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.

Lys: Fighting Fear

Aithne realized she had been naive. Somehow she had trusted that the lords and companions had routed out all survivors in their capture, or else sent them far, far away. She thought they were fully safe until spring, that nothing worse than wolves could be lurking out there.

The fear was not unfounded. But it was still a sinful fear. It had already let anger into the Guttersnipe's heart, and who knew what else would wreak havoc in her before she recognized it for what it was?

The sanctity of Lord Ambrosius's room was nothing to the sanctity of the Guttersnipe's heart, and Aithne would fight for it, even if the girl would not. She crossed the room and sat down beside her, putting one arm around her and one hand on her head in a bardic gesture.

"Great Father, your glory is shown in every part of our existance. Let your name be forever praised! Father, you have not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind. Take this spirit of fear from the Guttersnipe. Fill her with your Holy power. Wrap her in your Unconditional Love, and bring peace and calm to her mind." She paused, her heart speaking words her lips could not, begging God to renew the girl.

"Drive the evil from this place, Lord. It seeks to make us believe that we are less safe without Lord Ambrosius with us, and he without us. You have said whatever we bind on earth is bound in heaven. I bind it in the name of Jesus Christ. Let it be cast into the deep and not return to us.

"Grant us peace, Father. Refresh our hearts and renew our spirits.

In your Holy Son's name we ask these things. Let it be so."

Jenny: A Familiar Darkness

"It is a thing to trust God and another to tempt danger," the Guttersnipe returned a little snappishly. It was likely that those who had escaped from the fight were still at large in the surrounding countryside, and would Ambrosius' hide not be a priceless honour to take back to one's war-lord! She shivered, realized that Champion sitting on his perch had been watching her quizzically all this while, and blushed furiously.

She went on presently. "There was a Scotti raid some years ago close by, and my Lord Ambrosius came home with a wound in his leg worse than Artos', and - it was - " She swallowed, pursed her lips, and tried again. "It was a hard fight for him. He was on the brink for a long time, holding on by a thread. It was almost all that we could do to bring him back. So that I am not liking that he has gone out alone!" she ended fiercely.

Lys: Unreasoning Fear

So. She would not bite, not yet, at least. But her tail was twitching, all the same. She may yet scratch.

She still did not feel right entering Lord Ambrosius's room, so she stood, hugging the doorpost, and asked, "Why do you fear so for Lord Ambrosius? He is going a short distance to the home of a friend." Aithne could understand general concern- if she did not, she would not have prayed for him so. But this overwhelming fear... it did not make sense. She wanted to say that fear was wrong, that it was not Godly, but she could not find a way to say it without sounding cruel. And so she waited for her answer.

Jenny: Just a Guttersnipe

There were only a few times in which her name sounded odd in someone's mouth, only a few self-pitying moments in which the Guttersnipe wondered why she was the Guttersnipe. She kept quite still, as if her stillness, like a hunted animal, would shake Domitia off her scent, her only comfort the Fox's harshly laughing tones: "You're as much a liar as I am, decked out in pretty royal splendour like some fancy bird, when we all know you're just a guttersnipe."

But she tired of being upset. She relaxed, melancholy, and dug her chin down into the folds of the blanket. Domitia had still not gone away. She was poor substitute for Gwenhywfar, but the girl seemed to care and she could not help not being the amber lady. Turning her head a little sullenly, the Guttersnipe asked, "What?"

Lys: Wounded Creatures

Eventually, Aithne got to her feet. The Guttersnipe had not returned, and while it was not unusual for her to go silent, Aithne had never seen the girl disappear like this. It was enough to make her deliberate on seeking her out.

She stood awhile, uncertain, weighing the good and bad, and finally decided to throw caution to the wind and look for the Guttersnipe. She may live to regret it, but if there was anything she could do...

And so Aithne quietly made her way to the girl's room. "Guttersnipe?" She peeked in, but the room was empty. There was no way they had crossed paths without noticing. Where is she? Her only other thought would, if wrong, land her in a heap of trouble if caught. She took a deep breath and rounded the corner for Lord Ambrosius's room...


Cathair arrived at the villa to find the usual bustle for breakfast and such. They do not know he's gone. he thought. It was the only possibility. He set his tool bag in a corner and went to warm himself by the fire. He would not be the one to tell the women- especially if Lucretia was there. Better to speak to one of the men as they pass. They would probably know already, anyway.

The fire felt good on his limbs- until he started tingling painfully. He had no idea he had been that cold. Pleasant scents were coming from the kitchen, and his stomach rumbled, bringing a wry smile to his face. Food and a warm fire. What else could a man wish for? A short pause, and he chuckled. Perhaps a wife? Truth be told, he wouldn't mind a little shared warmth and female attention... Where has Aithne gotten to?


