New Directions – Part I

New Directions

The story takes place about twelve years before the events of Murder In Absentia and during 63 BCE in Rome (just after the events of Catilina’s Riddle by Steven Saylor).

This story is fan-fiction. Gordianus the Finder is © Steven Saylor, and is used without permission but with much love and admiration.

Egretia, 523 AUC

Never practice magic when you’re drunk.

I woke up naked, lying on the grass of a clearing next to a tree stump. It looked like a wooded hillside. I had no clue where I was. I only had vague recollections of last night, glimpsed through a miasma of the most horrible headache I have ever experienced.

I remembered coming home after two years with the legions. I don’t know how I ever thought that the legions were a good idea. My life was a mess back then, that’s true, but still. Anyway, four months of grunt training, two years of marching all over the countryside, one battle and one siege. The after-effects of the siege, seeing what legions do when given the command to raze a city, had sobered me up and left me with a distinct desire to be anything but a military man.

I somehow managed to get myself honourably discharged from the legions with my share of the spoils. It involved some fast talking, faked injuries, loaded dice and one live hedgehog, but I managed it. I trekked on foot from my posting in Southern Arbarica all the way back to Egretia, a journey that took me nearly six months.

So naturally one of the first things I did was get together with my old college friend Araxus, and get monumentally pissed. I haven’t seen him all those years, and by now he had completed his studies in the Collegium Incantatorum. He was a full-fledged incantator, starting his life. I got booted out from the collegium after my father lost his business and his life, which led to a year of trying vainly to hold on to life in Egretia and then two more in the legions.

We had a lot of catching up to do. It started with a dinner and some watered wine, continued with some more food and even more wine, and progressed to just wine without the water. At some point Araxus was telling me about his mind-bending studies of the magia inanitas, and I demanded a demonstration. After all that wine we somehow figured that climbing to the top of Mount Vergu was a good place for a demo. So we did. And unfortunately even the exertion of the climb and the crisp night air did not sober us out of our inebriation.

We didn’t climb all the way to the top though, but stopped soon after the wide ledge used for funerals. The path gets narrow after that point, and the moon was on the other side of the mountain. So we found some crevice and stopped, and Araxus tried to show me what he had learnt.

We stood inside the crevice, and while his clear green eyes sparkled in reflected light from the torch I held he started his incantation. Only, he was even drunker than me. I at least, had the benefit of army constitution. He was never much of a drinker.

At first nothing happened. And then the small cave we stood in started to ripple. It wasn’t an earthquake, it was the space of things themselves that bent and moved. I was standing on the ceiling at one point, and Araxus was standing at the wall to my left at a right angle, and all felt normal as if it was meant to be this way.

And then in the midst of his incantation, he hiccoughed. He stopped and looked at me blankly, as purple bubbles started to stream out of his right ear. And then hiccoughed again, and the next thing I know, things were moving very quickly in directions that don’t exist, and I woke up with a most horrible hangover, naked, somewhere very far from where I started.

 

Rome, 63 BCE

 I stood up and brushed bits of grass off me. It was summer, the sun was up and the air was warm. In the distance to one side I saw a small stream, and on the other I could see a proper Egretian road with a small mountain rising behind it. There were two small farmsteads in the distance, one on either side of the ridge I was on.

The countryside did not look familiar though, and I could neither see nor smell the sea. Whatever Araxus had done to us last night, he managed to transport us very far from home.

Speaking of that idiot, I could not see him around. I called and looked around the clearing, but saw no trace of him. Something else was bothering me too, some uncertain feeling I could not quite place. A nagging sensation of something wrong.

It was time I did something about being naked in the woods; I could continue to look for Araxus later. I walked down the ridge toward the farm that looked busier, more inviting.

I had no intention of sneaking in and trying to steal clothes. When one has no means of identifying oneself, there is no point in behaving and presenting like an escaped slave. I walked down a dirt track, and when I reached the bottom I passed a small stele marking a grave. It was marked ‘NEMO’ — ‘no one’ — which I found odd.

I continued on the path toward the house, walking upright like a proper citizen wronged by thieves and robbers. I saw a flurry of activity, carts being loaded; it looked as if the master and his family were going on an extended trip.

A little dark-haired girl aged around seven burst out laughing from a side barn, noticed me coming and stopped to stare.

“Hello,” I said. “Is the master of this farm here?”

