Out Of The Waters — Snippet 49

The book should be available now so this is the last snippet.

 

Out Of The Waters — Snippet 49

 

          A man covered only by his gray beard and long hair suddenly was close: she didn’t see movement. From the way his face contorted as he shook his fist, he was shouting curses; Hedia couldn’t hear them; she heard only the shush of her own pulse in her ears. The figure shrank to a point and spun away, vanishing as suddenly as he had appeared.

 

          Could he have touched me? Would the glass men have protected me if he tried?

 

          A snake squirmed into view. Her captors faced it as stiffly as gladiators preparing to salute the Patron of the Games.

 

          Why are they afraid? Hedia wondered. It seemed an ordinary blacksnake like the one in every temple of Apollo, fed by the priests on bread and milk when worshippers paid to receive the god’s attention.

 

          The snake looked toward Hedia; its forked tongue quivered from between its closed lips. As suddenly, it loomed like an avalanche before them; its jaws opened wide enough to swallow a cart and oxen. Releasing Hedia, the glass figures raised their arms at angles like the Egyptian dancers painted on the walls of a temple of Isis.

 

          Hedia felt a wrenching. The snake was no longer visible. She sank to her knees, raising her hands to her face but not–quite–covering her eyes. She began to sob loudly.

 

          Her misery was perfectly believable; it always was. Hedia was young and fit, but she wasn’t large, and she tended to favor men of an athletic turn. Knowing when and how to weep had saved her from a beating or worse a number of times in the past, generally when a man entered unexpectedly and found her occupied in a fashion to which he took exception.

 

          Once in fact she had been with the messenger who had brought a mistaken message saying his master, a military tribune, would be detained. The tribune had unfortunately hastened when his schedule had cleared again almost immediately. Hedia suspected things had gone very badly with the servant later that night, but she herself had come out of it with nothing worse than a bruised cheek and a table to replace.

 

          It worked this time too. Her captors hedged her closely on three sides, but they didn’t take her wrists again as she knelt weeping.

 

          A blue sphere took form below them, growing denser the way fog rises from a pond on a cool evening. It swelled as it came into better focus, becoming a mass of forested islands. The surrounding sea was ultramarine in the distance, but the water was pale and greener where it fringed the curving shores of an island.

 

          The figure behind Hedia began to gesture with its hands while the other two remained still. Her head was at the level of his knees; she wondered what would happen if she lunged against him.

 

          Very likely I would cut myself as badly as if I’d slammed into the Temple of Jupiter. Certainly their hands are like stone. Hedia smiled in her mind, though she was careful not to let the humor reach her lips. She began to sob as though her pet kitten had died.

 

          The island now looked as solid as if she were viewing it from a high tower. She and her captors slid over the tops of giant trees, still descending at a flat angle. The air was humid and thick with the smell of rotting leaves.

 

          When Hedia first had glimpsed the forest, it had seemed a solid green mass. Close up she could see not only different shades of green but also masses of yellow blooms among the leaves or even purple and bluish white. Birds shrieked at them; once a lizard as long as a canoe barked an angry challenge from the top of a tree limb. Her captors didn’t react.

 

          Ahead was a hilltop which had recently been burned clear. It was enough higher than the ridge to either side that even bare it rose above the surrounding trees. The line on which they were moving passed very close above the crag.

 

          Sunlight reflected in a dazzle. A building had stood here, but it had been shattered to stub walls and glittering debris over which the fronds of great fern were already curling.

 

          A red-furred ape clambered through the wreckage; it turned and looked up at them. Its head was human with a pentacle tattooed in blue on its forehead. It screamed in fury.

 

          The line of travel flattened still further; now Hedia and her captors were coursing parallel to the treetops ahead. There won’t be a better time.

 

          Without hesitation, she threw herself forward. The figures to either side grabbed for her, but they were too slow. Hedia somersaulted in the air and hit the slope feet-first. She couldn’t stay upright, but she somersaulted again. Bouncing up, she threw herself into the shadows among the giant trees.

 

***

 

          “Oh, Lady Alphena!” Anna said as two members of the escort started to hand Anna into the double litter. A third servant carried the old woman’s walking sticks. “This is much too fine for me! I’ll just hire a common chair, let me.”

 

          “I’m sure mother would say that nothing is too good for the guest of our noble family,” Alphena said, trying to speak in a properly arch tone. She thought she had come fairly close, which made her giggle. That didn’t spoil the effect, since after she spoke she realized that Anna might not otherwise have realized she was joking. “Anyway, we’ll talk on the way back to the house.”

 

          The servants who had carried Anna down from the third floor apartment shifted their grips and now lifted her onto the couch. They weren’t perfectly gentle, but Anna wasn’t a hothouse flower who needed coddling.

