Title: Sun Over the Mountains
Archive: Would love it. Contact me.
Summary: A slightly different version of how Maximus and Lucilla met.
He stands near my father, back straight, armor gleaming in the torch-light. He does not smile, but he does not look severe-his eyes are always moving, watching, taking in everything he sees. Various senators and political officials mill about, togas clinging to their hot skin. I fan myself briefly with my handkerchief. I, too, am observing everything about me, the senators that hang on my father's arm all night, the other military general skulking in the back like a kicked dog. But mostly I watch Maximus, I watch him as he thinks no one is watching him.
I approach him later that night, tilting my head, allowing him to see the long, sloping curve of my neck. "General," I say.
"My lady," he responds automatically, bowing his head.
"You have barely said two words tonight," I say, wiping back a slightly damp curl from my face.
He looks at me with something like surprise. "And how do you know this?"
I laugh. "I like to keep my eye on people who are close to my father," I say, motioning to the senators. But then I shift my gaze back to his brown eyes, so luminous and deep they appear almost black. "As do you."
I walk into the courtyard, rolling my neck to relieve some tension. I pace a few steps, trying to organize my thoughts. The effort is in vain, for she is there, watching me.
"You were in there a long time," she says, walking slowly towards me. I notice her golden brown hair, her aristocratic face, the gentle sway of her hips.
"There was much for us to discuss."
She considers this. "My father said that you were discussing when to begin the next campaign into Germania. Is it so?"
"If your father said it, you have no reason to consult me, my lady."
She smiles then, and I realize what it is-approval. She is enjoying me. I do not know whether to be unnerved or attracted, because I am both.
She is sitting in her reception room when I arrive. Her ladies withdraw to a discreet distance so we may talk, although I notice that they do not go too far. I wonder what arrangements she has with her maids, and how much leeway they grant her for privacy.
She can see what course my thoughts have run. "They must stay within hearing distance when a man comes to call," she explains, with a hint of coquetry. "But they answer to me, and me alone."
I consider what she is implying by this. She notices my discomfort, and it makes me uneasy, that she always knows what I'm feeling.
She smiles. "Please, General, let me offer some refreshments," and beckons a young girl forward with wine, bread, olives, and apple slices.
The food is delicious, and we eat in silence for a moment.
I can feel her eyes on me, I know she is studying my face. I look up quickly to meet her gaze, but she stares back, unfazed, continuing her exploration. I can feel a blush creep up my cheeks, I who have led an army into battle. Why am I so disarmed by her?
"What do you see?" I ask, my voice slightly rough.
"Bravery, good judgement," she pauses, considering me. "A love of Rome but an aversion to her politics." She pauses again, tilting her head, and for a moment all I can see is the long, creamy slope of her neck. "Am I right?" she says, now almost a whisper.
"There is more to me, Lucilla, than the General."
She does not respond, but smiles. "You called me Lucilla."
I start, realizing how I overstepped my bounds. I am being slowly drawn into her web.
Maximus takes me for my ride today. It rained all through the night, and this morning the sun broke over the mountains and the world flooded with light, fresh and new again. I knew I had to get out of doors, I had to run, I had to breathe in the crisp, clean air.
So Maximus came with me, Maximus who my father is coming to love as his own son. I can see it, although I do not know if Maximus can.
As soon as we are outside of the camp gates I hitch up my dress and swing my leg over the horse's back. I cannot ride side-saddle on a day this beautiful.
Her chestnut coat gleams beneath me, the powerful muscles working as we gallop across the plain, the wind rushing through my hair. I can hear Maximus' horse behind me, following me to the ends of this new earth. He would protect me forever.
Finally, when we approach a little steam, I dismount, leading my horse for a drink. Maximus follows my example, and we stand by the water, faces red and sweaty with exertion. The breeze blows down from the mountains. It is a magical moment, full of nature and life and love.
I reach out and touch his face.
He draws a ragged breath, but I could feel the perceptible movement of his cheek to feel the softness of my fingertips.
"We can't." He speaks simply, surely, but his eyes betray him.
I look up at the birch above us, branches dark with rain. The world is fertile and open and lush. Nothing bad could happen to us on this day. This day is ours, a gift, a moment held and preserved out of time.
"Yes, we can."
He meets my eyes. "We both know that we can never marry."
"Then we must enjoy what time we have."
He draws another ragged breath, and as I attempt to remove my hand from his cheek he reaches up and grabs at my hand with his own.
"It's not that simple," he says hoarsely.
"I know," I whisper. I drop the reins to my horse. But she is well-trained, she does not move.
He too drops his horse's reins, and moves forward to grasp my other hand. "Lucilla-"
The very air seems to shimmer around us. Are we both ringed with light? Or maybe it is just the breathtaking beauty of the grass, the trees, the stream, the purple mountains, the white clouds sliding low over the horizon.
I drop to my knees. The grass is wet. I can feel the water seeping into my dress where my knees are pressing into the earth.
Maximus drops too, reaching forward to cup my face in his hands. "It's not what you think," he begins, tenderly brushing a curl away from my face. "If we go through with this, I may never find happiness with another woman."
I lean forward and kiss him. His mouth is soft and warm. Am I selfish to take this moment, to press and dry it like a rose and cling to it forever?
