Legions Of Fire – Snippet 11

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“Fearlessly with a winged arm our Regulus hurled his spear through the air like a thunderbolt,” Varus droned.

Does that the sort of thing make sense to men? Alphena wondered. Certainly the freedmen farther down the row from her looked comatose. As for Corylus, he might as easily be carved from a tree trunk.

When Varus spoke normally he sounded, well, normal. His voice had been spiky and nervous when he started his reading, but it was lots worse now. He seemed dead, or at least like he wished he was dead.

Though at this moment, Varus’ voice sounded like blocks of stone being dragged across each other at a building site. Alphena remembered that she’d come here by her own choice when nobody would’ve forced her to come. Listening to her stepmother go on about Alphena having to get married didn’t seem like such a bad thing now.

She couldn’t walk out once she’d sat down, though. She and Varus hadn’t been close, exactly, but they’d bumped around together in a household where their father didn’t pay much attention and there wasn’t anybody who even pretended to be their mother. Varus had never tried to tell his sister how to behave. There were plenty of brothers who tried to be stricter than their fathers were, she knew.

Alphena didn’t feel that she owed Varus support in this silly poetry business, but it would be stabbing him in the back if she came to his reading and then walked out in the middle of it. He cared about his poetry, though Juno knew why. Insulting it publicly would be the worst thing she could do, and he didn’t deserve that.

What was wrong with Corylus? Alphena pressed her thigh against his again, but it was like hitting a padded wall. He didn’t even feel warm any more. His eyes had narrowed to slits, and his breathing was so light that she had to watch carefully to see the tiny flutters of his chest.

“The earthborn monster blazed with rage,” Varus said. “He was a stranger to fear and had never before known pain.”

He recited like he was running through the list of vegetables which he’d been asked to return with from the family villa just east of Carce. His eyes were open and staring, but he’d stopped turning the scroll forward. His body was as rigid as that of Corylus here on the bench.

Why doesn’t Corylus notice me? Alphena had seen the way he looked at Hedia out of the corners of his eyes when they happened to meet. When Corylus realized Alphena was watching him watch her stepmother, he’d blushed. He trotted toward the gymnasium so quickly that he trod on the heel of his own sandal and almost fell.

I don’t care about Publius Corylus!

She went white with rage — at herself, though she was imagining Corylus strapped to a wooden colt so that she could flog him bloody with a switch. With her own hands!

Pandareus was seated at the left end of the front bench. Alphena leaned forward so that she could see him. He was jotting notes, using a brush and a notebook of thin boards. His outer garment was a light cape instead of a toga, because he wasn’t a citizen of Carce. He’d hung a miniature inkwell fashioned from the tip of a cow’s horn to the broach pinning the neck closed.

Varus stumbled. His recitation had been so dull that his stuttered — “horny-hoo . . . horny . . . horny-hoofed –” almost passed unnoticed. The audience was asleep or lost in a world where this wasn’t happening.

Varus released the book’s take-up wand. The tension of the coiled papyrus made the glistening roll spring closed. He stopped speaking.

Alphena glanced around the hall. Pandareus looked quizzical, his brush poised; no other member of the audience appeared to have noticed the change. Corylus remained in his silent reverie.

“Comes Surtr from below,” said Varus, his voice suddenly thunderous. “With him comes Fire, which sings in the forest!”

Members of the audience came alert, mumbling in surprise. The hall had been uncomfortably warm with the press of bodies, but a clammy breeze made Alphena shiver.

A short freedman wearing a simpler toga than most of those present stood and pushed toward the door. Sweat gleamed on his high forehead.

Varus gripped the top and bottom of his scroll and twisted. The winding sticks crackled like the bones of a strangled chicken. One of the gold knobs popped loose and rattled to the floor.

“Surtr’s sword is drawn,” said Varus. Or at least the words came from his mouth. His eyes were wide and staring, and veins stood out on his throat. “Like the sun it shines!”

The room shuddered. It was dark as night save for a sort of yellow-green foxfire which came up from the earth itself. The doorway was a blur and the light sconces had become dull sparks as though their wicks were starved of oil.

The air was cold. At the edges of her consciousness, Alphena was aware of watching figures.

Alphena heard an angry squeak. The central image of the wall panel to her right was a sphinx no larger than a clenched fist, painted in the same delicate gold as the dividers which mimicked lathe-turned rods. It fluttered its wings. With another peevish cry, the little creature flew off the plaster and circled upward.

Instead of a molded ceiling, there was open sky. Storm-clouds flashed lightning across it.

Alphena stood and took a step forward. The look on her brother’s face stopped her. His eyes were bright with a wild malevolence which she’d never seen before. The figure shredding the lovingly prepared scroll wasn’t Varus; it wasn’t anything human.

“Surtr’s legions will feed on the flesh of fallen men!” shouted her brother’s mouth. “Their blood will dim the summer sky forevermore!”

Alphena stumbled forward, crying with the effort. Lightning as red as banked coals flashed. That and the glow where the floor should be were the only light in the room.

Men shouted; benches toppled over. Alphena supposed the audience was trying to escape. Did the door to the courtyard still exist? All she could see over her shoulder was blackness.

“Varus!” she said. Something tangled her feet. The foetid light from below was getting brighter; she could see things moving in the depths. “Brother, you have to stop this!”

“From the Iron Woods comes the Wolf’s brood!” thundered the speaker.

Pandareus gripped Varus by the forearm. “Lord Varus, attend to me!” he said in a voice of command.

Alphena reached them. The dais seemed a steep wall, but she forced herself up it. The shapes in the greenish light were crawling upward.

Circling the terrified audience, skeletally thin figures danced in the shadows. Almost visible, they leered in the darkness.

“In Hel’s dark hall the horror spreads!” shrieked the white-faced youth. Alphena slapped him with all the strength of her right arm.

There was a thunderclap. Varus staggered; he would have fallen if Pandareus hadn’t held him upright. There was no storm; the triple lamp stands seemed brighter for the hell-lit dimness which Alphena had imagined a moment before.

Her palm stung. Her brother’s cheek was crimson and already swelling around the imprint of her hand; that much at least was real.

Varus blinked in dull wonder. He held something, but she couldn’t see it properly.

Corylus joined them on the dais. He clasped his friend warmly, but Varus could only mumble in reply.

Alphena looked over her shoulder. The audience milled in confusion, bleating. The freedmen were afraid to go or stay, despite the sudden return to normalcy.

Saxa and the wizard Nemastes stood in the doorway. The Senator looked puzzled, but naked fury blazed on the Hyperborean’s face. He stared at Corylus.

Nemastes turned and rushed from the scene, drawing Saxa with him. They would have trampled Hedia in their haste if Lenatus and Corylus’ servant Pulto hadn’t put themselves in the way.

Alphena met her stepmother’s eyes. Hedia looked calm and very cold; as cold as the blade of a dagger.