alone, sir. We don't need Saxon mercenaries."

Vitalinus had shot him down like a partridge ousted from the hayfield. His biting words against Rome, steering dangerously close to Ambrosius' own pedigree, stung to this day. He recalled taking a physical step back as the man had darkened in a rage, and he had known it was no use: Britain would have her Saxon mercenaries. He could not quite remember how he had ended the conversation. He might have saluted (in a twist of spite) in the ancient fashion of the Roman military, and stalked off to find Lord Alan; he might have stood in sullen quiet until Vitalinus broke off and went away. But whichever it was, he recalled most clearly the blur of inside darkness of the Council chamber and, in an eerie, pale-lit sort of way, Vitalinus' narrow, red-furred face looking across at him in hate.

What had he said to Alan? "What makes the Overking hate Rome so?" "God knows! Oh, only God knows. Vitalinus is not overcaring of the things he loves, either. He is a man born to hate, that one. A great man, a man with fire in his veins, but a hating one through and through."

Ambrosius had remembered that, he had remembered all throughout Vitalinus' ruling days, watched the hatred and suspicion grow, watched the power grow, until defeat and disgrace had finally caught up with him, and has a young man he had watched Vitalinus go, with the mantle of power suddenly fallen to him from the older man's shoulders, Britain in his grasp. There had been one last parting look between them, exchanged at a distance and only in the space it takes to blink: yet for days afterward Ambrosius had slept with his knife in his fist and had taken care that there was no poison in his food.

A hating one through and through.

Vitalinus had become even more desperate than Ambrosius had presumed, or age, that must sure of defeats, was catching him up too. Either he was gambling in a way too cunning for even the Hawk to see, or he was being foolish: a pact with the growing Saxon tribes of the Cantii territory would only turn the tables on him and make him even more humiliated than ever. They had grown too strong for the leash he had put on them. And he could not even trust his skin to them to be held for ransom, for no one of power in Britain would want to save him from a Saxon's blade.

Or was that a truth? Ambrosius looked up the surrounding snow-covered hillsides. Cyrus' breath and his own fogged in the air. Apart from the crunch of snow underfoot, the only other sound was the squeak of leather; not even a stream rattled noisily in a bed nearby. No, of course that was not a truth. He knew, despite all else, that without blinking an eye he would save Vitalinus' neck from a breaking. The only thing that kept it bitter in his mouth was the knowledge that Vitalinus would not reach out a hand to stir up gratitude in his heart: that man's fire was stone-cold dead.

At length the Beacon, looking very bare in its nest of empty trees, came into sight among the hills, and Ambrosius, without really thinking about it, struck up a soft whistling through his teeth as he rode along: it was Domitia's tune.

Lys: Sehnsucht

"Well I remember their mercy. It was only last night I watched my brothers in arms be executed. Their mercy towards me is not quickly forgotten, I assure you."

The sound of quick hoofbeats came up behind them just then, and Cathair turned to see, of all things, Aithne flying past on her pony. "What in the name of-?" Cathair turned back to the men. "Excuse me. It seems I have a hunt on my hands." With that short parting he turned and jogged down to the stable and his own pony. It was not long after that he was on his way back up the hill on Aithne's trail.


Aithne had seen Cathair speaking to the brothers, but it was something on the sidelines of her mind, held only for the time it took to observe. Also on the edge of her mind was the Guttersnipe's comment about the woods being dangerous, but she did not care. And if she did meet Gauls, she spoke the Gael, did not look like a Roman, and knew the names of their superiors. They may let her pass.

She thought she heard faint hoofbeats behind her. Was it Cathair, or someone else? Up ahead she saw the crest of the hill. She spurred Solas on, not willing to be stopped or dissuaded by the other rider.

She gained the crest and reined the pony in. From here she could see far- to the valley beyond their own, then the forest, and more land... She sat and looked, seeing and not seeing.


Cathair caught up with her at the crest, where she sat staring out at the world. He had no idea what she might be thinking, or why she'd come here, so he simply sat astride his pony, as silent as she, as the minutes went by...

"I want to go home, Cathair." The tone of her voice twisted his heart. "I thought the valley was my new home- I thought I could be happy here. I thought I was content with Eire having passed me by. But I'm not. I miss it. I thought maybe, if I could come up here, that I might be able to see it, at least. That I might have at least a glimpse... something to assure me it's there, even if I can't go to it." She turned her head to look at him, and there were tears in her eyes. "I knew I couldn't, but I hoped..."

Dismounting his horse, he pulled Aithne down and into his arms. "I know... I know..." he murmured. "It is hard. But we are here for a reason, Aithne. Like the story you liked so much- about the queen who saved her people..."

"Esther." she sniffed.

"Yes, Esther. We might not know it all, but we have to trust that the One God knows the way."

He could feel her smile, just a little, and she tightened her arms for a moment. "You sound like a bard, Cathair."

"Well, I've lived around them long enough. I think I have the right to." He held her awhile longer before asking, "Ready to go back yet?"

She shook her head no. "Not yet, please?"

He chuckled. "Well, I don't know about you, but I'm about ready to freeze in this wind. There are warmer places to hole up, if that's what you're after."

Pulling back, she wiped her eyes on her sleeve. "Oh, I'm sorry. Let's go, then." Cathair thought she looked somewhat hollow as she mounted Solas, but said nothing. The two made their way back down the hill, going slowly this time. He would have to talk to her before they returned to the villa, but for now they rode in silence.

Jenny: Changing Lead

"Well, I can see that." Kay pause and squinted against the sharp, watered winter sun, craning his neck back to look at the tops of the surrounding hills. "It's not like we'll throw you off a rock or anything... Ease and friendliness toward foreigners, I fear, comes slow to us these days," he went on, bringing his gaze back to Cathair. "Everyone Out There who wants to get In Here probably wants to kill us and roast our own chickens over our own fires, so we tend to be a little rough around the edges when it comes to strangers and strange ways. As for Artos, he's a hard man to know, and he doesn't make it easy to be known. I know he understands your people, and his reply was deliberate." Kay shrugged. "He has undoubtedly put it from his mind now."

Bedwyr, who thought more slowly than Kay did, and said less, took a deep breath, hesitated, then finally added, "You're not in Erin, Cathair. You're in Britain, Britain which is scrabbling for all it is worth not to get pulled under in the vacuum Rome's desertion has made. If Artos - and Lord Ambrosius - ever seem harsh or...or rude to you, take into account the weight on their shoulders, and in their severity remember their mercy. You are running with us now. You are going to have to teach your horse to change its lead." He made a small smile.

Lys: Offense

Who or what Terence was, Cathair did not know, but he gathered that he was forgiven. He cracked a wry smile. "You certainly do well at the drama, yourself, walking out as though plotting someone's demise..." It came together in his mind as he said it. They had not taken offense for themselves, but for their lord. "Don't mind Aithne. She had no idea she was being offensive until Lord Artos ignored her. I am not sure if she yet knows it fully." He paused a moment before continuing.

"Aithne is accustomed to having her questions answered fully and thoroughly. If Lord Artos had been one of our clansman, it would have been he who was rude. To deny someone understanding of a matter, especially a bard, is equivalent to spitting in the person's face, or worse. So to her mind, it is Lord Artos who has made the offense." He sighed. "She is trying hard, even if it may not seem like it." We both are. "It is a different way of living. God willing, she will get the hang of it soon." He gave another wry smile.


Aithne sat in the solarium only a few moments longer. The tension did not dissipate, and she felt the need for a different outlet. She strode purposefully from the room, to the garden, and from there to the stable-yard. She could not ride Concordia without first gaining permission, but Cathair had managed to retrieve his pony, and had found another for her amongst the riderless. She found Solas easily, and began preparing for a ride, all the while speaking to the horse in her own Gael. It felt good on her tongue, and between that and the horse's presence, she found the tension easing.

Jenny: The Comic In White

Kay lifted his hand and squinted against the few slow flurries that were still hanging in the air. Bedwyr, arms tucked close under his cloak, stood by mutely, gazing up the pasture with him. Everything looked refreshingly lively under a coat of snow. The grass had straggled up in places, just enough to make the pasture look unbearably grim and dead in winter's closing grip. He dropped his hand and put both on his hips, smiling crookedly. "Everything looks better in white," he observed.

Bedwyr shivered in silence a moment longer before replying, "It reminds me of a tomb, in a hopeful sort of way."

