All rights reserved
All rights reserved
Note: A slightly longer version.
“You’re stubborn,” Marcia snapped, holding her soot smeared hands out for her son. “Give him to me. Now.”
Smoke, ash painted the villa’s walls, muting paintings, dimming the very air. The servants were gone. The guests gone.
Adrasteia wrinkled her nose, dark eyes staring at her daughter-in-law. Her back hunched over her sleeping grandson, shielding him from the heat and smoke. Resolutely, she lifted her chin. “Δεν τρέχει από τη φωτιά.”
“Grandmother,” Marcia cried, shrill, at the very end of her reason with the old woman. “The mountain cries fire!” Ash weighed down her grown, pulled her elaborate curls down as if nature herself were done with the niceties of the culture. “If you won’t leave your house, fine! I have to get Caelius to the boat. I won’t let him die! Your son is dead! Do you want your grandson to be dead too?”
Her walking stick pounded the floor in reproach. Finely carved of hard oak, it was the last gift of her husband. She glared out the huge fine window at Vesuvius as it belched black rain. Her jaw shifted to the side, dark eyebrows drawing down. “We don’t run from fire, girl,” repeated in poorly spoken Latin.
“Maybe you don’t! I’m not Spartan. I’m Roman. I run when the sky rains fire! Now. Give. Me. My. Son.”
The boy slept, suckling his thumb. Adrasteia would never have tolerated such a weak behavior before, but Caelius was such a perfect, such a pretty boy. There were so many things she was unwilling to drink, so many sorrows she was too strong to bend for, and yet there were bottles of tears stored her beloved husband (the damn Roman that he had been, soft and decadent), for her son, for her country, and now for her Caelius. She looked up at the girl she’d known since her son’s marriage, a girl who had been a girl, but was now woman. She would cry for not being with her longer. Reluctantly, she lifted the sleeping boy to the woman’s shaking arms.
She wanted one more day to watch him chase the ducks, reach his fat hand for the fish in the water, listen to his laughter. If the sky wanted to rain fire, maybe today was the day to drink tears. “Fine. Go. Run. I don’t care.”
“Come,” Marcia pleaded, “Come, Grandmother.”
“No. I’ll just slow you down. I’ll watch the house.” She smacked her walking stick to the stone floor, definitive punctuation, her dark eyes looking up at her beautiful daughter-in-law. She’d been such a baby when she’d first come to the house and now she was so much stronger, braver. “I’m proud of you girl.”
The arrow took Marcia’s throat as easy as a blade in cheese. Adrasteia watched the metal tip disappearing into delicate throat, carrying shaft right in after. Marcia’s lips opened in a soundless O. The tip of the arrow emerged from the other side of her neck. Thick blood mixed with ash, slipping down towards the now grayish fabric at her shoulders. Eyes wide, she dropped to her knees, her little boy held close. She held her boy close, protective. Another arrow sailed passed, clattering to the marble floor.
Adrasteia’s palms itched. Her face twitched.
The man approaching the little girl that had been her daughter-in-law was a peasant Roman, with less value than a good dog, some big cock who walked around thinking himself a free man, but with less manners than a decently kept slave.
Rage seeped red over her vision. The stick in her hands felt as weapons had in long gone times. When she stood, she was decades and children younger. Her body moved as she knew it could and when the man knelt to search her daughter-in-law for treasures, Adrasteia swung her staff, “Sparta!”
His head caved like a poorly made pot in a kiln, coming apart with a slight pop. There were serious reasons you didn’t attack Spartan cities, even when Spartan men were away.
When the red cleared from her vision, she ran through streets she’d never found familiar. This was never her city, never her home. It was her husband’s home. For a moment she remembered him so vividly, his promises and his poetry and the strength in his shoulders. Caelius’ little hand tugged at her tunic and she ran faster. What was left of her Caelius was in this boy and he was not going to die.
The baby in her arms, she ran, just as she had run as a girl. A burning Roman city was no worthy foe for a woman of Sparta. At the ship, she lifted the boy, her dark eyes pleading the woman on the ship to take him. As he left her arms, age returned, her bones withering, back curving. Without the boy, or the girl, or her son, or her husband, she didn’t care if the very earth opened beneath her and dropped her into Tartarus. A hand reached down, grabbed her, lifting her over the railing, dropping her down to where Caelius was crying. He snuggled back into her lap, hiding under her cloak, confused and dazed. She rubbed his back and rocked him.
“There mother,” a burly black man rumbled. “Settle with the boy. We’ll outrun the beast.”