Legions Of Fire – Snippet 12

Chapter 3

Alphena hugged herself. When the light returned to normal, the hall had again become warm and muggy; she shuddered from reaction to what had just happened. Whatever that was.

The members of the audience had rushed out as soon as they saw the sunlit courtyard again. Alphena smiled despite herself: if her brother had wanted his reading to be talked about, then he’d succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

The smile slipped. She didn’t want to think about dreams. She was afraid she’d see — she’d feel — this afternoon’s events every time she closed her eyes for the rest of her life.

Varus and Corylus were still clinging to one another; they looked stunned, as though they’d been pulled from the water when they were on the verge of drowning. Their teacher, Pandareus of Athens, seemed unaffected by the visions. He frowned and said, “We should get out of this room, even though it seems to be all right now. Lord Varus, perhaps we can go into the courtyard?”

Though the guests for the reading had vanished, Saxa’s own servants peered furtively through the doorway or hunched low on the second floor balcony opposite to see into the Black-and-Gold hall. If Varus and his companions adjourned to the courtyard, the spectators would have an even better view.

Alphena didn’t want what had just happened to be discussed any more than it had to be. That would surely be enough as it was. Acquaintances would ask her what had happened, and she wouldn’t know how to answer.

“I suppose –” said Varus.

“No,” said Alphena. “We’ll go into the gymnasium. It’s bright, and Lenatus and your man Pulto can keep everyone away from the door. Come, I want to get into the sun.”

Pandareus and the three younger people stood in a tight group on the dais. The veterans, each holding a wooden sword lightly, stood kitty-corner to them. They were turned slightly to keep the others in the corners of their eyes, but their real concern was anyone who tried to bull his way through the door to the courtyard.

When Lenatus and Pulto heard their names spoken, they nodded slightly. Neither spoke, but the trainer grinned. Alphena had practiced daily with him for over a year. That grin showed her a man she hadn’t imagined.

“All right, where is it?” said Pandareus. “And quickly, if you would, though I don’t think the room itself was the problem.”

Pulto led; Lenatus brought up the rear. Alphena wondered why Lenatus wasn’t in front; then a bulky under steward crowded too close. Pulto kicked him in the stomach. Corylus’ servant was freeborn and outside the household hierarchy. That permitted him to act — with the authority of the owner’s children, of course — without fear of retribution, either formal or informal. The old soldiers were coarse men and uneducated, but they weren’t unsophisticated about the way things worked on the hard edges of society.

Varus rubbed his eyes as they crossed the courtyard. “Did I see father come in?” he asked. “I’m not sure what happened.”

“Father was here but left again,” Alphena said. “It was — there was shouting. I guess, well, I guess that a lot of people heard it.”

Servants stared. They didn’t appear to be so much frightened as excited and curious. They hadn’t been in the hall when Varus was reading, and apparently all they knew was that there’d been a noisy to-do of some sort.

Alphena smiled again; her expression was wan but not forced. Hercules knew that she really couldn’t say much more about it than that either; but from where she’d been, it certainly had been frightening.

Pulto strode into the gymnasium and looked about it. Alphena hadn’t meant for the soldiers to be part of the discussion. Before she could speak, he came back out and said, “All clear, missy. You go ahead and talk all you like. Nobody will bother you.”

Lenatus smiled again without speaking. They’re on our side, Alphena reminded herself. She entered the yard, feeling the sun’s touch relax her.

Pandareus shut the door with a thump and barred it. The gymnasium was open to the sky, but its walls were ten feet high. The yard wasn’t overlooked by anyone outside the property, and the rooms facing it on the upper floor of the house were windowless.

“What happened?” Pandareus said. His voice was even, and he glanced between the two young men.

Corylus grimaced, then faced his teacher; the sun caught blond highlights in his hair. His features had been cut with a sharper chisel than those of Varus or Alphena’s own.

“Master,” he said formally, “I didn’t see anything, I’m afraid. I must have — I’m sorry, Varus, I must have fallen asleep. I dreamed that I was flying.”

“Flying?” said Pandareus. “Flying where, boy?”

He faced the two youths as though he was questioning them after a declamation. Alphena had watched the class once when it met in the Forum. It irritated her that her gender had excluded her from the further education her brother got, but she didn’t miss the education itself. She would rather weave like a woman of ancient Carce than spend her time spouting high-toned twaddle about pirate chiefs and heiresses.

“Master, there were trees,” Corylus said. He stood stiffly upright, his hands clenched. Alphena thought he would have liked to knuckle his eyes to squeeze the vision back to life. “Huge trees, firs and spruces mostly, and there was heavy snow.”

He gestured, not with the sweeping arm of an orator but rather a circular scoop of one hand as though he were digging out the right word. His hair was a golden crown from where Alphena stood.

“Not snow like some winters here,” Corylus said. “Snow like it falls in Upper Germany, but there weren’t the hardwoods like German forests. It was all conifers.” He pursed his lips and added, “And birches. Little ones.”

“What did you see in the forest?” Alphena said. The men had been ignoring her, but she’d seen the look on Corylus’ face as her brother boomed lines that he certainly hadn’t written. “It wasn’t just trees, I know it wasn’t.”

Pandareus looked at her without expression; Varus was still shrunk within himself. Corylus smiled faintly and said, “You’re right. I saw elephants, but they had long hair. I was dreaming, as I told you.”

He lost his smile, but he continued to face her. It was the first time he had really engaged Alphena as a person.

“And just before I woke up,” he said, “I saw your father with a man I didn’t know. He was the same man who came to the door of the hall with the Senator after I woke up. But when I saw them first, I was dreaming.”

Corylus shook his head and looked at his teacher again. “Master,” he said, “it was just a dream. But I’ve never had a dream like it before.”

Pandareus nodded to close that portion of the discussion. He turned to Alphena’s brother. “Lord Varus?” he said. “What’s that in your hand?”

Varus blinked. Ever since Alphena had slapped him, he’d been acting as though he’d just waked up. His cheek still glowed.

“I don’t know,” he said, unclasping his hands. “I had the scroll . . . .”

They all stared at a two-inch high head carved from — no, not stone as Alphena had thought. It was ivory, with the honey-brown patina that old ivory got. The image was narrow-faced and wore a bulbous hat or turban. There was a loop in the back so that the figurine could be hung from a neck cord.

“Where did that come from, boy?” Pandareus asked sharply. He stretched out two fingers of his left hand but stopped well short of touching the object.

“I . . . ,” said Varus, frowning with concentration. “I’ve had it, sir.”

“Not that I’ve ever seen,” said Corylus. There was harsh certainty in his voice.

“Nor I,” said Alphena. “Brother, you know you didn’t have that when you were reading. You were holding your poem!”

“I don’t know, then,” Varus said. He closed his left fist over the figurine again. In sudden anger he snarled, “It’s mine now, anyway.”

“Varus?” said Corylus in surprise.

Varus winced. “I’m sorry,” he muttered, rubbing his temples with his right fingertips and the knuckles of his left hand. “I have, I guess it’s a headache. My head throbs.”

“Brother?” said Alphena. Varus wouldn’t meet her eyes. “What did you see? You weren’t the person reading at the end, were you?”