We greeted the dawn of that winter morning like First Man and First Woman, awed by the miracle of creation, and the freshness, the latent, unspoiled potential of the world around us. When she finally regained the composure to speak, her voice still filled with the sound of her sorrow, eyes glittering with moisture, as though they would spill over again in any moment, she cursed me soundly, her voice shaking with the measure of her emotion. Cursed me, exclaiming no man had ever made her cry when she ought to have been laughing, and laugh when it was only appropriate to cry. Cursed me, because she was not a woman given to tears, could count the number of times in her entire life—what was she then, bearing onto her third decade by that point—on one hand, one time over, she had ever indulged the luxury. At least in front of other persons. When she had first miscarried at sixteen, when her first husband died in a hunting accident in her nineteenth year, her second child passing on not four months later, still an infant, suffering from a vicious winter's lung ailment; when she had nearly been dealt the worst fate a woman could fathom, risking her own safety unthinkingly, to foil the assassination on Albinus' life. And to her shame, this solstice morning.
"You can't mean what you're asking, Maximus," she averred. "To be lovers," she went on solemnly, taking my hands in hers, sitting across from me on that bed, in the pale light of that winter dawn. "To be lovers, to acknowledge love," she said gravely, "is more than most people are ever blessed with. But to ask for this--hieros gamos," —the brogue of her accent flawless over the Greek—,"between us…," and she trailed off, overcome for an instant.
In the silence, she seemed to be trying to remember something from a long time before. I recall, how, as she found her voice again, after that moment of thinking, she was interrupted by a knock at the door. My body servant, Evitri, asking if I was going to eat with the other officers in their headquarters across the fort, or if I would prefer to take a private meal with 'extra helpings of mulled wine, cheese, an extra bread loaf, and another plate of dried apples'.
Most of the servants, the clerical staff of the British legions, were usually of British origin; hence, accustomed to their women exercising, for the most part, the same freedoms as men. They were still careful to never be explicit about anything, not referring specifically to Nemhyn, but paying her the courtesy of discretion by implying they were aware of her presence, approved of it, in fact. In any case, it was years until Severus' son would authorize marriage for more than just the officers of the legions, making unions between men and women legal to all levels of the military. It went unspoken, but more common than not, that the vast majority of the men—whether legionnaire or auxilia, cohabited with some sort of a female companion.
How the Empire expected a bunch of men in the prime of their youth to not find some release in the company of the opposite sex always seemed beyond the limits of reasonable expectation. Whoring was common, often expected. It was not unthinkable, though, when some of the men—many barely sporting their first beards--didn't see their families for nearly two years, that a genuine affection could be fostered between native women and dislocated companies of soldiers far from their homes.
Just the same, it was Nemhyn, on that morning, characteristic of her flippancy, who shouted out to Evitri that he might as well bring an extra platter since he seemed to be bringing extras of everything else. Nemhyn, then proceeding to ask, conversationally, after my flustered servant's wife, whom she had helped deliver of a child the summer just past. Laughing, Evitri said the boy was as chubby as a mutton chop, and feeding all the time—so much so he was getting jealous of the fact the child was at his wife's breast more than him. Nemhyn, whose sense of humor ran along the same lines as most of the men in a barracks, replied with a lighthearted quip that wet-nurses were hired for a reason, the sound of Evitri's answering whoop, coming from the other side of the door, echoing all the way down the hall.
When we turned our attention back to the discourse at hand, her sorrowing disbelief—perhaps it had been shock—seemed to have dissipated. "Too many blessings over not enough time; where treasures are too much, good folk know better than to touch," she recited, a child's proverb. "For all of the dark hours of the last year," she said softly, like she was leery of unseen ears overhearing her words, "we have been so blessed…too blessed. And I…I had so much already, have been favored by stars know what Fate in so many areas of my life, throughout the years—my family, friends, the Art…you," her grip tightening in mine. "You were the least expected of them all."
"I have tried, my whole life, to give something of those blessings back. It seems so wrong when we live in a world where few have so much, and there are masses having so very little…of even the most basic needs."
I knew where she was going with this line of thought. "And you think by accepting my offer, you will throw off the balance of your blessings and your misfortunes?"
She must have heard the skepticism in my voice. I hadn't meant it to sound so caustic, but she snapped back with in impatience she only reserved for the profoundly idiotic: "Of course not," sniffing in that way women do when correcting men about their misconceptions.
"Nemhyn," I said to her then, overriding her effort to speak. "I would leave it for minds greater than ours, and deities far more powerful than us, to decide when someone falls on the side of Fortuna one too many times. I only know you can live your life as correctly, or dissolutely, as you may, and somehow the good man can still suffer for his virtue while the depraved one gloats in his debauchery. I'm not sure if I was an example of that, or I simply ended up stepping on the wrong side of my life's thread that day Commodus ordered the deaths of Selene and Marcus. Maybe I was the debauched one, who knows."
