--Caledonian Foothills at the foot of the highland passes
--Winter's Solstice 183 CE
--as a note: The "fort " of this story is actually Inchtuthill (Pinnata Castra), located in the reaches of Scotland (Alba—the name during this particular era); Arbeia is a fort along Hadrian's Wall (Wallsend, I believe its called, nowadays); Eboracum is York; Cattaractonium is Catterick
--one last thing-this story was written on a whim, a group of "Christmas Stories" posted on the Gladiator SKG forum board. Winter's Solstice, and the peace that surrounds this time of year sort of prompted me to write this. However, if this tid-bit of writing is confusing, it's b/c it fits into the cannon I'm following for the Redemption series I'm continuously working on. Frankly, this part hasn't happened yet, and is a long way off in coming. Be warned, there is some smut…it's very Victorian (i.e., hardly gratuitous) in presentation, and I did try to fit it into a wider framework of story. Hopefully, all will make sense by Part 3. Cheers!;)
The world spoke to her of darkness, stillness, and night, gazing out as she was upon a landscape of blanketed, snowy peace, lurid moonlight and ice-encased branches to the trees beyond the enclosure. It made her think of the way moonshine would appear bathing the opaque waters of the mysterious ocean--pearly, a river of ivory and silken paths wavering and transient upon the mirror of skies' reflections.
Cold and crisp, the world, the night and everything in it seemed made of frost, sculpted of crystalline starlight, and kissed by the purity of the highlands. The rough hairs of the thick woolen blanket scratched against her skin when she pulled it tighter about her shoulders. The blanket was warm, and she hadn't wanted to throw anything more elaborate on simply to make a trip to the latrines, out across the insular courtyard from the praetorium's sleeping quarters, down the other end of the pillared hall.
When the urgency of her bladder had been relieved, breathing deeply of frozen alpine purity to cleanse her senses of the less than pleasant odor of the latrine, it was then, walking back past the colonnades lining the inner corridor, the utter beauty of the night simply caught her. It was a subtle thing, that beauty, easy enough to miss--simply pass on by. Understandable, given that the temperature, even in the pallid light of winter's sun, could be just barely tolerable here in the coniferous heights of Britannia's far reaches beyond the Wall.
She stopped in her brisk progress, then. The immediate thought in her mind--of getting back under the thick down covers of the bed, snuggling next to the welcome, solid warmth of the other body she knew was there--simply draining away. Overcome, at that moment, by the absolute stillness in the out-tide hours from midnight. She stopped to gaze upon the courtyard's arboreal decor, that, come spring, would be awash with blossoms from the elderberries hedging the perimeter, pink and white lace-flowers of delicate crabapple and cherry painting a canopy of floral allure over the cross-walks. What she saw, in the immediacy of the winter-encased present, was an orchard cloaked in hibernal timelessness and hyperborean canescence.
Mindless, unawares, she leaned against one of the granite-carved columns, watching the vapor of her breath curdle into steam, retreat like the remnants of a lost wraith, into the wonderland of fey-white mist, ebony night, and alabaster flakes piled high along the eastern side of the exterior hall. The branches of the trees were like a darkened hag's fingers against the already black, star-strewn sky, covered by thin tracings of snow outlining their skeletal forms, and adorned with winter's grace of diamond-cut icicles. The pinnacled, inverted formations, slick with frozen moisture, made her think of the spiny vertebrate from animals she had dissected over the years, or perhaps the jagged canines of a predator--like the wolf's teeth hanging from the leather thong of her...lover's neck.
She still marveled at that, mulling the thought through her mind, savoring, as one would the delicious flavor of honeyed strawberries. The invernal solstice was a time for reflection, inward examination of one's actions throughout the year, or so her mother's people believed, and she knew full well, Romans preserved such traditions in their version of mid-winter's observance.
She could imagine, standing, staring out into the snowy glade of this courtyard, how cities from Eboracum to Londinium, Tarraco to Rome, Alexandria to Pergamum would be decked out in celebration of the dark-shadow of the year. Mid-winter festivities to fight off mid-winter's disquiet--servants and masters switching places, women heading the household, lighting eternal embers to hold back the lengthened nights of cold and chill. Sprigs of fir, evergreen branches, holly and ivy would be hanging from the rafters of her brother's town-home in Arbeia. Closing her eyes, she could see in her mind the warm ambience of Cassius and Imona's villa, their three children running about in the crowd they invited every year, from the townsfolk and fort soldiers, to their triclinium,. Laughter and tapping feet, clapping hands in time with the joyous music of harps, pipes, and bohdrans, dancing and singing would fill her brother's, and his wife's, dining hall, bantering talk amongst the men, the chatter of women would resound throughout the feast.
Nemhyn sighed, taking in the chill pinch of frosty air, the comfort of memory filling her mind momentarily with images of joyous love and human celebration. A stirring wind moved through the praetorium's courtyard, disturbing small flurries from the towering branches of the trees, their ice-leaden boughs creaking woodenly, smaller limbs snapping under the weight of frozen, invasive moisture. She shivered responsively in the sharp, sudden gust, pulling the blanket even tighter across her shoulders and body, feeling the wind lift the strands of her unbound hair, brush her cheeks with the chill kiss of icy-pure breath. Absently, she frowned, hoping the orderlies she had spoken with before she had finally left the hospital only a few hours ago, understood her insistence for maintaining the braziers in the wards of the infirmary through the night.
Somewhere, in the vast, wild darkness of Alba, beyond the newly occupied fort, a wolf howled, mournful and long, speaking a primordial language of coniferous slopes, remote mountain valleys inaccessible, protected from human depravity and despoilment, isolated in domains of rocky heights and wind-driven peaks. The lupine sound echoed her mood, strange and melancholy, like the stillness preserved on this mid-winter night. In a place at the far-end of the Empire, this fort--with twenty-five hundred men assigned to fight a protracted campaign carried over from the year before. The year the Picti had finally broken through the Wall. Long foreseen by her mother, Britannia had come under invasion. Her father, Antius Crescens, had mounted a desperate defense. Assigned as acting governor in the absence of Albinus, who had pulled precious legionnaires from the island, staking his own claim to the seat of Caesar, the general of the VI Victrix faced formidable odds on an island at war, one province in an Empire three men claimed to rule.
And now, here, on this mid-winter night, the heroes of Britannia's defense were stationed-a detachment from the elite Ala Primae Sarmatarum assisting a vexillation of the VI Victoria Victrix--hardened legionnaires from the citizen-soldiers, and a wing of equally hardened, quarrelsome and dangerous steppe warriors. It was an uneasy truce between the legionary vexillation, in residence at the opposite end from the barracks of the Sarmati cavalry. Each unit served her father from afar, but on the field, citizen-soldier and steppe-warrior singly followed the command of only one man. A man who held the loyalty of the wild horsemen, expected their obedience, relied on their courage, and humbly accepted their trust in his leadership with the same unflinching determination he commanded over the legionary soldiers. Ironic, she mused, expulsing an audible breathe into the silent winter evening, given that he no longer considered himself of the legions.
Artos--they called him--the Great Bear. A man who had sacrificed one name to the sands of the Arena--a name great in its own right--until the name had become tainted with the whisper of treason. An accusation of usurpation contrived by an inherently corrupt young Emperor who, the few of Rome's elite who dared whisper, was said to have murdered his own father. Well, if the gossip mill constantly alive in the Eternal City was right on one count, Commodus was indeed dead--had been, now, for the last year and a half.
Maximus, it was said, had died that day too.
Nemhyn, staring across the moon-ivoried courtyard of snow and ice, surrounded in the shadows of the night, and the chill of winter, felt the corner of her mouth twist into a characteristic wry expression.
Nemhyn knew better, of course. As did Marcus Aurelius' daughter, as did Nemhyn's own mother.
And doubtless, of them all--so did Maximus.
Reflexively, her facade grew inward once more, enigmatic as she studied the lines of the smooth, granite pillars bordering the courtyard. It was difficult to tell, in the obscuring darkness of the night, where the snow's white pallor, piled at the bases of the heavy columns, gave way to the gray, granulated surfaces of the grooved supports.
There was a thought in that somewhere--a deeper meaning if she so fancied to pursue that observance. So troubled to disturb the temporary peace she had found here, in the courtyard, in this remote fort, at the furthest edge of the civilized world anyone knew, on this midwinter evening. Something about blurred lines, and a disquieting realization of shifting patterns--the telling markers of station, heritage, bloodlines, and citizenry by which peoples used to define themselves. And consequently, to relate to one another.
Men who came to this island--a gem to her mind, set in the Western ocean--arrived from all over the Empire. And not a few from beyond the Empire, as the Sarmati demonstrated. Generations had settled here, for almost a century and a half. Long enough for families--Roman families, the families from the tribes, lineages originating from Hispania to Egypt--to have established, with near permanance, roots on this island. Britannia. They--these peoples--melded and merged, settled into a way of life--bloodlines combining to born new generations in the way of humanity.
Where, then, did one stop calling themselves Thracian, or Greek, Latin, or simply Roman. Where, and when, did one become suddenly...A Briton.
Too many paradoxes for her mind to puzzle out in an evening, too many disturbing thoughts. Perhaps it was because of the opposing forces in her own life-daughter of a Brigantine queen and a Roman general--people's, who by all rights, ought to have been the bitterest of enemies. She was a woman, but she practiced medicine--serving a quasi-role no woman brought up in a family any less eccentric than hers would have allowed. Brought up on an island viewed closer to barbarian than enlightened for the liberties it allowed its women, whose reputation for once having been the center of Druidic arts was only rivaled by its reputation for fueling a rebellion amongst the native northern tribes at least once in every generation.
The Picti had claimed this island as their home for as long as her mother's people had, if not longer. By all rights, this was their land. They had every right to fight for it, to win it back from the stricture of the Eagles. Yet, families--children from Roman heritages and native British--lived south of the Wall, who would grow up--as she did--inheriting a double lineage. In that case, what legacy was hers, from Britannia and from Rome.
When did one cease calling themselves…a Briton then, and become Roman. The Sarmati, she knew, would name themselves British before they would ever align--or in their eyes--malign themselves with any identity likening them to their Latin overseers. Even on the day, 25 years from now, when they would lay down their swords and lances, were awarded a seal of bronze, promising citizenship and the privileges of Romanization, they would still insist on their individual ancestry.
