The rain was pounding the surface of the water with no stop and no mercy. Tarpeia surfaced abruptly, breathed with avidity and ran out of the river to the cave at the bottom of the cliff, carrying two enormous fish in each hand. Anchises was waiting for her, sitting around a campfire. She arrived laughing out loud.
—Anchises! Look! I caught them at the first attempt!
—Great! —he said smiling—. You wanna see how I disembowel them?
In spite of the sad weather, they shared a meal full of laughters and old stories. After eating, Anchises let Tarpeia doze a bit while she was lying on the ground, but she eventually slept like a log until he woke her up some hours later. It was night and the rain had stopped; the sky was still covered in clouds, but a moon of blue sparkles was sticking out through them.
They put out the fire and took up their path again, getting into the darkness of the woods. Distant howling of wolves made their appearance.
Tarpeia stumbled and fell down the soil.
—Why are we travelling now? I can barely see where I put my feet! —she complained, getting up.
—Because I want you to learn something: that you can locate yourself in space by using the agremonic organ. Try to create an electromagnetic field, and let your brain do his job.
She obeyed, and after some minutes of falls and trips, she began to see, in a weird way, her surrounding area, and she noticed that she could tell, above all things, where the insects and other little animals were hidden.
—This is awesome —she murmured.
—After some extra training, you won't even notice you're using your organ, it'll be natural, like breathing —Anchises explained.
Tarpeia did not stumble anymore. She played around Anchises chasing after hidden mice; but then, without warning, he froze up right there and Tarpeia ran into him.
—What is it? —she asked.
Anchises did not answer. They were in a valley between two hills of tall and naked trees. It was very silent. The steam could be seen being expelled from the mouth and the nostrils of the hero.
—You don't see them? —he said calmly. Tarpeia looked around and shook her head—. Yeah, your reaching area must be very limited yet...
She heard the sound of smooth steps and turned to the top of the right hill. She discerned, on the large roots that cracked the sloping earth, the silhouette of a wolf big as a horse. On the other side of the valley, more of them were appearing.
—What are we gonna do? —inquired Tarpeia, trying to count the wolves.
—For the time being, nothing. Just don't be abrupt: we don't want to get them angry. They are numerous, if they all decide to attack us, we're in serious trouble.
Tarpeia breathed deeply. She was feeling her arms and legs numb. A wolf jumped closer to them and growl with distrust. The others got closer too and began to howl and bark.
—Anchises... —Tarpeia moaned his name grabbing his cape. He did not move.
—There's another thing I want you to learn, Tarpeia —he said calmly. The wolves got closer and she pressed herself to his chest—: Fear. It's good to be scared. You are going to fear a lot in the future, and you're going to be feared too. You always have to be scared of all your opponents, that's the first clue to victory. Raise your head, Tarpeia, and gaze deeply into their eyes; those wolves are not going to hurt you, and they are scared too. The sky is large enough for everyone of us, and as a queen, you have to know that you're not the only one who will have something to protect. Fear and respect anyone else who's protecting something! We got in the territory of those wolves, they want to protect it and we have to respect them, Tarpeia.
She let go of Anchises and observed the animals barking and showing their fangs, surrounding them more and more. Suddenly, a powerful and long howling silenced the wolves and quieten down the most nervous of them. The valley became quiet again. They noticed a new wolf that had appeared; it went down the hill with four strides and drew near them with sureness, the hears pointing to the sky. It sniffed the air around Anchises, walked some steps away from him and growled at his back.
—Come on —he said—, we're going.
He went on the path and Tarpeia followed him, all the wolves still and staring at them. She looked back and saw that the wolf was also following them.
—Don't worry about him —Anchises assured her—, he's just making sure we're really leaving the territory.
—Why do all the other wolves remained silent when he howled?
—Because he is the wisest and strongest of them all, and that makes him a king.
A white hare was eating some wintry flowers near the roots of an old tree. Some birds were singing, and some others were eating around it on the ground. In the middle of that peace, the hare raised its head and moved its ears madly.
Tarpeia appeared in the air out of nowhere and the hare escaped with a jump. A frenetic race at mad speeds and sudden changes of direction began between them, avoiding fallen trunks and twisted trees, but the hare hid in a hole at the bottom of a hill before Tarpeia could even touch it. She kicked the ground, frustrated. After a sigh and a couple of deep breaths, she returned inside the forest, lurking, waiting for another hare to catch. A shadow moved at her back and she startled, but it only was a boy very similar to her. Even so, she stepped back.
