The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 25

 

The returning trip to Rome took longer than the trip there had. While their group had been quick by themselves, they were now joined by a number of refugees and a few representatives of the half-ruined Malcesine. While many had stayed behind to rebuild their town, a number had decided to travel with the safety of their newfound saviors back to Rome to try their fortunes. They were regular people, and as such set the pace with Stella compared to the seemingly endless endurance of champions, mages, and wolves. Cat didn’t mind it for the most part, but not all of their newfound company was pleased with the pace.

“Oh my goooood you all walk so sloooooow.” Torleif complained, doing her best to be the vanguard even though she had no idea where they were going.

“Hey you’re free to run ahead, short stuff.” Rosa said, spear slung over her shoulder. “Rome can’t be that hard to find, riiiight?” she added with a flashing grin.

Torleif scrunched up her face with petulance. “I’m not that short! B-besides I’m twelve! I’ll grow into it!”

“Well you’re tough enough I won’t make fun of you for being twelve.” Rosa said, but she held out her spear level with her shoulder, which left it nearly a full thirty centimeters above Torleif’s head. “But you are still really short.”

“Do you want me to get my hammer!?”

“How are you supposed to hit me with it when your arms are waaaay over there?”

Cat sighed as she watched them. After an initial scuffle on their first day of the journey this had become the routine for Torleif and Rosa. She appreciated that it kept Torleif from complaining about being bored. The journey home felt a lot longer than the way there, even if it was only extended by a day or so. Cat couldn’t help but think of what was waiting for her, not only her usual lessons but the inevitable fallout of the trip. If the Alpine settlements were in this kind of shape action would be necessary.

A tug at her sleeve pulled her out of her thoughts, and she looked to see Torleif tugging at her sleeve.

“Hey Blue, how many champions are in Rome?”

“Oh, ummm well there’s Rosa, my sister’s boyfriend Turi is champion of Athena, Aurelio is champion of Diana, there’s umm…oh right, my friend Megame is champion of Inari I think, and Gisela is champion of Itzpapalotl.”

“There’s Evangeline and Sybilla too.” Rosa said “For Hephaestus and Huldra.”

“More than I’ve seen anywhere else…”

“Have you met a lot of champions?” Cat tried to keep her tone serious, but part of her still couldn’t help but see Torleif as a child. The temper and somewhat oversized clothes didn’t help, making the diminutive redhead look even smaller than she was.

“Not many…” Torleif said “Though I met a few people who are pretty tough on their own…oh! There was this one time in Barcelona…”

 

Torleif was a curious guest to have along. She was as easily distracted and prone to error as any twelve year old, but when she moved she did so with impressive purpose. She was physically the strongest person Cat had ever seen, her small arms even able to best Rosa in terms of raw strength, and her small frame made her impressively quick on her feet and difficult to take hold of. Cat, Torleif, and Hilde had taken to sparring in the afternoons when the rest of the group was resting. Beyond even her strength, however, Torleif seemed possessed of singular purpose, consumed by a mission she’d been given and never straying from her path.

The days came and went, and eventually the group found themselves once more walking the familiar hills on the outskirts of the city of Rome. Much of what had once been ruined city had been reclaimed by nature or by human hands to be cleared for farming, trees and grass taking what had once been concrete and asphalt.

“So that’s Rome, huh?” Torleif asked.

“That’s it” Cat smiled “Finally there.”

“Finally…”

“So you wanted to see the Thor worshippers, right?” Cat asked. “They can probably get you set up with a place to stay as well.”

“Well ya a bit…” Thor said “But I mostly came for people.”

“People?”

“Yep! I’m going to find a bunch of people like you guys, and we’re going to kill Nidhoggr!”

“Ummm…” Cat wasn’t sure where to begin “W-well you came to the right city, I guess.”

“Well I knew Rome was the right city!”

“How’d you know that?” Rosa asked.

“Some birds told me.” Torleif replied happily.

“Well…killing Nidhoggr is something we’re all trying to do as well” Cat said somewhat sheepishly “Good to have some help.”

“Ya I’m going to smash that stupid lizard’s face in!” Torleif grinned “Er…with help. I was told I can’t do it on my own.”

“Well that’s the truth” Cat sighed “This girl…Gisela, keeps telling me the same thing. She also said to keep an eye out for other people who could help take down Nidhoggr.”

“Well I’m one of the best for the job!” Torleif jabbed her thumb at her chest. “Where do I find you guys anyway, like if I want to meet you?”

“Training field works” Rosa said “It’s on the way.”

“I’d join you three” Hildegard said “But I need to check in with Turi so I should be off…ah yes, there’s my ride.”

From the city they could see a small shape appear in the sky, growing steadily larger until the familiar outline of Pegasus flew down to meet them.

“Glad to see everyone’s back safe and sound.” Turi said as he brought Pegasus down to trot along the ground before helping Hildegard onto the saddle with him “And do I have a story for you.”

“Can’t wait to hear it” Hildegard smiled, kissing him on the cheek as she wrapped her arms around her waist. “Cat I’ll see you at dinner tonight, and I’ll see you two on the training field.” She pointed to Rosa and Torleif, who was staring with her mouth partially open at the winged horse as they began to leave.

