Sword at Sunset
By Rosemary Sutcliff
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2008 Jack Whyte
All rights reserved.
NOW that the moon is near to full, the branch of an apple tree casts its nighttime shadow in through the high window across the wall beside my bed. This place is full of apple trees, and half of them are no more than crabs in the daylight; but the shadow on my wall, that blurs and shivers when the night wind passes and then grows clear again, is the shadow of that Branch the harpers sing of, the chiming of whose nine silver apples can make clear the way into the Land of the Living.
When the moon rises higher, the shadow is lost. The white radiance trickles down the wall and makes pools on the coverlet, and then at last it reaches my sword lying beside me–they laid it there because they said I was restless when it was not ready to my hand–and a spurt, a pinpoint, of blazing violet light wakes far, far down in the dark heart of Maximus's great amethyst set into the pommel. Then the moonlight passes, and the narrow cell is cobweb gray, and the star in the heart of the amethyst sleeps again; sleeps ... I reach out in the grayness and touch the familiar grip that has grown warm to my hand in so many fights; and the feeling of life is in it, and the feeling of death. ...
I cannot sleep, these nights, for the fire of the wound in my groin and belly. The Brothers would give me a draught stronger than the fire, if I let them; but I have no wish for the sleep of poppy juice and mandrake that leaves a dark taste in the mind afterward. I am content to wait for another sleep. And meanwhile there is so much to think of, so much to remember....
Remember–remember across forty years, the first time that ever I held that blink of violet light in my hand, answering not to the cold whiteness of the moon, but to the soft yellow radiance of the candles in Ambrosius's study, on the night that he gave me my sword and my freedom.
I was sitting on the foot of my sleeping couch, busy with the twice-daily pumice stone. On campaign I generally grew my beard and clipped it short, but in winter quarters I always tried to keep a smooth chin in the Roman manner. Sometimes that meant the butchery of goose grease and razor, and left me scraped and raw and thanking many gods that at least I was not, like Ambrosius or old Aquila my friend and mentor in all that had to do with cavalry, a black-bearded man. But there was still pumice stone to be got when one was lucky, for it took more than the Franks and the Sea Wolves to quite close the trade routes and pen the merchant kind within their own frontiers. One of the merchant kind had come into Venta Belgarum only a few days since, with pumice stone and dried raisins and a few amphorae of thin Burdigala wine slung in pairs on the backs of his pack ponies; and I had managed to buy an amphora, and a piece of pumice almost the size of my fist, enough to last me through the winter and maybe next winter also.
When the bargaining was over, we had drunk a cup of the wine together and talked, or rather he had talked while I listened. I have always found pleasure in hearing men tell of their travels. Sometimes the talk of travelers is for listening to by firelight, and best savored with much salt; but this man's talk was of a daylight kind and needed little salt, if any. He talked of the joys of a certain house in the street of sandalmakers at Rimini, of the horrors of seasickness and the flavor of milk-fed snails, of passing encounters and mishaps of the road that brimmed with laughter as a cup with wine, of the scent and color of the roses of Paestum that used to serve the Roman flower markets (he was something of a poet in his way). He told of the distances from such a place to such another place, and the best inns still to be found on the road. He talked–and for me this had more interest than all the rest–of the Goths of Southern Gaul and the big dark-colored horses that they bred, and the great summer horse fair at Narbo Martius. I had heard before of the horses of Septimania, but never from one who had seen them with his own eyes and had the chance to make his own judgment of their mettle. So I asked many questions, and laid by his answers, together with certain other things that had long been in my heart, to think over, afterward.
I had thought of those things a good deal, in the past few days, and now it came upon me as I sat there rubbing my chin with the pumice stone and already half stripped for sleep, that the time had come to be done with the thinking.
Why that night I do not know; it was not a good time to choose; Ambrosius had been in council all day, it was late, and he might even have gone to his bed by now, but I knew suddenly that I must go to him that night. I leaned sideways to peer into the burnished curve of my war cap hanging at the head of the couch, which was the only mirror I had, feeling my cheeks and chin for any stubble still to be rubbed away, and my face looked back at me, distorted by the curve of the metal, but clear enough in the light of the dribbling candles, big-boned as a Jute's, and brown-skinned under hair the color of a hayfield when it pales at harvesttime. I suppose that I must have had all that from my mother, for assuredly there was nothing there of dark narrow-boned Ambrosius; nor, consequently, of Utha his brother and my father, who men had told me was like him. Nobody had ever told me what my mother was like; maybe no one had noticed, save for Utha who had begotten me on her under a hawthorn bush, in sheer lightness of heart after a good day's hunting. Maybe even he had not noticed much.
