AUTHOR'S NOTE: This fic leans heavily towards AU; there are historical inaccuracies and discrepancies throughout, and I am aware of them. That said, I'm exercising once again my artistic license, so please bear with me. This first chapter is long because I wanted to get the heroine's history out in the open so that I may continue the rest of the story without having to resort to flashbacks.
If you have questions or feedback, please let me know what you think.
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And so my end is nigh.
Sounds reach my ears even as I write this, quill scribbling furiously, roughly, over the dry, faded parchment. They are sounds of battle, sounds of war, and I know with a cold, unrelenting certainty that it will not be long until I am found. I have contemplated fighting, making a final stand for all I believe in and all I have lost, but there is no point. Not anymore. I must make better use of my final hours in this life; I must document now all I have known and seen, and hope that after the last breath leaves me, I will live on in these writings. It is the dearest wish of any human, to be remembered after death …
But I digress.
I am safe here, for a while. I hope fervently that the hours it will take to breach the walls will be enough for me to finish what I have only just started. No more idle thoughts and regrets; I must begin …
My name is Isolde, and this is my tale.
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Identity is something that has always eluded my grasp; from my earliest memories I was simply a child without a home. The language I first heard and thus learned to comprehend was that of Rome, and perhaps that makes me Roman, for locus enim est principum generationis; if there was another tongue sung to me when I was but a mere babe nestled close to my mother's chest it has been lost along with the shrouded fragments of my history. But wait – what I have said is misleading, for I was not a Roman in the true sense. I was raised amongst them, I grew amongst them, but there was one aspect that separated me from them entirely, and that was the shackles of my servitude.
I was for the first part of my life a slave.
Isolde was a strange name, I was told often by those in my acquaintance, and not knowing better I was inclined to agree. Later, when I was older and thought to understand more, I was told that it was not a Roman name, and came to understand that this was not a good thing. I am getting ahead of myself again; I will elaborate only briefly on my upbringing within the great cradle of civilization known as Rome.
I was a ward in a house for children of pasts better forgotten; there were many of us, and none of us were truly Roman. Some of us had swarthy skin and dark eyes which hinted at hotter, drier climes; some among us were quite fair, pale features and paler hair which hinted at lands far and distant. I was somewhere inbetween; eyes the shade of alder leaves and thick chestnut hair. I cannot recall any of my life before this and did not think to ask until much later. At such tender ages we were not aware of our social status, and though we were slaves we were not treated unkindly. We were loved by the Mistress of our house and her servants, and they would play and sing with us as if we were all their own; because of this, my childhood is one of fond recollections.
All good things are not to last, however, and that is a fact I have been forced to accept repeatedly throughout the course of my life. I remained in the care of my Mistress until the age of thirteen, and it was then that my life to date was abruptly thrown into chaos. I shall spare you the details, suffice to say that I was of the age and appearance to interest a certain type of buyer, and so I was sold into the care of House Eriedes. Even I, at such a tender age, knew what Eriedes was; it was the most renowned house of courtesans within Rome.
What followed my immediate relocation is of no interest, and I'm sure it can be guessed … I will, however, tell you that while I abhorred what I was made to do there simply was no other option. As I went about my duties, there was something strange regarding my tutelage, my lessons on how to be suitably coy and deceptively meek when in the presence of a client. Strange men in cowls of blue would appear at the oddest times and question me, examine me, and ask me if I would serve God with fervor. My answer was yes, of course (what else was I to say? I had no wish to be branded a heretic and executed) and then they would leave only to return again some other day. And so this continued, and so I continued, until the day I turned fifteen. And then, incorporated inbetween my appointments and regular classes, I began to learn things a normal girl of my occupation would not be learning, things like sword-craft, archery, how to ride a horse. All these I learned from the men –and women- of the blue cowls. It was revealed to me in small, cautious snippets of information that my new tutors were members of a highly diplomatic religious sect. Further timid inquiry on my behalf eventually earned me their title: Excelsius Dei. But of their interest in me I could ascertain nothing, and was simply told that all I was learning would be of use to me in good time.
