Air and Darkness is David Drake's gripping conclusion to the Books of the Elements, a four-volume set of fantasies set in Carce, an analog of ancient Rome.
Here the stakes are raised from the previous novels in an ultimate conflict between the forces of logic and reason and the forces of magic and the supernatural. During the extraordinary time in which this story is set, the supernatural is dominant. The story is an immensely complex journey of adventure through real and magical places.
Corylus, a soldier, emerges as one of the most compelling heroic figures in contemporary fantasy. Battling magicians, spirits, gods, and forces from supernatural realities, Corylus and his companions from the family of the nobleman Saxaespecially Saxa's impressive wife Hedia, and his friend (and Saxa's son) Varusmust face constant deadly and soul-destroying dangers, climaxing in a final battle not between good and evil but in defense of logic and reality.
About the Author
DAVID DRAKE, best known for his military SF, is the author or coauthor of more than sixty books, including Out of the Waters and Monsters of the Earth. He lives in Pittsboro, North Carolina.
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Air and Darkness
By David Drake
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 David Drake
All rights reserved.
"Help us, Mother Matuta," chanted Hedia as she danced sunwise in a circle with eleven women of the district. The priest Doclianus stood beside the altar in the center. It was of black local stones, crudely squared and laid without mortar — what you'd expect, forty miles from Carce and in the middle of nowhere.
"Help us, bringer of brightness! Help us, bringer of warmth!"
Hedia sniffed. Though the pre-dawn sky was light, it certainly hadn't brought warmth.
The dance required that she turn around as she circled. Her long tunic was cinched up to free her legs, and she was barefoot.
She felt like a complete and utter fool. The way the woman immediately following in the circle — the wife of an estate manager — kept stepping on her with feet as horny as horse hooves tipped Hedia's embarrassment very close to fury.
"Let no harm or danger, Mother, menace our people!"
The things I do to be a good mother, Hedia thought. Not that she'd had any children herself — she had much better uses for her body than to ruin it with childbirth! — but her current husband, Gaius Alphenus Saxa, had a seventeen-year-old son, Gaius Alphenus Varus, and a daughter, Alphena, a year younger.
A daughter that age would have been a trial for any mother, let alone a stepmother of twenty-three like Hedia. Alphena was a tomboy who had been allowed to dictate to the rest of the household until Saxa married his young third wife.
Nobody dictated to Hedia, and certainly not a slip of a girl who liked to dress up in gladiator's armor and whack at a post with a weighted sword. There had been some heated exchanges between mother and daughter before Alphena learned that she wasn't going to win by screaming threats anymore. Hedia was just as willing as her daughter to have a scene, and she'd been threatened too often by furious male lovers to worry about a girl with a taste for drama.
"Be satisfied with us, Mother of Brightness!" Hedia chanted, and the stupid cow stepped on her foot again.
A sudden memory flashed before Hedia and dissolved her anger so thoroughly that she would have burst out laughing if she hadn't caught herself. Laughter would have disrupted the ceremony as badly as if she had turned and slapped her clumsy neighbor.
I've been in similar circumstances while wearing a lot less, Hedia thought. But I'd been drinking and the men were drunk, so until the next morning none of us really noticed how many bruises we were accumulating.
Hedia wasn't sure that she'd do it all again; the three years since that party hadn't turned her into a Vestal Virgin, but she'd learned discrimination. Still, she was very glad for the memory on this chill June morning.
"Help us, Mother Matuta! Help us! Help us!"
After the third "Help us," Hedia faced the altar and jumped in the air as the priest had told her to do. The other dancers carried out some variation of that. Some jumped sooner, some leaped forward instead of remaining in place as they were supposed to, and the estate manager's wife outdid herself by tripping and pitching headfirst toward the altar.
It would serve her right if she knocked her few brains out! Hedia thought; but that wasn't true. Being clumsy and stupid wasn't really worthy of execution. Not quite.
The flutist who had been blowing time for the dance on a double pipe halted. He bowed to the crowd as though he were performing in the theater, as he generally did. Normally the timekeeper would have been a rustic clapping sticks together or perhaps blowing a panpipe. Hedia had hired Daphnis, the current toast of Carce, for the task.
Daphnis had agreed to perform because Hedia was the wife of a senator and the current Governor of Lusitania — where his duties were being carried out by a competent administrator who needed the money and didn't mind traveling to the Atlantic edge of Iberia. Saxa, though one of the richest men in the Republic, was completely disinterested in the power his wealth might have given him. His wife, however, had a reputation for expecting people to do as she asked and for punishing those who chose to do otherwise.
The priest Doclianus, a former slave, dropped a pinch of frankincense into the fire on the altar. "Accept this gift from Lady Hedia and your other worshipers, Mother Matuta," he said, speaking clearly but with a Celtic accent. "Bless us and our crops for the coming year."
"Bless us, Mother!" the crowd mumbled, closing the ceremony.