Aithne tentatively poked her head in Lord Ambrosius's room- a place that gave off the same impression as a sacred grove- untouchable and dangerous to enter.
There sat the Guttersnipe, curled up in blankets and looking smaller and more vulnerable than Aithne had ever seen her. Aithne's heart went out to her, but she felt cautious. Wounded creatures were apt to strike out at helping hands. She spoke softly.


Jenny: Old Acquaintances

There was a bit of sun skittering through the flat ranks of snowclouds far overhead, lighting up the wooded countryside and pastureland as Ambrosius took the track down the hills to Lord Alan's villa. The rooks had taken to the woods across the river from the villa and were making an unholy racket as Cyrus jogged along, frothing and foaming, breath curling in great white clouds around his head. Ambrosius' face was chilled, his fingers numb; Cyrus would be steaming by the time he drew up in Alan's courtyard. The ragged scar on his leg was sore by the time they crossed the river by the shallow pebbly ford and climbed up between the hedges for the house.

In summer the house would be surrounded by big, wild, native trees, a pale seashell sort of image in an emerald setting; but it was winter, and the trees were starkly bare, curving their black claws over the grey, empty-looking building. There was only a smudge of smoke from the kitchen wing and, in the south quarter, a slave out beating clouds of dog-fur off a rug to indicate life within. Cyrus put on a reluctant burst of speed and rattled up the snowy drive, passing through the open gate and down the long avenue of dead bean rows for the colonnade and the atrium beyond.

Ambrosius was glad to see Cwm out in the single patch of sun in the colonnade. The old manservant looked up without any surprise as he approached, and got up off his stool, putting down one of Alan's boots which he had been mending. "Good day, sir," the man said without a movement of deference of any sort.

"Good day, Cwm. It is always a good day to see you." Ambrosius uncurled his stiff hands from the reins and swung down. "I've come to see Lord Alan. Is he at home?"

"Yes, he is, sir." Cwm fetched up the boot and gestured toward the imposing oak-wood doors to the atrium. "Come this way out of the wind. I'll go tell him you have arrived."

Ambrosius left Cyrus to eat the remains of autumn's bean crop and followed the native manservant through the doors by way of the vestibule into the atrium. Alan, who had never learned that winters brought cold, who had never cared, had not bothered to roof in his atrium as Ambrosius had done to his own villa, and the white winter sky blazed down with a washed touch of sunlight on the inner pool and dead garden within. Cwm put the boot on a stone bench, indicated the brazier which was burning by the outer wall, and hastily retreated into the interior of the house to find his master. Ambrosius was left in the quiet of the atrium, arms tucked close against the shadowy chill, listening to the tinsely rattle of the little fire and the irregular, lonesome drip of water off the roof into the pool below. He stood in what little sunlight there was, glad to be out of the wind. Once again he was met with how different winter left the landscape. The last he had been in Alan's atrium it had been full summer, and the great tangled damson tree - an import of which Alan was immensely proud - had been thick with leaves. Now it hung about itself in the corner of the garden, listlessly stretching its branches for the sunlight, empty and cold. He rubbed his hand on his arm: but come April, he told himself, the tree would be heavy with white blossoms, and it would not remember that it had been as deathly-looking as it did now.

"It is too cold to be climbing in trees today," a voice spoke at his side.

A faint wind blew from above, and he looked down to see a brown curl of plum-leaf scuttle across the stones before him. "I am too old to be climbing trees, at any rate," he said, and turned to the woman who had come up beside him.

She had not changed. Strange, he had always thought of her as the same, whenever he chanced to think of her; but now that he saw her, he thought she should have changed. She still wore her thick black hair in curled masses in the old way: a becoming way, for her face, but too becoming, too heavy; and there was always about her a faintly cloying scent which dug his nails into his palms. But she must have been thinking of change, too, for her narrow dark eyes darted across his face and, with a little tilt of her smile, she reached up and touched his temple. "You are going grey with this oldness," she said. Her tone was janglingly mocking.

He could count on one hand with fingers to spare the moments in which he had longed to run from a fight. This was one of them. "I have come on a matter of business with your husband," he said, turning his head just enough to pull away.

"It is always that way."

He was saved from further conversation by Alan's entrance. He forced a smile and disengaged himself as his friend approached. He wondered in the back of his mind for the briefest instant if he should say something...but then he thought better of it. Now was not the time for it, and anyway, it did not deserve to be mentioned.

"Ambrosius!" Alan reached out a thick old hand to grip him and shake him heartily. "You look like you have been through Hades."

