Legions Of Fire – Snippet 10

“The boy’s bloody good,” said Lenatus, lifting both fists to display his thumbs.

“Which the Old Man’s son bloody ought to be,” said Pulto. “And you know, the other kid — sorry, ma’am, Lord Varus . . . .”

He shook his head, angry with himself to have referred to the son of the house in a patronizing manner. “Sorry!” he repeated, twisting the toe of his right sandal against the sand floor.

“Lord Varus gets a lot more exercise because of his friend,” said Lenatus with forced calm. “He says he knows he ought to, and having Corylus here helps him do the basics.”

“Do they spar?” said Hedia, suddenly curious.

“No, mistress,” said Lenatus, “that wouldn’t be fair. But Corylus spars with me. There’s tricks I can teach him, but I’ll never be as young as he is again. And every time we mix it, there’s less he doesn’t know.”

“Your son gets a good workout, ma’am,” Pulto said earnestly. “At the start, you don’t want to push them too hard. Then he watches some more and works on, you know, writing on tablets.”

“He asks Master Corylus words sometimes while he’s sitting there,” Lenatus said, grinning. He nodded to the stone bench built against the wall between the two dressing rooms. “Remember the time he said he needed a word for spear that he could use in a line ending in a spondee?”

Both men chuckled. They were at ease again, treating Hedia as one of them. They didn’t understand what she was about, but soldiers didn’t expect to understand things. She had known a number of them — officers, all the ones she could think of, but that was the same thing with an upper-class accent.

Soldiers learned to adapt to situations, though; and if something seemed to be good, well, they were thankful. It would change soon enough, depend on that!

“I said, ‘A bloody spear has always worked all right for me,'” said Pulto. “And Mercury bite me if the kid don’t say, ‘Yes, my bloody spear. Two spondees! Perfect.'”

“And Corylus doubled up laughing so I caught him a ripe one on the helmet,” said Lenatus. “Which hadn’t been the way the match going before then, let me tell you.”

Hedia joined the laughter. Still smiling, she said, “The problem I have is a specialized one, Master Pulto. And of course it requires discretion –”

“I’ll get right out of here,” Lenatus said. He was still holding his corselet of steel hoops. He turned to swing it into the alcove beneath his helmet.

“No!” said Hedia. “Master Lenatus, I said discretion. If Pulto wouldn’t discuss the situation with the friend on whom his life has depended, he’d be a fool. I don’t need fools.”

She looked between the two men and said, “That’s correct, isn’t it?”

Pulto shrugged. He didn’t meet her eyes. “I guess neither of us would be standing here now if it wasn’t for the other, a time or two,” he muttered.

“Yes,” said Hedia crisply. Then, “Master Pulto, I need magical help. I understand that your wife is a witch.”

Lenatus grunted as though he’d been punched low. Pulto grimaced and said to the sand, “Your ladyship, Anna is a Marsian and they always say that about Marsians. You know that.”

“I’m in need, Master Pulto,” Hedia said. “We all in this family are in danger, as I suspect you know. I would like to speak with your wife Anna.”

Lenatus played with the sash of his sweat-stained tunic, then looked at his friend. Pulto raised his eyes to Hedia and said, “Lady, Anna has rheumatism and can’t manage stairs very well. Even if she, you know, did know something. We’re up on the third floor, you see; not a, not a private house like this.”

“In fact I intend to visit Anna rather than bring her here,” Hedia said, which hadn’t been her plan until the words came out. It really was a better idea, though. There’d be whispers that Saxa’s wife was looking for a love charm or an abortion — but nothing nearly so dangerous as the truth. “Tomorrow, shall we say? At about midday?”

She phrased the statements as questions, but of course they weren’t.

“Ah . . . ,” said Pulto. His friend was watching but keeping silent. Ah, I guess all right if, you know, if the Senator is all right with it?”

“My husband does not insult me by trying to control my comings and goings, sirrah!” Hedia said. She hadn’t raised her voice but there was a whip on the end of her tongue.

The men straightened to attention. “Yes sir!” Pulto said.

There was shouting — screaming, some of it — from the front of the house. “Whatever is that?” Hedia said.

Lenatus tossed one of the practice swords to Pulto and kept the other. They went out the door together.

Hedia ran after them. Lengths of hardwood wielded by these old veterans were good things to have in front of you in trouble.

* * *

“If the monster’s breath has unmanned you, I will ride on boldly and fight it alone!” Varus said. As he declaimed, he heard a distant rhythm. He supposed it was his fearful heart beating.

Pandareus took notes with an odd expression. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, and surely Varus was proving himself a fool like few others.

His soul had shriveled in misery. He was a clumsy wordsmith. He’d managed to conceal that from himself until now, but when he performed his work in public, his mind compared it with all the other literature he’d read or heard.

Varus had known he wasn’t Vergil, but he wasn’t even Ennius who had the excuse of antique coarseness. His words had no soul, and because he did have a soul, he couldn’t deny his failure.

I can see you, Varus whispered to the Muse. I see you, but my tongue doesn’t have the words to describe you.

His voice sang on, empty and pointless. He wished the earth would open beneath him, but the poem continued to roll on like the Tiber in muddy spate.

Varus mind slipped, step by shuddering step, out of the present. The insistent rhythm was outside of him, outside of the world. Its beat filled the empty vessel which failure had left of Gaius Alphenus Varus, would-be poet. Voices were chanting.

A cone of raw, rust-colored rock lifted from the ocean. It was hard to see. A dank northern mist bathed it, but there was something wrong with the air also. It was as though Varus were watching through layers of mica.

Things moved on the narrow beach below the cone. Portentous things, but they were invisible except —

The cosmos toppled like a lap marker at the racetrack, bringing up a different face. Varus still felt the disjunction, but he was on the other side of it.

The cone was a great volcano. The sides were too steep to have a real beach where they rose from the sea, but waves had battered a notch in the coarse rock. On it, licked by spray, twelve tall men danced about the ivory image. They were nude and hairless.

Hyperboreans, Varus thought, for they were all so similar to his father’s friend Nemastes that they could have been copies of the same statue. Their expressions were cold and angry, and they looked more cruel than stoats.

As the tall men danced, they chanted. At first the sound was as raucous as crows calling in a field of stubble and seemed empty, but Varus began to understand its patterns. Similarly, the rhythms of the dance wove together into a great whole and merged with the dancers’ wild cries.

In the center of the ring was an ivory carving of man’s head. It wore a fur cap over its ears and was no bigger than a thumb. The figurine drew Varus inward.

The dancers watched Varus as they shuffled on their round; their eyes were hungry. Flickers like the blue flames of sulfur began to lift from the broken rocks. The wisps waved in time with the dance, rising and keeping pace with the jerking feet of the dance.

The flames brightened and became demons of blue fire. Ribs showed beneath their tiny scales, and their very bodies were translucent. Their skulls were like those of lizards, and their lipless mouths twisted in grimaces of fury. They danced like marionettes, under the compulsion of the Hyperboreans.

The chant roared in Varus’ ears. The dancers, human and demon alike, stared at him as they paced their circle.

Varus reached out to the ivory miniature. He wasn’t sure he had a body, but he could feel the vague, slick warmth of the yellowed ivory.

Almost Varus could grasp the pattern of the dance. That pattern was that of the whole cosmos. He raised the figurine, staring into the carven eyes of someone more ancient than Varus could grasp even with his new understanding.

The Hyperboreans grinned, and the demons licked slaver from their pointed jaws. The chant was too loud for the cosmos to hold. Varus almost —

There was a crash and blinding light; the pattern burst. Varus pitched forward. He was shouting.