Read The Memory of Snow Online

Authors: Kirsty Ferry

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Collections & Anthologies

The Memory of Snow (8 page)

 

 

AD 391

 

Once more, Marcus lay blindfolded on the floor of the temple,
his arms and legs stretched out like rays. He knew what to expect this time.
But at least this time, he was partially clothed. He wore the loincloth of the
Corax, but the stone flags were still bitter. He had gone past feeling simply
cold; his hands and feet were numb, the chill spreading throughout the rest of
his body. His face was pressed against the stone flags again. He could hear the
Pater approaching the altar, the steady thump, thump, thump of his staff as he
walked to the front of the temple.  The other members of the cult were
reciting the sacred words as he passed them, the low hum of the chant filling
the temple.

Marcus felt the swish of the Pater’s robes as he came to
stand before him and heard the Heliodromus move to the side.

‘Welcome, faithful servants of Mithras. Today we have heard
some disturbing news. Our beloved Emperor, Theodosius, has made some changes.
Our beloved Commandant, Titus Perpetuus, chose to share those changes with us,
and perhaps give us some idea of the future edicts that we will be forced to
deal with.’ There was an angry murmuring in the temple. Marcus shifted
slightly. He wished the Pater would save the eulogising for later and initiate
him. He was anxious to be done with the ceremony today. There was too much to
think about. He hadn’t seen Aemelia since the announcement and he was still
angry with Janus. And the floor wasn’t becoming any more comfortable, the
longer he lay there. The Pater continued,

‘We have also an initiation taking place tonight.’ Marcus
felt a slight pressure on his cheek. The Pater was nudging him with his toe.
‘Corax Marcus Simplicius Simplex. Tonight you shall be initiated into the role
of nymphus. This initiation has been delayed. You are overdue your promotion,
Corax. It has been noted that you did not attend the previous ceremony. It has
also been noted as to the reason why this occurred. The cult members watch and
report, Corax. Should you not be willing to embrace our values and beliefs, you
shall be suitably discharged from the service of Mithras.’

The murmuring in the temple changed to noises of assent.

‘No third chances!’ called someone. Marcus squirmed on the
stone flags. He understood their annoyance with him, he really did. But he was
here now. It was only one transgression.

‘And may I also remind you of the vow of secrecy,’ said the
Pater. ‘Our cult and our temple are sacrosanct, accessible only to the chosen
few. Women are not allowed in the temple. Our beliefs are not to be discussed
outside the temple. Our rituals are private.’

Marcus felt his cheeks flare in embarrassment and contrition.
Had he really been so open about the temple? He could not think. He had spoken
only to Janus. Yet who else may have heard the things he told them?

‘So, on the understanding that you accept and embrace your
duties, I shall commence the initiation. Please remember all I have told you
tonight. Secrecy is paramount. Nothing which occurs here tonight may be
discussed outside the temple. Do you understand, Corax?’

‘Yes, Pater,’ said Marcus, his voice muffled by the floor.

‘Speak up,’ commanded the Pater. ‘We did not hear you.’

‘Yes Pater!’ shouted Marcus, raising his head painfully.

‘Good. Now I shall begin,’ said the Pater. Marcus knew the
man was in charge here, but he could not help feeling the Pater was being a
little overdramatic. He had hardly uncloaked the cult members and subsequently
paraded them through the fort and the vicus, had he? He frowned beneath the
blindfold and flexed his fingers. I must lose this attitude, he told himself.
This is what I want. A picture of Janus’ eager face flitted before his mind’s
eye, and he knew his friend longed to be in the position he was within the
temple. Then just as quickly, an image of Janus’ angry, contorted face flashed
before him. He hoped that Janus wanted to join the cult for the right reasons.
Any more thoughts such as these were chased from his mind as he heard the Pater
begin the words of initiation he had first used when Marcus became a Corax.

‘As the sun spirals its longest dance, cleanse your servant.
As nature shows bounty and fertility, bless your servant. Let your servant live
with the true intent of Mithras and enable him to fulfil his destiny. Marcus
Simplicius Simplex, arise from the rock as our god Mithras was born from the
rock. Let us witness the Slaying of the Bull.’

