The Raven From Rome
In the false light of a Roman pre-dawn, on the first morning of my married life, my wife took me by the shoulders and shook me out like an old toga. In the gray light of the coming dawn, I saw those schemes shining in her eyes and knew that I was lost. Her smile was devious, her braided chestnut hair and silken gown disheveled in a purposeful sort of way.
She leaned in close, gripping my shoulders tight, and whispered as though she was sharing with me a terrible secret.
What was it she’d said, again?
A young woman’s delicate hands shook me insistently by the shoulders. They were stronger than I remembered, but they moved me less. My bed was colder than it should have been, firm where feathered down was soft. Instead of cloying floral perfumes, I smelled silt and sediment in the air. Yet even so, it was just as difficult as I remembered to crack my eyes open. I felt as though I’d slept a thousand years, and could sleep a thousand more if only I was left undisturbed.
The woman that was shaking me like a dog wouldn’t have any of that, though. Peering through the slits of heavy eyelids, I saw her shadowed silhouette and heard the whisper of her calling. Somehow, I still couldn’t make out the words.
How was it full night already? Some instinct told me that those shadows weren’t right. I hadn’t slept that long, I was certain of it. It only felt as though I had. In fact, had I even slept at all? The last thing that I remembered was...
My eyes snapped open.
I was flat on my back, laid out on the Eos’ deck like a drunkard in his cups. The sun was blinding overhead, the scant few clouds too faint and wispy to block any of its light. There was no woman looming over me, no hands upon my shoulders.
When I forced my head to turn, straining like I was rolling a stone uphill, I saw Griffon splayed out on the deck beside me. At a glance he could have been lounging in his usual way, but when I looked closer, I saw feverish motion behind his closed eyelids. His fingers twitched, curling and uncurling, making half-formed shapes in time with the unconscious flexing of his body’s muscles as he combatted something only his mind’s eye could see. Trapped inside a dream and fighting to get out.
Through the haze of my stirring mind, I wondered how I had gotten here and realized I had no idea at all. I felt my heart pounding a drumbeat against my chest, but couldn’t fathom what had my body so panicked in the throes of deep sleep. I forced myself to slow down, to relax, and took control of the deafening thunder of my own rushing blood. Seconds passed, the panic ebbed, until finally I could hear myself think. Until finally I could hear my surroundings.
The men were screaming.
I grunted and lurched sideways, the sun and sky whirling as I rolled myself over. My vision swam and I was immediately light-headed, the renewed pounding of my heart scattering my senses like a stone striking still water. Was I drunk? Had someone drugged my wine? What day was it?
“Captain! Wake up, captain!”
My arm was heavier than a marble column, but I leveraged it up and underneath me. I pressed my hand flat against the shadowed planks of wood, straining against the siren song of sleep.
From the opposite side of my shadow, I felt another hand pressing up against mine.
Wake up, Solus!
I exhaled steam through clenched teeth and rose up, reaching down through my shadow as I did and taking the hand that had been pounding at its veil from the other side. Selene plunged up through the curtain of ink like she’d been falling, only for the rules of nature to reassert themselves and pull her down to earth again. The Scarlet Oracle tumbled across the deck while I slumped my torso across the bone-white bench I’d made. She plowed straight into Griffon’s sleeping figure and knocked him fully from his dream.
The instant my brother’s eyes snapped open, fists of blinding light and scouring flame exploded outward in a cloud around him, lightning limbs darting between them too fast for untrained eyes to see. They lashed out at anything and everything within their reach, and I was too slow to stop them. Fortunately, they weren’t alone. Among the thirty appeared ten more pankration limbs covered in what looked to be dried blood, the least flashy of the lot by far, and they moved with precision where the rest of his violent intent ran wild. They slapped away and struck down every limb that reached for a sailor or Selene, leaving the rest of them to slip through and beat at the ship.
Though the new men of the Fifth Legion flinched and cried out in fear as Griffon’s mad lightshow crackled and roared over their heads, they did not leave their rowing benches. Indeed, they didn’t even raise their heads. One and all, they kept them bowed and stared straight down at the ship’s deck. For a moment, though their posture was bizarre, they seemed to me like the picture of military discipline.
Then I felt the throbbing of the captain’s virtue in my soul, like a muscle that I had kept tense for far too long, and realized they hadn’t moved or raised their heads only because they couldn’t.
I tore away the heavy cloak of gravitas, the action causing something to spasm and clench deep within me, and the men threw themselves away from their benches like they’d been burned.
“Wait-! Stop! Just be still, you-!” Selene cried out in pain and I turned sharply, jabbing a finger at Griffon as he wrenched his sister’s arm behind her back in a pin. The Greek captain’s virtue struck him twice, first at the foot he had tucked underneath his body, and second at his chin. His foot went out from under him, stealing his stability, and the captain’s fist hit him like a hammer across the jaw, forcing the two siblings apart.