A wind blew a black speckling of dried apple leaves across the empty white landscape. It was very true, he reflected. They had killed the poor field, and under a slab of snow it would wait until spring to come to life again. Why could death not always be so serene and beautiful?

"Uh oh," his brother murmured, and he swung round to see the Erinman come striding up in their footsteps, bent unavoidably for them. "Here comes trouble. I'm still working on my right hook."

Kay snorted and shoved his cold hands down inside his belt. "I doubt he'll cause trouble," he said, feeling optimistic. "And if he does, we can ride him back down the hill as a sled. I'm sure he won't mind." Bedwyr quirked his first sincere smile. He kicked a bit of snow as Kay bent down to scoop up a handful, crunching in its bare palms. It was cold and powdery. "Snow in November," he grunted, squeezing hard, "and it's rotten powdery. Look at that." He flung it at Bedwyr, who jerked aside as it puffed over his shoulder. "That's not even a proper snowball."

"I can't even make a snowball." Bedwyr stooped and tried crushing snow in one fist. Failing, he reached into Kay's face to rub it in. Kay protested that he had two hands to freeze when Bedwyr only had one. They broke off and shook the snow from their cloaks and faces as a knife-edged wind blew between them and Cathair...and then Cathair had walked up to them and they stood a little warily, but interestedly, to hear what he had to say.

Kay, putting aside Domitia's rudeness, cut a smile across his face when Cathair finished and clapped the fellow on the shoulder. "You should go into the theatre!" he said. "You've got the drama down well. I suggest Terence."

Bedwyr said, "You didn't like Terence..."

Lys: Difficulties

Aithne's insides churned. She hated being completely ignored in her search for knowledge, but the fact that the Guttersnipe was smiling made it all but impossible to interrupt- she didn't dare put that smile in jeopardy.

The tension proved too great. She would learn her answer. It might take awhile, but it had been nagging in the back of her mind long enough that she could not leave it be anymore. Meanwhile, she took the only route she could to ensure the Guttersnipe's happiness.

She stood, and with a quiet, "Please excuse me," she left the atrium. Behind her she could hear the footsteps of Cathair and Cu following. Once away, she turned back to him. "Oh Cathair, we needn't both leave. They will think us rude. Please, I'm fine, I just need some time to myself."

But he held up a hand. "I know that. I am on a different mission." He gave her a small smile and kissed her forehead. "Do not take it too hard. Remember that we come from a world where it is all but law to answer questions- especially the questions of a bard. They have no such law. For them, as you have told me before, if there is a law it is to keep to one's self. You are a bard, Aithne- at heart if nothing else. You'll find your answers eventually."
He pressed her hand and set off in search of she knew not what. She watched him awhile, then turned aside and made her way through the now-dead garden, into the solarium. It would be warm there, and she did not think she would be bothered by anyone other than Master Lucius, whom she would not mind, if he didn't.

Cathair's words did comfort her. There were other ways to learn her answers, after all. Perhaps Gaius, who was a priest, would be able to help her understand. Or Master Lucius, who was a foreigner from the other side of the sea, and therefore would have an objective view of both sides. A mild oath passed her lips and she kicked a cushion someone had left on the floor, then plopped down on it. Yes, she was being petty. But being denied knowledge... they may as well deny her food.


Cathair cast about a bit before following the path most likely to lead him the right way. And he was right. The brothers were in the upper pasture- a good ways from the villa, for such a short time. He approached slowly and obviously, to give them time to notice his presence rather than just jogging up and invading their space. It would be hard for him to say what needed saying- even though he meant it with all his heart, it was hard for someone such as he to be humble...

He hailed them when they noticed him, and a little later he arrived. "I want to apologize for my words and actions. I should not have treated you so- it was not that long ago that we were enemies. You are companions to Lord Artos and Lord Ambrosius, and I am a foreigner among you. If you would allow me, I would like to make restitution for my actions in whatever way seems best to you."

Jenny: The Little Wooden Horse

Artos gestured to the little horse. "What do you think of it?" he asked in Iceni.

The Guttersnipe, flushing, held it cupped in her hands. "It is adorable. I wish I could carve." Her forefinger touched the dished profile. "You have made an arab - like Pharaoh!"

"You never miss a trick, do you?" He leaned over and rubbed a finger along the hindquarters. "I can lift the tail a little, if that would suit you more..."

"No, no! It's perfect just how it is." She drew it closer, cradling it like a bird. He wondered, what did she see in such a simple shape of wood that drew out the colour in her cheeks and flashed the light from eye to eye? What made that impulsive face of hers twitch into a smile, sparked by a lifeless image? She held it close like a living thing, and he was sure that in some deep part of her, she thought it was a living thing. Was it himself, he wondered, or a life unique in itself? He looked up over her head and saw Jason on the far side of her watching as well, his face, which was never much closed, suddenly opened wide in tenderness. The young man reached out and turned the horse in the Guttersnipe's hands: as though it were a drop of delight in a cup already full, a tiny laugh spilled out of the girl into Jason's palm. He pushed her hair back and kissed her ear, and she tossed back her mane, biting back a string of laughter.

She laughed, and weak yellow beam of sunlight wrung itself through a high window into the atrium.

Lys: Seek And Ye Shall Find

"Not at all, sir." She found herself continuing. "I do not equate it with the divine, necessarily. But was, before now, my understanding that those who did not believe the scriptual passages refering to such things had never experienced anything out of the ordinary themselves. You, on the other hand, have experinced such things as many only dream of. That is what I do not understand. I do not mean to be rude, but I am ignorant as to why such a man as yourself would have such trouble believing something that is plainly put forth in God's Word?"

She sighed. "Forgive me if I offend. But I do not understand, and when I encounter something I do not understand, I seek out the answer, to the best of my ability."

The brothers had left, and she did not like the general air about the place at the moment, but she had set her hand to the plow, and she would finish the field.

Jenny: The Man in the Land of Summer

There was a moment's startled silence. Everyone, including Cathair, was staring at Domitia. Artos carefully moved the little wooden horse out from the range of his elbow before turning to the girl. He had passed only a few words with her in the entirety of her stay at his villa. Looking back at the foreign girl now, he could think of only two women in the world that he particularly cared a denarius for, one of whom was only a smudge of moonshine on his memory, the other was his sister. And he found himself caring so very little, that he almost let it go unanswered. But in the silence Kay scraped his chair back, picking up his drink and saying, very clearly and quietly, "I am not hungry. Excuse me." He nodded to Artos and strode off. After another moment's pause, Bedwyr made a philosophical gesture and he, too, went out.

After that he had to address Domitia. He cocked his forearm on the back of his chair and twisted himself round to face her, wincing a little as his leg protested. "You are dangerously close to equating what we do with the divine, which is even worse than equating what we do with the demonic. We want neither. When you have come to understand your philosophical anthropology as well as your theology, you will not need to ask me this.

"Guttersnipe," he added, carefully turning back around and picking up the wooden horse. "I made this for you."

Lys: A Scrap In Her Teeth

Aithne looked up when she heard the Guttersnipe's footsteps coming their way, and her eyes caught Lord Artos's expression. Why she should not be just as submissive to him as to Cathair, she did not know, but she couldn't let it pass. She should, she knew she should, but she couldn't. There were times when a problem arose and she simply could not let it go until she understood and solved it. And for good or bad, this was one of those times.

"Why do you not believe me, Lord Artos? You who are among those who hear the White Creatures and see the past and future? Is it so impossible in your mind that God should speak to one of his children- something we are told in the Holy Scriptures can, has, and will happen- when you know these wonders to exist?"

Jenny: Masks

Both of them found an excuse to step into the solitary low cellar. Jason, hesitating, gauged the Guttersnipe's demeanour. She had not felt herself since she had watched Ambrosius ride away alone. He had made an attempt to cheer her, but knew that his own insincerity would be felt by her sensitive disposition. The nagging knowing that Ambrosius was riding alone through a cloaked and muffled, alien landscape would not leave him. So he stood in the mellow brown light of the cellar and watched the Guttersnipe in silence for a few moments, then prompted,

"Are you going to be all right?"

She looked round, her loose brown hair obscuring one eye and making her look more mare-ish, petulant, and mournful than ever. She could not hold his gaze for long; in a moment she was looking at his feet and swallowing convulsively. "I feel kind of sick," she admitted.

His stomach clenched and growled. "Was it really bad?"

