I spent the next few days listening.
Sisro was a stranger to me. Sometimes I would turn and catch him looking at me. Then he'd look away. He didn't talk to me. He didn't smile at me. My friend was gone.
Genrul was still very busy. He didn't smile at me either. His chieftains were there in his tent often, looking over the big map, talking to each other.
I stayed hidden while they were there. Back in corners or behind furniture, still and quiet; watching sometimes, when I thought I wouldn't get caught. I could hear everything, I just didn't understand it. I didn't have anything else to do, so I listened.
I heard the Roman word for my people often. Some other words I heard over and over again. Once in a while, I'd hear a word Sisro had taught me.
On the fourth day, the chieftains stayed later than usual, arguing with each other. Genrul looked tired. I waited for a while…..but I was hungry, and when I couldn't wait any longer, I sneaked toward the hearth to grab some meat and cakes. One of the chieftains saw me. He stood and pointed, and I could tell by the tone of his words that he was angry with me, too. I couldn't believe Genrul would tell him about Sisro and I, and as far as I knew, I had done nothing else wrong. He must be one of those that thought me a spy.
I didn't understand what secrets they thought I might carry back to my family. Were they trying to hide ten thousand men and horses? Did they think there was anybody in the entire land that didn't know they were here?
Genrul twisted in his chair to look at me, too. I was afraid he was thinking about the chieftain's words, whatever they were. How could I defend myself?
I had no chance at all if I cowered silent in the corner.
I went to Genrul and knelt by his chair. Again, I let my forehead touch the floor. And then I spoke.
"I am not a spy. I have been forsaken by my family and have taken Genrul as my king. I wish only to be allowed to serve him."
It was difficult to be calm and dignified, but I tried. I knew they didn't understand the words, but perhaps they might hear the meaning in my voice.
Genrul took a deep breath and frowned. He spoke to the chieftain, just a few words. Not loud, not angry…….but not to be argued with. The chieftain sat with poor grace. I took Genrul's hand from where it rested on the arm of the chair and pressed my forehead to the back of it.
"Don't send me away. Let me stay. I will be good."
I was afraid when he pulled his hand from mine, but then he said the word I had heard him say before when he spoke to me……I supposed it was my Roman name. Touched his finger to my cheek, then gestured for me to go, back to my corner, to be silent and unseen again.
Another chieftain stood, this one not so angry, but more sly. His gaze flicked between Genrul and I, and I knew from the curve of his mouth he was saying something nasty about us. And I saw the change come across Genrul's face as he listened to the man's words. He was angry but refused to speak so to this man.
I loved hearing Genrul's quiet voice. Even when he was angry, as now, his voice was calm and deep; it made something inside me ache to listen to the beauty of it.
More talk. Other chieftains offering their limp opinions. Some of them stood, some became quite excited. It was interesting, watching them. I wasn't certain, but I assumed they were still talking about me.
I didn't go back to my corner as I was told. Yes, my promise to be good had been forgotten rather quickly, but Genrul didn't tell me again to go. I sat on the rug by his chair. Once his hand rested on my hair, and he looked down at me for an instant.
I remember these things, these small and perhaps insignificant things; I hold them in my memory as treasures, to tell to my child when she is old enough to understand. I was young in the time of greatness, and lucky enough to have touched a Man among men. She will not see such a one. How else will she know if I don't tell her?
One of the chieftains sent a guard out. Genrul sighed, a frustrated puff of air I didn't expect to hear. He smiled at me when I looked anxiously into his face, and told me, I think, not to worry.
The guard came back with the interpreter.
He bowed to all the chieftains before he looked at me. Then he smiled. The chieftains were speaking to him, giving him instructions, but he ignored them. Instead he asked me his own question. "Are you married yet?" His smile infuriated me.
I stood. I would have liked to knock the smirk off his face, but he was on the other side of the table. Genrul was watching, but I could not be good. I couldn't.
"Are you a man yet?" I asked.
He stopped smiling. He was not good at hiding his feelings. He would have liked to hit me, too. "You will be sorry for mocking me," he said.
He spoke loudly in Roman, interrupting the chieftains, talking and talking and pointing at me, and I supposed he was saying I was preparing to murder them all in their sleep, or that I was a witch, or perhaps just that I was a German and shouldn't be allowed to live. Genrul stood and told him to be quiet, but he just kept talking until Genrul grabbed a handful of his shirt and told him with a shake to be still. Genrul asked him a question, and he answered, and sneered at me.
