The Spell of Binding.
Dangerous, my grandmother said. Not to be used lightly. Not at all like an ordinary love charm. I didn't listen when my grandmother told me all the details, I was angry with boys just then, and knew I would never want a love charm of any kind. Why would I want a snotty, dirty boy hanging on my skirt?
But I remembered the list of ingredients; my grandmother gave me a stripe with her switch if I forgot any part of it. And I remembered the words to say. And I wanted to use it now.
Genrul had a wife; I didn't consider her. If she loved him, she would be here with him. Wouldn't she? I loved him. I should have him.
That's what I told myself. I loved him, yes; I had been watching him, listening to him, studying him. I watched him at his prayers; and you could see on his face that he actually meant whatever it was he was saying. No hypocrisy. I hoped the gods he prayed to appreciated that. It impressed me.
And I watched him with Sisro. Sisro was a servant, but Genrul didn't beat him, Genrul spoke with him, laughed with him……I'd never seen a man treat his servant like a friend.
Like any other man, he ate, he slept, he cursed, he laughed……but he was bigger somehow than other men; nobler, better. I could hear it in his voice when he spoke, I could see it in his face. I spent hours yearning for him.
And yet, I think the main reason I was moved to the dangerous step of using an untried spell was not my desire for a man, even so fine a one as Genrul, but my need to feel safe. It was clear to me after the time I'd spent in the Roman camp that my people must fall. If Genrul didn't give me away to another important man (my first fear), he might decide I didn't need protection after the end of the war. Or worse yet, he might decide to go home to his wife. Then what would become of me?
Sisro thought it strange at first when I made him understand that I wanted to gather herbs, but he went with me outside the perimeter of the camp to find what I needed. Soon there were little fragrant bundles of greenery hanging from the tent ropes, drying. I used the edible ones in soups, and made herb cakes. I discovered what flavors Genrul liked, and made teas for him to drink. It wasn't long before my new industry was no longer remarked upon.
Don't ask me for the recipe for the spell; I won't give it to you. There are times when I think I should have heeded my mother and learned to spin. And then there are times when I know I wouldn't have changed a thing that happened even if I could have……
After I had all the ingredients I could gather in advance, I had to wait for the dark night of the month; Grandmother had said the bond would be born small and grow with the moon. I rehearsed the words of the spell in my bed at night.
I was very nervous. If I made a mistake, I would have to wait another month to try again. But it all went well. At first.
Genrul and Sisro both drank the tea with the special ingredient. Sisro didn't care for it much and had only one cup. Genrul frowned a little and sniffed at his cup, and I thought my heart would stop. I suppose I must have looked frightened. He smiled at me, chucked me under the chin, and had two more cups. I remember that smile; when the way looks dark before me, I call the memory of it up, and it holds me up, a buoy to keep me from sinking in the river of despair……I can still feel the touch of his hand on my hair when he rose from his chair.
I felt like a traitor. Treasonous, full of guilt; but not so guilty as to prevent me from going on……
He went to his bed as he always did, and I don't think he noticed anything different. Sisro also went to his bed, and then me. I waited, sweating; the sliver of moon was overhead before I dared to rise again from my pallet.
Sisro was still. I whispered his name. He didn't stir. He breathed deep, in and out. I touched his shoulder. Poked him. He didn't move at all. I retrieved the supplies from where they were hidden, and began.
Some ingredients had to come from the persons involved. Thus the herb for sleep; so that I could take what I needed from Genrul with no questions to answer, no refusals. I will not tell you what I took from him, nor what I contributed myself. I mixed them with the other ingredients, chanted the words to the spell, invoking the spirits of the earth, and of flame……and realized he could not drink. I dribbled a little into his mouth, and waited. I thought he would not swallow, but finally he did. I dribbled a little more…….and waited longer. I dared not give him any more for fear that he'd choke; maybe it would be enough. And then I drank my share.