The blow wasn’t strong enough to knock him unconscious again. In fact, it was just enough to rouse him fully from whatever waking nightmare he’d been fighting. The violent cloud of flying fists dissipated immediately as his scarlet eyes cleared, and he stared at me in utter bewilderment. I knew at once that he was just as lost as I was.
A solar barge hurtled over the lip of the enormous whirlpool behind us and above our heads, not rowing against its current like we were, but into it. The barge’s narrow cedarwood hull cut through the water like a dagger, its high-handed prow easily carrying above the water even as the ship tipped - not low, but sideways, nearly parallel to the waves.
I watched, astonished, as the cedar barge rode the whirlpool’s spiral current past us without losing a single handspan of elevation. Where our pace moments before had felt like flying, the barge looked like it was flying, so at odds was its speed with the whirlpool’s hungry pull.
The cedar ship had no sails. Combined with its narrow hull and the spindly oars its men were frantically hauling away at, it looked like an enormous insect skittering across the water. The ship’s oars in motion were such an odd sight that I didn’t notice the man heaving something at our ship until the incoming projectile caught a sun ray and briefly blinded me.
“Incoming!” one of the men roared.
The projectile never landed. Griffon caught it out of the air, holding it up for all of us to see.
“A boarding hook?” he muttered, eyeing the dull bronze claw in confusion.
Then he grunted as the rope attached to it went abruptly taut and tore him off the ship’s figurehead and into the whirlpool. Selene lunged forward as he fell, wrapping her arms around his waist and bracing her hip against the ship’s rail, screaming in effort. I tried to stand again and failed.
Up. Up. UP.
The bone bench ground against the deck, and I clamped a tight hand around my brother’s wrist.
“Let go of the hook, fool!” I snarled.
“Worthless Roman,” Griffon shot back, teeth bared and muscles straining. “Why do you think they tossed it to us?”
The Eos lurched, her frame groaning as the forces acting upon her pulled her in three different directions. The men at her oars kept rowing madly, trying in vain to move her back against the river’s will, up and out of the whirlpool. The whirlpool tugged her inevitably down, into the depths at its core. And the dull bronze hook, held stubbornly in Griffon’s hand, sought to pull us up along the cedar barge’s path.
The boarding hook wasn’t an attack on our ship, of course not. How could it be, when it had been thrown after the barge had already passed us? The other ship was trying to tow us.
I let go of Griffon’s wrist and grabbed the hook instead, bracing my knees against the rail on either side of Selene and heaving back with all my might.
“Draw in the oars!” I commanded, and after a brief moment of terrified hesitation, the men obeyed. The Eos lurched, turning fully in the barge’s direction and careening straight into the whirlpool’s current. She dipped, and for a horrible moment I considered the possibility that this had been an act of spite rather than salvation, but the ship never fully gave in to the current.
The cedar barge reached the other side of the whirlpool’s rim moments later, and rather than continuing to turn and tumble down into the spiral trap, it broke straight through the current and vanished overhead. The rope attached to the hook remained taut, and just a few tense moments after that we ceased descending and began to climb instead, pulled steadily along by the other ship like we were some ill-suited anchor.
When we finally breached the other side of the whirlpool, erupting back up onto the Eagle River’s surface current, the line connected to the bronze boarding hook abruptly went slack and sent all three of us tumbling back to the deck.
We lay there in a tangled pile for a moment, chest’s heaving and muscles aching, half-wondering if we were still dreaming. The men crowded around us, reeling and in dire need of guidance.
I winced, shifting Selene carefully off me and onto the deck. She blinked rapidly, still gasping for breath, and pressed her cheek gratefully against the cool wood of the deck.
Griffon, for his part, continued to slump bonelessly across my chest.
“Move,” I grunted.
“Ho? No consideration left for your sworn brother-?”
I shoved him off. Griffon cackled as he rolled.
Dragging myself back to my feet was a horrible effort, but I managed it. In the distance, I saw the spindly Egyptian barge that had saved us from a near certain sinking. The ship’s oars were still pumping frantically, the river’s breakneck current apparently not fast enough for the crew’s liking.
The barge was nearly too far for me to see the man standing at its stern and waving his arms expansively back at us. I squinted.
“What’s he doing?” Griffon asked, peering curiously up over the rail. “I’ve never seen that signal before. Is he trying to warn us? Something under the ship, or-?”
“He’s telling us to fuck ourselves,” I said, finally placing the exaggerated gesture.
Griffon blinked, looking back at me. “You’re joking.”
As if the man had heard my brother speak, he hollered at us from the top of his lungs and somehow made the words carry.
“Burn your oars and walk back to Peloponnesia, you ugly fucking monkeys!”