The Snake and the Mirror

Roman Holiday – Part I

 

Torleif had not seen so many people in years. The streets of Rome in the mid-morning were lively and bustling as people moved for work, to get food, or simply to get from one place to another. Without cars, horses, or any vehicle more advanced than a bicycle, the roads were dominated by foot traffic. That meant Torleif, still a little short for her age (though she’d never admit it), was constantly underfoot and almost claustrophobic in the tight crowds of Rome.

She finally got some air at an open market on the edge of the Tiber. Leaning against a stone railing, looking down into the slow brown waters, Torleif could catch her breath as her eyes wandered across the view. Over the past few months she could have gone days without seeing another human being. Sure having company was nice, but the city of Rome was a lot of company to ask for.

Torleif’s stomach grumbled unhappily, and she recalled the breakfast line for new arrivals that she had ditched because it was too long. Regret was starting to worm its way into her head as she eyed the stock of a nearby apple stall hungrily, almost drooling with desire. Hesitantly she started to edge closer to the stall. The owner was busy talking with several customers, and she was small and easily missed, particularly since she had left most of her gear in a locker back at the camp, save for her hammer which still hung from her belt at the back of her waist.

Creeping forward, Torleif began to plan her attack, a quick grab and run and she’d be gone…

A hand gently took hold of her shoulder, causing her to almost jump in mid-air.

“I wasn’t doing anything!” She said so rapidly she almost stumbled over her words. She turned and saw the hand belonged to a woman looking at her with a mix of concern and confusion. She was a lot taller than Torleif (though most people were), with a loose chestnut brown hair and bright green eyes. She was wearing a simple sundress of light browns and off-whites, which only brought more attention to the large white flowers literally growing in her hair.

“I wasn’t!” Torleif said before clamming her mouth shut, realizing she was only digging herself deeper.

The woman simply smiled warmly at her.

“Hungry?” She asked. Torleif nodded silently, face red.

The woman with flowers in her hair lifted her hand from Torleif’s shoulder and held it with her palm up at Torleif’s eye-level. Torleif watched, marveling, as a vine crept down the woman’s arm and sprouted into a large shiny red apple in the palm of her hand.

“Wooow…” Torleif’s eyes went big as she took the apple before swiftly adding a polite “Thank you!” As she did before biting into it.

“Of course,” the woman smiled, but Torleif could see a bit of concern in her face as well. “Are your parents having trouble getting food for you?”

“Don’t got parents,” Torleif said roughly between mouthfuls of apple.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Echo said. “But the city has put you with a foster family, right?”

“No,” Torleif said. “Miss Capi Wolf said that my case is strange cause I’m a champion. Don’t need fosters. Don’t want ‘em either.”

“Ah, my, you’re a champion,” The woman said. “I’m honored. Whose champion are you?”

“Thor.” Torleif paused to take another bite before adding. “God of Thunder! Toughest of the gods too!”

“Oh, my,” The woman said. “I’ve heard of him. I’m just a lowly spirit though, I don’t meet that many gods.”

Torleif nodded, though she also saw the smile creeping across the woman’s face. “So who are you?” She asked. “My name’s Torleif.”

“My name is Echo,” The woman smiled. “Nice to meet you, Torleif.”

“Echo?” Torleif asked. “Like in a cave? Echo, echo, echo.”

“Heh, something like that,” Echo chuckled. “But can’t you use the breakfast food line for refugees?”

“That line is so looooong,” Torleif moaned.

“I’m sure it is,” Echo nodded. “Though if you like I can help you get lunch. I know some people who-“

Echo was cut off by the sight of guards rushing down the street up the river, a number of them hurrying together at the call of some emergency.

“U-umm excuse…” Echo tried to catch their attention, but she was ignored as they hurried past her. “Hmm…I wonder what the excitement is…”

“Let’s go see!” Torleif said eagerly, taking Echo by the wrist as she moved after the guards. Echo lurched along after her, clearly surprised at the small girl’s strength.

“But Torleif! It could be dangerous!” She tried to object, helpless to break free from her grasp.

“That’s okay, I’ll protect you,” Torleif smiled.

 

The running guards and soon sounds of commotion lead them to a local park, where a dividing line had been set up to keep out the public, manned by a number of guards trying to hold back a line of curious citizens. Within the park, invisible through the trees, came the sounds of creaking branches and splintering wood as if something massive was moving through the small forest. Without pausing, Torleif pushed her way through the barricade and the guards as Echo helplessly apologized. To her surprise, they weren’t followed as Torleif pulled Echo along into the forests.

In the center of the wooded park was the source of the noise. An enormous and likely ancient tree, with a trunk many times wider than an adult man, was moving and lurching of its own volition, massive branches swaying and coiling as its canopy crashed against the leaves and branches of its neighbors. Near the base of the tree stood a trio of women, deep in conversation as they watched the tree from a safe distance away.

“I can see why you called me, the spirit is clearly very upset,” The youngest, a shortish Asian girl dressed in bright white and red robes with short dark hair was the first to speak.

“That’s what we gathered. Aurelio wanted an expert on the subject,” The second one was the tallest. She was a slender black-haired woman dressed in a long cloak and slimming clothes that made her look like an evil sorceress.

