Woman on Fire

Pewter and Iron was a story that kind of came out of nowhere but I left a hook for a sequel in the middle of it subconsciously. While I have a lot of other Nerona stories I’d like to share at some point I actually got to that sequel before any of them so here it is. Once again we change viewpoints. Caesar’s Company is an idea I had from the inception of Nerona but my original purpose was to tell stories about it from Caesar’s point of view. It turns out several of his subordinates were very interesting on their own. The one outside of Caesar himself that really grabbed my imagination was Tiberius Twice and it turns out he’s the one you get to hear about first.

Among the many mercenary companies of Nerona’s condottieri there were many strange tales and legendary names. The Carrion Drunkard, a manlike thing they said appeared on battlefields offering drink to wounded soldiers, only to reveal its wineskin was full of blood rather than the fruit of the vine. The Conte Vemici, who held Paloma Bridge against an army of a thousands. For Tiberius Twice the one that loomed largest in his mind was his own captain, Caesar Shieldbreaker, who had led his condottieri to victory in dozens of conflicts for nearly fifteen years.

The one most spoken of as a frustration and a trial was Benicio Gale. With his green right arm and gift to command the winds as his own breath, Benicio cut a gallant figure wherever he turned up, which was almost always some small village or out of the way estate. Over the last four years he’d come from nowhere and built himself an ever growing reputation as the frustration of regular soldiers and mercenaries alike, blowing whole companies of men off of mountainsides or into rivers whenever they happened to threaten his current employer. He tended to work alone or with one or two other bravos.

Worst of all, he was cheap. A man with his talents could command a prince’s fortune for his services but Benicio avoided the castles and city squares of Nerona in favor of selling his services to provincial mayors and town councils at a fraction of their worth. All of which made it a surreal experience to clamber through the ruins of Troas with him. Tiberius found himself watching Benicio as they picked their way through an alley between two ruined houses that had long since collapsed in on themselves, leaving chest high walls looking over small piles of rubble and dust that might have once been furniture or people.

The bravo was surprisingly normal, strange arm aside. About five foot eight inches tall, dark, curly hair, hard brown eyes like a rock that had been kicked back and forth across cobbled streets for its whole life, Benicio looked much like the average Neronan peasant. However, to Tiberius’ trained eye, the way he moved through the ruins told a different story. Romanticists talked about bravos as stalkers, predators, creatures on the prowl for profit and fame, but Benicio was none of those things. He was a lookout. Measured movements, designed to give him a solid view of his surroundings, interspersed with small but precise advancements that brought him to the limit of his vigilance before he stopped to reconnoiter things again.

“There.” Benicio paused and pointed towards a sinkhole fifty or sixty feet ahead of them, in the middle of a small square. Tiberius was no expert but he guessed the sinkhole was originally a well back when Troas was an inhabited city. Before the Gulf of Lum drowned half of it.

It was very early in the morning, shortly after daybreak, and the hard shadows left in the wake of the King of Dawn made it so Tiberius had to squint to figure out what Benicio was pointing at. Finally he determined that several scorch marks ringed the sinkhole. “You think your compatriot left those?” He asked. “I suppose his gift was a Flame Hand or Flame Heart?”

“She is a Flame Heart,” Benicio said, loosening his rapier in its sheath.

“Well, in either case you can go down after her first so she doesn’t just incinerate us when we look over the edge,” Tiberius said mildly. “Unless you plan to just stab her?”

Benicio gave him a disturbed look. “Why would I do that?”

“I don’t know, you’re the one with your hand on your sword.”

“Because the only reason for that kind of scorching is because she was fighting with something when she went down that hole.”

Tiberius laughed. “Are you sure about that? I heard you blew her off the battlefield back there yourself and she went laughing. Maybe she just likes burning things.”

“If you’re not here to help you didn’t have to come.”

He turned serious immediately. “No. The Prince of Torrence pays our captain and you are on the Prince’s land under arms without permission. We’re being kind enough to let you find your friend. But Caesar isn’t going to let you or the Blacklegs with you run around on your own. We’d loose our commission.”

“Can’t have you not getting your blood money,” Benicio muttered.

“Spoken like a true bravo.” Tiberius grinned. “If you were ever a condottieri you would know the best commissions are those where the fighting never starts. Although given your reputation I’m surprised you’d object. I’d wager you’ve killed more people in the last year than I have and you’ve done it for far less pay than us. You do realize that cheap murder is going to be more common that the expensive variety?”

