Vesta’s Fire: A Tale of the Eternal Republic — Part Eight

Madame Henriette de France as a Vestal Virgin by Jean-Marc Nattier

*VIII*

They ran for the rest of the day, stopping only occasionally to rest within dense shrubs or behind large trees. Once, they heard shouts off to the north and the whine of pistols and rifles. The birds went quiet for long minutes, and when the sounds of the jungle returned Camilla discovered that she was crying.

She angrily scrubbed at her cheeks and quickened her steps. Ravan and Niobe and Palladius — and the pilots; she had never even learned their names. Their deaths would not be a waste, would not be pointless. She would escape the Imperialists with Micah. They would reach the safety of Mons Murcia. She would relight the hearth of Vesta. And whoever had betrayed them, whoever had laid the ambush that brought down the Virgo Secunda — Camilla’s jaw tightened. Whoever that was would pay very dearly indeed.

Micah led her down into a crescent-shaped depression created by a pile of fallen, hollowed out trees and roots. He ducked his head, scowled, kicked something aside with his boot, and motioned her to follow him inside the grotto.

“This should work as shelter for the night.” He reached over to the bag she still carried and hoisted out a pair of small flashlights. He gave one to her and together they slowly explored the space.

It was a rough sphere, flattened out on the bottom, slightly deeper on the right. Roots of every size and shape dangled from the ceiling and poked out of the walls. An abandoned insect nest covered part of the wall to her left and there were feathers and bird bones scattered around the floor.

Micah nodded again. His voice was low, just above a whisper. “Yes, this will definitely work. There’s a blanket in the bag, but we won’t be able to build a fire and I don’t want to risk a heat stone in case they have thermal scanners.”

Camilla dumped the bag on the floor. Her arms and shoulders ached and her knees were shaking. She dropped to the ground, chest tight with fear and exhaustion. “I’m not cold,” she finally managed to say.

There was a pause, then he knelt beside her and flipped open the bag. He pulled out a pouch of nutrition water and a single nutrition bar. “We’ll have to make do with these, unless you want to eat some of the meals raw.”

She shook her head. When she tried to reach for the pouch, her hand was trembling so badly that it slipped from her fingers. He caught it, unscrewed the cap, and held it up for her. Too exhausted and thirsty to feel embarrassed, she closed her lips around the spout and started to drink — only to gag and nearly spit the water out. She swallowed and wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. “That is vile.”

He grinned, eyes lightening with humor. “You get used to it. As part of our training, lictores are dumped on Mars with a single pouch of nutrition water and a knife and we’re expected to survive for a week.”

She took another tentative swallow, grimacing. “That sounds awful.”

He shrugged. “It’s one of the first tests. Only about half the candidates pass. The rest tap their emergency beacons and are shipped home.”

Her hands were steadier now, so he handed her the pouch and dug out one for himself.

“You passed.” She took another sip, grimaced, and swallowed.

He settled down next to her, back to the wall so that he faced the entrance to the grotto. “Barely. I ran into a pack of feral hogs on my third night. I have a scar here.” He lifted his left forearm. “And another here.” He pointed to his left thigh, then grinned. There was pride and satisfaction in his expression. “I kept one of the tusks as a trophy.”

Camilla managed not to choke. “You surprise me, Micah ben Gideon.”

“… Do I?”

“Yes. All the years we have known one another …. You were always so quiet. I believe this is the most we have ever spoken to one another.” She took another swig, then closed the pouch and leaned up against the wall beside him. Outside, the light fell as night descended. The alien music of birds and insects changed: screeches mixed with humming, ululating whistles mixed with high pitched buzzing.

“The ship ….” She hesitated, trying to find the right words. They stuck in her throat and she had to force them out. “It looked so much like Valentia. My mother realized what was happening, after the first explosion. She pushed me down, covered me with her own body. People were running, panicking. And then another flitter crashed and another, and buildings were on fire and people and — It was like Valentia.”

She was too sad, too tired, too angry to care that she was weeping. Her eyes and cheeks felt hot and snot ran from her nose. She didn’t protest when he pulled her into his arms. She wept until her throat was raw and her eyes stung. When she finally stopped, still curled up against him, the grotto was completely dark.

“How did the Imperialists know?” she asked quietly.

He rubbed his thumb across her arm. “Our mission was covert, our route unregistered. We had no contact with anyone once we left Terra Mater. That means their only opportunity to strike was on our final approach to Venus, en route to meet our escort. Which means someone told them when and where the escort would be waiting.”

“And that information was known to very few people.”

“Very few.” His hand lifted, his fingers brushing through one of the many curls which were poking out of her head covering. “What did you mean when you said that one of your daughters had betrayed you?”

