Happy Midwinter, all!
A gaggle of authors of queer historical fiction from the QUILTBAG Historicals Facebook group hope to brighten this dark time with posts loosely (sometimes very loosely!) themed around the 12 days of Christmas. And there’s a great giveaway, which you can enter here – just follow the link and sign up with your email or FB to be in with a chance.
The theme today is calling birds! For my contribution to the funfest, here’s a good part of a scene featuring birds from Blood Before Wine (Dominus Book 3): Books2read.com/u/31OOeD
The audiobook of Blood Before Wine is scheduled for release in early 2021.
An ominous murmuration in the skies above Rome. Enjoy!
The rumble was low before it barreled to a roar; the floor rose and fell in terrifying, unearthly waves. Alle dug his fingers into the gaps between the floorboards, but the quaking planks rolled violently beneath him. His metal chamber pot clattered across the room and crashed against the wall, staining the grey stones with fat splashes of urine. When Allerix tried to stand, he lost his balance, landing hard on his sore knees. The entire structure groaned and squealed while the ceiling beams and stair treads and clay floor tiles were pushed together and pulled apart and snapped in half.
And then it was over. As if it had never happened.
Except for the piss dripping down the wall.
And the distant wails of women and children.
Allerix startled when the locked door to his cell burst open.
His tall silhouette filled the frame, keys dangling from a cord wrapped around his wrist. When he crossed the threshold, muted rays from the sunset lit his clean-shaven face as if he wore a mask of sheer bronze.
“By gods, Bryaxis!”
Bry chuckled. “You’ve missed me, haven’t you? Listen, there’s something bizarre going on outside,” Bryaxis sputtered as he crouched to unlock the shackle.
“What just happened?” Allerix tapped the floor.
“That was only a tremor. The gods of their Underworld are restless shitheads who toss and turn and cause the city to shake. There’s some damage, but no need for alarm. It’s what’s happening in the skies above the palace that’s fucking abnormal.”
“Am I getting out of here?”
“Temporarily. Perhaps longer if you quit stealing knives.”
When the lock clicked open, the shackle around Alle’s ankle released and fell apart. Rising to his feet, Bry tossed down the spare cloak draped over his shoulder and offered his hand. “Come on.”
“Where are we going?” Allerix asked, straightening his brown, shabby laborer’s tunic before wrapping the more expensive tan cloak Bry had given him around his shoulders.
“We’re climbing up to the large terrace on the western wing of Fabius’s haunted house.” Touching the dirty cell walls with the tip of his finger, Bryaxis wandered about the room as he spoke. “I have to admit I’m pleased you’re still alive, lad. Max had said you’d been reassigned as punishment for your theft.”
Allerix wanted to protest but he was too tired to spar with the Caledonian.
“It’s good to see you as well, Bryaxis.” When Allerix brushed his fingers through his tangled black hair, specks of grime fluttered to the floor. “I’d thought I’d been forgotten.”
Bry cocked an eyebrow and mocked in his most sober tone, “Fabius doesn’t forget, Dacian.”
“But why are we going to the terrace? Why am I going up there?”
“And you’re still an inquisitive, peculiar mongrel, aren’t you? Listen, Fabius ordered me to bring you to him, all right? Why? I don’t know. But while you’ve been lounging down here in these cozy barracks, our redheaded prick promoted me to senior secretary because Simon keeps cocking up the expense accounts. Fabius seems to trust me, the pissed idiot.”
“He called for me? He said my name?”
“You have been summoned by the great Mars himself, god of unapologetic arrogance, and I am your humble, castrated escort to this evening’s portent party.”
When Bry finished his exaggerated bow, he strode out the door. After relighting the clay lamp cupped in his hand with the flame of a torch affixed to the wall, Bryaxis sauntered into the vaulted, windowless corridor, shouting over his shoulder, “Move those hairy legs and follow me! Perhaps a Dacian can decipher this sorcery.”