She shook her head slowly. "Champion had got over telling me he couldn't go with Ambrosius this time, and I thought, I would try to see, just a little. I wanted to know," she said pleadingly. "But all I saw was a temple all lit up on the slopes of a hill, and a head on a white beach, and - and Master Lucius very old sitting in a farmhouse writing in shorthand." Jason spluttered uncontrollably, and the Guttersnipe, too, let out a small, helpless bark of laughter. She shoved the back of her forearm across her eyes. "But what worried me most was that I could remember some of those things from my reading. Only, I knew I was seeing the real thing. And I wondered..." She stared at his feet again, her face clenching and twisting with an effort to sort out her thoughts. Something in Jason physically strained in the hopes of helping her. Her eyes, set in a countenance as strained as he felt, flew to his. "Are we witches, Jason?"

The question caught him off guard, but before he could answer the cellar doorway was obscured by a great bulk, and they both looked up into the shadow of Wulf's face.

"My master is wanting to know if Lord Ambrosius is a member of your Council," he said without preamble.

The Guttersnipe sent a flicker of a frown across her face. "Yes. Yes, he is."

"Hmm," said Wulfie, and he vanished. The sound of his tread echoed back to them through the narrow doorway.

Jason did not know what to say to the Guttersnipe as the silence lengthened. It seemed the spell had been broken, and she stood with her shoulders a little listless. "I don't know, sweet heart," he said at last. "Are you going to be all right?"

She nodded mutely, attempting a smile.

He held out his hand. "Let's finish getting breakfast set, then."


Artos turned the little figurine over in his hands. It was rough, but with a satisfactory artistic roughness which pleased him. With a final touch he slipped the point of his knife in between its eyes and curled out a last shaving, giving it the distinctive dished appearance of the arab breed. He held it up to the light to look at it.

Domitia, who had been going on for some time now, finally broke through to him and he focused his sight beyond the upheld horse figure, brows furrowed. To what she referred, he did not know, save that she claimed some divine vision on his uncle's behalf. Crosses in the sky! he twisted his mouth in wry distaste. He said nothing, but was relieved when Jason and the Guttersnipe emerged from the kitchen with Minna and Portia. His leg had begun to hurt less, and felt still better when the girl slid onto the bench next to him and gave him her little childish smile. The eerie young woman who had stood by and doomed the idealist had slipped back under Champion's feathers, and she was only the Guttersnipe again, with her thong of black horse and signet ring having come loose from her gown and hanging down her front to flash in the fitful yellow firelight.

Lys: The Word Of The Lord

It took Cathair awhile to gather his thoughts. "You have seen?" he asked her. "When? How? How do you know it was God?"

Her face went serious, almost stern, and Cathair was reminded of her father. "When the One God speaks, Cathair deCainneach, you sit up and listen. And when He tells you to speak, you open your mouth and you speak. And when you hear His voice, there is no doubt of who is speaking- not even the slightest, smallest possibility. That is how I know, Cathair. The One God told me to tell Lord Ambrosius that death would not come to him until he is old. And I did. And now it is for me to remember and believe what I have heard."


Aithne held his gaze a little longer before he turned away. It was then that she realized the room had gone quiet again and that she had been staring down the man that was to be her husband, and not some student or little child. She dropped her own gaze, thinking on how to apologize, and whether or not an apology was necessary.

Jenny: The Devil

Reclined on his couch, with a board laid across his knees, Master Lucius gnawed away at the end of a quill as he scanned the tiny lines of reports jotted down in Ambrosius' hand. By now he had a personal list of the Council members from the tribes and remaining Roman settlements - a formidable list. He found it interesting that Ambrosius' name was not among them. Still chewing pensively on his quill, he muttered, "I wonder what that could mean..."

"Hmm?" asked Wulf, returning with a battered document case.

Master Lucius extracted his quill from his teeth. Gesturing with it at the paper, he explained, "I had always assumed Ambrosius was a Council member himself. He isn't on the list. At least, he wasn't back then. I always assumed he was." He smiled up coyly at his manservant. "Ask the Guttersnipe for me. She would know."

Wulf nodded and handed over the case. It was made of leather and thin slatted wood, the clasp very battered and worn bronze. Master Lucius clicked it open and flung back the flap, peering inside. A tiny flag of cloth, once white, now yellowed, fluttered up at him above the papers. He turned it back.


He glanced quickly down at his list of Council members. The name was familiar: he had only just read it. There it was: Vitalinus - Gentleman of Glevum. He hesitated. By now Wulf had padded out and he as alone in his room, feeling anything but sleepy, regarding the document case dubiously. Did Ambrosius keep such a case like this on every Council member? He and Artos were sticklers for records, but this verged on the irrational. "There must be something sensible behind this," he muttered to himself, and began at once to shuffle among his papers for Ambrosius' estate map. He found it at last, folded over several ways and dog-eared from being pressed between other papers, and on top of everything else he opened it up, lips pursed. The lines denoted his territory in the Eryri and Arfon districts - he realized suddenly that Segontium, not Deva, was the closest city - and also holdings in the Penfro and Cydweli districts on the Sabrina. But what interested him most was the singular holding near Glevum, a holding of respectable size.

Glevum... He put his chin in his hand and squinted into the lamp. Glevum... Glevum and the sheep! The cotswolds! Of course, Ambrosius' biggest herd of livestock were kept in the cotswolds around Glevum.

"Now, for you!" he said vehemently, and without a qualm dug into Vitalinus' document case. Copies of title deeds were unearthed, faintly scrawled maps, a list of tenant farmers and - he found this curious - a list of men sworn to fight under the Council member. One name among them flashed up at him: Iulius Artorius. He began seeing other names, very unBritish names: Ebura, Diegadan, Drumon: next to some of them, in unusually bold and hurried script, he managed to read out "Those damned Picts!" And, with them, more unBritish names, names he recognized well, Hengist's among them. Last of all he pulled out a copy of the deed granting the Saxons ownership of the isle of Ruohim. He stared at it with the light full on it, ignoring the papers that fluttered after it onto the board on his lap.

"We let you in," he murmured, "to take care of a problem. Well! Better ask the devil in to put out a housefire." In disgust he dropped the deed back into the case and turned to the other documents on his lap.

The one page which had fallen loose caught his eye because it was written in a different script than the others. It was unmistakably Ambrosius' handwriting, but did not have, as the others did, the regimented feel of official papers. It was dated on the twenty-first of May but he did not catch a year. He scanned it carefully, suddenly shy of the text running down the centre of the paper. He looked at everything else until there was nothing else to look at, then, with a guilty glance at the open doorway, began to read. It was set up in a dialogue, but Plato and Socrates never had a more furious debate that what Ambrosius had recorded on that single inconspicuous leaf.

Ambrosius: Vitalnius, you can't be serious about this proposal. It's desperate - it's too desperate. We can't afford to drop one frontier defense to put out a fire elsewhere.

Vitalinus: Why, do you have a better plan? We've done all we can do. You said yourself, our military resources are depleted, the Picts outnumber us twenty to one. You and Lord Alan gave us the statistics, the percentages, all the dry numerology of war. Have you come to plead - what? to kill more of your men for a hopeless cause? Do you want glory or to save Britain?

Ambrosius: Fighting the Picts is not the same as having Saxons for neighbours. The Picts live on this island too, and we have to beat them into respecting us or we will never be at peace. We have to do it ourselves. And if we call on Saxons - Saxons - to help us, to help us on our own turf against people on this turf -

Vitalinus: You make it sound like civil war!

Ambrosius: - we will never be free of that. If you feed a stray dog, he is going to keep coming back. We can't afford to be pinched between the Picts and the Saxons. It's not worth the risk.

Vitalinus: Not worth the risk? We have the Picts breathing down our necks, our defenses in shambles, our men hardly worth calling soldiers. The Saxon knows how to fight.

Ambrosius: If you pay him well enough, certainly.

Vitalinus: I know your type, Ambrosius. You've got an itch you need to scratch. Your father stood in a last dark hour and made a name for himself, and you feel the need to be like him. I get that. But don't you dare risk our properties for your fantasies.

Ambrosius: My father is dead, and the dead do not help win today's battles. If you have time, you might remind the Council when you give your address that a mere boy is risking his own life and limb for their properties, not because he wants fame and glory, but because he believes that Britain is something worth saving from heathen tides and barbarian influences - something his father, honoured by the Count Theodosius himself, believed. We don't fight for glory, Councilor, we fight for Britain. And we don't need mercenaries to help us.

