Roses in Memory
Ceirdwyn sat cross-legged in the Roman camp of her enemies, her hands bound. Around her the hated Romans guzzled wine and made suggestive remarks and gestures at her and the other captives. She'd thought she was dead at least twice in the last fortnight, and yet she'd risen… healed and whole and ready to fight once more. The goddess must have smiled on her and designated that she should be her hand of vengeance against the invaders.
But this third time… when she'd awakened… she'd found herself bound amid other women and children. She'd drawn in a quick breath, aware of the intense burning pain in her side where the Roman sword had pierced her. She wondered why she was among the captives amd not left as carrion on the battlefield.
Around her the others wept. Mothers cried for their lost children. Children wept for parents who would never again comfort them. Ceirdwyn raised her voice in a trill for her people and awaited what she was certain would be the death of them all.
That was when the storm hit her. Like the angry buzzing of a swarm of wasps it filled her head and sought to overwhelm her. Ceirdwyn moaned in pain and confusion. What is this new madness? The buzzing noises peaked and then seemed to level out and diminish. She stared at the sandaled feet of the Roman centurion before her.
"Bring her to my tent," he ordered in a clipped voice. Her understanding of their hated Latin language was minimal… but she did understand him. Two sets of hands gripped her roughly and dragged her to a nearby tent where they thrust her inside and to the ground. The two men laughed and gripped their crotches. Ceirdwyn snarled at them and tried to rise to attack them. They pushed her down once more and left.
She waited in the dim light of the tent, her eyes on the booty the officer had collected and on the flames of a single torch. Above her, incense burned in a lamp. Then the buzzing began again… causing her to hiss and moan as she writhed on the floor.
The officer entered the tent and stood staring at her without expression. Then he crossed to a wineskin hanging on a tent peg and poured some wine into a wooden cup. He drank it thoughtfully and then poured a second cup before approaching her and crouching.
"You're thirsty. Here." He held out the cup.
Ceirdwyn snarled and managed to hit the cup with her head so that it was flung from his hand and the red wine spilled on the ground.
Surprisingly, he smiled, rose and collected the cup to refill it. Then he tried again. Truly thirsty, Ceirdwyn drank this time. Perhaps if she were drunk enough, she'd not feel the rape that she was certain would follow.
"Better?" he asked and then rose to sit in his campaign chair where he thoughtfully observed her. Finally he spoke. "My name is Marcus Constantine." Ceirdwyn called him the son of a whore. Maybe if she angered him he'd just kill her. Strangely he laughed and nodded. "That could be so. I've never known my mother. There are some who would say I never had one."
Ceirdwyn spit at the ground in derision.
He drew in a deep breath and half in Latin and half in her native tongue began to speak. "You were killed recently."
"If I'd been killed I'd be dead!" she snapped back at him.
He nodded. "But you didn't stay dead."
Ceirdwyn held her breath. How does he know this?
Constantine leaned forward. "I know because it once happened to me." He smiled. "We are the same Iceni. We are immortal and we cannot die."
Ceirdwyn stopped trying to pull her hands free of the rawhide and stared at him. "I don't understand."
Constantine drew in a deep breath and looked around. "We are not like the others. We are different and I don't know why that is. Having died once, we remain as we are at that death… our ages frozen in time. We will see the passing of the centuries and the march of mankind through time. We will remain long after all we know is dead and gone."
"Forever?" Ceirdwyn felt suddenly lost as if she were adrift on a foggy sea with no direction. All she knew and understood had vanished in an instant.
Constantine leaned forward and clasped his hands. "Who and what we were is unimportant. You and I are the same. Your immortality has brought you into a game that will test your heart and desire to live."
"You said we were immortal. What is this talk of survival?"
He smiled. "We cannot die but we can be killed." He drew his gladius and knelt beside her, laying the blade against her neck. "If I wanted to… I could remove your head here and now and you would die permanently." His eyes met hers and she saw no malice there… only loneliness.
He lowered the sword. "But I have no desire to kill you. I would teach you what you are and how to hide your gift. I would teach you to survive in a game that sees only the strong survive… if you are willing."
Ceirdwyn smiled coldly. "I would survive to kill you someday."
Constantine nodded. "That is always a possibility." He leaned forward and sliced through her bonds. Ceirdwyn rubbed her wrists and watched him sit once more in his chair, his sword across his lap.