Benicio gave him a sly look. “Of course. Why do you think I’ve spent so much of my time making it so expensive for you to fight wars in the countryside?”

“Touche.” Honestly, Tiberius had never thought of the matter that way. Most condottieri believed bravos did what they did because they weren’t able to get along with others and so had to make their way by using their powers of annoyance for their employers. Apparently one, at least, had deeper reasons for what he did. “So who is your friend?”

“Belladonna is not exactly a friend,” Benicio said as they approached the sinkhole. “She’s just someone my employer assigned me to help with this job. I think she was a failsafe, since she can’t be burned to death or torn to pieces she’s guaranteed to be able to report our failure and the ultimate fate of our objective.”

“Did either of you know it was a dragon’s egg?”

“I didn’t. She might have.” Benicio offered an eloquent shrug. “With her, I never know for sure. All women are an exquisitely crafted puzzle but she is exceptional in both appearance and bafflement. I’ll be glad to send her back with news of our failure and be done with it. This whole job has been more trouble than its worth.”

Tiberius sensed he wasn’t entirely sincere although he wasn’t sure whether it was the job or the parting of ways Benicio was hedging on. “I suppose you won’t tell us who is paying your fee? The Prince will probably pay us a bonus if we can tell him. I’m sure Captain Caesar would split it with you if you were willing.”

“No. Bravos do not change sides as easily as your lot, for one, and for another I don’t know how long I would live after I betrayed this particular patron.” Benicio casually waved his hand in a dismissive way. “It is what it is.”

The two of them crouched down and looked over the sinkhole. It was pretty much what you would expect. About a quarter of the opening was still lined with worked stone, just like you would expect to see around a well. The rest was a rough edged tunnel that vanished into the dark about eight or nine feet down. Benicio dug into a pack he had brought with him and pulled out a rag and a small clay bottle with a cork stopper. He doused the rag in a strong smelling oil, wrapped it around a branch and lit it, then tossed it down the hole.

The makeshift torch landed about twelve feet down on a rough stone surface. From their viewpoint at the top it was difficult to see more than twenty or thirty square feet around where the torch landed but it all looked the same. Fairly dry stones piled randomly after the sinkhole collapsed in. The two men exchanged a quick glance then Tiberius offered the other a sweeping gesture, as if to say after you. Benicio took a deep breath and jumped straight down.

As his feet passed through the sinkhole he breathed out with the force of a hurricane, the tempestuous blast from his mouth slowing his fall to the speed of a downy feather dropping from a passing bird. It would’ve been impressive to see if the wind hadn’t blown the torch out and left the chamber below in darkness. Or at least that’s what it looked like at first. After a few seconds Tiberius’ eyes adjusted to the change of lighting and he realized he could see a dim glow coming from off to the left of the sinkhole. Peering over the ledge he called, “What do you see, Gale?”

The only response was a barely audible, “Shh!”

That probably wasn’t a good sign. Looking around he spotted an old stone trough sitting on stout stone legs and quickly passed a rope around it as an anchor. Then he went back to the sink hole, laid a cloth over the edge for the rope to run across so it wouldn’t get damaged and let himself down. Benicio made his descent easier by slowing it down. Tiberius planned to get down by doing just the opposite.

He wasn’t sure where the Gift called Twice at Once got it’s name but it – both Gift and name – had proven very difficult for him when he was young. He was never sure why playing games with other kids left him so tired. He also didn’t understand why catching things, running footraces and winning stick fights was so difficult for the others. The fact that simple tasks like these were so simple for him but he had no apparent Gift made him a target of both loathing and envy in his home town.

It wasn’t until he met Caesar Shieldbreaker a decade ago that he met someone who understood it. That was how he started his time as a condottieri. He’s learned fencing, campaigning and the mastery of his Gift, seen Caesar go from a well known captain to the foremost captain in the nation. But most of all he’d learned to live two seconds in one.

As Tiberius gently let himself down the rope he breathed deep and focused, watching the small pebbles that slid off the lip of the sinkhole with him slow their descent. By the time he reached the bottom they had only fallen half the distance. He quickly slid off to one side of the hole, his head swiveling about as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. He caught sight of Benicio a few steps ahead but there wasn’t much else around them. The rocky ground around them gave way to a pool of water off to the west and a tunnel that led and inland roughly north northeast.

Tiberius let his focus slip and caught his breath. Barely ten seconds had passed for the rest of the world and he had lived twenty but it exhausted him like he had spent a full minute running. Benicio glanced over his shoulder. “Are you alright?”