The girl turned on her heels and ran inside the barn, yelling “papa, papa! A man is here to see you!”

From within I heard a deep voice respond “How many times do I have to tell you Diana, we have door-slaves for that.” At least the people here spoke Quirite, so Araxus must not have thrown us too far away.

Out walked a man with the child in tow. He stopped to stare for a moment at the visage of a naked man standing on the path to his house. He appeared to be in his late forties, dark hair with silver strands and a classic Egretian bumpy nose.

“Excuse me kind citizen,” I started, “I have been waylaid by robbers on the road last night. I am afraid they were very thorough, and have left me in the buff. I come to beg your assistance to get me on my way home.”

“Let’s get you a tunic first,” said the man, “and we can then talk more.” He turned to the little girl and said, “Diana, please find Meto and ask him to bring me a spare tunic. Please tell him to come himself. Let’s wait inside here,” he said to me, “until my son comes with clothes for you. My name is Gordianus, by the way, sometime called Gordianus the Finder.”

“Thank you Gordianus, my name is Spurius Volpius, known better as Felix the Fox.”

“’Volpius’ — that family name is not from around here. Where are you from, friend?”

“From Egretia. My family has lived there for generations,” I answered.

“’Egretia’? You must be far from home. I do not recall a town by that name, and I thought I have travelled all the main roads around Italy.”

That stunned me for a second. Not only have I never heard of a place called ‘Italy’ anywhere around Nuremata, surely anyone who speaks Quirite would know of Egretia. “You never heard of Egretia?” I blurted out before I could stop myself, “Yet you speak perfect Quirite, with an accent that would place you growing up around the Meridionali or the Subvales.”

Now it was the man’s turn to stare at me silently for a long moment. “I grew up in Rome, on the Esquiline above the Subura,” he told me. “And I speak Latin — no one except high-minded poets has referred to our people as Quirites for centuries.” We stared at each other in silence for a long moment.

We were interrupted by the arrival of a sixteen or seventeen year old boy, who came in bearing a tunic. “Ah, here is my son Meto,” said Gordianus. “Please get dressed and we can go talk in my study.”

***

We sat in Gordianus’ study, the three of us, drinking good wine with cool well-water. The house was being packed and readied to be moved, that much was clear from the activity as we walked through the house.

“You are in luck,” said Gordianus, “or at least some sort of luck, considering your situation. We are moving back to Rome. If you passed here a few nights from now, you would have had to ask help from my neighbours — and they are not kindly disposed to helping strangers.”

“Story of my life,” I said. “I was nicknamed ‘Felix’ as Fortuna looks after me, though I can never tell if it is out of kindness or as a pet for her amusement.”

“Better than the disfavour of the gods,” said Gordianus. His son, I thought, rolled his eyes at that comment. “Better start at the beginning though. Why don’t you tell me about yourself and the situation that brought you here.”

I have always been a bit of a fast-talker, which has gotten me out of — and occasionally into — sticky situations. I hoodwink people as a matter of necessity, and never had qualms about it. But something about the man sitting in front of me gave me the impressions that nothing less than the full truth would be acceptable to him, and I felt like I could open up to him.

“I was born and raised in Egretia, where our people — the Quirites — have lived for over five centuries. I just came back from a campaign with the legions. I got together with my old buddy from the Collegium Incantatorum, and he started to demonstrate an incantation when something went horribly wrong. Next thing I know, I am lying naked on the ridge outside your farm.”

“Meto, what do you make of this?” Gordianus asked his son.

“It’s the wildest story of fancy I have ever heard. I never heard of a place called Egretia, and a college for wizards? We have colleges for priests — the pontifices and augurs — but actual wizards?”

“You have augurs?” I asked. “They are one of the branches of magia in our collegium. Divination was never my strong subject though.”

“Did you study to be an Augur?” asked the father.

“I only covered the basic studies to become an incantator, and thus covered the basics of augury. I never completed my studies, however — I was ejected from the collegium when my father died and I could no longer pay the tuition.”

The son snorted in derision. “He’s a lunatic,” he said.

“Wait,” said Gordianus. “I know this sounds absolutely fantastic, too fanciful to believe. But one should never approach these things with preconceived ideas, or one would never uncover the real truth. Tell me what you see Meto.”

The son fell into a routine, his voice dispassionate as he examined me critically. “He’s healthy. No whip scars, though I saw some scars on his chest that looked like sword wounds. That would lead credibility to his story of legions, rather than an escaped slave. Could be an escaped gladiator though.”

