BLOOD OF WITCHES
Bright white light flashed Jupiter’s rage. Iulia’s bare feet slapped shallow puddles on the flagstone of her husband’s private courtyard as she hurried to his stable. She cradled a bag, protecting its contents from the downpour drenching her long, brown hair and thin linen dress.
She slipped through the side door and smelled the exotic spice of her husband’s mount. Caius had returned, and she hadn’t seen him yet. Weariness must have taken him to bed without looking for her while she tended to the baby.
He and his men had been roaming for five months without pause, for Jupiter and Rome. His company of equites had made sure all the empire knew they slew numerous gorgons–unnatural creatures of every description imaginable. Along the way, they made no secret of availing themselves of starstruck young women.
Moving deeper into the stable, Iulia heard the horses stamping and snorting. The storm had them restive. She murmured to the creatures as she passed them, weaving a calming whisper of power through the quartz pendant resting on her chest. Caius’s massive white horse snuffled at her, but she ignored it. That thing could take care of itself. Much like its master.
Lightning flashed through gaps in the wooden structure, throwing sharp shadows across the concrete. Dark wetness glistened on the floor, too thick and deep to be water. Sickly sweetness clung to the air, overpowering the robust ginger scent of Caius’s beast.
Iulia raised her hand, noticing how it shook. Silence had taken the stable, broken only by the patter of heavy water on the roof. Thunder cracked the air, startling her.
She needed light.
Wisps of white power flared over her fingers, writhing like snakes. Her pendant warmed. Nothing lurched from the shadows to attack. She crouched beside a strange red puddle shimmering with opalescence. The cloying scent rose from the small pool. Her gaze danced across the surface until she saw the source.
She dropped the bag. It thumped into the tacky puddle, splashing the viscous liquid onto her dress.
Blood stained the pure white hair on the dead creature’s forehead. Iulia shifted to touch the velvety hair on the horse-like head. She ran her fingertips over the spot where once had been a slender, spiral horn of gold. One glassy, honey-brown eye stared at nothing. More blood pooled beneath her neck, where Caius had hacked a deadly gash through the poor creature’s neck with the sword she’d enchanted for him.
Six days ago, the unicorn foal had stumbled into the courtyard with the mark of Trivia seared into her coat. The Queen of Ghosts, Mistress of Crossroads, and Blood of Witches had bestowed upon her daughter a rare gift to repay all her devotion and sacrifice. Iulia would ride a mount worthy of a queen when she weaned her son.
An hour ago, Caius had slain the creature and left its corpse to rot, for no reason Iulia could conceive.
Tears welled in her eyes. She’d known this noble, majestic creature for so little time, yet her heart broke to see it .
In the darkness, she wept. Sobs shook her shoulders until anger took hold.
Caius’s heart held no room for anything but himself. He must’ve arrived, seen something abnormal, and acted. The Gorgon Slayer of Antium allowed no exceptions in fulfilling his sworn duty. Not even for unnatural beauty and grace.
If she demanded an explanation, he’d provide one, then silence any protest she cared to make. Even if a god intervened to force him to apologize for this crass violence, words wouldn’t bring the creature back from death.
Iulia shifted her will to scooping blood and containing it with her power. Wasting this sacrifice dishonored the unicorn as much as killing it. Had Caius left the horn, she would’ve taken it. No doubt, he thought it only another trophy from another gorgon. She knew better. Trivia hadn’t sent a unicorn for no reason.
Leaving the bag she’d carried, feed intended for the dead unicorn, she carried her glob of blood out of the stable. The rain, slacking with every step she took, rinsed her clean.
Inside the house, she deposited the blood into a wooden cup and carried it into her workshop. No one would empty it or knock it over in that room. She set it on the stone table dominating the space and left.
On her way to the bedroom, she paused outside the nursery and listened at the door. Neither boy made a sound. If she slept in their room, Caius would complain. If she joined him in bed, he’d wake and demand her attention.
His hands had slain the unicorn. The thought of them on her flesh turned her stomach. She pushed open the nursery door and slipped inside. Thick rugs covered the tile floor of the playroom. Three rooms attached to it held the two boys and their minder, another girl Caius had taken from her family.
Iulia chose Titius’s room. The seven-month-old boy in the wooden cradle shifted in his sleep. She sat in the rocking chair beside him. The boy would grow up idolizing his father as many others did. They all adored him. Every year he earned wider recognition. How she longed for a daughter who could carry her own legacy of power.
