Jenny: Broom In the Mist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A hating one through and through.

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

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

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

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