Vitalinus: Your numbers suggest otherwise.

Ambrosius: You don't reckon the power of an idea, which is something that made Rome so great.

Vitalinus: An idealist is a dead man - Rome proved that too. And Rome is dead, thank the gods, or very near it.

Ambrosius: If you put forward this proposal -

Vitalinus: You can't stop me, Commander. You're not a member of the Council.

Ambrosius: - you will regret it. And you will make my task all the harder.

Vitalinus: That is not my concern.

Master Lucius reached the end of the page and put it down, unable for a few moments to turn it over and continue on.

Lys: For I Know The Plans I Have For You

"She is taking her lord's absence harder than I had thought." Aithne said quietly, to no one in particular. "But he will not die. Not for a very long time yet. I have seen and she has heard."

She smiled, and her voice returned to its normal volume, but triumphant. "The edict will fail! It may be as she says, but it will not be soon, and so the edict will fail. Eventually death comes to us all, barring the Lord's return, but he is safe this time. There is no danger of death. The Lord has promised it." She slapped her hand on the table in a 'that settles it' motion.

She turned to Cathair, to find him leaning back, looking at her with much the same expression he gave the Guttersnipe. She furrowed her brow.


Jenny: With the Flash of the Deer

For a long moment Artos thought the Guttersnipe would not respond. Then he saw Jason's voice slowly draw her out, and the coldness went out of the flame in her eyes. She seemed to suddenly feel Champion's weight on her shoulder and, with a little wince, reached up and stroked his head, the little pink bloom of her mouth parted in bewilderment. As Jason moved purposefully over to her, his usually amiable countenance just barely veiling concern, she blinked and seemed to shake off the eeriness. Like a child, she said, "I am hungry, Jason," and put her hand in the one he held out to her.

"It is breakfast time," he said. "Minna is just fetching the food. Let's go lend a hand."

She gave him a little bob of her head, as Nutmeg might do, and walked off with him, Champion still clinging to her shoulder. Artos watched them go until they had disappeared into the kitchen, then he looked over at the others. Kay had his head craned back, eyebrows flyaway, and Bedwyr had his bottom lip tucked under and bit down hard on, as if in pain. Domitia and Cathair looked faintly undone. The moment was over and gone, a flash as of a white buck darting in front of them across the path, out of the forest and in again. He had no comfort to offer them, nothing to say which would not sound like an excuse for the Guttersnipe's words - words which all too closely matched the uneasiness inside him - so he found his position in his chair and resumed carving, but not without muttering softly to himself, "You little freckle-faced liar. You remember everything you saw and said."

Lys: Cassandra

Aithne caught the reactions of the brothers and her hand clasped Cathair's more tightly. Bedwyr's face was not good natured, and even Kay, whom she had never seen without some variation of a smile for more than fifteen minutes together, was looking less than happy. They did not take the taunts the same way that she and Cathair meant them, and once more she felt the yawning divide between them- it was bigger than the sea, sometimes, and yet she still forgot it.

Cathair had just turned to her when the Guttersnipe entered, Champion on her shoulder. All eyes were on her for the whole of her speech. Aithne felt Cathair tense as the girl stared him down. There was an overall feel of the unknown and uncanny- two things Cathair did not face easily. She stayed where she was, between them, and tried to understand what was happening.

Had the girl had some premonition of evil befalling Lord Ambrosius? Was it not just fear, but foresight? She looked as though she was walking through a vision even now. Did she see them, or something else? The pain in her voice was palpable.

Jason called to her, trying to bring her out of whatever held her. Aithne would do the same, but it seemed as though Jason had more experience with it. She looked at Champion, hoping the bird would enlighten her some, but he gave her a blank look, the maddening look of a talking creature who has decided to pretend to be dumb. So be it. She would remain in an observer's position until needed.

Jenny: Foreshadows of the Past

Jason and Minna had momentarily fallen silent. Artos, carefully curling back another sheaf of wood, dropped it and looked up with a cool smile. "I was aware that it was fabrication, never fear."

There was a brief lull between them as he and Cathair regarded each other: Artos with no maliciousness on his part, Cathair with an air of boisterous and almost reckless frivolity. But before the Irish bull could continue, his woman Domita entered suddenly. She mocked Cathair much the same way the Guttersnipe could mock, and he thought her very bold to mock Kay a little, too. Kay, not caring much what Domitia said, gave a sharp little "Eh!" of surprise, and looked sidelong and suspicious at Cathair. As much as he liked stories, and stories of things that never happened, he became suddenly cool and dark when he discovered he had been deliberately lied to. Artos glanced over at Bedwyr: the young man had quickly moved out of his muted white pain and watched Cathair with a defensive countenance. If either of them was to take up the fight, it would be Bedwyr, not Kay. But Artos knew them better than Cathair: neither one of them would make a move: it was not worth the effort.

"It is good to hear," he said gently - to Domitia, not to Cathair - "that your people are understanding of these things. Not much word filters to us from beyond the limes."

And it would have ended there. Jason was coming back, and the conversation would have turned. But there was a little figure of periwinkle blue in the atrium doorway, a flash of restless silver, and they all looked up to see the Guttersnipe standing and watching them, a darkness and brooding between her brows that made Kay look tame. Her lips were pressed together, a look that made her seem almost petulant but for the uneasy, glassy smoulder of her eyes.

"You forgot the idealist and his fate," she said, to no one in particular. Though she was looking at Cathair, she seemed to see beyond him, through him. "It is all well and good - all very well and very good - to be a man of virtue, of respect, to know the good things and to do them. But no world stops for such a man, no sea curls back so his feet will not get wet. The idealist does what he can, but the state still falls. They always fall. Everything must come to an end and fall. They wash their hands and wash their hands, but the head still lies on the beach. They burn the letters, they scrub out the names, but the voices still haunt the council chambers. The ghosts are left, but the end of the idealist is always the same. The ghosts are cold comfort. Varus!" she cried, shuddering, eyes suddenly wide in her head. "They didn't have a chance."

The air was crackling with the eeriness of her face and voice, so much so that for a moment Artos did not feel the creeping chill of her words. Champion, who sat on her arm all the while, only turned his head a little and added nothing. The whole scene seemed frozen like a mosaic. He could feel his heart slow and drubbing in his chest.

Jason broke the quiet softly, saying, "Guttersnipe, it is time to come back now."

Artos looked down at a sudden prick of pain and saw a little spot of red on his finger where he had slipped with his knife.

Lys: A Friendly Fight Or Two

Standing there at the door, Aithne heard voices from the Atrium.

"And so there was peace in Lugh's realm. The foe had been vanquished, the king made whole, and the king's brother's behavior greatly steadied by the fact that he could now only gesture with one hand.
So ends the tale of Lugh Thunderfist. Make of it what you will."

Lugh Thunderfist? Just what on earth was Cathair speaking of? Leaving the girl and the bird to themselves, she slowly made her way down the hall, listening as Lord Artos tore whatever story it was to shreds.

Cathair burst into laughter. "All due respect, Lord Artos, but I would've thought a man such as yourself would've recognized such a story as one fabricated on the spot."

Aithne thought now might be a good time to enter, before Cathair lost the "due respect" in his laughter. She came in and sat beside him on the bench, a smile on her face. "And what is this, now? Have you been making badly-spun stories again? You will have them thinking all Irishmen are practiced liars." Truth be told, what she heard of the goings-on was amusing, at least. "Please forgive his sense of humor, my lord. He will never be broken of it." She gave Cathair an impudent look before sobering.

"But I must say that the law of a whole king goes beyond physical prowess, and the wholeness extends to the mind as well. I have no idea what Cathair said on the matter, but there is more to it than whether a man has all his limbs. The king and the land are all but one, in our culture. If the king is impaired, the land is as well, as are all the people under his care. It is not who can throw the farthest or who can lift the most weight, or even who can outwit the others." she looked sidelong at Cathair. "It is a symbol of the state of the people." She put up her hands. "I can not explain it properly in Latin, to Romanized ears. But it is not as barbarian as you seem to have been led to believe."

She turned back to Cathair. "Whatever possessed you to tell such a horrible tale?"

He shrugged. "It was either that or bluntly tell Kay here that I didn't appreciate being shown off like a new kitten in the arms of an excited little girl. I didn't think it would be right to start a fight in Lord Ambrosius's absence, even a friendly one."