After covering herself with a blanket, she stared at the wall to wait for sleep to take her and wondered if she should leave him. Of course, he would keep the boys, and she would have to work twice as hard to enjoy half the luxury he afforded. Caius owned everything in her life. Wealth and favor rained upon his head. She was only a woman.
She drifted to sleep and dreamed of thunder, unicorns, and blood. Her dreams fled when the baby stirred in hunger. Putting the baby to breast, she sighed at the day ahead. After so long without her husband’s presence, the household would have to adjust to him.
When the baby had his fill, she kissed his forehead and returned him to his crib. Fabia, the boys’ minder, would take care of his other needs this morning. Iulia left the nursery and turned her back on the door to the master’s bedroom in favor of the kitchen.
Someday, she thought as she collected fruit, cheese, flatbread, and juice, she would find a way to repay Caius for his cruelty last night. For now, she chose to keep him happy. Even if she chose to shed the comforts he provided her, and could figure out where to go, he wouldn’t let her leave. Giving up Iulia meant giving up his pet witch. He wouldn’t stand for that, and she wouldn’t kill a man. Not even Caius.
She picked up the wooden tray holding his breakfast and carried it to the bedroom. Without bothering to keep quiet, she opened and shut the door. Brown furs covered the tile floor, woven tapestries hung on the plaster-covered concrete walls, and velvet drapes concealed the contents of the wide bed. An iron screen contained sparks from a low fire in the recessed stone hearth. Opposite the fireplace, an archway led to a small room filled with clean clothing.
“Are you awake?” she said, keeping her voice low.
“No,” Caius mumbled, his deep voice muffled by the velvet.
Before he murdered her unicorn, she’d often found him amusing. With a curl of her lip, Iulia set his tray on his nightstand and turned her back on him to change into fresh clothes.
Fabric rustled. “Where are you going?”
She stopped and made an effort to school her expression for his benefit. He could hear it when she scowled. “To dress for the day.”
Turning to face him, she saw he’d stripped before climbing into bed. When he first stole her from her family, she’d been awestruck by his muscles and handsome, chiseled features. That feeling had passed long ago.
“If you wish to eat again today, I need to visit the market.”
He sat up and put his feet on the floor. Weariness clung to his shoulders and hung his head. His beard and hair had grown long and ragged. “Where did you sleep last night?”
“In the nursery.” With all her will, she resisted planting her fists on her hips.
“You coddle the boys.”
She had nothing to say. His approach to fatherhood consisted of hiring servants and leaving.
“Come here, woman.”
“Not now.” She turned and left him in favor of the closet.
He growled at her. As she’d done many times before, she ignored him. When she returned wearing clean, plain clothes and matching jewelry, he hadn’t moved, though he ate the food she’d brought. Still ignoring him, she swept out of the room.
On her way to the front door, she collected Fabia and the boys, and two other servants, intent on leaving Caius alone for the morning. If she could have roused his horse and taken it, she would have. The fewer of his possessions he had to play with, the better.
They walked the concrete footpaths of Antium to reach the market square. Everyone knew Caius’s wife, and showed her respect by bowing their heads. Loose dogs barked at her approach and quieted as she passed. At the wide piazza covered with painted tiles, she took Titius in her arms to teach him names for everything she bought. Someday, she would do the same for a daughter.
“Good morning, Iulia,” the owner of her favorite stall said as she approached. Four wooden posts held up a large square of bright blue fabric, providing shade for his bins full of leaves and grapes.
“Good morning, Aulus. The usual, please.”
Without her needing to order it, one of the servants stepped forward and handed Aulus a basket. Iulia plucked a grape and attempted to teach Titius its name.
“Of course.” The spindly man picked through several varieties of leaves for her and deposited them into the basket. “Congratulations on the great honor for your husband.”
She raised an eyebrow. “What great honor is that?”
“Oh! Excuse me.” Aulus bowed his head. “I assumed they’d told you first. It isn’t my place to say so, but Domitus has decided to honor Caius with a statue in the town square.”
“Has he?” Iulia forced herself to smile with pride. “How grand.”
“I believe it’s to be unveiled in a few days.”
“Domitus knows how to keep a secret.” She imagined the gleeful gleam in Caius’s eyes when he learned of the statue. Nothing pleased him more than adoration. He could forgive and forget anything in the blush of worship. This statue, probably the first of many to come, would bring him joy.
Destroying it would plunge a spike in his heart like nothing else. He deserved such profanity. A plan took shape in her mind’s eye. The blood he’d spilled so carelessly would serve to humble him in view of the town.
