Out Of The Waters — Snippet 34


          That wasn’t really true, but Corylus knew that it should be true. He’d known a man, a centurion with scars marking every hand’s-breadth of his body–he couldn’t remember the tale of half of them–who had frozen in mumbling fear when a wolf spider ran up the inside of a leather tent and stopped directly over him. If magic disturbed Pulto in the same way, well, there was more reason for it.


          Pulto snorted. “I’m afraid,” he said, “but I’m a soldier, so what’s being afraid got to do with anything? And I’ve done plenty of things this stupid before, begging your pardon, master. Only–“


          His smile was forced, but the fact he could force a smile spoke well of his courage and his spirits both.


          “–this time I’m sober. Which is maybe the trouble, but it’s one I plan to solve right quick when we’re done with this nonsense.”


          Corylus grinned. “I’ll split at least the first jar with you,” he said. “Now let’s get to work.”


          The tombs of Carce’s wealthy ranged along all the roads out of the city. The great families had huge columbaria, dovecotes; so called because the interiors were covered with lattices to hold urns of cremated ashes.


          Lesser, more recently wealthy, households had correspondingly smaller monuments. Often there was just a slab with reliefs of the man or couple and a small altar in front to receive the offerings brought by descendents.


          But the poor died also, and even a slave might have friends and family. The slope of the Aventine outside the sacred boundary of the city received their remains. Small markers, generally wooden but occasionally scratched stones, dotted the rocky soil. Badly spelled prayers or simple names which were themselves prayers for survival, lasted briefly and were replaced by later burials and later markers, just as other wretched souls had moved into the tenements that the dead had vacated earlier.


          By day this end of the Aventine was a waste of brush which feral dogs prowled and where crows and vultures croaked and grunted. Fuel for pyres was an expense which the poor skimped on, as they skimped on food and clothing during life. At night occasional humans joined the beasts, witches who searched for herbs which had gained power through the presence of death; and who sometimes gathered bones as well, to be ground and used in darker medicine.


          No one would disturb Corylus and his servant, but Pulto had brought swords for both of them among the other tools: the mattock and pry bar, ropes and basket. By concentrating on the thought of human enemies, Pulto could push the other dangers from his mind.


          “It’s a well, I think,” Pulto said, loosening up now that Corylus had broken the glum silence. “Under a lot of crap and full of crap, of course, but that’s what I thought by daylight.”


          “Right,” said Corylus, thrusting the blade of his mattock between two stones gripped by vines and levering upward. “People throw things down the well when they’re in a hurry to leave. We should be able to find what we’re looking for and get out before the wine shops close!”


          Among the things people threw into wells were bodies, depending on who the people were. Well, they’d deal with that if they had to.


          Corylus put on his thick cowhide mittens. He didn’t need them for the tools–he spent enough time wielding a sword in Saxa’s exercise ground that his calluses protected him–but the loosened rocks were often jagged or wrapped in brambles. He didn’t mind a few cuts and scratches, but it was easy to wear protection when throwing rubble down slope.


          He and Pulto worked together briefly, but when they had excavated the fill a few feet down, Corylus got into the shaft and filled baskets for his servant to lift and empty from the top. It was a well shaft as Pulto had guessed. The coping of volcanic tuff had mostly collapsed inward, but the remainder was cut through the hillside’s soft limestone. There was no way to tell how old it was, but it was certainly old.


          Corylus lost track of everything except the task. This was monotonous but not mindless work, much like ditching or cutting turf to wall a marching camp. He had to decide each next stroke, sometimes scooping loose dirt with the blade of the mattock, sometimes using the pry bar to separate rocks that were wedged together.


          Once he found a human jaw. There wasn’t room in the shaft to leave it, but he made sure it was on the bottom of the next basketful he sent up to Pulto.


          Corylus wasn’t sure how long he had been working–it didn’t help to think about that, since he would work until the task was finished–but his feet were by now some ten feet below the level of the coping. He bent to work more of the light fill–gravel and silt–loose with the mattock while Pulto hauled up the basket with the latest load.


          He stopped and put the mattock down. The light at this depth wouldn’t have been good even without Pulto leaning over the top, so Corylus tried the seam between stones with his fingers and found what he thought his eyes had told him: a slot wide enough for passage had been cut in the living rock, then closed with a fitted stone with a stone wedge above it.


          “Pulto?” Corylus called. “Send the lantern down to me on a cord.”


          Pulto only grunted in reply, but he jerked the basket up more abruptly than usual–a long task was better handled at a steady pace than by fits and starts. Moments later the lantern wobbled down, tied to the end of Pulto’s sash. They could have passed it directly from hand to hand, but not without searing somebody’s fingertips on the hot bronze casing.


          Corylus set the lantern at an angle on the ground so that the light through its mica windows fell on the stones inset in the smooth shaft. He set the point of his pry bar, then used it to work the wedge sideways. When it bound, he blocked the widened crack with a pebble, then shifted the pry bar to the other side and levered the wedge the other way.


          An inch of the wedge was clear of the wall. Corylus thumped it with the heel of his bare palm so that the pebble fell out, then gripped the stone with the fingertips of both hands and wriggled it back and forth while he drew it out. He hopped when it fell, but it landed between where his feet were anyway.


          “What are you doing down there, boy?” Pulto asked with a rasp in his voice. He was worried, and that made him harsh.


          “I think I’ve found what we’re looking for,” Corylus said. He didn’t say that he’d found an Etruscan tomb, because he knew that the information wouldn’t please Pulto.


          As Corylus hoped, the larger slab tipped forward when the wedge was removed. He walked it awkwardly to the side, trying not to crush the lantern or trip over the wedge. Holding the lantern before him, he knelt to peer into the opening.


          The chamber beyond was cut from the rock like the well shaft. It was about ten feet long but not quite that wide. Benches were built into the sidewalls. At the back, facing the entrance, was a chair that seemed to have been carved from the limestone also.


          On the chair sat a bearded man with a fierce expression. He wore a white tunic with fringes of either black or dark blue and a heavier garment of deep red over his left shoulder, leaving the right side of his chest covered only by the tunic. On a gold neck-chain was an elongated jewel clasped by gold filigree at top and bottom.


          “Master, what are you doing?” Pulto said. His voice echoed dully in the well. “Hold on! I’m coming down!”


          “Stay where you are!” Corylus said, twisting his head backward as much as the tomb door allowed him. “I’m coming right back!”


          He stepped forward, hunching; the floor was cut down so that the ceiling might have been high enough for him to stand, but he didn’t want to chance a bad knock in his hurry. He set the lantern on the floor, then took the jewel in his hands and started to lift the chain over the head of the bearded man.


          The figure and his clothing vanished into a swirl of dust. A bracelet of braided gold wire clinked to the stone chair, then to the floor.


          Corylus sneezed, then squeezed his lips together. He backed quickly out of the tomb, then dropped the chain over his own head as the easiest way to carry it. I’m not going back for the lantern, he thought.


          “Pulto!” he said. “Drop me an end of the rope and snub it off. I’m coming up and we’re getting out of here!”


          The rope sailed down; the basket was still attached to the handle.


          “That’s the first thing you’ve said tonight that I agree with!” Pulto said. “By Hercules! it is.”