“For now. Did you find any more signs of your friend?”

“Scorch marks leading off that way,” Benicio said, pointing off to the northeast, “but more than that, listen.”

Tiberius cocked his head, wondering what he was on about, but as his heartbeat slowed he understood. The faint strains of lute and violin were drifting through the cavern. His heart sank into his boots as Tiberius realized he’d stumbled on yet another tall tale from the darkest parts of Nerona. “The Fair Folk.”

“Either that or pirates are using the ruins as a shelter, they’re equally likely options.”

“How many pirate crews do you know that could contain a Flame Heart?”

“Okay. Probably the Fair Folk.” Benicio pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers. “Zalt. She had to go and find the only nest of Fair Folk in a hundred miles of the Gulf.”

“They’re playing music.” Tiberius shook his head. “Have you heard what they do to people who interrupt their music? They’ll find our skeletons here a hundred years from now!”

“I have to bring her back.”

“I don’t know who your patron is, Benicio Gale, but he or she is not as likely to leave you dead as the Fair Folk when you intrude on their revelry.”

Benicio started grimly towards the sound of music. “There’s more to it than the job. Her mind isn’t well, Tiberius Twice, and I promised I would help it heal. You won’t understand it but I swore it on my arm and that’s something I can’t take back. Besides, I don’t care how ‘fair’ they think they are I can’t leave her to the tender mercies of those people. You don’t have to come.”

For a long moment Tiberius hesitated, looking back to the rope and then towards Benicio over and over again. Ultimately, the condottieri was wrong. His captain had given him an order and, for Tiberius, that meant he did have to come. So he steeled himself and followed reluctantly after Benicio.

Halfway down the tunnel Tiberius’ ears popped and the rough tunnel under his feet transformed into a paved brick hall with torches in sconces along the walls. They’d crossed a portal to the lands of the Folk. No turning back now. The brick opened up into a huge hall full of the strange, near-human creatures that the people of Nerona called Fair.

Not because they were beautiful, however. The doorway they passed through was flanked by two eight foot tall creatures who’s legs were longer than Tiberius was tall, who’s bodies were barely present and who’s hands barely came down past their hips but had fingers that hung to their knees. A small bump on top of their round torsos sported huge, bushy eyebrows nearly covering small, beady eyes. The music was coming from creatures with round bodies wearing ladybug cloaks. Black, clattering claws plucked at lute strings and pulled bows across odd, misshapen violins.

All up and down the hall waltzed equally strange creatures. They were a riot of misproportioned limbs, insect wings, bushy fur, extra eyes and any number of other wild and outrageous elements. Only one of them was human. It was hard for Tiberius to tell much about her since she was made entirely of living fire and throwing off waves of heat as she danced and writhed to the tune of the music. The Fair Folk clustered around her, approaching her one at a time to try and dance. However Belladonna showed no concern for any of them, her own bizarre dance leading her across the floor in unpredictable patterns that forced most of them to pull away or get burned.

One of the towering guard Folk peered down at Benicio and Tiberius, speaking in a surprisingly booming voice. “Ho, there, mortal men and welcome to the celebration.”

Tiberius froze, unsure of what to do in response. The Fair Folk supposedly had their own inviolable rules of culture and propriety but no one was quite sure what they were or when they applied. The few mortal men who had cracked one of the Folk’s rules rarely shared it. Benicio reached up and removed his feathered hat and straightened his doublet. “Forgive our intrusion, Fair one. We meant no offense, only to come and retrieve our friend there. May we?”

“No, no, mortal man.” The guard creature swung its body back and forth in a motion Tiberius chose to interpret as shaking its head in denial. “It is not fair for one to leave the floor before their dance is done! You must let her dance.”

“And how long must she dance?” Benicio asked. Tiberius was sure that the same stories running through his mind was running through the other man’s. Stories about endless dances, enchanted shoes and any other number of bizarre things that had befallen people who stumbled across the revels of the Fair Folk.

“Until the steps are done!” The strange creature laughed. “But alas she is mortal woman and the tunes of the Fair are not known to her, they drive her to strange steps we do not know! Who can dance the whole dance with her? Not I! Perhaps not anyone! Will you?”

Benicio scowled and folded his arms, green over normal, saying, “Dance with her like that? I’d get burned to a crisp. How long will the dance go if no one can match her?”

“How long?” The creatures voice turned confused and one of its spidery, misshapen hands reached up to scratch between its eyebrows. “As I said, until it is done, one way or the other! Nothing else would be fair to her.”

