Legions Of Fire – Snippet 44

“Are you content, Corylus?” said Wisdom.

“Yes sir,” said Corylus. How do you tell the sex of a raven? But the birds were already airborne, curving toward him to gain height and then swooping off in the direction they had been going before.

The ground rose as they went on. The whole surface glittered, as if the crust of snow had grown thicker. It didn’t feel cold, though, and Corylus didn’t crunch through it as he had initially.

He wondered if his feet were growing numb. He could still feel the shock of each stride, though.

The ravens arced up and down, often crossing in the air. When they landed they took a hop or two; they were heavy birds and didn’t stop where they first touched. Their eyes gleamed like polished coal when they looked back.

The rhythm of the run numbed Corylus’ mind. His consciousness blurred into a tunnel directly ahead of him; the edges were at first white and gleaming like ice, then gray, and finally a pastel aura that shifted as his heart beat.

The trees were shapes that he avoided. The snow on their crinkled bark sparkled like diamond dust. The trunks became crystalline pillars, then columns of light. Eventually their light merged with greater light and vanished.

Corylus jogged on. He would run until he dropped. He would run forever.

The ravens were no longer flying; they appeared ahead of him, then were gone and reappeared. “Once the middle-world ended in ice,” said one. “Stopping all, burying all. Ice could rule forever.”

“But not this time,” said the other raven. “The middle-world will burn. Fire will lick the heavens, fire will drink the seas. Everything will burn.”

“Unless Corylus prevents it,” said the first. “But he won’t. His memories of friendship will prevent him from saving the future.”

“And the fire will rule all,” said the ravens together in croaking laughter. “All things, forever!”

Corylus saved his breath for running. He didn’t have anything to say, not really; until he knew more.

He knew nothing. And he had to run.

The ground had become a surface of pastels that wobbled into one another so subtly that Corylus was never sure when one color became another. He thought he was still climbing. His legs throbbed and his breath rasped through his mouth like drafts of fire.

The fire will rule all . . . , he heard, but that might have been memory.

Ahead was a white haze, unguessably distant. The ravens flickered present and gone, barely distinguishable from the black spots that fatigue sent dancing across his vision.

Corylus glanced over his shoulder, careful not to lose his stride and trip. How far could I fall?

At first he saw nothing behind him but stars and the blackness of night. When he blinked, he noticed the blue dot — no bigger than a lentil but still larger than the hard spikes of the constellations.

Corylus faced the bright haze before him again and ran on. The ravens were just ahead, close enough for him to call to. He had nothing to say, and he had no breath to say it with.

His legs were logs of wood. He was afraid to slow to a walk, afraid that he would think about where he was and what he was doing. There were no answers, but he was a citizen of Carce, a soldier of the Republic, and he would go on until he died.

Corylus burst through the whiteness into a forest of larches. The twigs had their spring buds, but the air was chill and melting traceries of ice overlay the leaf litter.

Before him was a hillside whose thin soil had slipped in gray patches from the rock beneath. A cave entered it. The ravens waited to either side of the opening.

“I told you he could follow,” said the bird on the right to its companion.

“Enter the cave now, Corylus,” said the other. “You won’t come so far and not go the last of the way, will you?”

“He might be wiser if he did,” said the first. “But he will go in, and the future will come. The fire will come!”

“The fire will come!” repeated both birds together, then slipped into croaking laughter.

Corylus strode forward. He had to keep moving or his legs would stiffen into agonizing knots. He had to move.

The cave opened about him. Its walls were so full of light that the interior was brighter than the forest outside. The ceiling was higher than the hill outside.

The only furniture within the cavern was a high-backed chair in the far distance; on it sat a figure in a gray cloak. His features were largely hidden by his wide-brimmed traveler’s hat, but the spill of his full gray beard left no doubt of his gender.

The ravens flew past Corylus, rising on a flurry of strong wing beats before gliding in interwoven curves toward the distant throne. They croaked, the sound diminishing as their black shapes faded against the light. When they croaked again, it was in a harsh whisper.

Corylus had paused in shock when he passed the entrance. He sighed and started forward, wondering how long it would take him to reach the seated figure. The air of the cavern had a bluish tinge as though the light were passing through thick ice as Corylus had occasionally seen on the Rhine, but he no longer felt cold. Perhaps that was a sign that he was freezing to death, though —

He smiled grimly.

–he didn’t feel sleepy, and his lungs still burned with the effort they’d just expended. He wouldn’t mind a little numbness there, and in the throbbing muscles of his thighs as well. Then —

Corylus was standing at the foot of the throne. There hadn’t been a transition: in the middle of a step he was facing the seated man who glared from his one visible eye.

He was tall but not a giant. He gripped the cross-guards of a long sword, still in the scabbard; its round point rested on the floor between his feet. Though the cloak hid his body, his fingers suggested gnarled tree roots rather than the bulging muscles of a bull.

Wisdom and Memory perched on the chair back to either side of the man’s head. They opened their beaks as though they were ready to laugh, but neither words nor croaking issued. Their tongues were black.

“Sir!” said Corylus, bracing himself at Parade Rest. “Why have you brought me here?”

The bearded man laughed. The sound boomed like surf during a winter storm and there was no more humor in it than that.

“I haven’t brought you, boy,” he said. “You came of your own choice. If you want to go back without hearing me, I’ll let you do so now.”

“You asked our names, Publius Corylus,” said Memory. “Other guests have asked the name of our lord, and he has told them.”

“But he put a forfeit on them in exchange for answering their question,” said Wisdom from the other finial of the chair-back.

“They paid the forfeit and rued every moment of their lives to come,” said Memory, cocking one eye and then the other toward Corylus.

The birds laughed. The sound reminded Corylus of the croaking he had heard one winter when he’d found ravens feasting on the carcass of a deer.