And Maximus...she shook her head, perplexed. Well, one would never have guessed his lineage. Fand, and the blood of Hibernian heroes in the veins of a Spaniard, she thought in the same irony characterizing the frame of her ponderences tonight.
This really was a disquieting notion, better left for philosophers. She truly hated wrapping her mind around conundrums having no straightforward answer. Medicine, of course, contained its own complexities, but at least they were tied up in the notion of the natural sciences. Well, when men didn't try to bog the actuality of practice in far-fetched theory, and strange, unsubstantiated superstitions. Nemhyn had her own thoughts on disease and infection, whether it was truly sacrilege to dissect a human body--none of which, she was convinced, had to do with imbalanced humors, tainted pneuma, or insulting the gods and practicing black magic.
Far better to let her mind be lulled by the peace of a mid-winter's night, allow the chill to brush her face and hands, even as the rest of her body remained wrapped in warmth from the blanket.
A step on flag-stones of the floor, a quiet 'shush' of fabric from behind, spurred her to startled motion, and she moved abruptly back into the shadow of the pillar, trying to fade out of moonlight and snowy, starry night.
Chances were, the intruder to her silent peace was neither dangerous nor threatening, but leaning against the concealing side of the column, she could feel the chill of the stone against her cheek, and was reminded she was one woman of relatively few (the others being mostly the fort workers) in a contained fort of over two-thousand men.
She was on familiar terms with most of them, at least the officers. Too, most of them knew, by now anyway, of her association with the man they all followed as Lucius Artorius Castus. Whether or not they all approved, however, was a different story, but on Britannia, certain protocols governing etiquette between men and women had been relaxed for decades. Not to mention that for every man--usually one of the soldiers in the legions raw from the home province of Italia--who condemned her behavior as being licentious and worthy of a camp follower, at least three would argue for her professional skill as a doctor, and another one for her fidelity. And of course there was always Publius, her fellow colleague in the hospital, whose own father had been a brehon judge of the Parisii. Fortunate he could quote the ten, or so, variances of law amongst the native Britons, allowing cohabitation of women and men under a legal standing.
Still, one never knew in the night, who wandered corridors. I should speak for myself, the thought ringing through her head with mocking precision. But when it was a lone man—something in the heaviness of the step told her it was a man--coming upon a lone woman clothed, truth-be-told, in only a woolen blanket substituting as a make-shift mantle, circumstances could escalate from gruff politeness to an inconvenient encounter in no time.
She cursed under her breath hearing the progression of steps pause just on the other side of the pillar.
"Nemhyn?" A puzzled voice reached her ears, low but audible, rumbling with masculine richness into the corridor's silent passage and the courtyard's snow-graced ambience.
*******************************Part II: Mark of the Winter King
Winter 183 CE
--Alba (Scotland)—foot of the highland passes/ legionary fortress of Pinnata Castra (Inchtuthill)
--Delves a little into the background of a Romanized Arthur—much credit goes to Linda Malcor's wonderful essays on Lucius Artorius Castus, and the unnamed heroes of Sarmatian conscripts he led in the salvaging of Roman Britain from 183-184 CE.
--Maximus' character was just too good to kill off so easily at the end of the movie, and Malcor's essays offered inspiration for breathing new life into a poignant character and an age-old, dearly loved legend…
Indeed, he had been watching her for sometime, standing there in the moonlight reflected off the snow blanketing the praetorium's inner yard. Watching the emotions play across a face whose austere beauty--pale and incisive with a slight crescent arch of a nose, prominent plains of her cheeks--seemed heightened in the stark setting of white-cold, frozen star-shine, and black ice glazing the trunks of the barren trees.
He'd fallen into bed earlier that evening, weary and exhausted, trying to forget the carnage of the afternoon. It didn't matter--blood, severed limbs--could not have been keener behind his closed lids if they had been scattered across the sleeping quarters.
Sopping with damp sweat steaming off his body from under the iron scale-plated cuirass, gore and slime covered every space of clothing or weaponry on his person. Looking about him, in the icy-silence of that afternoon, he simply resembled every other man who had survived the failed ambush. The platinum blonde of Cyanus' hair caught the weakly shining rays breaking through the high branches sheltering the clearing. His officer was detailing, with another of the Sarmatian troopers, the damage to their own scout party--the lightly wounded, the badly wounded, and of course, the dead.
The raven black gleam of Busephilus' coat guided him to where he'd lost his shield sometime during the melee, and been forced to dismount, freeing his noble stallion. Being atop a horse did not stand to his advantage when caught amongst flying arrows, screaming men, and a narrow clearing on a forested path shouldered between a sharp decline covered with trees, below, and marauding tribesmen above.
His foot stubbed something covered in the mess of splattered, red-stained snow and begrimed mud, making him curse and stumble slightly, falling into Busephilus. The large stallion sidled away with dancing hooves, flattening his ears, nickering in equine surprise to admonish the clumsiness of his master. Catching the unnerved stallion's loosened reigns, Maximus muttered a rather offhanded comment at the horse before patting the extrusive bones of the beast's velvet-soft muzzle, resting his forehead against the horse's smooth, broad expanse of cheek. The tones of the stallion's muted whickering, pushing his nose into the man's hand, almost resembled the salient grumbling of a discontented friend, or a disgruntled spouse, convincing Maximus, yet again, the uncanny steed held some lofty equine opinions about the foolishness of his two-legged masters.
His hand still rubbing around the horse's soft nares, it was at that moment Maximus looked down for the offending rock--he'd thought--to edge it out of his way.
And felt his gorge rise.
The object that had caused his break in balance--not a rock, but a dirty, bruised looking head, stump of a neck--was half buried by the mess of snow and wet filth littering the ground. Where remained the shattered evidence of the skeletal column, hung tatters of pink muscle and sloppy tendrils of flesh, bright with crimson evidence of recently spilled blood.
He was not a man easily overcome by the violence of battle. Too many years in the legions doing this same kind of thing; a couple too many years in arenas amusing mobs in a more intimate style of death-play.
The side and back of the decapitated head was covered by a shock of matted looking orange-red hair, a beard just showing the first patchy signs of the richness that came with imminent manhood. Maximus knelt down, feeling the snow soak through the tough suede of his breeches, the cold making his knees ache. With a gloved hand, he reached out in a trancelike, disgusted fascination, turning the severed head over, looking on a face that was distorted into a final expression of surprise. The nose had been smashed in, leaving a gaping hollow, and what could have been the ground pulp of rotting fruit. Socketed, dried blood, seeped around extant cartilage, scant, as most of it must have drained out into the ground. The eyes stared with the vacancy of emptied life, rolled back in the orbits of half-closed lids.
The sallow, sickly wan cheeks were smooth, however. This raider had barely seen manhood, by appearance, still more a boy. The fact this boy had been present in a wooded clearing, part of the company of rough, unkempt men who would have passed for lawless brigands in any other part of the civilized world, trying to overpower a party of some twenty-five trained and disciplined warriors--armored to the teeth--only reflected how little age influenced the actual demands of manhood in the harsh, brutal reality that was life. It was that fact which made the ex-gladiator's insides gel into a sad, mournful regret.
With the overlying masque of death upon the facade, what the boy might have looked like was difficult to discern. It didn't matter; this had been a boy; not a man, not a seasoned warrior.
And this boy had died upon his, Maximus's sword--or one of his fellow troopers.
He looked up from the severed head he handled, the waxen sunlight, catching, for an instant, the refraction off silvered embellishments from a legionnaire's breast plate across the clearing--a winged horse rearing at a five headed dragon. He watched the Roman soldier force two rag-garbed tribesmen to kneel in the snow, the threat of a bludgeon forestalling outright defiance, though both the prisoners barely cowered. One had dirt-tangled blond hair, seemed younger, with dread-knots extending from his scalp. His companion, moving with the stiffness of pain, favored his arm to his chest, the disjointed angle of the man's shoulder giving away the reason. Maximus could see the injured one's face clearer; he was more in the light of a receding sun, shadows of the trees lengthening across the clearing, the chill of the winter night impending, with a biting wind starting to rise, scattering dried brush about the forest floor, a cloud-riddled sky overhead, promising more snow.
Maximus-who men knew on this island as Artos--might as well been gazing at the face of any grizzled sheep-herder tending their flocks under a close eye and a readied staff, from the shale-gray cliffs of the Severen inlet to the south, up along the rocky knolls of moss and lichen, spanning the eastern coast of the Wall, prominent above the Northern Sea.
Old men and boys, came his embittered realization. It was hard to feel any sense of accomplishment outside of having survived the intended ambush.
His regret transformed to a simmering ire—pointless in that there was little he could do about it. Standing, he grimaced at the way his knees cracked in protest. Glancing across the forested space to his chief-officer, the ex-gladiator--once more a leader of men--saw the realization of his finding mirrored in Cyanus' furious blue gaze. Saw, too, the haggard anguish in the brawny man's shadowed eyes, the fact Batrades—prince of the Royal Iazyges—ought to have been in this wooded place, here at this moment, performing the duties Cyanus now found himself doing.
Batrades. He would not think of Batrades right now. Later, when he had time to himself.
The man who had been nicknamed the Great Bear, grasping his grisly finding by the hair on the scalp, walked from his stallion's side across the clearing, pale shadows of wind-driven clouds sliding high above, darkening a winter landscape of dull white and muddled browns and grays. He passed Cyanus, clapping the Sarmati warrior on a chain-mailed shoulder with gruff affection, sharing his fellow officer's unspoken sorrow as his own. Hoping, solemn, as he buried the head by an old, hollowed oak—twisted limbs leafless for far longer than this single winter--if the boy had a brother or a father among his fellow raiders, they were also numbered among dead.
The burning rage that could drive the desire for vengeance was a consuming inferno, leaving nothing in its wake but ashes, an empty vessel, once the deed of avenged blood was accomplished.
He ought to know, once driven by that same craving for retribution. No, certainly it was a better thing if this boy's kin had either died with him in this raid, or the year before, on the banks of the River Douglas.