The time came two years later, when I, at seventeen, had developed a regular and devoted clientele. Of my patrons was Lutatius, member of the late republican senate, an aging but still powerful man. I was given a small grey powder before meeting with him and was instructed to slip it into his nightly wine. Having dire suspicions, I questioned the purpose of the powder, but was answered very vaguely and told that I must do this in order to attain and secure the destiny I was being molded for. And so I did as I was bid, and that night Lutatius died in my arms of a heart attack. I was mortified, but it was no surprise. The next day it was announced Lutatius had succumbed to old age, and things within the Senate were spurred into motion at his passing; I was too young even to grasp what had been done, but somehow the death of one senator had given the Pope, and through him Excelsius Dei, more reigning power …
Days later I was ordered by my house Mistress to dress in my finery, and I was taken from Eriedes by the several members of the Order to a sacrosanct and somewhat hidden temple within the farthest reaches of Rome. I stood then within a ring of blue cowled people, and there were more, far more, than I had anticipated. I was told then by a man I could see that I had been chosen for greater glory to serve God in a manner others could not, that I would become a weapon, a dealer of righteous justice in the name of all that was Holy. I would smite all heathens, all pagans, all who betrayed God's trust and in return I would be granted all that divine heaven had to offer in the afterlife …
To truly become God's servant, another man told me, I must bear his mark upon my skin to completely belong to Him. Terrified, panicking, I watched as a large brazier was brought forth and with it a multitude of long shafts of metal. It took me only an instant to realize they were branding irons; I would have fled if I could have, but suddenly I was swarmed and restrained. To serve God was to endure pain, they told me in different voices, and this tribulation would be proof of my acceptance of my fate. I said nothing, for what could I say that would not lead me to death? And so I watched numbly as the irons were warmed to glowing red within the brazier fire, and as those irons were brought down upon the flesh of my right forearm I screamed. My sound of agony brought me no respite; through the searing, blistering haze I realized that this was no simple brand – this was a complex multitude of lines and symbols drawn with fire across my skin. When the pain grew too great I fell into merciful darkness, and when I next awoke I was back in the house of Eriedes, and the entire length of my arm from elbow to wrist was a mass of angry scars. That was not the full extent of my marking, however; the palm of my hand had received a different brand, and even through the swollen, distorted tissue I could see it was a crucifix, stylized in some bizarre foreign manner I had never seen.
I was granted leave from my courtesan duties for the months it took my arm to heal, and instead resumed my studies given to me by Excelsius Dei. I was by that time adept in horsemanship, adequate with a bow, and quite skilled with a sword. What followed my return as a courtesan is unimportant, save for the fact that I began to serve out my tasks described to me the day of my branding; another difference was in the clothes I wore, for my brands could not be exposed to anyone. From that point on I wore always a glove on my right hand, and sleeves which covered the entirety of my arms.
In the four years that passed I murdered many men, most with poison, some with weapons concealed within the alluring shrouds of my clothing I wore to seduce them. Did ever I grow accustomed to killing? Yes. The more I did it the easier it became, until finally I felt no twinges of regret as I watched the life fade from their eyes, or their last breath rattle in their lungs. This was my destiny, after all …
The members of Excelsius Dei exulted in my successes. I was praised time and time again; I was given exuberant gifts of jewellery and fine silks. I came to know some of the sect without their masks and cowls; they were, as I had suspected, prominent members of both society and the church. And as I grew to know them more, the more they began to indulge with me their plans. My life continued in a pattern of some normalcy for some time; I killed as I was directed to and lived as any courtesan would.
Now, you may question why I had been trained in horsemanship and archery when I never left the city, and I too had wondered. I verbalized my curiosity often, and one day in my twenty third year I was given an answer. Ultimately, it was explained, I would leave Rome, and travel across the entire span of her empire to eradicate those who were deemed by the church a threat to the religious sanctity and structure of Rome. I would always travel with a Roman contingent, but they would not know my purpose, and I would be known only as a lady with of some standing wanting to see the empire. Unusual, unorthodox, yes, but when men are given orders and paid enough money they do not ask questions. The time would come soon for me to leave, I was told, and I must be prepared. And then they told me of one Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman commander stationed in far away Britain. He was loyal still, I learned, but he followed the teachings of one Pelagius. I had heard this name before; Pelagius was a man who had died very recently for his unprecedented views of equality among all people. I knew who was behind his death; indeed, I would have been a fool not to. My task would be to journey to Hadrian's Wall in Britain disguised as the wife of a church emissary and assassinate this Artorius lest he spread the heretic words of his late mentor.
Part of me was unmoved by this, and the other, larger part of me was stricken with fascination and excitement by the prospect of such a grand adventure. Three months later the plan was put into action, and I was taken from House Eriedes in the middle of the night and led from Rome by some of my now familiar blue cowled associates. Two days later I was onboard a large merchant vessel headed for the isle of Britain; upon my departure the members of Excelsius Dei that had come with me gifted me with high quality weapons which best suited my skills. That night the ship set sail, with only me, several rich merchants and their wives, and an entire legion of soldiers. I was not worried about being alone; I was confident, overly so, and unafraid. Ignorance and bravery are similar things, however …
The time spent on the boat was miserable; I was sick most of the time, and do not choose to recall the details. Some weeks later we encountered a fierce storm; our ship was tossed back and forth amidst the roiling, angry mass that was the sea. We survived the storm, but the ship had taken heavy damages, and so we were forced to come ashore much further north than initially anticipated. As we were rowed to shore by the legionnaires, we warned that we must move fast and discreetly across the land before us, for we were far, far north of Hadrian's Wall; we had passed beyond even the Woad territory into the lands of the fierce Saxons.