Marcus stood up, swaying slightly as the blood rushed back
into his limbs. The Slaying of the Bull. It was the Water Miracle he had
performed last time. This, then, was his next challenge. The low chanting began
again, and he felt two men grasp his wrists and lead him to the side of the
temple. This time, they did not bind him, but he felt something being placed
into his hands. By the size and feel of the item, he realised it was a gladius
– a sword.  He heard the door of the temple open and the chanting became
louder and more insistent. There was a scuffling noise as they brought
something in, and Marcus weighed the gladius in his hands. He knew how to wield
these things to do the most damage. It was basic training for all legionaries.
Swung from right to left, a gladius could decapitate a man. Brought straight
down on the enemy’s head, the sword would split it in two like a piece of
fruit. He guessed they had found a wild animal. Or maybe one brought in one the
domestic ones from the vicus or the fort. They are deliberately flaunting the
edict banning blood sacrifice, Marcus thought. They will not accept these
edicts as willingly as the Commandant hoped. His stomach flipped a little,
realising that the further into the cult he went, the more militant he would be
expected to become. Marcus was at heart a peaceful, quiet man. He had joined
the army to protect the country and the people, not to instigate death and
destruction.

‘You understand what you hold in your hands, Corax Marcus
Simplicius Simplex?’ asked the Pater. Marcus nodded, then realised he was
probably expected to speak.

‘Yes, Pater. I am holding a gladius,’ he said loudly and
clearly. It echoed around the temple, his voice magnified, bouncing off the
walls.

‘You understand your foolish behaviour of the past?’

‘Yes, Pater.’

‘You understand that women should not be brought into the
temple?’

‘Yes, Pater.’

‘You renounce your ill-advised judgement in these matters
that have gone before us?’

‘Yes, Pater.’ Marcus’ voice wavered a little. He didn’t quite
understand where this was leading to.

‘You renounce Christianity and all that goes with it?’

There was a beat.

‘Yes, Pater,’ said Marcus, his voice guarded.

‘All that goes with Christianity?’ repeated the Pater.

‘I...I do not understand, Pater?’ asked Marcus. ‘In what
respect?’

‘Exactly as I say. All that goes with Christianity. The
belief system. The worship of one God. The people who subscribe to this
religion.’

‘I cannot do that, Pater,’ said Marcus softly.

‘I ask you once more,’ said the Pater. ‘The people who
subscribe to this religion. Do you renounce them?’

‘I cannot renounce them all, Pater,’ said Marcus. His stomach
was churning now. He would never do that. He could not renounce Aemelia for the
sake of this cult.

‘I have tried,’ sighed the Pater. ‘Yet I find it in my heart
to continue the initiation. Mithras has willed it. But you must exercise better
judgement, Corax Marcus, in all aspects of Mithraism. You have one more chance.
Then you must face the consequences.’

‘Yes, Pater,’ replied Marcus. He made a mental note to give
thanks to Mithras and Coventina when this was over. He would never bring
Aemelia down here again. It was a small price to pay.

‘To be initiated into the role of nymphus, you must perform
the slaying. My Sun Runners will guide you to the centre of the temple. You
must slay this animal, as Mithras slayed the sacred bull,’ said the Pater.

Marcus was guided silently into the centre of the aisle and
there were more scuffles and scrapes. The animal was trying to escape. They
must have drugged it or silenced it somehow; there was no noise from the
animal, apart from a guttural moan that went on and on and on. Marcus
determined to complete the ritual quickly. He had seen animals sacrificed
before; brought to their knees then slaughtered. It would be done cleanly.

‘Corax Marcus Simplicius Simplex, slay the sacred bull!’
bellowed the Pater.

Marcus roared, shouting a battle cry as he charged
blindfolded towards the sacrifice. He felt the blade of the gladius sink into
soft flesh, then force its way into bone.  He heard a gurgling sound in
the animal’s throat, and pulled the blade out. He swung the sword to the right
and yelled again as he brought it the blade crashing through where he
visualised the animal’s head to be. The gladius connected with something, then
sliced through bone. Marcus knew if he hadn’t decapitated the animal, he would
at least have taken a piece of its skull away. There was a soft thud as the
animal crumpled to the ground.

He waited for the cult members to resume their chanting as he
completed his initiation, but there was a silence in the temple. Something warm
and sticky ran over his foot and he could smell blood.

