Pax Romana – 7
Disclaimer: See previous chapters; I don't like being redundant.
Notes: Thanks to all for the support on this rather slowly progressing story…I'm glad the narrative tone has been so well accepted because I initially thought it might be a little too strident and personality-based…but I really enjoy writing in Isolde's tone now, so it's too late for changes. I hope that this chapter is up to par. Please do review if you've got any comments. Also, in response to the comment about the historical accuracy of the title: Pax Romana was the period of social and economical peace purposefully brought about BY Augustus AFTER he was established as princeps…Pax Romana also provided an ideal setting for Christianity to spread, so it was indeed in the Imperial era of Rome.
Lessons, he said. Tomorrow, he said.
I laughed to myself the following morning as I went about my work in the early hours, washing and cleaning and filling and readying. Tristan showed some rare idealism in both himself and in me by showing his assurance in our having a "lesson" in weaponry sometime today. Despite my highly diminished importance in the social hierarchy of the fortress, and in all of Britain, I still held a job that kept me working my fingers to the bone for most of the daylight hours, and almost all of the night time ones. I was proud of myself for being able to maintain a good economic standing, just as I had been taught—in theory—by my masters of tutelage in Macedonia and later on in Sparta. I was proud of the belongings I owned because of how hard I worked in order to acquire them. I believed my life to be a pure one, full of hard work and meaning…if all of it spent in hiding.
Of course, the downside of hard work meant that I had precious few hours to myself that were not spent abed, eating or at the market. Beforehand, this had not been of particular consequence because there were even fewer people I had to spend those hours with—this was a truth that had not bothered me. It seemed that Tristan's advent in my life had punched a glaring hole into my waking hours with demands that I spend time with him, lessons of war or otherwise.
Chuckling further to myself, I mused that I had never imagined Tristan to be such a social creature.
But no matter. Social creature or not, Tristan was first and foremost a knight of Arthur's table…whatever that entailed. I honestly knew very little of what being a knight of Britain entailed now that they were no longer employed coerced by Rome. For the smallish amount of time I had lived in the fortress before Tristan discovered my presence, I would only see the knights ride in and out of the outer walls from afar, undoubtedly on some prestigious and illustrious mission befitting their rank and history. The stories told of their values and merits and quests—even under Roman occupation—were the stuff of legends. Anyway, the point I tried to make to myself was that not only was I an extremely busy working woman, but Tristan was also a knight, busy with training and missions and…whatever else it seemed the knights did, aside from inebriating themselves at my tavern.
Neither of us had time for lessons. And one of us—being I—had no particular wont for lessons, either. What use had I for weaponry and tactics? Tristan's gift of tridents had struck a chord within me for its thoughtfulness, because it represented (to me, at the very least) our past together. It had required memory on his part to decide on such a gift. And surely that was his purpose in gifting me with the tridents, right? To strike a chord within me, to render me speechless in what I now think of as a womanly oversensitivity to kindness?
Then again, this being Tristan, perhaps he had no ulterior emotional motive to his gift. Maybe he had given the weapons to me for the sole purpose of teaching me weaponry. If that was the truth, what was I going to make of it?
Anyway, my childish infatuation with self-defence and attacks had died as I had grown. Out of necessity, I knew enough manoeuvres to keep myself out of trouble, but there had come a time when I had been forced to accept that war was a man's world, at the present. Only a small part of me had admired Guinevere for her role in the battle of Badon Hill, of which I have heard many tales. From what I understand, her role also almost cost the knights the life of Lancelot. The weaponry of these times was simply not refined enough for a woman to properly wield it: the use of male, brute strength was still prevalent over all other factors in battle.
"And what are you mulling over that keeps you so silent this morning, Isolde?"
Vanora's cheerful voice surprised me right out of my thoughts. It was not an unwanted distraction. I was thinking myself into oblivion. And anyway, if there were any voice that I would want to disturb me, it would be Vanora's, because she is gifted with a sweet speaking voice and a beautiful singing one. So I smiled at her and I began to lay out the wooden chairs around the tables from their keeping-place in storage. "'Tis nothing, Vanora. Just wonderings."