Maximus. Artos--the Great Bear, piled a last bit of clumped, soggy earth into the pitiful hole housing the decapitated head at the foot of the ancient tree, where erosion had worn away the soil, exposing the decayed pith of contorted roots. Deliberately ignoring the odd, covert glances his actions drew from the other men—Picti prisoner, Roman legionaire, or Sarmati horsemen—he completed his task, rubbing the slightly acerbic scented soil between bare hands, inhaling the essence of damp and cold, mixed with tracings of dead wood moss and foliage.
Few, if any, of his soldiers, could have guessed at the distant, remembered sorrow throbbing across the inner sanctum of his heart in that moment. He once handled the effigies of his wife and son like that, with grimed fingers, after escaping the arms of death one more time following the savagery of battle. Giving thanks that he might be allowed to go home—an indefinite hope. That Marcus Aurelius, when he'd still been alive, would finally grant him that release. Ride, with welcoming joy, up the causeway in the golden sunlight of his farm, hidden away in the wheat-rich hills above Trujillo. Anticipating the solid weight of Selene in his arms, his son's laughter warming, easing the rawness in heart.
Marcus Aurelius had been dead now for almost four years. Destruction—the charred corpses of his wife and son mangled and swinging in a breeze redolent with burnt flesh, imbued with the sickly-sweet scent of fresh blood--was the greeting left for him at the archway to his farm's outer yard.
It was an old pain, filled with distant remorse, and it usually passed in a few heartbeats.
It still left the taste of cinders in his mouth, a bile in his soul, when it came.
Never far behind that pain, though, was the novel, reluctant joy he'd somehow uncovered, here on this distant shore, at the edge of the Western Empire. Unexpected, given that he had sought only the final peace of his Elysium, upon Commodus' death.
Not just peace, but home.
He remembered vision wavering, Quintus' voice, falling—oblivion. And then…
The vibrancy of afterlife filling senses no longer imprisoned by the crude flesh of mortality.
It was only later, he was to learn there were other states men might inhabit resembling death. When a body lost too much blood, organs started shutting down, slowing. But the last to go, as Nemhyn once explained, was the functioning of heart or lung. A man might slip into unconsciousness, breathing so shallow, unless careful examination was performed--respiration, pulse—went unnoticed.
She'd offered that explanation in those early days, one evening, traversing the roads of Italia with her mother, in the guise of wandering peddlers, their own pilgrimage and purposes having brought them to the Eternal City. Offered an unsentimental comfort, in that time shortly after she and her mother had pulled him back from that final threshold. Initially, he'd been a dispirited and thankless convalescent at best. It hadn't helped learning of the disastrous fallout left in the trail of Commodus' death—the Guard tightening their grasp on power, and Lucilla's son paying the last and final price in the demise of the Antonii.
Nemhyn--unsentimental, and unpitying, but not uncompassionate. Reflexively trying--in the manner of her nature-to show him, in spite of humanity's foibles and tragedies, life could sometimes still be possible. Lucilla had tried that too, by re-awakening the ideal of a dream he'd believed dead. Truth-be-told, Nemhyn had also attempted that—eventually.
But first, she had tried laughter during the early days of their contact traveling through Italia. Through Italia, trying to get back to Britannia, Nemhyn related a story of how changing customs on the isle, influencing preferences for burial over cremation, had caused unanticipated problems in recent years. Sometimes, common-folk—the herders and farmers of the island's populace—often did not have access to the expertise of classically trained physicians more affluent classes might. A peasant witch, the ancient midwife, sometimes even the village priest--once taught a spattering of the cryptic Druidic lore long ago--knew little more about bodily signs between life and death than the cattle-tender. Chances were, the cattle tender being younger, with less impaired hearing and eyesight, probably could distinguish physical subtleties more accurately.
In the absence of obvious breathing, immediately audible heartbeats, or indications of movement, persons are declared deceased, and fit for the rituals of last rites, Nemhyn had detailed, ill-disguised humor shining in her eyes. Sometimes, though, the person isn't actually dead, just...not quite with the living. And they regain conscious awareness in a few days. It happens with some types of head injuries that don't go bad.
He remembered she'd said that last like explaining how some types of meat go rotten if they weren't salted and smoked properly. It had taken him little time journeying with Nemhyn and her mother, to understand their take on occurrences most persons viewed as too profane, or uncomfortable for casual discussion—like deceased loved ones returning from the dead—usually warranted a bald, and sometimes ribald, observation of surrounding circumstances.
Then the stories of how Cunolinex's newly dead grandmother arriving at the doorstep of her family start flying all over the countryside, she had continued, undeterred by his surly comment, stating his disinterest in her tale. Wearing her burial adornment--probably the finest garments she ever wove--they are now covered in mud, clay, and rotting plant roots. She nearly sends the entire family, peacefully dining on their evening meal, into their own early graves as she rails at the top of voice, cursing their future generations, next year's crops, the new season of lambs, and anything else her poor, addled senses haven't yet conceived. The family thinks she's a ghost. She insists she's simply their mis-treated, and readily forgotten grandmother, who is hungry, cold, aching sore, and has a horrible knot on her head. Had Cunolinex not been playing dice for the countless time with his friends, when he ought to have been collecting water for the evening baths, his decrepit old grandmother would not have had to suffer the arduous chore of carrying the impossibly heavy buckets down to the river at dusk. He should have known with her aching joints and failing vision, toting a load far to heavy for her old back, she would trip and fall, bashing her head on a boulder she hadn't been able to make out in the darkness.
Then, she awakens with a head throbbing like the thunder of the High Ones, to find herself in a darkness she first thinks in Cerridwen's Well, only to make out, after long hours of panic and smelling rotten vegetation, that it's in fact, her own grave. Without-- mind you--the stone sarcophagus her family vowed they would bury her in, and her husband's favorite gold neck-ring.
That's usually when, Nemhyn had concluded, trying to contain a voice shaking with rising mirth, the family—a little guilt ridden by this point--starts to perceive, perhaps on the off-chance, this is no angered ghost, but the rather miraculously resurrected, very mortal, and very indignant familial matron. And if her expostulations haven't convinced them by this point, grandmother's threat of going to the local judge, and accusing her family of violating her burial testimony, usually does.
He remembered his response to her jocular attempt at narrative came out as a curtly trenchant remark, dark words about her insensitivity to human suffering, and his explicit wish to be left alone for the remainder of their journey to Ianua. His brooding temper was usually implied with enough force to intimidate the most unflappable spirit.
Or so he'd figured, until meeting Nemhyn and her formidable mother, nearly two years ago.
Standing here in the middle of Alba's dense forest--the bite of winter's teeth prescient on his skin, chilling the sweat from his hair and neck--the hustling clamor of his troops reached his ears, their forms dimming in the receding winter light. That afternoon, as he swung his leg over Busephilus' back, amid harsh shouts from his men directed at the few bedraggled survivors composing the prison line, he pondered for a countless time, how wrong he often was in puzzling out women's natures.
He heard those same men who had been threatening the Picti bare moments ago—Roman legionaire and Sarmati warrior—subsequently encourage their own wounded with gruff words couched in masculine bravado, belying much more than the contained emotion any hardened soldier would ever admit to openly.
"If you even think to look anywhere but straight ahead you balless painted northerner, you might as well consign your sweet eyes to your gods, and hope the heavens can show mercy for a blinded slave!" A coarse voice, menacing.
Maximus, about to turn back in his saddle with a glare of warning reminding the trooper to restrain his avowing threats, heard the same-said man, moments later, plead in tone of tight anguish. "Come on Gaius, stay with a little longer. The arrow missed your heart. If you dare pass out, I'm going to tell all the ladies at Belinus' tavern, the next time we're on leave in Eboracum, how you swooned like a virgin on her wedding night from a mere scratch."
These were familiar utterances--beseechments and promises, caveats and repartees--he'd heard in different forms, in different places of the Empire, with different men, as a general and a slave--one too many times over the years.
Now, he was no longer a general, nor a slave. What he was…
He had no idea. He supposed simply a leader of men. The amalgam he commanded was peculiar—mostly Sarmati horsemen, but legionary tribunes paid homage to him, as did (disturbing as it was), the British nobility. He was…
…the Winter King, the last syllable of the word ending as a drawn out sigh--a young girl's childish, murmuring giggle, carried by the glacial wind, upon the dry susurration of left-over leaves cloaking winter barren branches.
A shiver ran, involuntary, down his spine like icy-sharp knives, hearing that voice. Something of the man's disquiet must have communicated itself to his stallion, as the imposing black's ears twitched, and Busephilus snorted, giving a single, uneasy toss of a gallant, chamfron-adorned head. The invernal silence of the winter wood persisted, with no more intrusion of that eerie whisper, filled by a monotonous trudge of booted feet and hoofs plodding through snow-soaked mud. The company proceeded in that state for sometime, a dank splash of slushy detritus, an occasional profanity or outraged whinny erupting when horse and human slipped on the less than even ground.
Cyanus had galloped up from behind, just as they came in sight of the fortress, leaving the confines of the timberland, where the way opened to flatter, treeless bluffs—winter gray as the slated sky above--and just as barren, but no longer hampering site and movement. On his big strawberry roan, the cavalryman looked like some grand impression of Ares come to life, scale armor plated in a dazzling array of gold-discs, his helmet catching the scarce remaining rays like a miniature iron sun.
"There are spirits about on the wind tonight, Great Bear. They speak of kings and wars, heroes from long ago." The Sarmatian's Latin had a thick resonance, lending an angular, stilted bent to the end of his phrases.
"Then you hear more than I, Cyanus. All it told me was that I am very cold, and I have a great urge for a warm wash of ale, and some roasted portions of deer." Not exactly true, but his misgiving was more often communicated through posture and expression than voice. He tried, belatedly to wipe the furrow he felt forming upon his forehead.
Cyanus, too observant a man to miss any indication of his superior commander's anxiety, weighted his heavy sapphire gaze upon the other man. "You heard, too. I can see that. Batrades used to say it was Tabiti's voice, whispering from the realm of shades. I cannot say if it was true or not—about Tabiti's voice. But tonight--," the burly horseman's words faded, growing rough, his eyes sliding away from Maximus' face, focusing too carefully on the rising gates from the imposing watchtowers of the fort straight ahead. "Tonight, I thought I heard the voice of Batrades."