“Do you know who was hired to sculpt it?”
Her servant took the basket from Aulus and inspected the contents.
“The young Manius. I heard his father is losing his sight, or he’d have taken the commission.”
“This is a great honor.” She thought of the impressive visage of Venus he’d carved into a fountain near her home. As far as she knew, he worked with many materials, and had trained with a master elsewhere. Whatever statue he crafted would last forever.
Iulia thanked Aulus for his time. Titius finished toying with his grape, so she gave him back to Fabia. As she moved from stall to stall, more people congratulated her. All of Antium knew about the statue and its imminent unveiling. Caius would soon learn of it. She had little time to act.
The servants carried full baskets, and the boys seemed restless. She sent them home and forged ahead alone. Caius and his ego could fester in her absence.
Following piecemeal directions from others at the market, she found Manius’s home, a humble wooden structure sharing walls with its neighbors. Ivy clung to the facade, growing from the roof of the row. She picked out his house among them by the concrete statuettes of Jupiter and Juno perched on either side of his door.
He answered the door himself. Dark hair pulled into a loose tail framed his handsome, clean-shaven face and soft brown eyes. White chips and dust decorated his wool tunic and olive skin. For a moment, he stared at her, as if trying to place her. Then his eyes widened and he bowed his head.
“How may I serve you, Iulia?”
“I’ve heard this morning about the statue. May I see it?”
“Of course.” He stepped aside and gestured for her to enter. “Domitus told me to bar only Caius from seeing it before the unveiling.”
Iulia nodded, pleased with this restriction. “As you might imagine, I’m interested to see its quality.”
Manius bowed again as he shut the door. They stood in a small room with an earthen floor, holding potted plants, two chairs, and an empty doorway to the next room. He gestured for her to precede him through the opening. “Please, this way.”
She nodded and took his guidance to pass through the main room of his home. He slept in the room where he cooked, and coals glowed in the hearth. Beyond this space, she saw a marble statue. The next room had a concrete floor, a wooden stool, a stepladder, and sculptor’s tools arranged in tin trays. Numerous drawings of Caius papered the walls.
Caius’s monument stood as tall as the man himself. His breastplate, leg wrappings, sword, and boots had been chiseled with exquisite attention to detail on the front. His head, though already shaped, remained less defined.
“Your work is impressive.”
“Thank you. It’s not finished, of course. I expect to complete it in three more days.”
Iulia brushed her fingertips across the folds of the marble battle skirt. The cold stone seemed fitting for Caius.
Her gaze flicked to Manius. He watched her, his gaze on her body. “You must have strong hands.”
Manius blinked and snapped his gaze to her face. “I suppose so.”
She bestowed upon him a brilliant, dazzling smile. “May I see?”
“The skilled hand of an artist.”
Manius had the grace to blush as he held up his right hand. “I don’t think it’s special.”
She took his hand in both of hers and pretended to study it. “I notice you have no wife.”
“No.” He shifted his stance and watched her fingers with parted lips. “Learning my craft has consumed me.”
“How much are you being paid for this?”
“I doubt that.” She released his hand and smiled at him again. To her pleasure, the pink flush of his cheeks grew darker. “Thank you for indulging me.”
The poor boy wanted her, but had no idea what to do with her. She considered staying to teach him, but she’d made Caius wait long enough, and Titius would need feeding soon. Another time, perhaps. To leave a lasting impression, she trailed her fingers across his chest and brushed past him.
He said nothing as she left his house.
During her walk home, she determined the best way to enchant the unicorn blood for her purposes. She would have to use her only diamond, an exotic gift from Antioch that Caius had passed to her so she could display his wealth, like he did with all the jewels he acquired.
When she arrived, she found Caius waiting for her in the courtyard, wearing an indigo tunic, with his beard trimmed and dark hair combed. He sat on his stone bench flanked by olive trees in large pots. Behind him, rose bushes flush with white blooms and dark green oleanders grew along the base of his iron fence and provided privacy.
She imagined him as Jupiter, waiting in solitude for a reluctant lover. He believed himself a god, but when he’d first acquired her, he’d been nothing more than a man good at his job. Her power made him more, whether he cared to admit it or not.
He glowered at her. “Where have you been? The servants returned some time ago.”
Smiling as if he deserved her affection and loyalty, she shut the gate and swept across the courtyard. “I took a walk.”
