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.

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