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Into the Emptiness Within Him

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The scene that inspired this illustration:

 

“There is always something new, Valarius,” the dark young man said, speaking in Latin with an accent that was somehow just a little too pure, as though it were not quite his native tongue. “And I must be able to carry it in my head, so that I have but to shut my eyes to see it all here on the hearth, as a Royal Eagle in the sky must see the whole of Britain spread below him.” He looked up, and saw Aquila in the doorway, and rose, the charred stick still in his hand. “I greet you, stranger. Have you some message for me?”

Aquila shook his head. “I seek Ambrosius, Prince of Britain, and was told that I might find him in the Fire-hall. But I have lost the Fire-hall in this fiend’s brew of a mist—and seeing your firelight and hearing your harper—”

The young man tossed the charred stick into the flames. “It is early yet, and Ambrosius will not have gone to the Fire-hall. What is it that you want with him?”

“If I had a sword, I should say ‘To lay it at his feet.’”

For a moment they stood looking at each other in the firelight, while the old harper still fingered the shining strings, and the other man looked on with a gleam of amusement lurking in his watery blue eyes. But Aquila was not looking at him. He was looking only at the dark young man, seeing that he was darker even than he had thought at first, and slightly built in a way that went with the darkness, as though maybe the old blood, the blood of the People of the Hills, ran strong in him. But his eyes, under brows as straight as a raven’s flight-pinions, were not the eyes of the Little Dark People, that were black and unstable and full of dreams, but a pale, clear grey lit with gold that gave the effect of flame behind them.

"But you have no sword" the dark young man said.

“I had once.”

“Tell me how you lost it.”

Afterward, Aquila never knew how it was that he neither questioned the dark man’s right to ask, nor guessed the truth about him. Maybe the mist had got into his head—mists were notoriously unchancy things. He came in from the doorway without knowing that he did so, and standing beside the hearth with the fragrant smoke of the burning apple logs fronding across his face, he gave account of himself in a few brief, harsh sentences, much as he had done to Eugenus. “So I came west to take my father’s service upon me if that may be,” he ended, “not loving greatly either the Saxon kind or the Red Fox.”

“Not loving greatly either the Saxon kind or the Red Fox,” the dark young man echoed broodingly. “Yes, there are things easier to forgive than the murder of one’s father.” He stood looking at Aquila for a few moments: a long look, a hard look. Then he turned and took down from among the weapons that hung on the king-post a long cavalry sword in a rough, wolfskin sheath. He drew it with a swift, controlled gesture—swiftness and control were in all he did—ran his eye along the brightness of the blade, and sheathing it again, held it out, hilt foremost. “Here is your sword.”

Aquila’s hand moved involuntarily to close round the familiar grip. But in the act, he checked, his head up and the frown deepening between his brows; and then a sudden suspicion of the truth dawned on him. “Do you usually decide who Ambrosius shall take into his service?”

The dark young man smiled—a swift flash of a smile that seemed to kindle his whole narrow face. “Usually—I am Ambrosius, Prince of Britain.”

Aquila was silent a long moment. Then he said, “Yes, I should have known that…May I serve you as truly as my father did, my Lord Ambrosius.” He put out his hand again, and his fingers closed round the plain, workmanlike bronze hilt.

So Aquila took his father’s service upon him. It wasn’t as good as love; it wasn’t as good as hate; but it was something to put into the emptiness within him; better than nothing at all.