Legions Of Fire – Snippet 43

“Well, I was happy to have a three hundred year old Egyptian as an ally,” Varus said. “I’m not going to turn down nymphs and dryads. We need all the help we can get, it seems to me.”

He was still at a loss about what was happening, but it didn’t bother him as much as it had before he and Corylus began to talk. Some of the things hiding in his ignorance were good; and as for the bad surprises — they’d survived them so far. Though —

“I hope nobody send a wolf after me,” Varus said aloud.

Corylus grinned, but the expression wasn’t entirely humor. “It was a pack of wolves,” he said. “And the only thing that saved me was the woman, mainly because she sent me back to Carce.”

He cleared his throat while looking at the wall, then faced Varus again. “Your father knows Nemastes,” he said. “And your father is the one who’s rebuilding the temple where this Cassius spoke to your sister. Varus, is Saxa . . . ?”

Varus swallowed, appreciative of the way his friend had let the question trail off. He said, keeping his voice calm, “My father isn’t a conspirator, Corylus. He isn’t capable of conspiring, even if he were willing to. I can imagine him weeping in his bed for days, but he wouldn’t have sent Alphena and Hedia into a trap if he’d known what he was doing. And he certainly couldn’t have set a pack of wolves on you.”

The thought amused him, though he knew his smile was a poor excuse for one. “Like as not,” he said, “he would have fallen into the wolf pen if he’d tried.”

“Sorry,” Corylus muttered. “It was a silly thing to say.”

“No, it was a question that had to be asked,” said Varus, feeling stronger as he spoke. “My father has gathered more information than any other person I know. None of it’s connected, though. I don’t think he could use it to do anything, either good or bad. He isn’t disciplined. But –”

He felt his face stiffen. He looked toward the frescoed Cyclops again.

“– he has a superstitious streak. And that might make it possible for someone who is disciplined to lead him in bad directions.”

Corylus clasped Varus’ hand. “We’ll deal with Nemastes,” he said. “And if Spurius Cassius is with Nemastes, we’ll deal with him too. We will, friend.”

It made no logical sense, but the confidence in Corylus’ voice made Varus hopeful again.

“And now,” Varus said, “we’ll sleep.”

* * *

Corylus was dreaming. He knew that, but the wind through the forest was chill and the ground felt cold beneath his bare feet. There were patches of snow between the spruce trees.

He was wearing the tunic he’d borrowed to sleep in; it wasn’t sufficient clothing here. The sun was well below zenith, but he suspected that meant he was looking south. He must be dreaming of the far north: farther than his physical body had ever been.

A bird jeered angrily, then flew through the straggling branches to another hidden perch. It looked like a jay, but the rusty brown color was wrong, and its tail seemed too long.

Corylus listened intently. There were distant birds and a chatter which might have been a bird or a squirrel. Over everything else came the rustle and creak of wind through the branches.

He didn’t hear wolves. If he didn’t find food and shelter soon, wolves wouldn’t be necessary to dispose of him.

He grinned at the thought. Apparently he’d stopped pretending that he believed he was dreaming.

A pair of ravens curved through the trees. One landed on a sandstone boulder the size of a man’s chest; the other gripped the trunk of a spruce for a moment, then croaked harshly and hopped to the ground.

The birds stared at him, cocking their heads sideways. Neither was more than ten feet away. I’m not hungry enough to try to eat a raven. I’ll never be that hungry.

“You see?” said one raven to the other. “I told you he was injured.”

“Not seriously, though,” said the other. “He’ll still be able to accompany us.”

The second raven looked at Corylus, twitching its head slightly side to side so that one eye or the other was always looking at him. “You can walk, can’t you?” it said.

They were huge birds, even on the ground with their wings folded. Overhead they had a black majesty more impressive than most hawks.

Corylus flexed his right leg. The knee felt constricted as though he were wearing heavy breeches, but it bent and there wasn’t even as much pain as he expected.

“Yes,” he said. “If I want to go.”

“Want!” said the second raven. It gave another croak, scarcely less harsh than its normal speaking voice. “Do you want to stay and freeze to death, is that it? You have that choice surely, but no other choice.”

Corylus wished he had sandals. He would like to have a heavy cloak and a woolen scarf to wrap around his head, but sandals were what he would have described as necessary if he’d had the slightest hope of getting them. There wasn’t, and he wasn’t about to give up.

“All right,” he said. “Where do we go?”

The ravens hopped twice to turn, then lifted with powerful wing beats. They didn’t answer. It was a silly question, I suppose.

Corylus started at a trot, though he wasn’t sure how long he could keep it up. The birds curved to the ground only fifty feet away, their black plumage gleaming against the snow.

Despite them being willing to wait for him, Corylus decided to continue trotting for as long as he could. The exercise warmed him, though his feet would lose feeling before very long. “How far are we going?” he called.

“Not far,” said a raven. They looked back at him over their shoulders.

“It will seem far to him the first time,” said the other raven. “But no, not very far.”

The birds flapped off but again landed within sight. Their beaks were deep black chisels. Ravens would eat carrion, but they also killed their own prey when opportunity sent them a lemming or a young rabbit.

If these are really birds.

“Friend ravens?” Corylus said as he approached the waiting birds again. “What are your names?”

The ravens hopped to face him. “You ask a great thing, youth,” one said.

“A greater thing than you know,” said the other. “A greater thing than you have any right to know!”

Corylus stopped, still-faced. “I am Publius, son of Publius, Cispius Corylus,” he said, raising his voice so that it rang through the silent trees. “I am a citizen of Carce, born in the province of Upper Germany. What are your names, fellow creatures?”

Their croaks rattled like stones bouncing down a cliff face. Corylus thought they might be laughing.

“You may regret it later,” said the one to the other.

“Regret, regret,” replied the other. “And yet I will still speak my name. Corylus, I am Wisdom, and my companion who worries about what might have been –”

“I am Memory,” said the second raven. “Others may forget the past if they wish to or must, but the past will not forget them.”