 

          The men were Illyrians, enough alike to be brothers, and very possibly former pirates: both were heavily scarred, and one was missing his right ear. Regardless of how they looked, tonight Alphena had found them cheerful, helpful, and–frankly–quite reassuring. Your viewpoint changed when you suddenly had to consider the possibility of glass demons appearing out of thin air.

 

          Alphena sat on the opposite side of the vehicle, then swung her legs in. She performed the maneuver easily–it was child’s play compared to the lunges and leaps she practiced on the training ground–but she found herself suddenly blushing.

 

          She’d seen Anna’s look of shock and the way she raised her hand to her lips to cover a gasp. Alphena’s short tunic was the right garment for violent exercise, but it did very little to cover a woman who was being carried on a litter with her legs stretched out in front of her.

 

          I’m not used to riding in litters! And anyway, Anna wouldn’t be shocked if she didn’t think I was a fine lady.

 

          Scowling at herself, Alphena drew the side curtains. “Take us home, Manetho!” she called through them to the steward who had attached himself to her escorting servants.

 

          The Cappadocian bearers lifted the heavy vehicle and started forward as part of the same smooth motion. “Oh, my…,” said Anna, though Alphena wasn’t sure whether she was commenting on the quality of the team or more generally on the situation.

 

          As a courtesy, Alphena had entered the building to announce herself to the older woman instead of sending the servants up alone. She had left the sword lying along the axis of the litter, like a divider between the two passengers. Anna tapped the metal scabbard with a fingertip, making it ring softly. She said, “Think this is going to be needed tonight, your ladyship?”

 

          “I know how to use it!” Alphena said, her voice sharp with a second cause of embarrassment.

 

          “Aye, I know you do,” Anna said. “My boy has told me you do, and my Pulto has too. But that’s not what I asked your ladyship.”

 

          “I’m sorry, Anna,” Alphena muttered. “And–“

 

          She leaned forward to squeeze the older woman’s hand.

 

          “–please, call me Alphena. I don’t mean to be…. Anna, I’m afraid.”

 

          “There’s good reason to be afraid,” Anna said, nodding. The lanterns on the vehicle’s front corners cast enough light through the gauze curtains that Alphena could read Anna’s expression; she herself was in shadow. “My boy told me that you’re brave, too; but I didn’t need him to tell me what I saw myself when we first met.”

 

          “It’s not monsters or glass men or, or those sorts of things that I’m afraid of,” Alphena said, realizing that she had to explain. She smiled wanly. “Anna, I have to save mother. And I’m afraid I won’t be able to. I know what she did for me.”

 

          The older woman’s face grew unexpectedly hard. In a rasping voice she said, “You’re a good girl and you mean well, but don’t say you know that. Even if her ladyship told you what she’d done, you wouldn’t know what it meant until you’d done it yourself.”

 

          Anna had straightened as she spoke. With a grimace she settled back–she didn’t look relaxed, but at least she no longer looked as though she was going to lunge at Alphena in fury–and added, “Which you may have to, child. I’ll help as I can, but I’d no more be able to go in your place than I could have in your mother’s.”

 

          “I’m sorry,” Alphena said. In a matter of heartbeats she had gone from embarrassed to furious–What does this servant mean to be lecturing me?–to calm and apologetic before opened her mouth. “I used the wrong words. I know that mother risked a great deal to rescue me. I’ll help her now in any way I can.”

 

          Anna remained sunk in thought for some moments. The litter bearers changed on the move. The only reason Alphena was aware of what was happening was that briefly there were eight voices rather than four calling cadence at the corners of the vehicle. Their chantey was in what might either be Cappadocian or nonsense.

 

          “I’m sorry, your ladyship,” Anna muttered. Her eyes remained downcast. “I know you’ll help as it takes, that you won’t funk it. You come to fetch me, after all. And if you don’t know all of it, then–“

 

          She smiled, weakly but honestly.

 

          “–I guess you know that it won’t be easy or good either one.”

 

          She reached out and squeezed Alphena’s hand; Alphena returned the clasp with a feeling of relief.

 

          “The truth is…,” Anna said. She was barely whispering, though no one could have overheard them through the singsong drone of the litter bearers. “That I’m afraid myself, for what my part is. But I’ll help your mother and I’ll help you. I’ll do it for my duty.”

 

          She chuckled, deep in her throat, and raised her eyes to Alphena’s. “Anyway,” she said, “I don’t guess anything that happens to the three of us is going to be worse than what’ll happen to all the world if somebody doesn’t stop it. And getting Lady Hedia back is at least a step that way.”

 

          “We’re coming to the house, your ladyship!” Manetho called from ahead of the vehicle.

 

          Alphena squeezed the older woman’s hand again. “We’ll bring her back, Anna!” she said, wishing that she really believed her own words.

 

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One Response to Out Of The Waters — Snippet 49

  1. Excellent as always. Thank you for the snippets.

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