Legions Of Fire – Snippet 08

Chapter 2

Corylus let his left fingertips slide along the wooden bench. He couldn’t touch the wood with his right hand, because Alphena was there. She’s pressing so hard that if I stand up suddenly, she’ll go shooting into the aisle.

“Fiery as always with love of war and battles and struggles with foes,” Varus recited, “our heroic general snatched up his arms!”

As best Corylus could tell, a giant African dragon had just attacked Regulus’ army. He’d been expecting to hear more about the Carthaginians, though he supposed it didn’t matter much. Varus would have made real history ludicrous, so starting with an absurd notion was perhaps a more efficient plan.

“Shouting encouragement to his cavalry, tried by the War God on every field, he ordered them to charge the foe,” said Varus. His eyes were staring; Corylus didn’t think he was reading the manuscript at all. He’d committed the work to memory and was letting it spew out like water from a tap.

Corylus was trying to stay awake. The room was warm, and the rhythm of his friend’s voice affected him the way a tree shivers in a breeze. Corylus would nod off if he concentrated on the poem, and he didn’t dare let that happen.

It would be awful if he fell asleep during Varus’ reading. It would be far worse if he collapsed in giggles, and that was the likely result if he viewed the verse against the reality of war that he’d grown up with on Carce’s distant frontiers.

The bench, the touch of wood . . . that was salvation. The boards were merely pine, but they’d been well seasoned and they were joined with mortises and tenons as clean as those of a shipwright. Corylus felt sunlight on the north slope of the valley where the pine had been felled. It was fitting that a straight-grained tree like this one should have been shaped by an expert.

The Emperor in his wisdom had nominated Saxa to be Governor of Lusitania, the province on the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula. The Senate had agreed by acclamation to the Emperor’s slate of recommendations — which was wise, since the Emperor had never been of an easy disposition and was becoming steadily more irascible as he aged.

Saxa would need a considerable staff to govern a province. Corylus was pretty sure that he could wangle a junior judicial position through Varus. Saxa probably didn’t know his son’s friend from his cook’s brother, but there was no reason he wouldn’t grant the appointment.

That might be a quicker route to success than the path Corylus had intended: becoming a staff tribune in one of the legions and following the legionary commander at increasingly higher rank on his future postings. A civil career might even be safer, though Corylus guessed that a judicial gofer in a province as wild as Lusitania would have plenty of opportunity to get his head knocked in.

He liked the idea of working with words and ideas, and of convincing people to work together rather than forcing them to do as he said . . . but his father had been army, and Corylus’ own upbringing was army. Also, he’d met enough barbarians — that wasn’t just a term of insult on the frontiers — to know that force was the only convincing argument to many Germans and Iazyges and Sarmatians and Jupiter-knew-who-all-else.

Maybe it was different in the east. There the cultures had been ancient when Carce was inhabited by shepherds who lived on separate hills and stole each others’ sheep, but Corylus knew the Rhine and the Danube.

“Hunching high and then low again . . . ,” Varus said, apparently visualizing his monster as a giant inchworm. “The creature rushed toward the attacking men.”

Corylus tried to imagine how you would fight a snake that big. A smile twitched the corners of his lips, so he quickly let his thoughts turn into the grain of the wood again.

Unexpectedly he entered a world of trees, cool and silent and perfectly graceful. They marched across plains and climbed hills in ragged columns. They sprouted from cliffs, their roots clinging to cracks where no animal could grip; they spread their branches to embrace birds and the breezes.

He forgot about Varus’ poem; it became as meaningless as the whirl of dust motes in yesterday’s sun. Human activities flashed and vanished before Corylus’ new sensibility registered them.

The world was an enormous green unity, all times and places in a single spreading carpet of trees. In the distance ice glittered north to all eternity. Fringing that sterile mass were cold marshes sodden with melt-water; spruce and cedars and larches grew there in packed profusion. Dead trunks slanted into the branches of their living kin and rotted in the air.

Snow had fallen deeply around the trees. Frost drew traceries from the coarse grasses, but the run-off from the glaciers was too vast to freeze over as yet. Corylus understood that. He was part of the forest’s sluggish omniscience.

Elephants with thick black hair and curved tusks moved through the trees in a loose herd. They were bigger than the species from the North African coast that Corylus had seen often in the amphitheater, bigger even than the occasional Indian elephant which had been trekked overland to tower above its African kin.

The creatures’ feet were the size of storage jars, but for all their bulk they made less sound than men walking. Corylus could hear the deep rumble of their bellies, like sheep only many times louder; their trunks moved constantly to sweep in crackling branches. The elephants’ jaws worked side to side, pulverizing sprays of conifer needles and occasionally dribbling the green mush out the sides of their lips.

The herd moved on, squealing brief notes to one another. Their dung was green and steamed where it splattered onto the snow; it had a resinous odor.

A lynx watched from a high branch, showing the same careful interest in the elephants as in the ice cap distantly visible from its perch. It didn’t move. If the cat was aware of Corylus, it gave no sign of the fact.

Corylus drifted across the dank landscape, fully aware but having no more volition than a tree. The forest exists, but it neither plans nor cares.

Something cared. It was drawing Corylus along.

Before him was a grove of twelve great balsams. Water dripped from their dangling fronds, but the ground in their center was higher than the surrounding marshes. There stood two foggy human figures, bending toward a tripod where herbs smoldered on a bed of charcoal.

On the inward-facing sides, the bark of the balsams had been carved with images of elongated human faces. Corylus drifted into the circle; the trees’ slitted eyes turned to follow his invisible presence.

The scene sharpened as though someone had opened the shutter of a dark lantern, throwing light on what had until then been shadowed. First Corylus registered the ornate bronze tripod: three chimaeras gripped the edges of the brazier; their snake-headed tails were looped up into carrying handles. The piece was striking and unique, easily identifiable as part of the furnishings of Gaius Alphenus Saxa’s townhouse.

Saxa, wearing a toga with the broad stripe of a senator, stood on one side of the brazier. Sweat glistened on his pinkish bald spot. He stared at Corylus in amazement.

The other man was inhumanly tall and so thin that his arms and legs made Corylus think of a spider. He wore a garment pieced together from small skins sewn fur-side in. He was barefoot, though the ground he stood on was frozen; his long black toenails resembled a dog’s claws.

He glared at Corylus. His irises were a gray so pale that they were almost indistinguishable from the whites of his eyes.

The cadaverous stranger pointed. Corylus didn’t have a hand to raise to defend himself nor a body to move away.

The forest fell out of reality. Saxa and the stranger were in Saxa’s back garden. Cold had shattered the pear tree beside them; frost sprang from the pebbles of the walkway. The old coping around the natural spring in the far corner glowed with a faint saffron light.

Corylus gripped his bench. He was in the Black-and-Gold Hall with the aisle to his left and Alphena beside him. His head buzzed with pulsing whiteness, and everybody seemed to be shouting.

He was shouting too. “Where am I? Where am I?”