"Is he with a whore?"
It was late. Sisro and I were done eating, and we sat on the ground in front of the fire. It was cold outside. Genrul had not come back. Sisro didn't seem concerned.
He laughed. "No, he's not with a whore."
"How do you know?"
He raised an eyebrow. "How do you know when he's sleeping or not sleeping?" I turned away; Sisro grabbed my arm. "Don't be angry."
"I'm not angry. Yet. What does he do when he's out at night?""
"He walks. Talks to the sentries. Talks to the horses. Looks to the south. Thinks, maybe. Who knows?" Sisro shrugged. "He doesn't use whores."
He shook his head. "Never." He watched me pouring the leftover food into the big pot. "You don't believe me."
"I believe you."
"No, you don't. You think all soldiers use whores. The Genrul is a soldier."
"I think you want to tell me more. I think you want me to ask you. But I'm not going to. If you want to tell me, tell me."
He laughed again. "You're too smart for me. I'll tell you. Everyone knows the Genrul doesn't want any women when he's on campaign."
I could have argued with that, but I didn't. "And why is that?"
"Some people think it's because he was hurt there, and he can no longer do what a man does."
"Is that what they think?"
"Some people," he went on, "say it is because he made a---" and then he used a word I didn't know.
"Like a….promise. To the gods. Not to spend himself except in battle. And then they give him victory."
That sounded like just the kind of stupid promise a man would make.
"But some people," he grinned, "think it has to do with a woman."
"The story is, there was someone else she wished to marry. Her father arranged the match with Maximus."
I interrupted. "Who?"
"Maximus." I must have looked perplexed. "The Genrul. Only he wasn't a Genrul then."
"He changed his name?"
"No……his name is still Maximus."
"Never mind. Go on."
"When they spoke together for the first time after the contract was agreed to, she was angry at having to marry a soldier. She told Maximus she would take as many lovers as she wished when he was away. He told her she would not. She said she would. He said she wouldn't." He shrugged. "I don't know how anyone knows this."
"Never mind. Go on."
"And then she said if it was necessary for her to be alone while he was gone, it was only fair that he should also be alone. And he agreed with her."
"Aye. Stupid, wasn't it? But it is said he promised to lie with no one but her. And to seal their bargain, he asked for a kiss. And she gave it to him, and soon they were on the ground in the bushes without their clothes." He waggled his eyebrows.
"Is that true?"
He shrugged. "I doubt it. How would I know?"
"So you've never asked him."
"Well……I did ask him…..a long time ago."
I hit him. "Then why do you tell me these stupid stories?"
"You like them."
I did like them. "Tell me what he said."
Sisro stopped grinning. "He said……..he didn't want to do anything that would make his wife unhappy. And it would hurt her if he put himself inside another woman."
"But she is there, and he is here. She would never know."
"That's what I said." He paused, and looked away for a moment. "He said he would know."
"So……….he loves her."
Sisro pulled me backwards, inside his arms and legs, so that my backside was pressed against his manpart. His arms were around my waist. "Maybe. Or he has made a promise, and he does not break his promises."
I lay my head back against his shoulder.
"If there was a woman that wanted to lie with him, she would be disappointed." He stroked my hair off my forehead. "Not because she was not someone men would wish to lie with, but because Maximus loves his wife more than a reasonable man should."
"And that woman could be easy then, if she knew that; and she could smile and laugh again."
I looked up into his face. "What woman would that be?"
"Any woman. You know all women wish to lie with Maximus."
"Aye, and some of the men, too."
I had to cover my mouth with my hand. I almost laughed out loud.
"Go ahead," Sisro said, "You can laugh." He tilted my head back and kissed me. "I wish you would. We miss you laughing and smiling."
I squirmed, turned around inside his arms. "Do you and Genrul talk about me behind my back?"
"Aye, of course we do. We speak of nothing else, from dawn to dusk. Only you."
"Good." I snuggled close. "Take me to bed. I will pretend to be your wife tonight, and you may love me more than is reasonable."
He grinned. "Or……..I may tickle you." And he waggled his eyebrows.
I ought to have realized what would happen next. I had plenty of time to think about things, especially when Sisro went with Genrul on his campaigns. But I didn't consider the true nature of the bond between us, Genrul and I; didn't want to. I didn't remember my grandmother's words; and I didn't want to think about the future at all.
Is that what contentment does? I wonder if it's truly a good thing.
The pain in the back of my head brought me to my knees. I was alone, Genrul and Sisro were away…….I thought someone had hit me with something…….in my mind, a flash of horses rearing, mud……….
And then nothing until I woke in Sisro's arms. He was carrying me, looking anxiously into my face.
"I'm awake," I said. I struggled, and so he set me on my feet.
"What happened? Did you faint?"
"I don't know." I wasn't lying. I hadn't had time to think about it yet.
"Are you alright?" At my nod, he continued, "Good, because they're bringing the Genrul in, and I have to see to him. I didn't know how I was going to care for both of you."
Two soldiers carried Genrul in on a wooden pallet. The witch-man followed them in. He examined Genrul after he was on his bed, listening to his heart, looking at his eyes. Then he said to Sisro, "No worse for being moved, but no better either."
"What should I do?" Sisro asked.
"Nothing you can do. If he wakes, he may be well, or he may not. If he doesn't……." He shrugged.
