April 3rd, 2024
It was the third day of their travel together and Rosa was nearing her wit’s end. Rey Forester had not ceased in her frequent barrages of questions and preaching. Time and again Rosa had tried to shut her out, with either silence or harsh words, and time and again she had failed to stop the stranger from pestering her for more than a few hours.
They stopped briefly to catch their breath on a ridge by the mountainside. Most of their climbing had been uphill as Rey followed the tracks to the Manticore nest, and even with a champion’s stamina Rosa needed a break now and then. They sat to drink water and nibble on what rations they had (mostly the remaining pieces of Rey’s deer). Before them was the wild Italian countryside, rolling away like a great blanket of greens, forests and fields irregularly quilting the countryside underneath a monolithic blue sky scattered with painted clouds. The weather was warm with the oncoming summer but a breeze running up from the foothills kept the worst of it at bay.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Rey asked “I love this country.”
Rosa shrugged. It did as little for her as the view she had seen several days before, or any other vista or pretty sight for that matter. All she felt was an impatience to get moving, irritation with Rey, and a great clawing void where her appreciation for such things used to be.
“You don’t think so?” Rey asked “I understand not taking to a piece of art, a sculpture or a painting, but this is the living world in all its beauty, so perfect you’d think the gods themselves crafted this little ridge here just so we could marvel at their creation from the proper angle.”
“Gods don’t care enough to do something like that.” Rosa said. “I doubt they believe we can even appreciate things like art.”
“That’s a rather hostile attitude to take,” Rey said, more amused than concerned. “Most people are more than willing to be supplicants to the god of their fancy in exchange for protection, but here you are spurning them.”
“Most people are idiots.” Rosa said “I’ve seen what gods demand in exchange for safety and security. It’s not worth the price.”
“I suppose that depends on the price, Champion of Ares,” Rey said “I cannot imagine a brutish god of war would demand anything short of a grueling tax in blood for his favor. What was the price you paid?”
Rosa didn’t respond, her expression didn’t even change as she stood up, took hold of her pack, and started walking again. In the past this had been signal enough that this was ground better left untread. Rosa was a wrathful and confrontational person, to act with cold disdain and walk from a question spoke more for how she felt than a punch to the face could. Rey had understood that before. Now, however, it didn’t seem enough.
Rey followed quickly behind her, both to overtake her and once more take the lead, but also to continue her pestering.
“I’m not letting you off easily this time, Rosaria,” she said “I want to know what price you paid for that power.”
“Stop,” Rosa said “Just stop, if you know what’s good for you.”
“Whose blood did you pay with?” Rey asked “Why did you offer it?”
This time the mask broke, her pupils contracted as her eyes burned with hellish power, her expression cracking from cold disinterest to unbridled fury as her spear appeared in her hand, lashing like a viper until it stopped mere centimeters short of Rey’s face.
“Stop talking,” Rosa said “Right now. Or else, guide or no guide, I will throw you off this mountain.”
Rosa didn’t even see Rey’s hand move, but in an instant her gloved hand was wrapped tightly around the shaft of the spear, right where it met the head, and she could feel the superhuman strength holding it there.
“I think now,” The amusement had gone out of Rey’s voice “Is the perfect time to talk.”
Rosa roared as she whipped her spear away, breaking Rey’s grip on it as she dropped low into a striking position. Rey stepped back, drawing her sword as she looked down at Rosa. They were on a slope, and while Rosa had greater reach Rey held the high ground. That kind of tactical thinking, however, didn’t come to Rosa’s mind. When she was cool, when she was dueling or was in a calmer setting, she could focus on battlefield strategy and tactics. Right now, however, crimson rage consumed her, and she charged Rey, spear in hand, going for the killing strike.
Rey, by contrast, never so much as shifted her expression as she sidestepped the first thrust, knocking the head of the spear down towards the ground to end the strike and throw Rosa’s attack off balance. She took that moment of recovery to close the reach between them, using her tremendous speed to move past the head of the spear. She didn’t strike with her blade, instead drawing close enough to strike at her face with the pommel of her sword, a blunt strike followed by a lashing blow with her free hand. Rey, however, had underestimated Rosa’s speed and her endurance, particularly in the state of wrath she was in. Ares’ power flowed through her, uncontained and unmanaged, but boiling inside her with enough ferocity to surpass even a champion’s superhuman power.
Rosa caught the offhand blow with her bracer, deflecting the hard fist of the stranger with divine bronze. The strike with the sword pommel, however, struck her directly in the forehead, and did nothing but leave a bloody mark behind as Rosa threw her entire weight into her shoulder, slamming it into Rey with enough force to send her flying several meters back, barely managing to land on one knee instead of tumbling end over end. Once more Rosa made the charge, swinging the spear this time, the blade throwing a trail of crimson energy like a fiery arc through the air as Rosa made a great leaping attack at Rey’s position. Rey rolled just in time to dodge the first slash, only to have to backstep rapidly to avoid the second. Again and again Rosa’s spear cut through the air, forcing Rey further up the high ground. Knowing she was running out of steps of retreat, Rey took her chances and charged again between attacks, deliberately leaving her sword vulnerable as she made a wide sweeping slash.