Maximus could only throw his privately suffering officer a brief, pained look of his own—a reflection of the naked loss all would feel should Batrades' life give out.
The shouts of welcome from the fort garrison, an inquiry as fellow soldiers greeted the returning scouting party, broke the moment, moving both men back into the confusion of their fellow warriors and horses. What had been shared mourning with a close comrade became, once more, the bustle of a fort where the injured needed tending, prisoners needed tallying, and messages needed to be sent south to the Antonine line on the morrow.
"He's not dead yet," was all Maximus could get out stiffly, lamely, to his own ears, before both men were called to their respective duties.
Someone, a hospital orderly, asked Maximus where to put the wounded prisoners—the penitentiary or the infirmary. An office clerk, weedy in appearance and high strung, whose knobby throat protruded distractingly when he spoke, had been searching frantically for the camp prefect, or the highest ranked officer all afternoon. He had the misfortune of finding Cyanus instead, who growled at the man with a near bestial viciousness that almost had the poor weasel soiling himself before Maximus could intervene.
He didn't feel like the Great Bear, nor very much like a leader of men. He simply thanked the gods Calius, a trusted tribune of the VI, offered to face the couriers waiting in the commandant's office, seeking an audience before the solstice's banquet. He wasn't sure the kind of a celebration his men were pending on, but two fort-laborers hauled cider vats down the principal lane of the fortress, toward the U-shaped officers' headquarters in the center of the stronghold.
Handing off Busephilus to a groom with one last rub to the horse's sleek chin groove, he just hoped the music and carousing which usually extended into early hours of the sun's next rising, wouldn't distract him from the remaining administrative tasks he still needed to finish. He tried to focus on minutiae, walking by a grouping of stone-walled barracks siding the road, their colorless facades featureless and uniform in the winter twilight. Communicae for reinforcements, four of the horses had gone lame over the late fall—one slain in the attempted ambush. There was the potential one of the Picti captives was of royal blood, and he needed to start thinking of a possible way of enacting a truce…
And there was Batrades—his blood-brother; his battle-brother; his shadow and his dark reflection. The one man who knew, of a handful of others, the ex-gladiator's dismal influence on the Sarmatian exile to Britannia so many years ago. The once-leader of the Royal-Iazyges had found, somewhere in his heart, a unity with a man who had been once-leader of the Northern Legions. Most of all, they had each found a difficult, but profound friendship.
Maximus—who was Artos to all of the men serving in a winter campaign, fighting a people Rome gave up on trying to subdue over a century ago--sat alone in the chief commander's study, enshrouded by the early winter darkness, with a flickering lamp suspended from a chubby-faced, bronze Eros balanced on one foot, candlelight glinting off a massive maple-wood desk. Staring, but not seeing, the pile of parchment, the inkwell and ivory-worked stylus, the hand-sized kit of official seals, and melted wax.
Wearied and heart-sore, of twenty men, five were wounded, and one was dead, not to mention the eight, or so, Picti assailants. Old men and boys, the bitter thought came again. He was sick of wasting good soldiers.
And he was sick for Batrades.
There, at his maple-wood desk, an engraved impression of leaves carved around the cornered edges--a gift from Ulpius Marcellus when the fort had been newly refurbished back in the late summer—he simply wept.
It was a quiet, muffled and torn sound, not overly tear-filled. A man's weeping.
While music filtered in on the draft of snowy air seeping through the shuttered windows of the study, men's laughter with women's merry voices, his hushed lament continued. What audible impression of his grief was lacking came through in the occasional spasm shaking the powerful expanse of his shoulders, couched in leather fringe ornamenting the arm sockets of his iron-scale breastplate. Only twice had he done this in his life. Once, when he'd come upon the bodies of his wife and son; the last, when he almost lost Nemhyn to a poisoned blade meant for him, back in the spring.
This was the third.
Like a quiet prayer, the sort men don't even know they make in the deep, unacknowledged recesses of their hearts, her voice reached out to him. "Is this the way you decide to spend the hours of a winter's gathering? Holed up in the principa, away from the feasting, music, and dancing, mourning the work you still have to do?" It shouldn't have been there, that voice, lilting with melodious huskiness, and always, that tinge of dry pragmatism.
She was south, along the more settled fortresses of the Hadrian divide, attending the hospital at Corstopitum. Having never left the side of Batrades when the prince had been brought back on a wagon hauling the wounded nearly a fortnight ago. Hauling the dead--to Corstopitum.
Everyone thought the dauntless prince of the Sarmati had been…dead, that is. Or at least…dying. Everyone except for Nemhyn, who had seen surgery performed on abdominal wounds, in those years of travel with her mother, during their expedition to the East. Publius had called her mad. Nemhyn, in a lashing tone, and a furnace blast of temper he'd been on the other end of often enough, replied with a succinct lambasting to her colleague. A certain Sushruta and an allusion to ants made up most of her impassioned rejoinder.
And suddenly, here she was, leaning, one hip raised to half sit on the edge of the desk, opposite him, her arms crossed over her breast. In the midst of his quiet release, he hadn't heard her enter the room, and wondered if she was a figment of his need, taken physical shape, and so summoned here as a comfort to himself.
Selene had come to him like that once, that second time returning to Trujillo. Her form, though, had resonated with Immortal possession, whereas, Nemhyn, here before him, at this moment, evinced only a thankfully mortal flavor—the smudges under her eyes, a streak of dirt across one graceful cheekbone. The flush upon her pale façade where the chill wind of evening scorched across her exposed skin drained out winter-faded freckles. Garbed as one of the Sarmati women, in a thigh-length jerkin of soft felt and worked leather, brocaded with a rich weaving of glass-beads at the edges, amber at the neck, her trousers were the same supple suede, a pale brown, blending with the intricate bead work of her boots. Hair bound in a knot at her nape was covered for utility's sake rather than modesty. He could see traces of moisture-hued tendrils, the color of russet leaves in the late autumn, plastered to her temples from underneath the scarf, trying to escape with wiry, frazzled defiance. A woolen cloak retained the heat of her body in the winter cold.
It was obvious she had ridden overland, and at a rapid pace.
Undoing the fastening of her cloak, she leaned forward across the desk, her eyes shining above the falcon's arch of her nose, like sunlight dappling the brown and green expanses of Britannia's sedge-covered meadows.
"You know, I peeked in the window of the scholae before I came here, thinking you would be with the other officers. You really do have an odd manner of celebrating," The scolding was marked by mild teasing.
He didn't apologize for the tears she found him shedding; although, like any man, no matter how trusted the woman, there was always some measure of embarrassment when caught in the middle of emotional outpourings.
He cleared his throat once, running a hand through springy, waving hair that curled at the neck, over his forehead, often an annoying disarray getting into his eyes. "How-," he rasped losing his voice at the first go. "How did you know to come, tonight. Right now, to be here, at this moment, when I needed you so badly."
Her responsive tenderness melted the previous banter in her initial greeting. "I didn't," she admitted, softly, so simple, with a small, self-minimizing shrug. She grinned quickly, then. A flash, and it was gone, but her words carried its jesting essence. "I figured you would be with the rest of the men, contributing no source of trouble for the available females by taking advantage of the mistletoe hanging from the ceiling. But you weren't, so I looked here."
"No, I…I didn't feel quite up to commiserating tonight."
In the darkened room, illuminated only by the one suspended lamp catching the deep browns of the maple-wood desk, the clean silhouette of her features were captured in flame light and shadow. Her eyes, though, were what disarmed him, luminous in their feeling.
"Why were you weeping?" she asked with serene gentleness.
"Why does any man weep," he returned, self-contempt hardening his tone. She didn't recoil from it. She never had. She merely shook her head once—voiceless condolence--and continued to peer at him steady and somber.
"Because," he barreled on in a sudden, agitated vehemence, "I lead men, and they die under my command! Because…because I see no benefit from expending our resources up in these gods' forsaken highlands, calling this a war, when the almighty Empire,"—that said with a truly caustic emphasis--,"can't even decide on her own ruler!"
"Because retribution cannot be used for the excuse of invasion! If Rome wants to make a point of her strength to barbarians who dared the arrogance of incursion, with an Empire who couldn't overcome her own strife long enough to stabilize her borders, then the Eagles shouldn't be using the men I lead!"
She was so still, lying across the surface of the desk like that, on crossed elbows, gazing up at him with an intensity—her own scalding sorrow--that gave away the assumed casualness of her posture. The tension in her bearing was more than an echo of his grief. What shone her eyes was the deep loyalty, and courage of an indomitable heart--the love for her motherland. A forgotten province at the edge of the known Empire, yet the clean winds and misted towering peaks were the breath of life in her lungs, the numerous rivers and streams carving hidden paths through moor, and hidden glen--the milk of her veins.
"Because," he continued, needing to lift the weight of guilt that had been pressing him for weeks now, "we are killing old men and boys who are the life-blood of this land, the backbone of these people's farms, the livelihood of their flocks, and their fishing.
"Because good men--honorable men--are dying under my command, in a war that isn't a legitimate war, for an Empire that ripped them from their homeland, and sees them as mere fodder to ensure the gluttony of the State. Because--," he choked, his volley ending in an anguished defeat. "Because I send good men like Batrades to their deaths for following me unerringly.
"Because I hate myself for this," he managed to say before burying his face in his hands. "Hate myself for what I do when I am in the field, so that I think I am hardly a man anymore, but merely an instrument of death!"
At some point in that last proclamation, his words must have spurred her to motion, for she was suddenly at his feet, kneeling before him, grasping his hands in her own, his bowed head touching her uplifted face.
"I weep," he murmured into her hair, the head-scarf having slid onto the floor, the spiraling tendrils soft against his lips, smelling of glacial winds and spruce covered mountain passes high above the earth. "I weep because, sometimes, I think what I feel for you is the one thing which reminds me I am still human, in spite of killing…in spite of everything."
Her hands were tangled in the coarse, oak-brown disorder of his hair, so at odds with the neat, short cropped beard outlining the curve of a strong cleft jaw, bold contours of a face her fingers stroked, easing, sharing his tortured sorrow.
She tried to speak, once. Her words were jumbled, though, made unintelligible from the desperate, almost violent pressure with which he took her mouth in his, not sure if the salt he tasted was the evidence of his own tears smeared across her skin, or her own quiet response to his inner-turmoil.
