Ides, page 1
Copyright © 2014 Amy Stilgenbauer
All rights reserved.
Cover Image: Little Red Riding Hood by Gustave Dore This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less. This work has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.
“The Romans did not see [the tale of Romulus, Remus and the she-wolf] as a charming story; they meant to show that they had imbibed wolfish appetites and ferocity with their mother's milk.” - Terry Jones, Terry Jones' Barbarians: An Alternative Roman History (2007).
Countryside, Near Asisium, March 15, 753 BCE
Winter’s chill still clung to the stone floor of the temple, freezing Strenia’s bare feet as she made her way toward the altar. She felt the cold, but it didn’t envelope her like it did many of the others. Her brother claimed this was because of her warm heart. Strenia knew better. The frosty nature of early spring had little effect on her for precisely the opposite reason: she lacked the warm, blood-heated hearts of the other worshipers, wrapped in their wool and silks. She was different and she was only beginning to understand why.
“Strenia...” A woman’s voice called from the direction of Ops’ statue. “Come forward.” The voice was calm, almost sweet and motherly, but Strenia knew she had no choice but to obey.
“Mother...” She began, unsure of what one was supposed to say to a woman made of stone.
“You are not safe here.”
A gasp rippled through the temple behind her. “Calu,” a few voices whispered.
She turned, defiance radiating through her. She was face to face with the man responsible for tormenting her people and the other surrounding tribes. Boring her steel grey eyes into his amber canine ones, she spoke with as much authority as she could muster. “What are you doing here?”
The man did not look away, but he did take a step back from Strenia and the altar. “I’ve come to ask forgiveness.”
Strenia considered this skeptically. The man she had seen scouring her mountains was ruthless and brutal. He would never come to her for forgiveness. “Do not play these games with me. What are you truly here for, Calu?”
The man laughed. Strenia felt quite offended. This situation was far too serious for laughter. “People keep calling me by that name. What’s it supposed to mean? An insult I assume?”
“You have wolf’s eyes.”
“So, I have. What of it?”
Strenia watched his face. Her brother had taught her from a very young age to recognize the signs; to know if a person they were meeting might be one of their kind, but this man appeared mortal in every way. Perhaps that was a trait belonging to death alone. “You dare come here, my mother’s temple...”
The man paced past her, toward the statue. It was then that she realized he came alone.
“You did not bring your men?” She asked, having grown used to the tales of pillaging hordes and war bands.
“They are no longer my men.”
“They are my brother’s. I am sure he is this Calu of whom you speak. My name, sweet goddess, is Remus.”
Gianni did not care for visitors, mortal or no, especially not in March, with wolf’s eyes, fawning over his little sister. Still, he did not turn the man out. He was as kind and courteous as one could expect, even offering a sweet glass of passum in one of their nicer cups.
“My sister says you have regrets,” Gianni began, taking a sip of his own raisin wine and trying to seem aloof.
“I have many,” Remus replied.
“Maybe you could tell me about them?”
The two men examined each other for a moment, then Remus turned toward the door as Strenia entered, carrying a tray. His eyes sparked; his pleasure at her appearance was obvious. Noticing it, Gianni tightened a fist around his glass.
“I thought you might like some olives and honey,” she said, setting the tray on a table and ostentatiously taking a seat nearby.
Gianni nodded and popped an olive into his mouth. He knew telling her to leave would be futile, but he had concerns about this Remus. Strenia said he was a mortal man and his brother was responsible for the attacks on their people, but still, Gianni was suspicious. “I’ve seen your encampment,” Gianni said carefully.
“I fear you misunderstand...”
“I’ve seen your encampment,” he repeated in a far firmer tone. “Did you not think that you would have to feed...”
“Begging your pardon, Pater Giannis, but the hill is my brother’s. He has...removed me, if you will.”
Gianni wrinkled his brow at the young man, staring directly into the space between his head and shoulders. There was a slight glow. It required a great deal of focus to see. He wasn’t surprised that Strenia had missed it. Just as he feared, it was tinged a deep, dark red. “You’ve had a disagreement?”
“An irreparable one.”
“And what do you wish to do about it?”
Remus looked immediately to Strenia. She had been sitting quietly, but he knew well enough that she had not missed a word. “I went to the temple to ask forgiveness, but now...”
“Do you no longer wish for forgiveness?” Strenia asked, almost impertinently.
“No. Just now, it occurs to me that perhaps I have a greater destiny in all this. One hears tales of these things, but it’s not every day a man runs across people such as yourselves...”
Gianni leaned forward to quiz Remus about what he thought he knew, but Strenia jumped to the task. “People like us? Who exactly do you think we are?”
“Begging your pardon...when I met you in the temple, fair lady, I knew I was looking into the face of a divine being. This is how a hero’s’ quest begins. You may not be Minerva, but to have you at my side...” He stood and reached for her hand.
Strenia scoffed and brushed his hand away. “There is far more to it than that.”