“Ya Turi’s pretty cool” Cat smiled at Torleif, remembering very well her own astonishment when she had first met Pegasus.

“J-just a horse…” Torleif said “My hammer’s cooler.”

The group divided as they moved itn othe city proper. Giovanni went to the Vatican as Stella led the dignitaries and refugees to the city center to be processed, and soon the three of them were taking a brief tour of the city for Torleif’s benefit, showing her a number of places she might like to visit.

“And here’s the best pasta place in Rome.” Cat said, pointing it out as they walked.

“You’re full of it! Castella’s is waay better.” Rosa said.

“Castella’s is super greasy! It’s like it’s not even food anymore!”

“You’re just a vegetarian.”

“I am not!”

Torleif stayed largely quiet, her head on a swivel as she took in the sights and listened to their friendly bickering going back and forth until something caught her eye.

“Ooh is that the training field?”

“Hmm?” Cat looked up “Oh hey, we’re already here, ya this is it.”

What had once been little more than a yard had been expanded and redressed into a training field fit for a legion. Large areas of dirt and grass were marked off for sparring matches and drilling exercises. Equipment sheds and tools stood in every corner with racks of training and martial weapons, even a few stands had been erected near some of the sparring rings for observation lessons and competitions.

“This is awesome!” Torleif shouted, rushing forward quickly enough that Rosa and Cat needed to work to keep pace.

As they entered the field, however, they could see that most of the people were gathered together in one of the rings. Looking closer, Cat didn’t recognize a lot of them, many were wearing legionnaire armor, but just as many were dressed in a kind of uniform she didn’t recognize, a pile of round shields resting in a pile nearby or carried in their hands.

Torleif tore off to explore the field as Rosa and Cat moved towards the group.

“What’s going on here!” Rosa shouted into them before moving directly into the face of the closest unfamiliar soldier “Who the hell are you?”

“I umm we’re…” Cat had to hand it to Rosa, that red-eyed stare was intimidating when she needed it to be.

“Afternoon! No need to get ornery, they’re with me.” A voice spoke up from within the crowd, and a number of people parted to reveal the speaker.

They were about Cat’s height, possibly a little taller and with a similar slender build, dressed in an ornate Greek-styled linothorax over a white tunic and short black skirt with matching bronze greaves and wristguards. Cat blinked for a moment in confusion, the voice sounded slightly masculine but it still took her a moment to realize that the skirted figure in front of her was a boy, though certainly a very androgynous one with narrow shoulders and slender hips. His hair was a light sort of chestnut brown kept in a long braided ponytail, and he had a short spear in one hand with a round shield similar to the others slung over his back.

“Sorry if we’re interrupting your field time” he said “We’re-“

“Greek…” Rosa interrupted him, more in surprise than irritation.

“Well yes we’re…hey, someone else from the homeland!” He grinned, walking forward to take her hand eagerly, placing his other on her shoulder. “So is this where our missing champion wound up?”

“Missing?” Rosa asked him dubiously.

“I had word that the champion of Ares was abroad” he said.

“Word from who? And who are you?” Cat spoke up next as he released Rosa.

“Ah of course, where are my manners? My name is Nicomede, I’m the leader of this contingent, the Spears of Olympia, and champion of Zeus, King of the Gods.”

“Zeus really?” Cat asked “That’s…pretty high profile. What are you doing all the way out here in Rome?”

“Same reason as a lot of other people, I imagine.” He said “We came to find the source of this destruction from the north and put an end to it.”

“Me too!” They were interrupted by the arrival of Torleif, who had come to investigate. “I’m Torleif! Champion of Thor!”

Nicomede smiled “Another champion of a thunder god? My you have a lot in this city.”

“Seem to get more every day…” Rosa said “I’m Rosaria.”

“I’m Catarina” Cat nodded, shaking his hand.

“Ah! Catarina and Rosaria, you two are apparently really popular on these fields.” He smiled “The legionnaires here won’t stop boasting about you two and your sister.”

“Heh, well we do our best” Cat smiled “But f you have soldiers like this, you could be leading the charge yourselves.”

“Well, truth be told this is kind of…all we have.” Nicomede admitted sheepishly “Greece right now is still a bit of a mess, more a collection of city-states than a country, especially compared to a city like Rome. This must be the biggest city in the world right now.”

“I’m not sure about that, but we do have a lot” Cat said.

“So my spears and I came to help how we could” Nicomede said “And from what we’ve been hearing, the endless waves of the dead come form this Norse dragon right.”

“Well…it’s not really as simple as a dragon” Cat said “There’s a lot more to it than that.”

“Wemight not be Roman, and we’re not about to renounce our Greek heritage, but if you Romans need a little aid taking this dragon down, then I’m willing and able to lead that charge.”

“Er wait…lead?” Cat asked.

“Well we can discuss that” Nicomede smiled.

“Duh! Cause I’m leading it!” Torleif grinned “I’ll be leading the charge to take down that snake!”

“Er…”

Cat sighed as she looked between Rosa, Torleif, and Nicomede. Gisela had said that she should try to gather everyone she could, but this almost seemed more trouble than it was worth.

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

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