“Zalt!” Benicio spat the word, drawing disapproving looks from the surrounding Folk. “Well, I’ll have to try, I suppose. I can get a little singed if it means-”

“No, mortal man!” The guard creature shook its body once again. “For her own amusement does she dance and we dance to share in it! If you are burned in such a thing how could it be fair? If you are harmed you are not fit to dance with her and must stand aside for a suitable partner.”

Benicio turned incredulous. “What do you mean I can’t get burned? Have you seen her? She’s a Flame Heart in full burn, there’s no way I can keep up with her drunken dancing-”

Tiberius put a hand on his shoulder. “Peace, Benicio. If it will get us out of this hall alive I’ll take care of it.”

With that Tiberius began to shoulder his way through the assembled throng of Fair Folk, doing his best to ignore the strange skins and shells he brushed against, the insectile eyes that turned to him and the strange, unsettling voices that called to him. Finally he reached the dance floor and watched, trying to guess how he took his turn. The Fair Folk seemed to have some kind of method of choosing who would go next but Tiberius watched three dancers go out, get burned and return to the crowd without figuring out what it was. Then one of the Folk next to him nudged him with an fur covered hand. “Go, mortal man,” the creature chirped. “It is time you danced your turn!”

Well, it didn’t make sense but nothing else did so there was nothing to do but give it his best. As he stepped out, Tiberius realized he probably should have watched Belladonna rather than the Folk that danced with her. There was a strange grace to the movements of the woman on fire. When the flickering of the flame mixed with the sensuous movements of a woman’s body and the enchanting strains of the music it was hard to focus. But Tiberius’ whole life was built on focus.

So focus he did, pushing aside the strange creatures, the threat of fire and the potential consequences of failure. He focused and lived twice at once. The flicker of flames slowed, the strains of music turned to mud and the erotic promise of womankind was blunted as its natural sway distorted. Tiberius slid close to the woman called Belladonna and allowed himself to slip into something like a dance. He matched her step for step. He leaned back when she thrust forward, he swayed to counter her dip and he never let himself touch her flame.

Blood rushed through his veins and his heart pounded. But all he had to do was focus. His arms and legs began to burn as the strain of moving them through all that extra time took its toll. Focus kept them moving. The muddy sound of the music swelled then was swallowed by some deeper avalanche of sound. Focus rode above it.

Focus could only last so long. Tiberius sharpened his mind to its utmost and his focus lasted for a count of forty-five. Then fifty. He knew the exact count of the time because he always did. His Gift made it so. The dance continued on. A seventy count, then a hundred went past and still the dance dragged on. Belladonna continued to swing and sway. His arms grew heavier and heavier, his feet refused to move quite like he wanted. Around the edges of his vision the world went out of focus.

Tiberius was not going to last much longer.

Then, just as he stepped forward to match her step back Tiberius felt his focus snap. The swelling music, the cheering crowd, Belladonna’s wild dancing all snapped back to full speed and Tiberius felt his knees shaking as he struggled to control his momentum. Belladonna swung around, shifting her weight forward unexpectedly. With a panicked flailing Tiberius jerked back and tried to keep his balance. Just when he though the woman was going to swipe an arm across his chest and set his doublet alight Belladonna faltered, her body returning to that of a normal woman, and she slumped down.

Tiberius tried to grab her but he didn’t have the strength for it and they both collapsed on the ground. The music hit its last crescendo and the crowd exploded in cheers. Bewildered, Tiberius sat there and cradled his dance partner wondering how he was going to get out of the Folk’s realm if he couldn’t even get his breath and stand. Then the cheering, the music, the dance hall and all it’s Folk vanished. Tiberius and Belladonna were left seated on rough stone with Benicio watching from some fifteen feet away, the echoes of the revel still ringing in their ears.

Tiberius let out a sigh. “We made it.”

The other man approached, his eyebrows raised in recognition of the accomplishment. “That you did. Congratulations, Tiberius Twice, I think you’ve made a name for yourself with that. Not many can say they danced with the Folk and lived to tell about it.”

Tiberius let himself slump down flat on his back. “If this is all it takes to make a name I don’t understand how anyone ever managed it. I feel like a fool. Never let me try a stunt like that again.”

“Oh, I won’t. As I said, Belladonna is my responsibility and I’m in your debt for your help here. I will repay it but I’d rather not owe you anything more.”

“Agreed. I have enough of a name to last a lifetime.”


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