It was difficult, really, to do much else than kiss in that desperate way, for the moment. He was still in his chair, his posture hunched over, reaching—thirsty man for precious water--to where she knelt, clutching at him, both lost in the timeless instant of touch. The taste of cider on his breath, the sandy feel of his facial hair across her neck when she reached up to kiss his brow, he paying creed to bite lightly at the sensitized skin along the exposed column of chin to throat.
Their motions might have bordered on frenzied, and while desire awakened in natural order--breathing growing harsh, uneven, heart beats pounding out a time to the rhythm of the oldest dance in the world—the raw urgency fueling their physical contact abated, worked to calm the initial desperation. The moisture of her lips trailed along one of his earlobes, her nails dancing along the back of his neck, meeting with the cold, unyielding edge of his scale-plated cuirass.
Nemhyn's breath in his ear, the muttered, "Oh by blood and Hades," was drowned in his absorption with trying to take her lips once more in his own. He gave up temporarily, losing himself in the texture of her hair instead, convinced the spirit of pine and fir must have lent themselves to the wild freshness, the essence of outdoors he kept inhaling deeply.
Tangling fingers around unfettered curls, wishing to ease her head back, his lips seeking hers, his finger snagged on one of the pins failing to fully bind the mass of her hair.
"Aih!" she expulsed with pain, half laughter and rising ardency, leaning back onto her heels carefully so he could free himself. "Are you trying to love me, or scalp me?"
His forehead resting against hers, his low chuckle reflected a somewhat lightened heart, eyes levelly focused on hers whilst concentrating on disentangling the enwrapped finger somewhere near the back of her head. "I'm sorry. But…well, look at how you distract a man's attention," he accused with ribbing amusement.
"You don't seem to have required persuasion with a golden bough," she jibed back, her eyes flashing, holding their mirrored posture carefully, and he finally freed his finger without yanking any more strands from her head.
With the same hand he stroked along fine, even brows the color of a darkened auburn sunset, wondering if languid traces of their shared moment were as evident across his visage, noticing her bruised lips, the faint, red abrasions where his beard rubbed along neck or cheek.
In the temporary silence, they said nothing, letting the distant sounds of music from across the fortress carry into the room, drowned, for beats at a time, by the lower moaning of the lonely winter's gusting drafts. To feel her, to caress her like this, letting his hand slip along the sculpted curve of cheek, tracing her lips as she closed her eyes, soaking the sensation of his callused touch, was to feel life—to drink the spirit and strength of what a woman was.
Catching his hand in hers, suddenly, wrapping her other palm atop it, she leveled a direct look at him—solemn and pensive. "You kill and you have killed because it is necessary," she began softly, into the flickering of the candles sputtering, and the whisper of the winter wind outside. "Wars, whether they are legitimate or not, are always brutal and savage. But so are people. Yet, we—men and women—can be compassionate and gentle. The very same who make wars can create things of great beauty—in music, poetry, learning."
"Healing," he interjected, his tone as quiet, intimate as hers.
The corner of her mouth quirked. "Yes, healing too," opening his hand to kiss the skin of his palm before curling her fingers back over it, placing it to her heart like the most prized gem in the world.
Solemn, again, gravely, she continued, holding his eyes intently. "You kill when you have to; those men, today—whether they are old men and boys, or trained soldiers of the Picti—would have done the same. They would not have spared your life had the scales been weighted otherwise. You lead men, and that is the nobility—the beauty of your nature. Whether they are Roman, Sarmati, or Briton, they follow you because they love you."
A tinge of the previous bitterness came back into his voice, falling like a shadow over his sense. "And so they die for me."
"Perhaps," she said, still above a whisper, but firm. "But no gift ever came without a price."
"Why," he tried to get out, without choking upon the words. "Why did that price have to be Batrades?"
Which, of course, only brought her to lean forward on her knees once more, taking his face between her hands so he would notice her, and only her—understand what she imparted to the fullest extent possible.
"He will live, Maximus." Always Maximus between them.
He had cautioned her about that once, not to use his old name—the dead name—so freely. Her impertinent reply, said with scrupulous flippancy, regarded how it felt to identify a bull-mastiff as a bull itself, and vice versa. Lucius Castus might be your chosen name, but remember, I met you when you were still the hero of the Arena. You really do have such little faith in my discretion…Maximus.
That had been in those days before the attempt on Arbeia. Before the nickname of Artos—the Great Bear—seemed to exemplify the true spirit of his fortitude in battlecraft. And in leading men.
Her spoken words jarred with the inner-meandering of his mind. Doubtful, hoping—not daring to believe her just yet. "He—what? Are you sure," came his hesitant query, a little giddy.
He thought the world seemed a bit unsteady, or perhaps it was only the immense relief beginning to lighten the substantial winter gloom that had been darker than its usual wont.
The effusive smile which broke across her features then--a lovely thing capturing the quality of sun's rays glancing off silver jewels, containing their own splendor, but brought to full refulgence with the light—bade him laugh outright. A little wildly, a little hysterically, it was the way a farmer feels when rain begins to fall after a long, devastating drought, and only a season of starvation and death staring back from the long night.
She joined him, her own delight—a ringing, joyous sound with the uninhibited resonance of a dancing brook or a tinkling stream of jewels--fed by the expression of his.
"Why didn't you say something before now?" he got out between the full, sonorous guffaws of his sudden gladness.
He saw her blink, try to contain the brilliant, momentary mirth, assume an affront she failed miserably at, squealing in surprise and indignation when he hauled her up, bodily, onto his lap.
"I tried," Nemhyn huffed pointedly, before relaxing into the warm strength of his embrace. "You looked so desolate when I arrived, and then you started with the—"stumbling in her words, coughing an embarrassed, "—ahem," a flush coloring up her neck to the roots of her hair.
It was strange to see her blush like that, coyness as foreign to her nature as the happenstance of calm seas in winter. For a woman whose directness could unsettle the most seasoned of warriors, the fact he could affect her brought a warmth to his soul, accompanied by an equally warm stirring to other parts of his body. If she was aware of his physical response as yet, she chose to ignore it, balanced so she was leaning her head back against his shoulder, having changed the topic to one of much less personal intimacy.
"He's very weak, still, is Batrades. Fortunate for him he's a strong man and not an undernourished peasant-worker, though. He will be swinging a sword and riding at your right-hand again," the dryness in her tone underlying her opinion of what she viewed as men's strange exultation in displays of warfare. "It may not be till well after mid-summer, but he is over the worst of his injury. Fever already took its toll and failed; and if internal inflammation from a punctured bowel were to happen, it would have already. He's keeping down food, and--," pausing with another significant ahem--, "doing other things that I'm sure he'd rather not have me relay to you. But rest assured, it seems like…his system is in good, recovering order."
"Your words fill me with gratitude," he murmured softly into her ear. Which, in fact, they did—not to mention a sincere relief, but he was distracted by concentrating valiantly to prevent his hands from wondering where they rested innocently, lightly about her waist. There was a pattern of amber beads his fingers traced, though, that meandered in a spiraling pattern, sown into her suede tunic, going up in a vertical weaving toward a seductive under-swelling—
"Stop!" she warned with laughing menace, sitting up straight, turning to break the proximity of their bodies, and—to his disgruntlement—frustrate his eluded fingers from the goal of their desired caress. "It's apparent my words are filling you with something else as well," the brusque chiding punctuated by her raised brows, and a quick glance downward indicating she had been all too aware of certain bodily responses.
Her tone reminded him of a she-wolf snapping at a mate trying to impose himself on her before she was in her season.
His tragic sigh would have done an actor proud, crossing his arms behind his head in aggravated arousal. "Gods woman, you're a torment! You withhold good tidings on a man who is like a brother to me, and you tease like an un-bred filly in springtime," he moaned.
The glitter in her eyes held no pity, especially when she noticed his cheeky smirk. She merely snorted an unlady-like hrrumph, and rose from his lap with a wonderful, uncoiling litheness—indeed very much like the she-wolf he'd compared her to.
"But it's been almost—"
"Oh please!" she nearly hooted, a bubbling laughter cutting into his attempted gripe. "If that's the best you can think of in conjuring my sympathies, I have only to remind you of how much longer it's been for most of your men."
She did have a point. It still didn't stifle a last endeavor, done more for effect than any other reason. "You know, the Sarmati say a woman is indeed very like a mare. She may already be in her heat, but-
He wasn't ever sure how she managed to move so fluidly—one moment so utterly relaxed, making to exit the study, and the next a blur of motion. Not fast, just—flowing, so that she had him braced up against the back of his chair, her hands on his leather shoulder-bracings, her face mere inches from his, and her knee…wedged on the seat--mere inches from a rather more intimate area of his body.
"—but it takes a stallion to let her know when she's ready. Yes, I've heard that one quite often over the years," her eyes glittering, dangerous amusement, as her voice dropped to a hushed murmur, her mouth a bare finger's breadth from his. "You need a new line, Spaniard."
His chuckle was warm, deep, a last refuge from not falling victim to the utter temptation of taking those lips in his one more time. "Why," he answered, "when the same phrase elicits the desired action."
Her frustration came out as a hissing exhalation, venting an, "Oh, you're completely incorrigible," throwing her hands up in the air when she realized he'd been playing on the short-fuse of her temper.
Her outburst set him off once more, whooping in rumbling gales of laughter, winning him a glowering look that she couldn't hold, dissolving into the delightful fullness of her own exuberant mirth. Hot and cold ran Nemhyn's mood, changing as frequently as the spring weather of Britannia, by turns, dizzying a man like a tempest at sea, or allowing him to glory in the sweetness of a golden sun spreading its golden rays across a honey-scented meadow of sweet-clover and heather in summer.
Sunshine and summer fields were what Maximus was thinking of then, when the woman he rested his eyes upon, at that moment, maneuvered herself to plop into his lap, evoking a forceful "OOF," on his part. He wrapped his arms around her before she made to break free from him again, and for a rare, precious moment, she simply rested against him, her arms around his neck, her breath warm against his skin while she wound her fingers into the hair curling down his nape.