Hedia let out her breath. Syra, her chief maid, ran to her ahead of a pair of male servants holding their mistress' shoes. "Lean on me, Your Ladyship!" Syra said, stepping close. Hedia put an arm around her shoulders and lifted one foot at a time.
The men wiped Hedia's feet with silken cloths before slipping the shoes on expertly. They were body servants brought to Polymartium for this purpose, not the sturdier men who escorted Lady Hedia through the streets of Carce as well as outside the city, lest any common person touch her.
The whole purpose of Hedia's present visit to the country was to demonstrate that she was part of the ancient rustic religion of Carce. The things I do as a mother's duty! she repeated silently.
Varus joined her, slipping his bronze stylus away into its loop on the notebook of waxed boards on which he had been jotting notes. He seemed an ordinary young man, handsome enough — Hedia always noticed a man's looks — not an athlete, but not soft, either. A glance didn't suggest how extremely learned Varus was despite his youth, nor that he was extremely intelligent.
"The reference to me," Hedia said, "wasn't part of the ceremony as Doclianus had explained it. I suppose he added it on the spur of the moment."
"I've already made a note of the usage," Varus said, tapping his notebook in acknowledgment. "From my reading, it appears that a blood sacrifice — a pigeon or a kid — would have been made in former times, but of course imported incense would have been impossibly expensive for rural districts like this. I don't think the form of the offering matters in a rite of this sort, do you? As it might if the ceremony was for Mars as god of war."
"I'll bow to your expertise," Hedia said drily. There were scholars who were qualified to discuss questions of that sort with Varus — his teacher, Pandareus of Athens, and his friend, Publius Corylus, among them; but as best Hedia could see, even they seemed to defer to her son when he spoke on a subject he had studied.
When she married Saxa, Hedia had expected trouble with the daughter. It was a surprise that both the children's mother and Saxa's second wife, the mother's sister, had ignored their responsibilities so completely — letting a noblewoman play at being a gladiator! — but it was nothing Hedia couldn't handle.
Varus, however, had been completely outside Hedia's experience. The boy wasn't a drunk, a rake, or a mincing aesthete as so many of his age and station were. Hedia's first husband, Gaius Calpurnius Latus, had been all three of those things and a nasty piece of work besides.
Whereas Varus was a philosopher, a pleasant enough fellow who preferred books to people. That was almost as unseemly for the son of a wealthy senator as Alphena's sword fighting was. Philosophy tended to make people question the legitimacy of the government. The Emperor, who was that government, had every intention of dying in bed, because all those who had questioned his right to rule had been executed in prison.
Even worse, Varus had set his heart on becoming a great poet. Hedia was no judge of poetry — Homer and Vergil were simply names to her — but Varus himself was a very good judge, and he had embarrassed himself horribly with the disaster of his own public reading. Indeed, Hedia would have been worried that embarrassment might have led to suicide — Varus was a very serious youth — had not a magic disrupted the reading and the world itself.
In the aftermath, Varus had given up composing poetry and was instead compiling information on the ancient religion of Carce, an equally pointless exercise, in Hedia's mind, but one he appeared to have a talent for. This shrine was on the land from which the Hedia family had sprung, and they had been the ceremony's patron for centuries. Her only personal acquaintance with the rite had come when an aunt had brought her here as an eight-year-old.
Hedia had volunteered to bring Varus to the ceremony from a sense of duty. His enthusiastic thanks had shown her that she had done the right thing. Doing your duty was always the right thing.
"Oh, Your Ladyship!" cried a stocky woman rushing toward them. Minimus, a big Galatian in Hedia's escort, moved to block her, but the woman evaded him by throwing herself prostrate at Hedia's feet. "It was such an honor to dance with you. You dance like a butterfly, like gossamer in the sunshine!"
Light dawned: the estate manager's wife. The heavy-footed cow.
"Arise, my good woman," Hedia said, sounding as though she meant it. She had learned sincerity by telling men what wonderful lovers they were. "It was a pleasure for me to join my sisters here in Polymartium in greeting the goddess on her feast day."
The matron rose, red faced and puffing with emotion. She moved with a sort of animal grace that no one would have guessed she had from her awkward trampling as she danced in the company of a noblewoman.
"Thank you, Your Ladyship," she wheezed. "I could die now, I'm so happy!"
Hedia nodded graciously and turned to Varus, putting her back to the local woman without being directly insulting. Minimus ushered the local out of the way with at least an attempt to be polite.
"Did you get what you needed, my son?" Hedia asked. If he hasn't, I've bruised my feet for nothing, she thought bitterly. Heels and insteps both, thanks to the matron.
"This was wonderful, Mother!" Varus said with the sort of enthusiasm he'd never directed toward her in the past. She'd seen him transfigured like this in the past, but that was when he was discussing some oddity of literature or history with his teacher or Corylus. "Do you know anything about the group on the other side of the altar? They're from India, I believe, or some of them are. Are they part of the ceremony usually?"
How on earth would I know? Hedia thought, but aloud she said, "Not that I remember from when I was eight, dear boy, but I'll ask."