She accepted that well enough, for although she is an inquisitive, curious woman, she is not insensitive to my moods and does not pry into my head. On most matters. Coming over to aid me with the heavy chairs, she started easily, "Well I heard that you had another audience with Arthur and Tristan yesterday afternoon."
I caught her eye. "Yes, I did." Sometimes I wondered just how word got around to her. Did the guards really have so little to talk about amongst themselves that they had to resort to telling the townspeople the comings and goings within the castle?
"And how did it go, then?" She prompted, after I said little more.
Stopping my motions briefly, I answered seriously, "Very well. Almost too well to be believed. Arthur is a kingly man, and I respect him deeply." It was the truth. I was proud to be under his protection.
Vanora nodded, continuing on to the next table. "You'd be one of many," she affirmed, "all the people here are of one mind about their king. He is a great man."
"Indeed." There was little more to be said on the matter, for there was no debate on Arthur's integrity.
A new eagerness tinted her voice, giving her anticipation away, "But what of Tristan? Do tell me you've made some progress into him." A devilish glint entered into her eyes, and I looked away, trying not to smile, so that the same glint would not be passed into mine.
Testily, I replied, "I don't know what you mean exactly, Vanora."
She didn't catch the hint, placing her hands on her hips to show her steadfast spirit. "Yes, you do—why else are you blushing, then?" Vanora motioned her hand in the general direction of my head.
With a sneaky grin, she uncharacteristically conceded. "Let's not argue." I was suspicious—rightly so—of her words. Then she surprised me, as she surely intended, dropping her next words casually, "He came by this morning, before you arrived. Crack of dawn, godforsaken time that it is. Asked for you."
"He asked for me!"
Vanora looked up in triumph, grabbing my arms in her eagerness. "So there is some progress!" A smile alighted on her pretty face.
I attempted to pull away lightly, avoiding her questions and trying to find answers. "Vanora—don't be ridiculous! He asked for me earlier? Did he want me to come find him?"
Letting go of me, she walked away towards the bar, hips swinging lightly and her tone casual. "Well how should I know? He barely speaks on ordinary matters like time and place and meetings and whatnot. I told him you hadn't arrived yet, he gave me his greetings, and then he left."
I stopped, and deliberated over both her words and Tristan's actions, wondering what I was to do. What I supposed to come find him after learning of his coming to the tavern in the morning? Or was I supposed to wait for him to collect me?
That last thought irked me so very much in its profound nature of stereotypical female uselessness that I decided I would not take that recourse. Yelling to Vanora, who nodded knowingly, that I would return shortly, I left the tavern area for the castle, wondering where exactly I should search for my errant knight first.
My errant knight.
I quashed that last thought mercilessly. Busy working woman, indeed.
"You cannot honestly be serious about this."
Barely glancing at my arrival on the field, Tristan drew another wooden, well-hewn arrow from the quiver slung loosely across his back. Taking his time, he fitted the arrow to the great bow held fast in his left hand, the arrowhead resting upon his fingers for aim and direction. With the string of the bow pulled back and taut with his right hand meeting his right shoulder, the fingers grasping the feathered end of the arrow against the string, he finally answered needlessly, "If I said it, then I am probably serious about it." He held his position with the powerful bow pulled abreast for many seconds, leaving me in wonder at his strength—for the bow did not shake with his exertion. Tristan then added, "Serious about what, exactly?"
I tried not to look as if I were some petulant woman scolding him, completely out of place in my long dress in the centre of a field used for archery practice. I must have looked a ridiculous sight, though it was only he and I there to behold it. Crossing my arms against the wind on the open plain, I said, "about these lessons of yours. Because you certainly don't have excessive time to dedicate to such a task, and in all honesty, neither do I. It's a valiant idea, to be sure, and take note of my appreciation for your concern with me, but surely you aren't serious."
From behind the dark ropes of his braids, I watched his eyes flick briefly from their fixture on his target—hundreds of paces ahead—up into the sky and back down again. When I looked up to see what was there, I laid eyes on his hawk again, making lazy circles above us. There was nothing but a faint snickt sound as he released his arrow with a single fluid motion.
From where I stood, I could not make out how closely he had hit the target.