Nevertheless, the challenge was in his eyes. Aithne could see it- he looked not like a kitten, but a cat baiting a mouse. Or perhaps a dog playing with a badger, for, putting all loyalties aside, she had no clear idea of who would win the fight, if it came to it. She wondered if Kay would recognize it for what it was, or if he would take true offense.

"Oh please, Cathair, don't fight with him." she took his hand, imploringly.

"Why? Are you thinking I couldn't win against the man?"

"Oh no." she said, looking over at Kay, then back to Cathair. "I'm just thinking how bloody your face would be after he split his knuckles on it. I don't want poor Kay to need Jason's care, nor to welcome Lord Ambrosius back all over bruises and bandages." She could not believe she was continuing the taunt. But she surprised herself by wondering just how such an encounter would go.

Men. They would go at each other hammer and tongs over nothing, then sit down together better friends than before the fight. She looked back and forth between the two men, waiting to see what would happen. Who knew? They might end up brothers for it.

Jenny: The Philosopher and the Poet

Artos eased himself into his chair as the bull began warming up to his story. As he settled in, he looked up to see Kay flung round, attention fixed on Cathair, and Bedwyr with his chin on his one fist and a bemused, faintly annoyed look on his face. Artos' gaze dropped to his friend's arm. Something in his middle crawled to see the hand gone, some odd raking, electric pain dragged itself up his own forearm. Good old Bedwyr, dependable Bedwyr, tender-hearted Bedwyr. He could see his friend was taking it well, cheerless as his face was. Had it been his brother, Kay would have plunged suddenly into a deep gloom which, had he been a stranger, Artos might have taken it for fits of childish sulking. But despite the pain, Bedwyr was unmoved - if anything he was more determined - and Kay rose like a giddy bluejay to the challenge of lifting his brother's spirits.

Cathair was still going on. Jason had withdrawn to indulge in a quiet conversation with Minna on the far side of the room with a tiny travertine bowl of picked olives between them. With nothing else to occupy his mind, Artos turned to the storyteller.

Between the Greeks and the Irish, he thought, the world was set for stories - pardoning Master Lucius, who was a decent, level-headed man. It was the way of good storytellers to embellish and to lie, Cathair was doing it gamely through his teeth and enjoying every minute of it; and Kay, who liked a story no matter what it was, so long as it was good, was drumming his fingers in punctuating tattoos on the tabletop and casting significant glances his brother's way to make sure he was enjoying himself as well. Bedwyr put forth an effort to be interested, but Kay could tell the story was failing. At the end, Kay said like filly suddenly shying at a wind, "Do you see? I remember the names being different, and there was a fake hand involved in the story I heard, but no matter! Perhaps the Guttersnipe can magic off my hand for you." He put out his hand with a violent bang by Bedwyr, leaning forward to eye it critically. "I am tanner and longer than you. It is a bad match. Ha!"

Artos rubbed his finger along the curve over his eye, thoughtful. Bedwyr, still compliant, was studying Kay's hand alongside his own, but the Merlin could not quite resist putting his own oar in. At least it would keep his mind off other things. With a little philosophical sniff, he took his head out of his hand, elbow on the arm of his chair, and said to Cathair, "Have you studied government?"

Cathair looked over at him.

"I ask, because I have a few thoughts about the basis of your monarchical laws. In your story, you mentioned that a man must be physically whole in order to be competent for the kingship. In a prehistoric culture I could understand that. Physical prowess means command, it means respect, it means presence. But I think the times have enlightened us to understand that there is a more important integrity in a king than merely the body, and that is of the mind. A man can steer a ship with a single hand," here he gestured at Bedwyr, "but it takes a sound mind and a knowledge of where the ship must go in order to keep it from fetching up on the rocks. And the ship of state is surrounded by monstrous rocks. Two hands are better than one, but what are two hands on a man who has no mental constitution?"

He paused only a fraction of a moment to gesture again with a little deft motion. "Your story, apart from being a good tale, shows not only this prehistoric notion of kingship, but it denounces the more enlightened one. The brother of your Lugh, while of an overly congenial nature - is this a crime? - exhibits the traits which a king should. He is patient, he is sociable, he is almost unbelievably forgiving of his brother's theft of his own body. If a sensible man were set before them, and told to choose, which do you think he would rather risk his own life and limb to? Lugh, on the other hand - if you will pardon the play - exhibits a curious amount of lionish selfishness. He is extremely powerful on the field, no one can dispute that, and he is certainly to be commended for his tenacity and bravery. But in the lawroom he shows a dangerous meanness of character which his people ought to take heed of. He risks his brother's life in order to fetch for himself a throne. He did not know the druids were telling the truth. And even if he did know, what he did was in any lawcourt in any land an act of theft: he took his brother's possession without lawful consent of his brother. The theft is compounded by the mortal danger in which he put his brother."

Artos put up his hands. "That it all came out right in the end is a twist of fancy to lull the listener into swallowing down the injustice. The man who made the story knew that it was wrong of Lugh to take his brother's hand, so he made the brother forgiving. The virtue of forgiveness is meant to shine so bright as to obscure Lugh's vice of greed. It is a very quick sleight of hand, and very well played." He leaned back and took the block of wood which he had been carving off the table, and drew his knife, already withdrawing from the conversation. "Thank you for the entertainment, Cathair."

It was very quiet for a few moments afterward. The tiny wood shavings floated from Artos' hands like plover down. Then Kay, with a light laugh, said, "He knows how to tear a thing to pieces. I should not like to be the girl who wrote him love-notes!"

Artos cracked a companionable smile.

Lys: The Gift Of The Blarney

Cathair was drawn from his reverie by Kay's exuberance. He sounded for all the world like a little girl excited to be going to market for the first time. He had half a mind to brush the man off and leave him be. But he was Irish, and the Irish never passed up the chance to tell a tale- true or not.

He turned to face them. "I'll tell you the real story. You Romans- you like to change things around to make it appealing to you. I learned it from Aithne's father. She could tell you much better than I, but I think I remember enough to give you the idea."

He leaned back, spinning a tale in his mind. "Back before the time of the Romans, in the time of heroes and gods, there lived a king named Lugh Thunderfist. Now, this king found himself at war- for he enjoyed a good battle- and in fighting his adversary, the foe clove his left hand from his arm. Ah, but Lugh still had his sword arm and two good feet under him, and he repaid the coward by cleaving his head from his shoulders.

"The battle ended quickly after that, and Lugh's captains sought him out. When they were reunited, he was all over blood, having never let go of his sword to stop the flow. From that day on he was known as Lugh the Red, and also (though behind his back), Lugh the Foul-Smelling.

"Now, the law of Eire was such that if a man was maimed, he could not be king. I will not explain why- I do not think you would understand. That is all you need know, anyway. So Lugh went to his druid advisors, and asked their help. He had just won a decisive battle and was not willing to give up his kingdom so easily.

"The druids conferred together and came to a conclusion. 'Your brother is of your own blood. Therefore you must take the hand of your brother and bring it to us. No other will do. Sever it as he sleeps. If you put this on the wound after, he will not die from it.'

"Lugh regarded the potion, not knowing whether to do as the druids said or not. But they did speak sense. Lugh's brother Ket was of an annoyingly gregarious manner, which in itself was not bad, but Lugh feared it was all a front to take his place. This would be the perfect time to place his bid for the kingship. Lugh nodded at the druids and waited for night.

"Upon the dark of night, Lugh carried out their wishes. Whether by magic or some other force (for many said Ket was a prodigiously heavy sleeper), Ket did not awake and Lugh was free to bring the hand to the druids. They had him stretch out his arm, and laid the hand next to it.

"By dawn, the druids had finished their work. Lugh stretched out his hand and to his own amazement, flexed his fingers. He was whole once more. But with the dawn also came the waking of Ket. When the brother saw how his hand had gone missing, he was very confused. It was not until he came out of his home and saw his brother made whole once more that he figured out what had happened.

"Now, most royal brothers would have been offended at the theft, but Ket was not. Some say it may have had something to do with the ring of druids behind his brother. But whatever reason, Ket strode to Lugh and said, 'Why did you not ask me, royal brother? I would have gladly given it to you.'

"And so there was peace in Lugh's realm. The foe had been vanquished, the king made whole, and the king's brother's behavior greatly steadied by the fact that he could now only gesture with one hand.

"So ends the tale of Lugh Thunderfist. Make of it what you will."

Cathair sat back, pleased with himself for presenting it with something like the proper, traditional way. His expression held not the slightest hint that the story was anything other than wholly true.

