In my village, it was always very quiet at night. Everyone, animals and people alike, slept. Not in the army camp. Some of the soldiers slept, but some talked, gambled, laughed; horses snuffed and pawed the ground, restless; fires crackled. It was a long walk through all the tents until I was out of reach of the light from all the fires, longer yet until I was in the trees. And then I walked until I was tired, and it was quiet.
I looked down at myself. Genrul's wife had big breasts and round hips. She wasn't like me at all. She was beautiful.
I imagined her. Did he love her? Had they been married a long time? If I was married to Genrul, I wouldn't want to be away from him for a minute. I would want to be close enough to touch him. I would want to lie with him. How could she bear it?
It was cold. I thought to myself, I should have brought a robe….then I realized it wouldn't matter. I had no food. Nowhere to go. There were bears in this forest. There were wolves. Soldiers from either army might see me and decide I was an enemy.
I closed my eyes, and dreamed of Genrul just out of his bath, with the water running down his chest, dreamed of his thighs as he stepped onto the rug, his arms as he reached for the cloths, dreamed the dream of the heat of his skin next to mine. And then I remembered his eyes, the annoyance there as he looked at me, standing in his way, a nuisance; and I was too unimportant for him to do more than walk around me……….
I let myself weep.
The sun was far up in the sky when I woke. It was shady under the trees, it should have been cool….but I felt hot, my mouth was dry. I felt the way I felt the first few days after my uncle cut me, with the sickness that followed wounds; but my chest was healing well, that couldn't be the cause. I felt heavy-headed. I was thirsty. And I didn't care enough to get up. I lay back on the cool leaves and shut my eyes again.
The next time I woke, I heard the horses all around me. My first thought was, I will be trampled. The horses are running through the forest and they will pound me into the dirt before they know I am here. It was silly, the horses couldn't have gone very fast around all the trees, over the roots that had heaved themselves out of the ground, without hurting themselves, but I didn't think about that. I thought, this is how I will die.
I didn't care enough to get up and try to run away.
The next time I woke, I was being jostled, bouncing, on the hard floor of a cart. My head hurt. I thought of jumping off the cart…..but I was too ill to jump anywhere. I fell instead; and landed in the dust. I didn't pay any attention to the horses hooves dancing around me; I didn't think how I came to be where I was……..I dimly heard the shouts, and the clang of swords, and didn't wonder about any of it at all…..
I was never told whether I was found under the tree by the Germans or the Romans. I don't remember much of the battle; and even after I came back to myself and was able to consider it, I had no illusion that the battle was fought over me.
I have always supposed the meeting of the two small parties was a random thing, a surprise for both sides. And I don't know whether one side or the other won or whether one side or the other decided to retreat without a victory or defeat. I didn't ask. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered.
The wretched interpreter had shown me the truth with his laughter. I no longer had a home or family. I was useless, good for none of the purposes for which I had been raised. I had been chosen as someone easily done without, and then had been given to a man who didn't want me. No one wanted me. I was not a person, I was nothing but a nuisance; and it didn't matter to anyone, not even to myself, whether I lived or died.
Of course I didn't die.
The first thing I saw when I woke again was Sisro's scarred face. He was wiping my face with cool water. He spoke to me; again, just as if I could understand what he said to me. I almost felt that I could. He turned away and spoke to someone behind him.
The interpreter lounged in a chair there. When he spoke, I knew he was not repeating what Sisro had told him to say. Why should he? Who would know?
"The other officers think you are a spy," he said, pausing once to search for the word for "spy". "They want to kill you. The Genrul says you are not a spy. He keeps you here. So you live. At least for now."
I shut my eyes. I hurt all over. Part of me wanted to die, but I knew I wouldn't. I was a little less ill now; and I remembered I had Seen myself, later in my life, with a child in my arms. So I lived.
I lived, and I became well, but it was slow. I stayed on the pallet in the back of Genrul's tent for a long time. When I could sit, I looked at myself in the silver of the basin of water for washing. A strange girl looked back at me; a girl with sunken cheeks, and shadowed eyes. Thin and pale and weak. No one that I knew.
The interpreter came to torment me every few days. The girl I had been would have taunted him, cursed him, hit him. I was not who I had thought I was, and I could no longer do any of those things. Each time he came, I shut my eyes and turned my head toward the canvas of the tent until he left.
And then one day, while I was ignoring him, I heard the deep rasp of Genrul's voice, near me, and then the interpreter's humble reply, no doubt telling lies about me.
I opened my eyes. He was standing there, looking down at me. He had on his armor, and held his helmet in the curve of his arm. He was magnificent; truly a king. Strong enough to rule hundreds of hundred-men with nothing but the force of his will. I had been foolish to believe I might ever be his queen.