Tristan turned back to me, saying, "You don't have time to dedicate to your own survival? You should re-evaluate your priorities." I did not even have to look upon his face to know there was a smirk tugging at his lips. That smirk of his left a distinctive tone in his voice. At some other time I might have been amused at our paltry banter, but I greatly disliked being given orders and coddled like a needy child. Perhaps my younger self might have enjoyed the attention the grizzled knight was finally allotting me, but at the present it felt like condescension.
Turning my head away from where he stood, I stared far out to the tree line. A bit testily, I responded, "Why don't you just let me handle my own survival, all right? I cannot have faired too badly if I remained alive long enough to look upon your eccentric person again." I wasn't teasing him. Tension often led me to lash out at the people around me.
To no surprise, he wasn't fazed at all by my change in humour. In fact, Tristan said just as sharply, "Your survival thus far has consisted of evading capture and fleeing to a new locale, am I right?" I refused to allow myself to feel shame at the question. He continued, "Since you are to be staying in Britain, fleeing is no longer necessary and hence the need for experience with weaponry." The smirk returned in full force, very slightly baiting me: "Your younger self would have been completely disgusted with the idea of running from the enemy."
I wondered why he was bothering with this farce of convincing me. Truly, he could have ordered me to do any task he wanted and I'd have complied, so grateful was I of his acceptance of my presence in Britain. If not for his good word and protection, I'd very possibly be enduring the unpleasant task of finding a new home…again.
Nonetheless, a steadfast old trait of mine—stubbornness—kept me petulantly arguing my point. A sense of sadness began to pervade me, down to the very marrow of my bones, as always happens when I truly contemplate this miserable situation of mine. I said, "Time has dealt me a few too many painful incidents. The first and most effective way of keeping alive is to run."
Something hardened in his face and the change struck me strongly; I knew that my words were disappointing him. I also knew that I had changed quite a lot since my impetuous youth, and perhaps that change in me was not to his liking. For whatever reason, I cursed in my mind: cursed myself for resorting to cowardice to keep alive, and cursed the Roman for giving me cause to resort to it. It really was ridiculous for me to be cursing myself thus, as any normal person would have done exactly the same as I. However, until the darkly liquid and unmerciful eyes of Tristan, my actions were nothing but cowardice.
Aside, I wondered if I, a friend, could feel so moved and despaired under Tristan's gaze, how must his enemies feel when they face him? It was not a soothing thought.
He spoke strongly, facing me. "Woman, listen to me. Eventually someone will come for you even in Britain. Whether it be in the form of an army or an assassin isn't relevant. What is relevant is your staying alive—" My heart quickened at this, until I scoffed inwardly and quashed it mercilessly, "—as all the work I've put into you as a youth and as a knight will be for naught if you are caught. And I don't like having my time wasted."
Half in disbelief and half in offence, I watched him in silence as he shot another arrow much the same way as he had before. I still could not discern the target very well. He spoke about my life as if it were some project of his, barely within his attention span. I considered whether or not he was merely trying to fire me up again, or if he truly felt that way. I much preferred to believe the former.
I suddenly felt very tired, almost beaten by him. That sadness that lived within me and surfaced from time to time stirred, and I was overcome by a great need to be left alone. Softly, I said, "As you say, Tristan."
He caught my shift in spirits immediately. I knew because his eyes sharpened and looked at me differently from under his hair. I was filled with a sense of embarrassment yet again, imagining how weak he must believe me to be, and unconsciously turned away as if it would hide my coloured face.
Putting down his great bow, one large hand lightly touched my arm to turn me back to face him—so lightly and expertly done I barely realized I had moved under his direction. The fingers of his other hand came to my jaw to make me meet his gaze, his grip firm compared to the hand resting on my arm. I felt entirely detached, as if I were watching this scene unfold from afar on the ramparts. Very quietly, he said, "We won't be starting today." His eyes flickered over my shoulder in the direction of the square—and the tavern. "Vanora needs you to count the coins from last night." Idly, I wondered how he knew.
Understanding that I was dismissed, I moved to leave his grasp, but Tristan would not allow it. He watched me in silence, and I waited for whatever it was that he had to say. Finally, two of his fingers at my jaw moved to rest lightly on my cheek for a single moment. "You've grown to be very beautiful, Isolde," he said. Then, just as softly, he let me go and turned back to his bow.
It was strange, for a man known so little for his words, to always know the words I needed to hear.