I purposely left myself open and unprotected when next Genrul rode against his enemy, my people. I "listened" for him. I had seen that I didn't know him, not really; and I wished to…..
The exultation of battle!
It stunned me, I was not prepared.
The anticipation…..the pulse quickened, the blood surged……
And then the dance…….whirling, stabbing, slicing…..a dance of joy…..
I felt his life rushing through his veins….power throbbing as heavy music in his body…..singing in his muscles as he thrust and hacked……ah, Freyja, the joyousness of it……turning, leaping, dodging…….
I felt it with him, the ecstasy of releasing the beast inside him…….of moving, dancing, of simply breathing, while all around you die…….a celebration of being, of life……as he killed.
I didn't hear his roar of triumph, but I felt it; it shook me.
I came to myself, lying on the floor, wet with sweat, my legs wide; waiting for him as the doe waits for the victorious stag, to accept him as he mounts her……but he was not there. I was alone.
And later……..the darkness. I was unprepared for it as well.
The screams of the wounded and dying, the smell of blood and urine, the pull of the earth…….I didn't experience these things, but I felt his reaction.
Weariness, above all……sickness at the carnage, familiar as it was…….sorrow for those killed……..and about to be killed……….
And yearning. Maybe for his wife, maybe for his home……for something he didn't have and couldn't find on the battlefield.
More important people arrived. I didn't even want to see them. I didn't get more than one chance, anyway. I caught a glimpse of a rich woman with fine clothes and ribbons in her hair, when she arrived, no more than that. Then Genrul and Sisro came back from the front, and Sisro had evidently lost his fear of witches, so when he was not attending Genrul, I was often in his arms. He said he missed me.
Genrul was gone very often. He spent some time with the Wise Man, and he went to a feast. Sisro told me one night when we were alone in the tent that my people were defeated, that there would be no more war. I was sad for a time; I wished I knew if my father and brothers were alive…….but they would have wasted no time mourning me, and so I dried my eyes, and went on with my life.
The commotion in the night that woke me was the end of that life, and the beginning of another.
I heard Genrul's voice, "Wake Gaius, and Falco!" And Sisro's voice, repeating it. I sat up and reached for my clothes…..I heard Quintus's voice, although I couldn't make out what he was saying …….why was Quintus here in the middle of the night?
Genrul said, "The Emperor has been slain!" I didn't know what an emperor was, but I knew from the sorrow and anger I felt from him that it was bad that it was dead.
I couldn't hear what Quintus said in reply. I was hurrying to get dressed…….something was very, very wrong……and then the pain on the back of the head……….
Sisro shaking me……."Wake up," he said in a low voice. "Hurry. We have to get out of here."
I could hardly move. "Genrul-" I said.
"Get your things, only what you can carry-we have to hurry!"
He shoved some of his clothes in a bag, and then mine. He hesitated in front of the cabinet with the figures of the gods Genrul honored, then shook his head and snatched up one of Genrul's swords. He grabbed my arm, and hurried me out of the tent, and away……..
"Why…." I said as we ran. "…..are….we…..running…..?"
"They're going to execute Maximus. We have to hide ourselves."
I stopped running. "Genrul?"
Sisro nodded. "Come on-"
I tried to pull out of his grasp. "No, no, we have to go back, we have to-"
He grabbed me around the waist and kept going. I screamed. He stopped and shook me. "There's nothing we can do! The Praetorians have him. They forgot about us, but they might remember. And we must be hidden before that."
I struggled to get away. "No, we can't leave him!!"
"Stop it! We have to go……or we will be dead, too."
I looked up into Sisro's face. "He's not dead."
He breathed deep. "Not yet. Soon."
He took us to the tent of Marius, a soldier more important than some, but not so important as others. Sisro said he didn't think they would look for us there, and Marius said he would hide us for a while, until we had time to decide what to do. Sisro was distracted; and it wasn't long till he told me to stay, and he left……and when he came back he had the small wooden figures Genrul kept in his prayer cabinet, and his ring. A sheepish grimace, and a shrug were his explanation; but I understood. Life is uncertain. So is death.
The pain I felt, just before sunrise, told me he was still alive. I almost expected to see blood running down my arm.
Marius told us the camp was alive with rumor. The soldiers were not sure what to believe. Some that had been awake during the night had seen Maximus taken away, bound to the saddle. Some of those had been injured rushing the guard, coming to his aid, despite Maximus' command not to do so. Now they were also hiding.
"If Maximus is truly dead……that is one thing. But if he is only banished……that is something else," Marius said. The soldiers milled and muttered……looking out of the corner of their eyes at the officers that strode by. "It's hard for a soldier. Emperor or Maximus? Who do we serve?"