The interpreter spoke in a reasonable tone of voice, as if repeating Genrul's words, but he said, "I suppose you'd like to know what he said, wouldn't you?" I shook my head. I resolved never to speak another word to that wretched man. I raised my hand, and grabbed for the edge of the red cloak Genrul wore, to pull myself up. I think I had no real notion what I meant to do; but as it turned out, I could do little. I was still weak, and could not pull myself up farther than my knees, though I clutched his cloak with both hands. My heart was pounding, I began to tremble. Genrul spoke, this time to me, and then……..he crouched next to me. I could hardly believe it. I think he meant to try to convince me to let go his clothing.
I must have appeared much braver than I was…..I hardly considered what I was doing……I threw my arms around Genrul's neck, and pulled myself close to him. His knee touched the floor, to keep his balance, and I straddled his thigh. I tore the front of my garment open and tried to push my breasts against him, so he would remember that, while mine might not be big and beautiful, at least they were there; I was a woman. His armor was cold against my chest.
And I whispered into his ear. I knew he couldn't understand me, and in a way, that made it easier to say what I wanted to say. I told him I understood that I was just a girl, that he couldn't love me. I asked to stay with him; I pleaded, I begged……please, please, I said, can you not want me just a little?
I didn't mean to cry. But he didn't push me away, and so I kept talking, and soon tears wet his neck. I spoke, and cried, and he listened to me.
A comfort, his big hand on my back; warm through my thin clothing, and rough, snagging the weave. I buried my face in his neck and held on. I felt the rasp of his voice in my body and if I had not already been so weak, I might have been made weak by it.
Did I love him? I loved him as the servant loves her master. He was a Roman, and I was a German, and by rights I should have hated him for crushing the armies of my land under his heel. Instead I saw him as the king I believed him to be, and if the men from my village could have seen him as I saw him, they would have laid down their weapons and sworn loyalty to him.
I loved him as a waif loves the man who keeps her from cold and hunger. No one else had any use for me at all. He became my savior.
I loved him in the way a girl loves the first man who heats her blood. If my pulse pounded when I was next to him, I knew no other reason than because I loved him. I wasn't entirely untouched, there had been the fumbling kisses in the dark, but I was a virgin and still young enough to believe the body mirrors the soul.
I had never loved any man more, or in any other way. That day, I would have given him anything he wished and asked for nothing in return……..
I grew slowly stronger. Sisro learned a few words of my language just by talking to me and listening; and he tried to teach me the Roman language, but I was slow to learn. The interpreter wasn't called back to Genrul's tent. Sisro guided me instead with frowns and head shakes, or smiles and nods.
Approaching Genrul when he was with his chieftains was bad. Mending the straps on Genrul's belts and sheathes was good. Shucking off my clothes and climbing into Genrul's bed to wait for him was very bad. That earned me more than a frown; I thought Sisro would yank my arm off pulling me out from under the blankets. Cooking sweet cakes was good; Genrul ate six of them.
He rode away again for several days, and came back sweaty and dirty and tired like the first time. This time he let me pour the hot water for him and scrub his back. When I tried to help him with the front, he caught my hand and laughed. Reached over the side for a jug of cold water, poured it over me, and laughed some more.
Most of the time he was too busy to spare a thought for me. He consulted with his advisors; pored over the big map; studied his packet of papers. Rode out, came back; rode out, came back. We packed and moved the camp once. It was much like moving a town. I was amazed. Everyone seemed to know what to do, and it was done much more quickly than I could have imagined possible.
Three pigs escaped from the pig boys after we arrived, and ran through the camp. One quite large one decided to ask Genrul for asylum, and galloped through the opening and into the back of his tent while he was eating the evening meal. Sisro shooed it, bellowed at it, flapped his arms. Any fool could see he was frightening it, not driving it. I heard a great many Roman curses that day; I believe Sisro used them all.
It galloped around and around the tent, knocking over things and letting go manure. I attempted to stay out of its way, but it veered once and shot through my legs, picking me up off the floor and then dumping me on my face several feet away when it turned suddenly. Genrul sat at his ease in his chair and watched us and laughed.
Sisro stopped chasing the pig; the pig trotted outside of its own will; more curses. Sisro took my arm to help me up. His foot slipped in a pile of pig manure, and we both went down on the floor again.
We were giggling, all of us; Sisro's arms went around me, and I shrieked as he pulled me over into the green and slimy mess he was sitting in. The grin on my face felt unfamiliar, I wondered when last I had felt so happy.
I looked into the Genrul's amused face just beside and above me, and thought suddenly, Is there anyone more beautiful? I had not considered the beauty of his face before, only that of his body.
His face wasn't perfect. It was a warrior's face, with little pits and lumps, scars and scratches, an untrimmed two-day beard, and the little wrinkles that years in the sun had written on his skin. But when he felt joy, as now, the joy shone from it, and if joy isn't beauty, then what is?
