Legions Of Fire – Snippet 20

Hedia laughed. “You haven’t, not at all,” she said. “And I think you’d best call me Hedia while it’s just the three of us. As I said, we’re all girls together here. As for witchcraft — we women can’t do things the way men do, so we have to find our own ways.”

She sipped her wine. It was a good enough vintage to have appeared at her husband’s table. She looked at Anna over the rim of her cup and raised an eyebrow in question.

The old servant sighed in relief. She drained her cup with less ceremony than wine so good deserved. “Aye, that’s so, your ladyship,” she said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “We don’t have the strength that men do –”

She grinned at Alphena; Hedia thought for a moment that she might reach out and pinch the girl’s cheek. The standards of an army camp were different from those of a noble household.

“– not even you, little one. I’ve heard about you, sure, but that’s not the way. You listen to –”

She nodded forcefully toward Hedia.

“– your mother here. She knows a thing or two, I’ll be bound.”

“What I know at the moment . . . ,” said Hedia. Even without the cheek pinch, she thought her stepdaughter might burst like a dead dog. This wasn’t the time to laugh at her, though. “Is that Nemastes the Hyperborean is a danger to my husband and our whole family. I presume you’ve heard about Nemastes?”

Anna snorted. “Not from my man or the boy either,” she said, pouring more wine for herself when her guests waved it off. “But that something was going on, sure. I could smell the magic on them each time they’d been to your house, milady. Though I hate to say it.”

“Smell?” Alphena blurted in amazement. Her cup was raised, but Hedia didn’t think the girl had begun to drink. “I don’t understand?”

Anna shrugged. “Smell, feeling, call it what you like,” she said. “I don’t know how to name it if you haven’t noticed it yourself. And you haven’t?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Hedia said. She placed her empty cup on the table, a little closer to Anna to answer the question the hostess would surely ask. “We’ve come to you because you know things that we don’t, mistress. But we’re not in doubt that there’s something wrong with Nemastes and whatever he’s doing.”

Alphena took a gulp of wine. “He’s awful,” she said, glaring at her companions as though they were going to argue with her. “I can tell when he’s around because my skin prickles. And when he’s looking at me, I feel slimy.”

Hedia smiled, though she found the girl’s comments — and Anna’s knowing glance at her — disquieting. “Well, I’ve been called insensitive before,” she said. “Nonetheless, I knew something had to be done even before the business yesterday at my son’s reading.”

She looked at Alphena. “I wasn’t in the hall when it happened,” she said, “but you were, dear. What did you see?”

“I didn’t see –” Alphena began angrily, but she stopped herself. She swallowed, forced a weak smile of apology, and continued in a quiet tone, “I’m not sure what I saw. I thought a painted sphinx flew off the wall. And I thought things were coming up from a pit underneath me.”

She’s young, but she’s no more flighty than I am. Nevertheless something has frightened her.

Alphena licked her lips. She seemed more composed now that she’d forced herself to think about what had happened. She said, “There wasn’t really a pit. The floor was the same to my feet, I just couldn’t see it.”

“If you’d been my daughter, girl . . . ,” Anna said, giving Alphena a look of sharp appraisal.

Hedia bit back a harsh — well, harsher — response and said only, “Which of course she isn’t, mistress, she’s the daughter of the noble Alphenus Saxa. Whose Hyperborean companion concerns at least me and Alphena.”

“I spoke out of turn, your ladyship,” Anna said, nodding into as close to a bow as she could manage while seated at the table. “Sorry, I’m an old fool who never had a child of her own, you see.”

“Quite all right, my good woman,” Hedia said. The thought of Alphena being brought up as a witch had taken her aback in a very unpleasant fashion. It was bad enough that the girl dressed as a gladiator! “This business is enough to put anyone on edge.”

Anna looked at Alphena again, this time pursing her lips in thought. “You say the floor was still there, child,” she said, “and in this world that must have been so. But there are other worlds than ours, you know. It sounds like this Nemastes was bringing another one close — or maybe closer than that. It’s good that it didn’t go on beyond what it did.”

“I don’t think it was Nemastes,” Alphena said toward the mixing bowl on the table. “I think it was my brother, or something using my brother. He was saying funny things about fire. And I could see the fire, but –”

She lifted her hands, then laid them flat to either side of the cup before her. She still didn’t look up.

“– I don’t know how I saw it. Not with my eyes.”

“When Pulto and I got married after his discharge,” Anna said carefully, “I promised him that I wouldn’t do anything, you know, serious. A little charm or a potion to help friends, well that’s just neighborly.”

She gave her companions a lop-sided smile and shrugged. “But after he and the boy come home yesterday — and they didn’t tell me a thing except that you might be coming by, your ladyship. But it was all over them, especially the boy, like they’d been rolling in pig shit. Begging your pardon.”

“That’s how it felt to me too,” Alphena said. Her smile was real, though faint. “Not that I’ve ever rolled in pig shit really, but what it seemed like.”

Acting on instinct instead of by plan — and she usually planned things, particularly the things that other people thought were done without thinking — Hedia put her arm around the girl’s shoulder and gave her a hug. Then she opened her short cape and removed the little fabric-wrapped object she’d pinned there. She handed it across the table to Anna.

“I would have brought you some of Nemastes’ hairs,” she said, “but he’s as bald as an egg. His whole body’s bare so far as I could see — and I assure you I’ve seen as much of it as I care to, no matter what you may have heard about me.”

Alphena lifted a shocked hand to her lips. Anna guffawed as she undid the bundle, a twig from the frost-killed pear tree.

“Nemastes — Nemastes and my husband, that is,” explained Hedia, “were in the back garden when this tree was killed. It was the same time when Varus was reading. I think — well, there must be some connection, mustn’t there?”

Hedia was uneasily aware that the gymnasium where she’d been talking to the veterans was adjacent to the garden. The masonry wall was high enough to block words unless Saxa and the Hyperborean had been shouting, but she felt that she should have had some inkling if, well, a tree-killing storm was going on a few feet away.

She hadn’t been aware of anything unusual going on during the reading either, not until she listened to the frightened babble of the audience pouring out of the room. She looked from Anna to Alphena and smiled wryly.

Anna held the twig between the tips of her index fingers. She felt Hedia’s eyes and looked up.

“I’m apparently not sensitive at all,” Hedia said. “But I suppose I don’t need to be, since both of you are.”

Alphena turned to her. “You were sensitive enough to try to stop Nemastes before anybody else did,” the girl said. “That’s why we’re here. I don’t see any use in the way I feel.”

She shrugged with her whole body, her face scrunched up.

“Slimy. Awful.”

“We’ve a long way to go before we know what’s useful and what isn’t,” Hedia said briskly. She turned to Anna and continued, “Will the stick be helpful, mistress?”

This was the first time Alphena had spoken to her in a tone that wasn’t either angry or sullen. Hedia didn’t dare remark on the fact or she would spoil the moment — the start of an improved relationship, she hoped.

“It may,” Anna said judiciously. She eyed her companions. “It should. It’s the full moon tonight. I’ll be off to the old graveyard on the Aventine to gather some things I’ll need.

“Herbs, you mean, Anna?” Alphena asked.

The older woman looked at Hedia — who kept her face expressionless—and then to the girl. “Things, dear,” she said deliberately. “Some herbs, yes.”

“Oh,” said Alphena. “Oh, I’m s-s . . . .” She turned her head away as her voice trailed off.