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.

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