At the foot of the highland passes in the Alban north-country, the timeless winter wind swept through the fort, whispering of hidden mountain ways, deep isolated canyons, and glacial valleys, bound by rocky slopes, and crowned in a snowy royalty of frosty mist, crystalline encased branches of ice. The chill gusts of air wove between the shutter slats of the study's windows, rustling the parchment on the desk, playing a brief flirtation with the candle's flames upon the lamp-stand.
If one listened hard enough, the boisterous sounds of men shouting, clapping hands in time to a drumming rhythm could be heard as a distant undertone to the incessant moan of winter's lonely voice.
"I have to admit, as a chosen pastime, I think I prefer your soldiers' method of celebration—music, song, dance, a warm fire and endless vats of cider and ale," Nemhyn teased softly, raising her head to look up at him.
He hadn't noticed, until now, observing this close and steady, how drawn were her cheeks, faint purplish shadows under her eyes marring the fine skin, dirt and bracken staining her clothing. Regarding her, he frowned. "How many days did you ride overland?"
"Three. Non-stop, nearly. Would you like to hear about some of the largest snowdrifts in bloody-Britannia; two of the widest rivers I ever held my breath over every time the horse crossed without the cracking of ice being heard; or the flurry that made me chose the wrong bend in a path leading me into a valley where a hamlet I remembered existing ended up not being there."
There was, as usual, a humorous irony in her voice, but it was tempered with a weariness he could fully sympathize with. Along with a sudden realization. "Did you ride all this way? Risking an overland journey in winter, just to tell me about Batrades' condition?" He could feel the familiar furrow between his brows growing deeper by the moment, a warring of so many internal sentiments he couldn't focus on one specifically.
She only nodded, resting her head back upon his shoulder. Such a guileless motion, and so very Nemhyn—her non-verbal assertion of simple fact: wouldn't anyone have done this? It was that aspect of her nature, breaking through at odd moments like this one now, which reawakened the tender novelty of what he felt for her. The depth of which he couldn't dwell on too long, for the vulnerability it exposed and the capacity for happiness he still couldn't quite accept.
No gift ever came without a price.
"Why didn't you wait until the roads were cleared, so the couriers could get through on the main highway?"
She skewed an eyebrow at him, wryly intoning, "You need to ask? You know as well as I the roads north of the Hadrian divide haven't been maintained since Pius' time, to say nothing of what's beyond the Antonine--cart-tracks made over the summer. If they're not washed away with the autumn rains, they get buried by the snow. Besides, I know the countryside here better than most of the legionary messengers, and this—Batrades' imminent recovery—wasn't exactly considered first class correspondence that needed to be communicated straight-away."
He could feel himself protesting, shaking his head, "But you didn't have to risk—
She shifted to place a hand over his mouth, looking him direct in the eye, hazel flecked green and brown irises shadowed by the back-light of the lamp. "I know, but I did," she murmured gravely. "I know what Batrades is to you—what you are to him. I know what it has been like, here, over the winter—how you suffer through a campaign that has no meaningful end in site. I did not think you needed to suffer further, believing Batrades to be dead, Maximus."
Words were stuck in a throat he couldn't quite get moist enough to speak. For a moment, the wind was the only sound filling the empty silence when Nemhyn withdrew the gentle pressure of her hand on his mouth, tracing with a strong, slender finger, the outline of his beard, the sensitive skin of his lips. "Gods, you're more precious than jewels, woman," he rasped shortly, held motionless by her touch.
She laughed, a throaty sound, wrapping her knuckles against his armored cuirass—hardened rawhide and scaled sheets of iron lending a cold ringing to the shushing of the wind beyond the shutters.
"You know, without this horrid thing, it would be a whole lot easier to tempt me with your rather graceless endeavors at seduction."
Her grin was bewitching, her tone a parody of annoyance. It lightened the mood considerably.
His responsive laughter was low and deep, leaning his head back to feel the full cleansing joy of it. A resounding sweetness nearly broke his heart when he felt her lean against him, fingers tangling in his hair once more, prolonging a kiss with such blazing ardency, they were both left breathless, shaking for countless beats of a pulse when they finally broke apart.
Her face was nuzzled in his neck again. The effort to form words out of lips that were still numb with the feel of her tongue, the warmth of her breath, amazingly difficult. "I apologize for my lack of courtly etiquette," he managed softly into her ear. He felt her shiver slightly, at the play of his words against her skin. "All I have are boring itineraries to relay, and memoranda to impart." He knew she would react like that, knew those places where he could blow softly, nibble lightly, tickle and caress, and she would melt against him, pliant and supple. All the while, he needed to remember what he held was quicksilver in his arms; a woman who responded like the delicate buds of spring, unfurling beneath the gentle allure of vernal rains, and could as quickly command the rising passion of their coupling—dry brush and fire in high summer.
She shifted, with a regretful sigh, breaking their physical contact, moving to stand once more. "Leave it to you to remind one of duties unfulfilled," she admonished mildly, her hand cupping his cheek as she gazed down upon his seated form.
"I wasn't reminding you of the things I still needed to do," he stated, irritated at himself, the unintended meaning of his words. "You don't need to leave…yet…I mean…," he trailed off, just short of awkward entreaty. He had faced countless battles, skirmishes, led outright wars, planned campaigns, inspired men against seemingly impossible odds, taken down an Emperor—not to mention cheated death a time or two--and besides the obvious qualms any of those obstacles presented in the better course of nearly twenty years—he had somehow gained, along with a new name, a repute for stolid composure. In the name of the High Ones, what was it about speaking to Nemhyn that could dissolve, in bare moments, the connection between coherent speech and the expression of his soul—his heart.
Sensing his sudden discomfiture, for an instant, she looked almost as uncomfortable as he felt, her hand drawing back from his cheek uncertainly, blinking, her eyes wavering from his, focusing with an inward-directed scowl at some randomly scattered military paraphernalia behind him.
Her pragmatic attitude could be her strength. In her line of work, she was used to the varied displays of emotion persons—patients--revealed when dealing with the latitude of illness and death. Admittedly, practicality was also her stumbling block when it came to personal complexity. She possessed an infinite capacity to dissect, like one of the occasional illicit cadavers she once told him about, her own emotions, and his, to the point where the classical philosophers of Greece would have been confounded or left weeping.
At a loss, he swallowed once into the peculiar tension of the silence—the incessant sound of the wind howling outside, spattering random flakes against the principa's wooden shutters and stone walls. It sounded like thousands of invisible fingers tapping their insistence to be allowed in on such a winter-blown night.
If her unease with intimate admissions of affection was disguised behind cerebral analysis, her grace had always been her own brand of humor. With a wry half-grin, her head cocked to the side, one brow skewed in characteristic fashion, her glance at him was piercing—mischievous—lending the impression of a school girl half her age.
"Frankly, now is neither the time nor the place," she spearheaded into the silence.
"I wasn't trying to force--," he began, as stilted as a teenage boy. Ridiculous given that he was hardly an adolescent, and he had loved other women—albeit few in number.
"I know," she barreled on, stalwart as a determined plow-horse. "And you never would. It comes down to four reasons, really. One, I can only imagine how like Medusa's twin sister I must look at the moment. Even Diana, after the hunt, never entered an establishment of men without pulling a comb once through her hair. I haven't had a bath for three days going, and who would fathom the vermin that have taken up residence in the mop the Fates saw fit to curse me with.
"Second, if I look like this after three days, gods only know, judging by your appearance, how long it's been since you've had a bath. Snowstorms might suffice for soldiers, but unless I can smell more soap on your skin than horse, sweat, and battle's aftermath—snow flurries can't equal a hot soak in a tub…dearest." Her smirk was mocking.
He couldn't keep himself from laughing into her diatribe as she continued, hearing her voice beginning to shake slightly, her motherly-scolding tone slipping only a fraction. "Third, so long as you—and all of your vaunted warriors—insist on getting themselves injured, and bringing in equally wounded prisoners, I still have an infirmary to check on before I can even contemplate the bath house tonight."
"You don't have to go over there," he interjected. "At least not tonight. I'm sure Publius has everything under control."
"Publius," she returned flatly, "is the one who asked me not two steps past the south-gate. There's something about one of the Picti captives being of the Caledonii nobility. I'm…curious," she added.
He dropped the banter for the moment, reluctant, but necessary. "The one that took a stab to the thigh in the ambush today?"
Nemhyn nodded absently. "Publius did mention something about a leg injury—saying it didn't sever the artery, but the skin and underlying muscle tissue looked like eviscerated pork-rind you would get from the butcher." The grim tension around her mouth reflected his sudden sobriety with the change in subject. "How did you know?" she asked offhandedly.
Maximus--Artos—his dead name, his new name, could have been no name at all for all he cared at the moment—shook his head once in rueful ponderence. "He refused to be carted on a makeshift gurney, so he walked—or rather staggered. His pride might have been commendable, but he would have done better to salvage his strength. The pain overcame him, he lost too much blood and he passed out, so he ended up getting hauled like a dead hind from a hunt anyway. It's the kind of foolishness that comes with youth. Experience usually teaches you to modify your delusions of heroism."
"You would have done that. In your youth, I mean," Nemhyn remarked, her eyes slanted in consideration at him.
His reply was a significant glance, all of the truth of his entire life in that one look—suffering, grief, blessing, dauntless loyalty, friendship, honor, love—all lost. And unexpectedly found.
He saw the poise she drew from in order to hold that look, not flinch away from it. Notice too, she didn't pursue the subject, smiling with furious defiance, to ease them past his propensity for brooding somberness.
"Aren't you even slightly curious to hear the fourth reason about objecting to romantic pursuits in the officer's study," she hinted airily. "Well, besides the obvious fact of a desk for a bed and parchment as a poor substitute for linen sheets."
"Indulge me," he humored, nonchalant expectance scrawled all over his bearing, from the raised eyebrows, to his arms folded over the scale-metal pectoral of his cuirass.
Her smile was slow, as though relishing the flavor of a delicious sweet-wine. Slow and playing across the fullness of her lips, it was beguilingly enticing.
Still standing, Nemhyn bent forward to place a single index finger under his chin, allowing her to tip his head slightly, her eyes glittering with the embers of an arousal she could conceal like a Vestal if she wanted. "Because you and I are going to need at least a few hours rest," her low voice causing the temperature—he imagined—to rise in their immediate proximity, "before we endeavor to pursue what you wanted…to-night," drawing out the last word like a melodious endearment.