—Oh, don't be frightened! —he asked, grumpy—: I am the king of storm.
—So what? I've been taught that fear is good. You should be afraid of me, too. I am the queen of thorns.
The king tilted his head with mockery.
—Great, but I don't fear you, young queen: there's no man I fear.
—What's the matter with you? A king should be...
—Well, you are in my territory, young queen, so I might kick you out of here if you're not respectful enough.
He stepped forward, but Tarpeia remained still.
—It was not my intention —she finally said—. I was only chasing after hares —her mood changed drastically from cautious to cheerful—: Would you like to chase after hares with me? We could have a hunting contest!
—Chasing hares? —he crossed his arms, unbelieving—. Which hares?
—The white ones!
—The white ones?! They're impossible to catch!
—Well, I almost did it before.
—You're bluffing your way out —he growled.
—No I'm not!
Tarpeia looked at her back and saw a hare upon a root at a distant tree. She pointed at it with a startle and disappeared in the air, raising a cloud of dust. The king tried to follow her with the gaze but failed, his eyes wide open.
—What's up, Eridani? Impressed? —asked Betelgeuse, who had just appeared next to him. Anchises was at her side.
—Not at all. I was also that fast a year ago... —he turned to Anchises—. Hares... really? Where did you get that idea from? During your exile?
—Wow, you should be more respectful, little shit —he talked back smiling—, because if not, I'll be the one kicking your impertinent ass, in or out of your territory.
The king stammered out an insult and crossed his arms, waiting for an answer. Betelgeuse laughed.
—Chasing white hares is one of the trainings they recommend to soldiers of the PAC.
—The Persecution and Annihilation Corps —said Anchises—, the northern army.
—Yeah, but how chasing hares can help? I don't get it.
—It helps to improve three of the most important features required to be in the PAC: acceleration, stamina and anticipation. Those features have to become automatic, something that can only happen between the second and the fourth month after the conversion to gyroscope charger, otherwise it would be very difficult to use the agremonic system if you have to keep thinking about them —said Betelgeuse—. The main problem in the north is the capture of thieves and fugitives, which run at speeds that would destroy the body of any non trained individual.
—That's great, but what about the other soldiers, those who are not a gyroscope charger?
—Well, they train since kids to get those features automatic —she answered simply.
—Another training she'll get in short is the hunting of golden swallows —shared Anchises.
—You must be kidding —replied Eridani.
—He's absolutely not —said Betelgeuse—, and it's also something from the PAC. Trying to catch swallows helps to learn the control of acceleration in the air, angular momentum and other forces implied in the rotational motion.
—And why didn't you teach me those things?! —he inquired irritated.
—Because you're not a persecutor! Your task is not to hunt down, but to lead groups of men and to bring down as much lightning gears as possible, since our frontiers are usually attacked by large numbers of them. You can do things that she won't learn, because she doesn't need them.
—Why didn't you choose me to serve in the PAC?! —he asked to Anchises—. Why her?
Anchises thought for some seconds and then shook his shoulders.
—She was the only one left.
—... the hell you just said?
Anchises snapped his tongue and ran his hand through his hair.
—When I returned from exile, all of you were already chosen, so I had no choice but to take her.
Eridani did not blink. Betelgeuse exploded in a guffaw.
—Kill me if that's not crystal clear!
—Anyway, you have nothing to be jealous about —said Anchises—, it's kind of dangerous to be trained for the PAC. If I don't do my work properly she'll die in the first persecution.
—Why so? —asked Eridani with annoyance.
—The high and sudden angular accelerations burden the body with large g-forces, which make the blood rush to the legs of the runner. To compensate that, the energy of the agremonic system has to be released by the feet, and not the hands, unlike you, so that the muscles of the legs are strained strong enough to force the blood back to the brain.
—The hell with that already! —he complained—, I'm proud to be the gyroscope charger of the western army.
—You'd better be! —said Betelgeuse—. Oh, come on, don't be so grouser, you want Anchises to show you Princess Scarlet?
Before Eridani could even reply, Tarpeia appeared right in front of them, raising a little cloud of dust, and raising a white hare in her hands.