I was not asked. No one cared whether I wished to sacrifice myself for my family, for my village. My mother woke me one morning and told me it was settled. She and my aunt cleansed me; combed and arranged my hair with gold and silver pins. My lips were dyed red, and my nipples, and I was painted, blue and saffron vines entwined around me, front and back, and on my face.
I don't know what my father would have thought. He had taken the sound men and gone away to join the other clans in the war against the invaders. He might have been dead by this time for all we knew. My uncle was in charge while he was gone, and my uncle was worried.
Bedrun was not a fighter. His leg had been injured; he said in a fight with a bear. The other men said he broke it running away from a badger. It had healed badly. Bedrun always said, of course he wanted to go to war with the rest, but how could he with a leg like that? The old men turned away from his words, but they didn't argue with him when he said he was to make decisions while my father was gone.
Bedrun's boys, my cousins, ran out as scouts and returned with reports of the nearness of the enemy's army. "Armies are made of men," Bedrun said to my mother. "And men eat. If the army comes here, they will strip us clean. We will die of starvation."
I didn't know if he was right or wrong. I didn't know much about war.
He convinced my mother that we should seek to turn the army away, that we should seek to appease. That we should give a gift and ask a favor in return.
Bribe the Romans. Or rather, one Roman in particular. The man in charge.
I didn't think it sounded like a very good plan, but no one asked my opinion. My uncle was full of fear, and he passed it to everyone who spoke with him.
The eagle of Rome took on the aspect of a huge carrion bird, devouring everything in it's path, dead or alive, at least in the minds of the people in my village. My clan. My family.
I suppose I was the obvious choice. My father was the head man, which might have made me seem more valuable than I actually was; he had five daughters, so losing one would not be a hardship. I was neither the oldest, nor the youngest; I was pure and untested, but I had been a woman since the spring, so I wasn't a child. There were no young men in the village to offer for me. They were all at war. Or dead. It was likely I would never marry.
If they had asked me, I might have volunteered. I knew my circumstances as well as anyone. I understood we were in danger from the invaders. But no one asked.
I asked my uncle why he thought the gift of one skinny girl would be enough to turn the army of the Romans from our doorstep. My uncle told me not to worry; a horse was included in the gift.
I wasn't worrying. I knew I wouldn't be killed. In a dream, I had Seen myself in another place, with a child in my arms. And it was Truth. I had the Sight.
We journeyed for three days, until we were very close. At the top of a hill, we looked down at the army from our hiding place.
So many men, so many tents……Many more than I could count. There was no way I could have imagined it ahead of time. Three, four, five villages taken together had not that many people. My uncle looked very pale, very frightened. It must have taken all of the little courage he possessed not to turn and run.
He hid the supplies and I was lifted onto the horse, one of a rare yellow color that my cousin had gelded by mistake. The brilliant blue of my skirt only looked the brighter spread out against his flank. Above the skirt, the painting on my skin glowed in the sun, and although I couldn't see them, I imagined the glinting of the pins in my hair.
I had never felt beautiful before that day, and I have not felt so beautiful since.
My uncle led the way, carrying a mask of the bear, the sign of our family, on a pole in his hand. My mother followed, wearing white linen, a heavy gold chain around her waist. Then me, lamb to the slaughter, being led on the gelding by one of my cousins.
Behind came The Old Man of the village, helped along by another of my cousins. I could remember when he was The Wise Man, not so very long ago. Something had happened to him, we didn't know what, but he gradually lost his wisdom, and now he was only old. But he was very old; and it was felt he would lend the proceedings a bit of weight, some gravity, some extra importance, as long as no one asked him anything.
Looking back, it amazes me that anything at all went according to my uncle's plan. We knew so little……….
My mother had debated at length the wisdom of wearing her gold chain. There was the possibility it would be stolen; but she decided the necessity of impressing the Romans with our wealth and importance outweighed the risk.
The advisability of leading a bare breasted girl into a camp of many hundreds of men was not discussed, although the correctness of the gesture was mulled over for days. And at the end my mother felt that it was better to be obvious about our intentions, better that there could be no question about what was meant.