The last one to speak was older-looking, but what stood out the most were the long ears and tail of a fox that poked out from her hair and the back of her dress. “That’s why I retrieved Megame, though a proper expert would be…ah, there they are!” The trio turned to see Torleif carrying Echo to join them.

“Hi!” Torleif waved. “Need some help busting up an angry spirit? I’m your champion!”

“Ah, you must be Torleif,” The youngest woman in white and red said. “Catarina mentioned you. My name is Megame Kamigawa.”

“Oh, right,” Torleif nodded. “Cat talked about you on the trip here. Who are these?”

“This is my friend, Hachi,” Megame said, gesturing to the fox woman who eyed her curiously. “And this is Miss Sybilla, they’re with the Night Guard.”

“We are, and this is one spirit we don’t need ‘busted up,’” Sybilla said, hands on her hips. “In fact, I’m much more interested in what Echo there has to say.”

“Echo?” Torleif looked at her. “She’s just a little spirit though…”

Hachi smiled as Echo stepped towards the thrashing tree. “Something to keep in mind, Torleif-san, is that sometimes the easiest solution isn’t necessarily the best.”

“It’s not too surprising,” Sybilla said. “As they say, ‘when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Torleif frowned.

“It means,” Hachi said calmly. “That when you have something that can fix a lot of problems, like your hammer, you tend to use that to fix all of your problems.”

“Oh…” Torleif said, going a bit quiet as she turned to watch Echo and Megame chatting closer to the tree.

“So can you hear the problem?” Megame asked.

“It doesn’t like all of the new transplants in the park,” Echo said. “It’s restoring the land but the tree doesn’t recognize them; it thinks they’re invading and trying to replace it.”

“That’s not true at all,” Megame said. “We were just trying to bring some life back, and move some trees that would have been cut down for construction.”

“I’ll try to reassure it,” Echo said, moving to the tree and placing her hands on the gnarled bark, vines spreading from her fingertips.

Torleif hung back, annoyed she had nothing to do but not wanting to abandon her new friend Echo with these strangers, even if Cat had said Megame was a good person. A while later Echo removed herself from the tree, vines withdrawing from her hands as the tree’s thrashing ceased and she went to speak to the others.

“He understands and will try to be more cooperative,” Echo said. “But Miss Kamigawa, if you could mention him when you do your rituals for the local spirits?”

“I’ll be sure to,” Megame nodded. “Thank you, Echo kami-san.”

“I’m glad I could help,” Echo smiled before she went to check on Torleif. “You look a bit bored.”

“M’fine…” Torleif mumbled.

“You know, if you wanted to fight a bit you could always go down to the training fields, there’s always someone there.”

Torleif’s eyes lit up. “Can we?”

“I’m not in charge of a champion,” Echo smiled. “Lead the way, the others can take care of the rest.

Torleif smiled and started leading her from the park toward the training field. “Sorry to get you roped into that stuff back there,” Torleif said “I didn’t mean to bother you. All you did was help.”

“Oh it’s no problem at all,” Echo smiled. “I actually like getting to know people, particularly since-“

“Oh we’re here!” Torleif grinned, interrupting her as she hurried towards the field, though she spared Echo her grip this time. While the nymph took to the stands to watch, Torleif looked around to see who was there to spar. She grinned as she spotted a pair of people she knew, Rosaria from the trip down south was in a wrestling match with Capitolina Lupa, the Wolf of Rome, and while the wolf might have had all her strength, she was in human form which meant Rosa was putting up a good fight.

Torleif went to the edge of the ring, watching before chiming in. “I’ve got next!”

She watched as Rosa finally managed to pin down Capitolina, though by the way the wolf woman’s tail was still wagging, she’d been treating it more like a game than a fight.

“Well done, Rosa,” Capi smiled. “Getting better at reading your opponents.”

“Or you at least,” Rosa said before looking at Torleif. “You said you want to go, short stuff?”

“Ya!” Torleif said, dropping her hammer to the ground at the edge of the ring and rolling up her sleeves. “And don’t call me short!”

After a bit of stretching both of them bent low on either side of the ring. Torleif charged, ready to throw all her weight against Rosa, only to find the taller girl skillfully maneuvering her out of the way, and soon Torleif felt her chest being slammed into the hard earth.

“H-hey!” She shouted angrily, getting her feet under her to push Rosa off of her.

“Want to give it another try?” Rosa smiled, and again Torleif charged her, and again she was on the ground in mere moments.

“Heh, you fight like Rosa did when I met her,” Capi chuckled as Torleif struggled to escape the pin.

“Grrr…whaddya mean?” Torleif said, still wriggling in Rosa’s grasp. “I’m stronger than her!”

“Probably,” Rosa smiled. “But you fight like a charging bull.”

“She’s using your strength against you,” Capi said, more gently. “You’re off balance when you charge, and with your height, you’d have an advantage if you keep your footing and leveraged your strength right. What was that saying, Rosa? The Greek said it.”

“Give me a firm place to stand and I will move the world,” Rosa said. “Fighting’s more than throwing a hard punch, and I’ve got the bruises to show it. Want to go another round?”

Torleif grumbled, already red with embarrassment and not sure she wanted to continue.

“You can do it Torleif!” Echo’s call from the nearby stands only made her face redder. She hated being embarrassed like this, but Echo was cheering for her, and she couldn’t give the nymph a bad impression of her first champion!

“Alright!” Torleif got up. “Let’s keep going.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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