"I suppose you want me to thank you appropriately."
He laughed and looked around. "That is entirely your decision. I have no designs on taking you to my bed. That might very well cost me my head and I find I'm rather attached to it and to living. What I'm offering you is a chance to learn what you are and how to survive. Then you will be free to go." He rose and sheathed his sword as he headed for the tent flap. Reaching it, he turned and added gently. "I wouldn't try to leave here without permission. Someone else might not understand and kill you again. I'd hate for him to take your head."
He stepped out of the tent and with him went the odd sound of swarming insects. Ceirdwyn rubbed her neck. Her people routinely took the heads of their enemies. If that was what it would take to kill Constantine someday, she could do it easily. Rising, she lifted the wooden cup and poured herself another cup of wine. It was quite good wine actually and she wondered where the Roman had gotten it. On a platter on the table she saw fresh bread and cheese and began to hungrily stuff it into her mouth, chewing and swallowing as if the food would vanish.
On the table lay a small branch of wild roses. Curiously she lifted them and saw beneath them that he'd been drawing them with a delicate line. He'd only just begun to color the blushing flowers with paint. She moved the drawing. Beneath it was one of the lochs surmounted by the snow-capped mountains and lit by sunshine breaking through the clouds. Another was of the tall trees. On that one was also a delicate drawing of pine needles. Ceirdwyn shifted through the pictures that were of her people and her land as seen with wonder by a stranger's eye. She felt his respect of her people and that these were his way of honoring them and the land he'd been sent to conquer. This was no mean brute. This was a man who saw so much more than even she could imagine.
Returning the drawings to their previous position, she peeked out of the tent and saw Constantine giving orders to his men about the care and comfort of the captives. He turned and looked at her with a nod and continued his orders.
Ceirdwyn let the tent flap fall and retreated to a pallet of furs. Eventually she slept.
Awakening in the darkness, she felt him nearby and sat up. He was dozing in his chair, his sword had fallen to the ground at his feet. Again, Ceirdwyn wondered at the loneliness she saw reflected in his chiseled features. Her heart softened against her better intentions. She steeled herself and rose hoping to use his sword to dispatch him. On the table she saw a drawing he'd begun of her… sleeping in the furs. Resolutely she lifted his sword and swung back. She halted as his eyes opened and he regarded her calmly. "Kill me and you may never learn what you need to survive."
Ceirdwyn hesitated. "I am the hand of vengeance of the goddess."
Constantine nodded with a smile. "But you are not Iceni and I am not Roman. We are immortal. We are the same. Put down the sword and learn from me."
Ceirdwyn tilted her head, amazed that this man showed no fear. Did he know her heart better than she knew it herself? She lowered the sword. Only then did he breathe a sigh of relief and lifted it from her hands. "Tomorrow I will begin your lessons. Once you have learned them… you will be free to challenge me if that is your wish."
"It will be," she hissed.
"We shall see. Now get some sleep." He gestured to the pallet. She crawled into the furs once more, strangely content and eager to learn what immortality meant. Slowly her eyes closed, as she decided that the buzzing of his presence near her was like that of a guardian spirit watching over her. For the first time since the Romans had come… she slept peacefully.
Pausing at the black marble tombstone in the Paris cemetery, Ceirdwyn gently caressed the carved letters of the name of her teacher, her mentor, her friend, and her one-time lover. "Marcus," she breathed out sadly. In her hands was one of the roses she'd brought to lay at her dead husband Paul's grave. She'd also needed to make this stop.
She and Marcus had made their peace with one another centuries ago and she had neither killed him nor taken his head. She had come to love him for the honorable man he was. True, they had never agreed politically, but their immortality had bound them in ways that those around them could never understand. She'd learned to fight and survive. She'd learned to read and she'd traveled. She'd learned that honor was far more important than vengeance.
"I owe you," she said sadly. Marcus had recently been killed by another of his students. One like herself, an enemy he'd tried to save. Perhaps it was his weakness in that he saw only that they were all immortals and should band together that he'd never conceived of racial hatred lasting for millennia.
Ceirdwyn laid the rose on his stone, and then stood staring at the marbled landscape of the Paris cemetery. She felt for a brief moment the absence of his watching over her. Sadly she turned away to face immortality alone.