‘Congratulations. You are now a nymphus. A sacred
bridegroom,’ said the Pater. His voice was soft and dangerous. There was a
triumphant edge to it. ‘Remove the bridegroom’s blindfold, heliodromus.’

Someone pulled the blindfold off Marcus, and he blinked, his
eyes watering. The candelight flickered in the temple and threw shadows over the
bloodied heap, covered in a robe of some sort, in front of the altar. Marcus
leaned over it to see what he had achieved. 

‘What – what is it?’ he asked. It was too small to be a boar
or a deer, or indeed any animal he had witnessed in the area. His eyes flicked
across the temple to see where the head was. He hadn’t managed to decapitate
it. He had taken a slice off its skull. Blood and brain matter clung to the
dark, curly hair on the piece of skull. Marcus suddenly retched. He ran back to
the body in front of the altar.

‘No. Please, no!’ he cried. He ripped the robes off the body,
dreading what he knew he would see beneath it. A deep gash gaped where his
blade had pierced the chest. He grabbed the hand and saw the delicate gold ring
on the little finger. He brought the smooth, white hand up to his face and
closed his eyes. The floor felt as if it was shifting sand beneath his feet and
there was a humming in his ears. Marcus cupped the bloodied, spoiled, face in
his hands and stared at, willing this all to be a bad dream. Had it just been
this afternoon when he had stroked that face in the garden? When he had kissed
her? Her dark, unseeing eyes seemed to look straight into his soul. There was
an expression of shock and disbelief on the girl’s face. Marcus knew it was an
image he would hold in his memory forever. It would never leave him.

‘Aemelia!’ he sobbed. ‘Aemelia. May the gods forgive me! What
did they make me do?’ Then, with another battle cry, he leaped to his feet and
swung around to face the cult members, grasping the gladius in both hands.

But the temple was empty. The cult members had been ushered
out and the door barricaded, trapping Marcus inside. He ran at the door,
screaming and stabbing it again and again, breaking it down splinter by splinter
until he could escape.

By the time he pushed through the broken planks, it was pitch
black outside and the countryside was deserted. He could hear the night-time
noises carrying down the hill from the temple and the vicus settling down for
the evening. He heard laughs and shouts coming from the taverns and brothels as
people went home. Marcus collapsed on the ground outside the temple and lay on
the grass, too numb to move or think. It began to snow, soft flakes at first,
falling from the night sky. The snow came down harder and harder, covering
everything with white. Marcus wanted to stay there, to die like Aemelia had, to
be with her again in whatever afterlife they could meet in.

Marcus didn’t know how long he had lain there, but someone
walked past him and leaned over him. He thought they asked how he was and what
had happened; but he didn’t answer. He willed them to go away and leave him
alone. The person knelt down beside him and touched his shoulder, but he
flinched away. The person eased him up and wrapped their cloak around him. Then
they began to guide him away from the temple. Marcus struggled, but the other
person was stronger. They forced Marcus to put one foot in front of the other
and returned with him to the fort. They took him back to his quarters and
guided him into his bed. Then they sat with him until he eventually slept.

Marcus thought the person might have been Janus; but he
wasn’t sure. It could have been Janus. He might have been visiting Aelia.

 

 

AD 391

 

Marcus was confined to his quarters for two days, as he burnt
with a fever and rambled nonsense. On the third day, he managed to crawl out of
bed and take his place in the ranks. His face was taut and pale, his eyes dull
and blank. He was slow and uncoordinated, refusing to handle the gladius,
preferring to supervise the legionaries instead. Janus came over to him after
drill and took him behind the stable block.

‘I have managed to explain your absence to the troops, and to
keep people away from your quarters. I do not know what happened to you in the
temple, but you can discuss it with me if you see it fit,’ he said, his eyes
searching Marcus’ face for an answer. Marcus did not respond. He shook his head
and pushed Janus out of the way, trying to get back to the quadrant.

‘Marcus, my friend! What is the problem? Have I done anything
to upset you in any way?’ asked Janus, his face falling. ‘What I said about
Antonia, perhaps...’ He looked askance at Marcus, half-smiling, trying to get
him to acknowledge the deliberate mistake. It had become part of their banter,
an accepted form of repartee.