“There’s a band of light-coloured skin on his hand where his citizen’s ring would be,” said Gordianus. “Its loss was recent enough so that it did not fade in the sun. What else can you observe?”

“His speech. Perfectly Roman accent, lower class but educated. Not rural, and decidedly not foreign. I would say coming from a merchant family, possibly of the lower rungs of the knight class.”

I sat quietly throughout this discussion, listening to them talk about me. I found Gordianus’ approach fascinating. Pursuing truth with logical thought, observing first and foremost, before drawing conclusions.

“So what would bring a young educated knight from Rome to declaim stories of foreign places and magic?” Gordianus asked me as much as his son.

“Three options,” I said, joining their game. “Either I am a charlatan with some elaborate scheme; or perhaps I truly believe it, maybe because I have been hit on the head by some robbers; and lastly, I could be speaking the truth.”

“I see no sign of head injuries,” said Meto. “So either you are lying or telling the truth.”

“Let us put it to the test then,” said Gordianus. “Would you be able to perform some magic for us, Felix?”

I was about to answer when that niggardly feeling suddenly took shape in my mind. I now understood what was wrong. Since waking up in this strange place, I no longer felt the course of magia that permeates our world!

***

I stared in shock at Gordianus and Meto. They must have realised that something was wrong from my face, judging by the curious looks they gave me back. I opened my mouth, started, cleared my throat and started again.

“You see, where I come from there is a force that permeates our world. We call it the magia, and incantatores manipulate its flows to cast their charms. One of the first thing in the training of an incantator is learning to sense this, and even see it. We eventually learn to ignore it though — as it’s always just there — unless we consciously concentrate on it. Yet ever since I was cast into your world, I had this feeling of… wrongness, which I could not place. When you asked me just now to demonstrate, I realised I can no longer feel the magia.” I paused for a moment, and the looks on their faces told me I was on the way to be dismissed as a lunatic. Then again, to be in a world devoid of magia sounded like lunacy to me. I could not imagine how they would live their lives.

“Look,” I said, “I realise how this sounds. A man comes, claiming to be from a place you’ve never heard of. But surely this world has something, or we would not have been able to cross. Such things were hypothesised by our philosophers and incantatores, though never conclusively demonstrated. You have already shown me great hospitality. May I indulge you for a bit more? Help me search for my friend, the one who got us here. He is a fully trained incantator, unlike me. He got thrown here, and if we can find him he might be able to make better sense of this.”

“He’s mad,” said Meto.

“Probably,” said his father, “but from my experience in interrogating men, it is clear to me that he absolutely believes what he says, fantastic as it may be. I’ve travelled a lot my son, and have seen some strange things. Most I could explain. Most. Something about him… Anyway, it’s either this or remain in Bethesda’s way in organising the moving of the estate.” Both shivered slightly.

He turned to me. “We are due to leave this place tomorrow, move into our new house on the Palatine. I am willing to help you search for your friend, if only to stay out of my wife’s way when she orders the slaves around in packing everything. After that you are on your own.”

***

We retraced the path I took from the ridge. We searched around the place where I remembered waking up. We could see a disturbance in the ground where I lay, but no other similar traces that might be Araxus.

I pointed to the farm on the other side of the ridge and asked Gordianus about it. His face darkened, and while he would not tell me any details he informed my simply that if I wanted to go ask there I will have to go alone.

While we were standing on top of the ridge a thought struck me. “Are there numina around?”

Both Gordianus and Meto looked at me dumbly. “Gods you mean?” Gordianus asked.

“Yes. Our philosophers debate whether they are the source of magia or are in fact sentient magia in itself. However you want to call it, the places they inhabit can make it easier to perform incantation. Do you know of any place nearby where a numen makes his presence?”

“Completely bonkers,” said Meto.

“Our philosophers debate whether the gods even exist,” said Gordianus gently.

“But if you heard of them, surely you have experienced their presence?” I pleaded desperately. “Iovis Pater of the open skies? Mars of the fields and battles? Fortuna and Quirinus that look after our people?”

Gordianus gazed at me for a moment in silence. I felt like a madman in the forum, trying to convince the passers-by of the impending end of the world. At last Gordianus spoke.

“Yes, these are the gods of our people too. Our people used to call them numina, although these days we refer to them more as gods. Our Augurs interpret their will, reading the auspices to determine their favour.”