Anger festered in the lines of his shoulders as he stood and caught her wrist. “I return home after months apart, and you take a walk?”
Snarling taunts hovered on the tip of her tongue. She swallowed them and held her anger in check. Revenge would come. Bickering made his presence torturous instead of tolerable. “My poor husband. I’ve been preparing a surprise for you.” Stepping closer, she touched his cheek and brushed her fingers across his beard, then down his neck.
“A surprise,” he grumbled. The harsh lines of his face faded at her touch.
“Shall I spoil it, or spoil you?”
Caius growled in the back of his throat, then he kissed her. He swept her into his arms and carried her inside.
At least she had been spared the indignity of marriage to an incompetent lover.
The day passed in a blur. Iulia waited until Caius slept in the darkness to slip out and into her workshop. She lit a candle and sat on her stool. Focusing her will, she placed her diamond in her palm and poured the thick, oozing blood over it. A picture formed in her mind, of what she intended to do with the finished product. Clear, glowing power, pure as the unicorn itself, wrapped around the blood and stone, bending it to her desire.
When she finished, she draped a cloak over her shoulders and hurried through the city with her unicorn stone. She paused at the trivium on the way, a meeting of three roads, to raise the stone to the stars and ask for Trivia’s blessing upon her task.
“Hear me, Blood of Witches.” Though she wished to shout, she didn’t dare. Homes lined these streets, and too many residents knew her face. Instead, a light wind carried her whisper. “Your daughter seeks your aid to avenge you.” She threw back her head and stood on her toes to raise the stone as high as possible.
Thin tendrils of golden light swirled from the road to spiral around her. Power suffused her skin, lifting her hair and clothes as if she fell in slow motion. Iulia leaned into Trivia’s embrace, feeling the goddess’s will slide from her toes to her fingers as a gentle caress.
“My daughter has failed me.” The voice echoed in her mind, her heart, her soul. The tendrils constricted. Pain lanced through her. “I sent a gift worthy of a queen. She now lies dead, cast aside in a garbage heap like any common horse.”
“Forgive me,” Iulia groaned. “I should have known Caius would do something so barbaric. I should have protected her from him. But with your help, I can punish him. We can punish him. With this stone, I venerate the gift you sent and will cast him into shame.”
Iulia had no desire to sacrifice yet again for Caius. For Trivia, though, and the chance to see her husband laid low, she could stomach it.
“I give unto you that which is yours,” she gasped through the agony.
“Never again will your body bear fruit.”
Her womb exploded with agony. Iulia cried out, unable to withstand such torment in silence.
The light abandoned her to plunge into the stone. Iulia slumped to the concrete, no longer supported. She lowered the stone as her pain subsided and watched the last of the glow fade inside the stone. Red bled from it, draining down her fingers and hand in a stream until the stone appeared clear, like the diamond she’d used to anchor it.
Such a cost. Iulia sat in a widening circle of blood from the stone and her own body and wept. There would be no daughter to share her gifts. Only sons to mirror their wretched father.
Rain blew through the street, drenching her in moments. She struggled to her feet with a hand on her belly, and hurried up the street with all the speed she could muster. Small concrete statuettes of Jupiter and Juno greeted her at her destination. Hoping no one saw her, she ducked inside and shut the door with a soft click.
Manius stood at the top of his ladder with his back to the door, working on Caius’s statue in candlelight. Tapping of his hammer on his chisel echoed through the rooms.
She had expected to find him asleep this late. He needed distracting so she could apply her own finishing touch to the statue. Her sacrifice couldn’t be wasted.
“Forgive me,” she called, hoping not to startle him.
The tapping ceased. He turned to see her, but she stood in darkness. “Who’s there?”
“Iulia.” She deposited the stone into a pocket inside her cloak and hung it on a hook beside the door.
In the flickering light, she saw Manius furrow his brow. “Is something wrong?” He climbed down his ladder and set his tools aside.
She opened her mouth to tell him no. Tears welled under the crushing weight of her sacrifice. “Yes.”
He left the candle behind and rushed to her. “What is it?”
“I’m cold,” she whispered. She hugged herself.
“Cold,” he murmured as he took her in his arms. “You’re soaked.” His breath smelled of red wine.
Caius never offered her comfort. He took, not gave. She tilted her head up and pressed her lips to his.
He kissed her, as she expected, but he pulled away within seconds. Stepping back, he held her at arm’s length. “Your husband–”
“Is not here.” She took his hand and wiped her cheeks with it. “Please.”