Jenny: Distraction

When Jason had finally finished his inspection, the wound felt sore but less sickly hot. Artos dragged himself up on his elbows to a sitting position, looking down the twisted length of his leg. It looked wretched, and a part of him felt wretched about it. He looked up at Jason. "Will it be ready for the March calends?" he inquired.

Jason glanced up from washing his hands, eyes straying over the limb. "I should think so," he said slowly. "It will be ready for spring, at the very least." Then, catching the shadow that darted across Artos' face, he added more confidently, "It's a long time until the March calends. It should have plenty of time to heal."

Cheered by that news - Jason never lied - the young man repositioned himself and began poking at the wound to see how much it hurt. It growled resentfully.

"Are you up to coming out today, Artos? The cold will help keep the pain down."

Driven partially by hunger, for the Guttersnipe had not been into pamper him with scraps from the kitchen, Artos swung his legs over the side of the bed and got to his feet, dragging his left leg a little as he walked. He said, "It hurts less when I walk."

"It is the healing pain you feel," said Jason, flicking his hands dry. "The wound is beginning to shut of its own accord." The young surgeon smiled encouragingly, though Artos thought all his smiles about his work were oddly grim and faintly morbid, and together they left the room to join Kay and Bedwyr and Cathair in the atrium. Bedwyr was handling himself well, if there was a pinched, sick look about the corners of his dry mouth. Kay had his elbows on the table and his chin on his fisted hands, talking animatedly at his brother in an attempt to distract him.

"We'll build you a new hand," he was saying as Artos swung himself after Jason into the room, "like that Erin story - you know, the magical hand that moved. Perhaps the Guttersnipe can make it move."

Bedwyr looked thoughtful. "Couldn't you hinge the knuckles?"

"Well, yes, but you wouldn't be able to move it without the help of your other hand. You," he turned to Cathair. "You're from Erin. Didn't the hand magically move by itself, like a real hand?" He whirled back on Bedwyr. "He's from Erin - listen to him! He knows what he's talking about."

Lys: Strange Bedfellows

Cathair was still sitting by the fire when the question suddenly came to him- would it be better to speak to Lord Artos on the matter, or follow his original plan and address the Guttersnipe? Lord Artos was master of the villa in his uncle's absence, but the Guttersnipe was the default mistress of the house at all times... He thought he would rather speak to her. She knew Aithne better, would understand better. He just did not wish to slight Lord Artos in any way.

Either way, he was not going to repeat last night...

"Goodnight, Aithne, sleep well." Cathair had seen her to her room as usual, and soon they would part, as usual.

"Goodnight, Cathair. I will... I will sleep well." She had not easily been able to say "I will see you tomorrow" since they were reunited. Too many memories of what had happened since the last time she had said it- they had not seen each other the next day, nor any other day for too long.

Cu pushed past them, knocking Cathair into the room. He was shocked by the cold. "Faith, Aithne, it's colder in here than it is outside! Why haven't you lit a fire?"

Aithne looked apologetic. "There's no fireplace."

"What?" He looked around. She was right. The room was much too small for one. And judging by the way his boots stuck to the floor in places, no hypocaust either. "Aithne, this isn't right. Why haven't you said anything?"

She was quiet awhile, her head bowed. "They've been so kind to me, giving me a room to myself... I didn't think it was right to complain..."

"By all that's holy... Aithne!" He stepped closer and lifted her chin, trying to be gentle and control his anger. "You are not a slave anymore. If there is a problem, you tell someone. Even slaves shouldn't have to live like this!"

She shrank away, looking hurt and fearful, and it took the fight out of him. He pulled her into his arms. "I'm not angry with you. I'm angry that no one's thought to move you now that it's so cold." He stood there awhile. Her hands felt like ice on his back. Pulling away, he took the blanket off her bed. "Come with me. It's too late to have you moved tonight. You're going to come spend the night in the barn, where at least I can keep you warm."

She took it back. "No, Cathair. You know that can't be. You know what... I'll be fine for one more night. It would be..." She was blushing. "I'll be fine."

She was right, Cathair knew. All the same, he couldn't leave her this way. He nodded and told her to wait awhile, then went out and fetched his lambskin from the barn. Returning, he handed it to her. "Sleep under this. And let Cu in the bed with you tonight. At least he can warm you. It isn't good for him to sleep on this floor, anyway."

"But what about you?" Aithne asked. Here she was, freezing, and she was worried about him.

"I will be fine. I have plenty of hay to burrow under." He winked and kissed her cheek. "Now you go to bed. Sleep warm."

As soon as he had the opportunity, he would speak to the Guttersnipe. And he would be back out, working on the house, as soon as he could. He prayed the heavy snow would hold off until he finished.

Jenny: Terror Tastes Like Honey

The dress was all but finished. Gwenhywfar had but one long length of golden beads to stitch into the ribbing and it would be done. But the imminence of her triumph was pressed out by the weighty atmosphere around her. Her cat had kept very close these days, which worried her still more. She glanced up under the cover of her lashes at Vortigern and Hengist seated nearby with a small table between them, talking and eating and drinking. Her father looked thin and wicked next to the giant Saxon who reclined expansively in his chair, draped with a fleabitten horsehide. Her father was cloaked against the draughts and introverted in his thoughts, making him look like a coiled viper. His face was flushed with mead but his eyes were still cold and clear and Gwenhywfar could not look at them for long.

Hengist had been going on quietly for some time about the precarious nature of Britain, alluding at times to his home across the sea. His voice, big as he was, was unusually gentle, muffled a little by his plaited golden beard, and went on without pause for over a quarter of an hour. Vortigern did not say a word, though at times Gwenhywfar saw he would like to say something, but had no space. At times Hengist, seeming to realize this, smiled through his beard and words, but did not stop. Gwenhywfar focused hard on her work.

"Everything is uncertain, like molten gold that has not been poured into the crucible. These are good times for us, malleable times that you and I can play with. Across the sea things are changing, shifting in new ways that leave no room for our sort of people. Things are shifting everywhere. Only here in Britain is there room for our sort of people. Everything is uncertain. Nothing has been cast in stone yet. The old orders are empty, decaying, like Rome: they are Roman things, and they will fade away with Rome. Everywhere you look there are vestiges of Rome: villas, roads, the old fort up on the hill overlooking us. Why, even our Thanet which you gave us bears their marks. They are everywhere, but like cobwebs, flimsy in the new winds. Everything is uncertain. Rome is like a ghost in our morning. She will vanish. Only a few cobwebs linger: the Council...Ambrosius..."

Gwenhywfar looked up in time to see her father stiffen as if struck.

"...Things will never go back to the old order, but we can make an order to our liking all the same. I have the power and inclination to help you. The cobwebs have bothered you long enough. I have a proposal to set before you."

The glassy cold eyes regarded Hengist out of a warm face.

"If you and I go to rout out this old beast, I can guarantee that it will turn and put up a good fight. We need to be as strong as possible, inextricably united. This island is renowned for its slipperiness, for breaking apart in little pieces just as you make to close your hand on it. We need to be assured that will not happen. We can have Britain, you and I, and no one will take it from us. Take Rowena, and be family to me."

There was a sharp clatter of beads as they slid from Gwenhywfar's lap. "Father - " she began.

But he cut her off, suddenly flaring violently to life. "You stay out of this!" he roared. "You - you are a spider in my cobwebs!" He slashed his hand through the air. "I should have squashed you long ago!"

She swallowed. He was drunk, but she knew better than to doubt him. She felt the vein throbbing in her neck from terror. Somehow she managed to rise, feeling the Saxon's cool blue eyes fixed smilingly on her, and with a stiff nod she made to leave.

"Get back here!" Vortigern cried, half-rising from his chair. She quickened her pace to gain the doors before her father decided to come after her. "Insolent little bitch! I am not finished with you!"

But he did not come after her, and she managed to leave the hall without hindrance and, with her cat running along beside her and the red dress fluttering in her hands, make for the open and the old earthworks at the foot of the hill which kept the hill from sliding down into the sea. There in the windy, salted open she collapsed on a rock. She had never shaken so, trembling from head to heel and her breath shuddering in and out of her lungs. This is what terror feels like, she thought. She looked at the hand she had laid across her cat's back. It would not hold still. This is terror. She swallowed back the sickness in her throat and sat shaking for some time, trying not to think, wishing she could not swim so she could throw herself into the sea at the foot of the sandy beach and be free of it all.