Ambrosius laughed mirthlessly, giving one shoulder a twist.

Catching the Hawk's inconspicuous glance, Alan turned to his wife. "I'll have to ask you to leave us for a little while. Boring men's politics. You understand, Murgen?"

"Yes, of course." She gathered her pallas around her. "I'll have some wine warmed up for you." She left without a sound.

Lys: The Hawk Has Flown

The Guttersnipe shied and turned white with an attempt at controlling herself, then ran off, much as Aithne often did. Poor girl. She regretted not having sought her out immediately, but she doubted she would've managed in time, anyway.

Aithne wanted to go after her, to reassure her, to comfort her in some way, but she doubted anything she could do would help. So she sat back against the warm mantlepiece and drew her knees up to her chest, bowing her head over them.

Great God, be glorified in this place.
Comfort the Guttersnipe in her lord's absence. Show me what to do, if anything.
Protect Lord Ambrosius as he journeys forth in this cold weather. Surround him with your Spirit above and below, before and behind, on the left and on the right. Though a thousand fall at his right, ten thousand on his left, do not let trouble come near your servant, Holy Father.

Encourage those left here without him. Remind us that you are Lord Over All, High King of Heaven, and that we are no less safe and loved for the absence of Lord Ambrosius...


On the hill where he worked, Cathair caught a glimpse of the man riding out. He could not say it was Ambrosius, but at the same time it could not be another. It bothered him that the man rode out alone, without anyone to see him off. It was not right for a lord to leave his people without so much as informing them of his departure. It went against every law of Cathair's people. But these are not your people. Not in that way. They grew up under another law.

The mizzle had turned to snow long since, and with the departure of the Hawk, Cathair suddenly felt compelled to return to the villa and abandon the housemaking for awhile. It did not sit well with him to leave the place undefended.

Stowing his tools in a bag, he set off for the villa.

Jenny: Long Shadows

The bundle of winter things, warm on their insides and damply cold on the outside, seemed to drag at the Guttersnipe's arms. The knife... He will have gone to see Lord Alan, who knew about that sort of thing. And Lord Alan was nearly a day's ride away. She stared unblinkingly into the pale hollow of Domitia's throat, not seeing what was before her. Maybe Jason did not believe in auspices and portents, but she - it was a most wretched time to be seeing so clearly in her mind's eye Ambrosius kneeling on the ground with her when she was only a child, playing with her little wooden horses. Did you not always see the beginning when the end was near? It had rushed by, all of it, in a wild blur last night when Ambrosius had stepped out with Cunorix. Now there was a blanket of snow on the ground and everything seemed ages - worlds - away: buried, buried under the snow, cold and -

She shied, coming back to herself. "Thank you," she murmured, taking a firmer hold on the cloaks. "Please excuse me." She turned and walked hurriedly away from Domitia, willing the girl not to call her back. She sped from the room as though she had to put the cloaks away at once, but made her way to Ambrosius' room and climbed up on the couch, unfolding the blankets and pulling them around her shoulders. Cyrus had brought a new shadow on the snow, replacing the one Calidus had cast. Shadow after shadow, long shadows. Though the room was warm she shivered, lip trembling. She hated herself for feeling terror, but the thought of Ambrosius out alone in the winter snow filled her with a dread she had not known, not even when Gwenhywfar had thrown her from the room and told her to tighten her own belt and pull up her own boots and take her people home. She heard Calidus' hateful voice spitting poison across the floor: "There are many in Britain who want you as dead as I do!" She knew better than to ride after him and beg him to let her go too, as good as she was with a knife and a blow, but she dreaded the thought of seeing Cyrus come back without his mount. He had come close to being killed already. Why did he have to leave all alone?

She linked her arms around her legs. "I wish you were here, Gwenhywfar," she murmured dully.

Lys: An Elephant

"He has gone off on the matter of the edict in the knife." Aithne found herself saying. She set her harp aside and put the cover over it once more. "That is, I gather as much. He did not say with his words, but there are other ways of speaking."

Then she did not know what else to say. Last night's sudden prophetic outburst of sorts fell between her and the Guttersnipe, and she did not know what to do with it, if anything. She'd noticed, in a sort of secondary noticing, the girl's offense at being pressed aside. So now she sat, looking up at the Guttersnipe and trying not to feel awkward.

Jenny: In the Snow

"Despite all, it's as though a shadow has lifted from this place."

Jason dropped the withered branch he had been fingering and glanced up at the red-shrouded girl in the branch beside him. She was swathed in red cloth and white fur, her narrow freckled face peeking out pale at the pale world, a shout of colour against the grey. He tucked his arms in close across his chest and leaned against the trunk of the apple tree. The wind was blowing across the hillside and it was very cold.