Manius glanced at the unfinished statue. “He’s the Gorgon Slayer. He’ll kill me for touching you.”
“He’ll never know.”
His gaze bored into her, searching for some truth, or perhaps a promise. Then he kissed her and took what she offered.
Later, Iulia slipped out of his embrace to reclaim her clothing. The candle still burned, casting weak, flickering shadows over his peaceful face. If she returned to his bed, Caius would hear of it. Someone like Manius, someone warm and caring, didn’t deserve to face his wrath.
Pushing away thoughts of reality, she retrieved the unicorn stone and stalked to the statue. She cupped it in her palm and held it over Caius’s marble chest. With a whisper of her will, she pressed against the stone. It sank into the statue.
With one last thought for a life she could never have with Manius, she left. No one noticed her return home. Caius roused enough to draw her close, then fell asleep again.
Three days passed with Caius focused on her. She didn’t dare to leave his sight again. On the fourth day, a messenger came with summons for Caius, to attend a grand ceremony of unspecified type.
He rode his horse in full equite glory, bronze breastplate gleaming in the sunshine. Following in his wake, Iulia rode a lesser, normal horse. For the special occasion, she wore red silk and rubies, her dark hair twisted and braided with a gauzy palla of spun silver held in place by a golden headband.
They arrived at the city’s public square, the site of praise and punishment for all citizens, to find a crowd waiting. Domitus, a rotund patrician who ran the city, stood at the top of the steps to the main temple, a grand marble edifice with bas-relief carvings of all the gods. Nearby, the statue lurked under a drape of white cloth.
Iulia saw no sign of Manius. At least he would be spared the sight of his work’s destruction. He deserved that small kindness.
At Caius’s arrival, the crowd cheered. He waved with his most charming smile. Iulia forced herself to follow suit. Inside, she seethed at all those who knew nothing of her husband beyond the facade he presented them.
Caius helped her dismount, something he only did in public. She took his arm. They climbed the steps to face Domitus. Caius stepped forward while Iulia stood behind him. No one cared about her role in his successes, only that she sparkled and smiled.
Domitus made a speech about sacrifice and glory. Iulia ignored him. He handed Caius the end of a rope. Caius yanked it. The cloth fell away to reveal a complete statue, perfect in its depiction of a hero with Caius’s face. She watched his face light up with more joy than she’d expected. To the crowd’s delight, he struck the same pose as the statue.
“I will never stop protecting the citizens of Antium and Rome by hunting and slaying gorgons!”
Without a cloud in the azure sky, blinding light flashed. Thunder cracked loud enough to break bones. Iulia turned away and cowered as a bolt of lightning blasted the statue into a thousand pieces. The force sent her sliding to the bottom of the stairs with her ears ringing.
She raised her head to see Caius lying on the ground at the base of the statue. Where Manius’s beautiful work had stood, only two blackened stone boots remained. Caius rose to his knees and stared at the gaping, empty space. His face contorted, laying bare his horror.
Domitus rushed to Iulia and crouched beside her. “Are you hurt?”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
He helped her stand while her husband, covered in a layer of white dust, gripped the statue’s base.
Iulia bit back her anger at her husband’s priorities. She moved to stand beside him and touched his shoulder. “What have you done to anger Jupiter?”
“What?” He blinked and gazed up at her. His eyes seemed as blank and glassy as the unicorn’s, yet he still lived and breathed with no blood or other sign of injury upon him. Trivia had spared him that kind of pain.
Annoyed by his stupidity, she pitched her voice to carry. “Jupiter’s rage is plain as the empty sky. What did you do?”
Silence hung thick as the crowd watched and listened.
“I…I don’t know.” His confusion and uncertainty heaped onto his lanced ego salved Iulia’s own wrath.
She considered leaving him to flounder. But if he lost his status, she also lost hers. Their wealth would drain away day by day. The comforts and luxuries she’d already suffered and sacrificed for would disappear. No one paid tribute to a fallen hero.
“Then you must journey to Rome and visit Jupiter’s temple to determine what quest will assuage him.”
She leaned close and growled into his ear, “Stand up. Say something. Do something. You’re their hero. Act like it.”
Iulia watched him breathe, collecting himself. “People of Antium.” He stood and raised his hands as if to calm or quiet the silent crowd. She suspected he paused to decide how to word his statement to deny the fault lay at his feet.
“Jupiter has spoken, delivering a summons only a fool would ignore. I travel to Rome, that our fair city may be spared any further destruction.”
The crowd cheered.