A shadow fell across her lap. The cat hissed and spat, and Gwenhywfar looked up into the familiar face of Hengist's brother Horsa. He was young and clean-shaven, and did not look so foreign as his older brother, nor feel so desperately wicked. Gwenhywfar loathed him, but she loathed him a little less than Hengist. He was silent for a few moments, watching her with those pitiless blue eyes and that faint twist of a smile which she could never tell if it was amused or cruel. Finally the young man laughed, blowing through his nose softly. "I would not be you for all the world," he said.

Her trembling, which had ceased momentarily, began again.

"I assume your mother is dead," Horsa went on without mercy, "and that is just as well. She would be as pretty as you, I am reckoning, and Vortigern is the sort to give even his wife to Hengist in return for what he wants. And Hengist is the sort to take her."

The sickness was creeping back up her throat again, and it was all she could to do swallow it back down and keep it down. In a thick, woollen, but defiant voice she told him, "I will find a way to kill myself before I can be given to anyone - much more your walrus brother!"

He gave a most equine snort and tossed his head up, nostrils distended, watching the afternoon light play on the water. "I know," he said. "That is something they have not reckoned. You are very British. If there is one thing I have learned about these people, it is that they love their Britain very much."

"Vortigern is a Briton," Gwenhywfar said hatefully.

"Vortigern is a bastard," said Horsa cheerfully, "and you and I both know that."

There was something in his flippant tone, laughing at her, mocking her, which made her look up, startled. But it was a pair of blue eyes that looked back at her under a mane of golden hair. Cheated, girlish, she looked away.

"Whatever you do," he went on, "you would die for Britain."

The waves drummed softly on the beach below. In the distance a mew was crying.

"So would I."

A dog barked toward the headland. The cat purred under Gwenhywfar's hand. When she made no answer, Horsa lifted his shoulders as if to shrug it all off, and he turned, walking away across the wild sea-grasses.

Lys: The White Creature

"I am not hungry."

"All the same you should at least come out soon..."

But the white bird in the corner of the room- the bird whom Aithne had all but forgotten, interrupted. Aithne had a moment of shock. She found she could understand Champion. She missed the words in the surprise of hearing, for the first time, the voice of a White Creature.

"I am not hungry." The Guttersnipe said again, but this time it was directed at Champion. Aithne watched as the girl railed against the bird, who sat with that curious knowing light in his eyes, but otherwise unperturbed. She did not understand- the Guttersnipe spoke Iceni- but could understand Champion's side of the conversation, and she surpressed a laugh at his calm admonishment to not fear.

"Understand what?"

The conversation continued in Latin- on the Guttersnipe's side, at least. Champion's was on another level of communication. Aithne knew it didn't matter what language one spoke, one would understand the bird and his kind. She wondered, sometimes, if God's angels did not sometimes move among them as creatures as well as men.

He was chastising her, so Aithne stayed out of it. She had prayed for the girl and had spoken to her, and it was not for her to break into Champion's speech.

Aithne retreated, unnoticed, to the doorway. She would wait, for the moment, to see if the falcon's words changed the girl's mind about coming out. If they did not, she would go out alone and leave the girl to herself. She briefly wondered if she should seek out Jason, but thought that it might be meddling more than she should.

Jenny: What Can't Be Seen

"I am not hungry," the Guttersnipe replied noncommittally, and she meant it.

Hills, said Champion suddenly, craning his head back to look at the ceiling. Seven of them - a lot of hills. It must have been such trouble for you little ones to walk up and down those hills all day. But it is a good defense, being in the hills. Seven is a good number.

The Guttersnipe regarded the Bird for a few moments. "I am not hungry," she enunciated carefully. Then, in Iceni, "Why didn't you go? You know it isn't safe!"

The Bird frowned terribly at her. Fear makes you rude. I think you should try fearlessness.

"It is easy, when it is myself," she said, chastened enough to cut the edge off her sting. "I am only the guttersnipe - I am nothing. You know that. Everyone knows that. But Ambrosius is everything - everything, Champion!" She clenched her fists until her nails made her palms raw.

There was a long silence between the three of them. The Guttersnipe felt Domitia's awkwardness and hated that the girl was right, hated that she was shivering and angry, knowing she was wrong. Champion looked at her with the most softness his harsh aquiline face could muster.

You poor little child, playing at being grown up and being so very small. You are very like your father that way. It took him a long time to understand.

"Understand what?" she asked, subdued.

Frail little human eyes...! That you are never alone, and that it is not for you to know a very great deal about what you do in life. Be bold, braveheart. I've seen you be very bold in the foolish sort of way. Be bold like your father: know the danger, and do what you must all the same. It should not be hard for you, little sleeping dreamer - little human child. These are not foreign things to you.

"...and anything," came Master Lucius' voice from the corridor, "about the beginning, when Hengist first came to Britain. I'll be needing all of that."

The Guttersnipe asked plaintively, "You couldn't have gone?"

Champion shook his head. Not this time.

Lys: The Lady of the Villa

Aithne nodded. "Think on things. But do not let them overwhelm you." She breathed a small laugh. Was it not but weeks ago that it was the Guttersnipe pulling her up?

She laid a hand on the girl's shoulder. "Guttersnipe... do not forget your place. I know what little regard you have for women, but like it or not, the women of the valley will look to you to see how they should take the news of Lord Ambroisus's departure. If you go out to breakfast looking..." she searched for a word. "Looking hunted- you, the all-but-fearless Guttersnipe- it will make them far more fearful than you are. All they will know is that their lord has left abruptly, they will not know why or to where. They will take their cue from you. Be kind to your people."

Aithne stood and offered her hand. "You don't have to come with me, but remember that you have Jason, and I, to lean on when you need it. I promise."

Jenny: Shivering, Like a Horse That Smells Fire

The Guttersnipe remained very stiff and flushed under Domitia's hand. Only some moments after the girl retracted her hands did the Guttersnipe finally relax. Domitia was right, she owned that: but everything still left a bad taste in her mouth. She kept back under the blankets and stared out unblinkingly on Domitia. If she strained a little the fabric of the room buckled and gave way to a washed-out, moonshot image, the taste of panic, a dark, restless figure laid out on the couch. She shuddered and came back to herself.

"Thank you," she said in blunt Iceni. She reached up and shoved the back of her hand across her forehead. "I am just thinking of things. Don't mind me."


It had come back and sat for the past half hour on his desk, watching him coolly, its unblinking eyes staring through him. After a while he had grown used to its presence and he had turned his back on it, propped on one elbow, reading. His leg hurt worse than usual this morning; it was very cold. He could get nowhere in his reading with a myriad of crowding thoughts clamouring for his attention, so he was glad when he heard footsteps at the door and swung round to find Jason approaching, looking cold.

"Good morning," the young man said cheerfully. Artos glanced over at the cat. Jason seemed to take no notice of it. "How is the leg?"

Artos shook his head. "It feels hot, and it hurts a little. Do I have a fever?"

Having squatted down by the couch, Jason leaned over to press his palm against Artos' temples. He seemed to linger for a long time, lip twisted in his teeth, staring at nothing. The cat's ominous black bulk, too, seemed to deliberate in parodic mimicry. The look on its face, though largely obscured by the fur, seemed oddly familiar.

"No, no fever. It's just a bad day."

Jason cheerily went to work on the leg, and Artos lay rigid under the ritual inspection, watching the cat as it watched him. With Jason's assessment a fear, which until now he had pushed to the back of his mind, sprang to the foreground, huge and horrible. He wanted, desperately, to ask Jason to go fetch his uncle at once, but the words stuck against the pride in his throat - and the fear, too. With great effort he managed to swallow and ask, "Jason - "

The young surgeon looked up, startled by the tone of Artos' voice. "Yes?" he pressed.

But the cat had vanished in the time it took for Artos to blink, and there was nothing to say. He had nothing to tell, nothing to show, and he could only shake his head and turn away. "Nothing, Jason. Keep going."

Lys: A Frozen Flame

Cathair was slowly thawing out. He removed his hat and his furred overcoat and let the warmth seep into his bones. He hoped the snow would not last. Last night, when he had seen Aithne to the door, his hand had nearly stuck on the lintel. He was surprised she did not freeze to death every night. The monks who had bult it had obviously been of the self-denying sort. He had returned only moments later, carrying his lambskin rug and vowing to himself that she would not stay there any longer than was absolutely necessary. In fact, he considered asking the Guttersnipe if Aithne could sleep in her room. Even the kitchen was warmer. Or the Atrium. Somewhere with a fire...

