The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 49

 

The days were growing shorter and darker as the Second Legion continued its hard march north. It was autumn and they knew the days would be growing colder, but it was quickly becoming clear that this would be the coldest and darkest winter in centuries. Every day the sky was hidden by thick dark grey clouds and every night they could barely even make out the moon. Gisela called it the start of the Fimbulwinter, another sign that they were running out of time. If Nidhoggr wasn’t destroyed then this winter would last for years.

The raids were growing worse as well. The daytime was relatively peaceful, and the legion made good progress as they forded rivers and marched through fields and forests. At night, however, the beasts that were gathering at Nidhoggr’s summons surrounded their camp. They had wooden walls, a palisade of sharpened stakes they could set up each evening like one of Caesar’s own legions, but they weren’t fighting off barbarian hordes in the darkness. Each night they would come under attack as monsters and cacodaemons crawled out from the shadows of the night. Cat and the other mages and champions patrolled when they could at night, but they needed to sleep as well, and the camp was large. Every night, the monsters grew bolder and they would lose people, people from Rome or beyond who would not be going back home. The closer they got to Nidhoggr’s infernal gathering point, the higher the casualties rose.

Cat felt her sword slice through the throat of a monstrous wolf. It had been trying to claw over the wall, and with a running leap, it might have made it. It was easily the size of Giovanni in his full form, but far more vicious in appearance with oversized teeth and claws. Black blood spilled across the floor of the guard tower as it slumped down the wall into the ditch below among its brethren. Cat let out a sigh of exhaustion, leaning on the edge of the tower’s railing as she looked out across the wall. Lit by torchlight were scores of monstrous bodies, the corpses of failed attacks against the palisade in dozens of different forms. Legionnaires patrolled the wall with long spears and stood at the guard towers like hers to repel any attack. But now, in the shadow of their enemy, the attacks were relentless. Cat looked northward, and while she couldn’t see it through the thick trees, she could sense the Brocken ahead of them, the Bald Mountain looming on the horizon.

It was October 29th; they were running out of time.

“Cat,” Cat turned and saw Nicomede climbing up the guard tower to meet her.

“Midnight already?” Cat asked, stretching her sore arms.

“Comes quickly, I know,” Nicomede said, looking over the wall to the fallen bodies of monsters below. “I’ve never seen it this bad…”

“Do you need help?” Cat asked.

Nicomede smiled at her. “I’ll manage just fine, Cat. You need rest. Go and get some sleep.”

“Right…” Cat nodded. Leaving him as she wearily climbed down to the camp and walking towards her tent.

She was tired, that much couldn’t be denied. Her limbs ached and she wanted nothing more than to sleep to take the edge off of the worst of it. But just because she was physical fatigued didn’t mean she could easily find peace enough to sleep.

She wandered into her tent and lied down on the cot and old bedroll. The night was cold, and they were lucky to have enough blankets to go around, but Cat was still shivering as she stared upwards at the roof of her tent.

The sounds of monsters being killed at the walls was muffled here, but she could still hear the howling coming up from the woods beyond their camp, and the quiet sense of dread that hung over everyone and everything.

Cat wanted to sleep, knew she needed to, but she couldn’t.

“Having difficulties, my dear Catarina?”

Cat stood up on her cot and turned to see Scheherazade sitting next to her, lounging in a large and opulent armchair as she watched Catarina.

“Schehera?” Cat asked blearily. “I thought you were going to stay in Rome?”

“I go where you go, Catarina. You did summon me after all. I just thought it best to lay low, so you could save your strength.”

“Ah,” Cat said. “Then why did you…show up?”

“It’s clear you weren’t going to be sleeping easily,” She said. “I thought I might be of help.”

“Do you have a sleeping potion or something?” Cat asked.

“Not quite.” With a wave of her hand, the cot had become an opulent bed of soft down and warm blankets.

Cat almost sank into the comfortable bed. It was too soft to be believed and she wanted nothing more than to spend all night in it. But it wouldn’t make sleep any easier.

“Mmm, it’s not the cot…though this is nice,” Cat said.

Scheherazade moved, the armchair vanishing as she took a seat on the bed next to Catarina. “I didn’t think it would be. Talk to me, Catarina.”