He didn't move. Such a deep sleep---I watched him for ten counts before I saw his chest rise and fall. I lay my hand over his heart. The beat, when I finally felt it, was slow, so slow. And his skin was cold.
Fear rose in my throat. Had I made the tea too strong? Had he drunk too much? Had I killed him?
Perhaps Romans were different from other people. Perhaps something that we could drink or eat was bad for them. I would have sent a plea to those gods that I felt listened to me, but I didn't think any of the German gods would be quick to help a Roman. And none of the Roman gods knew me.
They knew Genrul, though. Surely if I asked in his name, they'd do what they could. I opened the cabinet he used for his prayers, and asked his gods to watch over the man who paid them homage every day.
He was so still. He was a strong man, how could a little tea have affected him so much? I tried to remember what my grandmother had said about the herb I'd used; she'd said it was dangerous, but I didn't think she meant dangerous to the body. She didn't teach me the poisons and venoms. Why would she?
She was always clucking to me that I didn't think far enough ahead before I jumped into something. I suppose I thought, by dangerous she meant the herb was not to be used unless you really meant it. Dangerous as, one of those things that, once done, cannot be undone.
I cleaned up the ingredients of the spell and the bowl I'd mixed it in, and then I did for Genrul the only things I could think of. I took some of the hot stones from the hearth, wrapped them in cloth, and put them around him, to keep him warm. Lay another blanket over him.
Little enough to do. And I could think of nothing else. And so I climbed under the blankets with him and tried to heat him with the warmth of my body. I held him close to me, my arms tight around him, and I wept. I whispered to his spirit to stay, I told it not to leave his body because of my stupidity, that there was so much yet for him to do. What would these thousands of men do if he was gone? What would Sisro do? What would I do?
He was so still. He breathed so slowly.
If he died, my stupid spell would be for nothing. Less than nothing. I surrendered my dream, again, and lay my cheek next to his, and reminded him of his wife, she of the round hips and beautiful breasts. What would she do if he left her here alone?
Do not die. Do not die. We need you.
I don't know how long I held him and pleaded with him to live. The slender moon walked across the sky, the stars danced around it, and the fierce Roman gods were silent.
And then he drew a great shuddering breath. I clapped my hand over my mouth and nose and held my own breath. I was afraid he was dying, afraid he might steal my breath from me as he went, and take me with him when he crossed the river…….and as much as I thought I loved him, and as little as I had to look forward to without him, I wasn't ready to leave this world.
He breathed out. And a few seconds later breathed in again. I put my hand on his cheek. A little warmer, perhaps. Still asleep.
I could have touched him. We both were clothed, under the blankets, but I could have slipped my hand inside his robes, and run my fingers along his breastbone, down to his navel.
I won't deny that I thought of it, after I was certain he would live. My head lay next to his on the pillow. I watched his face as he slept, studied the beard on his jaw, the wrinkles next to his eyes, the slow pulse in his temple.
I could have smoothed the muscles on his chest, could have tangled my fingers in the soft patch of hair under his arms……or the other patch, the one around his man-part. I could have done anything I wished. He was deep asleep, and seemed unlikely to wake soon.
I could have tasted him. To me then, as a girl, that seemed like a strange thing to want to do, but I wanted to do it. I wanted to run my tongue along his neck, up to his ear. I wanted to taste his mouth. And as I lay quietly next to him, I ached to do it.
I didn't. I cared very little for right and wrong, only for my own desires, but I didn't do that to him. Perhaps I was not completely without scruples. Or perhaps the power of it frightened me. If you had asked me then, I would have said it was because I loved him too much……..
I ached, I watched his face, so dear to me, and eventually I slept.
I woke when he groaned. His arm was across his belly, as if he was in pain, and he groaned again. His eyes fluttered; I watched him try to wake. I had the feeling, as I watched him, that his mind was awake, but his body wouldn't obey him. I could almost feel his frustration.
