Legions Of Fire – Snippet 15

He grinned; there were tricks to every trade. Some of Pandareus’ other pupils, who’d been schooled only in words and literature, hadn’t learned that. The education Corylus had gotten on the frontiers was broader; and in some fashions, he thought, much better.

Pulto hefted the jar onto the crook of his right elbow, his index finger through one of the loop handles, and poured a generous slug into the bowl. Corylus added water from the carafe, mixing it two parts to one without asking Pulto if he wanted it stronger. If we’re going to have a difficult discussion, we’re going to have it sober.

Pulto didn’t comment, but he drank down his first cup and refilled it before he looked at Corylus across the table. “So, boy, I’m going to tell you about your mother, Coryla.”

“The Celt who father married when he commanded the fort on the Upper Rhine,” Corylus said. Until the wine touched his lips, he hadn’t realized how very dry he was. He forced himself to sip instead of slurping it down as instinct urged him to.

Strictly speaking, soldiers on active duty weren’t permitted to marry. It was common for men in the frontier garrisons to enter into permanent arrangements with local girls, however. These would be recognized when they got their diploma of discharge.

That required both parties to survive, of course. Coryla had died in giving birth, but her son had become a citizen of Carce as soon as Cispius had lifted him outside the door of the hut and named the child as his legitimate offspring.

“Right,” said Pulto, “only she wasn’t a Celt. And she wasn’t a Helvetian either, which is what most of the folk in the district were — stragglers, those that come down from the mountains after Caesar chopped the main lot of them back in his day, and maybe some that high-tailed it ahead of his cavalry.”

“Not Celtic . . . ?” Corylus said. He finished his wine. There were any number of tribes in the empire, of course, not to mention those — like the Hyperboreans — who lived beyond the borders but mixed with civilized peoples. The fact that he’d been told a lie about his mother’s race was much more disturbing.

“No, and don’t ask me what she was,” Pulto growled. “She and her mother had a language they spoke to each other sometimes, and it wasn’t anything I’ve heard elsewhere.”

He emptied the mixing bowl to fill both their cups; there was plenty more in the jar, and if they ran out of water, the bar maid would bring another carafe. “They tended a hazel coppice — government property, you know. Growing straight saplings for spear and arrow shafts. It was a big plantation and just the two of them to work it, but they didn’t seem to have any trouble. Only the locals, you see . . . the locals, they didn’t like them.”

“Go on,” Corylus said. His mouth was suddenly drier than before he’d had the first cupful.

“There was a sacred grove, two big hazels, along with the saplings,” Pulto said. “The Helvetians had brought their religion from the mountains with them and the grove wasn’t part of it. Coryla and her mother didn’t need help, so it didn’t seem to matter a lot. The Old Man –”

Pulto gestured with his cup. He would have sloshed wine onto the table if he hadn’t drunk it down so far already.

“– his dad and his dad before him had been nurserymen down on the Bay –” Puteoli ” — so he started spending time with the women. I guess something might’ve happened anyway, but one night there was Pluto’s own storm, lightning and hail and more wind than I’d ever seen. We lost the roofs of half the barracks and thought we were lucky.”

“And the grove?” Corylus said, not raising his voice.

Pulto poured more wine deliberately into the bowl, then added the water himself. He kept the mixture the same, two waters to the slug of wine.

When he had finished, he looked up and said, “A lot of the saplings lost their leaves, but the wind wasn’t a problem even when it bent them double. The biggest hazel came down, though, struck by lightning and then the whole thing blew over. And the old woman, she died too. Had a seizure.”

Pulto grimaced and guzzled the cup of wine he’d refilled while speaking. “Hecate knows how old she was,” he muttered. “Mostly barbs are a lot younger than they look right off when you meet them, but I’m not sure the old lady was. Anyway, the Old Man took up with the daughter, that’s Coryla, and things went along pretty much the way they had. And it wasn’t too long before you –”

He gestured, then refilled the cup.

“– were on the way.”

Pulto had splashed wine when he last filled the cups. He used his little finger to draw a line with it before the last of the puddle settled into the terra cotta surface. Corylus waited silently, sipping from his own cup. The story was coming at the speed Pulto was comfortable telling it.

“It was just Coryla to work the coppice and her pregnant besides, but that didn’t seem to be a problem,” Pulto went on, continuing to play with the tile. “Just about every sapling kept straight and they didn’t have a bug problem. Coryla — her and her mother — had a right good sum put by from bonuses when the assessors from the Quartermaster’s Department accepted each crop. And then come the night you were born.”

Corylus nodded to show he was listening. He tried to take a sip of wine and found his cup was empty. He set it down and reached for the mixing bowl. He gave up on that because his hands were shaking.

“Well, there was other women in the cantonment,” Pulto said to the table. “Women who’d come with the cohort from previous stations. The local women, even the ones who’d shacked up with troopers, they wouldn’t have anything to do with Coryla, but there wasn’t trouble finding help with the lying in. It all went pretty well, not that the Old Man nor me was looking at anything but the bottom of wine cups — and we weren’t mixing it, boy, you can count on that. But everything was fine. Only the barbs –”

He waved his left hand before him.

“– the locals, I mean, but they was barbs, they got into the plantation while Coryla was out of action and they cut down the other big hazel. And your mother, she died.”

“In childbirth?” Corylus whispered.

“Sure, in childbirth!” Pulto said. “Hecate knows, boy. She’d born you and she died, women die all the time, right?”

The bowl was empty. Instead of refilling it, Pulto lifted the jar and drank directly from the spout. Still balancing the heavy jar on his arm, he said in a raw growl, “Well, that was destroying army property, right? The hazel tree. So the army held their investigation, that was the Old Man. And there might’ve been some complaints to higher authority about just how he did the investigating, but as it turned out the locals were all killed while resisting the duly constituted authorities.”

“All of them?” Corylus said. He could scarcely hear his own voice.

Pulto nodded emphatically. “Every bloody one,” he said. “And the girls in the cantonment who must’ve known what was up but didn’t warn anybody, they resisted too.

He poured unmixed wine into Corylus’ cup, then swigged more from the jar. “Your father was a popular officer, boy,” he said. “Not lax. Troopers don’t respect a lax officer even when he’s easy on them in peace. It won’t always be peace, you see, and the veterans know it. But the Old Man always looked out for his men, so when this happened –”

Pulto shrugged. His grin was much like the one he’d had at the door of the gymnasium when he said nobody was going to disturb Corylus and his friends.

“– nobody questioned his orders. And afterwards, nobody talked to outsiders about what had happened. Till I did just now, because after that business today, I thought you maybe ought to know.”

There was a hint of challenge in Pulto’s voice as he met his master’s eyes.

“Yes,” said Corylus with a crisp nod. “I see that. Thank you for –”

For what, exactly?

“– for your loyalty to my father and myself, Pulto.”