She turned to the understeward who was in charge of her personal servants — as opposed to the toughs of her escort. "Manetho," she said. "A word, please. Who are the people at the lower end of the swale from us? Some of them look foreign."
"Those are a delegation from Govinda, a king in India," said Manetho. "They're accompanied by members of the household of Senator Sentius, who is a guest-friend of their master. The senator has interests in fabrics shipped from Barygaza."
Manetho was Egyptian by birth and familiar with the Indian cargoes that came up the Red Sea and down the Nile to be shipped to Carce. A less sophisticated servant might have called Govinda "the King of India," which was one of the reasons Hedia generally chose Manetho to manage her entourage when she went outside the city.
She cared nothing about politics or power for their own sakes, but the wife of a wealthy senator had to be familiar with the political currents running beneath the surface of the Republic. That was particularly true of the wife of the unworldly Gaius Alphenus Saxa, who was so innocent that he might easily do or say something that an ordinary citizen would see as rankest treason.
The Emperor was notoriously more suspicious than an ordinary citizen.
"What are they doing here, Manetho?" Varus said. He added in a hopeful tone, "Are they scholars studying our religion? I know very little about Indian religion, and I'd be delighted to trade information with them."
Manetho cleared his throat. "I believe they're priests, Your Lordship," he said. "The old one and the woman, that is; the others are officials. They're here to plant a vine."
Hedia followed the understeward's eyes. Two dark-skinned men with bronze spades had begun digging a hole near the base of an ilex oak; in a basket beside them waited a vine shoot that was already beginning to leaf out. The men wore cotton tunics, but their red silk sashes marked them as something more than mere menials.
Hedia thought of Corylus, who had considerable skill in gardening. He was the son of Publius Cispius, a soldier who served twenty-five years on the Rhine and Danube. That service had gained Cispius a knighthood and enough wealth to buy a perfume factory on the Bay of Puteoli on retirement.
Nothing in that background suggested that his son would be anything more than a knuckle-dragging brute who drank, knocked around prostitutes, and gravitated to a junior command on the frontiers similar to that of his father. In fact, Corylus — Publius Cispius Corylus, in full — was scholar enough to gain Varus' respect and was handsome enough to attract the attention of any woman.
Furthermore, Corylus demonstrated good judgment. One way in which he had shown that good judgment was — Hedia smiled ruefully — by politely ignoring the pointed invitations to make much closer acquaintance of his friend's attractive stepmother.
"Do you suppose they'd mind if I talked to them?" Varus said, his eyes on the Indian delegation. The priests — the old man and the woman — oversaw the work, while the remaining Indians remained at a distance, looking uneasy.
The woman's tunic was brilliantly white with no adornment. Hedia wondered about the fabric. It didn't have the sheen of silk and, though opaque, it moved as freely as gossamer.
"If them barbs bloody mind," said Minimus, "I guess there's a few of us here who'll sort them out about how to be polite to a noble of Carce."
"I scarcely think that will be necessary, Minimus," Hedia said, trying to hide her smile. "A courteous question should bring a courteous response."
Minimus had been brought to Carce as a slave five years ago. His Latin was bad and even his Greek had a thick Asian accent. For all that, he thought of himself as a member of Senator Saxa's household and therefore the superior of anybody who was not a member. Freeborn citizens of Carce were included in Minimus' list of inferiors, though he understood his duty well enough to conceal his feelings from Saxa's friends and hangers-on.
Varus wandered away, also smiling. He was an easygoing young man, quite different from his sister in that respect. When Hedia arrived in the household, it had seemed to her that Varus' servants were taking advantage of his good nature. Before she decided to take a hand in the business, Varus had solved the problem in his own way: by suggesting that particularly lax or insolent members of his staff might do better in Alphena's section of the household.
Doclianus had waited until Hedia had finished talking with her son, but he came over now and bowed deeply. For a moment she even wondered if the priest was going to abase himself as the heavy-footed matron had done, but he straightened again. The bow was apparently what a Gaul from the Po Valley thought was the respect due to his noble patron.
"Allow me to thank you on behalf of the goddess, Your Ladyship," Doclianus said. "I hope everything met with your approval?"
There were a number of possible responses to that, but Hedia had come to please her son and Varus was clearly pleased. "Yes, my good man," Hedia said. "You can expect a suitable recognition when my gracious husband distributes gifts to his clients during the Saturnalia festival."
The priest didn't look quite as pleased as he might have done; he had probably been hoping for a tip sooner than the end of the year. Hedia was confident that her earlier grant of expenses for this year's festival had more than defrayed the special preparations, including the cost of frankincense. Hedia wasn't cheap, and her husband could easily have afforded to keep an army in the field; but neither was she willing to be taken for a fool.
"Who are the Indians?" Hedia said, changing the subject. She was willing to be as direct as necessary if the priest insisted on discussing fees, but she preferred to avoid unpleasantness. Hedia was not cruel, though she knew that those who observed her ruthlessness often mistook it for cruelty.
Excerpted from Air and Darkness by David Drake. Copyright © 2015 David Drake. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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