Legions Of Fire – Snippet 28

Chapter 6

Hedia twisted her left hand behind her back to rub between her shoulder blades. Her stool was backless, and the rough stone doorjamb provided support but not comfort.

“Golden-throned Juno,” Alphena chanted. She held the scroll open to the light from the lamp stand beside her, but by now she must be reciting from memory. “Queen of the immortals, surpassing all in beauty; sister and wife of loud-thundering Jupiter, Goddess of Marriage. Grant my prayer for a worthy mate, thou glorious one whom men and gods reverence and honor, even as they do your all-powerful husband.”

The girl had straightened as she recited the prayer; now she slumped again. She turned to Hedia, her face twisted with tired despair.

“This isn’t doing anything,” she said, trying to raise her own spirits by getting angry. “We may as well go home!”

“Not yet, dear,” Hedia said quietly. “It’s not even the middle of the night. We can’t set conditions of our own comfort on the will of the gods.”

“Do you believe this?” Alphena demanded, waggling the scroll as if it were a baton. The layers of glued papyrus creaked in protest. “In Juno? In any religion?”

Hedia laughed. “Daughter, if you mean as an institution, I’m not sure I even believe in marriage,” she said. “But marriage exists, and it protected me at one time. Perhaps another marriage will protect you.”

She got to her feet. Instead of going to Alphena, she bent backward and massaged the small of her back with both hands.

Hedia’s fingers were slim but strong; even so, she half-wished that she’d brought Balbo, the household masseur, in with her. He was a eunuch, so perhaps his presence wouldn’t make the rites vain . . . but on the other hand, this business would be boring and uncomfortable even if her back didn’t hurt, so there was no point in taking a needless risk for negligible gain.

“As for the gods existing,” Hedia went on, “I have no idea. I know that if I strike steel on a flint in the correct fashion, though, I get sparks.”

She crossed her hands before her and felt her expression tighten. “Generations of our ancestors have believed that this sort of divination is effective in bringing maidens into the state of marriage,” she said. “Therefore you will continue to offer a prayer to Juno while standing in a sanctified building, and I will remain here with you.”

Alphena stared at her for a moment. Hedia stood erect. She offered a pleasant smile, but she was ready for whatever the response was.

Instead of replying, the girl turned to face the goddess. “Golden-throned Juno,” she said. “Queen of the immortals, surpassing all in beauty . . . .”

As Alphena read, Hedia walked over to her and put an hand on her shoulder.

“Sister and wife of loud-thundering Jupiter,” Alphena said, “Goddess of Marriage. Grant my prayer for a worthy marriage . . . .”

There was no response this time either. Shortly it would be the start of the third watch, midnight. Alphena would continue to pray till dawn if necessary, and Hedia would stay with the girl as a mother should.

Nemastes and his magic might destroy the whole house of Saxa and the gods knew what else. Regardless, Hedia would be fighting all the way with every tool at her disposal.

Hedia smiled and gave Alphena’s shoulder a slight squeeze. She wouldn’t have survived this long if she hadn’t been willing to fight powerful men.

* * *

The temple servants inserted iron cramps into slots in the floor on either side of the mosaic cartouche. The tools were similar to what Varus had seen workmen use at construction sites when they muscled heavy blocks into place.

“Ah — I can lend a hand,” said Corylus, his eyes swiveling from the servants to Priscus. He started forward without waiting for an answer.

“Thank you, sir,” said Balaton, stepping toward Corylus as though he were going to meet him. It took Varus a moment to understand what his friend doubtless had realized instantly: that the servant was blocking Corylus away from the task. “We’re used to doing this, and it’s probably safer that we handle it alone.”

Corylus flashed a genuine smile. “Right,” he said, stepping back with Varus and Pandareus. “If somebody slipped, the trap door might drop and be broken. Sorry.”

Varus frowned in surprise. He asked quietly, “Corylus, would you have slipped?”

Corylus grinned. “No,” he said, “and I wouldn’t have forgotten to breathe, either. But they don’t know that; and anyway, they don’t need my help.”

Holding the cover up six inches above the floor, the servants walked it in unison toward the temple’s great doors. When they set it down, it was completely clear of the four by six-foot rectangle. Another man lowered his ladder into the opening, then slid it a finger’s breadth to the side so that the stringers locked into notches in the concrete sub-flooring.

Pandareus and the two youths stepped to the edge of the opening and looked down. The vault was of considerable size. In the middle was a chest about three feet long and a foot and a half wide, much like the ossuaries into which Varus recalled that Jews and other Oriental races gathered the bones of their dead after the flesh had decayed. The civilized folk of Carce, like the Greeks before them, cremated their dead and stored the ashes in jars.

This was something else, though. Varus shivered. He crossed his left arm over his chest; by doing that, he squeezed the ivory head against his breastbone beneath the toga.

Priscus shuffled up behind them. “Master Corylus,” he said, “you look like a husky young fellow who wouldn’t mind catching a weight of fat if it slipped off the ladder.”

“Sir?” Corylus said.

Priscus chuckled like bubbles in hot grease. He said, “Go down into the vault and wait as I follow you.”

“Here, I’ll go down with the lantern first,” Varus said to a servant with a light. It was actually a bronze oil lamp in the form of a three-headed dragon; each tongue was a blazing wick.

He took the short pole from which the lamp hung without real objection; turning, he backed down the ladder. The servant looked at Balaton for approval, but Balaton was instead frowning at his own superior.

“Lord Priscus,” said Balaton, “perhaps your guests would prefer to enter the vault by themselves? There’s no requirement that you go down with them, after all.”

Varus reached the bottom of the ladder and stepped away so that Corylus could follow. When he raised the lamp, he saw that though the ceiling was low — it was no more than six feet above the floor — the vault extended ten feet on the short axis and twenty the long way. It was much larger than it needed to be to conceal the stone chest.

“Balaton . . . ,” said Priscus, lowering himself carefully rung by rung on the ladder. “I’m a silly old man, but you are an old woman. I’ll be perfectly all right. You won’t let me fall, will you, Corylus my lad?”

“No sir,” said Corylus, bracing himself to take the Commissioner’s weight if he slipped.

Varus smiled faintly, visualizing his friend, answering the legate of his legion as ranks of Germans prepared to charge. Whereas Gaius Varus would be wondering what the commotion was about and why those blond men with bull-hide shields were shouting so loudly.

Priscus wheezed coming down the short ladder, but the chief attendant’s concern did seem overstated. Shrugging to settle his tunic — although the commissioner was on duty, he was dressed for dinner rather than to carry out official business — he said, “When we consult the Books, we do it down here: the Books never leave the vault. And you may think I’m fat and awkward –”

He laughed again.

“– as well you might. But there are commissioners who are far more decrepit than I am, I assure you.”

Pandareus was following Priscus into the vault with equal care. Varus bent to examine the stone chest, then thrust his left arm away so that he didn’t burn himself on the lamps he held. Corylus took the staff from him and hung the lamp chain from one of the hooks placed for the purpose in the low ceiling.

Varus muttered thanks. He felt increasingly hot and uncomfortable. He doubted that was embarrassment: he was far too used to behaving in a fashion which those around him considered bumblingly incompetent.

As they had every right to do. Priscus is old and fat, and I’m a bumbling incompetent. As well as being a bad poet.