Ides, page 2
Strenia glanced across the room at Remus, who Graziella had unceremoniously put in a cage the moment he was brought to her. His eyes were down in obvious shame. He looked so broken. “He’s not like his brother.”
“Whether or not that is true, this is not our quarrel.”
“Are you going to tell me you love him now?”
“No...why would you think...”
“You’ve just met him, Strenia. I always thought you were more sensible than that.”
Graziella sighed dramatically. Then, she took Strenia’s long dark hair in her hands and began to braid. This was an old magic, and unfortunately for Graziella, she had used it on Strenia many, many times. It usually had a calming effect, but Strenia felt too stubborn to allow it. She pulled back, letting her hair fall.
“I just don’t think we can leave him as a wolf,” Strenia continued.
“If he doesn’t want to be a wolf, then that’s his own business.” The old witch shook her head and stood. “I have to consult with your brother. Don’t get into any trouble.” She then looked pointedly at Remus in his cage. Her eyes full of barely concealed anger. “Change yourself back, if you are able, Calu.”
Strenia felt a strange indignation rise up in her throat, but she bite back the words. It was one thing for the common folk to refer to Remus as Calu. How were they to know the difference between a man with wolf’s eyes and Death, who was said to be a wolf commanding shape-shifter? But for a knowledgeable woman like Graziella, it was just a cruelty.
“Can you change yourself back?” She asked, somewhat curious.
The wolf did not respond.
Remus crept along the wall as he made his way out of the villa. Struck by Strenia’s beauty or not, he found being caged by a strange woman rather unsatisfying and wanted to get as far from there as he was able. The villa seemed unexpectedly normal. He had always assumed that a place occupied by gods would somehow be more...striking. He expected golden walls and impressive mosaics. What he found was the same plain wood and stone that his adoptive parents had in their farm cottage, only larger. He felt a twinge of disappointment
Strenia’s voice broke through his thoughts. She sounded frantic. “And what if Mars has turned him into Death? What does it matter?”
What if Mars has turned him into Death? Remus pressed against the wall, struck through by her words. Death? Is that what the wolf form meant?
“It’s dangerous, Strenia,” Gianni explained, his tone even and cautious.
“How? Aren’t we on his side?”
“Mars is forcing his hand,” the older woman Strenia had called Graziella practically spat out. There was serious venom in her voice. It made Remus quite uncomfortable.
“Again, how? You never tell me anything.”
Remus wanted to sneak forward. He wanted to stand with Strenia and also demand this answer, but somehow he knew he wouldn’t get it. Revealing himself would end the conversation and he desperately needed it to go on.
“The prophecy, Strenia,” Gianni said. “The prophecy. The end of this world when the magic of growth is taken by the magic of decay. Mars must think...if he forces it to happen, he can go home, but it’s too dangerous...”
“What could that possibly have to do with the prophecy?”
“Are battle! And war! I can’t think of anything more decaying-.”
“Nothing waters a field quite like blood,” Graziella broke in. Her whispered words sent a shiver through Remus.
“What do you-”
“He has agricultural powers, Strenia. He is aligned with harvest magic.”
“I don’t believe-”
“I forget how young you are.” Graziella’s voice grew all the more patronizing. “You truly know nothing about these people. You think everything’s like it used to be and we just have a new home...Strenia, these people...violence -is- growth to them.”
“Stop speaking to me like some sort of child.”
“Gianni can tell you.”
“I don’t enjoy future telling,” Gianni said, rather sheepishly. “Especially not...”
“Tell her what the settlement becomes.”
“She’ll know soon enough.”
A long pause followed. In a moment of daring, Remus crept closer to the door. Strenia scurried from the room at the same time. She shoved Remus gently away from the door without looking at him. “I knew you were there,” she said in a freezing cold whisper. “If I knew, they knew. Meet me on the grounds in an hour.”
Remus wanted to ask her what he was supposed to do until then, but all words died on his tongue.
From her hiding place amid the branches of a willow tree, Strenia could watch the grounds unobserved. It had been her favorite hiding spot since the family came to the villa. She had been younger then, still distraught about leaving their original home and all her dolls behind. She didn’t think about those days much anymore. It seemed like centuries had passed since any of that mattered.
Clearly, others of their kind still thought about their old home a great deal. If Mars was willing to, as Graziella said, force his hand, to get them home, Strenia figured it must be on his mind a great deal. How much could Remus possibly know about it?, she wondered, her mind full of hazy childhood images. If only her brother and Graziella were not so constantly evasive on the matter of their old home, she could actually have a conversation with them about it.
As she watched the small stream flow by near the tree’s base, she focused in on a rock that was wedged in one of the willow’s roots. Graziella could have turned the whole stream to ice in seconds. Gianni could have told her how many years it would take until the banks eroded and the willow fell into the river. Strenia’s abilities didn’t work quite like that. She managed to wiggle the rock free and send it on downstream, but it didn’t make her feel much better.