Genrul called for Sisro, who had been just on the other side of the canvas, listening. He asked a question, he said the word for "married" in my language, and Sisro answered him. He asked a question about the word "man" in my language, and Sisro answered him again. I couldn't remember if Sisro had asked me about those words in German or not.
The interpreter suddenly looked less assured, less arrogant. Genrul spoke, and I didn't know the words, but I knew he was asking the interpreter if he wanted to tell the truth, instead of the lies he'd been telling.
An interpreter must be honest. He must be trustworthy. Life or death issues can hang on his choice of words. An interpreter who is known to lie isn't much good for anything. Who can trust him?
I was less wise then, than I am now. I laughed. I hooted. I taunted him with his stupidity. When he realized he'd thrown his life into the pit, and because of me……..it was only natural that he try to punish me for it.
He leapt on the table, and over it, with his hands outstretched to catch me. I turned to run, but Sisro caught me up, and held me close to him, shielding me with his shoulder while Genrul grabbed the interpreter's clothing and yanked him back. His feet slipped. His head cracked against the table. He meant to get up and try again, I think, but Genrul's knife was at his throat, and he thought better of it.
The guards took him away. Genrul spoke a challenge to the chieftains. In my village, a challenge that sounded like that would have meant a fight to determine the possessor of the stronger will; but here there were dark looks from the troublemakers, and nothing more. It was easy to see the men Genrul could trust, and those that he couldn't. I didn't understand why he didn't kill the ones he couldn't trust, and put better men in their places. That's what I would have done, if I were the king. Perhaps Genrul was kinder than me.
Sisro didn't let me go immediately. He held me while we watched the guards take the interpreter away, and while the chieftains took their leave of Genrul. When I looked up into his face, he was already looking at me first.
I decided to test his German. "Friends?" I asked.
He didn't answer for a long time. I had just decided he hadn't understood me when he said, "No. Friends…..no."
He had not forgiven me. It seemed to me that Romans held grudges longer than normal people, so perhaps he would never forgive me. Perhaps even though he knew a little German, I would still have no one to speak to. Forever. The thought brought tears to my eyes.
He said the name that Genrul called me, my Roman name. "Friends, no," he said again. Then he kissed me, not on the cheek like a friend, but as he had kissed me when I came to his bed; on the lips, and deeper, like a lover.
I cannot say I disliked his kiss……but always, always, in my mind I held Genrul before any other man. It may be that I still do……
Two days later, something interesting happened. A huge commotion signaled the arrival in camp of large wagons, wonderfully dressed guards, white horses with tails flowing. I peeked out of the tent flap, watching the men set up extravagant tents and carry furniture into them. The next day there were more horses and guards and wagons. It was not long before Genrul brought someone from this second caravan into our tent.
An old man. Very old, with white hair; slow and cautious when he walked. Genrul took great care with him. Gave him the best chair; Sisro brought out the best wine.
He seemed very tired. He lay his head back and closed his eyes, but he didn't sleep. He and Genrul talked for a long time.
I had never seen Genrul behave as he behaved with this old man. He spoke always respectfully; he deferred to the old man in all things. I decided this must be the Wise Man of the Romans, come to advise Genrul about the war.
The old man had brought a box of papers with him, and gave it to Genrul, who seemed pleased with it. A gift. And would Genrul give him a gift in return?
The old man shifted in his chair, and smiled and said something that made Genrul look down at the floor, and nod…….not embarrassed, exactly; but rueful. The old man asked a question and looked around the tent.
Genrul called my name, my Roman name.
Gifts. They were exchanging gifts.
I became suddenly frightened. If the old man wanted me, would Genrul give me away to him? Yes, of course he would. I wouldn't be able to bear it. Everything I had gone through……and then to be given away. No.
I ran into the back. Took my hair out of its plait, scrubbed my fingers through it, tangling it, letting it fall over my face. I caught up some of the cloths for bathing, and stuffed them inside my clothing around my waist.
Sisro was coming to find me. I had to hurry. I rubbed my hands in the soot on the outside of the lamp, and then on my face, through my hair.
The look on Sisro's face when he saw me would have been funny if I hadn't been so frightened. I ran past him to stand by Genrul's chair. Genrul also looked astounded. The old man raised an eyebrow and asked a quiet question.