For the problem of language was my uncle's biggest worry, and he could find no way to reduce the risk. No one in our village knew the language of the Romans, or had even heard it. There was no way to know if anyone in the Roman encampment knew ours. It could have been that we were all going to our deaths simply because no one would be able to understand why we were there.
The attention we attracted with our little procession seemed only natural to me, as beautiful as I knew myself to be. Soldiers stopped what they were doing, stood and stared at us as we passed by the sentinels without speaking, past the outer row of tents. I am not surprised, now, that the guards gave us no obstacle; I am sure they could see we were no danger to anyone. Most likely they thought we were fools, and so spared us.
My uncle stopped and intoned in his very best ritual chant our purpose, and our need to speak with the most high commander of the army.
Nothing happened. We stood for some minutes, waiting, and at length one of the soldiers turned and ran toward a cluster of tents some way down. We waited longer, and that's when the laughter started. One soldier said something to another, who laughed and repeated it. Small ripples of chuckles, nothing excessive, but enough to disconcert Bedrun. His face turned red, and he turned to the first soldier and ordered him to shut his mouth, a bluster unwise of him even if he had been a man who could defend himself.
The soldier knocked him down. He didn't get back up; he was frightened.
Another soldier stepped forward, coins jingling in his hand. He spoke, gestured toward me, and let the coins fall from one hand to the other.
Another soldier approached the gelding, and tore the reins from my cousin's hand. He roared a challenge to the others, and the laughter was louder, more general.
I was very glad when a man appeared who seemed to have some authority over the others. He spoke sharply, and the soldiers stopped laughing. He motioned to us to follow him. The soldier who knocked my uncle down now helped him up.
We walked a very long way, past more men than I had supposed lived in the entire world. The tents that we walked past grew more rich. All made from heavy fabric, but larger, big enough to stand upright in, with more equipment, more people who were obviously servants working around them. The tent we stopped in front of was very large. The flap opened and several men came out.
My uncle bowed to the first man, and began to speak, in the singsong way he had done before. I interrupted him.
"Uncle. Do not sing. I think no one here sings."
"Silly girl! Be quiet!" He was angry with me.
I was angry with him. He brought me here to save everyone, and he was making a fool of us all. "And you are speaking to the wrong man." I spoke louder, more boldly. I had nothing to lose. "It is not the man in blue you should speak to, but the man in red." I pointed as I spoke, so there could be no mistake.
The man with the red garment beneath his armor was not the tallest, not the oldest. Not the most handsome or the ugliest. He didn't look smug, or vain, or evil, as we supposed all Romans were. He didn't hold himself apart from the others; his men were comfortable with him, neither afraid nor fawning. There was nothing I could tell my uncle to look at. And yet…..I knew him from the others, as one knows the wolf from the cringing hearth dog. It was in the ease of his stance, in the clasp of his hands, one over the other in front of him, even in the way his robe sat on his shoulders. It was in his face.
Of course he didn't know the words I spoke, but he knew what I'd said. He inclined his head to me, and then spoke to my uncle.
Bedrun shot me an evil look, and began again, this time directing his chant toward the right person.
"No singing," I said.
He would have liked to slap me. He thought I was ruining this for him. It didn't matter. When he and my mother left here, I would be staying. He would never have the opportunity to slap me again. That made me smile.
The Man in Red turned and spoke to a servant near the tent. That man left. The Man in Red held up a hand, as if to tell us to stay, and spoke again, to us, to the men around him, to others. If my uncle didn't see it before, he surely could see it now. Everyone did this man's bidding. He was the ruler of these many hundred-men, and I was to be his.
I grew faint with excitement. At least I think that's what it was. I suppose it's possible it was hunger. I had not eaten since the day before, at midday. The chill of the breeze on my bare skin is all that saved me, I think, from falling off the horse.
A young man rushed up, adjusting his clothing. The Man in Red spoke to him, raised an eyebrow, and the young man blushed. He looked up, saw me…….and blushed again, redder and hotter. I smiled again, at him.
He turned and greeted my uncle in our language. Almost. The words were nearly the same, but twisted strangely in his mouth. It was hard to understand him, and I couldn't catch more than the main words.
Bedrun took his time, flattering and fawning. He spoke and spoke and spoke. The young man said a few words to the Man in Red whenever there was a pause, until he frowned and looked confused and stopped interpreting.