“But are there still places where their presence is felt more directly?” I asked. “Like the top of that mountain,” I indicated across the road, “Iovis often resides in places that are open to the vastness of sky and storms.”

For the second time Gordianus’ and Meto’s faces darkened. “That mountain,” said Gordianus, “belongs to one of my unsavoury neighbours as well. If anything, it will have the presence of Hades.”

“Was there a battle there?” I asked, “That caused many deaths?”

“There was a silver mine there, and many slaves died in its operation. There skeletons are still strewn about in the stream that comes off the peak, and many more are buried inside.”

“It sounds similar to Vergu, the mountain above Egretia,” I said. “It is a volcanic peak, and Volcanus still rumbles there occasionally. There are no mines, but we use it often for funerals. In the past we held our funerals on the edge of the crater at the very top, but these days we hold them on a ledge at the foot of the mountain. In fact, it was in a small cave off the track to the top when Araxus cast the infernal spell that sent us here.”

I reached a decision. “I think I will go ask in yonder farm,” I said, “just to be sure Araxus did not pass there. Assuming he had not, I will attempt to go to that mine and perhaps, if I am still a favourite of Fortuna, I will be able to harness any energies that might be there and recreate Araxus’ incantation…” I tried not to think about what I was suggesting.

***

We were at a clearing, about halfway up the mountain, getting a short rest before continuing up. That other farm was a bust of course, its inhabitants as unfriendly as Gordianus implied. There was no sign of Araxus there, and nothing further for me to do. When I returned and asked him for directions to the mine, he said he will accompany me. That got him some scathing remarks from his wife — a dark-haired foreign beauty — but in the end Gordianus told her that he must see this business to its end or be forever plagued not knowing. His wife sighed in resignation, obviously recognising a lost cause. “Just remember that we leave tomorrow at dawn. You better be back here unless you want to walk all the way to Rome,” were her parting words.

Gordianus stood up, and signalled us to continue; the day was getting short. Besides the three of us, Gordianus also conscripted a couple of burly farm slaves to accompany us. All were wearing swords or daggers. Gordianus mentioned in passing that he knew the man who owned the mountain was not there these past few days, but I had no doubts that if we were ambushed I would find a dagger in my back quicker than any explanations.

As we continued climbing we reached a lazy stream. Before we crossed, Gordianus took me away from the path to a small cliff and waterfall. Below us I could see the brook meandering onward. Gordianus pointed at the rocks and bushes at the edge of the stream, and at first I could not see what he was pointing at. Then my eyes focused and the gristly sight popped into my vision. Dozens of skeletons lay broken on the water’s edge. “I think they used this place to throw away bodies of slaves that died carrying the silver,” he said. “There’s plenty more inside though, when they shut off the mine and just left the slaves to die.”

I bent my knees and dipped my fingers into the water. The water was cold, but very faintly I could feel a small tingle that was not entirely due to the temperature. Was it a trace of magia or was I just afflicted with wishful thinking?

 

We got back to the others and went to cross the stream. Gordianus dipped his feet in and exclaimed, “Numa’s balls! Still cold.”

It sounded so much like a curse my friend Crassitius favours — ‘Servilius’ shrivelled scrotum’, Servilius being an old figure in our history — that I asked Gordianus who was Numa. This turned into a discussion about the relative histories and societies of our cities. Some were remarkably similar — both were monarchies in the beginning and republics now, controlled by a senate and elected magistrates; Some were twisted — Rome was founded by a twin who murdered his brother, Egretia founded by three brothers, each with his own proclivities; and some were quite different — the Romans were great engineers but reticent sailors, whereas Egretia had been a maritime culture for centuries.

Most interesting of all was the difference in colleges. Rome had plenty of sodalities, guilds and associations arranged as colleges. Yet they never established the major colleges that controlled the minor ones; no rhones acting as magistrates to regulate them.

In return, I described the workings of our society to Gordianus and Meto. Gordianus seemed to accept me more as my descriptions grew more elaborate; his occupation as ‘Finder’ was to track down items, people, truths. He was used to dealing with mysterious circumstances, and has always used logic to think himself to the solution. While curious, he became lost when I tried to describe the workings of magia that permeate our life.

In this way we climbed for a couple of hours, passing through the forested mountainside, over shallow streams, and up rock stairways. Eventually we came to a short open ledge at the end of which was the dark opening of a disused mine. Gordianus and Meto seemed a bit on edge, as if plagued by unpleasant memories of events that transpired here.