She turned her attention back to the house itself and saw Remus approaching. He was a man again. She assumed he’d somehow found the ability to change himself back, just as Graziella had dared him too. It sent a shiver through her; mostly because this meant Mars had truly granted him some form of magic, but there was a small part that just shivered at the sight of him. He was handsome, truly. His entire body looked as though it had been drenched in sunlight: tanned and sparkling. Even his odd amber eyes glowed like stars. Strenia had to laugh at herself. Of course, she, often called the goddess of gifts, would think Death cut a striking figure.
Serenely as she was capable, Strenia peeled back the hanging branches and gestured to Remus. She felt suddenly childish and ducked back behind the safety of the willow tree.
He met her there. The red in his aura practically pulsating. It was so bright. She had never seen an aura so bright. “You changed back,” she observed, instead of saying the countless other things she wanted to say.
Remus nodded, but didn’t speak. Strenia wondered vaguely if he still had not regained his voice.
“I assume you spoke to your father?”
The question only elicited a sheepish shrug.
“Can you not speak?”
A long pause followed, before Remus finally opened his mouth. “I haven’t yet tried.”
“It seems you can. Good.” Strenia paced closer to the stream and then back to the tree. Her thoughts were running wild. “Now tell me. What did Mars say? Why were you a wolf?”
“I heard what you and the others were arguing about.”
“What did you mean about the end of the world?”
“The end of -this- world,” Strenia corrected, fierce power making her own aura flare though in a deep dark shade of blue.
Remus stepped back as if he were afraid the blue light might hit him. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“Did you father tell you nothing?
“He just turned you into a wolf and sent you on your way?” She raised a skeptical eyebrow.
“He set me on fire first...I think.”
Strenia examined him, not quite believing. How could a father do such a thing? She had never known her own, but she couldn’t imagine him sending her out with not a soul to explain her abilities. Had this always been a struggle for Remus? What about his brother? “Gianni could train you. Or Graziella.”
“I don’t think I want that.”
“You need to know about-”
“I want to know what you meant about the end of the world.”
“It’s just a prophecy.” Strenia shook her head, trying not to look at him as she lied. “It’s silly. Nothing important.”
“I’ve seen enough of life to know you should never ignore prophecies.”
The pair stood off. Strenia didn’t know why she was unwilling to tell him, but a stubborn streak had taken over. The prophecy belonged to her family, her world, her home. Remus was an outsider. Bright red aura notwithstanding.
“If it has something to do with me...”
“How quickly your praises dry up,” Strenia replied. She didn’t really mind, but she hoped to change the subject.
“Have more lofty things on your mind now that you are no longer a mortal?”
“We don’t know that I-”
“Trust me.” She turned and paced back to the stream. Dipping her toes in, she watched as the pebbles beneath her feet began to rush away. “I’m not angry. It’s good to know where we stand.”
“You’re not going to tell me about the prophecy are you?”
Strenia could not bring herself to turn and look at him. “You’ve heard all you need to know.”
“If I called you a beauty, would you tell me?”
Anger raced through her. “Do you really think me so shallow and vain?” Before he could say anything more, Strenia stormed back to the tree. “You are Death. Calu. Death. One and the same. Your father chose you so that you will destroy the world. How could you possibly understand what that means? Your world has never been destroyed. Mine has.”
Remus stared at her blankly. After a moment, he reached up, hesitated, then brushed away a tear from her cheek. “Sweet goddess, how could I be Death, when I am only in love?”
The night was dark when they approached the villa. Romulus stared hard at the building, trying to will it into flames with his mind. Nothing of the sort happened. Not that he really expected it to. He touched the hilt of his sword, a strange love and power coursing through him at once. His own father had blessed this sword earlier that morning. He was sure to triumph in battle now. No force on earth would stand in his way: the son of war itself.
“Pater Romulus,” a voice said from behind. “Are you sure this is the place?”
Romulus turned to face a trio of his advisors, each looking more nervous than the last. “Of course I am. The wolf was seen coming to this house.”
“It’s just,” his advisor persisted. Romulus despised the weasel-like nature of his voice. “There is a lore about this place. The local tribes believe that Janus himself resides here.”
“Nonsense. What would Janus want with my brother?”
“It is said...”
“I repeat: nonsense. I will need you to walk the perimeter of the wall. Find a weakness. And do not come back and tell me some excuse about there not being one. This home belongs to wealthy people, nothing more. Wealth cannot protect you from everything.”
His advisors backed away, leaving Romulus to once again stare daggers at the house. “Just you wait, brother,” he whispered with bubbling malice. “I’ll have you. I may even take your little princess for my bride. How would you like that?”
A bitter cold wind howled in response. The other men might call such a wind a warning, but Romulus was confident. Once his brother was properly dispatched, the future belonged to him.
Absorbed in her spinning, Strenia almost missed the small clattering noises when they began on the grounds. She peered up at Graziella, who was entranced by the fire, probably divining.
“Did you hear...?” she asked hesitantly.