‘Don’t,’ said Marcus. He pressed his lips together and tried
again to leave, pushing Janus out of the way.

‘Marcus, this is madness. You have to tell me what has
happened. There are rumours that your beloved has flown the coop. The
Commandant has half the cohort searching for her in the countryside. Do you
know anything...’

Before Janus could finish his sentence, Marcus turned and
threw a punch at him. Janus ducked out of the way, an expression of disbelief
on his face. He grabbed Marcus’ wrist and twisted his arm behind him, making
Marcus drop to the floor and cry out in pain.

‘You are mad!’ Janus cried, his eyes wide. He released his
friend. ‘Please. You have to tell me what happened. This is out of character
for you.’

‘I cannot tell you what happened!’ hissed Marcus. ‘It will
put us both at risk. Just leave me alone!’

‘I can help!’ said Janus. ‘You have to trust me. I know it
has something to do with that girl. Please.’

Marcus sank down onto his haunches and dropped his head into
his hands. He shook his head wordlessly and then covered his face.

‘You cannot help. There is nothing you can do for me. This is
my problem. Everything that happened was because of my mistakes. I cannot drag you
into it,’ he said, his voice cracking. ‘Please. Just go back to the quadrant
and leave me here. I shall follow later.’

Janus stood for a moment and stared down at Marcus.

‘As you wish,’ he said. ‘But you can confide in me. Nothing
about that cult can be that secretive. Nobody can be harmed by its actions.’

Again Marcus shook his head.

‘You do not know the half of it,’ he said. ‘Leave me alone.’

Janus waited a moment more, then nodded. He turned and left
Marcus and walked back towards the quadrant, his leather sandals wet from the
slush that still lay on the ground.

Marcus stayed hidden behind the stable block for quite some
time. The thought of going back into the company of the men made him feel
physically sick. How many of them had witnessed the deed in the temple? How
many of them knew the secret he had been sworn to keep? Everywhere he went, he
felt as if eyes were staring at him, accusing him of the cold-blooded murder of
an innocent girl. Every time he closed his eyes, the vision of her broken body lying
in the temple haunted him. He couldn’t share this with anyone; he just
couldn’t. It was a burden he would carry to the grave. Perhaps the search party
would give up; perhaps her body would have been disposed of somehow and nobody
need know what had happened. Perhaps some merciful battle would occur and he
would be killed by the Barbarians, and no longer have to suffer...

Marcus hauled himself up from the ground and made his way
slowly back to the quadrant. He pulled up short as a flurry of activity blurred
before his eyes. Men were running around, not in the neat ranks they were used
to, but scurrying back and forth, casting terrified glances at one another. He
stood motionless as the Commandant and his wife appeared from their home,
surrounded by guards. The Commandant had aged over the last few days; his wife
was being supported by another woman as she wept hysterically. Someone ran up
to him and grasped his arm.

‘They found the girl!’ said the man. Marcus registered that
it was Felix. ‘Or what was left of her. They found her body hidden on the
moors! She’s been murdered. They tried to decapitate her.’ Marcus blanched and
felt himself sway. He steadied himself by clutching Felix.

‘When?’ he asked, fighting back the nausea he felt rising
from his stomach into the back of his throat.

‘Not long ago. They brought her back. The Commandant is going
to make us pay for this. It’s not fair! We are all honest men here. Who would
harm a girl like that?’

‘I do not know,’ said Marcus. He stared across at the gathering
troops. The Commandant was searching the men for a guilty face. The sweat
beaded on Marcus’ brow. He would sense it. Titus Perpetuus would know who was
to blame. Slowly, he took his place in the line, trying to compose his features
and maintain a blank expression.

When everyone was silent, the Commandant stood on the plinth
and faced the men.

‘Cohort!’ he bellowed. ‘You know why I have gathered you
together. My daughter has been savagely murdered and I believe the culprit is
standing in this square.’ His face worked as his voice caught on the words. His
wife collapsed into the arms of her slave and howled in despair. ‘I shall stop
at nothing to find the guilty party,’ continued the Commandant.  ‘Somebody
here knows something about it. You have twenty four hours to do the honourable
thing and confess your part in the attack. Should you not confess, I shall
begin the most savage punishment available to me as a Commandant. I shall order
decimation, until somebody confesses to this crime.’