I had a working theory, by this point in our relation, that the higher Nemhyn quirked her right eyebrow, the more inclined she was to throw water into the very neat, dry shelter of what she saw as my most recent delusion. Her eyebrow was well above the level of the other one, indicating just what she thought of my last comment. Whatever she believed, medicine was a line of work in which she had long ago, learned to discern the colorings of old grief in men's voices, and women's silent bereavements. She had known her own losses as well, and she somehow understood, intuitively, saying nothing was often the most comforting tactic in allowing someone to work through painful associations.
It was one of those reasons why I had grown to feel for her…love her as I had not expected. The earnest expression across her beloved face, constant and steady, remained unwavering this time, facing the sudden torrent of words rushing past my mouth before I could stop them. The inspiration of the moment, and I didn't fight it. Eloquence, as Lucilla had so astutely pointed out to me, once, in those bittersweet years of our adolescent innocence, was not something inherent to my nature. Selene had agreed, finding it refreshing, tired of listening to suitors who quoted awful epigrams from Martial. I tortured her with Lucan instead, some horrid passage of Magnus' wife, Cornelia, weeping for the fact he was sending her away to Lesbos during the civil wars of Julius Caesar. Selene laughed at my effort, advising the next time I wanted to try and court a girl, it would be better to quote love poetry from Ovid—as though I had ever read love poetry in the course of my studies prior to the military.
I used that one recollection, frequently, as a basis for comparing the women I had loved in my life, up to that point. I would never have done such a foolish thing, reciting bad epic poetry, in front of Lucilla, at least not as that untried soldier I had been when we had first met—I think I was all of sixteen, my voice still cracking like a singer gone hoarse. Selene, in her gentle, comfortable way, humored me, and allowed me the grace of expanding my domain of literary knowledge into the realm of equally bad love poetry.
Nemhyn, as I recounted that memory to her once, during that first year of our relationship, walking along the chalky, wind buffeted cliffs east of Arbeia, in the sweet summer before that winter's morning, skewed the ever-predictable eye-brow at me. Then chuckled, saying I did better when expostulating on Archimedes and his engineering feats, than trying to recite Latin poets—even if they were from Hispania. I'd laughed with her, as we tried to out-do each other with even more revoltingly sentimental verses, until she grew serious, thoughtful, commenting on how Lucan's great epic, the Phrasalia, lent itself to parallels in the current state of the world. The evils of civil war, the upheaval it causes in destabilizing the State, making borders vulnerable to attack and invasion from beyond the frontier. A very Lucilla-like comment.
What Lucilla wouldn't have pointed out was the chaos it also wrecks upon the peasant farmer, the sharecroppers, herders, hacking a subsistence off land that was barely arable, let alone, able to support livestock. Causing famine and spreading disease amongst already compromised unfortunates.
Nemhyn's line of work took her into very different circles than Lucilla would ever have exposed herself to. Patrician classes of Rome were notoriously protective of their status, maintaining a strict separation between definitive societal strata.
The upper class of Britannia was no less exclusionary—their lines having been influenced by the native stock of nobility, combining with the imported values of Roman elite. More true to the point, Nemhyn's family was highly eccentric, untraditional, in a sense that melded both Roman and British ideals of class, duty, and responsibility into an entirely new mold, lending a depth of compassion and non-biased judgment I hadn't experienced since the years of my childhood. Even Marcus Aurelius, for all his wisdom as an Emperor, forgiving leniency as a man, had never shown such a fluid view of the world, of people's stations in it, as Nemhyn's family seemed to hold.
That fluidity had allowed an auxiliary unit of horsemen from the steppes to adapt their own lifestyle, maintain their own unique customs, even in the face of Imperial Rome, forced to settle on an island in the distant Western ocean. That same tolerance also opened a path to a man who had come to these shores possessing little more than the clothes on his back, and a status little better than an exiled, anonymous refugee.
On that winter morning, in the chill light of a winter solstice dawn, before the season of vernal warmth hints the air, signaling the fruitful promise of imminent summer, I took advantage of that sudden eloquence and told Nemhyn what she meant to me. First, through the child's lullaby my grandmother had sung to me as a child, after my mother passed on. The lady from Hibernia who had taken the name of Lacrima after she had come ashore to Hispania in her youth, escaping the aftermath of a great war, and the death of the fabled hero who had been her lover. Her name in the Hibernian tongue—Fand--meant 'the beauty contained in a single tear-drop, fallen on a rose.' Lacrima seemed appropriate.
Nemhyn had known what I was asking in those simple verses; that I could not fathom being separated from her, even in the midst of a campaign. Then, I tried to tell her, after, having her by my side, to know she was in the military camp, or the fortress only twenty-miles away, tending the hospital, or riding out into the countryside, administering her care to the true inhabitants of Britannia's common-folk, was more assuring than thinking of her two-thousand miles away, across an ocean, with a mountain range and a vast forest between us. Whatever reluctant sovereignty she held as Brigantia—heir to her mother's title—she had long held divine prominence in my heart. She was the Queen of the Hidden Places, and she had chosen me—whether by providence or her own mortal reason—to be her King.