Despite the urgent warnings, we could not move swiftly. Many of us, mostly the merchants and their wives, were ill and weak, still recovering from our sea voyage, and the abrupt transition of transportation methods had left the rest of us dazed. And so we were half-herded, half-led over rocky, intimidating shores into equally unforgiving highlands and bluffs. Though we were driven by the dire warnings uttered to us by the legionnaire captain and his men, it was to no avail, and two days after coming ashore we unwittingly stumbled across a Saxon hunting party. What transpired then was swift and brutal, and of the sixty of us to have left the ship, only twenty three remained after the battle. We did nothing with the dead; we could not spare the time, and so our small, ragged caravan trekked unrelentingly through the Saxon lands, staying close to the shore as directed by the commander of the legionnaires. I was very grateful then to have the soldiers, for this was not how I had pictured my first days in Britain. I had not revealed my abilities when the Saxons had attacked, as I had not thought it prudent; it was best, I had often been told, to keep secrets as secrets, for that is when they are most useful.
It took us six days to reach the Wall, and by the time we reached the small garrison at one of the gates we had lost five more of our number to festering wounds received from the Saxon battle. We were allowed to pass through the gate without incident. Hours later, well away from the Wall, our party was ambushed by what I recognized from tale and hearsay as Britons, or Woads. They outnumbered us, and as legionnaires collapsed from all sides with arrows in their bodies, as the Woads swarmed down from the forest towards us, I realized my only chances for survival would be to avoid confrontation.
I fled then, running as best I could in my skirts, and when I reached our supply wagon I swiftly withdrew the heavy pack which held belongings I knew I would need. The wagon was at the rear of our group and the Woads had not yet reached it; I ran headlong down the slope we had been in the process of descending, staying as low to the ground as I could. It was both frightening and exhilarating, for I knew at any moment that a single arrow could end my life. The fates were with me, however, and I made it to the bottom of the hill. A large river ran there, and laying myself down upon its rocky banks I watched by peeking my head over the edge as my travelling companions were brutally slain. It was over quickly, the screams of the merchant's wives the last of the sounds to be carried away by the wind. I dare not move and had no idea whether the Woads would venture my way or not. Again, the fates had decided to spare me, and I watched with almost tangible relief as they faded again into the shadowed depths of their forest home.
I was completely and utterly alone then in an alien land, but I did not despair. I felt something else, instead, and upon swift inner reflection as I waded across the shallow yet cold waters of the river I realized I was free –it would be assumed I was dead, killed by the Woads, when word -if ever it did- reached Rome. All my ties to Excelsius Dei, to God, to my former life had been severed in the span of several minutes. No longer was I the tool of death, no longer would I have to pleasure others simply because I was a slave. I could live for myself, now …
And for the first time in many long years, my laughter held true joy.
I had never thought what it might mean to be free because I had assumed it would simply never happen. I had accepted, resignedly, that I was a killer out of necessity; to disobey was to die, and no matter how disillusioned I became with life I still wanted to live it. And now, faced with the prospect before me, I felt something bubble within me, something that curved my lips into a smile and made me feel utterly euphoric.
I didn't let my new discovery replace common sense; I was acutely aware that a lone female in a strange land boded ill. And so I removed from my pack my bow and the small quiver I had brought with me and fastened them across my back, and hefting the bag again I began to walk. It did not take me long to find a road; it was rutted and worn, indicating recent and continual use. I knew from long hours of study that Britain had many Roman outposts and villages, and if I followed one of these roads, I was sure to come upon them sooner or later. The day by that point was waning, and I was apprehensive about the oncoming of night. The road brought me to another river as the sun began to set; this one was wide and fast flowing and I was unsure whether I could cross it safely on foot.
I was pondering my dilemma when I first heard the hoofbeats. Too late did I realize horsemen were coming, and there was absolutely nowhere for me to hide. I could only turn and watch with my heart in my throat as several horses bearing riders came swiftly into view from around a bend in the road. The one in the lead wore the breastplate and helm of a Roman, and I felt tension leave me somewhat. For a moment there was only a pregnant silence as I was regarded by and regarded in turn the four men. I was aware of how incongruous I looked; a female in fine garb that was dirtied and torn, long braided hair a dishevelled, dirty mess, a yew longbow and quiver worn across her back , and a large leather pack in one hand. I was saved from making excuses by the voice of the one I perceived as Roman.