Another soldier entered with Genrul's armor and swords. Sisro went to work undressing him.
I closed my eyes. I had grown accustomed to feeling Genrul in my mind, always present, more or less…….I suppose I tried to ignore him there, and at times I succeeded. Now I did the opposite. In a way, I was listening for him; but there was little to hear. Not a complete absence, not gone…..but not there, either. Still……not on the banks of the river, not yet.
"Bring me some water," Sisro said. I opened my eyes. He was looking at me. "Are you sure you're alright?"
"He is far away, but not so far that he couldn't come back. If he wanted to."
Silence. After a moment, Sisro fetched the water himself and washed Genrul's face and neck. "Can you talk to him?" he asked.
"I don't know. The other time, it was his body that wanted to sleep. This time, it is his mind."
There was more silence.
"Are you a witch?" Sisro said abruptly.
"I don't know." That was truth. "What happened to him?"
"He was hit on the back of the head. A glancing blow, thank the gods, or he would be dead. And Marius managed to drag him safely away. But he doesn't wake."
I looked outside. The sun was near to setting. I had been asleep all day.
"Was this in the morning?"
Sisro nodded. "At the beginning of the battle. Quintus chose to discontinue the attack after he fell, and regroup for another time, and so we were harried all the way back." He shook his head. "He is not the tactician Maximus is. The Germans will be encouraged-" He stopped. "I shouldn't be telling you this."
I nodded. "I might be a spy. Tell me something the Germans don't already know, and you can find out if I am or not."
He laughed. "Help me get this off him."
We exchanged his soiled garments for clean ones, and washed him, and then Sisro sat back on his heels and looked at me. And so I did what I had done before; I climbed onto Genrul's bed with him, lay my cheek next to his, and spoke.
"He doesn't know much German," Sisro said.
"I don't think it matters."
It was late in the night before Genrul stirred. I could feel it coming, so I had time to roll off the bed before the pain and nausea hit me. I think we both retched at the same time. Poor Sisro. I let him clean it up.
Genrul groaned. He lay his arm over his eyes. "My head…….," he said.
I lay on the ground, and tried to push it away from me, back, back…….until eventually it was not so bad, I could rise without the terrible pounding inside my head.
Sisro helped Genrul drink……..when he turned to look at me, there was a look in his eyes……..like I was a strange animal, a wild beast. "You're a witch."
What could I say? Maybe I was. What is it that makes a woman a witch?
The next day, Quintus came inside the entrance to the tent and said, "Is he gone yet?"
Not, how is he? Or, is he still alive? But, is he gone yet?
Genrul heard him. "Quintus!" He made a face then; his head still pounded, and shouting aggravated it; he'd found that out once already.
Sisro propped him up with cushions. After Quintus got over his surprise at finding him not only alive, but almost well, they talked about the strategy. I suppose pulling the army back, as Quintus did, would mean some changes were necessary. I didn't listen past the first five minutes. It was unbelievably boring.
There was nothing for me to do. Sisro had skittered around me like I was a poisonous snake all morning. At mealtime, he brought Genrul something from one of the cookpots outside. I would have made a poultice for the lump on Genrul's head, to draw out the soreness, but when I mentioned it, Sisro said no, he would see to it. Of course he didn't. But it was obvious he didn't want me to do anything. Nothing.
It made no sense.
Sisro slept next to Genrul's bed that night. I slept by the fire the next night, so he could have his pallet.
Genrul was sitting in his chair before the fire when I woke.
"Why are you sleeping here?" he asked.
"Sisro is frightened of me now."
"And you? Do you think I'm a witch, too?"
"Truth?……I don't care very much whether you're a witch or not."
I threw back my blankets and went outside for a moment. I came back in shivering, and sat down close to the flames. I expected to find Genrul gone when I returned, but he was still there.
"Do not die," he said in German. Then, in Roman he said, "What does that mean?"
I told him.
"I hear you when you speak to me. I heard you after you poisoned me." His lips turned up when I blushed and clenched my jaw. "This time…..I heard you from very far away. I think……I think you called me back from the gates of death."
"You might have come back without me."
"Perhaps." He smiled a little more. "You would not be quiet. I think perhaps I came back to shut you up."
It was strange…..we had been uncomfortable with each other because of my desire, and now, suddenly, we were at ease. We both smiled.
"Sisro's people are used to the unnatural," he said, and got up out of his chair. "He'll get over his fright when he gets tired of sleeping alone."
"And what about you?" I asked. He stopped in the doorway. "Are you tired of sleeping alone?"
He took a deep breath. I wondered at my own bravery, to ask him such a question……but we were still easy with each other. It felt the same. He was not angry.
"Sometimes," he said. He looked in my eyes. "Sometimes. But I wish to return to my wife as I was when I left her. She would know it if I were not."
"She is a lucky woman."
"Lucky?" He frowned, and shook his head, looked down at the ground. "No. She is alone."
He looked up again, and smiled. "She waits for me. So who is lucky?" He walked to me and bent down to murmur in my ear. "Show Sisro your pretty breasts, and he will lose his fright in a hurry."
He backed away with a grin, and was out the door before I could find something to throw at him.
I was appalled at myself later…..that I had even thought of throwing something at the King of the Romans………but he had seemed more like a man than a king.
I had to conclude it is possible to be both.