He was old. He would want a woman to rouse him. He surely wouldn't want a dirty fat girl. I was praying to my gods, silently, while the two men looked at me and spoke to each other, that Genrul wouldn't tell the old man what I had done, wouldn't press me on him.
None of it made any difference. My German gods had no power over the Romans; or they didn't care to stir themselves. Sisro made me brush my hair and replait it; he reached inside my clothing and removed the cloths; and he washed my face himself.
"Please, Sisro," I said, while he was scrubbing the greasy black off my face. "Don't let the old man take me away. Please. I want to stay with Genrul and you." I leaned forward and kissed him. "Please. Help me stay." I kissed him again.
I could see him thinking. "Stay?" he said in German.
I nodded. "Yes, yes. Stay. Help me stay." His gaze lowered to my lips. I put my arms around his neck, and kissed him much harder.
He thought some more. Then he stood, and took my hand, and pulled me with him to the room where Genrul and the old man sat.
Sisro whispered something into my ear as he pushed me forward, and when I looked back at him, he grinned.
The old man spoke to me, and held out his hand.
I wouldn't go.
Yes, alright, they could make me go, they could tie me up and load me on a mule, but I wouldn't help them. I stepped back so the old man couldn't reach me. Edged toward Genrul, who was frowning. Sisro said a few words in Roman, and Genrul stopped frowning. He said my Roman name, and I crouched down next to his chair.
"Please, Genrul, do not give me away. I am not much use, I know, but I will find something I can do for you. I will do whatever you want me to do, and I won't complain." I realized I had said the wrong thing. What he wanted me to do was to go with the old man, and I didn't want to do that. "Please, please." My eyes filled up with tears.
I had never cried when I was a girl. I fell out of a tree once, and there was a great deal of blood, and my head hurt for many days, and I didn't shed a tear. Since I had become a woman, I cried for every small thing, even when it was not really a thing to cry over. It was annoying.
Genrul leaned toward me……..I wanted so much to know what he was saying……..but I didn't. I couldn't tell if he was explaining why I had to go; or if he was telling me I could stay.
I must convince him to keep me, somehow; but I couldn't throw myself at him as I had at Sisro. I wasn't sure why. Perhaps it was because I knew Sisro wanted me in his bed, and I wasn't sure that Genrul did. In fact, I was almost sure he didn't. He was the king. Who would have refused him? He would surely have taken me by now if he'd wanted to.
I don't know what it was. I wanted to throw my arms around his neck again; I certainly wanted to kiss him as I'd kissed Sisro. I'd dreamed of going to his bed, and being welcome there as I'd been in Sisro's bed……..but I didn't do any of those things, and I didn't know why.
I lowered my forehead to his thigh, and let the tears run. Clutched his leg like a little girl, and begged him not to send me away.
The old man spoke softly. I knew one of the words he said……and I realized he had said I was frightened. He reached for me, and tilted my chin up, turned my face this way and that, then sat back, and spoke again to Genrul, who shook his head and said Sisro's name in his string of words. The old man nodded.
He left without me. It was possible he didn't want me in the first place; it was possible I had convinced Genrul with my tears to keep me. It was even possible Genrul had never meant to give me away to him at all. There was no way to know.
I couldn't sleep for thinking about it. Genrul kept me…..this time. What about the next time? I was still a little shaken; still frightened. I must try harder to learn the language of the Romans, but that was not enough. I must do more than that. There must be something else I could do, some way to make sure Genrul would never want to give me away.
I thought hard all night. And before morning, I thought of something……..
My grandmother taught me many things before she died. Not everything she knew. That would have taken many more years. But she taught me how to open my mind to the Seeing. She tried to teach me how to recognize omens, but I was never very good at that. She taught me herbs, and their uses; she taught me roots. She taught me the habits of the birds, and the cony, and the bear, none of which I could ever see the use of, but I learned them.
Some of the things I learned had to be a secret. My mother thought I should be learning useful things, like beer-making, and spinning. The Seeing had to be kept to myself, and never discussed when my mother was around. And other things…….like the magical runes. Like the spells. I would have been whipped at the very least, if my family knew I had been trespassing into the provinces of even the simple witchery my grandmother knew.
My grandmother died before she taught me everything. And I had never gotten a chance to use any of the spells I learned. But I remembered them. This seemed like the perfect time to try one………