Out Of The Waters — Snippet 21
“All I can tell you about a battle…,” Lenatus said, lowering his cup and looking at her with an expression something between calm and defiance. “Is that what happens is generally going to be worse than you figured it to be.”
“But you deal with it,” said Pulto earnestly. “You always deal with it, however piss-poor a deal it is you get handed.”
That’s what soldiers do, Alphena realized in a flash of understanding. She had thought being a soldier on the frontier meant fighting… but that was only part of it. They dealt; even though all they knew about the future was it would probably range from unpleasant to awful.
That was much the same as being a woman in a world which men thought they ruled. Hedia had shown her that. Hedia dealt, and thus far she had dealt successfully.
There was a bustle of voices in the passage from the house proper. Alphena set the cup down and rose.
“Thank you both,” she said. “You’ve helped me to understand the situation. And now–”
She turned to the door.
“–I believe I’ll join my brother for a moment before I dine.”
And just possibly I’ll chat with Corylus as well as Varus; but no matter what, I’ll deal. Mother will be proud of me.
Hedia rose from her bed. A light burned in the alcove where her maid slept. Hedia didn’t need the light because she was still asleep. She walked through the door of her suite, then drifted down the staircase.
Servants sprawled in the portico around the central courtyard. Five or six were dicing by lamplight, laughing and muttering curses. The familiar noise didn’t disturb the nearby sleepers.
In a back corner was the miniature terracotta hill on which snails crawled till a cook’s helper plucked them out for dinner. They continued to meander slowly along the molded curves.
Hedia walked past the doorman and through the thick wooden door. No one saw her. She wondered if she were dead. Part of her mind felt that the thought should make her smile, but her face did not change.
The sky was moonless, starless. Instead of starting across the square on which the house fronted, she had entered the mouth of a cave as great as all the night.
The opening was familiar: Hedia was walking down the long slope to the Underworld. In the lowest level she had seen her first husband: Calpurnius Latus, dead for three years.
She was going back to the place of the dead. She was going to death.
Hedia heard screams from a side passage. She would have turned to look, but her body could not move; it merely glided forward with no more effort or volition than a feather in a stream.
But she didn’t have to look to see. The screams came from a score of women and girls, all of them familiar to her. Each was the age she had been when she died, of fever or accident or in childbirth; and one, Florentia Tertia, strangled by her husband’s catamite while her husband watched, doubled up with drunken laughter.
Hedia’s acquaintances–her friends, as she would have described them in public–were being devoured by a great lizard. Its jointed forearms stuffed the victims into its maw, where upper and lower jaws ground them like millstones. The women were scraped to chips and smears… only to reappear and to wail again, and be devoured again, endlessly. Endlessly….
When Hedia had come this way before, she had walked on her own feet. Now she was….
No, I’m not, she realized. I’m not really here. This is a dream, a nightmare if you will, but it isn’t happening to Hedia, daughter of Marcus Hedius Fronto and Petronilla, his second wife.
Again the smile didn’t reach her lips. Her lips were with the rest of her body, asleep in a townhouse in the Carina District, rather than slipping with her mind toward Hades’ realm. In a manner of speaking, it didn’t matter: Hedia wouldn’t have run if she could have. But knowing that this was unreal allowed her to feel smugly contemptuous of an experience which until that moment had been frightening.
Very frightening, in fact.
When Hedia walked this long corridor before, she had heard terrible sounds from side-branchings as she passed. Only the few paces of sloping track before her had been visible, however. Now she had a detailed awareness of what that was happening to either side of her route.
Flames that burned men but did not kill them. Insects that looked like locusts but which ate human flesh. Hair-fine quills that pierced to the victims’ marrow by the thousands and drew out agonized cries but not lives.
Always the torture, always the cries, always the agony. And all of the victims were people whom Hedia had known while they were alive, but who had died.
The passage downward ended where Hedia expected it to, in a glade surrounded by trees with huge leaves. Her first husband, Gaius Calpurnius Latus, stood in the embrace of a plant whose foliage was formed into vast green hands.
Latus did not see her. Around him, close enough to touch if she wished, were the three glass figures of Hedia’s earlier nightmare. Their limbs did not seem to have joints, but the transparent material went milky when it bent and cleared when it straightened. Their eye sockets were indentations, their mouths were short notches.
One of the figures turned his empty visage slowly toward Hedia. Latus began to scream as though his guts were being wound out on a stick, screaming without hope and without relief. The figure reached toward Hedia’s left wrist. She pulled away–
She sat upright in her bed. Her throat was raw. Syra stood beside her, her face terrified. Oil had spattered from the lamp in the maid’s left hand as she jerked back; her right hand was outstretched. She must have touched her mistress; her mistress, who had been screaming in terror….
Other servants had entered the bedroom or were peering through the doorway, drawn by the cries. They backed away or lowered their heads as Hedia straightened. They were afraid to be seen, afraid of what was happening, afraid.
I certainly can’t blame them for that, Hedia thought. She smiled coldly at herself.
She stood up. “I–” she began. Her throat felt as though she had been downwind of a limekiln.
“Wine!” she croaked, but she reached the bedside table before Syra could. Silver ewers of wine and water stood to either side of a cup whose red figures showed Pasiphae welcoming the bull into herself. She ignored the cup, drinking straight from the ewer instead.
She lowered the container and looked around the servants. “Go on about your business,” she said brusquely. “Have you never had a bad dream yourselves?”
She lifted the ewer, then paused. “One of you bring more wine,” she said. “A jar of it. The same Caecuban.”
It was a strong vintage. The alcohol didn’t so much sooth her throat as numb it after a moment of stinging.
Servants shuffled out, briefly crowding in the doorway. The ones who remained had probably been afraid to call attention to themselves by ducking away sooner.
Hedia poured the remaining contents of the ewer into the cup. She thought of adding water this time but decided not to. By now it wouldn’t shock any of them that Lady Hedia sometimes drank her wine unmixed.
“Your Ladyship…?” Syra whispered. She didn’t know what to do.
Hedia lowered the cup. She had been holding it in both hands as she drank, because her arms were trembling.
“As soon as the jar of wine arrives,” Hedia said. “Which had better be soon. When it does, you can go back to bed. I may sit up for a little.”
Until I’ve drunk enough to dull the memory of that dream.
“I’ll stay up too, your Ladyship,” Syra said. “In case you need something.”
The girl wouldn’t be able to sleep either, Hedia supposed. Awake, she wouldn’t have to worry that her mistress might strangle her in a fit of madness.
“Yes, all right,” Hedia said.
She looked about her, suddenly aware of what had escaped her earlier in her fear. The walls of this room were frescoed with images of stage fronts: heavy facades above which stretched high, spindly towers. Hedia had had the suite redecorated when she married Saxa: her immediate predecessor had preferred paintings of plump children riding bunnies and long-tailed birds in a garden setting.
The room from which Hedia had dreamed her descent to the Underworld had been her bedroom also, but not this bedroom. The walls there were dark red, separated into panels by gold borders; in the center of each panel was a tiny image of a god or goddess identified by its attribute. Hercules carried his club, but adjacent to him Priapus gripped with both hands a phallus heavier than that club….
That had been her bedroom when she was married to Latus, in the house facing the Campus Martius. She had sold the property when Latus died.
There was a bustle in the hall. Syra took a jar of wine from another servant, then brought it in and refilled the ewer.
Why did my nightmare show me Latus’ house?
It wasn’t an answer, but at least she was beginning to formulate the questions.