The pumice stone had done its work, and I set it aside, and getting to my feet, caught up the heavy cloak that lay across the couch and flung it around me over my light undertunic. I called to my armor-bearer whom I could still hear moving in the next room, that I should want him no more that night, and went out into the colonnade with my favorite hound Cabal padding at heel The old Governor's Palace had sunk into quiet, much as a war camp does about midnight when even the horses cease to fidget in their picket lines. Only here and there the china saffron square of a window showed where someone was still wakeful on watch. The few colonnade lanterns that had not yet been put out swung to and fro in the thin cold wind, sending bursts of light and shadow along the pavements. The snow had driven in over the dwarf wall of the colonnade, but it would not lie long; already the damp chill of thaw was in the air. The cold licked about my bare shins and smarted on my newly pumiced chin; but faint warmth met me on the threshold of Ambrosius's quarters, as the guards lowered their spears to let me pass into the anteroom. In the inner chamber there was applewood burning above the charcoal in the brazier, and the aromatic sweetness of it filled the room. Ambrosius the High King sat in his big cross-legged chair beside the brazier, and Kuno his armor-bearer stood in the far shadows by the door that opened into his sleeping cell beyond. And as I halted an instant on the threshold, it was as though I saw my kinsman with the clear-seeing eye of a stranger: a dark fine-boned man with a still and very purposeful face; a man who, in any multitude, would wear solitude almost as tangibly as he wore the purple mantle flung about his shoulders. I had been aware always of that solitude in him, but never so sharply as in that moment, and I was thankful that I should never be High King. Not for me that unbearable peak above the snow line. Yet now I think that it had little to do with the High Kingship but was in the man himself, for I had known it in him always, and he had been crowned only three days.
He was still fully dressed, though he sat forward, his arms across his knees, as he did when he was tired. The slender gold fillet that bound his dark brows gave back a blink of light to the brazier, and the straight folds of the cloak that glowed imperial purple in the daylight was ringstraked with black and the color of wine. He looked up as I entered, and his shuttered face flashed open as it did for few men save myself and Aquila. "Artos! So you too do not feel like sleeping."
I shook my head. "Na; and so I hoped that I should find you awake."
Cabal padded in past me, as one very much at home in that place, and cast himself down beside the brazier with a contented sigh.
Ambrosius looked at me for a moment, and then bade his armor-bearer bring some wine and leave us. But when the stripling had finally gone, I did not at once begin on the matter that had brought me, only stood warming my hands at the brazier and wondering how to make the beginning. I heard the whisper of sleet against the high window and the thin whining of the draft along the floor. Somewhere a shutter banged in the wind; steps passed along the colonnade and died into the distance. I was acutely aware of the small firelit room, and the darkness of the winter night pressing in upon its fragile shell.
A gust of wind swooped out of the night, driving a sharp spatter of sleet against the window, the aromatic smoke billowed from the brazier, and an apple log fell with a tinselly rustle into the red cavern of the charcoal. Ambrosius said, "Well, my great Bear Cub?" and I knew that he had been watching me all the time.
"Well?" I said.
"What is the thing that you come to say to me?"
I stooped, and took up a lichened log from the basket beside the brazier, and set it carefully on the fire. "Once," I said, "when I was a cub indeed, I remember hearing you cry out for one great victory to sound like a trumpet blast through Britain, that the Saxon legend might be broken in men's minds, and the tribes and the people might hear it and gather to your standard, not in ones and twos and scattered war bands, but in whole princedoms. ... You gained that victory at Guoloph in the autumn. For a while at least, the Saxons are broken here in the South; Hengest is fled; and the princes of Dumnonia and the Cymri who have held back for thirty years got drunk three nights since at your Crowning Feast. It is maybe the turning of the tide–this tide. But still it is only a beginning, isn't it?"
"Only a beginning," Ambrosius said, "and even that, only in the South."
He had pulled off the great arm ring he wore above his left elbow; an arm ring of red gold wrought in the likeness of a dragon, and sat turning and turning it between his fingers, watching the firelight run and play in the interlocking coils. "Now to make strong our gains, to build up the Old Kingdom here in the South into a strength that can stand like a rock in the face of all that the seas can hurl against it."
