At the temple of Mars, on the wheat-lush campus beyond the walls of Corioli, a living man and a dead man kept watch together. Throughout the afternoon and the early twilight, the people of Corioli had come to pay their respects to the deceased; the women had daubed their faces with the blood spilt on the city's streets, and the children had put their tiny hands into the rent flesh of the dead man's abdomen as though they meant to stanch the bleeding. Widows had mourned on their knees, decking their husbands' murderer with coins and copper bracelets. Iron-jawed soldiers, widowed in the harrowing of Corioli, had processed before the corpse as though he commanded them still.
As Nox drew the darkness down, such a wailing rose from Corioli as Aufidius had never heard before.
Let's make the best of it, the lords had said. Let him be regarded as the most noble corse that ever herald did follow to his urn. They had not forgotten--Aufidius had not forgotten--that in his last moments, Caius Martius Coriolanus had called upon Mars to hear him.
"Did you hear him, Mars?" Aufidius asked the night air, and he couldn't have said whether it was a plea or a challenge. A breeze caught the heads of wheat and turned them, so that the still-green kernels flashed faintly in the light of the braziers. The leaves lowered like lances braced for a cavalry charge. The evening had grown late enough, and Aufidius superstitious enough, that the whisper of air over the fields seemed almost an answer.
His hand came to rest upon Martius's shoulder, as it had a dozen times since his knife had struck home (as it had a dozen, dozen times since Martius had bared his throat to Aufidius's blade at the Volscian hearth). The flesh was cool, waxen as a death-mask; the late-summer flowers and oaken boughs that adorned his body could not entirely disguise the scent of his decay.
What manner of crown do they give their heroes, in Rome? the first priest of Mars had asked, as they were arraying the Roman body for display. One made of laurels, or bays?
The Romans have thrown off their kings, Aufidius had answered. He'd be damned if he let a Volscian crown him now.
In the depth of the wheatfields, two points of light gleamed golden. A feral dog, perhaps, drawn by the meat that the Volsces had laid out with such ceremony--or a wolf, lone and lean, teats slack from the early-summer nursing. Her mancubs killing one another at the walls of Rome.
Aufidius plucked up one of the coins that had been left to pay for Martius's passage, flinging it into the long leaves. It flashed, golden as those hungry eyes, then struck home with a dull sound against the beast's hollow ribs. "Go!" he shouted. "Go on, you scavenger!" The eyes winked out; the coin fell to earth; Aufidius was alone again with his enemy's corpse.
"Go on, you scavenger," he said, and with his thumb, he brushed back the dark hair from Martius's brow.
They'd never touched one another tenderly, when they'd been comrades. A hand clapped on a shoulder, arms clipping chest to chest; quick fingers winding bandages about ankle and thigh and haunch, and then the sudden flash of teeth fired golden in the torchlight. Martius could speak of nothing but victory in those heady days, when the wine had spilled red between them and blood had crusted the beds of their nails. Victory, and honour, and the destruction of Rome.
The short, hot nights of summer had been bright with burning cities. For every Corioli the Volsces had lost, a dozen Roman citadels had burnt to the ground. O, you sons of Mars! Martius had cried, blood-painted, ecstatic, with the entrails of his enemies about his feet. You and I will tear down all of Rome! The soldiers had called him Coriolanus then, for he had been the hero of Corioli.
And for a few drops of salt--
The scorched fields of Corioli had grown again, and now the campus was green with wheat. Martius's brow was clean, and dry, and cold. Aufidius dropped his hand again.
At another faint rustle in the bushes, he flung coins and copper; at first he thought he had wasted them on a settling bird or a fox, but then he caught sight of a grey tail vanishing into the shadows. Another wolf, or perhaps the same wolf returning--after the Romans had come, the wolves had gorged on the slain and then gone hungry, with the taste of men's flesh still hot on their tongues. Whether he was protecting the body of his friend or guarding his kill from scavengers, Aufidius couldn't have said.
In the temple, the weapons of Mars stood at the ready, spears sharpened for battle and blade shining in the torchlight. Martius would have taken up those weapons without concerning himself over whether he had a right to them, never wondering whether it was sacrilege to wield them; he would not have held off beasts with thrown coins and bracelets, as though he were greeting victors rather than driving away pests. Name not the god, Aufidius had shouted, his body alight with righteous rage--and with Martius cold, the weapons bright and untouched, he felt the same passion kindling in his chest. "Did you hear him, Mars?"
"I heard him," answered a familiar voice, surly and smoke-rough and too loud for the interior of a temple. Aufidius could nearly see the sullen set to the jaw, the powerful shoulders rounded like a boy's, even before he turned to meet Martius's eyes.
Not Martius's eyes; he knew it at once, although they were the same mad, gold-flecked brown--Caius Martius lay between the two men, flesh mangled and shrouded with oak leaves.
These were the eyes of Mars.
The god reached down to touch the face he'd borrowed, callused fingers turning the jaw first one way and then the other as though Martius were a horse he was thinking of buying. "Do you like this shape?" he asked, in the careless way that Martius used to ask after a half-remembered battle or a new strategy for the field. "D'you think I look less like a scavenger now, Tullus Aufidius?"
Aufidius felt his mouth go dry. "The wolf," he said, half-numb, rage bleeding slowly out of him. "So you came to take him."