His mouth had gone dry, and he was clutching the arm rests of the chair so hard his fingers tingled—all to keep himself from clutching at her, and doing what men did with women who flirted and tempted in this way. Leave it to the nine hells to care if they were in the commandant's study, unbathed and smelling of horse, sweat, and gods could guess what else.
He knew she was well aware of the sudden pounding in his head, the hammering of his heart, and throbbing in others areas that was making him distinctly uncomfortable. "You don't," he exhaled roughly, "even want to guess at the images going through my mind right now, Nemhyn," keeping himself supremely still with an iron-will.
She hadn't moved, but there was an intangible tautness in her posture, something smoldering in her gaze, her lids heavy, half closed, catching the intensity of his words, his eyes. Balanced on a brink, deciding who would capitulate first was always a battle of wills between them when both parties were so guarded about their intimacy—sharing body and mind—with someone so unexpectedly matched. The affection was admitted, the tenderness unexpected, and the vulnerability it exposed took…getting used to.
But the tension in the room, between them—if it was lust or emotion--had become charged to such a point, a bow-string would have snapped from the pressure. Impossibly, he felt perspiration break out over his forehead, in spite of the chilly room.
He was about to give in, the enrapturing spell she wove—part mocking play, part daring courtship—a clamor to his senses. All at once, the finger under his chin slid down his neck, toying with the stubble of his beard, traced up with coy whimsy to his earlobe.
His breath caught. Control was fleeing him, seeing a devilish glint in her eyes brightening as she bit her lower lip, then those same lips parting, and…
She tugged, deliberate and hard, on his ear, evoking a gasping, "AH!" out of him, pain an unexpected catalyst to what he'd been anticipating. Useless to try and seize after her; she had taken advantage of the momentary distraction to flit out of his reach.
Rubbing away the pain that temporarily singed his abused ear, he only just caught her words as she sauntered out of the room, her form disappearing into the darkness of the corridor beyond. "That's what I thought," she jeered back over her shoulder, her laughter bordering on cruel. "Save your imaginings for tonight!"
He grunted, the hollow feeling of un-satiated desire gnawing at the lower regions of his body.
It still didn't stop the thud of breathless expectation flushing through his veins, nor the bliss he only admitted to himself in his most reflective, honest moments. Like this one—now.
His heart sang with the exhilaration of Batrades' life. The gift that one more person who he had come to care for--when he had finally allowed himself, once more, to accept that greatest frailty and deepest dimension of human nature—would not lose their life on account of serving him.
It had been Batrades, once, who had stipulated to him on men understanding women's nature's. Have you hunted wolves?
Of course, often, the ex-gladiator had answered, fingering the yellowed canines about the leather thong on his neck.
Have you ever just watched them, sometimes, to get a sense of their behavior, the Sarmati prince's deep baritone rang through the cycling memory.
Maximus had shrugged, not considering the query worthy of a verbal response.
Huh, you Romans think a woman is like some pet dove or a scatter-brained rabbit. Something to be locked up and protected from the world, only allowed to come out on a short tether when she can be closely monitored. You call this protection, then curse her for her feeble mind and her equally feeble heart and body.
Are your ways better, Maximus asked, doubtful, a challenge to Batrades' authority. Women were not a territory the Spaniard liked to tread, back then anyway. So few he'd ever known had been…feeble—in mind or in heart. Just treacherous. His hatred for Lucilla had vanished, dissipated long ago—difficult for him, but he had understood her reasons eventually. How could he justify hate when the bitter price she had paid was the same as his own had been. The life of her son.
Our ways are wolves' ways. Not better, not worse, just more honest. A man is a deluded fool for thinking he can read the secrets to a woman's mind, but think how wolves are in their courting season. They play, they fight, they love—freely, frequently, without shame. There is no question of dominance—the female is life. What she finally offers is her gift, a privilege to the leader. Earned, not forced or stolen. The wise wolf, like the wise man, learns not to question what has been bestowed his honor. Think on it, Spaniard.
He had, long and hard. And for all his honor, his loyalty, the embattled years as a legate, and the embittered ones as a slave, through the death of his family, and the failed attempt to salvage a dying emperor's last wish, he had never expected to love again. Not in that way. Not so he could lose it again.
It was only earlier that spring, nearly four years after the death of Marcus Aurelius, he had almost lost Nemhyn on the banks of River Douglas. The decisive victory, a triumph for salvaging Roman-Britannia, solidified his command of the Sarmati auxilia. His hard lesson—the fact that whether you chose to accept your feeling for someone or not, their loss to the inevitable embrace of the afterlife could wound just as profoundly. Indeed worse, for the missed opportunity of never having loved them at all.
It had taken nearly losing her for him to admit the coward he'd been, his struggle to deny what was between them. She never sought an apology for the pain he'd caused her, so many months ago. He knew she never would—it was simply not in her nature.
The wind moaned, forlorn, whistling beneath the eves of the roof, and settling the wooden supports of the principa's inner framework. Maximus—Artos—shook his head, trying to empty his mind of the old tale of the wild hunt—spirits, battle-hags, heroes from lost ages and forgotten legend, riding on high, the phantasm-host, elements of winter's beckoning. He picked up the stylus to begin penning a first correspondence to Corstopitum, along the Wall of Hadrian, detailing the events of the day's failed ambush.
His grandmother, the one from Hibernia, used to tell him stories like that—about the wild hunt. A sensible woman, with the heart of a lion and the temper of badger, straight till her dying day. She was given to fantastic tales she had brought with her from her homeland, seeking sanctuary with her own distant cousins of the Iberian tribes after the death of her lover-hero, as a young woman. The stories had stayed with him through his childhood on to his adult life.
Stylus scratching away at the parchment, he laughed to himself with vivid fondness, thinking if his grandmother watched him just then, what pointed comment she would have made about the angle his thoughts kept turning in regards to Nemhyn. His…love—the word still so new it caused a small jump in his stomach thinking of it--had infected him like the ambrosia of the high ones, the throbbing in his loins only just beginning to taper as he continued in the mundane task of official communicae.
In spite of such pleasant reveries, however, his thoughts kept turning back to a winter night's preoccupation with the reminiscence of his grandmother's narratives. And, with his own penchant for morbid contemplation, thoughts of the dead.
He had fashioned his own truck with those inhabiting the land of shades long since his exposure to Elysium. Not Sight exactly, and not by his choice, it was an odd sense of knowing, seeing images where others didn't, of his dead wife and son, mangled, broken, flesh blackened and bleeding raw, shadowed corpses in shadowed corners, or hanging from branches and vaulted entrances of buildings. They would sway in the ghostly, otherworldly wind, and stare with cold-hearted, accusatory penetrance, in those moments where death stalked. The pebbling of skin when glacial fingers passed, unseen but felt, in the heat of summer's day, or even in the chill midst of winter's twilight. A cold that was colder than the bite of the frostiest highland gale. It was what had warned him, today, of the impending ambush, moments before it had occurred.
He replaced a candle that had finally burnt itself out on the three-tier lamp suspended from the bronze Eros. Underneath the ceaseless wind, he could still catch the distant draft of singing, men's voices from the officer's quarters, his quick, private smirk playing on his mouth when he thought of the hangovers tomorrow. Nemhyn would be more than busy dealing with the complaints of Hannibal's elephants galloping through pounding heads, and stomachs protesting the amount of alcohol imbibed by less than discriminate celebrants.
Gifts do not come without a price, Artos—leea-der of men, the voice rolled in with the moaning draft leaking past the shutters, ominous in its girlish, murmuring susurration, a giggle echoing along the stone-washed walls of the study.
He froze, looking up from the progress of his writing. Eyes darting with careful, cautious precision about the room's dusky corners, he glanced over a shelf filled with bare pieces of extra parchment, leftover banners from the last occupation of Pinnata Castra, a tarnished golden standard of an eagle next to the sterling-cast image of a dragon, teeth snarling in fiery vengeance.
She will make her own destiny, you can not prevent that, the deceptively playful giggle sounded again, at once behind him, and all around.
Other men, lesser men, would have panicked by now, reaching for a sword and stabbing at their own shadows. Some had gone mad simply from hearing that voice even one time, impaling themselves on their own blades in their terror.
Maximus—Artos—the Great Bear, simply set the stylus down upon the desk with deliberate calm, settling back in his chair to scrutinize the entire room with a wrathful glare. "She's always done that," he bit out with tight vehemence.
YES! The murmur sounded with a sudden furious hiss, rattling like a serpent's tale with the rising gust straining the creaking shutters. But will you continue to serve her, not simply as the defender, but as the king!
"What," he mocked, then, laughing sharply, with razor-edge viciousness. "As the winter king? To her…Brigantia. She won't even acknowledge the title, and who am I to impose, crone!"
Not a crone Maximus, the voice suddenly dropping to a caricature of hurt-crooning, full of the dulcet cadence of Selene's voice, the way she once spoke to him in the quiet, hushed summers of Hispania's forever-gone nights. It chilled him more than the sibilant tones from before.
He sat up straighter, but refused to give in to his instinctive alarm, the temperature in the room falling below that of the frigid air outside, the disembodied voice causing a wind to flow about the walls, tugging at the candle flames which had gone entirely translucent-blue to their wicks.
And you, Maximus—now Artos—are the Winter King--the incantation of Selene's voice imparted, equally mocking, paralyzing for its emotionless, inhuman luster.
She will serve, you will all serve…eventually, her voice rang, dwindling, echoing about the stone walls of the study's gloom.
"Leave us alone, old woman. Haven't you meddled enough," he growled.
The response, to his considerably growing dread, came, this time, in the avaricious timbre of masculine severity. Woman, man—I am both and one. You would do better to hail me as All-father, who hung for nine nights before the well of knowledge, and leads the eternal host upon the winds of spilt blood and shattered lives. Through pain is a child born, and only through suffering can one know the truth that life will reflect. You have served me well, Great Bear, even when you did not think to do so, but man's knowledge, his reasoning is incomplete without the intuition of woman—the instance of their wisdom. I seek a queen, a bringer of victory, in every age who will bind me to this land, the world of middle-earth. Whether she is in this life or in the next makes little difference for I am both the lord of the slain, and the bearer of souls across the Lethe.