"Can you hear me?" I thought that he could; of course I was not speaking in Roman, and so I wouldn't have had to lie, but I did anyway. "I thought you were dead. During the night. Something woke me, and I came in here, and I thought you were dead. And then I saw that you were alive, but I was afraid you would die. You are much farther from the river now. I think you will live."
He listened to me, I was sure of it. His throat worked, but only groans and grunts came out of his mouth. His eyes opened for a second, then shut again.
I knew what he wanted. He wanted Sisro.
Before I could throw back the covers to fetch him, Sisro appeared at the foot of Genrul's bed.
He looked terrible. He looked like…..like a man who's had too much wine and not enough sleep. And he looked like a man who's just found his woman in bed with his friend.
I was not his woman, and Genrul was his master, but those differences were small things.
"Look," I said, and folded back the blankets. "We're dressed. We did nothing."
He was plainly confused by that.
"Sick." I couldn't remember if Sisro knew that word in German, or not. I lay my hand on Genrul's forehead. I hugged myself and shivered big shivers. "Sick." I wrapped my arms around my belly and groaned. "Sick." I pointed at Genrul.
He said Genrul's name. I was certain Genrul heard him, but couldn't speak or open his eyes. Sisro pushed me away from the bed, and sat down next to Genrul, feeling for the pulse in his neck. And then he left; rushed out of the tent without saying anything to me.
He came back with a man I hadn't seen before. He let this man put his hands anywhere on Genrul he wanted. It made me angry to watch a man do what I'd wanted to do and didn't. He pulled back Genrul's eyelids and watched his eyes. He got very close and smelled Genrul's breath. He stood up with a frown and thought.
I could tell the minute he saw my little bundles of herbs hanging from the ropes. He asked Sisro about them, and Sisro answered. He didn't point at me, but he didn't have to. The other man looked at me accusingly. He examined each bundle, one at a time, and when he came to the herb I had put in the tea, I held my breath.
I didn't think anyone would know anything about these matters. I didn't know the Romans had a witch-man. He pulled the bundle down from the ropes and held it out to Sisro.
Sisro was astounded. He looked at me, and at Genrul, and back at the witch-man. I knew what he would say before he said it. He was saying that I made tea for them every day. He would remember that last night it tasted different. The witch-man would tell him what it was for; I would be found out.
The witch-man said one word. I knew Genrul was listening. I knew he had heard this word. And then I knew what the word meant. Poison.
"Poison?" I said in German, to myself. Then in Roman, out loud. The witch-man nodded.
The witch-man was trying to say I had poisoned Genrul. I would have defended myself……but I couldn't think how. Yes, I had gathered these plants and dried them. Yes, I had made tea with them. Yes, I had given it to Genrul to drink. But…..I hadn't meant…….
I hadn't known the herb was poisonous to Romans. My grandmother had known nothing about anyone except the people in our village. Or perhaps she made a mistake.
I had never seen her actually make a spell, actually use what she taught me. Perhaps she learned all the spells from her grandmother, just as I had, and had never tried any of them herself. Perhaps it was poisonous to Germans, too, and she just hadn't known it.
Those were only excuses. It didn't matter my intentions. I had poisoned him. I had poisoned Genrul.
Sisro and the witch-man were talking and looking at me. They would tell Genrul's chiefs I had tried to poison Genrul, and I would be stoned. Or shot through with a hundred arrows. Or burned. Or worse.
I deserved it. I had poisoned Genrul. I had poisoned him. My heart squeezed in my chest.
I knelt by Genrul's bed. "I didn't mean to hurt you," I whispered. I knew he couldn't understand what I said, but it didn't matter. "I only wanted…..I love you, and I wanted you to love me back."
His eyes opened. He blinked.
I had Seen myself, later in my life, with a babe in my arms……..