"I'm not one to believe in auspices," he said, watching his breath curl and waft away, "but I know what you mean. It's done now, whatever the consequences: it's done." He smiled at her. "It's nice to have that chapter behind us before we start a new one."

The Guttersnipe bunched her cloak tightly shut in her mittened hands. "I am glad that it is snowing. It keeps the world outside."

He bent down and picked up his twig again, leaving a grey gash in the fresh snow at his feet. There was a little red bud on it, which would never turn into a leaf. He ran his numb fingers over it thoughtfully.

"It seemed like it happened ages ago," she said sleepily.

"Well, it did."

"No, I mean last night."


The wind howled, lifting the branches up on end and whirling them from side to side. The Guttersnipe closed in on herself and Jason flung the twig away for good, turning his head from the blast. On the wind, from below them, came the muffled ring of hooves on stone, and when the wind died a little they looked down to see Ambrosius on his black horse riding out alone - even without Champion - for the Beacon road. The solitary figure, ebony and scarlet against the ivory snow, moved down into the cloister wood out of sight and out of hearing. The Guttersnipe slid down off the branch.

"I wonder where he's off to," Jason wondered aloud, stopping to unhitch the girl's cloak from a knot before she tore a hole in it.

"To save the world, I suppose," said the Guttersnipe. "He didn't tell me." Then she hesitated, biting her bottom lip and pursing her brows in concern. "I don't like that he went out alone."

Jason did not like it either, but he took her hand for he was more than ready for a warm breakfast, and pulling her gently, assuring her, "I am sure he knows what he is doing, and he probably isn't going far."

"Are you sure?" she asked plaintively.

"No, but I'm hungry, and I can't put a leash on Ambrosius anymore than you can. Come on, pigeon, I'm hungry."

She came, but he thought she came a little grudingly and with worried backwards glances at the Beacon road as they went into the vestibule. He helped her out of her winter things and gave them back to her to put away, then went with cruelly cold hands to look in on Artos before breakfast has been laid out. But he did not leave the atrium in time to miss the Guttersnipe asking Domitia, in a sharp but still plaintive voice, "Do you know where Ambrosius is gone, and when he will be back?"

Lys: Trouble Lies Heavily

...In a far rath, evil lurked, waited.
Waited for word, for a way to conquer the Light.
There was a traitor, a man who knew the way.

He knew the way to the hiding place of the Light of Albion
Its fair refuge, its home, the Place of Peace.
He would lead them to it.

Lord Vortigern, that evil lord, that cowardly one-
He sent another to do his work.
Cunorix, a Mercenary, was sent forth to the challenge.

Little did he know of his fate, of his coming death,
of his death at the hands of the Two Lords of Britain.
His pride blinded him to all but victory...

Aithne, wrapped up in her account of the battle, did not hear Lord Ambrosius until he had passed her by. Her hands stilled on the strings, a dissonant twang betraying that it was not intentional. But he ignored her and went out.

She wondered what to make of it. There was no reason for her to expect him to sit and listen, or speak to her, and she thought if he did it would be disconcerting. But she wondered if he ignored her out of displeasure with her song. She herself knew it was not very good. It existed simply as a means for her to process the events of the past few days. It was good for her to do it. She had no intention of singing it for the lords and Companions- not in this form, at least. It would need much work before that could happen.

Thinking over his exit, she noticed something she hadn't at first. Her lord's shoulders weighed heavy with something, as though he was about to venture on some task he did not like, or had already done it. It could not be the death of Cunorix- she knew enough about him to know that he would not be weighed down over it. No, it was something else...

"Our Lord Ambrosius just signed his own death warrant."

Cathair's words came back to her. The knife. Now that Cunorix had been dealt with, it was time to address the matter of the knife. Of course. She wondered if the Guttersnipe knew her lord was leaving, and wondered if she should seek the girl out.

Jenny: Taking Care of Things

Take care of yourself, Tiro mine.

Master Lucius sank down into his chair, breathing a little heavily, but for once without the annoying jerk to his lungs. To be truthful, he felt a bit ill, and not a little frightened. He stared unseeing at the original transcript before him. His eyes drifted over the tools of his trade, over his pens and knives and little inkpots. He had great smudges of atramentum on both hands - he had not had time to clean himself, he had worked so busily through the night.

A sudden wave of fatigue washed over him. He bent his head, blinking, scrubbing at his forehead with the back of his wrist. Torn between sleep and work, he blearily began shuffling papers into neat piles on his desk.