"I came to treat with you," answered Mars. He let Martius's head drop again to the nest of oak and flowers, where it lay like an offering. Perhaps that was what Mars saw, when he looked on the man who had called himself the god's son. There was an ugly hardness to that too-familiar face, the brows lowered and furrowed like a field ready for the planting. "Will you treat with me, boy? Or will you trample me in the streets of Corioli?"
Boy. That word, spilling harsh from Martius's lips, made something twist in Aufidius's gut. "I've served you all my life," he said, although he knew it was no answer.
That broad-palmed, sword-nicked hand closed over the back of Aufidius's neck. It could have been Martius's hand. "You served him, too," said Mars.
"He dishonoured himself. He dishonoured you, and then he called on you, like a boy calling on his mother--" He dishonoured me, Aufidius could have said, but before the god of war, the complaint felt petty and small. "You came to treat with me. Treat with me, then," he said.
"I'll fight you for his life," said Mars (said Martius), with a ferocious smile that promised nothing pleasant. His hand still lay hot across the nape of Aufidius's neck. "Wouldn't that be something to show the senate, when they come to hound you for his death? Because they will hound you; Mars must have his sacrifice, when his favourites die in the streets."
Aufidius had served Mars all his life. He had offered healthy bullocks and rams to Mars, intact studs of great worth, without a qualm--for although the herds were thin and the family out of grace, Mars would have his sacrifice. He had thundered over the battlefield with spear and sword, and in his heart he had dedicated his victims to the god. He had never dreamed that Mars might refuse the offering.
Mars must have his sacrifice, thought Aufidius.
The braziers softened the rough edges of Martius's borrowed face, catching on the fair hairs of his nascent beard. The fine lines about his eyes, the crooked line of his nose, all showed plainly in the firelight. He looked nothing like a god; he looked nothing like anyone except Caius Martius Coriolanus, and it was the work of Aufidius's life to fight the Roman. "I accept," he answered, and was gratified to see the god smile in reply.
Releasing Aufidius with a rough shake, Mars took one of the spears housed in the temple--brash, proprietary, never questioning that all he wanted was his for the taking--and gestured Aufidius to do the same.
His hand closed on the haft of the spear. He recognized, in some quiet and still part of himself, that it was cool beneath his palms.
"Begin," said Mars.
At once Aufidius was flinging himself across the floor of the temple, spearpoint angled to drive itself between the god's ribs; swift as thought, Mars caught and deflected the blow and dashed the butt of his spear against Aufidius's skull. Still reeling, ears ringing, Aufidius raised an arm to clout the man across the temple, right above his flame-caught eyes--but his fist swung through empty air, for Mars was dancing across the floor like sunlight to seize the sword upon the wall. It caught the light from the braziers, blinding Aufidius for a moment long enough to let Mars slip his spear beneath the Volscian's sternum.
Martius had come at Aufidius with spear, with sword, with his two bare hands; they had grappled and clashed and sliced each other open, until they knew one another's movements as well as their own. They had carved themselves into one another's flesh, writing memory in every scar and shattered bone.
Mars moved nothing like Martius. He moved nothing like a man.
Aufidius fixed his fist at that familiar throat, even as the spear drove deeper and he tasted blood. We have been down together in my sleep, he thought, half-delirious; Unbuckling helms, fisting each other's throat--he pressed his thumb against that bare throat until his grip became a caress, and held that touch until his hand fell, nerveless, to his side.
Mars drew out his spear, and it came away unblooded. The unearthly radiance seeped out of him, and his shoulders rounded and his head drew down. If the fight had revealed the god in him, in victory he seemed to close in on himself.
He did not have to say that Aufidius had failed.
"Remember this," said Mars, and caught the hand with which Aufidius had tried to strangle him. They were close enough now to trade breath, and the god's breath smelled of blood. Aufidius wanted to press his lips to those lips that looked like Martius's, those lips that belonged to Mars. "Not that I bested you--remember this."
He turned Aufidius to look upon the broken body of the Roman, and pressed Aufidius's hand to an old scar. I gave him that, he remembered, and his free hand touched the thick-knit scar that Martius had left along his ribs.
Their second battle; they had traded blow for blow, feet slipping on the blood-slick earth in the fields of Antium as the burning fields had streamed smoke at the sky. They had laughed as they'd fought, alive with the joy of having found one another again.
"What he did before the walls of Rome will echo forever," said Mars, voice low against Aufidius's ear. "The Volsces are nothing. If you had crushed Rome, you would have turned on each other in a decade, and been ground to dust within a century--but because of what he did, whenever men speak of empire, they'll speak of Rome."
In the first, faint rose of dawn, Aufidius woke upon the floor of the temple of Mars. Around him lay small coins, wilted flowers, bent twigs of oak; the cool air tasted of decay.
He climbed to his feet, half-expecting Martius's body to have vanished with the night--dragged away by gods or wolves, torn to pieces or glorified for ever. What he saw upon the table, though, was infinitely stranger.
Caius Martius lay where the Volscians had placed him, his powerful form still and his expression severe even in death. His limbs had been arrayed just so, the worst of his wounds washed clean and then touched by hundreds of reverent hands.
From every wound, new and old, had sprung a single spear of unripe wheat.