Sisro stopped laughing first. He still had me tight around the waist, pulled against him, and he held me longer than I would have expected. I turned around to look at him, and he touched my mouth with his finger as he spoke. Then he smiled, gave me a quick squeeze, and let me go. I watched him rise and go into the back to change his clothes.
Genrul watched him leave as well. The look he turned on me next was thoughtful. He stroked his beard, as he did, and I wondered what was on his mind……..
He became even busier after that. The whole camp was busy, preparing for something, expectant. I hardly saw Genrul at all when he wasn't with his chieftains.
What happened next was wholly my fault.
I was a woman newly made, young; my blood pounded through my veins in the night. And the man I loved, my Genrul, never touched me.
Sisro touched me. Not at first. I had to encourage him. I am ashamed to admit I enjoyed teasing Sisro. I felt again that power I had felt only for a few days, when I had thought myself still beautiful, still someone of worth, destined to be the wife of a powerful and handsome man; and I reveled in it. Right up until I found myself on my back with Sisro above me poised to take the only thing of value I had left ……..
As I say, it was my own fault.
A sleepless night, a night of rushing tides inside my body, of hunger for a man. Genrul had ignored me during the meal, and slept immediately after. I dared not wake him. His growls and grunts of displeasure might not intimidate Sisro, but they did me.
It seems stupid now to say I didn't go to Sisro thinking of giving myself to him, but it's the truth. I only wanted to be held and kissed and petted…….I woke him for that, for the taste of his mouth, the scent of his skin……the safety in his arms. I suppose I thought, as a child would, that my friend would hold me and I would sleep.
I had not thought how it would appear to him. I didn't see it as he did, as a woman coming to his bed. He gave me the kisses I wanted, speaking softly to me between them in a strange language, a whispered music in my ear. He smoothed my hair, he held me tight. I had not thought of him parting my legs with his knees, settling himself on me. It was unexpected, but it was good, I didn't want him to stop, the feeling of him at my entrance was exactly what my body wanted.
I hadn't foreseen it. I had not thought what it would mean. In that moment, as he prepared to take me, some of the clouds of desire lifted from my mind, and I realized just what this would mean to me. Afterward.
I would be his woman. If he wanted me to be. If he didn't, I would be a whore, a camp follower, a woman to use and discard.
I had never seen a woman in Genrul's tent. He was a soldier, but I had never seen him with a whore. Whether I was Sisro's woman or a whore, Genrul would never look at me again. I would be lost.
I longed for Genrul's arms around me even as I wanted to lift my hips to Sisro. It was a pain inside me. I could not choose, there was no time to consider…….
I opened my mouth and screamed.
Sisro was understandably startled. I pushed him away from me, and wept from the sorrow of denying us both.
He backed away on his hands and knees. I had half expected him to put his hand over my mouth and take me anyway. Another man might have done that, but not dear Sisro.
One thing after another, none of them considered beforehand, all unexpected…..
Like Genrul's anger. I was on Sisro's pallet weeping when Genrul entered. Sisro was crouched on the floor against the opposite canvas wall, watching me.
He stood and answered Genrul's questions. I wished now that I had been a better student at Sisro's lessons, so I could explain to Genrul as well as to Sisro, so that I could tell them my sorrow. I couldn't think of the words in Roman.
Genrul listened to Sisro, but what could Sisro tell him more than that he had not tried to rape me? When Genrul turned and spoke to me, he pointed to the front of the tent, jabbing with his finger in the air. The heat in his voice shriveled my puny power, my silly desires; burned in my heart.
He was telling me he knew I was a faithless trull, I was sure of it. I was afraid he was telling me to leave. I didn't understand why I had been allowed to remain here, and so I had no way to know when or why I might be made to leave.
I couldn't leave. If I was made to leave, I would die of sorrow, I would die of loneliness; and if I didn't, the other Romans who thought I was a spy would kill me…..or I would starve……or the wolves would eat me. And I no longer wanted to die.
Yes, I had Seen myself with a babe, and so I was sure I would live…….but my grandmother used to say that we must help fate keep its promises…….
I didn't have the words to tell him I knew what a stupid girl I was. I had to ask forgiveness without words.
I crawled the few steps to just in front of his bare feet, and touched my forehead to the rug. "I'm sorry," I said. "Please forgive me. Don't make me go away. I will be good. I will make sweet cakes every day, and never get in the way. I will sleep all alone every night." I blinked back my tears, but they came out my nose, and I had to sniffle.
Another string of words, and I heard Sisro's name. Yes, I should apologize to Sisro, too…….but he walked away before I could do that, picked up his clothing, and walked out. Genrul followed him. They had not accepted my apology, Sisro would not even hear it.
I went to the corner where my pallet was, and I stayed there. I could hear the murmur of their voices as they spoke with each other, and when they were silent, I strained to hear their breathing.
The rest of the night was very long.