We fall back onto the ground. The grass is wet, and smells freshly of rain and earth. It is not sex, it is love, it is the ritual of fertility, man and woman joining together under the grove, under the branches of the tree, reaffirming life, blessing the land as the new day broke and blessed the land over the mountains.
After I married, after I birthed my son, after many years with nothing but my memories, whenever I thought of Maximus, I thought of that day. I thought of laying with him on the damp earth, his clammy skin next to my own. I thought of white clouds hanging over purple mountains, grass green and lush. And I remembered the smell of fresh rain.
Since that day I have been to her chambers many times. Sometimes we eat, sometimes we make love, sometimes we just hold each other. Sometimes when I look at her I cannot believe that she, a Princess of Rome, would want me in her bed.
I do not know if this is love. But I know I can think of nothing but her: it is consuming me.
I see her later, at dinner, although she reclines on a couch near Gracchus, who I have come to observe as a man of honor. I sit with other military personnel, far away from where she sits with her father and the senators. But occasionally our eyes meet. She looks so aloof, so regal. Is she really the same woman who kisses me with passion, who encourages me into her bed?
It cannot be. Perhaps there are two of her, but only one shall I ever know.
I catch her hand in the corridor, grasping a free moment alone. "I will come to you tonight."
Her eyes shine with desire, and yes, with love. I am a man, and I can recognize it when I see it.
"Yes, come to me tonight," she breathes.
Tonight I must say goodbye to Maximus.
My father, Gracchus, all of the senators, and I will continue our tour within the week. We will travel from Narbo to Massilia, then to Genua, then to Rome. Once in Rome, it will be only months before I am wed to Lucius Verus.
Tonight I must say goodbye to Maximus, because if I do not say goodbye I am afraid that I would follow him anywhere. I am afraid that if he asked me I would throw down my jewels, wrap myself in the cloak of a peasant and follow him back to Hispania, down to Africa, or through Gaul and to the forsaken isle of Britannia. This I would do.
And I must say goodbye to Maximus, because if I do not say goodbye I am afraid that he will persuade my father to allow him to accompany us back to Rome. That he would follow me home and through his love break my iron will and resolve.
I cannot disgrace my father, I cannot abandon him and my brother, and I cannot abandon Rome. I must fulfill my duty.
But one look from Maximus could weaken the steel band I have now wrapped around my heart.
When he steps into my room he immediately draws me into his arms. But I pull away. I do not meet his eyes. I cannot meet his eyes.
"Lucilla?" he asks, concern showing on his face.
"You should not call me that," I say, turning from him so he will not see the glimmer of tears in my eyes. "I am a Princess, and you are only a soldier."
He does not respond, but he stands there, shocked. "What are you talking about?" he asks, a hint of anger beginning to show through his words. He will hate me before this night is over, I think bitterly. But I must tell him.
"Maximus, we are leaving within a few days."
He again says nothing. It is a long time before he speaks. I wait. When the words finally come, his voice is scratchy, as though from disuse. "Come away with me."
The words I would have given half a kingdom to never have heard. "No." The word leaves my mouth a whisper.
Maximus steps forward, placing his strong hands on my arms. "Come away with me. We'll leave, be free of it all. We can go anywhere-"
"No, Maximus." I say this tenderly, teaching up a hand to glide my fingertips over his skin, rough with stubble. "We are not going anywhere."
He looks at me, his face a mixture of thwarted desire and frustration and anger. "Why not? Are you telling me after all these weeks that you do not love me?"
I can hear my voice rising, although I am not conscious of it. "After all that we have shared, you have the gall to ask if I do not love you?"
Maximus flinches. He drops his arms and moves away. The few feet that separate us feel like the icy peaks of the Alpine Mountains.
"We both have a duty that we must complete for Rome. I must marry and produce a son. You must fight and lead our armies to triumph."
"But you will not love your husband." It is a fact, not a question.
Maximus paces, his face tight and unreadable. "I love Rome," he begins, not looking at me. "I never felt like I belonged anywhere until I joined the army-" he stops, looking at the floor. "And your father, he is like a father to me too-" his voice breaks. Silence fills the room so deafening I want to cry out.
"We could never be truly happy, Maximus. We would love, but would always know that for that love we sacrificed everything else: duty, integrity, honor." As I speak, I can feel my heart breaking. "And every year that we loved, we would feel but guilt for what we abandoned. And that guilt will eat away at our love, until we become but two souls, tormented and mad." I blink back tears. But I know that I am speaking truth.
He looks up at me. "But if-" he begins, but the denials die in his throat. He sees truth in my eyes. "Ah, Lucilla, my love. Must it be this way?"
I know that we must part. I must end our love forever-for both of us. And for the first time it occurs to me that I am stronger than he. Maximus-leader of armies-could not separate himself from me to save us both. And that knowledge cuts at my heart with a deathly sword.
"Yes," I say pitilessly.
He reaches forward, and for a moment I think all of my resolve will break and I will collapse into his arms, beginning forgiveness. But he only touches my hand, and brings it to his lips. His beard tickles my skin. "My lady," he says, bowing low. And then he is gone.
As the litter pulls away from the camp, I open the curtains to look for Maximus standing there, seeing off the Emperor and his court. But the rain mists my view and the splattering of mud from the horses hooves makes it impossible to see. Eventually I lay back, unseeing. I am returning home, to fulfill my duty. I will never see him again.