Alle followed Bryaxis through a labyrinth of narrow hallways connecting row after row of identical drab cells in the slave quarters. They dodged around debris and broken beams until Bry spotted the undamaged staircase he’d used earlier. The next level hadn’t suffered much destruction and access to the top was made easy by an intact stairway constructed of stone. After they’d reached the marble terrace gilded by the rays of the amber and crimson sunset, Alle stopped to inhale the fresh air; sweet fragrances of incense and pine trees filled him with energy and hope. When he tried to take another step forward, Bryaxis pressed his forearm against Allerix’s chest.
“Cover your head before we go any farther. This peculiarity is a sacred event,” Bry explained before pulling his own mantle up to form a hood.
The two crossed the expansive platform and joined the household staff and slaves huddled together in hushed conversations. Close to the front of the group stood Max and Simon and the scarred veteran, Varius. All of their heads were covered as they looked towards the waning but stubborn sunset. In the distance loomed the gleaming monstrous palace perched atop a hill.
The sun’s dying rays had turned the demon king’s fortress into a gold, multi-headed beast. Rome’s gilded and heavily guarded Cerberus.
Mesmerized by the illusion of the palace’s proximity, Allerix traced his forefinger over the contours of the multi-storied building when his fantasies of revenge were interrupted.
“Oh Almighty Jove!”
The incantation echoed through the valley, the words bouncing off the tiled rooftops below.
“Oh Jupiter, the Best and the Greatest! Oh divine sender of fortuitous flocks!”
At the front of the terrace by an ornate stone balustrade stood two men of roughly equal height swathed in folds of cloth, the hems of their voluminous white costumes pulled over their heads, their backs facing the hushed crowd. The man on the right held up a staff with a curved tip while his other hand crisscrossed through the brisk air in slow, deliberate motions.
He chanted a string of bizarre words.
And waved his silly stick.
“What’s happening?” Alle asked too loudly.
An unfamiliar woman standing in front of him turned around and shot him a scolding glare as she pushed her slender fingers against her frown.
“Look,” Bry whispered as he pointed to the sky above the palace. “Fortuitous flock, my sorry gelded arse. Those birds are angry, and our priests back home used to say birds never lie.”
A frenzied swarm of thousands of black birds swirled above the palace roof, soaring to the heavens in the shape of a spear before diving back down at an unnatural speed. But instead of smashing into the building, the creatures flew sideways and dispersed across the orange sky. And then, without warning, the mad birds resumed their formation and repeated their bizarre, aggressive choreography over and over.
“The starlings visit the city once or twice every few autumns,” Bryaxis mumbled out of the corner of his mouth. “I’ve witnessed their strange dances before but I’ve never seen them fly together like an irate feathered arrow. What do you make of it?”
Allerix shrugged off the burden of explaining the birds’ natural instincts. “I can’t read portents.”
“Or you won’t.” Bry arched a brow. “Lucius once explained this ritual to me. You see that chap with the crooked staff? He’s performing the auspices to record the birds’ flying patterns. Their ruthless storm god, Jupiter, sends messages to them through birds, lightning, and thunder—both good and bad portents. The augur reads the signs and relays Jupiter’s will to everyone else.”
After they finished another verse of baffling archaic incantations, the two Romans bowed towards the setting sun and turned their backs to the starlings spiraling above the darkening horizon.
When he lifted his ivory hood, his chestnut curls spilled down over his shoulders.
A gasp escaped Alle’s lips. Allerix had thought his two months of confinement had hardened his heart, but he was wrong. The sight of the man still took his damn breath away.
The Roman seemed years older. Unhappy. Lines of worry troubled his forehead and framed his leonine eyes.
Alle tried to remain still—he tried not to care—but every part of him ached to be closer. He wove his way through the crowd with Bryaxis on his heels, apologizing every time he bumped into someone. Once they were near enough to hear clearly, Alle dropped to his knees and lowered his head.
He had to get out of that hive of slave cells. And despite his anger at the prick, his heart needed to be closer to Gaius.
Alle gasped again when Gaius’s silken voice cut through the somber silence. “How do you interpret the signs, my dear Pliny? Is Jove as fucking displeased as those shit-squirting fowl appear to be?”
I’ll be posting another excerpt for the Midwinter Funfest after the New Year!