Her father had once told me, trying to persuade me into assuming the command of the Sarmati, back in the early part of that year, just before thirty-thousand Picti—the Pretani—amassed into one confederation, streaming down, to breach the Wall at Onnum, that his own love for a woman had become his love for an island. I had discovered no less than the truth of those words--my love for Nemhyn.
Yet, no gift comes without a price. We could not foresee, surrounded by the bonfires of a May Eve, swearing oaths binding our souls in the same way our hands were bound by a rag of silk, phrases older than mythic Atlantis, that went beyond our single lifetime, into many lifetimes, how those oaths to each other, to kin and homeland would be tested. Even after word came, that summer, of Albinus' defeat—his imminent capture somewhere in Gaul, we could not fathom the full import of the words we spoke to one another, invoked by that winter solstice, and avowed within a sacred grove of oak and ash later in the spring.
What I did see, in my mind, on that winter morning, the spill of icy light shimmering through the windows, the impotent sun shining weakly as it rose above the eastern horizon, were the rays flooding across the fields and bluffs of barren, frost-strewn ground, catching the murky blues and ashen blacks of the Tay's watery expanse. Huddled in blankets, fending off the cold—the tinder in the brazier having burned itself out hours before—Nemhyn opened my hand, twining her fingers with mine, bringing our enfolded palms to the place just above my heart.
"I seem to remember at some point in the night, expostulating on how the heart is the intuition of the mind. If that's true, Maximus, then you already know I could never deny you any part of myself you would ask for—least of all the treasure, and gods' grace, the blessing, of spending my years at your side," her voice catching.
How can I tell you the joy I felt, hearing her say that. There was such a sense of rightness to her concordance, a completion I hadn't known I was lacking until that moment. Her words would open a new chapter for Britannia ultimately, as they did for her—accepting the heritage of her mother's title. Brigantia—the lady of the people, protector of the land and her inhabitants, human and animal, patroness of city and countryside, the exalted one…the High One.
Whatever mystical connotations there might have been to the title, her acceptance as my wife in the Beltain festival come the spring, they fell away before her chiding pragmatism regarding food and wanting to eat. On that morning, I opened the door to Evitri's knock, two platters of food with which to break our fast a welcome diversion. Looking up at the heavy pinewood awning, I hadn't noticed, in the night, the holly sprigs adorning the entire frame, leafy green and shiny, red and white berries like pebbles of blood and snow.
On that morning, we dove into the food with the appetites of youth, sitting on the bed beneath coverings of pelts, heavy wool, cuddled amidst goose-down pillows and linen sheets. Winter King, Brigantia, Cailleach Beare, Lord of the Slain—the enchantment of a winter's solstice. The magical lingering of that night didn't disappear completely, but it found extremely tough competition in the light of day, Nemhyn's lilting voice carrying into the air, discussing mundane things as we ate contentedly. The zest of desiccated apple slices and yellowed, hardened, vinegary-tasting cheese bade her comment on the welcome change fresh fruit would bring with the spring. And she continued to entertain me with a lecture on how the heart, as an organ of the body, actually didn't appear to house any seat of emotion.
"Popular thought of the ignorant masses," I'd replied back to her.
She huffed out a breath of annoyance, rolling her eyes at my tone. "Four chambers," she'd said, chewing meanwhile, naming some long-forgotten physician from Alexandria, years ago, had shown it worked like a pump, moving blood through its cavities. Then she elaborated on the process of dissecting the heart, fortunate in the fact I had been soldier, and gladiator, and soldier again. My propensity for tolerating her dinner converse would have foundered like an arrow-struck deer, otherwise.
I listened to her with interest, fascinated by her knowledge, having discussed aspects of military wounds with Master Galen long ago. Sword gashes to the upper left part of the chest were always more dangerous than to the right, the danger of loosing blood more rapidly, accounted for by the heart's proximity, tied in to her verbal treatise on pumping blood.
Frankly, I just liked watching her, the blanket edge revealing a wonderfully sun-dappled shoulder—pale flecks upon even more pale skin. Her hair caught the watery light of winter shimmering through the shutters, coils of her burnished tresses, scattering the shafts of rays when she shifted, a wealth of auburn-brown cascading over her neck, down the front of her frustratingly, blanket-concealed breasts.
The way she moved her hand in a vague gesticulation, asking a question when I offered a comment on my own observance of military wounds over the years.
It was those little details of her character, her demeanor, I would remember from that solstice morning, most of all. The details that bring humanity, intimacy, to a memory, enlivening the image with the animation of life, so the mind sees the person of their heart, and not just the recollection of a vital presence their eyes once held in a slice of time. An isolated instant of icy beauty and glacial, black wind, snowy essence, wishing then, as I wish now, writing this, it could simply have remained so…timeless.