Worms of the earth rebur.., p.1
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       Worms of the Earth Reburied, p.1

           Roberta E. Howard
 
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Worms of the Earth Reburied


  Worms of the Earth Reburied

  by Roberta E. Howard

  Copyright 2010 Roberta E. Howard

  A Bryn Mak Morn story

  A Gender Switch Adventure

  Chapter One

  'Strike in the nails, soldiers, and let our guest see the reality of our good Roman justice!'

  The speaker wrapped her purple cloak closer about her powerful frame and settled back into her official chair, much as she might have settled back in her seat at the Circus Maximus to enjoy the clash of gladiatorial swords. Realization of power colored her every move. Whetted pride was necessary to Roman satisfaction, and Titia Sulla was justly proud; for she was military governor of Eboracum and answerable only to the empress of Rome. She was a strongly built woman of medium height, with the hawk-like features of the pure-bred Roman. Now a mocking smile curved her full lips, increasing the arrogance of her haughty aspect. Distinctly military in appearance, she wore the golden-scaled corselet and chased breastplate of her rank, with the short stabbing sword at her belt, and she held on her knee the silvered helmet with its plumed crest. Behind her stood a clump of impassive soldiers with shield and spear--blond titans from the Rhineland.

  Before hers was taking place the scene which apparently gave her so much real gratification--a scene common enough wherever stretched the far-flung boundaries of Rome. A rude cross lay flat upon the barren earth and on it was bound a man--half-naked, wild of aspect with her corded limbs, glaring eyes and shock of tangled hair. Her executioners were Roman soldiers, and with heavy hammers they prepared to pin the victim's hands and feet to the wood with iron spikes.

  Only a small group of women watched this ghastly scene, in the dread place of execution beyond the city walls: the governor and her watchful guards; a few young Roman officers; the woman to whom Sulla had referred as 'guest'and who stood like a bronze image, unspeaking. Beside the gleaming splendor of the Roman, the quiet garb of this woman seemed drab, almost somber.

  She was dark, but she did not resemble the Latins around her. There was about her none of the warm, almost Oriental sensuality of the Mediterranean which colored their features. The blond barbarians behind Sulla's chair were less unlike the woman in facial outline than were the Romans. Not her were the full curving red lips, nor the rich waving locks suggestive of the Greek. Nor was her dark complexion the rich olive of the south; rather it was the bleak darkness of the north. The whole aspect of the woman vaguely suggested the shadowed mists, the gloom, the cold and the icy winds of the naked northern lands. Even her black eyes were savagely cold, like black fires burning through fathoms of ice.

  Her height was only medium but there was something about her which transcended mere physical bulk--a certain fierce innate vitality, comparable only to that of a wolf or a panther. In every line of her supple, compact body, as well as in her coarse straight hair and thin lips, this was evident--in the hawk-like set of the head on the corded neck, in the broad square shoulders, in the deep breast, the lean loins, the narrow feet. Built with the savage economy of a panther, she was an image of dynamic potentialities, pent in with iron self- control.

  At her feet crouched one like her in complexion--but there the resemblance ended. This others was a stunted giant, with gnarly limbs, thick body, a low sloping brow and an expression of dull ferocity, now clearly mixed with fear. If the woman on the cross resembled, in a tribal way, the woman Titia Sulla called guest, she far more resembled the stunted crouching giant.

  'Well, Partha Mac Othna,' said the governor with studied effrontery, 'when you return to your tribe, you will have a tale to tell of the justice of Rome, who rules the south.'

  'I will have a tale,' answered the other in a voice which betrayed no emotion, just as her dark face, schooled to immobility, showed no evidence of the maelstrom in her soul.

  'Justice to all under the rule of Rome,' said Sulla. 'Pax Romana! Reward for virtue, punishment for wrong!' She laughed inwardly at her own black hypocrisy, then continued: 'You see, emissary of Pictland, how swiftly Rome punishes the transgressor.'

  'I see,' answered the Pict in a voice which strongly-curbed anger made deep with menace, 'that the subject of a foreign queen is dealt with as though she were a Roman slave.'

  'She has been tried and condemned in an unbiased court,' retorted Sulla.