Late in the afternoon, he told us the news. "Maximus is dead," he said. "The Guard says it is done."
"No-" I said.
Sisro pushed me. "Be quiet!"
"The Emperor is making ready to go back to Rome. Most of the army strikes camp in two days. That will make it easier for you to remain unnoticed."
"Say nothing," Sisro said, after Marius had gone out again, "about witchery; or we will lose the allies we have."
"He is still alive," I said stubbornly.
"Not to us. Not if we want to stay alive ourselves. Don't speak of it again."
The army moved every day, back toward Rome. No one seemed to expect me to stay behind in my own country. I was Sisro's woman now, I was expected to go with him. And so I did. What was left for me there?
Sisro spoke of Genrul as if he was dead; and he believed it. I said nothing.
My arm hurt all the time, and my head was heavy. Sisro grew impatient with me. I wouldn't have been surprised if he had left me during that time; he didn't come to me at night, I don't know where he slept. He didn't tell me stories, he looked before and behind us all the time, and said little.
I searched for him one night. I was lonely, I suppose. Or perhaps it was Genrul who was lonely. It doesn't matter. I found him outside in the dark by himself, behind the rows of tents.
"Do you want to be alone?" I asked. He didn't answer. I sat down next to him and took his hand.
It was very still and dark there. The soldiers were quiet. We had all been on the road all day, and would be again tomorrow. Everyone slept.
I waited a long time before I kissed him. "It doesn't help to be alone," I said. "Being silent won't help." When he still didn't say anything, I said, "I miss your jokes."
"There is nothing to joke about." He put his arms around my waist, and let me hold him. I kissed him until he kissed me back, and I felt the familiar hunger rise in him. I held him inside me as we lay under the stars, and after it was done, I didn't let him go.
"He's gone," Sisro said, and he shuddered. "I know you believe he's alive, but he's not. There were four of the Emperor's guards with him, and he was bound. There's no way he could have escaped." He lay his head on my breasts and honored me with his tears; and I held him as he wept.
I could tell you of the days we spent traveling. Marius said we weren't going to Rome, because the people of Rome don't like soldiers inside the city…….we were going to Ostia. It made no difference to me. Every place was new to me. It should have been interesting; I got to know many people on the way, and I saw things I'd never seen before.
But I was sick at heart, I think…….
Either the Guards forgot all about us, or we weren't important enough to kill. We stopped hiding soon after the army started moving. The soldiers knew we had been Maximus' people, and that was enough to give us a place by any cookfire.
I discovered I was famous among the camp-followers. I had lived inside Genrul's tent, so I must have been Genrul's woman. I told the truth the first few times someone said this to me, that I was Sisro's woman, and had never belonged to anyone else……but no one believed me, and so I stopped arguing.
When the black haired woman with the baby at her breast asked me if I had been a virgin when Genrul took me, I said yes. She closed her eyes for a moment, and then asked me if he was gentle or fierce. I said, "Both."
When the loud woman with the limp wanted to know if Genrul pushed me out of bed when he was done, I said, "Never." She was impressed.
And when the slight woman with the pockmarked face asked how long he took…….I must confess I said, "Hours." She looked shocked. Patted me on the arm, and said, "You poor thing." I couldn't help myself; I said, "Oh, no, it was wonderful."
I felt ashamed of it later, these women had befriended me……but it was so enjoyable. And there was very little else that was enjoyable.
If my son ever says to me he wishes to be a soldier, I will tell him of those weeks on the road to Ostia, the most miserable weeks of my life.
My recollections may be tainted. Genrul was always in my mind, more or less, and he was anxious. Hungry. Weary. Angry. My arm hurt more every day. And it was on the road to Ostia that I was felled, driven to my knees as we walked, by sorrow……
I cried out. I thought I would die from the pain inside me. Or perhaps it was Genrul who thought he would die. Sisro asked me what was wrong, and when I was able to, I said, "Do you want me to speak of him?"
He found a cart for me to ride in, and he didn't ask again, not then, and not later. I had no one to tell. But when I said I needed to stop, that I needed to be still, he helped me down and stayed with me while the rest walked past us.
Genrul wanted to die. It hurt too much to live. I understood that. He was ill and he was tired, and then ……something terrible happened, and he was done struggling. He had no more heart for it. I didn't know what had happened, I couldn't hear his thoughts, but I felt it and I understood it.
Perhaps if I'd been thinking more clearly, perhaps if I hadn't been ill and tired myself, I'd have let him go…….