There was an audible gasp from the soldiers. They had heard
of this punishment, but it had never been carried out within this cohort. One
man in every ten would be randomly slaughtered. They all looked at one another,
terrified. To be killed honourably in battle was one thing. To be killed by
your own men, by your friends and colleagues was horrific.

‘The gates to the fort will be barricaded until this matter
is resolved: in either way. Dismissed!’ stated the Commandant and turned his
back on the cohort. Placing his arm around his wife, he guided her back into
their home. A slave closed the door behind them and the quadrant erupted.

‘Who is responsible for this?’ cried one of the Centurions.
‘You must confess. We are all at risk because of you!’ The men echoed his cry
and the men turned to one another, scanning the troops, looking – as the
Commandant had looked – for a guilty man.

‘You were the last person to see her,’ said someone. Marcus
stared at the man who had spoken. It was Milenius, the standard bearer. ‘What
happened after you left her? We saw you leaving Aelia’s garden together.
Longinius and I were in the market,’ Marcus shook his head mutely. ‘Speak to
us!’ said Milenius. ‘Tell us what happened.’ His face was hard, suspicious.

‘She...she was alive,’ Marcus managed. ‘I came back to the
fort. I...’

‘And what happened after that?’ pressed Milenius. ‘Did you
see her any more that evening? We have to piece it together. If you are
innocent, you have to give us all the information.’ His eyes roved around the
quadrant. ‘These men; your friends. Your troops. We are all at risk. We must
work together to solve this.’

‘A Barbarian,’ stammered Marcus. ‘Or – or a Pict. They came
to the defences;  maybe took her away...?’

Milenius looked at him in disbelief.

‘Do not treat us as if we are uneducated idiots,’ he said.
‘You know that could not have happened. Carrawburgh is guarded at all times.’

‘Then I cannot help you,’ said Marcus. He turned away from
the standard bearer and pushed his way through the anxious men who were
shouting theories at one another in panic. This whole episode was a disaster.
Marcus could see no resolution to it. He hurried away towards his quarters.
Perhaps he could lock himself in there and pray to the gods, for what it would
be worth, anyway.

‘Marcus!’ He heard a voice calling after him. He began to run
faster. Yet he knew in his heart he would look like a guilty man by running.
Perhaps they would misinterpret it; they might think that he had realised he
would be one of the Prefects chosen to carry out the decimation. ‘Marcus!’
Footsteps pounded up behind him. It was Janus again. Of course. The man missed
nothing.

‘I told you, leave me alone,’ said Marcus.

‘No. You know more than I think you do,’ said Janus. ‘Does it
have something to do with the cult? That is the only thing you can be hiding
from me.’

‘I can’t tell you!’ shouted Marcus.

‘Yes, you can,’ said Janus coldly. ‘It has to be the cult.
Look. I shall make it easy for you. I can maybe help you. But you have to trust
me. You have to tell me exactly what happened in the temple. If you feel you
can do this, I shall be waiting for you behind the bath house at midnight. Then
we can decide what to do. If not. Well,’ he shrugged, defeated. ‘I shall see
you tomorrow, and we shall take turns killing innocent men. Perhaps you will
have to kill me. Or I you. Think about it, Marcus. You can prevent it, if you
share the secret with me.’

Marcus twisted around and looked at Janus. He shook his head
slightly, then turned away, leaving Janus standing at the edge of the building
watching him as he disappeared into his quarters.

Marcus sat on his bed rocking to and fro, trying to decide
what to do. The orders of the Pater resounded in his head – Secrecy is
paramount. Nothing which occurs here tonight may be discussed outside the
temple. He grasped the edge of the mattress and stared at the door to his room.
The remains of a small fire smouldered in the grate and as he focussed on the
dying flames he knew had to make a choice. He could not let innocent men suffer
because of his mistakes. Had he known the power of the cult, he would have
stayed away from it. He could not let Janus make the same mistake. He had to
tell him what had happened. Then he would confess to the Commandant, explain
what had happened. He knew he could face execution himself for his part in the
tragedy; but if it would save the men, he would take the chance. He looked
around his room, wondering if tonight would be the last time he slept in it.
Then he stood up and pushed the door open. He would meet Janus at midnight as
he had requested and tell him the truth.

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