Legions Of Fire – Snippet 35

Alphena straightened with a wide-eyed stare, as though Hedia had slapped her — which was more or less what she had done, though with words. The girl looked around, aware of her surroundings for the first time since they’d stumbled from the temple.

When she saw that the nearest people, Ferox and Mensus, were over twenty feet away, she relaxed. With their backs to the noblewomen, they brandished cudgels threateningly toward other servants and the gawkers who’d come from neighboring residences.

“And even if what you thought you heard really was a spirit speaking to you . . . ,” Hedia continued. The edge that had been in her voice a moment before had vanished; she was now the soothing mother — or perhaps the older sister. “Just remember that bad marriages are like bad colds: they’re unpleasant, but they’re too common to bother talking about. And they don’t have to last long.”

“Do you know Spurius Cassius?” Alphena said.

“No,” said Hedia. “Perhaps your father does. Don’t worry, we’ll learn who the fellow is — if he even exists, as I said.”

The lantern bearers were all outside the five-pace circle she’d decreed, but she and Alphena stood in full moonlight. Everyone was staring at them. They would have to do something before long. The girl seemed to have settled down adequately.

Alphena looked up suddenly. She’d gathered herself together, but Hedia now saw anger in her expression.

“Mother,” she said. “Did my father do this?”

“Saxa?” Hedia repeated. The question had taken her aback; she could scarcely imagine anything that would have seemed more improbable. “No, dear, I can’t imagine him doing anything of the sort. I know he’s not –”

She turned her palms upward; she supposed that was in subconscious hope that a softer phrasing would drop out of the sky into them.

It didn’t. She went on baldly, “Saxa doesn’t pay much attention to anyone but himself. But dear? Insofar as it’s in him, he does love you and your brother. He wouldn’t deliberately harm you.”

“But father told you to bring me to the Temple of Tellus, didn’t he?” Alphena said fiercely. “And that’s the goddess who spoke to me!”

Hedia frowned in frustration. “He was renovating this temple,” she said. “And it’s close to the house; it’s the natural choice. Believe me, dear, your father doesn’t have it in him to hurt or frighten you in any way.”

Alphena was wavering. She accused her father because she needs someone to be angry at. Otherwise she can only be afraid.

Hedia put her arms around the younger woman. “Be strong for me, daughter,” she lied. “This business frightens me terribly; I need you to cling to. But –”

She straightened and leaned back to look Alphena in the eyes.

“– we mustn’t attack people who aren’t our enemies just because we’re afraid. And Saxa isn’t our enemy.”

“I’m sorry,” the girl muttered to the ground. “I wasn’t . . . .”

“Come, dear,” Hedia said brightly. “Let’s get back to our own beds. Tomorrow we can start asking about this Spurius Cassius.”

She led the girl out to the litter. “Midas, we’re returning to the house,” she called.

The priest hovered beside the deputy steward, dancing from one foot to the other as though the stone pavers were too hot for the soles of his feet. While Alphena got into the litter, Hedia paused with a hard smile.

“Master Phidippides?” she said. “I’ll talk to my husband tomorrow. It appears that your goddess with have a new statue after all.”

Hedia settled herself onto the seat and gave Alphena a pleasant smile. No one seeing her composed face would guess that she was thinking that while Saxa certainly hadn’t done this, his friend Nemastes probably had. In that case, the danger to Alphena was much worse than merely a bad marriage.

* * *

Corylus walked at a leisurely pace, thinking about what had just happened in the temple. Unlike his friend’s prophecy during the reading yesterday, this one didn’t seem to come from a malevolent spirit. Neither time had Varus himself been speaking, though.

The moon gave good enough illumination that Corylus could have gone much faster — even trotted, if he’d felt like it. He wasn’t in a hurry, and moving fast at night in Carce called attention to you. He was ready for trouble, but he wasn’t looking for it.

A double line of heavy wagons pulled by four oxen each was rumbling down the center of the boulevard, carrying storage jars of wine. They were outbound, like him, but the only time the pace of an ox rose above a crawl was if they were lightly loaded and smelled water at the end of the day.

They shouldn’t have been abreast. The wagoneers who properly would have been at the back didn’t want to wait extra hours to unload.

They were hauling Greek wine landed at Ostia and brought up the Tiber on barges. These wagons were hauling it to taverns on the outskirts of the city. Because of the expense of land transport, it was cheaper to do this than it would be to bring wine overland even as little as twenty miles from vineyards in the Sabine Hills.

The wagon wheels were iron-shod, spitting sparks from the paving stones and ringing like Vulcan’s workshop. Corylus didn’t want to follow the wagons all the way to his apartment, but getting around them even on a street as wide as the Argiletum was tricky. If he misjudged, he took the risk of being squeezed between two wagons or even slipping under a wheel. The weight would take off whatever body part was between iron and the paving stones as thoroughly as a German’s sword could do.

Somebody shouted from ahead. A drover’s whip whacked over the sudden frustrated lowing of oxen. The leading wagons had met an equally large vehicle coming the other way.

A narrow alley led off to the left. Corylus ducked into it rather than thread his way through the mess ahead. Neither the teamsters nor the draft animals were going to notice a slim youth if he happened to be in the place they intended to pass through.

He heard something scuttle in front of him. He guessed it was a dog or a drunk — it was too big for a cat. He didn’t suppose it mattered so long as it was going away. He’d lost the light. The moon was behind buildings, he thought at first, but he didn’t see the outline of the roofs against the lighter sky.

He looked back toward the Argiletum. He didn’t hear the wagons any more. Instead, an owl called. The sound was familiar — but not in Carce.

Corylus moved forward, walking on the balls of his feet and holding his staff at a slant before him. I’m having another spell like I did during the reading. My body is in Carce, but my mind has gone somewhere else.

The air was cold, and the wind carried a hint of snow with it. There were trees around him in this dream, towering conifers whose needles matted the ground. This time he seemed to have a body, though. He kept moving, taking long strides as he’d learned to do with the scouts when they had to cover ground quickly before daylight caught them.

The ground had been rising almost imperceptibly. Corylus came into a clearing and at last saw the moon again: it was in its first quarter and just above the horizon. In Carce the full moon had been at zenith when he left his friends at the base of the Capitoline Hill.

He heard wolves to his left and behind: one and two, then many. They filled the night with their harmony. They had picked up a scent.

They howled again, noticeably closer. Corylus was pretty sure whose scent they had.

Corylus turned to his right and broke into a trot, dropping his toga as he ran. He’d worn his best to meet Atilius Priscus tonight, but he could replace it for money. If he survived.

There were no paths in this forest, but the trees smothered the undergrowth between their mighty trunks. He should be heading in the direction of his apartment, if he ever fell back out of this dream into the world where his apartment existed.