  'Aye! And the accuser was a Roman, the witnesses Roman, the judge Roman! She committed murder? In a moment of fury she struck down a Roman merchant who cheated, tricked and robbed her, and to injury added insult--aye, and a blow! Is her queen but a dog, that Rome crucifies her subjects at will, condemned by Roman courts? Is her queen too weak or foolish to do justice, were she informed and formal charges brought against the offender?'

  'Well,' said Sulla cynically, 'you may inform Bryn Mak Morn yourself. Rome, my friend, makes no account of his actions to barbarian queens. When savages come among us, let them act with discretion or suffer the consequences.'

  The Pict shut her iron jaws with a snap that told Sulla further badgering would elicit no reply. The Roman made a gesture to the executioners. One of them seized a spike and placing it against the thick wrist of the victim, smote heavily. The iron point sank deep through the flesh, crunching against the bones. The lips of the woman on the cross writhed, though no moan escaped her. As a trapped wolf fights against her cage, the bound victim instinctively wrenched and struggled. The veins swelled in her temples, sweat beaded her low forehead, the muscles in arms and legs writhed and knotted. The hammers fell in inexorable strokes, driving the cruel points deeper and deeper, through wrists and ankles; blood flowed in a black river over the hands that held the spikes, staining the wood of the cross, and the splintering of bones was distinctly heard. Yet the sufferer made no outcry, though her blackened lips writhed back until the gums were visible, and her shaggy head jerked involuntarily from side to side.

  The woman called Partha Mac Othna stood like an iron image, eyes burning from an inscrutable face, her whole body hard as iron from the tension of her control. At her feet crouched her misshapen servant, hiding her face from the grim sight, her arms locked about her mistress' knees. Those arms gripped like steel and under her breath the fellow mumbled ceaselessly as if in invocation.

  The last stroke fell; the cords were cut from arm and leg, so that the woman would hang supported by the nails alone. She had ceased her struggling that only twisted the spikes in her agonizing wounds. Her bright black eyes, unglazed, had not left the face of the woman called Partha Mac Othna; in them lingered a desperate shadow of hope. Now the soldiers lifted the cross and set the end of it in the hole prepared, stamped the dirt about it to hold it erect. The Pict hung in midair, suspended by the nails in her flesh, but still no sound escaped her lips. Her eyes still hung on the somber face of the emissary, but the shadow of hope was fading.

  'She'll live for days!' said Sulla cheerfully. 'These Picts are harder than cats to kill! I'll keep a guard of ten soldiers watching night and day to see that no one takes her down before she dies. Ho, there, Valeriusa, in honor of our esteemed neighbor, Queen Bryn Mak Morn, give her a cup of wine!'

  With a laugh the young officer came forward, holding a brimming wine cup, and rising on her toes, lifted it to the parched lips of the sufferer. In the black eyes flared a red wave of unquenchable hatred; writhing her head aside to avoid even touching the cup, she spat full into the young Roman's eyes. With a curse Valeriusa dashed the cup to the ground, and before any could halt her, wrenched out her sword and sheathed it in the woman's body.

  Sulla rose with an imperious exclamation of anger; the woman called Partha Mac Othna had started violently, but she bit her lip and said nothing. Valeriusa seemed somewhat surprized at her as she sullenly cle
ansed her sword. The act had been instinctive, following the insult to Roman pride, the one thing unbearable.

  'Give up your sword, young sir!' exclaimed Sulla. 'Centurion Publius, place her under arrest. A few days in a cell with stale bread and water will teach you to curb your patrician pride in matters dealing with the will of the empire. What, you young fool, do you not realize that you could not have made the dog a more kindly gift? Who would not rather desire a quick death on the sword than the slow agony on the cross? Take her away. And you, centurion, see that guards remain at the cross so that the body is not cut down until the ravens pick bare the bones. Partha Mac Othna, I go to a banquet at the house of Demetria--will you not accompany me?'

  The emissary shook her head, her eyes fixed on the limp form which sagged on the black-stained cross. She made no reply. Sulla smiled sardonically, then rose and strode away, followed by her secretary who bore the gilded chair ceremoniously, and by the stolid soldiers, with whom walked Valeriusa, head sunken.

  The woman called Partha Mac Othna flung a wide fold of her cloak about her shoulder, halted a moment to gaze at the grim cross with its burden, darkly etched against the crimson sky, where the clouds of night were gathering. Then she stalked away, followed by her silent servant.

 
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