Maximus' eyes stayed fastened on the candles, waiting for the moment when they would return to their natural orange-gold light rather than the eerie blue. They danced and wavered, casting no shadows at all, in a room drowned by more than mere night. "You have your Victorious One," he whispered furious, into the blackened oblivion that could swallow a soul. "I've seen her, riding a chariot, like she did when she tried to stave off the Roman invasion over a century ago. Didn't her life suffice?"
Despite his stinging pretense, the stricken anatomy of his mind begged: Please, not Nemhyn. He could never speak such weak words aloud, though, not even at the prompting of a god.
The bodiless voice wrapped around the dismal gloom imprisoning the study, mournful with infinite sadness and inevitable portent. It is your choice to be the great oak, uprooted and shattered by the force of the river, or the driftwood, unresistant and cast along in the face of a changing time. Will you let yourself be shredded to pieces in the turbulence of the rapids, or will you chance the possibility, accepting the direction of the waters, and the hope of a peaceful shore?
He almost crumbled, losing his nerve and his sanity on the cord of those last words. But he held firm to an innate, grounded stubborness—a remnant of the fatalistic stamina that had once sustained him through the wake of his family's death and the endless drudgery of the arena.
"I'll do what she asks of me, and will serve her with my life. Nothing more, nothing less, and certainly nothing at your whim…old man," he enunciated with defiant explicitness, casting the words, with his glare, to the surrounding shadows.
The candles on the lamp tier blazed up, making the ex-gladiator--once a general, and a slave, an exile, and again a leader of men—think the statue of Eros had seen its last days as a solid semblance of molded bronze. Rather, the blue-light of the flames flared out with the rising spectral wind, the voice echoing in a whisper drowned by the temporal howl of winter's moaning.
That's all I have ever asked, Artos…Winter King, the words ending with a weak suspiration.
The otherworldly wind sucked back to whatever ghastly place it originated, snuffing the candles out with a final incorporeal breath. The disturbed papers on his desk whisked about like toy ships in the agitated waters of a child's tub, and only the surrounding, physical night leftover evidence of the disincarnate visitation.
Maximus sat as inert as a marble statue for countless exhalations, loud and gasping to his ears, breaking the silence immediately following the eerie encounter.
In the darkness of a mortal night, he faltered to the entrance, unseeing, groping, bursting the heavy-paneled timber door open on rusting hinges that groaned in aged protest, swinging it so hard with desperate strength it banged loudly against the outer wall of the study.
Leaning against the wall in the outer corridor, there was little protection afforded from winter's bite, the spray of the flurries that blasted him in the face when the fickle direction of the wind shifted down over the roof-top. He gloried in it, letting the frigid touch steady him back to material dimension, inhaling deeply of glacial air, and trying to convince himself he was shaking only because of the winter cold. He'd left his long-cloak back in the study. He wasn't going back in there tonight. It had nothing to do with fear; he let spirits walk where they would when he recognized them. They were usually harmless things, wandering mindless, lost in a world of mortal time and place.
Where immortals tread, he couldn't contend. What man could. On the morrow, he would come back here, as though nothing had ever happened, complete the tasks he ought to have tonight. But for now he was finished. He was tired, fatigued, and he couldn't think straight.
I'd have done better to get drunk with the rest of the men, he thought in sour amusement, beginning to make his way back toward the praetorium, and consequently, his sleeping quarters.
Thoughts of Nemhyn brought some soothing warmth to cold, numb limbs, and an equally dread cold heart, but the disquiet conveyed in the words of that immaterial voice echoed through his soul.I seek a queen…whether she is in this life or the next…no gift comes without a price…
Batrades' life had been spared…this time. He too, had escaped death more than he wanted to think. And Nemhyn, the exquisite blessing he had only recently come to accept, had eluded her own eternal journey to the darkness more than once. Most people did, it was the providence of being human, and how your lot fell with the Fates.
Just barely struggling out of his armor, discarding his sword belt with a loud clunk to the tesselated floor, he found some thoughtful servant had left a steaming basin of water over a brazier, a bar of soap on the side. He utilized both to good measure, his breath curdling vapor in the air, toweling off before diving under down-quilt, ample furs of sheep-hide and wolf, and rough linen sheets, rubbing against his bare skin.
He shivered until his body heat warmed the bedding, wondering when Nemhyn would come in, his sleep-heavy mind pondering how many blessings a man could earn when he'd lost everything once, already. What he'd had in that other life, as Maximus Decimus Meridius had been better, in some respects, some aspects irreplaceable, like his wife and son. But he'd been more naïve, then, certainly as far as his duty to Rome. He'd fought his whole life, defending her borders, places where Roma Mater held a novelty, had the potential for the civilizing awareness Marcus Aurelius had once hoped for. He, Maximus—Artos now-- hadn't realized the city She had stemmed from was already showing signs of her own internal corruption.
It was a natural progression for an old tree to drop new seeds in fresh soil, anticipating the day when death would come, as it did to all living things. The Empire's hope now lay in her provinces, away from Italia and the infernal stench of her political wars. And her civil wars—even Albinus couldn't ignore Severus' claim to the throne without staking the assertion of his own legitimacy.
The thoughts streaming through his mind, as weary as he was, were not comforting, and left him seeing the images of old men and boys all over again—Picti faces, not warriors, but commoners, or stripling youths too young to have been allowed into active battle. Slaughtered in the name of defying the Eagle, and punished under the justice of that same symbol. That was what Rome meant to Alba.
It wasn't too late to change that, make something productive of this wasted winter campaign, but how…
He never knew when he dropped off to a welcome oblivion, nor when Nemhyn had at last returned. He was so deeply beyond coherency she had carefully slipped between the covers after returning from the bath-house, never hearing her surprised gasp when she snuggled next to him, finding him as unclothed as she usually preferred to sleep. Nor had he been aware of how she kissed the old scar on his shoulder, burying her face in the crook of his shoulder, the strong, corded muscle of his neck, holding him tightly until he stopped muttering about blood, dead boys, and vengeful gods.
He was only aware, hours into the hushed stillness after midnight, when she rose, exiting to relieve herself, and hadn't come back straight-away. He'd gone to seek her out, reasoning she was most likely fine, but his concern since that otherworldly encounter in the study driven by a new source. He couldn't quite admit, in the depths of the night, when men can hear their thoughts more clearly than at any other time, her presence was light upon the shadow in his being; her absence, an invitation to the despondency of his mind.
That was when…Later in the out-tide of night…
…he'd been watching her for sometime, standing there in the moonlight reflected off the snow blanketing the praetorium's inner yard. Watching the emotions play across a face whose austere beauty--pale and incisive with a slight crescent arch of a nose, prominent plains of her cheeks--seemed heightened in the stark setting of white-cold, frozen star-shine, and black ice glazing the trunks of the barren trees.
It was a strange thing, a rare opportunity to watch her so unguarded, seeing the evidence of the pensive, sensitive spirit belying her outward show of practical irony. A physician's attitude was the face she presented to the public world, frequently, even to him. It was a defense, Maximus knew, cultivated from long years practicing in a profession dominated by men, tutored only by her mother, and encouraged by a father whose own love for a British woman many years before, laid the basis for the immense devotion Antius Crescens asked of the men under his command.
He was hidden in the shadows, around an adjoining, pillared hall that brooked the courtyard, not wanting to intrude, and not wanting to leave…just yet. Something in the way she leaned against the pillar held him. The blanket drawn tight about her form obscured rich contours of a body he could have traced as a blind man--probing, exploring--with fingers, lips, and tongue. A very happy blind man. She would follow, occasionally, with that same pensive stare, the fitful bursts of wind loosening piled flakes from their place on the twisting tree limbs, or banked on the ground, scattering free across the snowy courtyard. An insular land of fey opalescence, a diamond clear sky had cleared earlier in the night, strewn with thousands of crystalline stars, ice coating the branches and trunks with a black gloss, bejeweling the hibernating royalty of this inner-realm.
These were her accomplices, the elements of an invernal soltice—night, peace, and a pristine chill that could make a breath hang in the air before floating away, upon the light cast by a lucent, iridescent sliver of moon. They beckoned him, enraptured him so that he stepped from out of the shadow, treading upon the flagstones of the passage, through alternating patterns of moonlight, darkness, and snowdrift, until he arrived just on the other side of the pillar supporting her.
The scuff of his shoe, upon the concrete flooring, must have startled her the instant before he paused opposite her chosen colonnade. Her relaxed posture, propped against the column, broke like a spring, a frightened doe ready to flee. No, he quickly amended, stopped short and caught utterly breathless, for a moment, by the look she cast in the direction she'd heard his step, more like the she wolf again. Not panicked--cautious and testing, finding sanctuary, fading into shadow while she decides if the intruder is a threat.
Gods, in that instant, before she had stepped behind the pillar, seeking refuge from moonlight refracting off lambent snow, the awareness of her beauty—a thing so ephemeral one could easily miss it in the plain light of day—cut him to the very core of his soul. That beauty, as with everything else about this winter night, appeared touched by the solstice—this strange ambiance of un-reality and vivid dream. She seemed…transformed somehow in that moment. Not the human woman he knew, but a creature of the mist-hidden realms of the old ones. Something far more ancient—and so ageless—arcane wisdom lending its own immortality to the cryptic depths of her eyes, a knowledge of wild places and wild creatures existing before the mundanity of men had dulled the unsullied brilliance of new creation from the middle-lands.
An irrational fear filled him, fostered by the strange mysticism of the night. If a man could vow his vengeance in this life or the next, bridging worlds between the afterlife and the living, surely there was no reason why the lord of the slain couldn't beckon his mortal-queen—immortal consort—with the frost-shrouded enchantment of an invernal moon.
She hadn't stepped from out behind the refuge of her pillar yet. And he needed to say her name, hear the reassurance of her blessedly mortal voice, to know she was the flesh-and-blood woman he'd held in his arms earlier that evening. The one who blushed, and laughed, mocked and teased, could make a snide comment and banter with him to his heart's dear content. That she hadn't become changed, immutable, to a creature of ancient lore, a thing of polar moonbeam and silvered intangiblilty.
"Nemhyn," he entreated searchingly, softly into the silence of the winter night.