Graziella raised a hand to silence her.
“I think...there’s someone on the grounds...” Still timid, she made her way toward the window. Thick night covered the whole area, but nothing seemed out of place.
“Do you think this affair is well advised?” Graziella asked, seemingly out of nowhere.
“Affair?” Strenia strained her eyes, trying to pierce through the darkness.
“With the young Calu?”
Strenia turned back toward her sister-in-law. “Where...?”
“The fire told me.” There was a heaviness in Graziella’s voice that Strenia did not like. She only spoke this way about subjects of gravity. “It showed me a great deal. But need not have. I can read it all over your face.”
“I suppose I care for Remus...”
“You might as well call him by his true name.”
The window shattered.
Glass fell all around her. Strenia did not have time to scream. The knife was at her throat too quickly.
The fire went out. The temperature of the room dropped twenty degrees. Graziella paced toward Strenia and the man who was holding her captive. Her breath was clearly visible. It formed ice droplets as the warm moisture fled. “You show your true nature, Calu?”
The voice that cackled did not belong to Remus. It was too deep. “God of Death,” he repeated. “I like it. A great deal. Tell me, though, is it the eyes?"
Graziella examined him. Strenia dared not turn and see the man’s face, but she could see enough reflected in Graziella’s confused eyes. “Remus’s brother,” she forced out. She could feel the knife scraping against her skin. She was not afraid of death. She knew Remus would protect her. But at that moment, she felt on the losing side of a battle.
“You let her go,” Graziella said in a low voice. The wind howled around them.
“Turn over my brother and I’ll consider it.” Both Graziella and Strenia knew this was a lie before he said it. The words hadn’t hung in the air for a minute before he swiftly drew the knife across Strenia’s throat.
“You have no idea what you have brought down upon yourself.” The wind grew louder. Strenia swore she heard the howl of a wolf as well.
“Tell me then, winter witch.”
Graziella did not have to answer. Romulus let out a cry of anguish and let go of Strenia who raced away. When she saw the wolf latched to her captor’s leg, a surge of protective feelings raced through her. She focused hard on Romulus’s chest. He flew violently back out the window. The wolf went after him. As well as Strenia’s good sense.
“REMUS!” She called, trying to follow.
A tight hand gripped her wrist, holding her back. “Your neck is bleeding,” Graziella said coldly. Strenia felt nothing of the sort.
“He can’t do this on his own.”
“Your time now is past, my little one...”
Warmth began to return to the room. Gradually, Strenia became conscious of a hazy pain. “But I am...I cannot...”
Graziella laid a hand over Strenia’s wound to slow the flow of blood. “Hush,” she whispered. “Don't you fear. When you wake again, Gianni and I will find you.” It all resembled darkness after that.
Romulus tried in vain to strike the wolf. It was too quick for him. “Fight me like a man, Remus!” he shouted at the ghostly animal. “Don’t be such a coward.”
Remus had never been a match for his brother in a fight. Romulus knew that. He knew that if he could get him to shed whatever strange enchantment these witches had given him, he would win. A low rumble sounded in the distance. Smoke began to sneak down from the hills. Romulus took it as a sign that Mars was with him.
“Do you know nothing of the stories?” Remus’s voice a
“You give yourself too much credit. Smoke cannot hide you from me.”
Remus laughed bitterly. “-I- give myself too much credit. You are the one with too much ego, Romulus.”
“Not even father can protect you from this.”
The ground began to crack. A canyon formed before Romulus’s feet. Lava flowed swiftly through it. “Did the sorceress teach you this?”
“You’ve made Pater Giannis rather angry.”
At his brother’s words, Romulus’s mind spun back to his advisor’s warning. But it could not be true. He had seen the two sorceresses, but nothing that even resembled dual faced deity. “Face me like a man, Remus.”
“Turn around. I’m right here.”
Romulus turned into the wind. Lava, rock, and smoke streamed from the hills. His eyes stung and no amount of ego could fight back the tears that formed. He raised his sword and ran at his smirking brother who did not move. It was a direct hit. The sword, blessed by war, had shattered his enemy.
Remus laughed. Rubbing his eyes, Romulus could see him standing just where he had been. Unharmed.
“Remus? How? Did father...?”
“You might as well call me by my true name, Romulus.”
Despite the heat of what he knew now must be a volcano, Romulus felt cold. Something was happening now that he could not explain. “Your true name, brother?”
“The city is yours, Romulus. Do with it whatever you will. I have no need of it anymore. Except, of course...”
“What is your new name?” Romulus demanded.
“Of course, I will need tribute...to pay for what you've done.”
Romulus stared at his brother through the haze. Everything about him seemed wrong. “Remus...”
“Tribute, Romulus. I could take your soul now. I'm sure Giannis would be pleased, but if you swear to me...Will you kill? Will you do battle?”
A sick feeling came over him. This man before him was no longer his brother. He was no longer even a man.“Who are you?”
“Why, Romulus, I thought you knew. You can call me...Calu.”
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