She tilted her head back, frowning up at him. “What?”

“On the ship. Treachery. My daughter has betrayed me. That’s what you said.”

Camilla pulled away, still frowning. Heat. She remembered heat and anger, a righteous rage that threatened to boil up out of her body. She pressed a hand to her heart. “It was Vesta,” she whispered. “Vesta spoke through me.”

“I thought only the Maxima could carry the Goddess.”

Camilla shook her head slowly. “Others have, though it is rare. The Goddess chooses who she will.” She licked her lips. “The traitor is a Vestal, one of my sisters. Maxima Lucia was right: this was a deliberate act. The Imperialists extinguished the flame — exterminated the holy fire to draw her out.” Her eyes widened. A chill ran through her body, leaving only her heart warm. “It should have been the Maxima who carried the flame. They were after her.

Micah took a careful sip of water. “Why did she choose you to go in her stead?”

“I — My term of service is coming up. Twenty years. I am undecided.” She dropped her gaze and fiddled with the water pouch. “I have seen nothing of the rest of the Republic. I entered the Aedes Vestae in Roma when I was eleven and I have never left it. No doubt she thought that, if I saw something of another world, if I got away from the temple for a time, it would help me to decide.”

“And has it?”

She snorted a laugh. “At the moment, I would happily crawl back into my bed and never leave it again.”

The corner of his mouth twisted up into a half smile. “I rather felt the same when I stepped onto Terra Mater for the first time.” He tucked the water pouch back into the bag and pulled out a nutrition bar. He ripped open the package and handed her half of the heavy, crunchy, dark blue slab.

Too bright, too loud, too warm,” she repeated.

“Mmm. We went to Roma first to stay with my mother’s cousin. Verydifferent from a small trading vessel that never held more than fifty people. And yes, I did hide in my room for the first month; it was quiet and small. My father finally got sick of it and dragged me out to the Forum.” He paused, chewing on the bar, his eyes downcast.

“And?” she prompted.

He hesitated again, drew a breath, and blurted, “I saw you.”

Camilla blinked. “Me?”

His mouth curled up again, but this time it was tinged with self-ridicule. “Looking back, you must have been eighteen or so at the time. You were standing on the steps of the temple, Vesta’s flame dancing in your hand, blessing an old man. He was shaking, but your hands, your touch, calmed him. I just stood there, staring at you. You finally looked up and saw me.” He shook his head. “I must have looked so ridiculously out of place, because you smiled at me and said, Do not fear. This is the heart of the Republic. You are safe here.

Silence filled the grotto.

Camilla rolled the last of the nutrition bar between her fingers, staining them a light blue. Shame crawled along the edges of her exhaustion. “I’m sorry. I do not remember that.”

“No, I expect not.” There was no bitterness in his voice.

“Is that why you competed to become one of the Me’a? Because of me?”

He lifted his head then, eyes dark, and she saw there a love that was selfless and quiet and yet so fierce, so ardent that it made her breath catch and the flame in her heart snap and burn even hotter.

“Why are you telling me this?” she whispered.

“Because I am selfish. I am afraid that I will not be able to protect you. I am afraid that I will die and that I will have been too much of a coward to tell you the truth.”

She opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again. She licked her lips, looked away.

Outside, birds whistled and chirped loudly, swooping to catch insects.

Loud grunts and a guttural squeal.

Camilla tensed as Micah rose to his feet and moved towards the entrance. He tilted his head, waiting.

Another grunt.

Rustling in the undergrowth, followed by snuffling and whoofs.

Micah drew his knife.

Camilla grabbed the bag, flipping it closed, and moved deeper into the grotto, pressing her back to the wall on the far right side. She strained her neck, trying to see through the opening to the upper lip of the depression.

Micah backed up slowly until he stood in the shadows in front of her. He crouched suddenly and Camilla held her breath.

A hog appeared on the far ledge, starlight dappling its hide. It was massive, easily half the size of a horse. Two sharp tusks jutted from its jaws and it clawed at the ground with pointed hooves. Its nose twitched. It lifted its head, sniffing left, right. A rough squeal made her flinch and a second hog appeared, then a third. More sniffling, the hogs twisting in circles.

With a last grunt, they moved away, shrubs rustling and creaking with their passage.

Micah sighed low, touched her hand, and motioned for her to sit.

She lowered herself to the ground, Micah joining her a moment later. He pressed a finger to his lips and she nodded. Hugging the bag to her chest, she drew up her knees, and closed her eyes. She slept and dreamt of fire.

[End Part Eight. Continue to Part Nine.]

[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published poems and stories can be found there.]