“I just…it’s everything,” Cat said. “I don’t…I don’t even know if I’ll be alive in two days. I’ve got this whole huge battle and, like, I know what they say, that you never know when you’ll wander out and get hit by a bus but…I could die…and the odds aren’t that much in my favor and there’s…”

“There’s Rosaria,” Scheherazade said.

“Yeah,” Cat nodded. “What if I died? Ugh I should have waited. What that would do to her?”

“Shhhhh,” Scheherazade reached down to stroke her hair. “Rosa knows what’s at stake, and I saw your little confession, she wasn’t about to stop because of that.”

“Oh Gods you saw that?” Cat pulled her head under the covers, face red.

“I’m afraid so, Catarina. Though it really as quite endearing.”

“Mmm…did you think I did the right thing?”

“Catarina, I have never seen you do something more right,” Scheherazade said.

“Do you have any advice, Schehera?” Cat asked. “Just…I need something that will help.”

“I can’t imagine the anxiety you’re feeling, the worry, the fear…but Catarina…is there anything on your path that you regret? It was a long road that brought you here, and you made many decisions to stay on this path, even when you knew where it might lead you.”

Cat was silent for a long time as she thought over Schehera’s words. Was there anything that she had regretted?

Three years ago, she had left her family estate after hiding inside for three weeks. She had chosen to venture out into Rome in search of food. There she’d meth Hildegard, and from there she’d met Hanne, Capitolina, Schehera, and Angel. She’d decided to train, to become a combat mage like Hildegard so that she could be like a knight, like a hero.

That had led her to Sicily, to Vittorio and Lana, the first real people she’d really helped save. She hadn’t done all that much, she wasn’t the hero of that story, but she had helped and it had earned her the sword she still carried with her, the sword she had insisted be made from the feather of a Primordial, the one weapon that could defeat Nidhoggr.

Training with that sword, to be the best fighter she could, had led her to meet Rosa. Scheherazade had brought her in touch with Asha, and through them Cat had learned how much it truly meant to her to help people. She’d helped inspire Asha to be a hero and helped Rosa overcome her grief to be…well to be the person Cat fell in love with.

Cat squirmed under her sheets. She didn’t regret any of it. Sure, she’d acted a bit like a kid now and then with her head in the clouds, but she’d still been learning. She could have turned back at any time. She could have been a more traditional mage and stayed safe in Rome with Albion. She could have accepted Angel’s warning and found another magic focus for her sword. She could have taken Gisela’s warning to heart and abandoned her quest, given up on being a hero and all the danger that entailed.

“No,” Cat said slowly, looking up at the ceiling of the tent. “I don’t…I don’t regret any of it, Schehera. Not a single choice, and not a single moment. I’m anxious, I’m terrified, more scared than I’ve ever been but…there’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now. There’s no choice that I would change. This is where my road was always going to lead, I think.”

“I knew it would,” Schehera said. “From the day I met you I knew that this is where you’d be. The sword of humanity against the darkness. It’s where you belong, and I know you’ll do marvelous things, Catarina.”

“Mmm…” Cat felt her anxiety wane a little under Schehera’s gaze, but she still felt it, that same fear clawing at her heart.

“Hey Schehera,” Cat said. “Can you tell me a story? Just…any story?”

Scheherazade smiled, her very essence seeming to glow. “That, my dear Catarina, is one thing I can absolutely do.”

Scheherazade started telling her a story, not a grand or epic story, but a small story. It concerned a farmer, his son, and a magic sheep. Cat wasn’t paying attention to the details, it could have been any story really. She was just lost in Scheherazade’s soft and comforting voice.

Before the story could end, Scheherazade smoothly worked it into the beginning of another one, never letting the conclusion come so Cat could keep listening to her voice. It wasn’t a story Cat knew, but not one so gripping that she hung on every word. It was a story that was comfortable and quiet, one you tell to a child who doesn’t need excitement, just one that needs to fall asleep.

One story wove into another, and then another, the narrative gliding like a river through the tent as it suffused it with a sense of peace. In the tent, at that moment, everything worked out just fine and all the characters were happy.

Before long, Cat had drifted off to sleep, and Scheherazade smiled quietly at the irony. Long ago, a woman with nothing but stories and her voice had kept a brutal king awake for a thousand and one nights. Now, she had brought a hero to sleep in just a few minutes. Perhaps she really wasn’t as good as the real thing, but she had been exactly what Catarina needed.

“And then,” Scheherazade said, watching the soundly sleeping Catarina. “They all lived happily ever after.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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