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

Vestal Virgin by Pompeo Marchesi

*IX*

Micah stood high in a tree, the branch bouncing beneath his weight. Morning sunlight fell across the canopy, turning the leaves gold and crimson. The sky shifted from black to garnet to pale red as the sun rose above the western horizon. Far to the east, where it was still dark, he caught flashes of light: a city, though which he was not sure. Mons Murcia or Rosa, perhaps.

He had told her.

And to the west, glinting in the new light, a tower. It soared above the trees, antennae jutting from all angles.

A communications tower.

The city, he judged, was a good three to four days through the jungle. The tower, five or six days.

Selfish coward.

Scowling at himself, he carefully climbed down the tree, branch to branch until he reached the last one. The whole time, he could feel her watching him, waiting for him at the base of the tree. He dangled for a moment, then dropped, leaving deep footprints in the jungle dirt.

“We have two options,” he began immediately. “There’s a city to the east, and a communications tower to the west. The city is closer.”

“Then we should go there.” She frowned at his hesitation. “Or not?”

“The tower might be better. The Imperialists will expect us to head for the safety of the city. We don’t know their numbers, but it’s likely most of them are concentrated in the jungle around the city. The tower is further away — five or six days — but we can signal for help when we get there.”

“And rescue? They’re already looking for us, aren’t they?”

“Without doubt. But they may not know where to look. They may not even realize that we’ve crashed on Venus, and think that we were lost en route from Terra Mater.”

She bit her lip and dropped her eyes to the ground. He knew that expression and was ready when she squared her shoulders a moment later and gave a decisive nod of her head.

“The tower it is, then. Lead the way.”

***

They spoke little while they walked. The Vestal had hiked up her dress and tied it around her waist, leaving her bodysuit to protect her legs from the prickly shrubs, sharp leaves, and biting insects. They stopped once to share a blue nutrition bar, and then again when they heard hogs rooting around in the underbrush. After a few minutes, the animals wandered away, squealing at one another and frightening the birds.

“I am really beginning to dislike them,” Camilla whispered.

Micah snorted softly. “Be glad we have only the pigs to worry about. My fourth night on Marts, I ran into a pack of wild canines.”

“Did you keep their teeth as a trophy, too?”

“Didn’t need to. I fed them pig.”

***

They took shelter for the night against a stand of boulders. Water and wind had worn a pocket between two of them which was just wide enough for the Vestal to curl up, the blanket beneath her head, the bag of supplies pressed against her belly.

Micah lay down outside the hollow, a knife in his hand.

“Domina?”

“… Yes?”

“How long can you safely carry Vesta’s flame?”

She did not answer for long minutes. He twisted his head around. Starlight filtered through the trees, providing just enough illumination for him to see her eyes widen. She squeezed the bag.

“I don’t know. In the early days of the Republic, Vestals carried the flame from city to city on horseback or by chariot; but they had to rest frequently. No Vestal that I know has carried the holy flame for more than a few days.”

His hand tightened on his knife.

“Micah?”

“Yes, Domina?”

“I am sorry that I do not remember the first time we met.”

“… Go to sleep, Domina. We have a long walk ahead of us.”

“Micah?”

“Yes, Domina?”

“I am glad that you are here with me.”

“… As am I. Good night, Domina.”

***

The next day, he killed a pig.

It charged at them out of the brush, squealing and grunting. Two broken tusks curled up from its jaw, and scars covered its hide.

Camilla screamed as it suddenly appeared, hooves chewing up the dirt. It lunged straight for her, eyes glinting.

With a shout, Micah threw himself at the creature, a knife in each hand. He caught it on the flank, ripping up with the blade. The hog bellowed and twisted, trying to gore him. He threw himself out of the way, stabbed again, ripping as Camilla danced around trees, trying to stay out of reach of the mad animal.

With a final whine and bleeding badly, it stumbled into the undergrowth, bushes trembling in its wake.

Camilla fell to her knees at his side, panting. Her eyes were wide. She tore off her headcloth, frantically wiping at the red splotches on his armor and bodysuit. “Are you well? Are you hurt? Where are you hurt?” Her voice rose in pitch with every question.

He shoved his knives point-first into the ground and caught her hands. “Domina! Domina, I am fine! See? Not my blood.”

She stilled, fingers curled into fists, chest heaving. He could see the flame licking out from between her breasts and her eyes nearly glowed.

He raised one hand to touch her cheek. She blinked rapidly, the heat receding.

“I am well, Domina. We are both well.”

She stared at him, her eyes roving across his face. “… Yes. Yes, of course.” She slid free of his grasp and stood, unsteady. Her dark hair a sweaty mess around her head and shoulders, she shoved the headcloth into the bag. She ran the back of her hand across her eyes and backed away a few more steps. “Let us continue, then, shall we?”

He pulled his blades from the dirt, cleaned them on his arm, and slid them back into his boots. With a last glance at her averted face, he walked towards the west.

[End Part Nine. Continue to Part Ten.]

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