And perhaps that meant nothing. Perhaps The Sight was no more than a silly game my grandmother had played with me. If Genrul and I were not fated to be together, perhaps my life was of no importance, even to me. Perhaps Fate had meant for me to die by my uncle's hand, and Genrul had tangled the strands of our lives together when he shouldn't have. And my Seeing was only a dream, a girl's foolishness.
How should I know what I was meant to do, or be, or have?
I had poisoned Genrul, the king of the Romans. Surely they would kill me. They should kill me. I deserved nothing less. I was a murderess. No, Genrul hadn't died, but he could have. He could have. I might have killed him. I had poisoned him.
Better for Sisro to do it than the chiefs. I took Genrul's knife from the place close to his hand where he kept it at night, and gave it to Sisro; closed his fingers around the haft. Tears ran down my face.
Sisro said my Roman name. He crouched down next to me, the knife still in his hand. His other hand brushed my hair. I expected him to grab it, to pull my head back and cut my throat, and I sobbed, but I didn't try to get away. I waited.
The witch-man spoke, saying the name of one of the chiefs. I thought he must be saying what that man would want to do to me. I could almost feel Genrul listening….and he made a noise, a growl; and his arm moved, jerked to the side, toward me.
His fingers caught in my clothing, and closed into a fist. He pulled, not strong---if he were well, he could have tossed me over him with one arm…..but he was weak, he pulled, and because he wanted it, I moved.
Up on the bed with him. He closed his eyes, and panted. Another deep growl…..he moved his other arm, catching my hair, and pulling me toward him, until I was lying on his chest; and he held me there.
"No," he said to Sisro. My head was pressed against him, his big hand over my ear. I could hear his heart thumping, not sluggishly now, not as if it wanted to stop, but just as it always did. I could feel it. Genrul said more, slowly, the words slurring and shaped wrong because of the poison……..I closed my eyes, and shut out the sound of the men talking, heard only his blood as it galloped through his body, surrendered to the strength and beauty of the beating of his soul's wings against my cheek.
Lying there, my mind empty of everything else, it came to me what I had done wrong. I had wanted Genrul to belong to me. I had wanted to hold him, to bind him to me with ropes that couldn't be cut. My life could never be right until I stopped thirsting to possess him.
Then, just then, lying on Genrul's chest like an infant, while the men argued my fate over my head…….that was when I began to love him. The beating of his heart, the sound of his very life filled my head, vibrated inside my body, and pushed away all my childish anger and desire, all my fears, all my doubts. I let my own heart open to his. I gave myself to him wholly and absolutely, and it didn't matter if he knew it or not.
Not because I believed it my fate. Not because I wanted to feel him inside my body. Not because I was his servant. Those things were all true, but they no longer mattered. I gave up all those reasons, I gave up the need for reasons. I loved him and I was content.
If he didn't want me in his bed, I would ache for him, I might be heartbroken, but I would live and I would still love him. If he decided he didn't want me in any way at all, and sent me away, I would go. And I wouldn't resent him for it, I'd still love him. Constant, unchanging love, wherever he was, whatever he did, for the rest of my life.
It's the sort of vow a girl makes, isn't it? Undying love. The vow that's made, and then, in a few months, is made again to another.…….but it was real. I love him still.
Regardless of all of that….this, lying with him this way, was bliss……..
I didn't want to move. Later, after the witch-man was gone, after all my bunches of herbs had been taken down and thrown into the mud, and Genrul had fallen asleep and woken again, I lay there in the same spot, under his hand. He stroked my hair, and called me my Roman name, and spoke softly to me. He tilted my face up, and spoke again. He pointed to himself, to his ear, then to my mouth, touching my lips with his finger.
I didn't understand. He did it again.
"You heard me?" I asked. He heard me. When I told him not to die, he heard me. I was certain that was what he meant.
He smiled. I lay my head back down on his chest, and listened to him breathe, listened to him talk, and later, listened to him sleep again. I could have died from happiness, with no regrets……
Of course I didn't die.