Rosa took the bait, striking out at a wide angle to knock the sword from Rey’s hand, giving her the opportunity to tackle Rosa with all of her weight, turning the duel into a wrestling match as she grappled with Rosa, using her greater strength to try to wrestle the spear from her hands. Rosa was strong, more so than Rey in terms of raw strength as they were, but Rey was clearly no amateur. Moving like a trained wrestler, she quickly and skillfully arranged her limbs into a lock on Rosa’s arms, forcing her hands to drop the spear as she struggled to keep the red-haired fireball from tearing herself free.
Rey growled into her ear, feet struggling to keep themselves as Rosa threatened to throw her clear over her shoulder if she didn’t hold tight for dear life.
“Stop fighting!” Rey shouted “We can…rrr…talk this out!”
Rosa only responded with another echoing battle shout as she bent her knees and almost lifted Rey clear off her feet, trying to throw her.
Rey growled again. Clearly they weren’t going to make any progress like this, and she doubted that she could take Rosa down as she was.
Rosa’s mind was a haze of fire and hatred, all of the burning memories, those scarred into her mind forever and sealed deep away, were rising to the forefront again.
“What did you do, Rosa!?” Rey shouted into her ear, trying to draw some sense back to the girl. “What did they make you pay!?”
Rey was well-trained, and Rosa heard her growling in her ear again as her strength seemed to grow, arms holding her back as Rosa was slowly forced to her knees.
“Go away!” Rosa shouted wildly into the air “Just go away and leave me alone!”
“No!” Rey growled “Not until you tell me!”
Rosa felt her knees hit the dirt as she struggled, arms locked beside her as Rey forced her down. She wanted to kick, scream, roar, and gouge Rey’s eyes out, throwing her weight around like a trapped beast, head rolling back and forth as if trying to shake her thoughts away.
“I killed my sister!” Rosa shouted again, words echoing through the sky. “My own twin sister!”
Rey’s grip began to relax on her, enough that she could have broken free, but as she said the words, the strength seemed to drain almost instantly from her body. Her shoulders shook as she felt the hot tears start running down her face.
“Just… to survive…” She struggled to speak, her whole body starting to shake.
“You were forced…” Rey started to speak, but Rosa turned her head to shout at her, fury still clear in her tearstained expression.
“We weren’t forced! We could have said no! We could have…done anything else!”
“You had to survive…” Rey said.
“It should have been her!” Rosa lashed out again. “It should have been Christi, not me!”
“But it is you,” Rey said “You can’t change that now.”
“Who the hell are you!?” Rosa snapped at her again “To try giving me advice! I don’t even know you! Why do you care so much about me!?”
“Everyone needs someone to care about them,” Rey said “And I have a fondness for orphans and broken things.”
Slowly Rey released her, gently lowering her arms to free Rosa’s movements before stepping back, but the strength had entirely abandoned Rosa, all of her anger drained from her. She looked up to see Rey removing the long cloak and hood she’d worn for several days.
Revealing the bright orange tail and ears of a wolf.
“Everyone else in Rome just saw you as a problem,” said Capitolina Lupa, the wolf of Rome. “But I’d know that pain in your eyes anywhere. You can’t live alone with that kind of regret, not when you’re still barely more than a child.”
Rosa glared at the wolf, still not satisfied after all the trouble she’d put her through. “I’m not some orphan baby in the woods you can adopt!” She snapped.
“No, you’re a very angry teenager who needs help,” Capi said “I’m not about to be your parent, but if you don’t let anyone reach out and help you then you’re going to destroy yourself before too long.”
Slowly, Rosa drew herself back to her feet, still looking at Capi. She never realized that the wolf of Rome was half a head shorter than she was. She’d only ever seen her from a distance and always appeared much larger then.
“Don’t see how you can help me.” Rosa said.
“How about a teacher?” Capi offered “The Greeks always saw Ares as a bloodthirsty and chaotic warrior, but we have a very different view of Mars in Rome. He’s a warrior god, but strong and disciplined, dignified as only a Roman warrior can be.”
“I’m not Roman,” Rosa said “And I’ve had enough of gods.”
“You’re Roman enough for me,” Capi smiled “Romulus wasn’t Roman either, was he? Besides, there’s one thing the gods will never tell you, a secret they like to hide form mortals but that all spirits know.”
Her face still cast in an expression of irritation, Rosa ventured the question. “Fine, what secret?”
“The man makes the god, not the other way around.” Capi smiled “Ares may have granted you power, but as his champion you can do a great deal to define who and what he is. Get training, learn strength from resolve and courage instead of wrath. If you do these things then you might find yourself the Champion of a far finer god than Ares, and then all that pain of yours won’t have been in vain.”
The anger had ebbed entirely inside Rosa, all she could do was stare at Capitolina in mixed confusion and exhaustion.
“Why? Rosa asked “Why me?”
“I told you,” Capi smiled, tail wagging from side to side “I have a fondness for orphans and broken things. Now come on, we have a nest of manticores to slay, and I’ll need the help of the Champion of Mars.”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=49&sl=864