We lit our torches and made our way inside. The wide passage led inside a short way, until it was then blocked with a man-high wall. We clambered on top to the other side and continued down the passageway. At some point we passed a projecting rock from the ceiling, and Gordianus warned us to be careful. We soon reached a branching point and took a narrow side passage.

The passage was not long. We reached a narrow ledge that opened to a vast, dark chasm. As I stood at the lip of the ledge and looked down, I saw mounds of broken skeletons, their white bones reflecting the dim torchlight. There were so many of them, they piled on top of each to obscure the floor and reach half-way up the precipice. When the mines closed, Gordianus explained, the slaves that worked there were simply pushed off the ledge to dispose of them as so much discarded equipment.

There was a chill coming up from the talus of bones, and not just the chill of a mountain cave, or even the chill one feels in the presence of so much death. There was, faintly but unmistakably, that tingling sensation of the skin that comes in the presence of magia.

 

I never got to complete my studies, I only covered the basics. The magia inanitas that Araxus used was an advanced subject. It is a mind-bending discipline, and not all who study it retain their sanity.

I sat down on the lip of the ledge, the others standing behind me. I tried to recall the teachings of my magister at the collegium. I tried to recall the chants and workings of Araxus. Mostly I tried to recall — from that night of extreme inebriation — what it felt like. That was the key to recreating the effect; that, as well as focusing on Egretia and hoping really hard…

Behind me I could hear the others muttering, grumbling. They must been unimpressed with the lack of showmanship on my part. I pushed it aside though, and concentrated really hard on gathering the weak traces of magia that were flowing up from the dark cavern of death below me.

Eventually I started chanting. I started and stopped a few times, trying to get my incantation to match my memory and the feeling of what should be right. I sat with my eyes closed. I could feel faint tremors, but not enough.

I continued to chant, to focus.

Eventually I tired.

I got thirsty.

It was becoming too much.

I rose to my feet and turned to ask Gordianus for the wine flask.

They were staring at me, slack-mouthed.

Or rather staring behind me. I looked back. The bones of the skeletons were floating up in the air, like eddies of leaves in the wind. I stared into the cloud of bones, and willed it to form. The bones arranged themselves in the vague shape of a man’s head and torso, thirty feet tall. I reached out my hand forward and the bone-giant reached out his hand toward me. I closed my fist gently in the air, and the fingers of the bone giant closed around me. I lifted myself up in the air, carried myself towards the face of the giant.

I turned my fist, and the cage of bones that held me turned with it until I was facing the ledge. Of the two farm slaves there was no trace. Gordianus and Meto were standing close together, grasping arms and staring at me.

“Thank you,” I said, and the bone giant behind me echoed the words in voice like the tearing of dry skin.

I turned myself to face the giant head made of human bones. I brought my fist to my mouth, and as I did the bone demon swallowed me, swallowed its fist, swallowed its arm, swallowed himself like a snake that eats its own tail.

And as the whole thing crumbled back into a pile of bones and I winked out into a direction that makes no sense, I caught the eye of Gordianus for the last time.

Keep on reading in Part II of New Directions!
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If you liked this story, try Murder In Absentia for a full-length Felix mystery. For the price of a coffee, you’ll get many hours of enjoyment!

3 Comments

  1. I read and enjoyed Part I, especially the laid-back narration style (no stuffy orating, here!) and dialogue that’s realistic even in a fantastical situation. As a reader, you get a feel for the characters’ personalities in a short space of time, which makes you want to take the journey with them.

    Like

  2. Woah! Brilliant piece of writing!! The pacing, the descriptions, the explanations, the sarcasm and humour! Just brilliant! Can’t wait to read the next one!

    Actually, I can’t wait to read the Felix full novel, Murder in Absentia, after reading about Felix in two short stories!!

    Memorable quotes:
    “Never practice magic when you’re drunk.” ~ This was the opening line and hooked me in right away!

    “I somehow managed to get myself honourably discharged from the legions with my share of the spoils. It involved some fast talking, faked injuries, loaded dice and one live hedgehog, but I managed it.” ~ This gives a fantastic opportunity for some backstory. I want to know more about that live hedgehog! 🙂

    In conclusion, this was a really good short and fully deserves 5* (5/5) rating indefinitely!

    Like

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