I turned full to face him. "That is for you to do, to make your fortress here behind the old frontier, from the Thames's valley to the Sabrina Sea, and hold it against the Barbarians...." I was fumbling for the words I wanted, trying desperately to find the right ones, thinking the thing out as I went along. "Something that may be to the rest of Britain not only a rallying place, but as the heart is to a man and the eagle used to be to a legion. But for me, there is another way that I must go."
He ceased playing with the arm ring and raised his eyes to mine. They were strange eyes for so dark a man; gray like winter rain, yet with a flame behind them. But he never spoke. And so after a while, I had to stumble on unaided. "Ambrosius, the time comes that you must give me my wooden foil and set me free."
"I thought that might be it," he said, after a long silence.
"You thought? How?"
His face, normally so still and shut, again flashed open into its rare smile. "You show too clearly in your eyes what goes on behind them, my friend. You should learn to put up your shield a little."
But as we looked at each other, there was no shield for either of us. I said, "You are the High King, and here in the South it may be indeed that you can rebuild the kingdom and restore something of the heritage; but everywhere the Barbarians press in; the Scots from Hibernia harry the western coasts and make their settlements in the very shadow of Yr Widdfa of the Snows; the Picts with their javelins come leaping over the Wall; northward and eastward the war boats of the Sea Wolves come creeping in along the estuaries, near and nearer to the heart of the land."
"How if I made you Dux Britanniorum?" Ambrosius said.
"I should still be your man, under your orders. Do you not see? –Britain is broken back into as many kingdoms as before the Eagles came; if I hold to any one king, even you, the rest of Britain will go down. Ambrosius, I shall always be your man in the sense in which a son going out into the world remains son to his father. Always I will play my part with you as best I may in any wider plan, and if you should be so sore pressed at any day that without me you cannot hold back the tide, then I will come, no matter what the cost. But short of that, I must be my own man, free to go where the need is sorest as I see it. ... If I were to take a Roman title, it would be the one borne by the commander of our mobile cavalry forces in the last days of Rome–not Dux, butComes Britanniorum ."
"So, the Count of Britain. Three calvary wings and complete freedom," Ambrosius said.
"I could do it with less; three hundred men, if they were a brotherhood."
"And with three hundred men you believe that you can save Britain?" He was not mocking me, he never mocked at any man; he was simply asking a question.
But I did not answer at once, for I had to be sure. Once the answer was made, I knew that there could be no unmaking it again. "With three hundred men properly mounted, I believe that I can thrust back the Barbarians at least for a while," I said at last. "As for saving Britain–I have seen the wild geese flighting this autumn, and who can turn them back? It is more than a hundred years that we have been struggling to stem this Saxon flighting, more than thirty since the last Roman troops left Britain. How much longer, do you think, before the darkness closes over us?" It was a thing that I would not have said to any man save Ambrosius.
And he answered me as I do not think he would have answered any other man. "God knows. If your work and mine be well wrought, maybe another hundred years."
The shutter banged again, and somewhere in the distance I heard a smothered burst of laughter. I said, "Then why don't we yield now, and make an end? There would be fewer cities burned and fewer men slain in that way. Why do we go on fighting? Why not merely lie down and let it come? They say it is easier to drown if you don't struggle."
"For an idea," Ambrosius said, beginning again to play with the dragon arm ring; but his eyes were smiling in the firelight, and I think that mine smiled back at him. "Just for an idea, for an ideal, for a dream."
I said, "A dream may be the best thing to die for."
Neither of us spoke again for a while after that. Then Ambrosius said, "Pull up that stool. It seems that neither of us has much thought of sleep, and assuredly there are matters that we must speak of." And I knew that a part of my life had shut behind me, and ahead lay a new way of things.
I pulled up a stool with crossed antelope legs–it was stronger than it looked–and sat down. And still we were silent. Again it was Ambrosius who broke the silence, saying thoughtfully, "Three hundred men and horses, together with spare mounts. What of baggage?"
"As little as may be. We cannot be tied down to a string of lumbering wagons, we must be free-flying as a skein of wildfowl. A few fast mule carts for the field forge and heavy gear, two to three score pack beasts with their drivers–those must be fighting men too, when need arises, and serve as grooms and cooks in camp. The younger among us to act as armor-bearers for their seniors. And for the rest, we must carry our own gear as far as may be, and live on the country."
"That may not make you beloved of the country on which you live."
"If men would keep the roofs on their barns, they must pay with some of the grain in them," I said. It was the first of many times that I was to say much the same thing. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff. Copyright © 2008 Jack Whyte. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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