"Uncle," I said. "You must get to the point. You are boring the head man."
The young man interpreted what I said.
"I have had enough from you," Bedrun said. "If you can't be quiet, I'll have to-
"What? What can you do to me?"
I had gone too far. Bedrun's expression turned ugly. "Perhaps we won't give you to the Romans. Perhaps we'll sacrifice you to their gods instead."
The young man interpreted everything. The Man in Red spoke.
"Come in," the young man said, and gestured toward the tent. "We can look on the……" he searched for the word, "…..the picture, on the table, for your town."
The Man in Red had already gone in. Bedrun must go or look foolish. He went.
The invitation had been spoken to Bedrun, but I slid off the gelding and went in as well. My mother caught my arm and tried to stop me, I pushed her away. She was selling me to the Romans. I no longer cared for her feelings.
I expected the furnishings inside the tent to shout, "I am rich and powerful," at me, but they didn't. The luxury was subtle. The fabrics were finer, the chairs little more than plain, but of quality. It was not crowded with wealth, there was plenty of room for people. And it suited him.
His eyes followed me as I entered. Everyone else was bent over the map on the table. My uncle was trying to find his bearings on it. Finally he pointed with his finger at a spot. The man next to him frowned and shook his head. The interpreter squinted at the map. "No," he said. "…..can't…..no….."
"No, it isn't." That was what the young man had meant to say. I looked at the map, found the rivers, found the hills, saw by the markers where we were now. The spot my uncle had pointed at was weeks away.
The interpreter glanced at my breasts, blushed, and nodded. "Isn't."
I pointed at a place that I thought must be near our village. The Man in Red looked.
Can I express how powerful I felt? I was the center of attention. I was beautiful, I was smart. I was perfect for the Man in Red. A corner of his mouth curled up as he glanced at me, an almost-smile just for me.
He spoke at length. The interpreter listened and then he said, "Village not harmed. The gelding not a generous gift, better to give a stallion or…..or……"
"Mare," I said. I studied the map further. Our army was marked in one place, this army was marked in another…….The only reason for the Romans to come to our village would be if they lost their way. They were aimed in the opposite direction. My uncle was a fool.
He sighed. "Mare….., but you are poor. Genrul will keep horse. You may keep girl. Genrul thinks…..you need her."
I could not breathe for a moment. The young, stupid man who couldn't keep his eyes from my breasts had made a mistake. The Man in Red-his name was Genrul-could not have said he didn't want me.
"No," I said. "That's wrong. You're stupid. That's not what he said."
He blushed again, but this time I thought it was in anger.
"I said what he told me."
"No, you didn't." I turned on the interpreter and punched him in the stomach. "Now say it right."
Genrul spoke. I knew the sharp words were aimed at me. I knelt down at his feet, rested my head against the cloth that covered his thigh, closed my eyes. He must not send me away. He must want me.
The interpreter shouted at me, "You stupid girl!" He was holding his stomach. "Genrul doesn't need you. Or your stupid plowhorse." He walked over to me and said, "He has 10 horses better. He could have any woman. What would he want with you? He was letting head man go with honor."
"Go away or I'll hit you again," I said.
Genrul spoke quietly. The young man sat down and sulked. I felt a touch of fingers on my hair, then his hand curled around my arm, and he pulled me to my feet.
His eyes weren't the light ice blue of my people, but deeper, darker blue. Unsettling. And they were looking at me. He spoke, just as if I could understand him. He pointed at my uncle, he gestured……he was telling me I had to go.
"No," I said in my language.
"Yes," he said in his.
My uncle grabbed my wrist and pulled me after him. I struggled, he slapped me, I fell. He dragged me outside the tent, and then pulled the Ancestor's Knife out of his belt.
I didn't know he'd brought it. It was a stone knife, very old, handed down from father to son so many times that no one remembered who it belonged to in the beginning. It was used for rituals, and it was so sharp that it was said you could cut off a man's hand and he wouldn't know it until he saw the blood.
My mother screamed. My uncle was much stronger than I was; I bit, I scratched, I kicked; but I couldn't escape. I was going to die.
Genrul bellowed. My uncle looked up. I kicked him as hard as I could. The knife flashed.