Though he wanted nothing more than to applaud her poise, Gianni remained silent, watching the pair. His eyes were particularly focused on Remus as he tried to determine the source of the dark red glow. It was clear that the young man carried some magic, but whether it was ancestral or brought about by his own doing, Gianni could not determine.
“What do you know of magic, young man?” he asked, interrupting Remus during a litany of Strenia’s physical beauties. Gianni hoped it wasn’t wishful thinking that she appeared grateful for the respite.
“Magic, Pater Giannis?”
“Si, what do you know of magic?”
Remus appeared puzzled for a moment, as if someone had just asked him to explain the existence of the sky. “It’s...all around us...in us...a natural essence...”
Gianni smiled. At least this one had some brains. “That’s right. And why is there magic?”
“I-” He froze. Brains or no, the young man was clearly a warrior, not a philosopher. “I do not know, Pater Giannis. I...imagine it just is...”
Patting Remus on the shoulder, Gianni rose. Strenia stood as well, helping him fetch a large scroll. The two of them spread it out over the room’s central table. It displayed a map of the known world rendered in intricate detail. “Magic comes into this world through cracks,” he explained tapping a finger on a spot near the edge where the scroll had an almost imperceptible tear. “Cracks in the earth, or the sky or the sea...even time. The most important though is through a crack in a man’s mind. A little more slips in every time he says, ‘But wait. That’s impossible’.”
Remus’s face was blank. Gianni couldn’t tell if he was stunned or if the philosophy was too far beyond him.
“What does this have to do with my quest
Gianni decided this meant it was beyond him, which was quite the disappointment. “I suppose, you will have to figure that out for yourself.”
Strenia appreciated the freedom her brother gave her and took great pleasure in being allowed to walk Remus down to the road. She knew many young women in their society did not have her luxuries. “You’ve made an impression on my brother,” she said as they reached the villa gate.
Remus shook his head, not looking so sure. “A man like him knows a great deal about the world. Whereas I...”
“Don’t say such things. He wouldn’t have spoken of any of it at all to a mortal he didn’t trust.”
“So you admit what you are?”
Strenia did not like the way his eyes lit up just then. “I admit nothing of the sort. Only that I am not like you.”
But the words didn’t dim the fire in Remus’s eyes. In fact, they seemed to make it glow brighter. “Come away with me, Strenia. Come back and help me defeat my brother. We can make the city ours, the way we want it. Nothing more to ask forgiveness for.”
“No,” she replied simply.
“That is my answer.”
“Do you suppose I must provide you a reason?” She looked at him severely, directly in the eyes, as she had done at the temple. He held her gaze for only a moment, then looked away abashed.
“Forgive me. I speak out of turn to a goddess.”
“You speak out of turn to a woman.”
The night air grew colder around them and though she did not feel it, Strenia instinctively wrapped her shawl tighter around her shoulders. “Perhaps if I had time to know you better, but as you say, I am not Minerva. I am of kindness and charity. I cannot be a battle muse, especially not to a mortal man. I will live much too long.”
Remus began to pace. Something inside Strenia told her that he understood. She found him handsome and smart, but she knew that if she were to champion his cause...and if he were killed in the process...she would not be able to handle the guilt.
He halted, reached for her and then pulled back. “But what if I were more like you?”
“That is not a possibility...and even if it were...”
“My father. My father could grant it to me.”
Strenia stared. In the starlight, she began to see a rust colored glow near his right ear. How she missed it before, she couldn’t say. “Your father?”
“I have not seen him in many years, but if I went to him...”
“Who is your father, Remus?” The frantic look of mania on his face frightened her.
Remus didn’t look at her. He continued to pace in circles like a restless horse. “He’ll be holding court somewhere near. It is his holy month. I must go back to the temple.” He halted and bowed in Strenia’s direction. “My sweet goddess, when I return, perhaps then we can discuss these matters as equals.”
Strenia had her doubts about this, but forced a smile. “Perhaps, you should take these matters one step at a time.”
Remus smiled brightly back at her and raced off without so much as a “until next meeting.”
For her part, Strenia walked slowly back to the villa. She knew what the mortals thought of her kind; that they were all powerful beings, divine in nature, but she didn’t feel it. She felt very small: a small girl, who could live thousands of years without being very special at all. She only had a little magic, which the common folk never seemed to understand anyway. She would never be able to lead Remus into battle, and she wasn’t sure if she wanted to, even if she could learn warfare arts. If his father was truly who he claimed he was, he was better off asking him for battle assistance than his own immortality. She had never heard of such requests going well.
When she reached the villa, her brother and his wife were waiting in the vestibule. They watched her with sad eyes. “His father is Mars,” she said. “He’s gone to find him.”
As Remus approached the temple, he could see a great crowd. Farmer’s carrying sacks of seeds saved from the previous season, warriors with tarnished shields, and a veritable herd of horses, both meant for battle and farm work, crowded outside the entrance. Taking a deep breath, he strode toward the entrance, faking confidence in every step. Almost as if they sensed his purpose, the others parted and let him pass. No one told him to wait his turn.