"Lady, are you of the caravan that was attacked to the north?"
I opened my mouth, closed it, and inwardly grimaced. My sophisticated, confident courtesan alter ego had apparently fled in the face of these armed men. Finally I found my voice and was relieved to find it steady. "Yes."
His expression was one of mixed disbelief and bemusement, but he said, "We came upon the caravan naught but one hour ago; the commander at the garrison told us you had passed through this morning. We have secured the survivors and are taking them back to our outpost to the south. Your tracks we found near the river crossing."
"And they weren't hard to follow," muttered one of the other men, just loud enough that I could hear. I flushed suddenly; I had not taken into account the fact that I may be tracked. Hoping the sudden rush of color to my cheeks was unnoticeable, I flicked a glance at the others behind the leader, and quite suddenly I realized they looked nothing like Romans; there was something feral, something indescribably wild about them, and the tension that had left me returned in force.
"Survivors?" I asked then, belatedly remembering what else he had said.
"Yes," said the leader, and at that moment more horses rounded the bend, and behind them came the supply wagon that had been with our caravan. Seated within it were people, though I could not make them out. "The wagon was untouched, and the Woads were not thorough enough, for three others besides you have survived."
"Just how did you survive?" Asked the one who had made the remark about my tracks –he watched me with ill concealed amusement and scepticism, a tall man with a cap of dark curls. I felt more color flood my cheeks at his words; if I were to tell them the truth, that I had run, they would think of me as a coward. Why did I care what they thought? I wondered a moment later, but was saved from replying when a woman's voice rang out.
"Isolde? Isolde! Praise God you are alive!"
I recognized the voice, and though it had harangued me incessantly throughout my entire journey from Rome I was ridiculously glad to hear it now. It belonged to a merchant wife, Lucilla, whose husband Praxus had died the day we had encountered the Saxons. She was standing within the now empty supply wagon, one hand raised in my direction, and I returned the gesture. I could see now more armoured men on horses surrounding the wagon, and they looked as their comrades did, and that was anything but Roman.
The leader moved his horse closer to me. "Allow us to escort you to our garrison, Lady, at the south reach of the Wall. From there we will send word to Rome of your situation, and you may remain safely until plans can be made to take you to your destination."
I hesitated at this, having had no time to think up a suitable lie as to my actual purpose here. I had no choice, I knew then, but to go along with them. Opportunities, after all, presented themselves at the most incongruous of times. I nodded my acceptance, and he bestowed upon me a kind smile.
"You can ride in the wagon with the others," he said, and I watched as said wagon, driven by another merchant who had apparently survived the Woads' fury, lumbered closer. As it drew to a halt near me I swallowed; I counted seven of the armoured men, including their leader … why did this make me so uneasy? I accepted the hand the merchant –Gracchus- offered to me, and once I was settled within the wagon with the others, my pack at my side, the leader spoke again to us all.
"It is a three day ride to our garrison, but you need not worry. We will keep you safe."
"Blessed be," said Lucilla, who had clutched my arm as I sat beside her and had not let go. "Who are you that has saved us?"
"I am Arthur," the leader said as his horse fidgeted beneath him, "Arthur Castus, and these," he gestured at the six men who had assembled now in front of the wagon, "are my knights."
Lucius Artorius Castus.
A sick feeling overwhelmed me then, as I watched the man I had come to kill wheel his horse about and speak orders to his knights. Lucilla and the last survivor, a legionnaire, were exclaiming at their good fortune to have come upon the legendary Sarmatian knights. I said nothing, but closed my eyes and realized my earlier jubilation had been premature; the fates, it seemed, would not make freedom that easy for me to attain. I did not want to kill this man; I wanted nothing to do with him. I simply wanted to start over somewhere and etch out an existence that was completely unlike everything I had had before. As long as I remained in the presence of Arthur Castus, I was in danger, for I knew that my death would not dissuade Excelsius Dei; they would keep simply sending their assassins until he was dead.
"My dear?" Lucilla moved her face close to mine, clucking concernedly, "Oh, you are so pale … you must have been so frightened. How did you escape? And why do you carry that weapon?"
"I ran," I said heavily, in answer to her first question. I did not bother to respond to the second, but instead lowered my lashes and turned my head away, feigning sleep.
And it was for a long time after that, as the wagon lurched to and fro within the ruts of the road, that I studied Arthur Castus and his knights.
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