Legions Of Fire – Snippet 37

She laughed, kissed him on the tip of his ear, and released him. “It was a man named Nemastes,” she said. “At least he calls himself a man. Here, I’ll send you back if that’s what you want.”

“Ma’am?” Corylus said. He was dizzy from reaction and wasn’t really sure what he was hearing. “Yes, ma’am, I really want to go back to Carce. Can you do that?”

“Of course I can,” the woman snapped. Behind her, the tangle of rose canes quivered. “Why else would I have said I could?”

Corylus didn’t see her move or speak, but a flash of white light enveloped him. Needles dug momentarily into his bones. He stumbled forward.

People were shouting at him. He saw lanterns and men with cudgels coming from both sides. He raised his staff, trying to back away but aware that his right knee was stiff with the bruise. He wouldn’t be able to escape this time.

“Wait!” cried a woman’s clear voice. “That’s Corylus!”

* * *

The leading litter-bearers shouted, “Wau!” and stopped together, rocking Alphena forward in her seat. The team was so well matched that the bearers on the back of the poles didn’t slam the heavy vehicle into the thighs of their fellows in front.

Escorting servants ran past the litter, some of them brandishing their cudgels. Alphena leaned out to see what was happening. In the light of bobbing lanterns she saw a hunched man with a heavy stick confronting the entourage.

The litter bobbed: Hedia had gotten out. “Wait!” she called in a voice of command. “That’s Corylus!”

Is it? The fellow was stumbling backward. He had his stick up, though, and the servants weren’t pressing him too hard.

“Get back, you ninnies!” Hedia said, striding into the middle of the ruck. “Midas, if any of these blind fools strikes Master Corylus, he’ll spend the rest of his life in a lead mine in Spain!”

Alphena got out, caught her long tunic on the door latch, and almost fell on her face. She blushed, furious at herself though she doubted anybody had seen her clumsiness. They were all too interested in Corylus and the bustle of people around him.

The litter bearers alone hadn’t joined the tight circle. The on-duty team had set the vehicle down but then waited, each man with his replacement, for orders.

“Get out of my way!” Alphena demanded, pushing at servants with both hands. Her female voice drove an immediate passage where a man might have met reflexive resistance. “Let me through!”

Corylus’ right knee looked like raw meat, and his eyes were wild. His linen tunic was torn and bloody. The garment was too light for the evening, but there was no sign of a cloak or toga. Blood-matted fur clung to both ends of his stout staff.

“Corylus, what’s happened?” Alphena said in horror.

Hedia put her left hand over his on the staff and said, “Careful with your stick, dear boy. You’re with friends now.”

“Is this Carce?” Corylus said in a savage rumble. He sounded like a beast claiming his territory.

“Yes,” said Hedia crisply. “We’re very close to our house, Lady Alphena and I. Are you able to walk? We have a litter.”

“I can . . . ,” Corylus said. “I don’t need a litter, I’m all right.”

Hedia knelt, gripping the youth’s right thigh and calf. “Bring a lantern close, some one!” she said. “And don’t wriggle, my dear. I want to look at this knee.”

“Corylus, I can hold your staff,” Alphena said. He wasn’t flailing with it any more, but Hedia had been right to worry that he might. “I’ll be careful with it.”

“What?” he said, but his voice had settled toward normal instead of showing the spiky challenge when he first staggered toward them. “Oh, yes. Sorry, Lady Alphena, I didn’t . . . .”

His voice trailed off. Her lips pursed, but she didn’t blurt something that she would regret later. He gave her the staff, looking down as Hedia probed his leg.

He didn’t have to finish the sentence. She could finish it for him: “I didn’t notice you because I was mooning over your beautiful stepmother.”

The staff was heavier than Alphena expected; she wondered if an iron rod had been set into its core. Also it was sticky where she held it.

“You,” she said in an undertone to one of the linkmen; she had to tap his shoulder to get his attention. “Bring your light here.”

He obediently turned with his short staff. It had a grip on one end and an oil lamp in a cage of bronze wire attached to the other on a short chain. When Alphena examined the smooth wood in the haze of light, she saw bloody handprints on it.

Hedia rose. Corylus started to rub his eyes. She took his right wrist and said, “No, your palm is all over blood. Is it yours?”

He looked at his hand with a puzzled expression, flexing it. “Maybe,” he said. “I, when I fell on the rock I probably put it down. When I hit my knee. But I don’t remember.”

“Well, let’s get you to our house,” Hedia said in a tone that didn’t so much compel agreement as rightly assume it. “We can put you on the servant’s bed in Varus’ room, that way you’ll have your privacy. And speaking of Varus –”

She turned, looking down the boulevard. The lights of a large party were flickering toward them; Alphena heard men singing, “Hermes! The Money Rolls In.” Somebody called, “Who’s that in front of us? Announce yourself or it’ll be the worse for you!”

“Candidus, you fool!” boomed Midas. Alphena wasn’t sure which of the deputy stewards was the more senior. From the rancor in Midas’ voice, it wasn’t a certain thing between the men themselves. “What do you mean by threatening their ladyships!”

“Corylus?” Varus called, rushing to his friend’s side. Hedia straightened and took a half step sideways. “What happened to you? And how did you get here?”

“I don’t know how I got here exactly,” Corylus said, clasping arms with Varus. “But I much prefer it to the place I was before. Wherever that was.”

Corylus straightened and looked around the growing circle of attendants. “I was attacked by dogs!” he said loudly. “I took a short cut through an alley and dogs attacked me; there’s fur on my staff, you see. But I’m all right now, and I can make my own way home.”

“You will not,” said Hedia. “Varus, dear, Master Corylus will sleep in the servant’s alcove in your suite tonight. Does that suit you?”

“Why . . . ,” Varus said. “Of course. Corylus, you’re welcome any time. Or you can have a guest suite.”

“But before he does that, Lenatus will look him over and put ointment on that knee,” Hedia continued. She was perfectly calm and perfectly in control of the situation. “Now, my young friend, are you sure you can walk? Because the litter’s right here.”

Corylus grimaced. “Ma’am,” he said, “I think I’m better off to walk on it for a bit. If I let it set up, I, well — it’s not a problem now, but it could turn into one easy enough if I let it.”

“Very good,” Hedia said. “Midas, send a man ahead to wake Lenatus and have him ready. And let’s go, all. The sooner we get Master Corylus to the house, the better off he’ll be.”

She turned. “Alphena dear, that goes for us also. Into the litter now, if you please.”

Seething inside, Alphena obeyed. Having to hold the staff made her clumsy, but she’d promised Corylus to take care of it so she couldn’t very well pass it off now to a servant.

Hedia got in with the supple ease of a snake. She snapped her fingers and the bearers took the weight of the litter again. They started forward.

Alphena squeezed the wooden staff hard. The blood was tacky and gave her a good grip. It would be very satisfying to smash it into her stepmother’s fine features and end her effortless flow of commands.

But because Alphena had more self-awareness than she was comfortable with, she also knew that Hedia’s quick, concise decisions had been correct from first to last. That was what made her so irritating.