The man at the temple gate was not so accommodating. He held out a spear and pointed it directly at Remus’s chest. “I was told you’d come.”
“By whom?” Remus tried to examine him, determine if he was one of Romulus’s men, but he didn't recognize him.
“It’s not your place to know.”
“Let me pass.”
“I’m afraid I cannot.”
Remus tried to remain stone faced. It would not do to show any emotion. “Let me pass,” he repeated, more firmness in his tone.
The guard’s eyes narrowed. Remus held his gaze for a long while, lulling him into the false impression this was a staring contest. Without warning, Remus grabbed the spear pole and with a quick twist toppled the guard. He looked up at Remus with a confused expression. Remus merely smiled and stepped over him.
The temple was empty, devoid of any life aside the blazing torches near the altar. Remus approached it, just as he had in the temple of Ops, his legs shaking with every step.
“Father?” he asked of the void, imitating Strenia’s penitent way of speaking to Ops.
The fire crackled. There was no response.
“Father, I have a request.”
Still no answer.
“I must stand against my brother, and as you know, he has bested me many times. I need your guidance. I need...”
Remus began to feel a fool. There was no one here. Only him and a crowd of farmers...and warriors. Warriors that in all likelihood belonged to his brother. Now he was trapped in an empty stone building. He should have stayed with Strenia. He should have tried to learn from Giannis. How did he know he was truly Mars’ son? It could just as easily been a story the nice farm couple had told him and Romulus to make them feel better about their absent parents and monstrous eyes. Even if it was true, why would Mars grant him anything? What did he owe Remus? This whole trip had been built around an impossibility. Rage filling him, he kicked the altar.
The torches flared to the roof. The thatch caught fire. Embers rained down.
Remus stood, frozen and transfixed, not feeling any pain despite full knowledge that some of those embers were now dusting his shoulders. The fire flared again and rushed toward him. Knowing full well how cowardly it would seem, he turned and ran.
He ran out of the temple, past confused looking warriors with swords and spears trained on him in fear. He just kept running, over the countryside, into the woods, the fire nipping at his heels. Running exhilarated him as it never had before. He felt he could keep running all the way to sea and even continue on across it. There was no way flying could feel any better than what he was doing now.
Though it had been several days walk to the temple, he found himself at Strenia’s villa before he knew it. She was at the gate, smiling down at him with amusement. He wanted to ask her if she knew something he didn’t, when she reached out between the bars and scratched him behind the ears.
“What a cute little thing you are. Did you lose your pack?”
Remus was suddenly very aware of how different the world seemed. His eye level was lower. The scent of honeysuckle that he hadn’t noticed the other night was overpowering. And, Strenia’s voice. He had thought it magical before, but now he could hear, with crystalline clarity, every musical note. Her voice sounded like a heavenly song and her laugh...it almost broke his heart with it’s perfection. He nuzzled his head into her hand and the reason for all of this struck him. He wasn’t himself anymore.
The look of confusion in Strenia’s eyes as he slunk back from her sa
Strenia continued to watch the wolf curiously. She didn’t have much experience with them, but Graziella, her brother’s wife, had taught her they were exceptionally temperamental creatures. This one seemed to confirm that hypothesis. “I’m sorry,” she said softly, listening to it howl and whimper. “Did I offend you?”
Of course, the wolf did not answer her, but she somehow felt that it understood.
“Please. What is causing you so much strife?”
Against her better judgement, she unlatched the gate and slowly approached the animal. It’s aura burned a brilliant blood red. She had never seen the color so strong. “Remus?” she asked, feeling a combination of horror and foolishness. She had heard tell of her kind taking animal form, or more commonly, giving animal form in retaliation, but in all likelihood, it was probably just a normal wolf. “Is that you, Remus?”
The wolf ceased its mourning and looked up into Strenia’s eyes. She saw him clearly now. The eyes were unmistakable, even if they were now set in the right sort of face. Guilt surged through her and she impulsively hugged the wolf around the neck. “Oh, Remus, we must get you to Graziella right away. If anyone can fix this, she can...”
Graziella wasn’t as sure. She simply rested her hand on Strenia’s shoulder and repeated, “We all have different gifts.” This frustrated Strenia a great deal. It was something of a motto for Graziella whenever Strenia asked about matters of magic. That or “Go ask your brother about it.” She was powerful though, probably one of the most powerful among them, and as far as Strenia was concerned, she might as well have known everything about the subject; she simply chose not to share.
“We have to do something for him,” Strenia begged of the older witch. “It’s all my fault this happened.”
“It’s not your fault he went and did something so utterly asinine. As if it wasn’t already obvious that Mars has aligned with his brother.”
“He went because he wanted us to be equals...”
Graziella scoffed. “So you would be his muse. So he could defeat his brother. You are still so very young, Strenia. I forget sometimes...”
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