Wulf, who had been sitting silent in the corner smoothing wax tablets, got up and came to his side. Master Lucius stopped with a ragged roll of vellum in one hand as Wulf gently took him by the shoulder. "I will only tidy," he assured the Saxon, "and then I will sleep. I can't sleep with this mess. And then - see if you can't find any records of the Council's sessions, the ones in which Ambrosius was a part."


Now that he thought about it, there had always been some odd, pretty sound coming suddenly from a hidden quarter in the house. Sometimes it was the Guttersnipe's laughter, or the fall of Artos' coin collection tinkling across the floor, or the drumming purr of a cat. This morning it was harp-music, lighter and, in some way, more melancholy than Caleb's tunes. Ambrosius left his footsteps to echo down the hallway behind him and paused in the atrium doorway to see Domitia seated by the fire, playing without any notion that she was being watched - did anyone do anything in his valley without being watched? - and seeming to enjoy her song. He listened to the end of it, and smiled at the sad dark optimism of bards. But he let it go, and decided he was in no mood to be put on the spot, nor did he have time to stop and make the girl blush with a compliment. He flung his cloak about his shoulders and stepped out into the atrium, stabbing his brooch home and throwing his hood up over his head against the blowy cold of the outdoors. He shoved his hands down into the rabbit-fur lining of his gloves and left the cold vestibule for the cold courtyard.

The light was pale and washed out all over the valley, filtering among the falling snow. The cardinal was a little leaf-shaped spark of red against the brindling white, and the woods on either hill to the north and south were clawed through and powdered with snow. He pulled his scarf up over his nose. At his back he left behind the comfortable dark curl of smoke from the kitchen wing and the heated floors and went down to fetch Cyrus.

It would be a cold ride to Alan's place. At least there was promise of a fire and wine at the end.

Lys: Heroes

Having thawed herself out to a manageable temperature, Aithne stood and started over to help. Blinking a bit, she reached for the small sack of flour on the table, intending to start a loaf of her own opposite Portia. But somewhere between picking it up and setting it down, she managed to knock it against an empty bowl. She had time to assess the situation, but not to resolve it. It was either catch the bowl or save the flour. She chose the flour.

The bowl went clattering to the floor, hitting the ground with a sound like a sword on stone. At the sound, Cu leapt up and barked his startlement as the shards of clay scattered over the floor.

Aithne set the flour down securely, bending her head over it a moment. Portia rounded the table quickly. "Are you unwell, Aithne? What's wrong?" Aithne raised her head. "Just a little dizzy for a moment. I'll be fine. I should clean up that bowl, though..." She turned to fetch a broom, but saw that one of the other girls had already taken up the task. Portia laid a hand on her arm. "In the absence of Lucretia I am ordering you out of this kitchen. You need more rest, Aithne. You were sick yesterday and you were out in the cold long after dark." Her eyes narrowed. "And I'm guessing you didn't sleep much, either." Aithne could not deny it, so Portia turned her and pushed her gently towards the door. "Go take it easy. We can survive one day without you pushing yourself into exhaustion."

Aithne obeyed, Cu trailing behind, acting as though he thought he was in trouble. He nosed her hand, and she scratched his ears. "Not your fault, Cu. It was all me." She coughed, and coughed again, trying to rid herself of the catch in her throat.

Eventually she managed to get it under control, and moved to the fireplace, where her harp sat covered and warm, but not hot. "Here is something." she said to Cu. Music calms the savage beast, they said, and Aithne thought it might apply to nerves as well.

It was not long before she was sitting by the fire, her fingers coaxing music from the battered instrument. Between Caleb and Cathair, they had managed to get it repaired, but she could still see the places where the wood had stopped the arrows meant for Cathair. Somehow it made the instrument all the more precious, knowing it had saved his life.

She plucked the strings, listening closely and tuning the strings one at a time, until the notes melded into beautiful chords. Some people said angels played harps. She did not know if it was true, but harp music certainly had the air of another world. For awhile she was content to lose herself in it...

...And words came to her. She had thought they might.

Listen! I speak of heroes, not of old
of great men who live, who have not died-
have not yet passed into the realm of Heaven.

Oft you have heard of Ambrosius the Hawk,
Lord Ambrosius, Warlord of Britannia, Guardian of Albion
His fame precedes him far and wide.

Many have heard of Artos the Merlin,
Nephew of Ambrosius, Bear of Britain, Defender of Truth.
Though young, his fame rivals his uncle's.

Hear me as I tell of their deeds, of the dark time,
of danger and fear and valor,
of the time when evil dared raise its head against them.

They did not quake in fear, they did not quail.
The Light of God was with them.
It was for darkness to fear, not the Light...