Jenny: Rubicon

Alan turned back to Ambrosius. "Well?" he asked softly, the warmth of camaraderie gone. "What is it? Has Hengist made his bid at last?"

"I wish I could say he had." Ambrosius withdrew Master Lucius' tablet from his pouch and handed it over. "Read it."

Alan took the tablet, but did not open it at once. Ambrosius could see the multitudinous possibilities of what could be in the tablet flickering across the man's face, and knew he could not guess what it really said. But when Ambrosius made no effort to enlighten him, and when the silence drew out between them, Alan finally said, "Come to my study. We'll look at it there."

Alan did not need to lead the way. Ambrosius remembered well enough: across the atrium, through a low doorway which his own frame and Alan's old soldier's shoulders had trouble fitting through, up a short flight of stairs to the door at the top and the room beyond which was the study. Last time he had been inside it had been flooded with garden light; it was shuttered today and lit by several braziers and hanging lamps. Ambrosius hesitated with the door, unwilling to leave it open, loathe to close it and fill the room with the lamp-smoke. But Alan, whom seemed generally impervious to usual human discomforts, said, "Shut the door. Cwm will see that we are alone," so Ambrosius had to shut it.

Alan pulled his old chair close to one of the braziers and sat down, the tablet poised in his hands. Though there were a few other chairs scattered about the little room Ambrosius remained standing, hands at his sides, watching motionless as his friend regarded the writ he was about to open. He counted out the seconds with his heartbeat - remarkably even, given the tablet's contents - and he was relieved when Alan finally snapped the wax and uncurled the thread, throwing the wooden lid back with a sharp click. Master Lucius' writing flashed up bold in the yellow light. It was very quiet in the room as Alan read, a quiet full of old haunting memories and the soft hush of the little fires.

I almost envy Job, thought Ambrosius. He did not have time to anticipate his destruction.

The sheaves of paper rustled under Alan's hand. It seemed a long time, a time in which Ambrosius was keenly aware of everything hanging in the balance, before his friend was done. He turned back a few pages and said wryly, without looking up, "Have a seat, Ambrosius: you're not on report."

"What do you think of it?" Ambrosius returned, refusing to sit down.

Alan shook his head, still leafing through the writing. "I find it incredible almost to the point of absurdity. Why not just poison you instead?"

Ambrosius looked askance.

The tablet shut with a click. Alan turned in his seat, holding the tablet out as if to indicate the recent events with it. "The only thing I can think of is that Vortigern meant to strike a deal with Cunorix, who must have been a powerful leader among his people. Otherwise it is a great waste of promises and money - more money, for we know how Vortigern is like with promises. The man is stripped for power and has few powerful followers at present."

"I am thinking that, between the blurring hate, that is Vortigern's reasoning." The Hawk finally reached for a chair and drew it close, sitting down with his arms crossed. "My death would not give him power, but it would at least give him money if he seized my territories. Cunorix could give him military leverage against the Council. I am thinking it was the knife that he wanted to make my death easier for the Council to swallow."

Alan crooked a brow. "Do you think he has it?"

Ambrosius hesitated a moment. He shook his head. "I do not know who has it, whether Vortigern or - Artorius was there."

Alan started violently. There was an abrupt silence, then the older man swore softly. "This adds a new dimension to things!"

"It does, doesn't it...?"

But Alan had flung himself back round in his chair, opening the writ to peer at it again. "Whoever has it, Ambrosius," he said, enunciating very distinctly, almost jabbing his words out at Ambrosius with his chin, "it looks bad. Even without you dead, they can use the knife in the Council against you."

Ambrosius dragged his fingers through his hair, leaning back to stare up at the ceiling. "For a bit of comic irony," he mused.

Alan snorted in derision.

Ignoring the old soldier, Ambrosius went on. "I have a feeling the spring is going to be in a riot. Vortigern and Artorius, if they are in league, which I assume they must be, will be thick through the winter, and whatever they plan to do will have to be sprung first thing at the turn of the season before I have a chance to react. Whatever they do," he added, putting his elbows on his knees and dropping his head into his hands, "they mean to destroy me."

"Why not squash them first?" asked Alan. "That is why you are here, isn't it?"

"I hate politics," muttered Ambrosius.

"Who said anything about doing it politically?"

Ambrosius looked up, surprised. Again the brittle silence hung between them, and then he laughed, short and disbelieving. "The Council would love that! I have no proof that he ordered my death at the hand of mercenaries, and I have no authority to wage war on one of our own. Vortigern is an ambitious man fallen out of their graces, but they seem him as at least holding the line with Hengist and Horsa. They have given me autonomy, but not that much. I can't make a move like that. I am not Caesar!"

It was Alan's turn to look faintly askance, his hard mouth curled in a little mocking sort of smile. Ambrosius held the man's gaze long and hard, unwavering; then something in him finally snapped and he laughed self-deprecatingly, putting his fingers back in his hair. "She is right," he remarked harshly. "It is making me go grey before my time."

"The grey suits you," said Alan, returning to the tablet.

Ambrosius watched Alan's fingers scanning the writing. "There is my secretary, Lucius," he said presently. "He lived with Vortigern for a while. It was he who brought me word of Cunorix's pending attack."

"Mm, there is a note...right here..." said Alan, flipping over a few pages.

"But even that wouldn't do." Ambrosius leaned back, linking his hands behind his head. "My distaste of politics has come back to bite me. I have no one intimate on the Council benches to help me out - except you, of course." He wondered what it would be: exile, stripped of his title and lands - he did not think they would be cruel enough to trade him in for peace with their neighbouring Saxon lords. For a moment he entertained the thought that it was all too absurd and that Stilicho was long dead, that the edict could not possibly hold today. But he knew that Vortigern was the key to Hengist, and he would flaunt that power long and hard until he got his way.

"I will send word to the Fox," he said slowly. "I need to know who is likely to turn against me and who I can trust."

"I hope you will take this in the kindest way possible," Alan said, "but your progress and victories have made you precarious. I know you do it all for Britain, but ambitious men see ambitious men set against them everywhere they look. Vortigern wants a vast kingship - so does Hengist, and Vortigern is a fool if he thinks he can keep Hengist on any sort of leash."

"Striking at Vortigern first would look an awful lot like a bid for power."

"I know," said Alan cheerfully.

Ambrosius stared at his feet. He did not care to admit it, but he had felt awkward with his own triumphs, and he had wondered how long it would be before someone began to grow jealous, even suspicious, of his unavoidable fame. He laughed to himself, bitterly, thinking about the grand old houses the members of the Council lived in juxtaposed to the battered, run-down shell of a building he had been given at the outset which he had yanked bodily out of its decrepitude into a working farm. Oh yes! what a Caesar he would make. What a threat to Britain he would be! "What angers me most," he said wrathfully, "is that they can't see the danger right in front of them. They can't see that Vortigern is a grasping, conniving little heartless man who will stop at nothing - nothing - to gain power, not even dumping the whole of Britain into the lap of heathens."

"We haven't asked them what they see yet," Alan pointed out.

"We don't need to."

Alan pulled his lips in a resigned flat line and said nothing.

Ambrosius stared into the middle distance. He had sworn to himself that he would fight this one, and he would. They were like blind children kicking at his shins, resisting him, not understanding that he knew what was best, and Vortigern - like Calidus on a larger scale - was the ringleader of the dissension. One Calidus at a time. But for the moment, no light blossomed on his vision to guide way.

He blinked and came back as Alan moved to hand the tablet back to him. "Keep it," he said, rising. "Lucius made several copies for me."

"Hang in there, Ambrosius," his friend said, laying his free hand on Ambrosius' shoulder. "It may take some pounding but we will work through this one. We have the whole winter ourselves, remember."

Ambrosius nodded, wordless, and followed Alan back down the stairs into the courtyard. He was surprised to find it was still blazing white daylight and that very little time had gone by. Cwm had Cyrus in the garden, waiting, stamping impatiently against the cold. Alan saw Ambrosius to the oaken doors and gave the Hawk a violently, friendly clap about the shoulders in parting, and then Ambrosius was mounting up, swinging Cyrus round for the gate at the far end of the garden. Alan and Cwm saw him off, but though he could see no one else, he felt another pair of eyes watching him for an uneasy distance.